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Develop Your Instincts to Improve Your Sparring!

Develop Your Instincts to Improve Your Sparring!

We all want to improve our sparring, or more directly, improve our ability to apply the skills and knowledge we acquire in training. It is a commonly accepted truth among martial arts disciplines that knowledge without application leaves us only half trained. It is great to be a walking library of martial arts knowledge, but without being able to apply the things we learn, our arts become unusable.

So, let's say that you have learned your techniques, developed your fitness and coordination, but you are still having trouble bridging the gap between theory and application. For some, this is one of the biggest hurdles in their martial arts journey. For others, it is quite natural and seems almost effortless to them. The answer to your troubles may be a shift in your thought process, or rather learning to shut your thoughts off. Bruce Lee's line in Enter the Dragon, "Don't think, feel!" is so common it has become cliche to the point martial arts students tend to only give it a moment's thought and dismiss it. I believe it is worth taking a closer look at what this can mean to us philosophically. There are many layers to this philosophy.

I find myself constantly telling newer students to stop overthinking their techniques in training and just focus on the exact movements they are taught and how it feels. You see, when we were children, most of what we learn is done via our sensory intelligence rather than analytical thought. This is why children always have this urge to constantly be playing. It is a natural instinct built into children in order for them to learn not only about their environment, but also about their own bodies and what they are capable of. It is not until later that children begin to understand abstract ideas without having to see and feel the concept. As we become adults, we tend to over-rely on our ability to understand abstract ideas and begin to ignore our other senses. Normally even as adults our sensory intelligence is often more advanced than our own conscious thoughts!

A huge part of bridging the gap between theory and application is to practice mindfulness on not only how a technique works, but more importantly, how it feels. What I mean is how does your body feel when it does the move correctly? Pay attention to the muscle groups you activated and begin to memorize the feeling, not the action itself. This lends to a much faster internalization of the movements than with conscious thought alone. This can radically accelerate your ability to learn new moves and also your ability to apply them. Sparring matches can be chaotic and really fast. Analyzing your movements will only slow you down when sparring. To improve your sparring, you have to first "get out of your own way" as the saying goes. The good news is that once your body memorizes how it feels when you do a move correctly, it naturally does it under stress independent of what is happening.

Feeling goes much deeper than the physical as well. Your instincts have to be developed along with your mind. What are instincts actually? They are the action patterns we take without any conscious thought. Sometimes it is even when you get a weird feeling about a place or person that doesn't seem quite right. We are born with certain instincts, but we can also train new ones. The subconscious mind is an amazing thing. Unlike our conscious minds, the subconscious has access to every memory of every event that you have ever experienced. The subconscious often comes up with solutions to problems even when you are not thinking about them! Every time a sparring partner has thwarted your defenses, knocked you off-balance, or even when you make a successful move, your subconscious is recording it. It often uses this information to formulate and improve your performance even on a primal sensory level.

The subconscious can even come up with new ways of moving that you may have not even known you were capable of! Years ago I was in a sparring match and my partner was able to get slightly behind me at an angle. I was apparently in "the zone" as athletes call it, and it was like I stepped out of my own body and was watching a movie. I had no thought or feeling except surprise as I watched my leg whip out with a hook heel kick over the blind-side of my partner and lightly brushed me heel across his face! I didn't even know my body could do that at the time let alone would I have thought to throw that particular technique at that time. It was a major breakthrough to my own personal sparring game that I use all the time now. It was so weird that my mind had shut down and my instincts 100% took over and taught me something new. It was a major lesson not only on the technical side but philosophically as well. Since that experience I have been focusing way more on letting my instincts take over and allow my mind to detach from what is going on when sparring. It was definitely a game changing moment for me!

Remember the next time you are sparring, force yourself to stop over-analyzing what is going on. It just wasted energy and radically slows down your performance. If you find yourself unable to detach, don't beat yourself up. Your inner dialogue may be making a lot of noise, but you can choose to let the thoughts pass instead of focusing on them. Practice letting the thoughts go through you instead of focusing on them and getting distracted. Don't beat yourself up for thinking too much, which can trap you into more excessive and cluttered thoughts. Learn to be kind to yourself, be less critical of how you perform, and practice letting your instincts take over during sparring. It won't happen for you all at once, but it can happen eventually if you keep practicing and don't get discouraged on your journey!

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