I am not going to lie, getting on the mat, or in the ring and sparring another human being can be scary business. There have been several times over the past 25-years, that it took everything I had inside to not back out of a roll or sparring match against an opponent, that I perceived could easily beat me.
But I stepped up and did it anyway.
The question is: why?
In part I recognised my own enemies inside.
As Steven Pressfield notes in The Warrior Ethos, “At a deeper level, the Warrior Ethos recognises that each of us, as well, has enemies inside himself. Vices and weaknesses like envy and greed, laziness, selfishness, the capacity to lie and cheat and do harm to our brothers. The tenets of the Warrior Ethos, directed inward, inspire us to contend against and defeat those enemies within our own hearts.”
Stepping up then, meant facing these inner enemies, no matter how scared I felt — head on — no excuses! I am not going to lie, it feels really good when one does as well.
At a deeper level, stepping up, playing the game, holds you accountable. Not just to yourself — but to everyone else around you. I took up martial arts after all, not theatre. If I only wanted to act like I could do it, then I was in the wrong game. Yet, it is not uncommon in an industry like martial arts, where hiding behind titles, ancient rituals, and camouflage pants, one can put on an act of authenticity. With Hollywood style martial arts embedded in our collective unconscious, and the lack of interpersonal violent encounters by most who train martial arts — sadly it makes the act possible.
From this perspective I can then see the allure by some to want to compete in the combat arts. I get it, it is an opportunity to tackle those “enemies inside” — but equally about being authentic. Coming from a competitive karate background, and then competitive boxing, I know all to well both the fear of performing, but the absolute need to do so. I also spent several years outside some of the roughest nightclubs in Johannesburg, which one could say was my greatest teacher of authenticity. I have never shied away from sparring either. I have done no less than 10,000 rounds all over the world, at seminars, with my trainers, and students.
What have I learned from all of this?
If you are in the martial arts, you have to play the game.
You don’t have to compete on a stage, but you do have to spar. In other words, as scary as it is, and no matter how much you would like to run away from it, to be authentic in martial arts you have to play the game. You may get used to it, but it may never get any easier. Testing yourself against a cooperative opponent, or training in simulated drills, isn’t testing yourself, it’s acting.
I have learned a lot over the years on how best to teach and introduce a person to sparring. I have also learned, that many people will quit the minute they spar. In almost all cases, they don’t quit because they are afraid of getting physically injured, but rather, it’s their “enemies inside” that overwhelm them. Ironically it is not uncommon for people to spar for years (often when pressed too) that in the end quit as well — choosing rather a more ‘acting’ role in the martial art industry — where they no longer need to really perform, or be held accountable.
Being held accountable, year after year, is seriously hard inner work. There have been years where I have been plagued by one injury after another. There have been years where life has gotten in the way, and I wasn’t as much on the mat as I would have liked. Each subsequent year though, the game continued, students got better, and I still had to step up, no matter how much I had regressed in my game. I did it, not to be a tough guy, but to be authentic.
Was it hard? Damn straight it was.
Was it worth it? Absolutely!
Plato once remarked that you can learn more about a man in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation. I would say, that you can learn more about yourself (and others) in 2-minutes of sparring or rolling than you could in a year of self-obsessed inner dialogue. If you want to know who and what you are, put on some gloves. Get on the mat and roll.
With that said however, there is a caveat.
It is quit possible, and very easy, to spar with the wrong intentions. If it’s only about beating others on the mat, and to make yourself feel better about your “inner enemies” — then those enemies get stronger. The very thing you want to overcome, will be the very thing that consumes you. This has always been my concern with the whole ‘fight’ mentality. I don’t say this as an insult to others, but rather because I know first hand as it has happened to me.
While being authentic through sparring is imperative, one also needs to temper it with a positive intention. It should be first and foremost about measuring your current self, against your former self. What are your inner enemies? How can you use sparring to overcome them? As you overcome them, is it making you more positive as a person? The question I always ask myself, “if what I am doing right now, is hurting me, or hurting anyone else?” If not, then it is probably good for everyone involved.
In this sense, one can spar and be challenged, but no one has to win in the traditional sense. Winning then, takes on a much deeper, transcendent function — than what it typically means — by knocking the person out in front of you, or tapping them out.
Just the other day I was sparring a student. Young, tough, with natural abilities, he was giving this 42-year old man a good run for his money. Half way into the second round he caught me with a solid hook. He rung my bell so to speak. I didn’t show it, but for a second there he buzzed me. I wanted in that moment, a flash of my youth, to tear into him. To take him out. Anger boiled up inside of me, and I was about to bring out the big guns.
But I caught myself. I took a step back, and in a moment of pure mindfulness, I watched with amusement my old “inner enemy” still there from childhood. But I didn’t buy into it. I continued to spar, I fixed the holes, and the rounds got better.
In reflection, this is what sparring has done for me. A decade or so ago, I would have smashed that student. Now, I was different. My Freudian crap still there — but it no longer had or was able to take control of me. I left that mat that day feeling authentic. Proud of how far I had come, from that scared little boy, who was always bullied, and then ended up using violence to make me feel powerful.
I feel my student learned something that day too. Firstly what I had been teaching him works. Secondly, that a calm mind, is a focused mind. Thirdly, just because you feel or think a certain way doesn’t define the outcome.
Sparring as a tool for inner work is beautiful. To not perform, to not play the game, is to never give oneself the opportunity to overcome ones inner enemies. Overcoming ones fear is the first step, being consistent is the second. Being accountable to oneself in martial arts is hard work. But playing the game, getting on the mat and performing, will help you drop the act, and invoke the warrior ethos of an authentic life.