Sunday, October 31, 2010

Learning to take a hit

At some point during martial arts study, you're going to get hit.  It may be in sparring or it may occur unintentionally during practice.  As unpleasant as it is, it's important to discover how you react to being struck.  It can be quite telling for some.

The biggest advantage to being hit is that you get an idea of what it might be like to be attacked.  Many people have never been hit or it was so long ago that they have no real reference to draw upon from past experience.  Being hit makes a lot of people freeze.  A combination of shock, pain and often disassociation to the events occur.  Different people will respond in different ways to the shock of a punch, kick, knee or elbow.  How do you react?  Do you freeze?  Do you shut down and turtle?  Do you get mad?  Fight back?

Anyone who takes their training seriously needs to discover the answers to these questions at some point.  Once you have experienced a hit, you need to spend time visualizing how you will react if it happens in real life.  You will likely also have the double edged sword of adrenaline to deal with, great for strength and fight or flight, not so good for motor skills.

As for my training, it contains a fair amount of contact and more than a little pain.  I think it's important.  We are very careful, of course, and no one wants to get injured during training, but the addition of increasing discomfort or the shock of a little 'shot' adds an element of reality to the mix.  It is not possible to replicate the type of shock and intensity of real combat without hurting each other, but we try to get as close as safety will allow.  This gives me confidence that my technique will work.  If I'm defending a choke, the choke must get tighter and tighter.  If my training partner just sort of puts his or her hands around my neck, there is no sense of urgency to my response.  If I'll be choked out if I don't do something quickly, I really learn what will and won't work.

We also rely heavily on 'softening' techniques to disrupt our opponents balance, thought process and energy.  This portion of technique can't be overlooked.  The next part of the defense won't work if the first part isn't done properly.

In some ways, you learn how to give a hit while learning how to take one.

I have seen some martial arts clubs where there is never any contact of any kind.  My fear is that in a real confrontation, students of those clubs would have no idea how to react to an attack if they've been hit.  Technique often goes out the window once you're hurt.

I'm not suggesting getting heavy handed in your training or getting too aggressive.  Training should still be enjoyable and safe, but if your goal is to learn an art that can save you from a real world attack, you better learn to take a hit.

Be safe.


  1. It's interesting that you focus on hitting as the form of contact that people 'fear' in a martial arts club. I wonder if that is because your background is in jujitsu? My experience in a karate club is that people don't so much fear getting hit (we do a lot of sparring) but fear being thrown. They fear that being thrown to the ground will hurt. My experience of jujitsu suggests that people overcome the fear of getting hurt through throwing at a very early stage but take longer to get over the fear of being hit. In my karate club it is the other way around! However, all this shows is that fear of pain is a univeral one and that with training one can learn to overcome it. An interesting topic, thank you

  2. Thanks for the comments, Sue.

    A very good point about learning to be thrown. There is a very real, and in my opinion, legitimate fear of being thrown. The difference is that you want to learn to be thrown, wanting to be hit is slightly different. You normally know you are about to be thrown, or realize you are being thrown prior to impact. Over time, the fear leaves and being thrown becomes fairly painless and stress free. I'm referring more to adjusting to the shock or surprise of an unexpected hit and learning how to deal with the disruption it causes. While you want to learn how to be thrown to avoid injury or discomfort, few people want to learn to be hit.

    As for your training, your style seems to be quite progressive. I have seen more than one school that teaches Karate that is strictly hands off. It's these senior belts that I worry about in a real confrontation.

    Fear of pain is a universal thing but it's important to experience pain enough to learn to deal with the upset it can cause, especially to the uninitiated.

  3. Thought provoking post. And thought out comments. Its always a treat, albeit rare, to find thoughtful and intelligent people engaged in the martial arts. Articles like these just get me salivating. I've done a lot of research on the human response to threat, harm, and challenge. I've integrated the work of the stress discipline and emotion discipline who basically study the same process but focus on different elements of it and who do not refer to the concepts and theories of the other discipline, to develop an integrated model which explains the entire process. Much of what we know in the martial arts/combative discipline comes from the concepts and theories of the stress discipline and focus on the human physiological response. There is SO much more! The stress discipline, and the martial arts/combative discipline that refers to it, is like one of the blind men of Indostan who are asked to describe an elephant by feeling just one part of it. The poem ends with 'they were all right and they were all wrong.' ... I can't wait to return to this work after I've finished writing my book on the throwing techniques and takedown techniques of ALL the martial arts.

  4. PS: I used to teach a women's self defence course which was designed by Debbie Clarke (brilliant course and became compulsory in one of the private schools in Perth). I've seen women who literally panic and freak out when only light contact is made with the hands around their throat. I've always said one of the biggest practical advantages of any martial arts training is it desensetises you, to a degree, to attacks. Funnily enough, this is the same comment made by a Major in the US Army in his thesis on hand-to-hand combat training in the US military.

  5. John,

    Thanks for the compliment. I have been extremely fortunate to have found some like minded or thoughtful martial artists who have commented from time to time on my blog. They are often from very different disciplines than I but they are all examining their chosen arts. They are challenging what they know and are improving their skill and understanding along the way.

    The stress response to combat is a interesting and important topic, especially to martial artists. It can often be the most significant factor in an altercation. I've been studying this topic for a while now and you're right, there's so much more. I've blogged previously about the dangers of freezing up and the dangers of going through the motions in training. Thanks for the comments.