You have finished warming up and have put all of your protective gear on. You’ve spent the last 5 minutes mentally preparing yourself for what’s about to happen. ‘It’s all good’, you tell yourself. ‘I am the star here. Everyone is here to make me look good and I’m going to kick butt’. You feel sharp. You feel ready. You feel excited.
The bell goes, and within seconds your partner hits with you with a hard, clean shot.
Things go downhill fast from there. Your adrenaline takes over. Your combinations don’t seem to have an effect, you can’t seem to land any clean shots and you start getting frustrated.
The next round, though with a different partner, feels much the same.
Has this ever happened to you? If the answer is 'yes', then read on.
If you have recently started sparring, then things often feel like that. Even if you’ve been training for a long time, chances are you’ve had days like that.
So what do you do?
In the previous article I discussed some of the mental preparation that we can go through in order to better prepare ourselves for sparring. You can read it by clicking here. This is especially useful if you have only just started sparring and are finding it intimidating.
In this article I’d like to suggest a few tips that can help you cope during and after sparring so that you stay motivated and learn from the experience.
Here are 3 tips to help you deal with the mental side of sparring:
- Accept what is– As Dr Gavriel Schneider says in his great book ‘Can I See Your Hands!’ the first step in dealing with extreme situations – and sparring can certainly feel like an extreme situation – is accepting that sometimes bad things happen to good people.
We all have days where we are just off. It can be incredibly frustrating to get hit or tapped repeatedly without having much success with your own attacks. As I mentioned previously and often, one of the hardest things to get used to is to be able to accept the hit. In other words, being able to take the shot calmly, rather than panic or get angry or frustrated.
Sometimes, when I have days like that, I shift my focus purely to the ‘move them back’ concept, or what Master de Matos refers to as the ‘Roman Soldier’ Principle. This is also similar to the approach that Kyokushin Karate takes. Often, it’s not getting hit but the fear of getting hit that holds us back. If you are always worried about getting hit, you will never attack successfully – and that’s a powerful life lesson to contemplate. Get hit enough, and that fear goes away. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking multiple hard shots to the head in every session. However it does mean being able to deal with attacks comfortably. So if you are having an off day like that, try shifting the focus to how to take the shot and be ok with it. Work on tightening your defence and riding the punches. If they land a good one just smile and say 'well done', or 'that all you got?'.
Lastly, focus on identifying the way they move and attack, while receiving. You will learn to be calm in the eye of the storm, and find opportunities even when under stress. This is a valuable life skill, and will yield positive results over time. This also needs to be combined with the ability to speak your mind and work on the same level as your partner, as I discuss here.
- Aggregates are what counts – This is where our long-term goals come into play. Often we think of our wins and losses for a particular session. If we won more than we lost that day, we go home happy and vice versa. That’s fine, but we need to also look at the long term aggregate. We need to look at percentages not just in one round, but also across a week, a month or a year. How you did in one training session is exactly that – one training session. What about the last 10 training sessions? What about the last 100 training sessions? Are you landing more shots overall? Are you getting hit less over time? Are you more comfortable with receiving hits when you do get hit? Do you spar with tougher opponents? When you spar against beginners, are you surprised at how well you’re doing? If you answered yes to these questions, then you are improving over time. Boxing is a great analogy for this. We look at output and percentage across 12 rounds, not just one or two. If you keep coming to class and training hard, then your 'consistency output' is good and your percentage will increase – not just in one or two days, but over the ‘12 rounds’, whatever that means in your own timeline.
- Reflection – I have written often on the benefits of critical reflection. I strongly believe that it is the key to growth. I like to use a powerful tool called D.I.E.P. I have taught it in university over ten years and it has had a powerful impact on the results of students all over the world. and you can learn how to use it by clicking here. But how does reflection help us overcome our fear of sparring?
If you are overly self critical, like I am and many of us martial artists are, then chances are you are spending your time reflecting on what didn’t work so you can improve. That’s all well and good, but it has to be balanced with identifying what you did well. If you always focus on the negative, you will defeat yourself mentally. The inner voice will continually say that you are not improving, or you sucked, or that there’s no point. By writing down the victories and positives, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem at the time, you will start having a balanced approach to the way you view sparring. In other words, if after every session you talk negatively to yourself than you will approach sparring with a negative mindset. If after every session you give yourself credit and acknowledge the credit others give you, then you will learn to enjoy the experience as a positive one. This is the flip side of the ‘nerves vs excitement’ point discussed in the previous post.
Put these 3 concepts into practice on a regular basis, together with the 3 discussed in the previous article. You will find that mentally you feel much stronger going into sparring sessions, and also feel better during and after. This will give you the tools to get your head in the right space, and keep it there. This will allow you to focus on improving the technical skills you need for sparring, as you will not be fighting your own mind throughout. Lastly, when you start relaxing and apporach sparring with a positive mindset, you will find that you perform better as you are more relaxed and focused.
Does this mean you’ll never have a bad day in sparring? Certainly not!
But you will be able to deal with them more easily, find the opportunities, learn from the both the good and the bad and continue to work towards your long term goals with a positive and determined mindset.
Stay safe, stay tuned.