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“Black belts, get up and make a line in the center of the room.”
During sparring class that’s my chief instructor’s cue for us to line up and let the lower ranking students take a stab–or well, I mean punch–at us. For a while he would assign one student per black belt, but lately he’s been assigning two students to each black belt for two-on-one sparring. If I get the little kids, it’s more funny than anything else, and I spend half my time coaching them on how to get me rather than really fighting them.
It becomes more serious when I’m matched with partners my size (or larger, which is often the case since I’m fairly small) or worse, with other black belts. The larger partners have more brute force, and the black belts fight smarter and know how to work together.
The basic rule of fighting multiple partners is to not let yourself get between them. If they trap you from either side it’s very dangerous unless you’re Liam Neeson, and then it’s just bad for the attackers. What I’ve learned to do is always keep the attackers in more of line so at any point I’m only facing one. I don’t let them corner me on either side, of it they do, I go after the closest one and fight my way out of the tight spot.
Seeing as I’m not Liam Neeson or Uma Thurman’s character from “Kill Bill,” I really don’t do a lot of offensive moves when I’m sparring multiple people. Even in a controlled environment like a taekwondo dojang, sparring multiple attackers takes on a scarier and more primal element. I can’t waste time seriously fighting one person if another one is creeping up on me. I just have to stay on the defensive, block like mad, and run like hell. If it were a real life situation I wouldn’t be doing roundhouse kicks anyway. Hide your eyes, hide your kneecaps, hide your crotches, cause I’ll be gunning for them.
While I’ve gotten used to the concept of sparring multiple people in taekwondo class and always am aware of it as an unfortunate possibility of it happening on “the streets,” I found myself in that situation in a very unexpected place, and it was more unsettling than any physical fight. I won’t say exactly where, but it’s a place where I usually feel safe, respected, and valued.
During a gathering of people I normally got along with well, one person questioned the way I was doing something and suggested that I do something differently. I understood their argument clearly and was ready to respond that I agreed and would be happy to change course as long as I got some suggestions…but I never got that chance. Instead I got a repetitive filibuster directed at me rather than to me.
Then other people joined in, talking about me rather than to me, even though I was in the room looking at them dumbfounded and unwillingly silenced. Granted, it was not personal insults or harsh criticism, but they would not show me the respect of being quiet for two seconds and letting me respond. I actually agreed with them and was ready to say, “Yes, I see your point, and I’ll go along with that if that’s best for everyone. Let me make arrangements to change plans right away,”but apparently that would have been too simple and straightforward.
What could have been a 5 minute conversation turned into a whirlwind of anxiety-ridden arguments and hijacked conversation threads that pushed me further and further away from my opportunity to respond. It was humiliating, demeaning, and has severely damaged my trust with many of the people involved. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I saw a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” last week.
And so I found myself unwittingly having to spar multiple attackers. I silently reminded myself to stay cool (all the while hearing my chief instructor’s voice in my head saying, “Don’t let it escalate”) and look forward to an evening of taekwondo class where all of this nonsense would be forgotten.
I realized after thirty minutes of everyone talking over each other (except for me, to whom the original question was directed at) that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise (or in the TKD world, that would be a punch or a kick) so I’d have to just go on the defense, block as best I could, and run like hell before they started jabbing at me from all sides. I kept my eyes on my “partners” and waited for an opening to say something along the lines of, “Enough. We’re good. Everything’s cool,” just so we could call the match and get out.
What I learned from this incident is that your best strategy for fighting back may not always go as planned. You may be blindsided. There may be multiple attackers. They may have weapons. They may be people you know. You may have to just do what you can to get yourself out of harm’s way, heroics be damned. Don’t get between them. Get out of the way and protect yourself as best you can.
After my harrowing escape I received an online message from my brother. He had watched a video that one of the taekwondo dads posted on social media. In the video I was kicking hard, fighting harder, and smiling with pride and joy in the place where I am happiest with people I look forward to seeing all day.
“It’s very cool,” his message read. “You look like a badass.”
That’s right. I AM a badass. I know who I am and what I value. And I now have a clearer picture of who’s got my back and when I need to be watching out for wolf packs.
If the opponents in a taekwondo tournament sparring match don’t engage with the first 5 seconds, the referee commands them to “Fight!” After 10 seconds of inactivity one or both of the competitors could receive a penalty.
There could be many reasons for the competitors’ inactivity: fear, lack of experience, or nerves. Other times, though, the competitor may simply be trying to make an informed decision. They may have the feeling they need more time to properly size up their opponent and make a decision about how to attack. They may be running through their mental Rolodex of moves before striking the first blow. While being mindful and strategic can benefit fighters, becoming too entrenched in wondering what to do next and analyzing every choice can stop them in their tracks.
I’ve seen plenty of taekwondo students slow down or completely freeze in fights, and I’ve done it plenty of times too. I’ve also seen it many times in my professional life: people become so entrenched in planning a new project or process or making a decision that they drown in the “what ifs.” They don’t trust their instincts and continue to pick at and question their initial choices. I have seen projects and programs that were on a good track for implementation run the risk of disintegrating before they even started because the people involved (or the people in charge) became fearful and began to doubt their direction. They shoot down their hard work before they even try it.
There’s nothing wrong with asking questions and analyzing a situation to address or a choice to be made. In fact, being inquisitive and creative is often the key to the solution you need. Being flexible and adaptable are characteristics of success. However, when anxiety about trying something new or clinging to constant change to avoid making a commitment comes to the forefront, then the project, solution, or decision falls flat and fails before it even gets started.
So what are we to do when we are frozen in “analysis paralysis”?
1. Ask clarifying questions…and know when you’ve received enough information to get started. 2. Determine the impact: will it matter tomorrow, 6 months, or a year from now? If the answer is no, jump in and fight. If the answer is yes, give it more consideration, but be brave enough to do something and have confidence in your choices. 3. Create structure. Can you break the problem or project into smaller and perhaps more attainable goals? Can you put things into categories? Can you map out the process you need or make a list of the necessary resources? Do anything you can to make order out of chaos. 4. Stay true to your objective. Why are you doing this? What is your ultimate desired outcome? Ground yourself in your purpose. 5. Pick something and go! I used to cheat at “Choose Your Own Adventure” books to get the outcome I wanted. I made a mistake, so I backtracked and tried something different. In most cases you can try again if you mess up. In many cases–not all, let me be clear about that–the consequences are not as dire as you think they may be. Putting up a good fight is better than not fighting at all. 6.Bonus: When in doubt, slide in and do a hook kick at their face…or at least that’s what I like to do.
I think I’ve become more mindful and strategic both as a fighter and as a professional. It’s been a slow process that’s taken years of work, but I feel the difference, and other people have noticed it. When I’m sparring I take a quick assessment of my partner’s age, body type, rank, and my past experience with them. Then I just jump in and fight, observing along the way, repeating what works well, and changing course if something doesn’t work. The only time I really slow down is when my body starts to burn out with exhaustion. Lately in the conference room I’ve tried to use the same mindset: do a quick assessment, brainstorm solutions, pick one, and go while learning along the way. So far it’s served me well.
Be logical, practical, and most of all be proactive. Jump in. Do it. FIGHT!