Continually develop your individual expression—physically, mentally, and spiritually—by combining the proper principles, techniques, and approaches.

Although the steps to becoming a great fighter speak in words directed to people studying martial arts, you can apply them to any pursuit, be it a sport, a profession, or your life. They are words of wisdom that have withstood the test of time. If you approach life with these tools in your toolbox, you will be well prepared to meet life's challenges and come out a winner.

Take your time. A key factor in freestyle sparring or any type of fighting is taking your time—not searching for immediate gratification as our society teaches us. For example, you might try a new combination that doesn't give you the immediate results you want, but by being patient and working repetitions, you will find a successful way to use it.

Use good timing. Timing involves a decision to execute a technique without hesitation when the moment is right. Being too fast or too slow will get you in trouble. By being there at the right time, you will produce effective results. Life teaches us that when preparation meets opportunity, it far outweighs any amount of talent.

Develop your footwork. Footwork is essential in fighting, and getting from point A to point B as fast as possible is crucial, so you must master your footwork pattern. Work your system over and over, and don't forget to use visualization in this learning process. A little extra time here while you establish a solid base can make all the difference in getting out of the way of something coming at you. After all, it's going to be hard to strike your opponent if you're already lying on the mat!

Learn from confrontation. For you to grow past your fears, you must confront them head on. Everything in martial arts comes down to confrontation or facing up to something. Sooner or later, even wearing sparring equipment, you're going to be on the receiving end of a blow or two. You may get the wind knocked out of you or a split lip, and I'm talking about in the classroom. To become a fighter, it is necessary for you to get past being angry, to get past the pain, and to evaluate what happened from the technical side. Face your weak areas and build them up. In other words, learn from your mistakes.

Be aware of your surroundings. When sparring, you must be aware of not only your range of combat but also your opponent's. Remain alert to your opponent's actions while not freezing from tension. You will be amazed at what you can see when you expand your space to include your opponent.

Practice being universal. In sparring it is easy to develop favorite techniques and use them all the time. Beware! Certain things will work only on certain people. You must become a universal fighter, adapting and moving in rhythm to your opponent's movements. Apply this in techniques, footwork, target, and thinking. Use no patterns at all, just action and response.

Stay conscious of yourself at all times. In many sparring matches there is an attacker and a counterattacker. When executing a technique as the attacker, you must be totally committed on the physical level. Mentally and emotionally you must remain loose and free to respond to whatever takes place. When you can flow as one with the universe, you will have learned a valuable lesson.

Responding under pressure. Freestyle sparring is a great way to develop your ability to respond under pressure. Frequently in sparring sessions, a student's mind locks when the opponent is constantly throwing techniques or when he or she gets tired or scared. At this point you should be responding to what is in front of you, not analyzing your thoughts and emotions. This analyzing and thinking is done before you ever get in a combative situation. The key is to stay conscious of what is going on at all times, to be fast on your feet, and, above all, to be able to respond under pressure.

Control your emotions. If you want to win your match, controlling your emotions is essential. If you are being hit more often than your opponent, anger may flare up along with feelings of frustration, shame, and loss of control. When your emotions take over, your ability to execute techniques gets worse because you are not in control of the match any more. To be in control, you need to embrace these emotions and direct them toward winning.
Maintain control even when your opponent tries to trick you. It's simply an attitude of mind over matter. You have to believe in yourself from the inside, so your attitude and spirit become strong. This is the perfect time to showcase your champion attitude. Now your techniques will match your spirit, appearing well-placed and strong. The moment your opponent loses control, you are there smiling, ready to react to the uncontrolled movements.

Be yourself. When practicing, it is important not to become a clone of the other students or your instructor but to continually develop your individual expression—physically, mentally, and spiritually—by combining the proper principles, techniques, and approaches. In the martial arts, the degree to which you can express a particular action, principle, or approach to someone else parallels your ability to execute it. Be yourself!

Follow your instincts. Being true to your nature is key to flowing in harmony with the universe. An aikido expert calls it qi. Others call it your sixth sense. This is expressed by being in tune with yourself consciously and unconsciously. You must not try to feel or receive, but simply be the situation. Act on your gut feelings, first an action, then a response, an action and a response, back and forth. Focus on your successes. Follow your instincts and go with the flow.

Martial Artists Avoid Fighting

Many people study martial arts because they want to develop their fighting skills, then have a chance to go one-on-one with other martial artists. It seems more refined and socially acceptable to them than going outside and picking a fight with someone on the street. Of course you don't get the same possible dire consequences, because there is always a measure of controlled fighting in the ring. However, the ultimate measure of martial artists is not their ability to fight but their capacity to avoid fighting in the first place. Competitive sparring at tournaments is simply a proving ground to experience your physical, mental, and spiritual prowess on the battlefield. It is where you gain control of the emotions you feel under stress or an out-of-control situation. The reward is to develop your self-confidence to such a high level that you know you can protect yourself and win, and fighting isn't necessary at all.

However, if the situation arises that you must engage in combat, allow your attributes to accelerate your techniques in a natural manner that's appropriate to your opponent's attack. For example, if your opponent pulls you forward, push yourself forward into him or her, or if your opponent pushes you, grab anywhere you can and pull him or her into you. You are now in tune with the situation and responding with a natural give and take. This is the ultimate manifestation of universal sparring.

The above excerpt is from The Complete Martial Artist: Developing the Mind, Body, and Spirit of a Champion—Self-Mastery Empowering Youths by Willie “The Bam” Johnson, Pub Date September 2019, by YMAA Publication Center, ISBN13: 9781594396533.