Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sparring Your Kohai

I've been posting a bit more sporadically lately, for which I apologize, but my new job is taking a little more time than I'd like - it's always annoying when work and family gets in the way of the important things, like blogging and karate training!

We sparred in class today and I had some thoughts to share.

In my dojo we are often in the position of spending a significant amount of time sparring with lower ranking students, children, and/ or people with injuries that prevent them from sparring effectively.  It's somewhat disappointing - I always find it more fun to spar people who are at least as good as I am, if not better (not that I'm a very good fighter, just that I'm not usually challenged by a green belt or an 11 year old).  There is a tendency to either "tune out" and go through the motions or go into full teaching mode - correcting your partner's mistakes while not really focusing on what you're doing.

There's nothing wrong with "teaching mode" in my opinion, but there are things you can do to benefit from sparring sessions even if you're sparring people who do not really challenge your abilities.

  • Practice your control.  I think your kohai will benefit from getting hit fairly solidly at least some of the time, but in general you want to be very judicious in the amount of force you apply.   
  • Focus on your posture.  Keep your chin tucked, the crown of the head back and high, your pelvis slightly rotated anteriorly, your lats tensed, core tight, and your shoulderblades tucked down and back.  Maintain this posture though the free movement of sparring - you probably won't be able to concentrate on these cues while sparring people who are good enough to send you into "survival mode," if you know what I mean.
  • Be more precise in your footwork.  When evading, focus on moving just enough to avoid getting hit and no further.  When attacking, work very hard to put yourself into the precise distance where your techniques can do the most damage (too close and you won't get full speed; too far and you'll miss or overextend yourself to hit your opponent).  
  • Practice your weaker techniques.  If you're a great kicker, try to use your hands more.  If you tend to block attacks, work to evade them instead.  You're not going to get beaten up, so use skills with which you are less comfortable.
  • Conserve energy.  Focus on eliminating the extra movement, bobbles, and other leakages in your energy structure.  Try to win your matches without draining yourself.
  • Attack with more precision.  If you do point sparring in your dojo (which we do, sort of) while wearing equipment (pads) you might be in the habit of striking in a general area - punching the body, kicking the torso, etc.  Instead, really focus on landing your strikes on very specific points - every shot should hit a pressure point or weak spot.  A punch to the solar plexus or a hook to the liver are NOT the same as a punch to the upper chest or a hook to the ribs.  You don't have to use a lot of power - you're not trying to kill your kohai - but really make sure you are landing your shots in a way that would be effective if you were to load them up.
  • Clear your mind.  Really focus on having an empty mind, not anticipating your opponent's moves but reacting to them.
I wouldn't say you can do all of these things at once - I know I can't.  I can only focus on a handful of cues at once.  But every time you're partnered up with someone with weaker skills you have a chance to improve on and polish your own.  Take advantage of it instead of just whining that you've missed a chance to fight someone really good.

By the way, the same logic can be extended to easier/ deloading workouts in any context.  Say you're a runner who is used to running 10, 6-minute miles in a training session (which is hard for you) or someone who does 10 one handed pushups per hand in every training set.  Suppose that you have a planned de-load - a workout, or a period of time, where you are deliberately backing off on the intensity and workload in your workouts (which you should definitely do periodically).  Suppose you decide to run 5, 7-minute miles or do just 5 pushups per hand.  Instead of just coasting through the workout - which you could do, since they're well within your abilities - really focus on your technique.  Make sure every step lands perfectly and is perfectly symmetrical (right leg and left leg moving the same way).  Make sure every pushup is done with a tight core and your shoulders perfectly level and tightly packed.  Really focus on doing everything right - you're not going to be distracted by the need to push through a lot of pain and/or fatigue.

Every rep of every workout is an opportunity to grow as an athlete and as an artist.  Value doesn't only come from the hardest reps or the ones where you are most fatigued.  Practice and drills are only wasted if you do them in a half-assed way.


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