In the classic The Art of War (or Sun Tzu Bing Fa) the military strategist Sun Tzu says, and I paraphrase for simplicity:
Know yourself and you will win half your battles.
Know your enemy and you will win half your battles.
Know both yourself and your enemy and you will win all of your battles.
It strikes me that there is a problem with the current state of our students and their ability to become truly great at dae ryun. I use the term dae ryun, because, in all honesty, "sparring" is really a completely inadequate translation for what it is we should be doing, but I digress. The problem I have seen is directly related to the passage above from Sun Tzu. Serious students today do study fighting (an attempt to know their chosen art), and they study ways in which they feel they can make themselves better fighters (an attempt to know themselves), but it is a rare sight today to find someone who actually studies other fighters. Somewhere along the line, the attempt to "know one's enemy" has been diminished significantly, almost to the point of being lost altogether.
Tournaments are one place where it is easy to see this. The next time you attend a tournament, instead of watching the fighters in the ring, watch the contestants who have not yet fought, and those who have won a match, but still will need to get back in the ring again. What are they doing? All too often I see contestants who don't even have their eyes on the match in progress. I see those who immediately start listening to their iPods between matches in order get "psyched up." I see those that are just sitting idly by, chatting it up with other contestants. I see those that are halfheartedly watching the match in progress, but they most definitely aren't studying it.
To a lesser degree, I see the same thing happening in classes. Individuals stick to their favorite techniques and combinations, but do not take the time to analyze the reactions to those techniques by their opponents. Nor do they make the attempt to analyze and identify the favorite techniques and combinations of their opponents.
Once, this level of analysis was common practice, and if someone didn't do it, other fighters looked down on that person as someone who was likely to lose (or at best only win half his fights). Chuck Norris, who was one of the best tournament fighters of his time, says the following in his book, Against All Odds: My Story:
"I settled down on the sidelines to watch the other black belts compete. Now that I had become tournament wise, it was a matter of routine for me to study the other competitors. I knew that I might have to confront some of them later on. I watched the way the fighters walked for signs of injury. I observed the way they stretched and warmed up: a kicker warms up with kicks and combinations of kicks, usually working on the one he will use most when under pressure. A fighter with good hand techniques warms up with repetitions and the combinations he favors.
I studied the losers as well as the winners. The winners were the ones I would probably have to fight. The losers were men I might have to fight in the future. The techniques that fighters implemented, especially the ones with which they scored most often, were my immediate concerns.
I didn't simply observe the winners and losers. I visualized myself in the ring with whichever man I was watching. I studied his strengths and his weaknesses; I inventoried my own techniques and matched them to his defenses. I visualized myself taking his strengths from him while maintaining my own. If, for example, I could see myself blocking an opponent's powerful side kick and then scoring with my own technique, I knew I would be able to do it when the real match began."
This kind of in-depth analysis of other fighters, and other students in our own classes, is sorely lacking today, and that is unfortunate, to say the least.
So the next time you engage in the art of dae ryun, don't "just do it". Don't just act or react. Try to study. See if you can create reactions in others. Can you anticipate where they are going to go? Do you know what techniques they are going to favor? Are they kickers? Do they prefer to use hands? Do they like to use the lead hand/leg, or the back? Are they right or left side dominant? Do they attack first, or wait for the opportunity to counter? Do they attack to your strong side or your weak side? Do they attack in straight lines, or attempt to move to the side and attack from an angle? Do they spin often or not?
All of the above attributes, plus others, must be studied and catalogued in our minds, and we must do so for every fighter we encounter, for fighting many different people in exactly the same way is a surefire formula for eventual defeat. We must go beyond the physical, though, and learn how our opponents react psychologically as well. Are they easily intimidated, or are they very confident? Are they, perhaps, overconfident? How do they react when an opponent shows strength? How do they react when an opponent shows weakness? Do they always fight the same way, or do they show changes in attitude and personality depending on who they fight? How should you approach them? Should you fake a show of weakness and attack when it is unexpected, or simply try to overpower them? Are they too tricky for your own mental games or are they easily manipulated?
These are the factors that will help you become great at dae ryun.
Keep in mind, though -
Someone is studying you....so how well do really know yourself?
All things along the martial way come full circle eventually.
Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.