One of my favorite parts of training with Master Zach Whitson is sparring. It is an integral part of learning Cacoy Doce Pares and Counterpoint Tactical System. Sparring is also the most fun. But for the first few years of training, I was doing it wrong. All wrong. When I started sparring, I wanted to win. My competitive nature rationalized this because sparring simulated a fight. I want to win a fight; therefore, logic dictates that I win sparring since how we train is how we fight. I defined winning differently each time depending on what type of sparring that I did. Even when I did well and won, which was roughly half the time, I wasn’t ever satisfied with my performance.
After a few years in Counterpoint Tactical System, I was invited to a private lesson with Master Whitson. We engaged in some Cacoy Sparring. It did not go well for me. No, I didn’t get beat up; I was as healthy after as before. It went poorly because I couldn’t do anything against him. I had nothing. It was more than just the ego crush of defeat. I imagine it’s what Ronda Rousey’s opponents feel after only a few seconds in the octagon with her. It was a feeling of not being in the same universe skill-wise. Master Whitson is an excellent teacher; so, after it was over, he broke down what happened. It reshaped my entire training mentality.
I don’t remember the exact words, but the essence was, “you’re trying to win, try to learn instead.” Simple, effective, and correct. I spent the rest of the lesson working on this concept. Learning the techniques became secondary to this concept. It was disheartening to find out that I didn’t have my ego in check. Sure, I had always wanted to win in the training room, which only satisfies the ego, but I thought I had a balance between ego and learning. Master Whitson showed me the truth. I struggled all weekend with keeping my ego in check. That struggle flowed right from that weekend into the next year of my training. I spent a year trying not to win.
Mike Miller of Springfield FMA is the closest advanced CTS student to me. He helps me prepare for my next belt in between training sessions with Master Whitson. As I said earlier, sparring is an essential part of CTS; so, Mike and I spar as part of our training. After months of trying not to win. I visited Mike, and we worked our techniques. When sparring time approached, I was understandably excited. We sparred; we had fun; and, at the end, I felt that same old dissatisfaction with my performance. I couldn’t really place what it was, but I spent the following months training with STL Counterpoint trying to figure out what went wrong. It was when I had Master Whitson in town for the first STL Counterpoint seminar in 2013 that I learned my mistake. During sparring that weekend, I wasn’t relaxed, and I was pushing on Master Whitson. He was using structure and internal martial arts to push back more effectively than me. I specifically remember thinking that I had all of this knowledge and training time, why wasn’t I relaxing? I don’t know when the answer came to me or if Zach pointed it out, but eventually, I figured it out. I was trying to show off.
The need to demonstrate what we learn is an important one. But it can be stretched too far, and this was my problem. Showing off had become another way to win. My focus had left learning, and it had landed squarely on “Hey, look what I can do.” The ego is crafty; it can find ways to trick us into getting what it wants. I thought I wanted to learn, but, really, I wanted validation. Rather than getting farther along the path, I wanted a pat on the head for how far I’ve come. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s natural. But there are times and places for recognition. Training and sparring are not those times. If an instructor gives you praise during training, accept it. Don’t seek it out, though.
I still battle with my ego. Before sparring, I remind myself to relax. I look to my goals and try to remember the purpose of what I’m doing. Learning is more important, and the stress of sparring is much, much less now. Focusing on learning also has the effect of being more mindful during sparring. I’ve noticed patterns that I use to the detriment of others. Noting these habits allows me to stretch myself and try new things. Now at the end of sparring, I don’t always feel dissatisfaction. As a perfectionist, I always think I can do better. But I evaluate my performance a little more fairly now. Because my goal is to learn, it’s easier to meet that goal. Each success reinforces the previous one.
I’ve learned a lot from Master Whitson during my time in CTS – curriculum, technique, training methods, concepts, and sparring progressions. I don’t think any of those have paid off for me as much as simple sparring advice. Don’t try to win, try to learn. I occasionally fail, but each time I try to keep it in mind. Don’t try to win, try to learn. If I do fail, I just remind myself again. Don’t try to win, try to learn.