It's often said that point sparring doesn't teach you how to fight. If you spend all your time training to pull punches and throw light strikes to "tag" your opponent, you'll be worse for wear in a self-defense scenario.
This is, I believe, completely true.
But I also believe that adage doesn't tell the whole story. The point sparrer is still training speed and unpredictability, which is useful anywhere. The evasion techniques of point sparring is perhaps less useful - turning so a blow strikes your back is not going to help you in a street fight - but moving your body in anticipation of attacks is helpful. And knowing your range, and how to throw kicks while moving unpredictably, are completely useful in self-defense.
Now, I don't want to give the wrong idea: all training is compromise. If you train sparring 100% of the time, your kata will suffer. If your goal is to be the best point sparrer possible, ignore everything I am about to say. My goal is to be the best fighter I can while training frequently under point sparring rules. If I am successful at point sparring, that's nice, but it's not required.
Why should you listen to me?
Maybe you shouldn't. You don't know me. I could be trying to trick you to make my competition easier at the local tournament scene.
I don't want to imply that I'm great at sparring. I'm decent enough. We spar regularly at my school, and I was the Intermediate Division 30+ Sparring Champion in 2017 at the Twin State Martial Arts tournament circuit.
These suggestions might not work for you. They might work poorly, or not at all, against higher-level competitors than the ones I'm dealing with. And really, if you're that concerned about your sparring performance, you should focus on that instead of trying this.
With that in mind, here are the principles I follow for training point sparring with self-defense.
Practice full-force attacks with bagwork.
Get a heavy bag and unload on it. Make sure you work your movement: circle, dart in and out, work your combination techniques and range-checking the bag with kicks.
Digging into the art of good bag work is beyond the scope of this article, but you will gain a lot by making sure you can land a blow at full force when you want to. If you haven't already learned proper wrist control while punching, this is a great time to work on it... it beats spraining yourself in a fight.
Train in ongoing rounds whenever possible.
During sparring practice, you should spar with a timer and not reset on points. This will help you avoid bad habits like ignoring defense in order to strike first. It will also condition you not to relax or expect a reset after your opponent corners you.
The "reset" is, in my opinion, the most serious disadvantage in training point sparring. In a fight, you know the fight is over when they hit the ground or run away. Point sparring teaches you to relax once the point is counted. I know I've thought I heard a point called and dropped my guard, only to get punched... imagine how bad that would be on the street!
Focus on overcoming crowding and blitzes by counterattacking.
Another related bad habit of many point sparrers is a failure to develop skills for countering being cornered or blitzed. In a point sparring match, either one will result in a single point lost and a reset; this rewards certain types of aggression and discourages learning how to break through an opponent's control of the fight.
In other words, it isn't enough to learn how to establish control first: you have to learn how to break through from being the defensive player to the attacking player.
Focus on practical blocks.
I have a particular preference for hiji uke, often called the "elbow block". The name isn't that accurate; often one is blocking with the bicep or shoulder, but I favor the technique because it is quick, it does not rely on hand position so much and therefore can be used almost anytime, and it leaves me in a great position for a back-fist or side kick counterattack.
This technique has probably lost me more points during tournament matches than every other technique combined.
Why? Because it doesn't look flashy. It moves the opponent's strike the bare minimum distance away from the body, and because it often means blocking with the upper arm, it can look like the blow landed. Despite the fact that it deflects 100% of my opponent's strike, it's simply not visual enough to save me in the ring.
And that's okay. I'd rather lose points doing something that works in real life than win points with a technique that could get me killed on the street.
Focus on practical strikes.
I have a very powerful rear-leg roundhouse kick. It is not the fastest technique for me, but I feel confident that in reality, it would hardly matter: at my size, blocking the kick would simply not be productive.
I still use the kick in point sparring, but it's certainly less effective, and I expect it to become less effective as I advance through the divisions. Last season I sparred as an intermediate competitor, and this coming season I will be with the advanced division, who I expect will deal with a slow rear-leg kick much more efficiently.
But it also isn't the only tool at my disposal. The kick has to be dealt with, and my opponents must either block it, press the attack, or get out of the way. It isn't bad as a set-up technique - and sometimes, it even scores a point. Not bad.
De-emphasize impractical strikes.
A back-fist strike to the temple is one of the surest points in point sparring. It's quick, you are often positioned well for it after executing a block or kick, and it can be adjusted on the fly for a straighter or rounder arc, so it is hard to defend against.
The problem is, it's only a meaningful attack some of the time.
A back-fist to the head or neck can be devastating, but only when enough power can be generated in the strike. Many circumstances in point sparring simply don't generate enough power to be meaningful except in a "tag" ruleset.
Fight at your real range.
Often, point sparrers will be within range to make contact, but that contact is at the end of their reach. Your kicks won't do any damage in a real fight if they only reach full extension at the moment of impact; try to avoid positioning yourself to strike at these extremes.
This suggestion is particularly disadvantageous in point sparring, because it will place you one or two inches closer to your opponent. But it is also particularly dangerous to teach yourself to fight at an impractical range!
Finally, some good point sparring habits that benefit you everywhere!
Don't stop once you land a point.
Whether you're point sparring or defending yourself, stopping because you think you landed a clean blow is never good. The judge may not call the point, and a mugger is unlikely to respect your prowess on its own merits.
I said previously that the most dangerous part of training point sparring is the resets. The truth is, I think this is equally bad for point sparring itself, even if the consequences are minor. If the judges call a point and you don't stop, they'll call the stop again - so don't stop unless you're sure. Stay in the game, win points.
Manage your energy and oxygen carefully.
Tiring yourself out is how fights are lost. Expend as much energy as you have to to keep yourself in the fight, but avoid using so much energy that you have to land an attack to avoid gassing out and losing the match.
Practice your footwork.
The better you are at getting in and out of your opponent's range, the better equipped you are to dictate the terms of a fight, on or off the mat. You should identify your opponent's strengths and position yourself to neutralize them: if they have excellent kicks, stay too close for them to work. If they are very comfortable at clinch range, get further away and pepper them with kicks.