There is no way to get better at boxing without sparring. This is the only way to really practice fighting, test your skills, and build physical and mental fortitude for the ring. I assume the readers here are not doing boxing just for cardio, so you are either already sparring or want to start. Sparring can and will make you nervous, even years after your first sessions.
But for first-timers and those of you who have just had a handful of sparring sessions, these nerves are highly exaggerated by too many unknowns.
This article will serve as a guide, covering everything you need to know about boxing sparring as a beginner in the form of 12 important tips.
1. Have solid basics before you start sparring
Usually, the coach is the one who is going to decide when you are ready to start sparring, and he is going to do so when he thinks you have fundamentally sound basic skills. But if you get to decide when it is time to spar, there are a few things you must be sure you’ve covered.
This is some footwork, some defense, and some offense. As a beginner, this means just the bare minimum, but there are far too many people sparring without even this knowledge and ability. Be sure you know how to move laterally and sideways, and have at least decent defense and blocking skills. Along with some decent straight punches before you start sparring. Then you can start putting those together and continue evolving from there.
2. Stay at your level (at times)
The second point you really need to grasp is that you need to stay at your level. This means multiple things. At first, sparring must be light. You need to feel at least somewhat comfortable and try the little things you know before the power ramps up.
Then you must let your coach and partners know what level you are at and not try to inflate your actual skills, or you will end up in a spar with a much more experienced fighter.
Staying at your level also means sparring with opponents close to your skill level and weight. However, skill equality is only valid after a certain point. Absolute beginners don’t have the control or ability to pull their punches together. And while putting two newbies against each other seems like a good idea, it usually results in a brawl. This might be good for building toughness, but it may also dissuade someone from ever stepping foot in the gym again.
Sparring against someone much more experienced who is also not A-hole, maybe the best decision for the very first sparring sessions. As the more experienced boxer can focus on defense and let the beginners work.
However, your sparring partner is often not your choice and is determined by the coach, or you end up rotating against the entire group at a sparring session.
Staying at your level also refers to the number of rounds you will be sparring. Early on, you would not want to overdo it. Don’t act tough and go 12 rounds; 3 or 4 rounds are more than enough for beginners and even intermediate boxers.
3. Don’t panic – relax
You are not going to be relaxed while sparring, and this is inevitable. Regardless of how many rounds of shadowboxing or bag work you do. The nerves when sparring will drain your endurance at least twice as fast. The only way to slow down that process is by relaxing. This means not tensing up when it is not necessary to. Nothing saps your energy like tensing your muscles all the time.
This can only come with experience, but still, make the conscious effort to keep your shoulders, back, and arms relaxed when you are at a distance. When you are not in danger, always aim to relax. You also need to be relatively calm in your head, not just your body.
Don’t worry too much about what will happen, if you’ve followed the second point and stayed at your level, there shouldn’t be too much danger at this point in your boxing journey, so relax and just focus on improving.
4. Focus on learning
In continuance of the previous point, beginner sparring sessions and even intermediate sparring sessions are intended to improve your skills. Sparring is not competition, and winning is not the goal. The goal is to test and hone all the skills learned in other forms of training. Competitive hard sparring has its time and place, but it is not part of a boxing beginner’s curriculum.
A very beneficial habit is to have something specific to work on during sparring. For example, you pick the basic jab-cross combo as an offensive thing to work on and parry the opponent’s jab for defense.
This does not mean you will perform just these two things throughout the entire session, but the thing you choose should be your main focus. Then, after the session, think about how it went, analyze what worked and what didn’t, and then improve it the next time around.
A crucial element of fighting endurance is proper breathing. While you can get by without conscious breathing in everyday life. High-exertion activities necessitate specific breathing patterns, or you will gas out quickly. You have probably heard many boxers and other fighters exhale sharply when they punch. This is exactly what you should do as well, regardless of whether you can hear it or not.
Aside from breathing when you throw a punch, it’s equally important to exhale the moment you receive a punch, especially in the body. If you are caught in the solar plexus during your inhale, you will be on the canvas, grasping for every small breath you can gather.
Do not hold your breath under any circumstances. This is one of the fastest ways to lose it when sparring. Try to keep a somewhat level breathing rhythm when you are out of range. There are a lot of things to be said about boxing breathing, but for beginners, the most important thing is to not hold your breath when punching and when receiving punches. I recommend you watch Coach Anthony’s videos below to find out more about this area.
6. Listen to your Coach
If your coach thinks you are ready and puts you in the ring, he is more than likely to instruct you through your first sessions. It’s important to hear what he tells you and do your best to follow those instructions.
