I like Wednesdays. If it’s a payday week I can log online as early as Wednesday to look at that Friday’s paycheck so I have something to look forward to over the next two days. Wednesday is a good day to stay busy and productive without the drudgery of Monday or the frantic rush of Friday. Most importantly, Wednesday is empanada day at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants.
Wednesday is also the day my dojang holds sparring class, and for some reason, I can’t shake the feeling of dread I’ve had around this particular class ever since I began training.
A little bit of history about my relationship with sparring: as much as I loved taekwondo when I trained in it as a child, I came to hate sparring and eventually taekwondo class itself. Each time I fought I was overcome with anxiety. As we sat along the sidelines of the imagined fighting ring I would try to shrink myself as small as I could and pray silently that my instructor wouldn’t call on me. I hoped the time would run out before it was my turn.
As a child I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt during sparring. I was afraid of being wrong. I was a sad and extremely self-conscious child and felt like ridicule and humiliation were always waiting around the corner. That fear and low self-esteem naturally bled over into taekwondo. I felt like if I didn’t do the right thing in sparring then I would be exposed as a fraud, a failure, a loser.
For the longest time, sparring felt like nonsensical improvisation. As a young taekwondo student what stressed me out the most was the panicked feeling of not knowing what to do next. I was technically very good, but when let loose in a sparring match, the thought of just “making something up” terrified me. That feeling of terror followed me into other ventures. For example, the days I hated the most in high school theater class were when we did improvisational acting. I couldn’t think of what to do next! It didn’t make sense!
I was also never good at improvising in music. Even though I’d been trained in a few instruments my technical, lockstep mind couldn’t deviate from pre-programmed actions. When I studied classical guitar, which is a skill that requires a high level of technique, I was able to play intermediate-level pieces fairly well, but ask me to jam around on a few chords? No way! My brain would freeze and then quickly melt away.
In retrospect I don’t think I really hated sparring or taekwondo class. I hated myself for not living up to my impossible expectations. As I grew older I hated myself for not being clever enough or popular enough or thin enough, which was one of the most destructive expectations I placed upon myself. It took many years and a lot of hard work to get over those feelings of inadequacy.
Fast forward to today: I love sparring when I’m in the moment. I get high off the racing adrenaline, secretly enjoy getting a little mean and nasty, and I even get so excited that I cheer on my partners with admiration when they hit me hard with a well-timed and well-executed blow. But I never can shake that sinking feeling I get every Wednesday afternoon.
Sparring exposes me. When I’m sparring I can’t hide behind my graceful skill in forms, my strength and speed when I kick a pad, or my knowledge of a self-defense techniques. It’s time to act and immediately apply what I’ve spent weeks and months and years practicing. There is no time to ponder, analyze, or ask questions. When I’m sparring, it’s Go Time.
Although I know now that sparring is not just “making stuff up,” it’s taken me a much longer time to develop my sparring skills than it has with other taekwondo techniques. It’s also taken me a long time to shake that old self-consciousness that creeps in occasionally during a match; I thought I had defeated it for good. Up until close to the time that I tested for black belt, sparring was stressful, frustrating, and fruitless. I had not yet figured out how to look for patterns, use strategy, or quickly pull the appropriate kick from my arsenal. I’m still not there.
While I’ve gotten much better and feel more comfortable with it, I still often feel clumsy and slow when I spar, and that old self-consciousness bubbles up. These days, though, with my black belt perspective, it doesn’t stress me out as much. I see it as an opportunity to constantly learn and improve. My chief instructor once said that if I didn’t have a challenge I’d get stale, so it’s kind of a blessing in disguise that I still struggle in many areas, especially sparring. What kind of black belt would I be if I stopped trying once I got that coveted belt? Imagine how good I’ll be if I keep working hard and learning from trial and error.
As if the Universe knew I needed a break, this week’s sparring class gave me a reprieve from a hour of straight fighting and put me more into the coach/referee role. Several students are testing for their next belt level this week, so we spent the first twenty minutes helping the testing students with self-defense techniques. Then after a short sparring match with my usual partner, a girl who is bigger, stronger, and a lot younger than me and therefore always a good challenge, the black belts were asked to referee other students’ matches.
I still got a good workout. Chasing around (and artfully dodging) two big guys during their match definitely kept me on my toes. I felt a little bit like a mosquito flitting around two big male rhinos fighting on the African grasslands: I was trying hard not to get squished while still staying close enough to buzz around their ears and annoy them.
Coaching and refereeing is also an excellent brain workout. I have learned just as much about the art and science of taekwondo from helping other students as I have from my own instructors. In the workplace I’ve always known I’ve reached a comfortable level of conscious competence when I can (1) run the place or a project on my own and (2) advise somebody else on what they should do. It’s a similar experience in taekwondo: I try to use the objective lens I’ve honed from coaching on my own practice whether it’s trying out the sparring strategies I yell at the students during a match or using the refined techniques I preach to students as they practice a form.
Sparring class is still stressful and frustrating, and sometimes I secretly wish for a late afternoon work meeting or project that will hold me over, but I have a much deeper appreciation for what sparring has given me than I could ever understand as a child.
Fighting gives me a focus and clarity that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. It’s an incredible workout that keeps my heart and lungs healthy and my muscles quick an strong. Heck, just this week someone told me I was built like a “brick sh-thouse.” (For a 5’3” strawweight fighter, I suppose I am.) The constant challenge keeps me sharp and interested. The opportunity to coach and referee gives me the warm and fuzzy satisfaction of helping another person and the ability to learn more quickly.
So, despite the underlying anxiety sparring class always gives me, it has pushed me to improve further than anything else in taekwondo…but if given the choice, I’d still rather have an empanada.