The role of free sparring

Here is a post by reknowned internal martial artist and researcher, and BJJ practitioner and practitioner, Tim Cartmell on his discussion board from a decade ago.  It concerns the role of free sparring in the development of martial skill. I think it deserves reposting, so I'm setting it out here (and hope Tim doesn't mind me doing so!):
This is a very interesting topic, the sparring vs. too deadly to spar dichotomy. My students also get into this discussion with practitioners of other arts that believe they are too lethal to spar.
I suppose their is no 'answer' short of no holds barred death matches, but it is important to look at the evidence we do have so that students can make an informed decision, especially students that want to prepare themselves for a real and violent confrontation. 
I'll preface my comments by saying I have trained all different ways. I've studied traditional styles of martial arts in which all techniques were supposed to be potentially lethal, and which forbade sparring, as well as traditional arts which allowed contact sparring. I've also practiced several combat 'sports.' 
One of the most, if not the most important aspect of success in a fight is mindset, next is experience, then physicality, finally specific technique. Without the will to fight, the greatest fighter in the world will lose to the most mediocre fighter. This is a common sense observation. It is extremely difficult (although probably not impossible) to develop a fighting mindset without some experience approximating a real fight. Like the boxers say, everyone has a plan until they get hit. If you have never been hit hard, crushed under someone's weight or been on the receiving end of a painful and unrelenting attack, how do you know how you will react? You may imagine you will respond appropriately and fight back, but you will never know for sure. Sparring will never be as intense as a real fight, but it is the closest approximation you will find within the bounds of relative safety (although you will be injured on occasion, it's an inevitability of learning to fight).  
Getting hit, strangled and thrown hard by a determined and resisting opponent will condition your mind and body for the realities of a fight. Taking out your opponent with the initial attack is obviously the ultimate goal of a fight (and learning how to sucker punch is something I believe should be practiced often), but the reality is one punch knockouts almost never occur. When they do, the fighter doing the knocking out is usually always much bigger and stronger than his opponent. Despite the popular 'deadly martial arts' idea that a fight will be over in seconds with the opponent lying unconscious and broken on the floor, fights often go on for minutes, with both fighters injured as third parties pull the fighters apart.  
Contact sparring and grappling are also a 'laboratory' for you to experiment with which techniques YOU can actually apply against a resisting opponent. Just because your teacher or classmates can smash bones with a blow doesn't mean you necessarily can. You will never know what you can really do unless you have really done it. You must also practice sparring in all ranges and situations (striking and wrestling both standing and on the ground).  
It is not that the techniques in most martial arts won't work, all legitimate styles have potentially useful techniques. The problem is the method of training. Anyone can make a technique work against a non-resisting partner, and, of course, that is how techniques are learned. The actual execution of a technique is the easy part. The hard part is the set up and entry. The method of learning how to successfully set up and enter a technique for real cannot be learned without a non-cooperative, fully resisting partner. Because that is the situation you will be in in a real fight. In a real fight, your opponent will be doing everything he can to stop you from applying your techniques. If your method doesn't take this into account, it is not realistic. The best fighters in the world use relatively simple techniques, most often the same techniques they learned during their first few months of training. The reason they can actually apply these techniques is that they have learned to set them up against trained, resisting opponents. They have confidence because they have been successful for real.  
Physicality is also extremely important in a fight. Size and strength do matter, and, especially if you are smaller than your opponent, superior endurance could save your life. Besides regular conditioning exercises for power and endurance, sparring practice will teach you how to conserve your energy and expend it when it will have the greatest effect. When the adrenaline is pumping, it is very important not to use up all your energy to no effect. Anyone who has ever been in a combat sporting event can tell you that whoever gasses first loses, no matter his or her level of skill.  
Another place to look for answers is with men who have a great amount of experience in real fights (street fights). If you read the literature, men like Peyton Quinn and Geoff Thompson (who worked as bouncers in rough places, and who had the 'benefit' of hundreds of real fights) assert that contact sparring and grappling are absolutely essential to preparing martial artists for real fights. Geoff Thompson is especially interesting in that he has liscences to teach over a dozen Asian martial arts. But what he advocates practicing for real fighting ability is Western boxing (combat sport), wrestling (combat sport) and Judo (combat sport). The main focus of training in all three is non-cooperative free sparring.  
In my own experience, I feel I developed more practical fighting ability from a year of Xing Yi Quan training in Taiwan (we sparred full contact on a regular basis) than years of training in other styles without non-cooperative sparring. Do I believe Xing Yi Quan is technically so superior to the other styles I studied? No, what made the difference was the method (we sparred).  
Finally. I'll leave you with a real world example. Meynard is passionate about this subject because of his background in the martial arts. He spent years studying a 'traditional' martial art (with an excellent teacher) that did not allow sparring practice because of the 'deadly' nature of their techniques. When he first came to study with me we could basically strike, throw and submit him at will (sorry Meynard, the truth hurts sometimes). He has practiced very hard the last few years, and is now one of the best fighters in my school. He's done well in combat sporting events (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and submissions grappling) as well as a street fight he got into with a gang member a few months ago (two leg kicks and a Pi Quan knocked the guy down. He had had enough and Meynard let him get up and limp away. Like Water Dragon said above [in the forum thread], this is how most real fights end up, no reason to kill anybody).  
I want to make it clear to my friends that posted above [in the forum thread] that I respect different methods of training. There is something to be learned from all drills, ancient and modern. What's important is to be honest about why you practice martial arts in the first place (for example, people who practice for health or recreationally don't need to spar) stay open minded and look at all different methods of training to see what works for you.
Copyright © 2002 Tim Cartmell