Sparring the Taekwondo Ego

Allow me to transport you dear reader, back to when my parents gave me a pair of Boxing gloves in October 1965 for my tenth birthday. I wore them all the time and tested my skills on my younger, terrified brother. The Rolling stones had just released, “I can’t get no satisfaction”, and so I will leave it to your own imagination to conjure up the upstairs bedroom scene of our terraced house in Cork of a Saturday morning. We would stick on the record, load on the needle and Mick Jagger would belt out for about two or three minutes. With no school, our weekly boxing ritual commenced, whereby wearing one glove each, we battered away, (well I did mostly) and the result was, my sparring ego was born.

Fast forward ten years later and I am a nervous Taekwondo green belt and my sparring ego dies. The community hall we trained in would have made an excellent set for a present day Martin Scorsese movie and the blokes going there were not what you might call student- friendly. Come to think of it, there wasn’t anything student- friendly back then. I got into Taekwondo because I was beaten up by thugs, so getting over the fear of any physical confrontation was not easy. The training I loved and still do, but the sparring, scared me, just as I had terrified my younger brother. Karma must be paid regardless. As a green belt I casually pretended to love it, as this was the only way to fit in and be accepted.

After the warm up, the harsh command of “Put your sparring gear on, find a partner and make two lines ” greeted our cold ears. I stroll off to the side and say “Yes Sir” as loud as I can to bluff my fear. Lacking the enthusiastic adrenaline rush of my mates, I joke as we discuss the usual male topics in the changing room such as football and the current state of our love lives. Deep inside me I always had turmoil, because I am afraid of sparring, even more afraid to make this admission public on such an unforgiving and testosterone laden environment. Fearful, slow and clumsy, I struggle with tying the foot protectors, and wonder if I should wear my groin guard inside or outside my trousers, and which way will provide me with the best safety and security.

Hoping my kit is on correctly, I line up and try my utmost to avoid the confident students. These are easily recognised. They always manage to change quickly into their sparring kit and be first on the floor. Like confident dancers at a posh wedding, the middle of the floor belongs to them. Wearing taped up,well worn sparring kit and a dangerous smirk to match, they strut around like fighting bantam cocks, stuffed to the gills with illegal hormones, confidently punching, bobbing and weaving as they hiss and grunt at imaginary opponents. These exhibitions serve a dual intention, to boost their shadow boxing skills which is all fine and well, but also to send intimidating signals to all the rest of us less aggressive souls to announce that “Yes”, they are indeed “Open for Business”

In the corner of this big cold hall the muffled strains of laughter help conceal the nerves of the few female students. They always seemed to quickly partner up and move towards the floor in block, their acute female instincts completely tuned into a well- rehearsed survival plan. I used to always wait for the other guys to partner up before me, secretly hoping that I will be the odd one out and using the ostrich technique, commence my umpteenth warm up. The attempt fails; my weak body language is spotted by the Instructor.” Frank you go with Alan”… Alan Dalton is one of those blokes that has a chambering leg position that defies human anatomy. Not only can he chamber his lead side kick high and fast, but his upper body contour stays upright so as he slides towards you, his intention is brilliantly disguised. You have a choice to take it in the ribs or if he changes course mid chamber and whips that lead leg high hooking kick, in the direction of your nose like a heat seeking missile, all you can do is to hope the gum shield does exactly what it says on the box. I take all day to bow and hope the cold sore on my lip will scare him into believing this was a previous encounter, and as we begin I hope he will either get a sudden pain, so as to make me look good or that lady karma will forgive me for inflicting all that pain and terror on my younger brother all those years ago.

Fast forward again to 1999, and the nervous green belt is now 44 years old. By now I have been on the Irish Taekwondo Team, won a few sparring competitions and overcome my fear of sparring. I run a successful academy in Kent; I am featured in martial arts magazines and the local papers most months. I am no longer that nervous green belt and am in the business of putting the frighteners on folks again. Ego has crept upon me but I am unaware of it. My team have been invited up to Huddersfield to enter one of the UKs premier Sparring Competitions “The Clash of the Titans”. We spent a few years at this competition, so my team have the experience and have spent six months training hard. When we get to the venue I use an unfriendly body language, and my team, I instruct to do likewise.  I question the weights of the other fighters, I made it known that I mean business and question the judges and want to know who is the referee. Huddersfield Sports Centre is full to capacity and two busloads of supporters have travelled up North to support us.

When our team is announced I lead my team out to a huge roar from the Kent supporters. With their red flags waving I offer spontaneous high fives to well-wishers as we trot around the arena. We are drawn against PUMA, one the largest Taekwondo groups just formed in the UK. I get my team to line up, but take the lightweight Wayne “The Bullet” Busteed to one side and impress upon him why it is so important to win this first fight. Off he goes and the crowd really get behind him every time he as much touches his opponent. Not just from one corner of the mats but from all four I strut around screaming at Wayne, “Ata Boy Wayne Ata Boy”… “He is only a schoolboy Wayne, you got him in your pocket now” . The fight gives the crowd value for money and when Wayne is announced the winner, the crowd go completely mental and I myself go into a kind of religious ecstasy.

Everyone sees the coach with the flat cap, banging two focus pads together, my confidence is now unstoppable, I challenge any decisions made against us, I feel supreme and continue banging the  two focus pads together as well as walk all round the matted area shouting encouragement to my charges. It must have been well into the last round when I felt my sweaty arm being pulled as a man started shouting at me. I turned around fully so that he could vent his protest better. He pointed out that my coaching was frightening his young son and scaring him half to death. About three rows up from the mats sat a boy of about eight or nine, looking intimated and frightened. I walked up towards him and offered my hand but he rejected it. I said sorry to his Dad. As I stood there amid the noisy din I saw myself back once again as that nervous green belt. I felt this was not a dignified way to enter middle age, let alone be a role model for others. While I had got over my fear of Sparring my ego had surfaced again and come full circle.

Sparring and healthy competition are fine, but when it intimidates others, when we give out negativity we will one day get it back. When it comes to paying our Karma absolutely nothing goes unpaid. It is better to give out something of value, something that will help others and better again silently and unannounced. Sometimes those we give to may not appreciate us, but I strongly suggest that you give anyway because sooner or later you will get it all back. This is one sure way to keep the ego in check. It puts “We” first instead of just “I” and the amount of energy needed to keep the ego propped up can be costly. This has taken me five decades to see this play out again and again. For many of us are so fortunate to be able to Taekwondo, to be able to train, and grow physically, emotionally and mentally is a blessing. Ego will find lots of ways to creep into you’re  training because martial arts gives us a certain degree of power as we get stronger. However, when we share the arts and help others to grow positively, we go a long way towards helping ourselves. But the opposite is also true. We can remain, as I did in my career, for a long time a slave to our ego, or we can promote an openness to others from today, from now onwards, towards each other. When we accept our differences and start accepting others for good and bad, the ego will not take hold of us so easy. This is hard to do at first, but the payback is increased energy and something almost better than confidence, what I would call ‘a knowing’ or an awareness of our real potential.

So Train hard, push yourself more, share knowledge and enjoy the growth….

Frank Murphy.

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