More Than The Fight: The Real Reason To Spar

Is there a point to sparring other than the practice of martial skill? It depends upon what you focus on. It depends on the intention! Are you simply focusing on becoming the best fighter or rather on becoming the best person you can be through the experience of martial arts? Being an effective fighter and being an excellent martial artist are not the same thing. It is here that we need to make a distinction between a focus on developing effectiveness in martial skill and seeking excellence through the art. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre distinguishes between the effective application of a skill and the embodying of excellence born out of the ʻpracticeʻ of that skill. Someone could be said to be extremely effective in applying their skill in sparring (the fight), but just because someone is ʻeffectiveʼ in the fight does not necessarily mean they have achieved excellence. If your sole intention for entering martial arts training is to learn how to fight, if you then measure all your achievements based on how well you can fight and whom you can beat, then you surely will become effective in the execution and demonstration of your martial skill. This however may be where your martial art training ends, which is a pity as anyone who has ʻpracticedʼ martial arts for some time realizes that the effectiveness of oneʼs martial skill is only one aspect of martial artistry. Seeking excellence then in martial artistry implies becoming ʻgoodʼ at the virtues embodied through martial art training. I believe sparring is one of the best ʻpracticesʼ one can engage in to achieve this. MacIntyre argues for what he calls ʻpracticesʼ which are complex social activities by which virtue is attained and manifested. Anyone who has sparred will know that by its very nature it is a complex social activity. This is why I believe sparring is the ideal ʻpracticeʼ vehicle to attain and manifest character virtues as MacIntyre proposes. MacIntyreʼs approach seeks to demonstrate that good judgment emanates from good character, therefore if one can develop good character through the complex social activity and practice of martial arts it will hopefully lead to good judgement, an essential component in performing at oneʼs best in life. I consider here Platoʼs four virtues of temperance, fortitude, justice and courage as described in The Republic as the important ones. It is also these virtues that are shared to varying degrees by most warrior cultures in history. In addition, I would add a fifth virtue
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that of benevolence. I consider these the top five virtues that a person can develop through becoming excellent at the ʻpracticeʼ of martial arts and more specifically through sparring.

Just Practicing Martial Arts Wonʼt Make You A Good Person
It is important to note that while both effectiveness and excellence may share some common traits such as developing a higher level of confidence, only excellence can bring about the development of character virtues. Only character virtues are able to cross the boundaries from the experience of sparring into life. For example confidence developed in isolation to virtue development, will likely only remain within the context in which it was developed (i.e. confidence in oneʼs effectiveness in fighting). One only has to look to Mike Tyson to see this in action. At his peak in the ring he was very effective, he had immense confidence in his ability to apply the effectiveness of his boxing game. Yet when out of the ring in interviews he always came across as someone who lacked confidence in himself and fortitude in speaking to others. Not to mention his lack of virtue in everyday life. Just because Mike Tyson was at his time a great fighter, did not naturally translate in him becoming a great man. This is central to my argument, that whilst martial art training and sparring are ideal ʻpracticesʼ to develop virtuous character traits, the actual ʻpracticeʼ itself will not guarantee this development, unless virtue development is the goal of such a ʻpracticeʼ.

Aggression The First Stumbling Block
The greatest obstacle in developing virtuous character traits through sparring (or martial arts for that matter) is the need and desire by many to commit violence through aggresive intent. Unfortunently today, especially in the modern martial art world, success in martial arts is defined by who someone can physically beat through martial violence. It has been pointed out by researchers that people who are already predisposed to aggression and violent behaviors, will have those traits increased should they to take part in an activity that encourages those kinds of traits. Derek Kreager, an assistant professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, concluded in his study of kids and violent sports, that in wrestling for example, “ the majority of the effect [aggression] can be explained by prior levels of violence (before they took up the sport),” and that “kids who are likely to get into a fight are also likely to wrestle”. When the sole focus in sparring or martial arts for that matter is on effectiveness of the martial technique, aggression fueled by violent intent will take center stage. When this
This article is copyrighted to Rodney King 2010 all rights reserved

happens it shuts down the ability of the performer to see that experience as more than just about the fight. Why? Because of the nature of the game.

When someone focuses solely on the effectiveness of his fighting prowess, his ultimate objective is to win by defeating his opponent. The only way to achieve this is by violent action. Aggression fueled by violent intent by definition is a behavior aimed at causing harm, pain, psychological harm, or personal injury to another person. An important aspect of this kind of aggression is the intention underlying the personʼs behavior. In the context of modern martial arts and especially sparring the intention of defeating an opponent can only happen if the opponent looses by getting knocked out, is tapped out or submits by not wanting to carry on.

The pursuit of virtue development in sparring decreases aggression
I believe that a focus on virtue development as the central goal of sparring and martial art training will decrease a personʼs aggressive tendencies. Why? Because the intentions are different. Unlike the example above of violent aggressive intent to win, a person who focuses on sparring as a vehicle of excellence has shifted his or her focus from effective fighting skills as the only measure of success to measuring success by an increase of virtuous actions. This can easily be achieved by both the intentions of the people on the floor sparring and more importantly how the environment in which that sparring takes place is set up. If an instructor insists that his athletes focus only on the effectiveness of their fight game as the beginning and end of the entire experience, he will then develop great fighting athletes but little else. If however the coach makes the participants on the mat consciously aware of developing excellence in their game through the development of virtuous action, he will set the stage for true warriors to emerge.

