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I am a second degree black belt, but I am not an advanced fighter.

Sparring has never been my forte as a child or as an adult taekwondo practitioner. Sometimes I’ve hated it. Sometimes I’ve looked forward to it. Sometimes I both dread and enjoy it. It has always been a learning experience. I don’t live up to my impossibly high expectations, and of course that sets me up for frustration.

I decided to change my approach to sparring at the dojang I’ve been attending since December of last year.

My dojang has several highly skilled and highly decorated fighters along with younger students who are learning the ropes. Since the students are heavily involved in local, national, and international competitions they do the typical Olympic-style sparring that is dominating tournaments now. However, now that I’ve seen it up close I do appreciate recognizing hints of the underlying brutality that I came to appreciate at my old school (i.e., they don’t just dance around on one foot and tap each other with roundhouse kicks). We still try to beat the hell out of each other, and I like it!

I’ve gone into this with the humble notion that I am starting from scratch and had better get used to learning by doing and learning by making mistakes and trying again. I’m short and compared to just about everyone I train with, old. Many of my training partners are fast, light on their feet, and often gunning for my head. I like the way I was trained to fight, but I’ve learned that I also need to incorporate some different techniques into my repertoire, so that’s been an interesting challenge. My body has not gotten used to the very specific balance used for cut kicks (I did plenty of side kicks, but never dabbled in this fighting-specific kick). Pushing is a thing…kind of…in a very specific way.

I am in a vaguely familiar world with enough differences that I have to step back and put my thinking cap on. I can get by, but I definitely need to adapt. I may not spar like a competition fighter, but I have to be able to defend against one.

One of my coworkers and fellow facilitators has said, “Don’t be frustrated. Be fascinated.”

That’s my new approach to sparring. I’ve put my second degree black belt ego aside and am just focused on learning and practicing. That also frees up any frustration or embarrassment I might feel towards myself for not being a top-notch fighter since I’m second degree and all (that comes from ego too). I’m not worried about looking “bad” or less skilled than everyone else. I don’t care. I just want to practice.

Being fascinated with sparring boosts my curiosity and willingness to try something new, even if it’s difficult or uncomfortable. I also don’t get wrapped up into pressuring myself to try anything too complicated if I haven’t mastered the fundamentals first. I focus on small things that I can work on. A few weeks ago we did a drill where we blocked a cut kick and whirled around with a quick back kick. As a short person who needs to build up a strong back kick defense, I loved this drill and have tried it in every fight since then.

Being fascinated and observing carefully means I learn from people who are much more skilled than I am and others who get locked into patterns, habits, or making the same mistakes over and over. I also learn from how I see others learning. Last week one kid started doing some odd things like….well…dancing around on one foot and wiggling his kicking foot, daring his partner to make a move. Then he did a few half-hearted 360 kicks that didn’t land. Hmm, is this what the kids are doing these days?

Then I realized he was just trying something new. Maybe he was bored and took advantage of the “down time” in the fight when his partner was tired to try out something he’d seen but had never been able to practice. Better to try out new tricks and techniques in the safety of the classroom (“lab” is more appropriate) than take the risk in a tournament. I realized I should take a page from his book and be brave enough to take some risks.

I was also hoping to use a dirty hand-to-hand trick on him since he seemed to love pushing, but he didn’t really try any pushing with me. Next time.

Being open to change, learning, and trying something new without the fear or pressure to not make mistakes can build new skills and confidence that may not have been possible before. Tap into that white belt mindset.

So if you’re learning something new, or if you’re having to re-learn or adjust your way of doing something, don’t be frustrated. Be fascinated. 

 

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