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Why Don’t We Spar?

I have been asked this question a number of times over the years. To this day I remain a bit mystified by how difficult it is for most people to grasp the fundamental and critical difference between sport and athletic performance oriented martial arts and martial arts that focus exclusively on realistic self-defense. As I mentioned, the differences are fundamental, and, critical.

For starters, a sport martial art is about athletic prowess. This is determined either through contests involving regulated combat or solo demonstrations. In both cases there are rules and judges. In the case of sporting combat spectators expect to be entertained (the issue of brutal combat as a form of entertainment has always been and remains debatable). In any case, those who subscribe to such forms of entertainment expect a contest of some duration. In the rare cases where fights are over in seconds folks are generally disappointed. Thus there are rules, weight classes, referees to manage the contest, and so forth.

Now, recently I saw on the news images of a man being murdered as a victim of the recent violence in the Middle East. He was standing in a crowd, in broad daylight, when another man casually walked up to him, grabbed the back of the victim’s head with his left and pumped a knife into the right side of the man’s neck three or four times. It was over in about one and a half seconds. There was no squaring off. There was no time to get psyched up for the event. There was no cat and mouse shucking and jiving. There was no first or second place – both men were killed. There was no ego celebration for either man, only tragedy and lives wasted.

Fundamentally there is a state of mind that assumes a significant “safety net,” if you will, when the violence is part of a contest. Don’t get me wrong. To step into a ring with another highly trained athlete, knowing you might be seriously injured by your opponent, certainly takes a certain brand of courage. That is not debatable. The point is that contest combat lends itself to, in fact requires, a certain give and take type of movement. This movement is informed by the contest frame of mind. Self-defense state of mind, which may well be total absence of effective conscious awareness, is a totally different prospect. Though there are certainly exceptions, in most cases self-defense situations are quick, chaotic, and psychologically shocking. This is one of the reasons I often emphasize effective flinch responses in training.

Further, self-defense often involves a predatory mentality. A predator is not looking for a good fight. Either because they are bigger and stronger, and/or they are drawing a sense of superior strength by wielding a weapon, self-defense scenarios rarely present well matched adversaries. Therefore, if your strategy for winning is based on being bigger, stronger, and faster, you are likely in trouble.

In addition, much of what we train to do is against any rules associated with contest combat. I recall hearing An-shu Hayes respond to this very question in the 80’s. I remember it clearly. He said, “We cannot spar because bodies would very quickly get torn and broken.” Immediate structural damage is clearly a sound objective when faced with life and health threatening unfettered attack. There are certainly other points to be made on this subject. For example, consider what happens to a fist that is not protected by a glove when striking a mouth full of teeth, or a bowling ball-like skull. Some of my doctor students have shared horror stories of uncontrollable bone infections, as a result of punches to the mouth, which ended with fingers being amputated.

There are those who just enjoy padding up and pitting themselves against another in relatively safe circumstance. Nothing wrong with that. Eventually there comes a time when that is no longer suitable or wise. My advice is to get it out of your system while you’re young. If you’re more inclined to bypass that experience, welcome to To-Shin Do – you’re in the right place.

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