The Smartest Way to Win in Sparring Is to Program Your Opponent to Lose!
Youʼre standing in the ring facing your opponent. Youʼre waiting for an opening, asking yourself, “Whatʼs he going to do next?”
You try to guess what it will be. A bead of sweat trickles down your forehead as you think, I wish I could make him throw a round kick—then Iʼd know the perfect move to defeat him.
Suddenly, he acts. Itʼs not the round kick you wanted but a series of fast punches. You manage to block them, but he surprises you by following up with a jump spinning kick that knocks you out of the ring. Game over!
What martial artist hasnʼt had an encounter like this? What fighter wouldnʼt want to be able to control what his opponent does next? Controlling another person may seem like itʼs straight out of Star Wars—“These are not the droids youʼre looking for.”—but itʼs entirely possible. It doesnʼt involve the Force or even chi energy. It does, however, involve a learning curve.
To control what your opponent does in the ring, you must condition him to act and react on cue. The best way to think of it is to imagine heʼs a computer. To make a computer act the way you want it to, you must program it. Your tool is a programming language. Master it, and youʼll be able to make the machine do anything you want.
The tools you use to program a human being are:
Believe it or not, theyʼll enable you to set up a mental and emotional reaction that will open the door to your follow-up. In other words, by merely twitching your foot or flexing your hand, youʼll be able to elicit a specific kick, a lowered guard or even a hasty retreat.
How do you get started on the path of programming? For the answer, you need only look to a scientist named Ivan Pavlov.
Synopsis: He ran a series of experiments with his dog. Every day, heʼd ring a bell before feeding it. The dog grew to equate the sound of the bell with food. Eventually, Pavlov could ring the bell, and the dog would salivate even before the treat was presented.
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If youʼre a fan of NBCʼs The Office, you probably watched Jim perform a similar experiment on his co-worker Dwight. Every time his computer turned on and chimed, heʼd offer Dwight a mint. Eventually, whenever Jimʼs computer turned on, Dwight— without any conscious thought—would hold out his hand for a mint. When Jim asked him what he wanted, Dwight commented that he didnʼt know but his mouth felt dirty. (I know, itʼs a sitcom, but for the most part, itʼs based on Pavlovʼs work.)
You can use the same concept to influence your sparring opponent—not with a bell and a treat but with a slight movement and the expected avoidance of pain.
Example: Every time your foe tries to switch his stance from left lead to right lead (or vice versa), yell as you move forward and strike. Heʼll be startled. After a few iterations, heʼll start to subconsciously equate switching stances with being startled and will no longer switch stances. Ergo, you now control whether he stands with his left side forward or his right side.
Want to really confuse him? Shout from time to time as you go on the offensive. Now the noise you make will become inextricably linked in his mind with being attacked, which will cause him to prepare his defenses. All you need to do now is yell and wait for him to react. Once heʼs in that confused state, attack with a different technique.
Hereʼs another tactic for the ring: Say you want your opponent to lower his guard on command. You simply strike at his arms when theyʼre in the guard position and show your teeth. At regular intervals, repeat the sequence, inflicting pain just before you bare your fangs. Heʼll eventually equate your teeth with arm pain—which means youʼll be able to pull your lips back and show a little white, then watch his guard fall. Thatʼs your cue to attack—hopefully without interference from his limbs.
There are many other ways to use the Pavlovian method to control your opponent. All you need to do to succeed is tailor your programming to mesh with your preferred fighting style. However, keep in mind that he already has his own programming in place—specifically, the habits and reactions that have been drilled into him during years of training.
Another way to take advantage of the Pavlovian response is to capitalize on the programming your opponent inadvertently gets from his martial arts training— specifically, while reacting to exercises, drills and forms at his school.
Example: If you want him to throw a round kick (Turning Kick), you can make him want to throw a round kick. Just create the illusion that a target exists at the right distance and orientation, and chances are heʼll throw that round kick, either consciously or subconsciously.
If you know the combinations heʼs drilled the most, you can make him perform more easily. For example, if students at his school are taught to react to a turning round kick by performing a jump spinning kick, just execute that round kick and then wait for the jump spinning kick to come. If you know itʼs coming, you can easily jam it, evade it or counter it.
Like many other facets of life, the martial arts are all about control—control of yourself, control of your emotions and control of other people. Once youʼve sufficiently developed your knowledge and skills, youʼll find there are very few things in this world that cannot be controlled. Itʼs this control that separates the master from the beginner.
(This article by Simon Scher, was originally published in Black Belt Magazine in 2014. Edited by Robert Young)
On a related topic, knowing how to Read Telegraphs is a useful skill in developing control over your opponent
More info on the work of Pavlov. A really interesting video by Crash Course