two men bowing

I’ve been wanting to spar with some of the senior team fighters over the past few weeks, but I’ve been too shy to ask. They’re half my age, a head taller than me, and very skilled in competition sparring. I felt like I’d slow them down if I asked them to practice with me. I do like the younger kids I usually practice with. Some of them are former students of mine, so I feel very comfortable with them (and now they’re all almost taller than me), but sometimes I really want to be pushed and challenged. I want to be forced to think and practice in a different way. I want to learn new things. Hopping around with tweens and teens isn’t always going to cut it.

I’ve been going to Saturday sparring classes off and on for nearly a year. My first motivator was to make sure I would be in good condition to fight at my not-so-far-away third Dan test. But that’s shifted. Yes, I want to be prepared for my test…but I also just want to spar and see how I improve. It’s fun. Now I approach it the way my pre-cal teacher in high school did with our math studies: it’s play. There are worse ways for a forty-year-old corporate suit to spend a Saturday morning.

Sparring has always been a challenge, never my strongest taekwondo skill. I hated it as a child and more often than not dreaded it as an adult (I still get that little twinge when I go to sparring class now), but now I’ve really grown to enjoy it and want to make sure I keep up my skills. Sparring is taekwondo in the same way poomsae, self-defense and kicking techniques are. It’s the ultimate application of everything we practice over and over. A taekwondo student who never practices sparring is doing themselves a disservice.

Today was a small class, so I got to do some light rounds with two of the elite fighters, both college students who are hard-working, energetic, and great at what they do. After an axe kick to the back of my head and several hard cut kicks to my ribs, I asked my partner what I could do to avoid making the same defensive mistakes. He took the time to explain and demonstrate a few tips and was patient with me as I tried again.

The instructors we have at the dojang are fantastic and very knowledgeable with the technical aspects and nuances of taekwondo. But there’s something a little different and refreshing when you can learn from another student, especially as a black belt. My sparring partner and I both happen to be second Dan, but he could have been a white belt and I would have found his advice just as valuable. A tenet in healthcare is deferring to expertise, whomever that person may be, in order to provide safe and reliable care. The same could be said for martial arts. In addition to instructors, you may be surrounded by people who have more expertise or natural talent than you do. Learn from them.

My advice to black belts is–always look for an opportunity to learn on top of your normal practice (there is a difference between the two). Ask your training partners questions. Have them show you how to do something they’re particularly skilled at doing, especially if they’re better than you are.

That’s the nice thing about being a black belt. It’s not an end point. It’s an opportunity to keep improving, trying new things, and learn from all ranks of students, not just instructors. There’s usually someone better at you at something, so do as one of my college dance teachers suggested: “go shopping.” Take in training from everyone.

Black belt is when you really get to play. 


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Stay tuned for my upcoming book – “Kicking and Screaming: a Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts” published by She Writes Press. Coming to a bookseller near you April 20, 2021!




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