Not only will you perform better, but you will also show that you can follow instructions while under pressure, which is important if you eventually want to compete.
7. Keep your eyes on the opponent
Now that we’ve gone through the most important concepts of sparring for beginners, it’s time to cover some more practical advice you need to adhere to. One of the most common mistakes beginners make is that they don’t keep their eyes on the opponent.
Once they receive a punch, they start to duck down, turn around, and generally follow their survival instincts, which are basically the opposite of what needs to be done.
If you cannot see the opponent, you cannot hit him or defend against his strikes. Turning around is even worse, as it puts you at an even more disadvantageous angle toward your sparring partner. Flinching is also something you will most likely have to work on deliberately to get rid of, and it goes hand in hand with keeping your eyes on the opponent.
8. Keep your guard up and chin tucked
The chin is the most fragile part of the head, and your aim should be to keep it safe at all times. Getting smacked in the forehead is not pleasant, but despite the discomfort, it is not something you should really worry about as much. On the other hand, a solid punch on the chin is what often leads to knockouts.
In beginner sparring, the power should never be that much, but this is the place when you start to build habits, and keeping your chin tucked is a fundamental boxing habit
Keeping your hands close to your head is just as important. In time, you may learn to fight with one of your hands down. But for now, keep both hands near your face. Blocking is the easiest and most energy-efficient way of defending, and if your hands are where they should be, blocking becomes even more natural.
9. Focus on Defense
It’s easy to think only about landing your combinations, but you should not forget about your defense. This includes not only blocking or evading punches but also being “defensively responsible“, as it is referred to in boxing.
When throwing punches, always consider returning your hand to your guard as soon as possible. Don’t go out of balance after a strike, and always anticipate that the opponent might return a counter. Beginners tend to take turns attacking, but this is not how actual boxing bouts go.
Boxers try to exploit gaps during attacks and counter at specific times, which is why you should always have your defense in mind. If your natural inclination is to be a slugger, you may be willing to trade blow for blow. But as a newcomer in the gym, it’s best to first learn the fundamentals of using defense.
10. Don’t go full on the defensive
With that said, focusing solely on defense will lead you nowhere. In free sparring, you should always throw some punches and pose some threat to your partner. Even if your punches are slow and ineffective, it’s much better than having no offense at all.
Without punching, you become a free target for your opponent. If he doesn’t feel threatened at all, he will just pick you apart, or in a beginner’s case, just throw and land his basic combinations on you the whole round.
Shelling up and waiting for the opponent to stop throwing is not a viable strategy. As I said, taking turns is not how boxing works, and waiting on the mercy of the opponent to let you punch is an awful habit to have.
Always try to return fire (counter) when someone goes on the offensive. Even if he lands, you have the chance to land as well, and if sparring has been set up correctly, it’s unlikely that someone will actually get hurt at this level.
11. Use simple combinations
You may have learned some slick six-punch combinations on the heavy bag, but this does not mean it’s time to try them in sparring. There is nothing wrong with that, but your time is better spent learning how to land your basic combinations on a real person.
Once you have some trusty combinations that you know work and do not leave you in a bad position, you may start adding some more complicated stuff.
Of course, there are no rigid rules, and sparring must also be flexible at times. There is nothing wrong with experimenting and trying different stuff. Just don’t get carried away too much and focus on simple combinations first which is another way of saying to stay at your level.
Check out my article on the common top 10 best punch combinations for boxing for all levels here.
12. Try to use footwork
Beginners have much to think about and often stick to one place when drilling. This may also happen in sparring, where both partners end up stationary. The opposite scenario, where two guys run around the ring, is also possible.
Boxing footwork is deliberate and purposeful. Try to execute the things you have drilled. For example step with the front foot when throwing a jab, then get the foot back or use the box step when moving sideways, and try to circle away from the opponent’s right hand.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything you should or shouldn’t do in sparring, but I guarantee you that if you follow even half of the advice you will perform well, have fun and improve rapidly through every sparring session.
Hope you enjoyed and found this training tip article useful and can use some of these in your next sparring session
I highly recommend you also check my other related article on this topic below.
- 12 Benefits And Reasons To Start Shadowboxing
- 10 Exercises To Increase Your Punch Power For Boxing
- Roadwork For Boxing | Why Do Boxers Run?
- Weight Lifting For Boxing – Good Or Bad?
- How To Improve Core Strength For Boxing | 12 Exercises
- 8 Balance And Coordination Exercises For Boxing
- How To Jump/Skip Rope Like A Boxer | A Helpful Guide
- Boxing Footwork Training Drills And Equipment
- How To Get A Boxer’s Body Using These Tips
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