Taekwondo and Sparring the Inner Opponent

One of the best selling self help books of all time has to be: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey. With 25 million copies sold and translated into 38 languages it makes an easy recommendation. Based on many years of success literature as part of his doctoral studies, it was first published in the USA in 1989. Elegantly written and containing trans-generational gems of profound wisdom, to my mind, has outlasted many of the current wave of new age publications. It’s important because it follows closely the dogma of the great Martial Arts Masters, Yip Man, Ginchin Funakoshi, and Jigore Kano to name but a few, who all placed a high value on the development of character and overcoming life’s many challenges. I mention this book because apart from all the habits being good for us, they can be adapted easily towards our martial arts training.

The first two habits are Be proactive, so we can translate this as training our minds and bodies daily and number two, states Begin with the end in mind, which is the subject of this blog. If we begin with the end in mind, we will enjoy our training more and we will stay training longer. To have a specific end goal in mind is the easy bit, getting there means bypassing some deceptive traps, and adapting to our circumstances as we make our individual journeys.


What sets Taekwondo and Martial Arts training apart from other activities?

Health and fitness, the ability to defend ourselves as well as a range of mental benefits like confidence, higher self esteem, self worth, and overall mental clarity. The belt system of a three or four monthly goal setting, at our initial part of our journey is unique to all martial arts so we are trained to set goals, and if we are clever this training should overlap into our daily life.

OK, we already know all this, but I think we might need some reminding of these differences between the daily practise of martial arts and other activities and sports. The reason we adopt certain rituals is so we can make transitions from mere functionality of the techniques we are trying to perfect, which by the way is fundamentally very important, towards the stronger reason of “Why” we practise.

Young Frank Axe KickI’m guessing most of us probably began training in our teens and early twenties, and perhaps a little fixated on appearance, achievements and the acceptance of others. Nonetheless, we can look back on an exciting stage as we focused on developing our physical bodies and how we made our bodies perform under pressure. When I was a green belt I was jealous that my sister, Margaret, had won a Taekwondo sparring trophy before I did. I couldn’t live or function without a mirror and a steady stream of approval from my peers. The inner opponent/ my ego, had me identify chiefly with performance and appearance.

As we approach Black Belt we look for more meaning in our practise. We have an advantage over other athletes as these rituals which we value are exclusive to traditional martial arts practise which aid our defence against the inner opponent. We learn that when we put on a uniform, especially one we have washed and pressed ourselves, when we bow on entering and leaving a designated training room or Dojang, when we refer to the Instructor formally and show respect to our peers through our words and actions, when we learn to fail, again and again, when we get over some pain, and when we learn through perseverance to overcome our limited view of what we initially thought we could possibly achieve, then all of the above leads us into a learned state to grow and develop emotionally, mentally and physically. If we don’t have definite rituals and etiquette of Taekwondo and martial arts we fall at the first hurdle and regulate our “Whys” to merely another sporting activity.


If you look at a previous blog on my website www.frankmurphymasterclass.com  entitled “Sparring and the Ego” released in February this year you will see how simply I was caught up in the ego trap, at age 44, and you would think I had some sense by then. When the ego enters the picture it halts progress and consumes a lot of energy. Hard Training that pushes you just beyond your normal class can help keep this in check. Once a month I suggest you have a really hard workout either with friends or on your own, so hard you set yourself monthly goals do more or at least equal the previous months session.

Try doing a pattern for 100 repetitions over a weekend non stop. Do it softly coasting through the moves, getting the techniques and diagram right. Try it 10 times with full intensity and realism. I have tried, (and failed a few times, 73 was the most I could manage over 4 days ) this amount of repetitions with a favourite pattern of mine called Yong Gae. This ITF Taekwondo pattern suits my body. I love the jump knife hands, back fists, the body moving sideways and the opening of the shoulders and for the W shape, and checking blocks, as well as the double side elbow. The spinning back kick lines me up well for the side kick to follow, the stamps, both jump back side kicks at the end and particularly all the hand movements suit my frame hence it is a safe one to do and if I manage 100 repetitions ( even 73) over and over a few months it becomes intrinsically part of my spatial awareness and makes the moves automatic. You could do the exact same with a combination that you may wish to prefect for a competition. I think it was Geoff Thompson who says that you don’t really own a technique until you perform it 1000 times.

