Above all things, I learned to keep my training honest. The ego is an insidious thing which will always try to cushion any failings. It is very easy to rationalise any bad habit, mistake, dumb move and so on, until you get to a point where you aren't really as good as you think you are. I recently spent four months training like an MMA fighter at London Shootfighters, and let me tell you, they keep you honest when you're sparring. Maybe it's an obvious point but hard sparring really shows you what's working and what isn't. I believe that Karate today can learn a lot from the youngest incarnation of the oldest sport in the world.
The event that had the biggest impact on me was a particular sparring session. I had only done two previously, so I was still unsure of the etiquette. The first session I was told after asking to go 100%, which I did not do. I presume that the coach guessed I wouldn't, after having seen my conservative BJJ style. I do find it difficult to let go sometimes, and find myself being overly cerebral. Anyway, on the day of this particular sparring session I was having an off day for various reasons, but I elected to spar regardless. My rationale was that this would be a good way to learn my weaknesses, bad habits, and such, little did I know that they would be communicated to me very clearly. Unfortunately it was not communicated to me that my opponent would be going in hard this time. Regardless, I put up a brave but losing fight in the first round. One of my major failings that day was leaning in with punches, being overly fixated on making contact (perhaps a habit from point fighting), which my opponent cleverly capitalised on by stepping back and kicking me in the head. Maybe on a good day I would have been fast enough dodge it, maybe not, but it was definitely a mistake which I was thus forced to address.
I really did try to follow the advice of the coach, who I have a lot of respect for, both between and during sessions but I could not help feeling that at the time I did worse the more I changed. I suppose this is often the way with changing technique for the better. After being fairly beaten up for five minutes we took a break, and I was told that I had another round. "I'm not quitting" I thought, which I later learned was something of a family trait, both my Dad (another Karateka) and Granddad (a boxer) had apparently been in the same situation.
The first half of the second round resembled the first round, however I started to wake up, landing a decent counter right, and an intercepting front kick. I was suddenly staggered by a harder throw of the same head kick that I had been taking periodically, which stunned me despite the shin-guards. I was checked over for a minute or so, given the O.K. to continue, and went back in. I had learned my lesson and finally stopped leaning, a point emphasised by the great and persistent cornering work of Michael Page, who I began to respect more and more each time I encountered him. Aided by this cornering I had something of a second-wind and came back stronger, this time keeping range with efficient use of the jab I had developed during my time there. The last minutes of the round strangely held my opponent and I on a roughly equal footing, as far as I could tell anyway. I had reached that point that in Zen they call Mushin, or "no-mind", and though stunned and bleeding thickly from the nose, was more ready than ever. Unluckily, or perhaps luckily for the sake of my well being, the round ended shortly after. I thanked my opponent for the lesson and left.
Curiously as I readied to leave the coach told me to look hard in the mirror, and said that one day I would have the opportunity to do that to someone else. I don't know the true intent of that comment but nothing could alienate me more. I am not motivated to hurt people, and the more I follow this path the less I want to.
One thing that martial artists need to understand is that you simply cannot survive a fight if you are thinking about moves. I believe that this is a tendency reinforced by practising a crystallised style, with a right and a wrong way, and a set way of doing things. Mr. Miyagi would suggest that my focus needs more focus. The fixation on performing this or that technique during a fight, thinking "I should throw this or that strike" or any variation of "I am going to do X", is a good way to get your ass kicked. A fight is an arrhythmic, dynamic, chaotic clash of bodies and minds. You must simply act and react. I cannot stress this enough: If this is all you do, you stand a better chance of getting the better of the vast majority of potential opponents. The object of training is simply to hone those reactions into something more efficient and more useful to you. Trust the organism, it breaths without your command, and it will defend itself without your command. The Zen Master Takuan Soho once wrote to Yagyu Munenori, a Master Swordsman, that if a man's mind is in his right arm, the rest of his body is useless, if a man's mind is on a target, he is undefended; the mind must be left alone, and allowed to occupy all space.
Terry Sibley started Karate at the age of 8 with the JKA in England. He also has training in BJJ, Muay Thai, Wrestling and Boxing. Sibley is currently finishing off a degree in Philosophy, with an emphasis in Zen philosophy. You can check out his blog here: http://roninkarate.blogspot.com/