Day 36: Sparring / by Jeff Tacklind

So, yesterday I got kicked in the face.  It was my first time.  I didn’t see it coming.  I did block two punches, but the third move got me.  I can’t believe Master Mark can even get his foot that high.  Thankfully I had a padded helmet on.  Otherwise I might have lost a tooth.

Sparring is a whole different level of training.  Much of our time and energy in Hapkido goes into form and memorization; step back block, front kick, double punch.  Again…and again.

This is how we learn.  Wax on, wax off.  As we do, the moves feel more and more natural.  We don’t have to be told to straighten our fingers when we elbow someone in the ribs.  It just happens.  And our fingers close quickly into a fist when we block a kick.  Because when we don’t, and our fingers get kicked, it hurts really, really bad.

But practice of this kind can only take us so far.  And I’ve noticed, when the sparring gear is on, my mind tends to go blank.  What move are we practicing?  Are we doing kicks or punches?  This way of thinking doesn’t apply to sparring.  It causes us to overthink and freeze up.  Sparring isn’t the time to refine technique.  It is the time to fight.

And as we do, we find ourselves discovering a whole different level of meaning.  Master Mark reminds me over and over to get my front hand up.  But I like it a bit more low and tucked, boxer like.  He pulls my fist out and up.  This is proper form.  And I keep it up there for a bit.  But a couple moves later, my hand is back where I like it.  This feels more natural to me.

Except that my lowered fist is like a huge invitation to hit me in the face.  I want to put my effort into strikes, into kicks, into moves.  But this is getting ahead of myself.  We must first build a strong, impenetrable foundation, and then go from there.  We can then add to it.  Because if we are too focused on our punch, we miss our block.  And the punch becomes irrelevant.  That missed block can leave our head ringing.

Lila loves to spar.  She comes at you like a spider monkey.  She is fearless.  She is all attack. As we walked to the car afterwards, a lady asked us how class was.  Lila said, “It was great!  I kicked everyone’s butts.”  The lady smiled.  “That’s as it should be.”  It was a sweet ‘girl power’ moment for the two of them.

I, personally, have more trepidation when sparring.  I prefer the safety of the classroom.  I like the theory.  I like the controlled environment of technique and form.  But that, ultimately, isn’t the point.  All that training is simply the structure for the real thing.

And the real thing is the dance.  We learn so we can truly live.  We practice so that we can come alive.  The work and discipline matter.  But we must get in the ring.  We must engage.  This is where it all comes together.  The arena is where it counts.