Do you have a sparring partner?

Photo by Jonathan Tomas on Unsplash

I saw Top Gun: Maverick last week. I was flown back to my childhood by the opening scene, jet fighters taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier, whilst Danger Zone kept time. Everything combining to bring about the biggest smile my face has fired up in a long time.

In the time since the first film, Maverick and Ice Man have become friends. Ice climbed the Naval hierarchy and looked out for Maverick, helping him out when he attempted career suicide on several occasions.

Of course it didn’t start out being such a love-in between them.

In the first film they were fierce rivals. Two alpha males, butting heads, both determined to come out on top.

The relationship was great viewing and the competition kept the crews of both planes sharp.

By the end of the film they’d overcome their differences, respected each other, saw themselves as one team.

They talked about having a wing man.

I call it having a sparring partner.

Back to 2009

I’ve told some of the story before. By 2009 life and work and my relationship had got too much for me to handle, so I took a sabbatical and a went to China to learn kung fu.

When I arrived I was assigned to a training group, based on the ‘form’ I wanted to learn and my size/weight. I was paired with someone similar to me, just slightly taller and stronger.

Kristian and I practiced every day.




Weapons training

It was good fun, but he kept me focused because I never knew when a heavy blow would land and I’d get knocked off my feet.

And I wanted to beat him.

I once used a move on him whilst sparring in the boxing ring in front of our class. I swept one of his feet away, knocking him off balance, then landed a blow.

We were both surprised!

Working with him had forced me to raise my game. I was training hard, learning new things and taking the opportunities when they came.

Back to the present

Last year my mentor told me about a couple of people I should engage with at work as I looked to develop.

‘They’ll make good sparring partners’ she told me. It was the first time I’d heard that term at work, but the concept made sense.

I worked closely with one of them and it’s been tough.

I like them on a personal level, but we’re competing. Competing for ratings, for projects, for progression.

We talk through ideas, swap updates, discuss challenges we face.

Some days, I’ll be honest, it stresses me out. I don’t know what’s coming next. But that’s my own insecurity getting to me.

When I stop to think about it, this relationship is good for me. It forces me to raise my game. Stops me being complacent. It keeps me sharp. There’s healthy friction and I’m grateful for that.

I never thought I’d say that.

So who’s your sparring partner? If you don’t have one, can you think of anyone who could play this role in your life? Or is there someone who sets an observable benchmark you can aspire to beat?

A word of caution

Competition is good, but it can consume you if you let it. I grew up with a brother, a similar age to me. I’ve played a lot of individual sports. And I have a son who strives to win in every situation.

I know how quickly things can turn sour when, hot and bothered at the height of a head-to-head, you get frustrated and lose your temper.

I’ve learned that it helps to check yourself every now and then, asking if what you’re competing over is as important as it feels in the moment.

Be the one to deescalate the situation.

Laugh because you’re enjoying the battle.

Be a good loser. Say ‘well done, good game’.

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