If I want to waltz I practice the steps and then dance. If my goal is to speak a foreign language fluently I learn some words and then go talk to a native speaker. There is no greater motivator and evaluator than actually performing the skill. If I want to learn martial arts then I spar.
Sparring makes you face reality. If I practice footwork and technique by myself I can build a body-awareness of "good". "Good" means I am replicating what I have been taught, to the limits of my understanding.
"Good" does not equate to effective. If I think my defense is "good" but my partner keeps making contact then I really need to go back to class for critical commentary. As a student my understanding of the art is limited. My partner just helped me realize that I need more training.
"Good" does not mean unified. Most arts teach a combination of body control, offense, and defense. I practice in personal speed. That is, I practice at a pace where I can perform and will recover when one of the elements is off. When sparring I have to adapt to another person’s speed and seldom have the opportunity to recover before working my defense, offense, and footwork. My partner pushes me outside my comfort zone and I either learn to defend better or take the hit.
“Good” does not mean sustainable. There is a tremendous amount of energy expended in a fight. Dealing with a moving opponent takes more effort than punching air. Your senses are heightened as you strain for awareness of your partner’s energy. Blood pumps through your veins because your body think this is “real”. Your body pours out chemicals and signals to minimize the effects of trauma while your brain tries to control fear and emotions. This is one of the greatest learning opportunities in martial arts! You have to steady your mind to grow your skills. You must stay in control when the fight gets real. Sparring is the only way to build that control.
“Good” seldom leads to growth. In the book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” the author points out that our maximum growth comes when we are challenged just past our current skill level. He further explains how much our minds benefit from that sort of growth and how that can lead to greater success in our everyday lives. If the air isn’t punching back, are you really tested past your skill level?
“Good” seldom means you are following on the founder’s path. Ancient martial arts like Kenjutsu, Shaolin Boxing, and Fencing, were fostered in battle. Modern arts like Kyokushinkaikan and Krav Maga were founded by people who actually fought. If the passion that brought your art to life was born of struggle can you actually connect with that passion without struggle?
How do you get past “good”? Practice, perform, and evaluate.
A few effective skills performed repeatedly with intent makes a much better martial artist. Many of us have heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”. Sorry. It doesn’t. If you practice sloppy offense without intent then you will do a perfectly lousy offense in a fight. Want to do 1,000 punches a day for a month? Don’t. Do 10 punches with absolutely perfect form and a mind fully engaged. Take a break. If your mind is still fully engaged then do 10 more. When you lose form or intent, move on to something else.
Now take those skills into a match with a partner. Contend only with yourself. Your partner provides opportunities to learn. Get pushed past your practice. Force yourself to unify body position, offense, and defense faster than you ever have before. Recover from mistakes and press on. Do not judge the match won or lost, just keep going.
When the match is done, get feedback on how you performed. What did you do better than you’ve ever done before? Where can you improve? You will know some of this and your partner and instructor will also provide key insights.
Businesses call this the “Plan-Do-Check-Act” cycle. The military calls it the “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act” loop. Businesses risk billions of dollars and the military puts lives at stake based on this process. Why not use it for your own training?
If you want to be a ballroom great, dance. If you dream of being a polyglot, speak. If you want to be a martial artist, spar.