The effects of age on Taekwondo sparring are relative and sometimes specific to the individual fighter. However, barring any specific injury or illness, aging means that your strength, flexibility, joint movement, endurance, and thinking speed will degrade, which will slow your speed of movement and reaction time. These factors do not degrade at the same rate, some may degrade relatively early in life, while others only degrade in your later years. Most times the changes occur gradually over many years so we learn to compensate for them without realizing it. However, at some point, the degradation reaches a point that we can no longer compensate for it and we have to make major changes in the way we fight.
After training continuously in Taekwondo for many years, your body should have developed a lot of muscle memory, which means it reacts to events on its own. For example, when your opponent exposes his or her abdomen, your lead leg fires a round kick to the opening, seemingly without any conscious thought on your part. Even though your speed and reflex time may have degraded, muscle memory helps makes up for some of the loss.
Years of training also means years of experience. Over the years, you will have seen just about every type of technique possible, will have learned to “read” your opponents’ intentions, learned how to hide your intentions, learned to relax and not make wasted movements, and learned how to misdirect and fool your opponents. These things help you make up for any degradation due to aging.
Trained, seasoned bodies are also tough. When young muscle and mature muscles of the same type and size are compared, the mature muscle is tougher. It may be degraded in some the aspects, such as strength and endurance, but overall it is tough and able to perform under more adverse conditions than a younger muscle might perform.
If you have been around the martial arts for a few years, I am sure you have seen the old guys who can still hold their own and sometimes out fight younger opponents. They seem too know what will happen before it happens, be in the right place at the right time, seem nonchalant in their behavior, and never miss attacking an opening.
When our speed and reaction time degrade, we must make up for the losses by using cunning. Against quick kickers, block so hard that it hurts their legs and knocks them off balance, and stay in so close that their kicks are nullified. Against quick punchers, stay in so close that they are constantly off balance and cannot set themselves for an attack. Do not fight in the “no” zone, that range at which you are in range for being attacked with kicks and quick lunges, but at which you cannot effectively launch an attack. If you stay at a long range, you may be out of range of kick attacks, but you do not have the speed to close the distance in your attacks. If you stay in close, the quicker speed of a younger opponent is partially nullified.
Stay relaxed, offer no openings, and only attack openings. When you are under attack, counterattack exposed openings. Conserve your energy until the opponent begins to tire and slow, then finish them. Only use a few kicks and avoid high kicks; kicks sap energy. Rely on basic, clean techniques that score with little exertion.
One plan I am always suggesting in jest is to use a bracketing system in sparring that similar to that used in drag racing. In drag racing, a small horsepower car may race against a big horsepower car; the more powerful car is simply handicapped by having to start a few predetermined seconds after the smaller car starts. Relating this to sparring, as the match starts, the younger fighter would not be able to score for as many seconds as there is a difference between the ages of the fighters. For example, when fighting an opponent who is 10 years older, for the first 10 seconds, the younger fighter would not be scored any points.
Not all is bad; age does have its advantages. When I compete and I win, I look good in the eyes of the spectators because I beat the younger opponent, and the opponent looks bad because he got beat by an old man. When I compete and I loose, I look good in the eyes of the spectators because I put up an unanticipated good fight against a younger opponent, and the opponent does not look good because he beat an old man. I look good either way; the opponent looks bad either way.
Opponents fear me! Either because they are intimidated by my demeanor or skills, or because they fear I may fall over dead while sparring them and they will always be known as the one who killed the old guy.