I was honored with my Orange Belt (one step above novice) in Okinawan Isshin-ryu the other night. I began studying martial arts to more closely examine the two greatest tenets of performance - Focus and Discipline. After a couple of months, I've had the chance to work closely with the essences of both. The orange came with some encouraging words from Sensei, a bit of added respect (and responsibilities) around the Dojo, and a sobering notice: Tonight we spar.
"Sparring" consisted of Sensei coolly bobbing and weaving around me, delivering effortless jabs and backfists to my face and body while I vainly attempted to apply some of my training to block his attacks.
He'd warned me about this. A 6th degree black belt against a barely-above novice wasn't really Pay-per-View material. I continued to block - and was getting better - now his strikes were mostly just knocking my own gloves into my face. Success is indeed a process.
At some point in time frustration took over and I went on the attack. Sensei easily darted, slipped and parried until I backed off and he resumed dissecting my feeble defenses, finally landing a direct hook to my mouth that caused him to say "enough".
I was counting my teeth on the drive home, and began considering his line of questioning to me after the 2 minute round; What did you see in there? How were things different?
All I'd been able to muster at the time was "It's hard to hit, you're too fast. All I could do was try to block." However, as my head was clearing on the drive, another aspect of the bout came to my mind. Near the end, perhaps prompted by my classmates, I'd stepped in and thrown those few lunges and reverses. Zero had landed as my highly skilled Sensei artfully dodged all danger, but for ten to fifteen seconds of the fight, I didn't get hit at all. For those brief moments, until fatigue set in and the clinic resumed, I'd been equally matched with a 6th degree black belt.
Next class I mentioned this to Sensei; "I attacked, and the fight changed. You had to move and parry - so you couldn't attack, and I couldn't get hit." This got a big smile out of him. He said that in defending his attacks, only, we were matched skill for skill, Black Belt versus Novice. However, when I attacked, other factors came into play that gave me an advantage including our ages, athleticism and size - little of which matters while blocking only.
I wish I could tell you our next Sparring match came to a draw, but it was nowhere close. Apparently I'd only peeled the first layer off Sensei, and Skill, though not Everything, still counts for a lot.
What I took from this, however, was a truth even simpler than the obvious "Best Defense is a Good Offense" line. It is that any opponent or challenge only has the best of you under a given set of circumstances. Often, these circumstances are adjustable. They can be modified to nullify his advantage - and even create an advantage for yourself. When I attacked, I changed the circumstances of the fight. Standing and reacting, my youth, physical shape and size played no part in the match - but when I moved and attacked, they came into play. No matter his skill level, Sensei could not ignore my attacks - he had to address them just as anyone would. Of course his skill allowed him to evade them with little trouble, but that's beside the point. I had changed the fight to one where my advantages came into play.
Final Note: We will never have much control over our opponent or challenge. However, we often have control over the circumstances in which we must engage them. Changing these circumstances can turn an uphill battle into a level, or even a downhill one. It's important to know at any time "What is my competitive advantage here?"
As for me, I'll be learning what I can from Isshin-ryu and bringing it here.