With all the health issues I have had with my neck over the past few years, I could quit easily sit on the sidelines and tell my students what to do. I could quit easily use it as a convenient excuse not to play the game anymore. Although there are days I am forced to be on the sidelines when my neck flares up, most of the time, ninety percent of the time, you will find me on the mat rolling and sparring with my students.
It’s tough too. Outside of my previous injuries catching up with me now in my mid 40’s, my students have game. Most are a lot younger than I am, and most are better students than I ever was. They learn fast. They develop fast. And because I don’t have to take them through a meandering route of previous mistakes that I had to go through, I am able to coach them the right way from the beginning. A blue belt in my Academy today is a far better blue belt than I ever was. And if I am honest with myself, as long as I have been training, as good as I know I am, I still find myself thinking, “Damn these guys are good,” and have to give my ego a swift kick in the ass, and get on the mat anyway.
I Am Nothing Special
I don’t think this makes me special. For as long as I can remember I always knew that the only way to experience the fight was to do it, the only way to really be able to coach others how to fight, was to have done it myself. Not just then, but now. When I blew out two disks last year, and couldn’t get on the mat to roll or spar for several months, it was abundantly clear on my return to the fight game, that I had lost my edge. My timing was off, my strength had decreased, I was unsure of my movements, and of course my gas tank ran empty fast.
But worse than losing my physical edge, I had lost my inner edge. Looking across the mat, everyone had carried on training, while I was at home nursing my injury. Excuses flooded my mind, “Maybe I’ll start back tomorrow.” Now I know it’s ridiculous to think that way, and of course my students know I was recovering from a pretty bad injury and would take it easy on me, but it made me think.
I can see why so many of these reality based self defense instructors avoid sparring, and avoid combat sports all together. They are actually afraid. Afraid that what they teach will be shown up and that they will have no credibility in the world of uncooperative, resisting opponents. Their veil of infallibility, built upon prearranged offensive counters against opponents who throw a punch and hold it out there, would be dismantled in an instant.
The reason so many ‘empty hand combatives’ instructors avoid playing their game in all out sparring, isn’t because their techniques are for the street and not for sport – the reason they avoid sparring is because they are fundamentally scared. They are afraid of being shown up, and paradoxically afraid of fighting (the very thing they are supposed to be experts in teaching others how to do).
With the exclusion of most of last year where I was unable to even throw a punch on the heavy bag, I have never not been on the mat sparring in some shape or form for the past two and a half decades. In all that time, overcoming my personal performance insecurities, “can I do it” “do I have what it takes” has never been an easy road. But being off the mat for most of last year, really brought my ego’s insecurities front and centre. The only thing that pushed me through in the past, the only thing that enabled me to conquer my own insecurities was because I always played the game. In other words, getting on the mat, playing the fight game for real, enabled me to rise above my personal insecurities.
The most important lesson I have learned through thousands of hours of sparring was this, just because you may be feeling or thinking a certain way, doesn’t dictate the outcome of your performance. But to step up against an opponent you know can beat you, requires an inner fortitude, grit, that cannot and will never be developed from the sidelines. Reflecting on the countless videos presented on social medial platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, most notably among the ‘self-defense’ crowd, all I ever see is drills. All I ever see is the instructor winning. All I ever see is the ‘expert’ being an ‘expert’ on cooperative opponents.
Most People Who Teach Martial Arts Are Afraid of the Fight
Lets cut to the chase here, no matter how aggressive you get your partner to look while attacking you on a YouTube video, when he only ever throws techniques you as the expert told him too, and he doesn’t fight back — while you do your Jason Bourne counter offensive sequence — it isn’t real. It will never be real. Until you can show that you can do that exact same sequence against someone who fights back for real, it’s serves little purpose in the end.
Here’s the truth, the more these self-defense experts hide behind neatly packaged, and choreographed fight sequences, the more afraid they will become. Leading out of this fear, the more outlandish their strategies to deal with interpersonal violence becomes too. In the 21st Century you can no longer use ridiculous excuses such as, “The techniques we train are for the street, not for sport.” There are whole body armour suites on the market if you want to honestly put that forward as an excuse. In other words, suite up. Stop play fighting, and put what you suggest you can do on your neatly packaged YouTube instructional’s to the test.
But alas…it’s not going to happen. It won’t happen, because at least 90% of what is passed off as self-defense solutions will have to be discarded. You are not going to just deflect my jab, destroy my bicep with an elbow, and then conveniently proceed to hammer fist me in the neck, wrap your hands around my chin and take me to the ground.
Why? Because I will fight back!
All of this deadly self defense nonsense, like the defensive sequence I just described above, would be easily put to bed by just having someone in front of you throw a jab for real (i.e. not holding it out there). In other words, do some live sparring. Do drills, but if you can’t show what you drill in live sparring, then throw it away.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Every time I step on the mat to spar or roll for real, I put my money where my mouth is. This doesn’t mean I think I am infallible, unbeatable, or that I have overcome all my inner insecurities. On the contrary, its always a battle to put your fear and your ego in its place. It’s far easier to sit on the sideline and tell people what to do, or to show off in a drill you know you can’t fail at.
Even more importantly, every time you step up, and play the fight game for real, you risk losing (and all the subsequent inner turmoil that comes with that). I have been tapped by my students. I have had my bell rung so hard in the middle of a sparring match, having to hold on for dear life until the bell rang to signal the end of the round. As tough as it is, putting myself out there, I know the alternative is not where I want to be, a bullshit artist, preying on innocent people’s (i.e. students) fear of interpersonal violence, and in doing so, making my ego feel good, while having people admire me as some kind of fighting demigod.
Here’s the truth! You will always feel fear, apprehension, self doubt, and you will always have to fight your ego from taking the easy road. The only way to do this, the only way to win the war inside, is to be true to yourself. In martial arts this means getting out there, and playing the fight game for real.