Lessons from The Sparring Ring

Give me sparring any day. I would rather do it than hit pads, or the heavy bag or even learn new techniques. For many people though sparring is really just about winning, about beating an opponent, for me, sparring is so much more.

When I am sparring I am continuously inventing new combinations, new movements with my body, often even surprising myself as I do them. When I am sparring I feel creative. It excites me because I see it as a continuous process of discovery. Discovery and creating, that’s the most precise way I know how to define the experience of sparring.


Secondly sparring is about breaking rules and discovering patterns. It’s an invitation to embrace change. Yesterday’s rules in sparring are not the rules of today. Each time you spar you are working against a living, unpredictable, uncooperative opponent. And as all opponents do, they use their past experiences to reinterpret the rules from yesterday, and then create exceptions to those rules today. Sparring in this way has taught me how to challenge the status quo – and as if in a final act of defiance I create new patterns, defying the rules, seeking freedom in expressive movement.

I have found on many occasions when sparring other people that the experience of sparring against them can change drastically over just a couple of days (even over a few rounds). Rather than this experience frustrating me, I have always been fascinated by it. How is it that on Monday I did so well, only to feel like I failed two days later on Wednesday against the same sparring partner? No one gets that much better ‘physically’ in just a couple of days right?

So what is really happening?

What I have realised is that over those few days, my sparring partners have thought really hard about our sparring session earlier in the week. They recognised the ‘patterns’ of that sparring match that either made them fail or saw the glimmer of hope, some new ‘patterns’ emerging, things they did differently, that could spell out possible victory in the future. On their return, they step into the ring, with a new interpretation of these ‘patterns’ of sparring. Now re-defined by these new patterns they begin to self-organise themselves, and are ready to play a whole new game. Sparring in other words teaches you to take action.

The patterns in sparring continuously change and it is immediately evident that sparring is a mess. Yet rising out of this mess, this chaos, we are still able to find the patterns necessary to discover a solution. Just like life, sparring simply does not share our incessant human desire to have everything orderly, set-by-step and linear. Just like life, sparring is based on trial and error. It forces you to accept impermanence.

There is a fuzziness about sparring that is both frustrating, yet mystical at the same time. You realize that in sparring, there is a relationship not only on a physical level with your partner where you try to match technique against technique, but also on a mental and emotional level as well. How sparring unfolds is as much up to your partner as it is up to you.You begin to realize that there is a dense web of interconnectedness between yourself and your sparring partner. At times it can be poetic, at other times frightening and exhilarating.  It can be all three of these at the same time. Sparring shows you how to not only be fully alive, but to stay alive too.

The beauty of sparring is in how it moves towards what works and not necessarily what is right. I may have drilled a certain sequence of counters to a specific attack. Only to find myself in the actual sparring match confronted by the mess of it all. However I have found that if I let my body take over, getting out of my own way, setting aside my thoughts and emotions, what emerges is simply what works. What was right in training means nothing in the chaos of the fight. What works in the fight means everything. And often what works is simply enough. Sparring teaches you that you can never wait for everything to be absolutely perfect, if you do, you will never even get started.

The culmination of this discovery, off creating and embracing the mess that occurs and allowing things to self organize into what works, creates more possibilities not less.When you approach your sparring, just as many people try to do in their life, by trying to avoid the chaos and the mess, one finds that you encounter more of what you try to avoid. Possibilities and opportunities simply no longer emerge. The true opportunities in sparring, as in life, are to be found in the mess.

After spending so many years sparring, and working through the different strategies for opponents, do I have an ideal formula for sparring?

What I have found is that there is no ideal formula. Rather there are combinations of myself, my opponent, my experiences and his. Knowing how to manage which self shows up on that day, has become my secret to success. Sparring then teaches you to be more accepting of yourself.

What we are doing in sparring is exploring together the space of possibilities as living systems. We spiral in and out of each other, sometimes spiraling on a purely physical level, and at other times psychological and emotional. At times we are both afraid, apprehensive or frustrated. At other times neither one of use feels the fear, the frustration or apprehension. At times I am on top of the world, flowing, not concerned about the outcome. Performance unfolds effortlessly. At other times I am consumed by my own anger and rage. Sparring in the end is just like life, but it all happens in a 3-minute round. Sparring allows you to fully explore every human emotion. Within that experience lies its power, because as we spar, we can at any given moment choose our own attitude and how we act upon it. Sparring allows us to choose how we will respond to fear, anxiety, anger, rage. From this choice, we can grow, not only on the mat, but in life.


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  1. Rodney, Great essay on an unusual albeit natural approach to sparring. Reminds me of your essay of hanging with the chaos that invariably is part of parting. You are characteristically honest paving the way for other people to be honest with themselves and others re the sparring game. It isn’t easy to find people to “play” without their egos getting all caught up what could be a sacred event….”sparring with God/surfing with God”.

    Also, you discuss the fact that the “martial arts of everyday life”–how we carry ourselves off the mat is always more significant and presents extraordianry opportunities for growth.

    You make reading fun.

  2. This is an amazing article and so very very true. Rodney you are and expert my friend and I couldn’t tell you how much you have improved and empowered my game my self and my business.
    Einstein of Martisl Arts thank you 😉