How to be a good sparring partner

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People who play fighting games are embarking on their own martial arts journey, but the games themselves don’t provide the tools, people, concepts, or culture needed to sustain our health and motivation through that journey. I’m writing this essay to explain the concept of sparring, and how it’s distinct from serious competitive matches, so that all players old and new can level up their learning mindset.

The limits of fantasy

I watched Bloodsport the other day, so you’re getting Bloodsport shots for this one.

Fighting games are generally themed as martial arts fantasies. Street Fighter depicts the strongest World Warriors fighting tournament matches to prove their strength, not in the controlled space of a gym or arena, but out in the world; when Street Fighter 2 blew up, the players got to have that same experience by challenging strangers in bars, corner stores, and laundromats for 25-cent money matches. The core game content (characters, stages, and the world map with the airplane and the announcer) paired with the distribution model (coin-op arcade games) to create in players’ minds the fantasy that for just a quarter or two, we can live out our own kung fu movie experience.

Most people will play for a few minutes or an hour or maybe even a couple months, and that’s enough. Some will decide that virtual fighting is not for them. Others will dip back into it from time to time, in the same way that they’ll mix in Enter the 36 Chambers or Master of the Flying Guillotine into their Netflix routine. And some people — like you, since you’re reading this — will get a taste of this experience and find that it fits a need in their life that they didn’t know they had. They have discovered a skillset within themselves that must be cultivated because it feeds their need to feel strong or smart or connected to others.

For these people, the fighting game itself is good, but incomplete. The game provides the martial arts fantasy of epic fights, but the fantasy does not include the emotional struggle to overcome our insecurities and limitations (“I can’t do combos”), nor the thousands of hours required to train our brains and hands to perform complicated operations in fractions of a second, nor any other part of the real martial arts experience, except perhaps as a training montage sequence.

And so the people who wanted to make fighting games more than just the fantasy have, over decades, built many of the things we needed outside the game itself in order to elevate our practice. We have training modes, tournaments, tech videos, and all kinds of other stuff that, frankly, real-life martial arts are not as good at. Fighting game netplay is nowhere as good as the real thing, but I haven’t been able to practice my IRL martial arts against another human being in 9 months, and it’ll probably be at least another 9 before I’m back in the gym.

What it means to be a good sparring partner

Definitely not tryna spar with this guy.

So: People who play fighting games have many of the same tools and practices as actual martial artists, but we don’t have many training environments that provide the value that martial arts training environments do. We don’t have a strong student/teacher culture, so it is harder for people to learn, and we don’t have many people who understand how emotionally nuanced our behavioral expectations must be in order to create a safe culture for virtual fighting, which means that people often catch needlessly harsh vibes. To me, nowhere is this more evident than when I see people who treat every casual match as an opportunity to go all-out; it is because they don’t know how to be a good sparring partner.

When new martial artists are given a chance to hit each other for the first time, it goes like this: they start out timidly pawing at each other because they’re scared of hurting their partner, but each strike comes a little bit faster and a little bit harder until one of them lands something good, and then it escalates from there until by the end of the round they’re trying to take each others’ heads off. (This is why you do not let newbies spar unsupervised.)

This happens because the two players are communicating through their attacks, but they’re not good enough at it yet to understand how the conversation works, so they just start quiet and end up shouting. Over time, however, these two will become good sparring partners. They’ll learn to modulate their efforts to their opponent’s skillset and physical ability so that both partners can get something productive and even enjoyable out of punching each others’ faces. They’ll learn to use their words, not just their hands, to help guide the session into a good place. They know that the goal of sparring is not to beat the other person, but to practice, and in a good practice session, both players come out better than they started.

In fighting games, we just call this “playing casuals.” But I see a lot of folks go into casuals with the same energy as Evo finals, and the games themselves rarely give us any useful tools or cues to dial it down. Instead, people think that they have to go 100% at all times against everyone, and that the only “good matches” that come out of this are with people who are at a similar skill level.

The role of the stronger player

Here, Bolo Yeung demonstrates the proper role of the stronger player in a sparring session.

