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Sparring: Application and Sense-Making

The numbers, 1, 2 and 3 probably rings familiar to many of us here, who've learnt countless combination with these numbers. You do the drills, you shadow with it, and lastly, hear these numbers from your trainers day in and out.

Especially if it was a boxing class, there's also the foot work, the slips, the weaving. You soak it all in when Iskandar (@normal_chap) tells and reminds you repeatedly, the head movement, the footwork, snap your punches, how to throw them. But how many of these 1s, 2s, and 3s, do we actually land?

I was having a chat with Isk when we spoke about the realism and pragmatism of sparring. Isk mentioned that it is almost necessary to spar during his boxing classes, but there is still some amount of reluctance and fear in doing so. These concerns are legit, and they are reasonable, afterall, most people would prefer not to get hit in the face. But the argument is valid as well; when you don't spar, you don't know how to apply.

It struck a minor chord in me, that actually after hours and hours of shadowing, bag work and padwork, when it comes down to the actual physical application of the skills and combinations, it becomes a totally different learning curve for me. Worse, for me, despite fighting/competing, I had the same fear as most of us: getting hit in the face.

The first portion of this subject of application, is the practicality of what you learn, versus what you can actually do. If you attend Isk's boxing class long enough, you'd probably hear this a lot from him:

"You need to apply."

In his countless years of experience, Isk has probably seen enough of boxers who can seem to perform brilliantly at the pads, at the bags, but when up against a "live" opponent, fail to apply and falls back to his/her basic instincts; be it fear, or aggression.

In my opinion, the complexity of this application issue, is twice fold. One, whether you actually remember to apply during sparring, and two, whether you CAN apply. Like myself, I'd hear Jack go on and on about a particular technique or movement, and when in drills, it's all well and good. He always has this last bit where I'd need to use the technique on him during sparring. Although he sometimes delibrately sets up a scenario for me to apply, I sometimes, in fact most times, at least for the first few moments, forgets everything that he had told me. The nagging ensues.

But I eventually do, sometimes to the frustration of my trainer, but I do. But right after that, up next, would be a sparring scenario that is not customised to execute that particular technique, and I start to realise the gap between "knowing" how to apply, and whether I actually CAN apply.

It is not all lost though, I've emerged comfortable with skill sets that I was previously uncomfortable with. I would like to think that my endless and relentless practise, coupled with military-like discipline has pulled off a lot of this application issues, but the truth is it was the endless nagging and constant reminder from my trainer that actually set it in. We are afterall semi warrior, but mostly human. Where we are brought out of our comfort zone, we resist.

"If you don't apply, you will never learn."

My reasons and resistance towards application is somewhat personalised to my case. Inevitably, my training requires me to spar and apply a lot. You may have your push factors as well. But what I'm trying to advocate, is that, regardless, you should spar, or at least apply. Less of course, if you have medical conditions that poses physical restriction or danger, which you should let us know!

But as we start out in this, more apt for the striking arts, there is a need to spar, and apply what you've learn. The effects are amazing, and dumbfounding. You start to realise that you can't hit that 1-2-1-2 that you've been doing all these weeks/months/years. You realise that you probably hate getting hit in the face, but did nothing to prevent that from happening. You perhaps realised that you couldn't land a single kick, nor block any whilst sparring against a fellow humanoid.

Nobody spars like Mike Tyson the very first time they step up. But a lot of us try to be. We want to be associated with a winner, with a champion, with someone who has done the dos and shunned the don'ts. We don't see nor want to go through the hardship that Mike Tyson has gone through, but we want to be like 5% of him. The equation doesn't add up.

Keep it simple. If you're starting out in sparring, keep it simple. Ground your basics, and start realising how to throw that simple 1-2 that you know all so well. Run a quick check on yourself, are your 1s and 2s thrown properly, or are they just reactive survival instincts? Are you landing your punches properly, with intent, or were you just trying your luck? I too, admit that sometimes, especially if I'm sparring with Jack, I throw stuff at him to try my luck at hitting the jackpot. Just like how you queue up and buy the magical 4D in all hopes that you'd win the first prize, it almost never does. (BUT, sometimes have lah... HUAT AH!)

The simpler truth is, the more you spar, the better you understand and the better you get at applying what the trainers nagged at you. You start understanding why there is a need to twist that hip when you kick, or why Isk keeps on reminding you of your foot work. The application of sparring within training circumstances is, and should be a common and daily affair. You should be sparring every single time you're here.

Respect and Humility

Despite the nature of the intention, sparring is not a fight, nor is it a death match to show who's better than who. We put a simple sign at our lobby, to leave your ego behind, for good reasons. Put aside the pride, put aside the hunting instincts, open up your mind and learn.

I also believe that, no matter the level of the opponent, there is always something to learn from. Faced against an opponent that is significantly lower than yourself is a reflection of how we all were when we first started out. Remember the first time? That's how you looked like when you sparred with the senior. We all grow better, some faster than others, but we all start somewhere. Give the newbie a chance, some space, show him/her the ways, the path you took. Through this, we breed a new category of courage and resilience, and hopefully, through the process we gain enlightenment ourselves too.