The karate I learn comes in three parts: self-defense techniques, kata (display forms), and sparring. I’ve been back in sparring class since January, and doing sparring lessons with my instructor before then to get me back up to speed after six months away.
It’s an odd thing to walk into a room full of smiling people about to fight each other, about to fight me. Even when I go to the "control" class where light contact is the rule. It requires a level of trust to go out on the floor and fight someone. Trust that they won’t just wallop me. Trust that they don’t intend for me to get hurt. Trust that they’re going to try and teach me something. Trust that I can step away or block a wild strike. Trust that my sparring gear (padded helmet, gloves, shin guards, and boots, plus a mouth guard) will protect me if I don’t get away in time.
I have trouble maintaining eye contact with someone trying to hit me because my reflex is to flinch away and hunch up. I forget to breathe while fighting, which is really bad for a two minute intense workout. I’m getting better at both of those, but standing still when you see a kick headed straight at you, with the intention of absorbing that kick and THEN throwing my counter-attack, feels backwards and vulnerable and flat-out stupid. But as a sparring tactic, it works. In a street fight, I’d want to come in first, hit hard, and get out without taking any hits, but sparring takes place in a universe with very restricted rules, one of which is "Do not try to kill or injure your partner."
In this column, Susan Schorn (a black belt karate instructor in Texas) described sparring as being like a marriage:
The way I see it, a good marriage is a lot like a good sparring match. It’s a formal partnership, an agreement between two people who promise to challenge, protect, and nurture each other. That may seem like an odd analogy but sparring-as distinct from fighting-is very much a teaching and learning process. In marriage as in sparring, you have to agree on certain boundaries, because you are entering into a relationship that leaves you very vulnerable. You have to trust your partner. It’s risky, but the assumption we make when sparring or marrying is that the risk is acceptable when compared to the potential rewards of trusting our partner.
Very early on, possibly even the first lesson with my instructor, she told me that she would not hurt me. She also said that it was possible, even likely, I would hurt her, but she wouldn’t retaliate. I’ve been tossed on the padded floor by her and feel utterly safe, even when we’re sparring, even when she’s teaching me how to break out of a stranglehold with both hands (gently but firmly) around my neck. I feel less safe with some of my partners in sparring class, though I know the black belts are safe, and the brown belts (one to three levels down from black) are mostly safe. Two of the black belts who regularly go to my sparring class, one instructor and one not, are fabulous to spar with, because both of them let me practice new stuff, and show me when I can use it safely, deliberately leaving targets for me to strike until I figure it out.
Sparring is the hardest part of karate for me. I like the security of knowing how to deal with attackers that I get from the self-defense techniques. I like the opportunity kata gives to hit hard without worrying about hurting my imaginary opponent as I work through the steps of the display form. But sparring is a long way from my comfort zone. Which is why I’ll keep practicing at sparring class.