Once a sparring session starts, the first thing the players usually try to do is determine who is the better player. In martial arts, this is usually implicitly easy for both players to understand; belt rank, height/weight, and length of time training are all reliable indicators for skill, so if a black belt is sparring with a white belt, it’s pretty fair to assume that the black belt is the better player.

This is important because the better player generally gets to dictate how the sparring match goes, kind of like being the lead in a partner dance. If I, as a BJJ purple belt, start sparring with someone who is relatively new to the sport, the skill imbalance will be big enough that I can execute almost any technique I want, end up in any position I want, and use the match to practice whatever I want, and my sparring partner’s job is to deal with it as best they can. But if I am selfish in how I practice, and use the matches entirely for my own purposes, then my partner will become bored or frustrated and will not stick with the sport very long. So, the better player is responsible for the health and learning of both players in the match, and it’s their job to use their power to guide the match into a place where both players get to practice something useful.

When people spar with each other for the first time, it may take a while to determine who is the more skilled player. The more equal the partners are, the more intense the session will get. (When you get a sparring session like this, you might as well consider it a “real” match.) But most sparring sessions are not quite so equal, and so both players can figure out pretty quickly which one is stronger. In fighting games, many people finish the set once they’ve been “defeated”, and vow to come back stronger. But for a martial artist, this is where the learning starts.

For the weaker player in these matches, their job is simple — just try to win. Playing against more skilled players is an excellent chance to test your best stuff out, see where it falls apart, tighten it up, and try again. When I’m sparring with a black belt, I generally stick to My Game — the set of techniques I feel confident in — because I need someone stronger than I am to help me improve them, while my matches with lower-skilled players are perfect for experimentation and discovery.

Things get a little bit more complicated for the stronger player in a match. When I’m the stronger player, I try to play the game in a way that keeps the other player feeling like things are “close”. I challenge them with a specific set of techniques that are adjusted for their level so they can practice working on beating them, not just mindlessly smashing them over and over with stuff they don’t know how to deal with. And I do it in a way that lets me get something useful out of the match, too, either by using stuff that’s not in My Game quite yet, or playing from suboptimal positions so I can practice defense and recovery. By playing with a thoughtful handicap, I get to keep both of us in the zone of proximal development, and both of us get to feel like we’re having a productive and fun session. If the weaker player starts to figure me out, then they’ve earned the right to see some of My Game, and I get to turn it up on them.

In these sessions, the weaker player is usually just doing whatever they can to survive and scrap for wins, while the stronger player actually has far more work to do, because they need to continually assess the weaker player’s state and adjust their gameplay on-the-fly as they learn more about where the weaker player can be gradually nudged into playing better, while also making sure to guide the match into places where they can work on the thing they’re trying to practice.

For example, when I’m playing weaker players in my stream sessions, I’ll usually check for some specific Chipp matchup familiarity points:

  • Do you press buttons after blocking gamma blade?
  • Do you react to leaf grab?
  • Do you ever use blitz on left/right mixups?

If the player shows that they’re comfortable with this stuff, then I’ll work on playing around these moments, keeping track of their recent decisions, and cycling through options to see how they change things up as the set goes on. If they show that they don’t know that much about the matchup, then I’ll tell them about those details, and I’ll switch to practice more generic strike/throw mixups and frame traps, and focus on identifying their defensive patterns (air tech, burst, reversal, etc.). In these sets, my goal is usually to remove knowledge checks from the play session, give them the information they need to play the next session better, and guide the match to work on stuff that most of us can benefit from.

This may sound like the stronger player is doing the weaker player a lot of favors, but this is actually how a stronger player can make imbalanced matches useful and enjoyable for both players, and that is a valuable skill to sharpen! By learning how to consciously modulate your play in response to your opponent’s weaknesses, you will learn how to develop a stronger sense for identifying them, and that is some of the most useful competitive practice you can get against players of any skill level.

(For more on this topic, check out How to learn from getting bodied and Playing against weaker players is good for you.)

Thanks for reading! If you found this essay valuable and want to support my work, please do not hesitate to share it around on your social channels, follow me on Twitter, check out my Twitch stream (Mon-Thurs 830PM-1030PM PST), or join my Patreon.

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-patrick miller

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