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The Importance of Sparring

By Ross Enamait - Published in 2003



We often study advancements in sports-science in an attempt to enhance our training routines. Through science, we can better understand how and why our bodies react to various movements. For example, we now recognize that a proper strength-training program can increase power and speed. The myth that weight training reduces flexibility and range of motion has been discredited through science. Additional advancements have been made regarding nutrition and supplementation. Yet despite these new school training methods, we must not lose site of the most traditional old school boxing exercise, sparring.

The Specificity Principle is a fundamental training principle. As an athlete, you must move from general training towards highly specialized training as a final objective. For example, suppose you have 12 weeks to prepare for a bout. Your first 3 weeks may emphasize conditioning. You will first develop a foundation before focusing on more specific (and intense) boxing training.

The Specificity Principle states that once the foundation is established, your training must reflect the specific competition that you are preparing for. As a boxer, you are training to fight. Your training program must reflect this objective. You are not training for a weight lifting competition. Boxing must form the backbone of your routine. You MUST train according to your desired objective. In boxing, the ultimate goal is to win fights. To adequately prepare to box, the Specificity Principle tells us that you must box.

Running and weight lifting are designed to enhance the condition of the boxer. These activities will not replace boxing, they are simply a supplement to a well-rounded routine. To improve as a boxer, you must step inside the ring to box. Sparring is the most important aspect of boxing training.

As a youngster, I once learned a heavy bag drill from my former trainer, Harry Figueroa. After working the drill for several rounds, Harry looked at me and said, “OK, now that you have learned the drill, let’s see if you can use it. Remember, the bag does not hit back.”

These simple words speak volumes for the importance of sparring. No matter how hard you hit the bag, you must apply what you learn through live sparring. Sparring will improve timing, reactions, and combination punching. It is excellent to work the focus mitts one-on-one with your trainer, but even mitt work does not take the place of sparring.

In addition to the obvious physical benefits, sparring teaches the boxer to overcome the nervous energy experienced on fight night. Nerves can play a major factor in the outcome of a boxing match. Nervous feelings can leave a fighter out of gas before the fight begins, their legs tired while walking towards the ring. The only way to overcome these feelings is through experience. The more you box, the easier it will be to overcome pre-fight anxiety.

All boxers have been nervous at some point in their careers. Whether before their first fight or first title bout, all fighters have had to quell their nervous energy before entering the ring. Through experience, you will put your anxiety to rest. You learn to rely on your skills and hard work in the gym. This is all part of the development process of a fighter. You must first learn the game, and then develop confidence and experience. Boxing is not a sport that is mastered over night. It takes several years to learn this sport.

Approach each sparring session as an opportunity to improve some aspect of your game. You may choose to work on your jab, counter punching, or strictly on defense. I recommend sparring with different opponents as often as possible. The more sparring you have under your belt, the more experience you will have boxing against different styles.

Conditioning drills will always be important to the boxer, but this game cannot be mastered on the track, it must be mastered inside the ring. Boxing is a complex sport. Most will never understand the true complexity. Boxing requires physical conditioning, courage, mental toughness, power, speed, and ability. You must integrate several forms of training to truly optimize your performance. You must focus on developing strength, stamina, and boxing specific skills.

Do not neglect the mental and physical benefits associated with proper sparring. Without sparring, you will never truly be in fight shape.