The Amazing Power of Sparring

By Toku

In the Dojo, we talk about coaching as a martial art, because coaching is about the battle for possibility in the face of cynicism and resignation.

Some people talk about coaching from an academic perspective. They talk about practicums, supervision, and certification.

Some people talk about coaching from a spiritual perspective. They talk about energy, intuition, and flow.

But in the Dojo, I talk about coaching from a practice perspective, borrowing heavily from Zen and the martial arts. I do this because coaching is more than what you can know and study like an academic. Coaching is more than what you feel and intuit like a wise person.

Coaching is the art of bringing knowledge, being, doing, and nothingness into the arena and intending to create what seems impossible.

Why We Call It Sparring

If you have ever done sparring in boxing or another martial art, you know that sparring has an element of safety. There is usually a teacher guiding you, you wear pads, and there is an agreement not to go full out.

But in sparring there is also an element of danger. You are hitting and getting hit. Things get messy. The careful rules of the kata turn into reality. And in this controlled chaos so much of what you think you know evaporates, and yet you learn something you can’t learn in any other way.

This is why we call the practice sessions we do in the Dojo “sparring.” We want to invoke the realness of the practice. We want to invite you to consider that your practice matters, that something is at stake. We want you to feel safe enough to take risks, but we want you to be on the edge of control.

How Sparring Prepares You for Coaching

We create sparring this way because of what it makes possible. When you’re in a real session, you aren’t in control, there aren’t rules. Your client (if you are lucky) will bring all of themselves to your coaching. Things will get messy, confusing, and dangerous.

If you have had practice—practice being a little out of control, of pushing your edges, of stepping into the unknown—you’ll be ready. If you haven’t, you’ll scramble. You’ll buy into your clients limitations, you’ll try to force them into a process that makes you feel safe. This is not the best you can be as a coach.

This is why we create a place to spar as a coach. In some ways it’s just like other forms of practice. You coach and get feedback, you get coached and give feedback. You get hit by insight, you offer hits of insight.

But because of the way we frame it, people show up differently. They’re less stuffy, less controlled, less worried about doing it right. Which is why we get better results. You may not think it matters or that it will change you, and yet, you might be surprised.

What to Expect When You Spar

If you decide to join us for sparring, you can expect: 

Practice and Pressure

  1. When you come to spar you’ll be paired with another coach to practice.
  2. You’ll get a chance to coach them for 10 – 15 minutes.
  3. We encourage you to coach them just like you would any other client. Pretend it’s real.
  4. You won’t be able to go as slowly or get as much done as you’re used to. This is on purpose.

When you’re in a real session with a real client you feel pressure. You feel pressure to perform, to sign them up, to adapt, to be a good coach. The way most people practice, you feel no pressure. You go slow, you take your time. It’s not real anyway.

In the Dojo, we trade that real-session money pressure, performance pressure, and ego pressure for time pressure. So you won’t have enough time, or at least it may not feel like it. And that’s okay. It’s an invitation to trust yourself, to be confident, or to stumble and feel what it’s like to cave to pressure… so that you won’t cave to pressure in your REAL sessions.

  1. The session will end, because all sessions end and you will have coached how you coached.

Being okay with this is one of the most powerful aspects of sparring.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

After each round of sparring you get feedback.

In the Dojo, we give feedback using BO. We call it BO because it makes people laugh and when people laugh they chill the F out a little bit. It’s just feedback.

B Stands for Brilliance. There is ALWAYS Brilliance in your coaching. This is a chance to see that. Even in the WORST SESSION YOU’VE EVER HAD. There is brilliance. So your partner will tell you what they loved about your coaching. This is the stuff you should do more of.

O Stands for Opportunity. There is also always opportunity in your coaching. Sometimes it will be things you missed or things you could have done better. Sometimes it’s just another path you could have gone down. In the Dojo, we don’t believe in a ‘right’ way to coach.

There is the way you coached, and there are moments of brilliance, and there are opportunities. The Samurai Coach learns from both. So the opportunities are offered in this spirit—the spirit of learning.

Going from Coach to Client and Client to Coach

At the end of each round of sparring you change places: the client becomes the coach and the coach becomes the client.

This is helpful because this is what the life of a coach is. Sometimes you are the coach; you are standing in possibility with your client and creating. Sometimes you are the client; you are getting supported and challenged in the midst of creation.

Then the session ends and if you gave feedback before you get to give feedback now.

This get a chance to be generous. But you also get to learn.

When you get feedback, you are being told what clients never tell you: what worked for them, what didn’t, what we missed. Clients rarely tell us the truth about our coaching.

Your clients want you to feel good and they want to look good. So they say nothing. They tell you they’ll think about it and then never answer an email again. When you get feedback, you’re experiencing the generosity of honesty that you rarely get as a coach.

But when you give your feedback you are learning about coaching as well.

You are learning to see coaching from a client perspective. You are learning what your view of coaching is. When you see your view of coaching, you learn from it. When you don’t see it, you don’t learn from it.

This is perhaps one of the most overlooked values of sparring. Getting to be the client observing the coach will teach you more about coaching than you could ever realize. When you are the client you mostly think about yourself.

Through sparring, you get to be the client and really think about the coaching and what’s happening for the coach, as well as inside of you.

Gathering Together

When the sparring ends, we gather in the great hall.

This is a chance to share what you learned with other coaches, other Samurai. This is a chance for your wisdom to wash over other people. Perhaps there will be a short demonstration or discussion, but you will learn from other people’s learning.

This is how we create sparring. It’s unlike any other kind of practice and yet it’s a lot like other kinds of practice. You may think, “I’ve done this before, I know what this is like.” But in truth, we’ve created sparring differently in big and subtle ways.

You may be intimidated by sparring. You may worry that you will be very bad, or that you’ll be so good that you won’t learn anything. But there is always something to be learned by practice in this way…

If you are willing to be brave enough to try.

If you are willing to be humble enough to practice.

This is why we spar in the Dojo. Because sparring gives you chance to see all the angles of a conversation in just 30 minutes. We assume that mastery can happen quickly, that insight is right there, ripe for the picking.

So if you want to get better, to stop being lonely, or having doubts, or being bored, or wondering if you’re any good, or wondering how you could improve… Or if you just want to have fun again.

If you just want to enjoy coaching and have some fun and try out a wild style or see how other people do it.

If you’re just a little curious, sparring is for you. Sparring is for anyone who’s open to it. That’s how we created it. With no right or wrong way. Just coaches, committed to practice, stepping into the arena together—to push each other to be the best version of coach they can possibly be.

We’d love to have you join us.


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