Last night my friend Rob and I stayed back after training to do a little bit of gloved contact sparring. In our school we practice a form of sparring called randori. It is a slowed-down, bare-fisted, soft exchange of techniques where each person tries to help the other learn. It is not about “winning” – in fact, a humble person might deliberately allow the other person to land techniques to show them what works and what doesn’t. Up until black belt, it is non-contact for safety.
This is very different from “real fighting” (where the fight usually ends after the first punch) and tournament fighting (which might end after a set time limit or when the referee separates that competitors who are trying to score points against one another).
Randori is a wonderful training tool, but it lacks the tactility of knowing what it’s like to successfully hit someone with a degree of strength, and how being hit can affect your fighting.
My randori has much room for improvement. I am frustrated to say that I almost always make contact when I practice it with others – a soft tap on the face to let my partner know that a punch could have snuck through, a light snapping kick to a person’s abdomen to remind them to defend against the legs etc. Plus when my partner is worried about being hit, it gives them less opportunity to think about hitting me. But this is not in the spirit of randori. I have much to learn from the whitebelts who refrain from making contact because they fear injuring me. I carelessly beat others around the dojo because I hope that my sundome (control) is good enough to hit them lightly enough not to do damage. But just last week I punched my friend three times in the face, causing his lip to split. It was a clear example of how little control I actually have, made all the more dangerous by the illusion that I had enough experience to do better. But even Shihan hyperextended someone’s elbow last week – no amount of experience can compensate for carelessness or accidents. And if longevity is the goal of training, we must treat our partners with care.
A little while ago there was a free-style tournament open to all schools and all levels. I was reluctant to enter for reasons I couldn’t quite specify. I still haven’t quite worked it out, but the idea of someone trying their hardest to hit me, and me trying my hardest to hit them doesn’t appeal to me. I think a large part of it is the fear that I’m not good enough to survive such an encounter without getting hurt. And so I think a part of me wanted to test that last night, to say “Okay, I’ll do some sparring with you. Let’s see if my skill level is high enough to come out ‘victorious’ in this exchange, and to see what areas I need to work on.”
As you’ve probably guessed from the title of this blog, it didn’t go that well.
Rob’s jabs kept nailing me in the head, over and over. I couldn’t figure it out. I’d move my guard to deflect his left, then his right would come in and nail me. I’d deflect the left, then the right, then his left would come through and get me again. I’d stay where I was and he’d come straight through and punch me anyway. It was so frustrating that I kept making some kind of fundamental mistake which I couldn’t work out, no matter what I tried. Eventually sensei Jeff interrupted to make me aware of my error – every time Rob closed to attack, I would try and counter attack. As one hand shot out to hit him, my other hand would drop and Rob’s punch would get through every time. I took his advice and really focussed on keeping my guard up for the next exchange and the results (perhaps unsurprisingly) were very different. I could deflect his initial blow, and then as he launched his second my other hand was ready to intercept it. This worked once or twice, and then Rob shifted his angle slightly, saw an opening between my two fists and punched me straight in the nose with a right cross.
As I said a moment ago I am guilty of teaching others the weaknesses in their styles by exploiting the gaps in their defences and hitting them lightly. Rob was, I believe, doing the same, though with more force to try and reinforce the message that I just wasn’t getting: to stop getting punched in the face. Unfortunately my nose started bleeding for the first time ever and I left a trail of blood to the bathroom as I waited for it to stop. When I ceased leaking, we cleaned up, Rob asked me if I wanted to continue and I declined. He was very apologetic about not pulling the punch as much as he could have and was worried he’d broken my nose. I brushed it off as part of training, and promised to let him know if it got any worse.
In the car I started crying. The emotions that suddenly overwhelmed me when I was alone caught me, forgive my pun, off guard. My face hurt so much, especially under the weight of my glasses. But moreso, I was so frustrated, upset, even angry that Rob was able to punch me despite my greatest efforts to thwart him. I felt helpless against him. He moved calmly, even dropped his guard to his legs to give me openings, and in just about every exchange he came out on top. And it frustrated me so much that I’d been training for longer, years longer, and he had surpassed me. Not just in strength, speed, flexibility, stamina, dedication and technique (which are all very important things), but in the application of these. And I’m so proud of him, and so humbled by him, that the furious injustice I felt surprised me.
I don’t need to be a better martial artist than Rob. I don’t need to be a better martial artist than anyone. But I do want to be better. I do want to be able to protect my face from someone’s fists. And I don’t want to have to give up what’s important to me in order to attain that level of strength: I’m not going to follow a strict diet or exercise program. I’m going to be me, exactly as I am, and strive to become a better fighter. But I think the next time Rob and I spar, I’ll ask him to do it with less force, and at a pace I can manage so I can learn more, rather than just get beat up and hurt and frustrated.