He 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.
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.