A work colleague of mine recently joined UTKM on a trial basis. He had never trained in martial arts before although he always had an interest, so he decided to give it a try. Based on our discussions about what to expect, and not, he was quite excited to give it a shot. His father was a martial arts practitioner when he was younger so he was also happy that his son showed an interest in self-defence. At the end of each class we spar with a partner for a couple of rounds, so since he had never sparred before and I introduced him to Krav Maga, I felt some responsibility to help him ease into it by being his sparring partner, rather than throwing him to spar with the other, more experienced, students. As a green belt, sparring is now optional for me instead of being mandatory, and when I passed my green belt test I had hoped I would never spar again. Never say never.
Since my colleague only had sparring gloves and no protective headgear, I had to be careful to only use kicks and body shots against him, and allow him to hit me in the head if he wanted to since I was protected. We’ve sparred now a couple of times and he’s not bad, so I can see that once he’s fully geared up it will be an interesting experience helping him improve. It then got me to thinking how my sparring is, and whether or not I’m very good, or need much improvement myself. The answer is, no, I’m not very good at sparring and yes, I could also use improving. It then made me think exactly what the differences are between someone who just started taking Krav Maga and someone like me, who’s been taking it for years.
When I first started training in Krav Maga, I had never sparred before so it was a new experience for me. The first thing I noticed was that it’s much different than just watching a boxing match on TV and there are consequences for every move you make. I keep my hands up to protect my head, but then that means I can’t throw a punch. I use a hook which then leaves my head open, albeit for a split second. Still, I immediately feel vulnerable. At the same time my partner is throwing a kick which I need to block and try to counter-strike. Do I go fast and try to overwhelm my opponent, or go slow and measured, and ensure that my throws reach their intended target. It was very confusing and chaotic, and while I’m now much better at controlling my emotions and being more precise with both my technique and power, I’m still not very good at sparring. But as a green belt, shouldn’t I be? The answer is no. We are learning Krav Maga, and not learning how to be an MMA fighter. Yes, I should be better than someone who has never sparred before, but it doesn’t mean that someone trained in Krav Maga should be able to out-box a boxer, out-kick a kickboxer, or out-grapple someone taking BJJ. Krav Maga is a self-defence system, and its prime purpose is to a) not get into a confrontation to begin with, b) if a confrontation arises, to try and de-escalate the situation, and c) if it gets physical, to be able to fight well enough to be able to buy enough time to get the hell out of there. And, as Jon had passed some words of wisdom to the class just yesterday, to run to safety, not to just run away from the threat (think about that for a bit and you’ll see why it makes sense).
As a green belt, I have learned and been tested in parts of the curriculum that the lower belts have not yet seen, such as multiple attacker defence or ground fighting. But right from the first class that anyone takes in Krav Maga, they’ll learn to spar. So it should come as no surprise that when I watch someone taking their Yellow Belt test and they get to the sparring section, they can be pretty good and I certainly wouldn’t want to get into a fight with them. There are some beginner students who are very strong and are natural strikers, and they can easily give the higher belts a sparring challenge. The main difference is that they can often lose control of their emotions and power, and that’s where experience comes in. So I fully admit and concede that in a 1:1 sparring situation they may overwhelm me, but that’s ok, because I’m not taking Krav Maga in order to be a boxer. And it can take some students a longer time than others to be good at sparring and again, that’s ok. We’re all here to learn and help each other, not to point fingers at one another and say “I’m better than you!”.
Also, progressing to the higher levels in Krav Maga is more of a linear, as opposed to vertical, progression. In a traditional martial art such as judo, it is more of a vertical progression, and advancing to the higher belts actually does mean that you can do the technique better than the lower belts, along with its application in a competitive situation. It can take years, and repeating the same technique thousands of times, before you can execute an advanced throw cleanly and efficiently. The lower belts will know the same throw, but the upper belts will perform it properly, and hence the acknowledgement that the higher belts are more skilled than the lower belts. In Krav Maga, the techniques are simple by design, so it doesn’t take years to learn how, for example, to hit or kick effectively. Progression in Krav Maga is about learning more techniques and strategies as opposed to learning how to do a technique really, really well. Yes, with more practice some techniques will also improve, however, I’m sure that if I throw a jab-cross 10,000 more times I won’t get that much better than I am now. And since I am taking Krav Maga to learn to protect myself in a real-life situation, I am confident that I will be good enough to be able to escape and get to safety.
Keep in mind why you are taking the martial art or sport you are. Time is very limited and we’ll never get it back once it’s been spent. In my case, I love watching judo matches just as others enjoy watching their sports, but I freely admit that in a real life-threatening situation, judo is not going to help me much if someone came at me with a knife. And that’s why I take Krav Maga, so I can learn what to do in an end-to-end situation and get home safely, regardless of who was better at sparring in class.