The Clausewitz of Sparring

Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general and military theorist, who’s book On War has become a seminal work in military strategy. In the following article I share some personal reflections on how his work has influenced my understanding of peak performance in sparring.

“But everything takes a different shape when we pass from abstractions to reality. In the former, everything must be subject to optimism, and we must imagine the one side as well as the other striving after perfection and even attaining it. Will this ever take place in reality?”

― Carl von Clausewitz, On War: All Volumes

Clausewitz in the above quote sums up the reality of the fight. The reality of the fight as they say, is further from what we believe the truth to be, or said another way — all good plans go out the window once someone punches you in the face.

Lets take sparring against an uncooperative, resisting opponent for instance. There is no way of getting around being good at sparring, without actually doing sparring itself. Sparring  is visceral, and it sets you straight quickly. Faced with a good opponent (no matter if it is simply on the mat, in the ring, or on the street), no amount of ‘optimism’ will change your fate if you were to lazy to train or simply out matched.


It’s About Showing Up!

This doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can do about it, but it is how you train for sparring that will make all the difference. Every time you get on the mat and spar, especially on the days you don’t feel like it. When you are faced with an opponent who is giving you more trouble than you would like or hope for, but you persevere. When you get on the mat and spar someone even though your Ego is telling you to make some excuses not too, but you do anyway. Every time you overcome these mental obstacles,  you close the gulf between yourself, and your sparring partners who have better games than yourself. It’s important to remember, even your sparring partners, at some point went through the same thing, and  got over their own inner bullshit.


More isn’t More

Secondly, learning more, and more techniques, doesn’t mean more success in your sparring game. People spend so much time ‘collecting’ martial technique, and fail to realise that it’s not how much you know, but rather what you can apply (under pressure) that matters most. You therefor want to approach your sparring game as a sculptor. Rather than adding more and more to it, you want to remove what is not needed, until what appears is a work of art. In a world filled with clutter, and collection of things that don’t really matter, you want your sparring game to be profoundly simple — because true artists move only to move, respond only to respond, and act only to act.


Strategy Isn’t Fixed

Clausewitz argues that,“…in war, the advantages and disadvantages of a single action could only be determined by the final balance.” This is the same in sparring. Be unaware of why your opponent caught you with a strike, fail to immediately fix the problem, and that very same mistake will reappear down the road. This time however that mistake may be your last.

Part of being really good at sparring is being able to recognise your opponents tactics, and be willing to change your own game plane if it’s not working. Far to often, especially in combat sports, you see a person decide on a game plan, and then refuse to change it, even though it’s not working. He only realises when it is to late, and the final balance has been decided and he looses. Had he changed his strategy earlier, he would have potentially saved himself from defeat.

As Clausewtiz suggests “Strategy can therefore never take its hand from the work for a moment.” Strategy in a fight, should be fluid, adjusting, and adapting to changing circumstances. These changes have to happen in the moment they are needed.


Aggression Doesn’t Win Fights

Allowing, or using ones frustration, or anger to outwit an opponent is often doomed to fail as a strategy, and is never a solution to compensate for bad strategy. “Strength of character does not consist solely in having powerful feelings, but in maintaining one’s balance in spite of them. Even with the violence of emotion, judgment and principle must still function like a ship’s compass, which records the slightest variations however rough the sea.”

And here Clausewitz articulates probably the greatest lesson I ever learned in sparring. Being mindful in sparring is the ability to recognise the potential for aggression before it arises, and then not  allow oneself to be captivated by it. If anything is important in sparring, it is to keep an even keel, even in the face of being outmatched. When you are not consumed by your own emotions, you are able to keep clear headed in the fight.

It is by having clear headedness, that one is able to use “judgement and principle” that invariably results in victory. As Bruce Lee noted, “Emotion can be the enemy, if you give into your emotion, you lose yourself. You must be at one with your emotion, because the body always follows the mind.”


Fighting As It Is

In the end, as Clausewitz suggests, “If we have made appropriate preparations, taking into account all possible misfortunes, so that we shall not be lost immediately if they occur, we must boldly advance into the shadows of uncertainty.”

The truth is, my best moments in my sparring game have happened when I have given myself fully over to the experience – suspending all expectations, and simply trusting my training. My realisation has been that these best moments of sparring only happen when I have had enough confidence in my own creative process to be willing to wait for my best game to appear, instead of demanding that it happen!


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