I've been nudged from several different directions in the last few days to think more about sparring in general, and free-sparring in particular. It's the biggest gap in my own martial arts skill set for a combination of reasons. To begin with, I seem to have no natural ability at all: I can't read my opponent's moves and I can't analyze, plan, or strategize in the middle of a bout. I can't even do simple things like move in and out of range appropriately. In addition, for a variety of reasons, it stopped being part of my regular training with my first instructor a number of years ago, so any progress I'd made on those fronts has long been lost. What's really frustrating is that I have developed a pretty good intellectual understanding (i.e., I can watch other people and coach them), and I know that my basic physical tools (kicks, punches, blocks, etc.) are sound. I just can't seem to put it all together for myself.
On the one hand, then, I am well aware of what I'm missing and want very much to start work on it. I value sparring, after all, for many reasons. Even when the "rules" of engagement are more limited than true street fighting, it's a great way to build offensive and defensive reflexes. That includes being able to judge and manipulate distance, read and counter attacks, stay calm in high-adrenaline situations, and, in my case, not freak out when I get hit, especially in the head. It's also great conditioning, with its periods of high-intensity movement followed by short periods of rest. Yes, I do know why it's important, and yes, I do want to acquire those skills and reflexes.
On the other hand, my feelings are definitely conflicted about the prospect. And the conflict comes from the most obvious possible place: fear, in a variety of colors and flavors. First, because of my own history, I don't react at all well to being hit, especially in the head. I worked hard for several years at desensitizing myself, but it's been long enough that I'm sure some of that has worn off. So I'm afraid of my response when that happens. Then there's the simple fear of pain and injury. I am not a physically brave person and absolutely do worry about those things. I don't mind bruises and sore muscles; I do fear the more serious stuff. I'm afraid of "failing" -- of doing badly, and of how people might judge me because of that.
The weird thing is that, in the right context, I can enjoy sparring. When I was studying arnis, I probably spent a good hour each week on full-contact sparring and never minded the bruises and bashes. For reasons I can't entirely explain, I could actually do some of the things I find so challenging in empty-hand work: I could read my "opponent", I could plan and analyze; I didn't mind getting hit. (I think some of that had to do with knowing and trusting my partners; I also think that being hit with an impersonal weapon like a stick is fundamentally different from being hit with someone's hand.) I've also had fun working with other women in open sparring at Special Training. Of course, that's an ultimately safe environment, with lots of cooperation and trust, so most of my "fear factors" simply don't apply.
I'm hoping that I'll get the opportunity to build up to free sparring again, and to really be able to study it and get better at it. My riding has taught me that I am capable of overcoming my fear if I take things in small stages. My gut tells me I'm ready for the new challenge. I hope it's right!