If you are trying to get better a martial art that involves working against actively resisting partners, I suggest you become a good adversary. Being a good adversary is fundamentally different from being an enemy to your partners. Enemies drown one another without compunction. Good adversaries create a rising tide that raises all participants. Great adversaries can alter the level of adversity they provide to any partner, and assure that both they and their partner are learning to swim. In this article, I will talk about 7 ways to become a better adversary and avoid becoming an enemy.
First, acknowledge that you are training martial arts and not engaging in a death match. This seems laughable but it is easy to let your adrenaline and your emotions drag you under and switch from being an adversary to becoming an enemy. Some people can get away with this and survive without major injuries. Those people tend to be bigger, younger, and male but that isn’t always true. Many giant, young men end up smashing themselves against the brutal shoals of aggression and hobble away with horrible injuries, never again to return. Plenty of people who are smaller, older, and not male dive into the hurricane of aggression and emerge as quality martial artists. However, it is statistically more likely that if your treat your training like a deathmatch, you’re more likely to get hurt. Don’t become an enemy or transform your partner into an enemy by engaging in a death match. Remember you are training martial arts. Be an adversary.
Second, acknowledge that physical traits matter but don’t rely on them to win matches at your gym. Strength, speed, coordination, height, age, weight, reach, and power can all create advantages in martial arts. Martial arts builds skills. Skills can be enhanced with physical traits. In a boxing match, given two fighters of equal skill but one with a 6 inch longer reach than the other, I’ll put my money on the one with the longer reach every time. Do you know your physical attributes? Do you know how you stack up physically compared to your partner? Make a mental checklist of your attributes and your partner’s attributes. If you outclass your partner, tone down your intensity a bit. If you are 250 pounds, put a fellow 250 pound grappler in side control, and then press your full weight into your partner they are likely to perceive you as an adversary. If you do the same to a 150 pound partner, they are likely to perceive you as an enemy if they aren’t already tapping out or bemoaning broken ribs. Don’t become an enemy or transform your partner into an enemy by being ignorant of physical attributes. Remember physical traits matter. Be an adversary.
Third, acknowledge that rank is not a 100% accurate predictor of who will win. If you outrank someone and believe that you “should” beat them even though you are losing, you are on the path from adversary to enemy. Sometimes you’ll get beat by someone you outrank. Sometimes you’ll beat someone who outranks you. Don’t let attachment to rank get you sucked down into the undertow. Rank matters in your personal journey and yes, should reflect skill levels at the gym but a belt won’t protect you from injury. Don’t turn yourself into an enemy because of a colored piece of cloth around your waist. Be an adversary.
Fourth, beware and cherish the beginner. People who are new have no idea what is going on. They can be unpredictably calm one moment and then drop a tsunami of aggression on you without warning. They can be incredibly dangerous to themselves and their partners. If you are partnered with a newbie, do not use it as an opportunity to take revenge on all the people who have beat you in the past. To do so is to make yourself an enemy to the hapless novice. On the flipside, watch out for crazy moves. Remember that a beginner has no idea what they are doing and might do some unpredictable stuff. Don’t underestimate them, get surprised, get angry, and then become an enemy. Protect yourself, protect the beginner and don’t try and take advantage of the situation and become an enemy. Be an adversary.
Fifth, provide adversity and try to win. The word adversary may seem an odd choice to use when talking about how to act toward a partner but provided you are both training in hopes of learning how to better face challenges in your lives, being a good adversary is exactly what you should be trying to do. This doesn’t mean you should try and win the warmups and crush people beneath your oceanic power when you drill techniques. It means you should, during sparring, provide your partners with an appropriate amount of challenge. Don’t baby your partner or underwhelm them by not trying to win. Don’t become an enemy by disrespectfully babying your partner. Try to win. Be an adversary.
Sixth, when you are partnered with someone of nearly equal physicality and skill, dive in! Assuming you are both healthy and relatively injury free, enjoy those partnerships where it is simple to be a good adversary and just play. Don’t begrudge if they eventually become better than you and don’t gloat if you surpass them. Don’t become an enemy by taking your close matches personally. These close matches are where you will most see your best challenges. Be an adversary.
Seventh, there are some partners you should avoid, until the tides of your relationship change. Don’t assume that everyone is in touch with their physicality or level of aggression. It’s easy to assume that students who are super aggressive and/or strong are aware of the fact. They may or may not be. They may be completely unaware of their own level of intensity. They may think 100% aggro is the correct way to be. It’s not your responsibility to fix them. There are some partners who will view you as an enemy no matter how you treat them. There are some partners who have no idea how to play with smaller or lower ranking students. Avoid these partners on the mat. These kinds of partners will often drive you into becoming an enemy and this feeling can boil over to all your other partnerships and drive your whole training experience down the drain. Be a good adversary by avoiding impossible partners. Try warming up or drilling with these kinds of partners to help build trust and maybe someday in the future you can be good adversaries for one another. Don’t become an enemy by training with impossible partners. Be patient and take time to build an understanding with them. Be an adversary.
Hopefully these seven points are a good introduction into what it means to be a good adversary and not an enemy in the context of sparring. Enemies want to destroy you. Adversaries want to win while at the same time keeping it fun, safe, and respectful. Hopefully this makes it clear why it is to everyone’s advantage that you cultivate the attitude of an adversary rather than that of an enemy. Don’t take the short view of training and become an enemy of your own progress. Be an adversary.
In the case of sparring that is supposed to simulate self defense or street fighting, I think the same arguments still hold. Assuming all students want to keep training over the long haul, they still have to acknowledge physically and skill level. They still have to feather the intensity so that people don’t get broken and yet they still have to try and win so that everyone is facing actual adversity and not getting false sense of competence. Don’t let the goal of your training – self defense and survival – turn you into an enemy. Be an adversary.