Startup Lessons from Getting My Butt Kicked Sparring Every Week

Posted by admin on Apr 8, 2014 in Uncategorized |

Yasuda Kicking Bob

Like many “good” little Asian kids, I grew up taking a series of different martial arts: judo, shotokan karate, american kenpo, shaolin kenpo, taekwondo, wing chun and jujutsu to name a few.  Perhaps at the outset, my parents thought it was a good way for me to connect with my cultural heritage (or lack thereof).  Or, more likely, as a “well-rounded” or maybe just a “round” kid, my parents wanted me to be able to protect myself.  I remember many of the routines that I went through as a kid during martial arts practice: running around like a senseless fool, useless stretching, memorization of some bizarre movement that made no sense whatsoever, group humiliation by attempting to execute the bizarre movement, brutal physical conditioning, attempts to not throw up during practice, more useless stretching, and finally mental torture.

As the years went on, I began to realize the importance of a proper warm-up, stretching to avoid pulling a muscle, learning techniques (blocks, punches, throws, holds, locks, kata, etc.), actual execution against an attacker, strengthening exercises, fitness, stretching after a workout to avoid soreness, and meditation.  After a long hiatus, I got back into martial arts again in 2000 and have been doing it ever since.

A few years ago, I joined an awesome school here in San Francisco.  At the outset, it was mainly for my son, but I soon started taking classes myself.  In fact, we’ve been able to set the schedule in such a way that while he takes his class, I’m able to take my own class with one of the instructors.  It’s truly a win-win where my son can learn in a great school and I can get a workout in at the same time.

The instructor, who is literally half my age, is an amazing teacher and a great practitioner.  Years ago, he encouraged me to start to spar.  Reluctantly, I agreed and dusted off my gloves and pads from yesteryear.  Yes, we wear protective gear, but I can assure you that no head guard or chest protector can prevent the impact of a well-executed kick to the solar plexus or punch/kick to the face.  I have had a few injuries that have put me out for weeks, required crutches, and/or various pain remedies.  My “favorite” recent injury was getting kicked hard enough on the side of my face that I felt the TMJ on the opposite side of my face momentarily dislocate… ouch…

Furthermore, every week I enter the school knowing that I will lose.  My instructor is a better sparring practitioner than me in every way: faster, fitter, stronger, and excellent execution of moves.  He’s an instructor, so maybe it’s his job.  But, he’s just better.  I’m lucky if I can get a few punches or kicks in from time-to-time.

So, why do I take this abuse?  Am I glutton for pain/punishment?  Pure stupidity?

The answer:


Really!  It’s an incredibly intense workout where every muscle in my body is tensed and firing for quickness and power.  Stamina and fitness are key – the more tired I get, the more abuse I take.  I can assure you that there is no better incentive for keeping fit than avoiding punches or kicks.  Moreover, it’s an opportunity for me to practice various techniques in a controlled, but real fight.  I learned the hard way that many traditional forms just don’t work for me.  It may seem crazy, but I feel that all of the other types of exercise that I do from running, jump rope, tennis, surfing, lifting, and practicing traditional kenpo curriculum all come together when sparring – endurance from running; staying light on the balls of my feet from jump rope; footwork, hand eye coordination and explosive power from tennis; balance from surfing; strength from lifting; and martial arts techniques from kenpo all come into play.

But these are all related to the physical aspects of sparring.  There have been several other positive attributes that helped me in my professional and personal life.  4 come to mind immediately.

  1. LEARNING TO EMBRACE FAILURE:   As I mentioned, every week, I go into class knowing that I will fail.  BUT, going into adverse situations knowing that the odds are stacked against you builds a certain “toughness” of character.  Without going into crazy detail here (I may write something in another post), I’m in the start-up world.  9 out of 10 start-ups fail.  But the most successful startup entrepreneurs are ones that may fail 9 times, learn WHY they fail, and keep going up against the odds to find just 1 idea that works.  In sparring, when I fail, I LITERALLY get punched in the face.  It sucks.  When I fail as a start-up entrepreneur, it sucks, but it certainly doesn’t suck as much as getting punched in the face… I really used to FEAR failure.  Now, I accept as just a necessary part of the road to success.  More to come on this topic later.
  2. LEARNING TO CONTROL EMOTIONS:  The first time I sparred as a kid, I got my @ss handed to me.  More specifically, I was hit with a 5 punch combination and took a side kick to my stomach which put me on the floor.  I remember getting up, yelling several expletives, and going after my sparring partner with a highly unsuccessful “windmill” style of punching.  When that didn’t work, I tried to tackle him.  That prompted another 5 punch combination and side kick from my sparring partner which sent me sprawling.  When I got up from the floor I was in a rage and my sensei (teacher) moved in to break up the “fight” – quite honestly, to protect me from getting destroyed again. I remember him saying, “OK Jeff.  What did we learn from this?”  I responded, “We learned that [such-in-such] is an asshole!”  “No,” my instructor calmly responded, “YOU are the asshole.  When you lost control of your emotions, you turned into a horrible fighter.  You had no control over your body and you ran around like a crazy person trying to tackle your partner.  Because you had no defenses or proper form, you left yourself wide open to attack.”  While I was incredibly pissed off, I must admit that it made perfect sense as I wiped away mucous and blood from my nose.  He then went on to explain, “When you lose control of your emotions, you just lose.  Period.”  I’ve found that getting out-of-control upset when things go wrong in the startup world just creates more problems.  Sure, there are tons of disappointments, rejections, and professional embarrassing episodes along the entrepreneurial path, but having emotional outbursts creates a bad culture and makes it tougher for everyone to pick up the pieces and start again.  I recently saw the movie with Ashton Kutcher playing Steve Jobs.  I think you get the point.
  3. STRESS RELIEVER:  I just have to admit that physically hitting something is a great release of stress.  I’m not saying to “reach out and [touch] hit someone,” but go get a standalone punching bag and start firing away with your fists of fury when things go awry.  Believe me, it’s a great stress reliever!  Startups are hard.  You have investors, employees, customers, business partners, and vendors to whom you have to report.  When things go wrong (which they ALWAYS do), there is stress.  The bigger the problem, the bigger the stress.  Learning to find HEALTHY ways to relieve that stress is a good thing and sparring works for me!
  4. LEARNING TO LEARN:  Once my ego gets out of the way about the importance of “winning” or being the better “sparring partner,” I’m incredibly receptive to learning where I can do better.  Since I expect to lose, I want to learn WHY I lose.  I ask for feedback.  I ask for specific suggestions and strategies for doing better next time.  I ask if I repeated a bad habit that I tried to “fix” from earlier sessions.  The list of questions goes on and on.  In my start-up, like performing a science project in grade school, we often have a hypothesis, a procedure to execute the experiment, and then record the results.  Most of the time, it’s a failure, the odds are against us.  But understanding WHY it failed is incredibly valuable.  Question EVERYTHING.  Not only so you don’t make the mistake again, but because it sets up a system of experimentation, execution, and analysis that could eventually lead to a successful outcome for the business.


I’m sure I will revisit this post, but thought I’d share a bit about “Kung Fu Fighting” and how it just might make you a better startup entrepreneur…


And now the original song!  Enjoy!





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