The concept of real resistance training distinguishes combat sports like MMA and Brazilian JiuJitsu apart from more traditional martial arts. Instead of practicing “kata” forms, combat sport practitioners emphasize training “live.” This often takes 2 forms: sparring and drilling.
In sparring (often referred to as “rolling” in BJJ circles), the concept is to test what you know in a real context with an opponent. In drilling, the focus is on repeating technique over and over to learn it (with varying levels of resistance from your training partner).
So, what are the pros and cons of drilling and sparring for combat sports?
Sparring in Combat Sports
According to BJJ Motivation: “[Sparring] can make you tougher. It allows you to see if you know your stuff.” When you roll or spar, you are putting everything you know on the mat for testing. In the debate between sparring vs drilling, sparring is the training method that emphasizes less talking and more action.
Sparring is a great way to get better at combat sports. In fact, it may be the only way for you to know if you are ultimately learning anything. This is because it forces you to stop thinking and start doing.
While there are different intensity levels for a sparring match, the principal is always the same: show your opponent what you got. While sparring should not be confused with a genuine match, it often is hard to know the difference.
MMA fighters are known to spar hard when training, and for good reason. Sparring is the closest thing to a proper fight. However, sometimes sparring is not the end all be all to get better. If you rely just on sparring, you might develop poor technique or habits which could hurt you down the line. You might also get hurt yourself. Injuries from sparring are not uncommon.
Likewise, only sparring when you train might be a poor way to improve your overall game because you never get to examine your techniques at a granular level. In fact, there is a downside to just sparring. Some MMA practitioners, like Ben Askren, criticize the concept of only sparring to get better.
Drilling Technique In Combat Sports
“Drill to win” is the name of the famous BJJ training program by BJJ legend André Galvão. The title of that book could not be truer. Drilling is critically important for success in both MMA and BJJ.
Drilling allows you to ingrain technique into your muscle memory so you don’t have to think about it when you start a fight. For instance, multi-time champion Keenan Cornelius attributes drilling to his success: “I’ve drilled them so many times, my body just reacts now. I can go out and let instinct take over.”
Another nice thing about this method of training is that it can be very creative. In fact, there are millions of drilling techniques in MMA and BJJ respectively that you can focus on just about every aspect of your game.
The downside to drilling technique is that it can be unrealistic. Your opponent can provide resistance and make things difficult, but ultimately you are facing a compliant opponent who will let you perform the technique. That is not how a “real match” will occur. Thus, you should probably not just drill. At some point you need to spar to know if you got the technique or not.
Which is better to get better in combat sports? Drilling or Sparring? The answer seems to be both. You should not emphasize one over the other. Find a balance between the two so you get the best of both methods of training.