Sparring Etiquette – The Unwritten Rules of Sparring

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sparring etiquette don't spar like this
No one likes a bad sparring partner, but more often than not, at most gyms worldwide, that’s what most people are. Why is it that some people can have fun and joke around, but others just want to beat up their sparring partner?


We can all agree that no one wants to get injured or hurt in training, and I’m sure no one walks into sparring wanting to injure their partner.

In this article, we will explore how not to be a bad sparring partner. To understand sparring etiquette, we need to understand

How a friendly sparring session escalates
What not to do when sparring
What to do when sparring


How Friendly Sparring Escalates


Most sparring sessions start with good intentions. It is not uncommon to see both parties smiling.

In the clip below of Wanderlei Silva, you see exactly that the round begins with light glove touches and mutually light sweeps, but then all of a sudden, Wanderlei hits a heavier sweep.

Then for some reason, he lands a blow that knocks the sparring partner off balance and sends him flying back. Everything is still civil until an axe kick is thrown. The axe kick will trigger Wandalei Silva (nicknamed, The Axe Murderer).

The moment the axe kick lands, Wanderlie’s fight energy is fully activated. Wanderlei then chases his sparring partner through the gym and then goes for some hard ground and pound.

So what happened here?

It was a mutual escalation. Wanderlei hits with a heavier sweep than necessary because he was being swept, then lands a hard cross out of nowhere. To respond, his opponent goes for head kicks and lands a fast axe kick which got Wanderlei agitated and, alas, we have an escalated sparring session. 

These types of situations are how people get into gym fights.

As Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye will makes the whole world blind.”



Even the Hall of Famer Anderson Silva can escalate sparring in a similar way. The clip below shows an example that starts moderately hard. Both parties are padded up, so this is likely the end stage of the fight camp. 

As his partner walks Anderson down, he tries to throw a big punch while jumping and shouting. This activates Anderson’s fight energy, and he immediately reverses the position and goes for a flurry.

The sparring partner lands a haymaker against Anderson’s flurry, which compels the legend to throw a hard knee or head kick followed by a back elbow without elbow pads.

This type of escalation is dangerous and will normally get people kicked out of many gyms.


In the following clip featuring Spencer, an elbow is received when doing a friendly flurry.

It should not need to be said that you do not throw an elbow in sparring without elbow pads. Any elbows thrown must be agreed upon. Throwing elbows or knees to the head instantly invites a gym war.

It is also important to note that people shouldn’t throw a spinning elbow or spinning back fist (hammer fist) unless they have extraordinary control. That means you can throw it as a feint but never come close to landing it.

Landing it with solid power is a big no-no, and doing so will create a gym war.


Using the next clip, Saenchai receives a spinning back elbow during a friendly light sparring.

The sparring session escalated quickly once such a strike was thrown.

This lights up his fight energy, and Saenchai has enough and punishes the student.

So when is it okay to throw a spinning strike, such as a spinning back fist or kick?

If there’s a gigantic disparity in power, such as when a child or teenager goes with a pro fighter, they typically can’t do too much damage.

However, when it is thrown by a giant, even if the giant means well, it is not okay, even if the intention is not to hurt someone by not being thoughtful or careful. Even an elite fighter can still get badly hurt when someone uses power with a significant size difference.

This is bad sparring etiquette.

Throwing powerful combos such as spinning back fists, elbows, and roundhouse kicks can be dangerous, especially when one partner is bigger than the other. A good trainer can typically spot this and be able to call for the round to be stopped. However, only some trainers can be there to stop an incident, especially when many people are training at the same time.

As practitioners in fighting, we must remember that just because we don’t intend to hurt our sparring partner, we must do more than that and ensure we take care of them.



The Dutch are notorious for hard sparring. They spar just like they fight. Knees to the head, for instance, are not off-limits.

When people are trading shots at near full power, hitting their partners into another pair of people without stopping, you know you’re watching Dutch style sparring.

Usually, they will take turns hitting each other with their guards up. In this way, they treat each other like heavy bags with full power. There usually is only a little defense, except for guard adjustments. There are hard and moderate sparring versions of doing this, but the Dutch often opt for the hard sparring version.

Dutch coaches and fighters believe that hard sparring is necessary to gain experience, and this is where their philosophy differs from the coaches and fighters in Thailand.

Technical Flow SpaRring

The Thais believe in technical flow sparring and that, most of the time, hard sparring is unnecessary. 

Although many professionals spar at light or moderate intensity most of the time, many enjoy sparring hard. 

Most professionals will match their opponent if they go hard. That’s not a good outcome in a sparring session.

In this clip, take Sugar Ray Leonard. Before sparring, Sugar Ray warned his partner not to hit him in the eyes because he had just had surgery. However, he hits the legend with a jab to the head, meaning the agreed-upon rules are broken.

Each sparring session has its rules; when agreed-upon rules are broken, you are breaking consent. Leonard talks about going into a trance – activating a fighter’s fight energy. Once fight energy is activated, season fighters are in what effectively can be described as ‘beast mode,’ they are trained to finish a fight.

When the opponent continues to throw head-shots, this signals Leonard to go for a finish. This is now a fight.

