Monica Mccabe-Cardoza's A Woman's Guide to Martial Arts provides an interesting look into her experiences as a student of Karate. In the book, she describes some of the challenges faced by women who choose to train in the martial arts and how those challenges can affect their experience and whether or not they continue in their practice. One point in particular that she raises again and again throughout the book is the subject of sparring.
For her, sparring was a constant challenge. The chapter in her book which specifically deals with sparring is titled “The Biggest Fear.” And in that chapter she describes how she and other women she had met and trained with struggled with their fear of sparring and methods that they were able to use to overcome that fear.
First she lists what she considers the three most important traits to develop for successful sparring. Attitude, Instinct, and Intelligence. While much of her book places emphasis on the importance of practicing basic techniques, she writes that in combat, “Developing a positive attitude can mean the difference between quitting and persevering. Fine-tuning your ability to detect what your opponent has in mind for you helps ensure your protection. And using your mind as much, or more, as your physical abilities will allow you to outsmart the competition.”
Then, at the end of the chapter she lists several important tips for excelling at and enjoying your sparring practice.
“1. Relax. A certain amount of tenseness can help your sparring by keeping you alert. Too much, and your moves won't be effective.
2. Defensive strategy works. Once you've blocked your opponent's technique, then you can look for an opening to apply your own technique.
3. Avoid putting yourself at risk. Keeping your eyes on your opponent begins even before the first technique is thrown. Never, ever take your eyes off your opponent.
4. Keep it simple. Not only are basic techniques effective, they are less likely to get you injured.
5. Kiai. Use a deep abdominal shout as you throw a technique. It will unnerve your opponent and make your technique stronger by coordinating your exhale with your movement.
6. Keep your mouth closed. Keep your tongue on the roof of your mouth to prevent it from resting on your front teeth.
7. Analyze your opponent. Analyze your partner's height, weight, strength, and even the length of his limbs. Not all opponents are created equal.
8. If you send signals, make sure they're mixed. Use set ups for techniques, but don't languish in any position long enough to telegraph your thoughts to your opponent.
9. Study your classmate's favorite techniques. Analyze each student for the one or two techniques they consistently throw. Observe the tactics with which they approach sparring.
10. Pay attention to what your instructor says – to an extent. Do not put yourself at risk in an effort to please your instructor. Defend yourself at all times, and be careful when attempting difficult moves.
11. Hide your emotions. By hiding and controlling your emotions, you confuse and unsettle your opponent. Stay calm and you will put your opponent off guard.
12. Don't always think linear. Step around your opponent. Then get your technique out before your opponent has time to turn around. Move forward and backward only when it compliments the movements of your partner.”
Mccabe-Cardoza's tips apply to each of us, male and female, and can be used to positively inform our approach to sparring. For many of us sparring is intimidating, or even frightening. That is why at Dunham's Martial Arts we empower you with a thorough study of footwork, defenses, techniques, combinations, and counters before you begin sparring. So that you will have a skill set to apply once you enter the confrontation with your opponent. But even then, sparring is a challenge to the spirit.
To stand in the face of violence and resist it. To exert control over a dynamic situation and bring order to chaos. The chaos of the fight, but also the chaos within. To temper your skills in the fire of your will. That is what we truly learn from sparring. Yes, we practice the application of the physical technique against a resisting opponent. But more importantly, we conquer fear. We conquer uncertainty. We conquer ourselves. Remember the words of Lord Yagyu.
Mccabe-Cardoza gives us another piece of advice in her chapter on sparring. One that addresses this very topic. “You can't be afraid to get hit,” she writes, “if you let fear overcome you, your techniques will get sloppy and you'll be more likely to look away, exposing yourself to injury. You've got to learn to build your confidence, and at the same time, learn to trust your partners.”
Martial Arts is a challenge to us all. Women. Men. Children. Students. Instructors. We each have our own perspectives and approaches and we each bring our own experiences and fears to our training. That is why we learn from one another. That is why each of us is better when all of us are in class. Because seeing the strength a student demonstrates when they overcome their biggest fears in the karate school may be all another student needs to do the same.
Beginner: Practice staying relaxed during sparring. Take deep breaths, sit low in your stances, and move with slow, deliberate steps. When the opponent engages, defend with strong blocks and hold your ground, then continue breathing deeply when he retreats. Learn to conserve your energy and stay calm until your opponent is gassed. Pay special attention to the attitudes of your training partners. If they are reacting negatively to the intensity or contact level of the assigned activity, offer to lower the intensity to a level they are more comfortable with.
Intermediate: Alternate periods of relaxation with explosive action. Flow through your stances and foot maneuvers with grace and ease using deceptive angles and blocking techniques to defend against your opponents attacks without countering. Then without warning explode directly at his centerline with bursts of linear strikes. Before he is able to adjust to the new pace of the engagement return to evasion and dancing, continuing to lull your opponent into lowering his guard before exploding unexpectedly with another burst of strikes. When training in ground grappling or other close contact positions be respectful of your training partners. Male or female, in the dojo we are all karateka, and we are all alike in our gi. Never intentionally behave in any fashion which would make one of your training partners uncomfortable.
Advanced: Engage your opponent quickly and with prejudice. Analyze his size and stance, feed a few hand and foot techniques to gauge his reaction speed and likely defensive maneuvers, and then blitz with strikes to various targets to overwhelm his defenses. Seize, takedown, finish. Never give him a chance to defend himself or fight back. Always win. Practice caution when striking sensitive targets on your opponents. Internal, sensory, and reproductive organs, joints, the neck and spine, and nerve junctures are all targeted in your training, but remember that your training partners will feel the pain you inflict and respect their well being.