Common Misconception

karate-312474_640He is a 5th degree black belt.  I am at the time of this writing newly promoted to 6th kyu – five tests down and five more tests to go before I’ll be eligible to test for 1st degree black belt (assuming I’m invited to do so).  He’s studied for decades.  I was a day shy of my 18 month anniversary of training.  We faced each other, bowed (as junior I waited for him to come up first), and at his command we leaped into fighting stance.  We sparred.

Did I go to the hospital barely clinging to life?  Nope.  Did I suffer some permanent injury?  Nope.  Slight injury?  Nope.  In fact, sparring with him was a lot of fun.   Yeah I had to work my butt off, yeah I was tested and pushed hard.  But it was fun.

Wait – wasn’t this dangerous?  It was way less dangerous than getting in to my car and driving home after class.

Control is one of many things that are crucial to good sparring.  In other words, how adept is the person at staying away from off-limit target areas (e.g. eyes, crotch) and can that person lightly tap the opponent in valid target areas while still executing good technique?  I have a bit more control than someone who’s been studying only a couple of weeks.  A fifth degree black belt has way more control than me.  That’s not to say that black belts don’t injure each other or their students accidentally.  It’s just they reduce the odds by exercising control.

Accidents do happen.  In fact, one significant milestone for me was getting accidentally knocked to the mats by, yes, someone who significantly outranked me.  That person wasn’t trying to beat me up and felt awful about the whole thing.  I learned I have what it takes to get up and into fighting stance again, and that was huge for me.  All’s well that ends well, but yes – we do play with fire.

I was actually in more danger from someone brand new to the art.  He is young, tall, and struggles mightily to get his arms and legs to do what they’re supposed to do.  He’s been training for about nine weeks now.  Us colored belts had been warned about newbies in general.  As senior student, this guy was my responsibility.  I didn’t know what to expect the first time I sparred with him.  Within moments, I knew his Sensei wasn’t kidding about the danger.  Fists and feet flailing everywhere, hard blocks…  Ow.  I’m sure given some time and some patient tutoring, he’ll learn how to control the force he generates.

BruiseWhich man put a bruise or two on me – the fifth degree black belt or the new white belt?  You should know the answer by now.

We’re not street fighting.  If  we really want to whale on something, we get out the big foam shields and the punching bags.  Us karateka might perpetuate the misconception about sparring by joking around about beating each other up or even referring to sparring as “fighting,” or “a fight.”  We need to be sure that new white belts don’t take this too seriously.

A couple of weeks prior to sparring with the fifth degree black belt, I sought out a brand-new white belt who didn’t have a partner.  She was terrified of me.  Seeing this, I simply gave her a moving target and let her figure out her range.  I know how she feels.  I used to be terrified of the upper ranks, especially black belts.  Seven of them have over time knocked that nonsense out of me.  Maybe.  I have a feeling that at some point I’ll be pushed hard again and I’ll have to overcome fear and find the fun again.

Finding the fun in sparring hasn’t been an easy journey for me, and I’ve written about it loads of times.  I still have to remind myself sometimes to find what I call, “The Fierce Joy.”  And again, I’m thinking at some point in the future I’ll be pushed so hard that I’ll revert right back to where I was.   Maybe I’ll even want to quit.  But I won’t because, after all, we’re not trying to kill each other.

03_Image2And let me tell you, playing with someone who is really, really, really skilled is flippin’ awesome.

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

12 thoughts on “Common Misconception”

  1. Love this. Obviously you know how and why I relate. I too feel safer sparring with people well above my rank because of the control thing. However there always seems to be JUST enough fear to keep you on your toes and make it real. It reminds me of that poem which Britten set in “Rejoice in the Lamb”

    “For the Mouse is a creature
    Of great personal valour.
    For this is a true case–
    Cat takes female mouse,
    Male mouse will not depart,
    but stands threat’ning and daring.
    If you will let her go,
    I will engage you,
    As prodigious a creature as you are.

    For the Mouse is a creature
    Of great personal valour.
    For the Mouse is of
    An hospitable disposition.”

    The higher rank is like the cat playing with the lower rank (mouse) it’s prey. The mouse in the poem doesn’t give a rats that the cat is a prodigious creature. However in the case of a 6th kyu vs 5th dan (or in my case 5th kyu vs 8th dan even) you know that your fate is not to be winner or to be “dinner” but to learn!

    1. Oh and learn I do… I learn exactly where my weaknesses are. And my strengths if I do manage to land a tag on Sensei 🙂 Thanks for the poem – I love it! And I do fleetingly think of you whenever I’m called on to spar with someone who significantly outranks me 🙂

      1. So glad you are finding the fierce joy more and more. I thought of you in class today (last for the year) when Sensei was talking to Sempai and me (only ones there on a 44 degree day!!) about what happened in our last (kumite) class as in my post. Your sentiments were echoed in Sensei’s words. He encouraged us to keep going and to learn that control. It takes time but there are stages you need to go through to tame things inside and out.

    1. Ossu, Ando! I have to judge the level of scariness, though 🙂 I remember one gal at College Dojo who last year needed to not be scared by a larger woman coming at her with a loud kiai. Last June, Sensei called on me to spar with her for her 9th kyu belt test. I deliberately came at her with as scary a demeanor as possible but… I’d throw only one technique, not combinations. When she figured me out and got enough confidence to block and counter, Sensei stopped the match. Yes, she passed. She’s also gained a good bit of confidence this year and I have to work harder now while sparring her. Last week she passed her 8th kyu test 🙂

  2. Thanks Rach – I’m flattered you think of me too. Stages – I like that concept. it’s like being an infant and learning to walk, isn’t it? If someone just took a tiny newborn baby and stood her on her feet, the little one wouldn’t be able to do it until she’s gone through all the stages of raising her head, rolling over, controlling her head, sitting up, etc.

  3. Hi Joelle, your title is very apt, because this is definitely a common misconception – that martial arts are really dangerous, or that we spend all lesson “beating each other up”! Yet when people have injuries which stop them training, they far more often get them in other ways – NOT from martial arts training. Football seems to be the biggest culprit, although I do have one aiki friend who is still struggling a bit after hurting her ankle – dancing at her staff Christmas party n early Dec 😉

    1. Hello, Kai! Oh gosh, yes – I get more bruises from my own clumsiness than from Karate. I bruise easily, so that doesn’t help either 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and reading! Love your site – please feel free to promote it shamelessly here. In fact, here – I’ll do it for the first time here:

  4. Dear Joelle, you are such a lovely person! Thank you so much for all your support with getting started over the last few weeks . . . 🙂 x

  5. Hi again Joelle, sorry for double-replying! Thinking about what you said, I would love to have a go at promoting the graphic:

    How to market your dojo to women:

    Because I think it’s such a good time of year to be thinking about new students, as people are making new year resolutions and taking up new exercise activities . . .

    Is that ok? Well I hope so because I’ve just done it now – on YOUR blog!! 😉

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