Sparring is a consensual agreement. It’s bad enough that etiquette is often broken against any sparring partner, but against a seasoned fighter, it is downright dangerous.

One of the best sparring etiquette clips is a clip where you can see that both of them are playfully smiling and testing their techniques when a trip lands. 

The following example is with Gabriel Varga displaying what play sparring looks like. Each move is calculated and controlled, and both teach each other as they progress.

Both of them have the potential to spar hard, but they choose to keep it light. Thais are able to “play spar,” and this is what separates them from the rest of the world. 

In flow sparring (play sparring), dominance isn’t the goal. Notice that both could have resisted more but allowed escaping and techniques to continue. This is a prime example of a healthy ego from both sides.

The best clip demonstrating good etiquette is when Saenchai sparred with Rodtang Jitmuangnon.

Here you have two legends sparring, showing mutual respect.

To start the sparring, they made sure to test each other out and start; both of them were looking to match each other and remain respectful.

This is what sparring with a healthy ego looks like. Neither fighters have anything to prove to the other, and they both know they’re great strikers. They could still emulate a fight without the risk of injuring each other. Notice how they flow with each other and keep the contact light while testing each other.
When sparring with someone better than you, it is good etiquette to let them set the pace. 
Once sparring partners get a lot more familiar with one another, they will naturally understand what each can handle without hurting the other; then, both parties can safely escalate. Even if the partner lands a good shot, escalation is unnecessary. There is no need to come back at them hard.
If you want to make your sparring partner happy, copy their moves and use them back at them as a general rule of thumb. When practicing higher-intensity sparring, we can generally go hard, but it’s essential always to control the shots to the head.
Thailand’s striking coaches and fighters unanimously agree that hard sparring is unnecessary. However, they fight very often, so you can make the case that they get their hard contact rounds through fighting. In their own words, they make sure that most of the shots can be defended by their partner. They want the shots to land on the guard of the partner primarily, and they want to allow each to complete most of their techniques so it builds good form. Not constantly disrupting their partner allows for clean techniques to be practiced while the partner also defends them without being injured. Both of them take turns trading shots and going into different styles. Active defence is used rather than static defence. There is a lot more footwork, parries and dodges, and kick checks when compared to their Dutch counterparts.
Which is the better way? Good sparring etiquette and a controlled ego will always lead to fewer unnecessary injuries in the gym. The world of striking would be better if everyone understood sparring etiquette. What are your thoughts on sparring etiquette?

Are you in favor of hard sparring or flow sparring? Let us know in the comments…
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Sparring Etiquette

Do not break the agreed-upon rules

  • Whatever the rules are agreed upon at the beginning of the sparring session, follow them.

Tone the skill-set TO YOUR PARTNER

  • When sparring with someone smaller than you, adjust the power of your strikes to be mass appropriate.
  • When sparring with someone less experienced than you, probe to see what pace and intensity the sparring will stick to.
  • When sparring with someone more experienced than you, adjust to the pace and energy of your partner when they are going ‘easy’ on you. If they are going hard, which they shouldn’t, work on your defences and train the pace down as best you can.

Have the proper gear

  • Sparring requires a mouthguard and boxing gloves to protect yourself and your sparring partner.
  • Your gloves should be at least 14oz to protect your opponent.
  • For Muay Thai sparring, make sure you also have shin guards to protect your shins and feet when sparring.
  • If you need any equipment or have any gear questions, just let us know, and we will be happy to assist you.

Leave the ego at the door

  •  Sparring is not a real fight. A healthy ego must be maintained.

Sparring is not a fight – keep the contact nice and light

  • You should never be going at 100 per cent power in sparring.
  • Stay calm in the storm – this is one of the best skills you can hone as a fighter through sparring.
  • While hard sparring has its place for more experienced practitioners, sparring should always be a controlled process.
  • Remember, you are not trying to hurt your opponent, but instead, work with them to develop their skills and your own.

Communicate with your sparring partner

  • Your sparring partner is just that: your partner
  • Communication is key. Let them know if they are sparring too hard for you, and expect they will tell you the same if they feel uncomfortable. 
  • If you or your teammate have any kind of injury, letting the other know is important – you should be working with your sparring partner, not against them, so there is no point in worsening an injury unnecessarily. 

Don’t ‘walk through’ punches and kicks

  • Getting hit is part of sparring.
  • You are going to wear some punches or kicks in any given sparring session. 
  • If your opponent lands a clean shot, getting flustered and throwing something too hard in return will only hinder your progress as a practitioner.
  • Instead, simply pause, give a little nod, or touch gloves to acknowledge that, had they thrown the strike with full force, it would be a high-scoring shot in a fight. 
  • If you land a hard strike in sparring, make sure your opponent is alright to continue.

Always show respect

  • Sparring can be daunting to practitioners, but most people fall in love with sparring quickly!
  • Listen to the coach/ instructor.
  • Sparring should be fun and relatively risk-free at the same time. 
  • Our coaches are attentive to the health and safety of everyone in the gym and expect that everyone demonstrates respect for each other. It’s one of the reasons our Sparring Sessions are invitation only.