So, here we are…sparring.
This is a subject that I’ve started to write about many times with a plethora of conclusions. Ultimately I end up contradicting myself without intention or rhyme or reason. Sparring is one of those phantom truths in martial arts that has the word “evolution” written all over it in the sense of everyone wants to make theirs different and everyone wants their views to be validated by whomever they happen to share them with. Obviously you’re going to draw like-minded people whenever you start a conversation about this topic and rarely is anyone won over to one side or the other. Everyone wants their opinion or viewpoint to count and in some ways they all make sense.
My personal views on sparring have changed or rather “evolved” significantly over the years. In Shaolin-Do, sparring was like breathing. We were constantly sparring and no sparring gear meant “no problem”, we sparred anyway. During those years I had a love/hate relationship with sparring. The illuminating teaching moments were laden with being knocked around the room by the black belt instructor. If your hands were in a high guard you got the wind knocked out of you. If they were too low, you took punches to the head. Lesson learned, right? It took me a long time to get used to that and I never really had a choice. Shaolin Kempo was different in their sparring views and it was during this time that I was under the fantasy impression that I was invincible. I had many sparring adventures during this time period. There were times that I got really carried away. After years of administering split lips, black eyes, and cut eyebrows I had decided it would be best to walk away from that…for a while anyway. I was visited by a Goju Ryu black belt, a wing chun practitioner, and a few Taekwondo guys during this time period. I fell in love with the contact that I don’t care about so much anymore. I enjoyed being faster than the person in front of me even though this wasn’t the case always. The Goju Ryu black belt scared me, mainly due to his ability to block my roundhouse kick 9 out of 10 times. The wing chun guy kicked me in the knee several times and if I hadn’t been aware of what he was doing, he may have done some serious damage aside from the goose eggs up and down my shins. I have had very few sparring matches in the last 10 years. I have put on sparring gloves maybe 10 times in that amount of time and I’m a far cry from being where I was in terms of my outlook on sparring than I was in 1998. If I had to spar at the request of an instructor today, I would do it. Just not with the same mindset as I had back then. Its all about learning what works and what doesn’t.
What sparring truly taught me was how to read and relate and communicate with others. Obviously I don’t go around punching and kicking people to get my point across. But I do understand folks in a different way. I can read folks in a different way and I can see their intent differently. For instance, a couple of years ago I was sparring with a teenager, lets say mid to late teens. I was working on certain things and he was coming into his own in terms of martial arts. I caught him a couple of times with a body shot with my lead(right hand). The shots weren’t hard or anything and I ended up just touching his helmet several times. What I discovered was an underlying unresolved anger issue. The angrier he became, the more intent he was on hitting me. A lot of people get into this unwritten myth that sparring is fighting. Its not (my SKK instructor used to call it a game of tag). Sparring is a string of techniques threaded together to see what happens and what is useful. False mentality leads to false security. So in any exchange…lets say a 2 or 3 or 4 strike combo with blocking within a sparring match you have an offensive and defensive reaction. That particular moment in time is a piece of a very large puzzle. The exchange may be strung together with other stuff but its doesn’t amount to what would or wouldn’t happen in a confrontation. You are just figuring out what you want to work on in a match with a sparring partner. Lets say we are looking at several exchanges connected with one another in some way…still not a fight. Its conditioning. How can I incorporate what I enjoy using at an elevated rate of speed and get my cardio up at the same time. Any type of conditioning is good for martial arts and its one of the pro arguments for sparring. also, I’m not just leaning what will I do? But rather, how will they react? What will their answer be? Is it the desired response? I am learning about myself and more importantly, I am learning about others as we communicate with one another. So, I knew the angry teen was a learning experience for me to always trust my gut. In other words, if you touch hands with enough people you get an overall sense about intent and in an essence you learn what to look out for and read in people on a subtle level. Sparring is more psychological than it is physical if you know what to do. A sparring partner will show their true nature when they’re sparring and its something that carries over into other areas of their life whether they mean to show that or not. You then get a sense of habits, idiosyncrasies, or more importantly…personality traits. True intentions. Case in point, I have another sparring partner who used to be a really good student. The guy is gifted athleticly and when Jarrard and I spar or do push hands with contact I can tell a lot of things about him as well as his reactions to whats happening within the context of what we’re doing. He’s genuine. He wants to do well. He means well. He’s very gracious. He’s a good person and wants to put his best foot forward. He also doesnt want to disappoint anyone or fail at anything from an authentic place of his being. So, he cares about that and in some ways he’s not afraid of that failure, but rather, he is squeamish about being highly successful and that might have something to do with him not having a black belt yet, even though he has a black belt mentality in a lot of ways. He doesn’t want to be seen as disingenuine so he plays down his strengths.
As I wrap this up, sparring doesn’t give you psychic abilities or anything. But if you stick around long enough to appreciate the relationship of sparring and techniques it can help you grow to understand folks a little better. I know its made me less gullible. There are times when I see certain situations arising that I keep to myself so I see what will transpire and because of this I am rarely caught off guard. Spotting true intentions is something that helps me be a better communicator and it helps to see folks as they truly are in the world around me. During my peak in sparring I could see 3 moves ahead of what someone was going to do. Even though that was a long time ago, its still one heack of “toy” to have. To have an answer beforehand is useful knowledge. Hopefully My Shaolin Kempo is your Shaolin Kempo one day.