Cacoy Doce Pares / CTS / Empty Hands / Goals / Martial Arts / Other Arts / Self Defense

Lessons from Sparring

First, I’d like to add an update to the last blog post. Kevin Wagner and Gem City Martial Arts in Dayton, OH will also be hosting an Intro to Filipino Martial Arts workshop on Friday November 22nd. Donations will accepted to help the victims of the typhoon in the Philipines. If you are or know anyone in the Dayton area, here is an opportunity to learn some martial arts and help a good cause.


Sparring is one of my favorite things in the martial arts. It is without a doubt essential to my practice because there are many lessons that can only be learned this way. I hope I’m able to continue to spar for a long, long time like SGM Cacoy Cañete in the following video. He’s in his 90’s and still sparring.

When I began sparring, it was to see what techniques I could pull off. My focus was on what could I do and what were my strengths as a fighter. Thanks to training under Master Zach Whitson in the Counterpoint Tactical System (CTS) and, specifically, the sparring from Cacoy Doce Pares (CDP), I’m using my sparring sessions to learn what my weaknesses are. It is no longer a chance to show off but a chance to learn, and I’m learning that I rely too much on strength and brute force at the moment. If I want to continue sparring into my 90s (knock on wood), I have to learn that I can’t impose my will on my sparring partner. I have to use technique, timing, and sensitivity to take advantage of the opportunities provided by my opponent. Sparring with students of all skill levels is a chance for me to face where I need improvement. The past few years in CTS and CDP have helped me find balance in my ability to learn from sparring. I see things that I’m good at and things that I need to improve, which allows me to go back and tailor my training towards the areas that need improvement.

I posted that video of Tuhon McGrath on Facebook, and my friend, Mike Miller of Springfield FMA, quoted a particular portion of the video. “Your job in a street fight, or an attack from a criminal, is not to win the fight. Your job is to escape the attack.” This statement led to a long talk between the two of us, and his idea was to write about it here. We came to the conclusion that most of our sparring has been with the wrong end goal in mind. My sparring sessions have been about getting in and mixing it up; escape hasn’t been anywhere on my mind. My training varied from technique focused to timing focused to free for all. What has been and is lacking is the scenario based sparring with the goal to escape the confrontation. In an attempt to better understand my own sparring, I’ve categorized them into the following groups.

Isolation sparring

Isolation sparring is an excellent tool for learning. I first learned of it in the ground fighting lessons I took back in college. We would pick a specific technique like the Kimura, and we could only finish the match that way with the added incentive that once we got to that lock from one position, we could no longer use the lock from that position. The goal was to learn to use the technique from anywhere, and this lesson is one that I still apply.

Master Whitson recommended that I learn the Pekiti Largo portion of the Brown 2 curriculum this way. His advice was to drill the contradas platform then spar that material only before moving on to the next portion of Pekiti Largo. What I really got out of this (and still need to work on) was the use of a few techniques with multiple timing changes. This isolation sparring allowed me to play with timing in a learning environment. I just started doing similar lessons with Ryan on his red belt material. We pick a pattern from the Cacoy 48 and change the beat during the pattern. He changes it while striking the pattern. As his opponent, I’ll force different timing on him while he stays in that pattern. Learning how to train timing during sparring and not just drills has been the best part of my CTS journey because it is one that will never stop.

Juego Todos sparring

Play all. That’s it. All you have to do is play whatever you want. Stick vs. Stick. Knife vs. Knife (training knives that is). Empty hand vs. empty hand. Stick vs. knife. Empty hand vs. stick. Whatever you want. Remember to keep it fun; that’s why it’s called play. This is also the time to catalog what you need to work on, where are the holes in your game, what are your patterns, and what is your ego saying to you? This is the best opportunity to work on your ego. Admit when your opponents get good shots in, spar with more skilled opponents, spar with opponents who have completely different strengths than you, and spar with opponents who have different goals than you (i.e. to strike, to get it to the ground, to clinch, to push away and draw a weapon, etc.).

Close Quarter Stick Sparring with Master Whitson

Close Quarter Stick Sparring with Master Whitson

In this type of sparring, it is easy to get frustrated. When I get annoyed, I try to understand what the frustration is about. Typically, it’s because my mindset switched from trying to learn to trying to win. My ego gets in the way, and I have to make an effort to get back to where I’m learning.

Scenario based sparring

I’m still working out exactly what this entails. Obviously, the first scenario is to have one person attack another with the defender looking to escape. The attacker’s job is to punch, kick, whatever, basically, to do harm. (Of course, in a controlled manner since this is training and not real.) The defender’s job is to defend and escape. The attacker wins if the defender doesn’t escape or if the defender stands and bangs with the attacker. The defender wins if she can clear enough distance to run. To make sure to train the running instinct, the defender actually has to run a small amount after clearing the altercation, say to the other end of the training space.

I have more thoughts about these scenarios that I’m trying to work in my head. One such situation could be focused on what if you have to defend yourself and another person, such as a child. In another situation, multiple attackers are working against the defender. I’m still thinking about this type of sparring and how to incorporate it into my training. It’s an open ended area that can be tailored towards realistic confrontations. My goal in the martial arts is self defense, not to stand in a cage and trade strikes; so, I need to adjust my training methods from that of boxers and mixed martial artists to that of self defense. Thanks to the help of Master Whitson and the CTS family, I’m moving in that direction.


When my uncle explained to me why he liked golf, he said that you could have played horrible for 17 holes. But on the 18th hole, when you hit that crisp, straight, long drive off the tee, all the difficulty that came before that fades. That one beautiful shot makes all the hardships all worth it. Sparring is like that as well. It is often difficult, painful, and humbling. But it is essential to my goals and to understanding myself better. I may get my butt handed to me all night, but when I feel just the littlest bit of improvement, it’s all worth it.


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