I have an unusual way of measuring my progress with sparring in Taekwondo. It’s not counting strikes or kicks, nor is it about my reaction time or about whether I win a round. It’s about how much I apologize.
When I first started in sparring, I would apologize a lot, especially if I was fighting another woman. However, I’ve noticed that over the last couple of years, I have stopped apologizing so frequently. Obviously, if I hurt someone, or if I don’t have good control for a particular strike, I will apologize, but I don’t wince or say ‘sorry’ nearly as often as I did when I first started.
It’s intimidating to fight in a ring. It’s even intimidating to do drills that require hitting someone over and over. I have never been one for consciously buying into the notion that women are supposed to be ‘nice’ but that sort of social training is insidious and it is hard to shake. I saw it in myself, and I still see it in some of the women I spar with now.
Play fighting is something that is accepted in boys. It’s seen as a ‘natural’ sort of behaviour and is almost encouraged, or, at least, not particularly discouraged. Girls, on the other hand, are strongly discouraged from that sort of physical play. That can leave us at a disadvantage should we ever end up in a physical confrontation – our bodies don’t get much practice at dealing with the stress of a fight.
That social correction against women fighting can even happen in Taekwondo class, where we are supposed to be training to fight, I sometimes get called ‘vicious’ for perfectly acceptable strikes that don’t even hurt my opponent. This isn’t a situation where anger gets the better of me in the heat of the moment or anything like that, it’s just regular sparring practice. I’m focused and determined, and looking for an opportunity to score a point, and I get behaviour-checked for not being a ‘nice girl.’ I don’t think they do it on purpose. If you were to ask them, I’m sure they would say that they are just kidding, and that my strikes were perfectly fine. Still, though, some subconscious part of them is saying that I ‘shouldn’t’ do this and that subconscious part has to speak up.
I do my best not to have that sort of ‘nice girl’ expectation of my opponents, though. I even have a prepared response for when one of them apologizes in the ring – ‘I’m at Taekwondo, not cake decorating class. I’m expecting to get hit.’ (No disrespect intended to cake decorators, it’s just not a context where you expect to get into a fist fight.) That usually puts them at ease, at least for the moment, our practice continues and we both keep improving.
Learning to be a good martial artist is tough. There are a lot of skills involved and it takes a long time to put them together effectively. Those skills have to be tested or you won’t be able to apply them to defend yourself in the real world if you need to. Ring sparring is a key part of that testing – even if it is just to get over the unfamiliarity of being in a fight.
It’s unfair that many women have the extra challenge of unearthing and dismissing the social conditioning of being a ‘nice girl’ before they can really improve their fighting skills. It’s worth the effort though, I can feel the difference in my abilities since I have been working to let that social expectation go, and it is a lot easier to be in the ring. I still have a lot of work to do – especially on my reaction time- but now that I have cleared that one obstacle, I can focus on developing my skills instead of getting distracted by trying to be ‘nice.’