I also do a small Yang Tai Chi form called 8 Form. It follows a simple straight line diagram but has most of the moves of some of the long forms. The hardest part here is keeping the body alignment upright, the weight shifting correct and the flow continuous. You reach a point where the moves almost “pull” your body into the positions themselves. You find this during your day, and also you have reached a level of training that few have experienced. What’s great about this is that you can do this now, anytime, depending on how much you want this experience.

If your training is not going well, ask questions and seek the best experience and advice. Did you ever think back and remember times when you were, say, ten years younger? Did you think you knew it all back then? I did. In my early thirties all through my forties I was chiefly concerned with status, titles, certificates and goal achievement. These were healthy and exciting pursuits and most definitely go ahead and strive to achieve all you can. Just be cautious where ego surfaces, don’t be training hard so you can show off how great you can perform it, do it to beat that inner voice inside you. Hard training every now and again like this can keep you grounded.

Another example is a combination of crunches and press ups alternatively to see just how long you can go until exhaustion. I do this with skipping because skipping was a weak point with me, and after doing say, 15 to 20 press ups, then I would do a few minutes of skipping. But the point is to keep going as long as possible with these two (safe) exercises, and pushing the limitation of what you think is your limit just that bit beyond. Could you do this for an hour ? Two hours?  You see when do this training, and I only would recommend this once a month, (but consistently every month) you go towards that place deep inside your own corner of awareness where you realise that, yes, you can now go beyond your preconceived limitation. You can share the experience with others.

The accumulation of merit badges and titles are worthy goals but if these are our only main focus ego remains in full control of our behaviour. The downside of too much ego means tension, unnecessary stress, anxiety as well as endless comparisons and judgements. Ultimately even war is man’s inner opponent or ego at work. All this clouds our thinking and affects our physical training…

I struggle to have two engines going all the time during training. Develop physically by doing the best techniques my body will allow safely without injury to myself or others and mentally by pushing beyond what is believed, considered or accepted as “normal expectations”. Also be conscious of the drive of the ego. Your “why” is best served with your own physical mastery and mental sharpness over yourself.

Our primary concern is to serve others and to seek peace within. The Samurai did it so should we. In film documentaries on the 1st and 2nd world wars, which are the ultimate inner opponents of mankind’s ego, they show old soldiers who came from different sides, after the war is over, come together and embrace and show acceptance and kindness towards each other. Most of us need never worry about the horrors of war, so all we have to worry about is our own ego. Tomorrow or this week try some long, hard training, far way out of “your” ordinary familiar zone. Share your experience with everyone and give help, inspiration and guidance to those less challenged than yourself. The inner opponent hates it when you give, silently and without expectation of reward. When you are independent of the good opinion of others you are making progress. You are heading towards the end in mind.

Be well in all you training endeavours,

Master Frank Murphy

One Response to Taekwondo and Sparring the Inner Opponent

  • Derry McCarthy says:

    Hi Masterr Murphy,
    Inspiring and thought provoking words as always. As you know I started training with you when I was in my mid 40′s, purely on a fitness and recreatioal basis. Yet here I am looking forward to laying my ‘Sweaty Hands’ on a Black Belt in 6 weeks time! There’s an Ego boost that’s hard to keep in check! My training with you, and the corresponding taining I’ve been doing on my own, have become an intrinsic part of my life. Perhaps, because I’m a little older, I know I need to work hard to maintain my fitness, unlike someone younger who can take a break, or try something else instead. Ego is an issue for us all, whatever our age, and I hope, with a bit of good luck and good health, I’ll continue to battle against it for a few more years yet.
    Derry McCarthy

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