The Musashi of Sparring

Outside of being a noted swordsman, what always intrigued me about Miyamoto Musashi, was his understanding and use of the mental game. He had an uncanny way of recognising his opponents mental weaknesses and using it against them. I have had a lot of success applying Musashi’s strategies to sparring. In many instances, I was already doing them, but to see that they were already tried and tested by someone like Musashi — is a testament to the perennial nature of the strategy of battle (be that in a ring, or a battlefield). While at times he talks about, what on the face of it seems simply about ‘physical’ strategy — it is important to recognise that all physical strategy has an effect on the mental state of an opponent. In other words, mind and body are inextricably linked, disturb one, and you disturb the other.

Do Only Enough to Accomplish The Goal

Musashi, in his now famous book, The Book of Five Rings, notes “Do nothing that is of no use.” I have interpreted this, that when sparring, one only does enough to accomplish the goal. I see many times, where someone is sparring, but they are using either way to much energy to accomplish their goals, or applying techniques simply to be seen as fighting back (i.e., doing something), rather than being strategic.

One thing I often say to students is, “Do only enough to accomplish what you intended to achieve”. The most obvious overuse of movement in sparring, is movement itself. For example, it’s not uncommon for a person to try to set up or get out of the way of an attack with footwork patterns that sap their physical energy. If you only have to move at 10% to get out the way of an incoming punch, why use 20%? It takes a lot of training to be able to get to that point that you understand distance, timing, and crucially conservation of energy in sparring — but it is worth the time invested to find out what they are, and how to achieve success in them.


More is Not Necessarily Better

Musashi also suggests that, “From one thing, know ten thousand things”. I interpret this as more is not necessarily better. Rather, keep what you deploy simple, but know how to take that one thing, and turn it into “ten thousand things”.

For example, the jab is arguably the backbone of any effective striking game. But a jab doesn’t have to be executed perfectly straight towards an opponent. You can change the angle of your jab, by changing how you place your body in front of the opponent (i.e., you might angle your body off to the side more, by sidestepping etc). A jab can also come from the bottom line up (i.e., punching from a lower guard upwards), or from a top line down (i.e., punching from a high guard down). The point is, you can take a jab that everyone knows and make several variations of it. In essence it is still a jab, but how you now deploy it, is very different to most other people (which also means you will catch them by surprise).


Fight The Way You Practice

Probably one of the most important pieces of advice, and widely cited when it comes to martial arts, is when Musashi suggests, “You can only fight the way you practice”.

If you want to get good at sparring, then spar. While hitting pads etc, is great — nothing will get you closer to the event of sparring, than sparring itself. While you are sparring, you can choose to hone specific parts of your game on purpose. I am always monitoring my game to see what is working well, and what needs more work. Lately, I have been really focusing on playing more of a distance counter game.


I noticed that against an aggressive opponent who likes to push forward — this is a great strategy to use — but when I did use it, I got tired really easily. I now purposely practice this way of sparring, to not only get better at it, but also so I can build my cardio up for it.


Do Not Regret What You Have Done

“Do not regret what you have done” Musashi advices. This is one of those important mental game tips. Everyone messes up in sparring, but to give yourself a hard time in the midst of sparring, will only create more problems for you.

If there is one single lesson that stands out for me in the 10,000 hours or more of sparring I have done — is that you can’t take a mistake back. The minute you are not present, right here right now in sparring, you are going to get yourself into serious trouble. Bottom line, you can be thinking about the mistake you just made if you like, but your opponent isn’t going to stop and wait for you to have that thought before he continues to punch you in the face.

A mistake is a mistake, let it go!


Too Much is The Same as Not Enough

“You should not have any special fondness for a particular weapon, or anything else, for that matter. Too much is the same as not enough. Without imitating anyone else, you should have as much weaponry as suits you.” This is an important point. I am constantly heard shouting in my gym, “Change it up, change up the rhythm, be careful not to do the same thing over and over,” or “don’t keep moving in the same direction”.

In sparring you want to be adaptable, and importantly, unpredictable. You never try to force something to work. You allow the unfolding of the chaos in front of you, to dictate what you should do next. Even then, if you find something that works, never repeat it more than twice. If you do it a third time, your opponent would have likely figured it out what you up too, and will lay in wait for you to do it again.

I am also big on finding what works for each individual. While you can learn from others, imitating their style is often a recipe for disaster. For example, I love how my main sparring partner Costa, has the ability to throw great combinations, and with fantastic angling. I just can’t do that. I know which ‘weaponry’ I have that works for me. I tend to fire a lot less punches than he does, but I rely on my timing, precision, and speed rather than using lots of punches, to try and create the same kind of openings like he does.

In the end, both approaches, mine or Costa’s are totally viable strategies, but his way, as much as I like it, and would love to imitate it, won’t work for me (I know I have tried and failed).


There is Nothing Outside Yourself

The following advice is crucial to sparring success. Musashi writes, “There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”

What he is saying is this, the only real power you have is how you choose to react, and respond to things (both inside and outside of yourself). In sparring, even if your opponent is far better physically than you, how you react to his actions inside, determines really how well he will do. I catch myself at times, when I am faced with someone who is getting the better of me, and then try to almost show him that I am better than he is. The result, I simply try way to hard, and when you do that, you typically mess up.

I have learned over time to catch myself doing this, and I simply go back to my core game, relax, and work to not react mentally to what my opponent is doing by keeping my focus on the opponent (not what’s happening inside me). As hard as it is, I simply accept where I am, and flow with what is happening. More often than not, this detached stance on what is happening on the inside, allows me to settle back into my groove, and I am then able to turn the tide.

As I said to a student the other day, “What I love most about sparring is that it is always a personal challenge. If it is not physical, it’s mental. The goal really is not to compete with other people, but to come back better than YOU were yesterday.”

As Musashi himself notes, “Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.”


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