Sparring, Sparingly

Last night, the dojo was relatively quiet. It was 8:00, midway through the last class of the evening. Up until that point, we had been working on several different kokyunages (timing throws). Eventually we began work on an iremi-based tsuki-kokyunage. This is a technique that I’ve seen works very well off of someone trying to hit you with a punch. Essentially, you step off the line, brushing the punch just past your body, while your other arm moves up your opponent’s center, taking him/her off balance. I find the technique an excellent exercise in timing, because the physical movements are relatievely simple to master.

After a short while, I decided that we could experiment for a bit. The class that evening consisted of myself, a shodan, and two ikkyu students. We could handle a little “out of the ordinairy training,” I thought. So I began discussing how techniques such as this one might work in an actual sparring match–a la what you might find in a Karate or Tae Kwon Do school. The results were very interesting.

First, I was reminded very quickly that in Kokikai Aikido, relaxation is crucial to success. When I was calm, relaxed, and focused, I found that I could handle my opponent quite well, and quite quickly. The minute I allowed myself to get tense, the conflict degenerated into a grappling match.

Second, it quickly became apparent that, with fewer “rules” guiding what techniques we could and could not do, the playing field leveled considerably. One student on the mat has enormous physical presence. During regular practice, that presence seems reduced because we are studying a specific principle or idea. Another student has years of training in Tae Kwon Do, in which he spent a lot of time sparring. In both cases, their ability to hold their own was increased because they were able to apply themselves in ways that do not often fit with “regular” practice.

Third, I quickly realized that we have spent much of our time with tsuki, which typically targets the stomach, but not men-tsuki, which targets the face. Yet, when we squared off, the face was the first target.  On a similar note, we often consider the correct response when your opponent offers bait (such as an arm or a wrist) is to try to grab the bait. This is not the only option, however: in several instances, we did not grab, but instead tried to bat away the arm as we moved in for a strike.

What was wonderful to experience was that, when Kokikai principles were correctly applied, the conflict ended quickly, simply, and without injury. While I was disappointed that I was not as successful as often as I wanted, I am glad that we participated in the exercise, because it illuminated aspects of our daily practice on which we need to focus.

The last time I did any real sparring was early in my martial arts training, when I studied Kung Fu. There, sparring was a brutal affair, in which no punches were ever pulled for any reason. I quickly realized that just because I could throw a block during forms practice did not necessarily mean I could block when someone was really trying to hit me.  Learning how to deal with the increased level of intention takes practice and experience. I wonder if it is the same with other arts?

Overall, I have found this experience to be a wonderful reminder both of how effective Kokikai Aikido is and how important it is to continually raise the bar when it comes to your own practice. And, above all, it was an excellent illustration on how one can be humble enough to realize you have not mastered an idea, while simultaneously be confident enough to stand your ground.

6 thoughts on “Sparring, Sparingly

  1. I don’t think there can be mastery of sparring. With so many different opponents and so many different styles, your skill levels and style is constantly evolving. We pull our punches in Okinawan Kenpo. Kung Fu sounds rough!

  2. Aikido, and other internal styles, seem to get alot of flack for not being combative enough. I think your idea of randori (is that an appropriate term for aikido?) makes sense, and definitely brings credibility to your art.

  3. Hi,
    New here. Thought I would say hi. Sounds like a very interesting experiment. I have trouble relaxing and focusing sometimes when it comes to sparring/self defense drills, but hopefully that will come in time.:)

  4. Your idea to implement some free-style exchanges in your class is a good one. I realize aikidoists don’t normally “spar” (randori?), but it’s really the only way to test out certain concepts via spontaneity.

  5. This is the first time I’ve heard of free-style (randori?) in an aikido school. Sparring is really an effective way of testing out concepts and ideas. It’s good that you have people there with varied backgrounds in different styles to implement all of this.

  6. Blackbeltmama: I agree. I doubt anyone can really master sparring. You can get so used to it that it no longer holds as much fear as it used to–and that’s a good thing. And yes, my Kung-fu training was brutal. Aikido isn’t any easier–but for some reason, I found it more suitable to how I like to move.

    Silverstar: Welcome! Stop by any time. Relaxation, I found, was absolutely critical; however, so was absolute committment to your movement. The adage, “He who hesitates is lost” still has merit, I think!

    John: While it’s true we don’t normally do full free-style sparring in our daily practice, our one-step movements have some close similarities to the kumite I have seen in Shotokan Karate. What made this experience different was that we let things go longer than usual. However, I have noticed that, with experience, we revert back to a one-attack, one-throw system, because that’s pretty much all that’s needed. Certainly warrants further study!

    And yes, having a diverse group of students is something I value highly at our dojo. Keeps me thinking!

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