Update (1-7-19) - I recorded a new podcast on this topic. Swamp Talks - Episode 08
‘Emotional Control’ - this often sought after, and rarely attained, side effect from martial arts training. We envision the wise old master sitting quietly in meditation, only to turn into a verifiable badass the moment the movie needs an action star to save the day.
What we don’t see, is that emotional control doesn’t really come for free, or as an automatic trait of just taking martial arts classes a few times per week. It doesn't come with sparring, nor does it come without sparring. It really comes from proper training, and constant diligence in applying that training.
Being punched, slapped, kicked, or choked induces a highly emotional reaction for many of us. Especially if we have experienced some sort of trauma, or abuse in life. For others, the act of hitting someone else is emotional, and may even cause unforeseen responses in us.
These things are normal for some, and completely foreign to others. What they share in common is, learning to control ourselves when we are experiencing these combative acts. Sparring allows us to confront things within ourselves that we may never see otherwise.
If someone studies martial arts but never spars, they will never know what it is like to function under that stress until it is too late. On the opposing side, if someone spars all the time, and isn’t taught to control their emotions (rage, fear, jealousy, inferiority, retaliation, pity, etc.), neither will they develop this 'emotional control' attribute.
Emotional control does not mean we are immune to feeling fear, anger, or other emotions while in conflict. It means that we experience these feelings, and we function without letting them control us. Rage and anger can cost us a fight. I have won, and lost fights because of just this.
When I was growing up, a 'friend' of mine and I were playing at the bandstand in town. One of our mutual friends showed up and decided to push me off the bandstand. I fell, and a fight ensued. I was so upset, my vision closed in, my heart raced, adrenaline coursed through my veins, and I attacked with all the ferocity a 10 year old boy could muster.
My opponent, kept calm and used his superior range, and side stepping to throw me around like a rag doll. Each time I charged after him, he would deflect me and throw me to the ground. This only angered me more, and caused me to go back with increased fury.
I could not see at the time, that my excessive, wild, animalistic attacks, were causing my own demise.
So how can we build emotional control without putting ourselves in the fire of all out conflict and no holds barred fighting? Talking.
Yes, talking. It's that simple. Before sparring with someone, especially if we are nervous, try talking with them for a moment. Ask how they are doing. Talk about a recent movie, or current event. Finding a way to break the ice and create a connection between the two of us can change the future.
What follows next, is a vastly different approach to the sparring match than what would have happened had we gone into the match amped up, nervous, scared, etc. Silence is deafening. Especially in the training hall. Help one another. Point out what we like about the other's technique or skills.
Here’s a story Where I had to apply this years after I learned it in my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training:
When I learned this principle from a Mantis Boxing coach I worked with for a while, I was already a teacher. I was travelling across the country to train with them 2 to 3 times/year, but only got to spar with his other students on those trips. The rest of the time I was sparring with students which changes the dynamic of using this principle. You become the guide, rather than having to do it because you’re stressed.
Occasionally I would spar with other people outside of classes, but not enough to really ingrain this. It wasn’t until I began regular group classes in BJJ that I latched onto it full strength.
What happened more times than I can count, is I would go to my class, or hit team training, or go to another school to train, and invariably I would get paired up with the meanest looking player in the room.
They would have a disgusted, or angry face on, and no one would go near them. I would take one look at them, and know that I was going to be entering all out war with these people in the ensuing match.
So, I fell back on this principle, and I would go up and shake hands and as we waited for the bell to go off, or even right afterwards if there was no time, I would ask their name, where they are from, or what they do for work. Something to break the tension.
Turns out, with the exception of one person out of all the times this happened, and it was many, they were all super nice and we found something in common after talking for a few minutes. The result? The match would be relaxed, smooth, and injury free.
What I came to realize with many of these people, is they were just as nervous, anxious, afraid, as anyone else in the room. The looks on their face were angry, but it was a mask to hide the real underlying emotions. Once someone took the time to say hello, they became completely different people.
You can even talk while sparring. It seems silly, and can be quite difficult at first, but later this becomes a crucial training tool. By talking, we learn to stabilize our emotions while getting hit or hitting someone else. Removing the stress from the situation allows the brain freedom to learn, and the ability to maintain a good 'speed' for gaining, and advancing skill.
We want to focus on relaxing and gaining this emotional control. Later, when we have achieved this, and sparring is less of a stress to us, we can focus on trying to fix things while sparring, and talking. At that stage, we'll be in a different place skill-wise.
As our training progresses, so too does our ability to control our emotions. We train, not only to be able to handle ourselves physically in bad situations, but also to inoculate ourselves to physical contact so when things go bad, we react without thought. We perform as our training has prepared us, without our emotions getting in the way.