I will be competing this week (in Olympic Sparring as well as Poomsae) in the 2011 Ahn Classic, in Mason, OH.  In my final days of preparation for the tournament, I’ve been thinking about methods of handling tension, which can sometimes be a problem for me in general, and about some connections between tension during competition and Daoist philosophy.

I generally find that there is a kind of natural tensing of the muscles that takes place at the beginning of strenuous physical activity.  Maybe this is a kind of reflex, like flinching or tensing when a punch or kick is thrown at you or an object comes speeding toward you.  Of course, we can train our reflexes such that these reactions are undermined and we become able to stand unflinching in the face of blows headed our way.  But what about tension?  Can one train oneself so as to undermine the reaction of tension during competition (especially sparring)?

One way I handle this kind of tension is to wear myself out a bit before sparring–that is, do some hard running, jumproping, etc. to tax my system a little bit so that I’m slightly tired.  One thing slight fatigue does is loosen up the muscles, resulting in greater relaxation and thus greater flexibility and (strangely enough) power.  I tend to avoid heavy lifting as a way of exerting myself before sparring, because lifting tends to increase tension in the muscles, the exact opposite of what I want before sparring.  Hitting the iron is best done either well before TKD training or on alternate days.  I never lift after TKD training, as I’m usually pretty depleted after a good training session and wouldn’t get much benefit then.

A thought I’ve had recently is that the tension connected with sparring or competing in general might be undermined in a different way that has more to do with how one thinks then any particularly physical methods.  The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi considers what he takes to be a flaw shared by many humans–the inability to appreciate what is outside of one’s narrow perspective.  Most competitors are focused on things such as victory or defeat, and it may just be that seeing things in terms of these concepts is just what causes tension.  If so, one way to undermine this tension would be to let go of seeing one’s performance in terms of victory or defeat.  Perhaps we should approach our competition in a different way–we face our opponent, look for openings and opportunities for counters, aim to move in such a way that they cannot connect with us, and see things in terms of what is before us, rather than in terms of scoring or being scored on, winning or losing.  We should put thoughts of victory or defeat out of our minds, instead thinking about opportunities and dangers, both within a match and also concerning the bigger picture.  We can look at our very participation in competition as opportunity to test ourselves and ultimately become better martial artists, and also be aware of the danger of being sucked into the narrow mindset of victory and defeat, of offense and defense, aggression and passivity.

I think Bruce Lee said it best, in Enter the Dragon:  “A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.”