There is no style without sparring
When people hear you do martial arts, the follow up question is usually, “what style?” Generally people mean what style you practice, and you could answer “clover poisoning sheep style,” and they wouldn’t care. But something we should be aware of is whatever style you practice is only somewhat related to how you fight, and if you don’t spar, perhaps not related at all.
Here I’m using fight in the more forgiving, ‘live practice’ sense of the word rather than self defense or even ring competition. So whatever rules, framework, and conventions may be valid to your world, but I’m going to say it must involve contact, even in the most controlled, slow, and lightest sense. Will it ‘work’? Who cares? But you should care if you can make it work within your own domain, and that means sparring or live drilling.
Sparring is where you find out that as much as you love jump spinning kick, you wouldn’t use it nearly as much as you think, or when someone has a viscous jump spinning kick, it hits you more than you think! And you learn all the truth many martial artists fear to accept from boxers. I know because I was there before.
We all have that friend who, despite having never trained a day in his life, we know could take apart anybody in the right context. Unfortunately, especially for more traditional arts, that can paralyze us into insecurity rather than encourage us to seek enlightenment. It doesn’t matter, what matters is getting better.
People who have never had difficulty with this often under appreciate that for the naturally timid,
dipping their toe into the sparring waters is one of the most critical breakthroughs martial arts training can give you.
And so we really have to watch how we get people there, respect and control for the naturally tough and aggressive, and courage and encouragement for the naturally meek.
A quick word on “reality-based” systems. I don’t really have a fighting style with my kali because I just haven’t spent enough time in any sparring format with weapons. I enjoy training it and it informs my kickboxing, but I think it is important to know how far out of your depth you really are. I don’t fight competitively and know how large that gap is already, how much more so against machete-wielding death squads? Again, it only matters if it matters to you, and if it does, you’ll need to put in some time with the armor or whatever hyper-intense simulation your program encourages.
Be safe, and please encourage smart sparring, getting those students out of their shell. That confidence is often why they came in the first place. By the way—there can be a time limit on getting them there. If you’re not careful their ego may get in the way of accepting a newer person stomping them even in light sparring.