My approach to coaching sparring
I am very confident in what I coach. I know it works. I know those who train under my guidance will become effective fighters. Because I know this, my focus is not on the effectiveness of their technique. I am more concerned on helping them develop excellence through their expression of sparring.
This article is copyrighted to Rodney King 2010 all rights reserved

The focus is not on winning but rather the embodiment of virtuous action. In fact when you focus on developing virtuous character traits through sparring, winning becomes secondary. Throughout the sparring session, I encourage my clients to immerse themselves in behaviors that will lead to virtuous action. We talk about it, act it out and embody them together. Below is a quick — and I mean quick — overview of some of these processes through the lens of sparring. If there is enough interest in articles such as this I am sure I can expand further upon the virtuous character traits highlighted below. :)

Virtue development in sparring
Prudence — This is the ability to judge between actions, with regard to appropriate actions at a given time. In sparring, the circumstances must be weighed to determine the correct action. From an effectiveness standpoint it makes no sense to dive in unprepared, throwing caution to the wind and hope that somehow through sure luck one will come out victorious in the end. Being prudent, then, in this situation is knowing your strengths and managing around your weak areas. From a perspective of virtue, you show prudence when you spar with someone who has been told as you have to keep it light, to work good technique, but then refuses to acknowledge the rules set out for that sparring round. Do you then, 1) Knock him out to teach him a lesson? Or 2) Do you tell him to lower the contact level, not only for his own safety but your own? When ego and status interfere, most will use their higher level of effectiveness in martial skill to beat the person in front of them. After all, he knew not to go hard right? A prudent practitioner of martial arts that seeks excellence, would opt for the second option, asking the person to lower the contact, as to not do so would be to loose the intention of what was set out to be achieved. In this instance the prudent practitioner not only highlights the respect for himself, but against those he spars. Justice — The proper moderation between self-interest and the rights and needs of training partners.

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No one enters sparring to not get better. No one enters sparring to not challenge themselves to perform techniques, strategies and tactics at their very best. Everyone wants the feeling that they have done better than the time before. However oneʼs selfinterest in wanting to ʻwinʼ must be tempered by the needs of those you train with. Everyone in my class will eventually come up against a partner in sparring who will be at their level or outmatch them. Just because someone can beat another person, does not give them the right to humiliate them, to make them feel like utter failures or to bully them. Anytime someone in my gym matches up against a less skilled opponent he or she knows that they must bring their game down to that of the person they spar. This does not mean they must ʻlooseʼ but rather show justice, by moderating their own self-interest and the needs of their training partners who also want to improve their game. The lesson here is that if you show respect for other peopleʼs needs they will do the same for you. Now tell me that is not an important virtue to have in life? Temperance — The practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation. Anger, frustration and self-defeating thoughts are all part of the experience we call sparring. This is a simple fact of any activity where one is asked to perform and succeed. In tempering anger and frustration, one teaches oneself not to buy into them. People buy into their anger all the time. In fact, many people live a life run on their emotional states rather than on clarity. Temperance in sparring, teaches a person to accept oneʼs emotional states as naturally occurring. Just because you feel frustrated or angry, does not mean that you then must use that to achieve a goal. In fact the whole purpose of martial art training (something that has been clearly forgotten these days) is not to get angry, but rather to remain centered in spite of the emotional turmoil you may feel inside. Get this right in sparring and you are able to attach less to how you think the way you feel stops you from achieving and performing at your best in life. Fortitude — Forbearance, endurance, and ability to confront fear and uncertainty, or intimidation. Fortitude said another way is courage. In sparring this is the ability to step up and spar even in the face of internal doubts and fears. It is about having trust in oneʼs grit to endure even in the face of the inner critic that tells you, “you just donʼt have what it takes”. Fortitude teaches you about never giving up. That today is only today and the performance one just had, does not by itself define the entire game one possesses. Coming back to sparring over and over, even though every fibre in your body is saying to you “give up”, is an important character trait for life. Those who do not give up, those who keep going in spite of adversity are the oneʼs that achieve in life.
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Benevolence — General desire for the good of others, and disposition to act so as to further that good. Caring about the people you train with, their development along with yours is essential. If you are just coming into sparring to use other people as your personal proving ground and punching bag, you learn nothing about cooperation. No one can make it alone in life. Some people use others to get what they want, benevolent people work with people to achieve it together. Success derived with others is far more rewarding and lasting than simply using people for oneʼs own self-interest.

Final Words
“Studying the martial arts is not something one ʻadaptsʼ to his life, but rather one adapts the life to the art. It means changing oneʼs values, attitudes, and behavior. It does not mean taking up a hobby”. - Randy Nelson

Author: Rodney King is the creator of the Crazy Monkey Defense system. A modern martial art program that focuses on using martial arts as a vehicle to help people become champions in their life. While the modern martial arts world is consummed by hypercompetitiveness and reality based self defense paranoia, Rodneyʼs focus is on bringing about a balance of functional, dynamic martial arts expression, grounded in applied philosophy that changes peoples lives off the mat and into the world.

This article is copyrighted to Rodney King 2010 all rights reserved