This article is based on a lecture given by Professor Janet (Jay) O’Shea (UCLA) at the 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference held at Cardiff University.

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As a training tool, sparring has loads of physical / technical benefits. It can help you develop a greater understanding and application of skills such as distance, rhythm, timing, combinations, footwork, speed, balance, reaction, focus; and also improve your cardiovascular strength, muscular endurance and body conditioning.

And according to Jay O’Shea – who is both an academic and a martial arts practitioner – sparring has all kinds of sociopsychological benefits too.

Here are five key points from a lecture she gave on this last week . . .

  1. We can enter the “flow” zone – where work and play merge
Jay in training. Source: UCLA website

In Western culture we tend to trivialise and undervalue “play” and enjoyment for adults – but play is critical to our development at any age. And sparring is fun!

As Jay says: We spar to win, but there’s normally no designated winner. It’s more exploratory and focused on learning, testing and trying things out.

And yet sparring is work too. It’s physically and mentally demanding; and the expectation is to focus and learn and improve in the process. And this may be the secret of its allure.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi writes about autotelic personalities – people who don’t (or can’t) distinguish their work from their play, which places them in a natural state of flow much of the time. He gives hunting, fishing and weaving as typical activities that combine work and play at once – and which people can get completely addicted to. Sparring can definitely also fall into this category.

And the impact of becoming autotelic? Csikszentmihalyi describes these people as never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on and in flow most of the time.

  1. We discover new ways to understand “failure”

So at its best, sport (including sparring) blends work and play to perfection. However, in her recent TEDx talk, Jay warns that the competitiveness of modern life can spoil our fun:

The more winning matters, the more structured our interactions tend to be, and the less creative we get to be. Too much attention to winning turns sports from play into work.

Worse still, we can be judgemental and even vicious towards others who fail – such as the “trolling” inflicted on Ronda Rousey after her defeat by Holly Holm. But as Jay says, We disparage failure in sports – but it’s essential! Failure is what defines the game, and makes it interesting. Losing will always happen – and yet we treat it as shameful.

Jay believes that sparring can help us learn to separate the process (participation) from the outcome (winning) – and become better at valuing the former (which is not to say we shouldn’t also value winning where appropriate).

And above all, it can help us accept that failure – and reflection for future improvement – are essential for learning.

  1. We become more skilled at conflict management
sparring men
Sparring by Peter Gordon. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

In sparring, two people are coming together to play, compete and/or explore. They have to decide what level they will take it to; and how to deal with each others’ aggression – or how to handle a hesitant or unskilled opponent.

This is valuable, because the biggest questions we ever face as human beings, tend to relate to our encounters with other people. We generally can’t control what they do, feel or think; and that can be enormously frustrating!

Sparring can be a powerful way to physically act out this coming together; to explore disagreement and conflict resolution through the medium of touch. Again, the process itself is more important than the outcome.

Jay says, Sparring teaches us that even when an interaction isn’t harmonious it can still be managed. It illustrates the complexity of human interaction. It allows us to explore each others’ aggression, oppositional intent – and vulnerabilities.

  1. We gain permission to value and enjoy amateurism

The word “amateur” is often used as an insult, and associated with incompetence. But its true meaning is to do pursuing a pastime for pure love – from the Latin verb amare. Jay loves Sarah Lewis’s concept of intentional amateurism, as a powerful strategy for discovering new things. Lewis advocates “grazing shallow” – exploring a range of fields without getting too tied down in any one of them.

Lewis compares these ideas of embracing amateurism or grazing shallow to the Zen concept of Shoshin (初心) – beginner’s mind – and links it also to play; a sense of wonder; and a constant sense of the “here and now”.

Grazing shallow is also said to be essential for creativity.

This doesn’t mean that we should abandon professionalism, and only focus on amateur learning. A true expert will relentlessly pursue both diving deep and grazing widely.

Jay gives Bruce Lee as an obvious example of this, with his courage to cross-train; and his famous maxim: Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own. His student Dan Inosanto is known to have pursued the same two-pronged approach to his studies (diving deep and grazing widely), with phenomenal results.

  1. We can come to appreciate deliberate inefficiency
girls sparring
Female Black Belt Sparring | AMAC 2015. Still from YouTube video, licensed under CC

Jay explains that on one level, sports are absurd, because they’re all about doing inefficient things and making tasks harder than they have to be. So on one level they make no sense! Why do we try to jump over a high bar, rather than just walking underneath or around it? Why do we run around the outside of a race track rather than just cutting across the centre?

Why do we spar when there are other, quicker ways to overpower someone? Indeed, why spar or do any sport at all, when we can watch others doing it on TV instead (Jay calls this outsourcing play – the ultimate in efficiency taken to extremes).

Jay also points out that in sparring – as with any game, we’ll often hold back from “winning” – to prolong the enjoyment of the play a little longer.

Much of Jay’s lecture pointed towards a playful but deliberate rejection of some capitalist values. Society may tell us that winning is the ultimate goal – and we may spend most of our lives trying to be more efficient – but there are other ways of being too. And consciously engaging in sparring or other play (which is by nature inefficient) can be a powerful way to explore this.

It goes back again to being in the moment, and just mindfully enjoying the process itself.

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As you can see, Jay’s strong background in both dance and academia give her a fresh and thought-provoking take on what sparring can mean for us as people, beyond its technical benefits.

There was a clear sense from Jay’s talk that discovering martial arts at mid-life is transforming her; and she can actually feel herself changing as a person as a result.

So she was not just lecturing about combining work and play – or embracing the beginner’s mind – or entering into situations where failure is certain, in order to learn. Instead, Jay was literally modelling these things on the stage in front of us – and inviting us to try them too, in order to access our own path of growth, adventure and personal change . . .