Five Animals for Sparring and Everyday Life

At some point, everything we do seems to relate back to sparring. All the principles learned in forms and combinations perfected in kempos can help you improve your sparring game, the practical application– or as close as we can get without sacrificing safety. But what’s seldom realized is how sparring strategy can be applied to your everyday life–and no, we’re not talking dark alleyways. The way you approach a sparring match can tell you a lot about how to solve problems that pop up in your life. In this post, we’ll take a look at how the different sparring styles of our five Shaolin animals lend themselves to different problem-solving strategies.


Like the mythical dragons who lay claim to sky, land, and sea, the key to a dragon’s sparring style is adaptability. A martial artist who spars like a dragon uses the characteristic rising, falling, and twisting motions to adjust to their partner’s style and win. Similarly, a problem-solving dragon will find a way to adapt to the situation at hand in order to overcome it. Instead of versatility in body movement, a problem-solving dragon will change and experiment with tactics and approaches until they find the one that best fits the problem at hand.


A tiger’s sparring style is perhaps the easiest to teach and understand, and although it’s not necessarily practical for self-defense (after all, most people tend to steer clear of fights with someone who looks like they can overpower them), it can be a solid sparring tactic. Tigers center on aggression, tenacity, and power. When someone spars like a tiger, their main strategy is to overwhelm their opponent. Using their size and strength, they’ll drive forward with a series of powerful strikes, mostly ignoring their opponent’s attempts at striking until they’ve won. As with sparring, the tiger’s approach to problem solving is easy to grasp. Though you can’t necessarily beat your problems into submission, the tiger’s straight-forwardness is often the best tool for the job. While some issues require more tact or subtlety, sometimes the best way to handle a problem is to act immediately using the most direct approach; set a course of action and don’t give up until it’s settled.


Leopards can’t quite take the heavy hits like tigers do. To make up for this, a leopard artist works quickly to get around to the side of their opponent, thereby taking away some of the opponent’s available limbs. Similarly, they’ll turn to the side themselves while striking in order to limit available targets. Obviously, this requires a fair amount of timing and speed to pull off. When confronted with a problem, a leopard will find a way to look at the problem from different angles until it finds a good solution. Once it finds a path that will work, the leopard moves fast sure-footedly to ensure they can solve the problem without letting it weigh them down.


Cranes are famed for their big, graceful movements, but no one who’s been on the receiving end of a crane’s attack can doubt the power behind those movements. Sparring as a crane often involves using those long-range hand strikes and kicks to keep your opponent at bay, then going in with a powerful attack. This sparring strategy requires a lot of patience, and the self-control needed to keep the motions smooth and controlled. As you may have guessed, the keys to problem-solving like a crane are distance and patience. Take a step back from what’s troubling you and you’ll be amazed at how much clearer it is. Once you have a handle on what it is you’re dealing with, be patient and wait for an opportunity to step in and act. Be careful that your patience doesn’t turn into inaction; just like a good opponent will get through a crane’s defenses if they wait too long to take control of the situation, putting off a problem indefinitely will do more harm than good.


Aside from constrictor types which we can mimic for grappling technique, the snake’s style is characterized by smooth rhythms and quick, precise strikes. Some snakes have venom which gives them obvious benefits in nature, but since no amount of training will give a human venom we instead train to strike the most vulnerable targets–pressure points or soft targets like the eyes and throat–with a fast precision strike, then get out before their opponent has a chance to retaliate. While some aspects of a snake’s style lend themselves really well to sparring–for example, using a snake style recoil after a strike rather than a tigeresque follow-through is much safer for your partner–the “venomous” aspects are really only useful in a self-defense context. Even if you could hit the pressure points or eyes with sparring gloves on, it would simply be too dangerous to your partner. A snake’s approach to an obstacle takes elements from both their sparring and fighting style; identifying what needs to be done and acting efficiently. The snake’s approach involves the most subtlety, but make no mistake, it’s still effective.


The next time you talk about your sparring style or come up with a sparring strategy, take a moment to think about how you can apply that to the obstacles in your life. Instead of learning how to control your opponent’s movements, how can you take control over what’s troubling you? How can identifying open targets on your opponent teach you how to figure out where to start when solving a problem?

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