Saturday, May 26, 2012

Bad Habits in the Martial Arts - Part I


It could be one of the most common poor practices I see in martial arts today.  Chances are you do it, occasionally at least.  I know I still do it from time to time, although I’m trying to quit…

This bad habit isn’t confined to any one art; it’s across the board, prevalent and persistent.    

It’s the bad practice of tailoring attacks to fit the defense. 

Dangerous and unrealistic, yet it creeps into our day-to-day martial arts practice, often unrealized.


Truly, I think it has innocent beginnings.  It doesn’t start out as the insidious entity that it becomes.  It is born of basic practice on the mechanics of a technique.  When you are first learning, you do so from a set number of attacks.  A wrist grab or lapel grab is used to teach an arm bar, for example. This is a good thing.  As time goes on, however, you need to learn how to adapt a technique, or select a different one, if your opponent doesn’t grab ‘right’.  Often, without even realizing it, we re-set our attacker.  We make them adjust their attack to fit our planned defense.

I think we can all think of a time when a new student attacked you ‘wrong’.  You asked for a punch and they didn’t step in with the correct foot, or you asked for a grab and they grabbed backwards.  We patiently explained that they needed to correct their attack.  Then we wowed them with our knowledge and ability to respond with perfect technique.

Now, it should be mentioned that there is some merit to correcting an ‘incorrect’ attack.  There are certain commonalities that are important to know about real and committed attacks.  Most follow a pattern to a degree.  Not many people throw an uncommitted straight punch at you that stops several inches too short (not many actually ever throw a straight punch, but that’s another topic). 

Correcting a student so that they throw or apply a technique that would actually land and/or do damage is a good practice.

Not figuring out what to do with a committed attack that is done ‘wrong’ is a bad practice.  Combat is unpredictable.  People do bizarre, unanticipated things.  In fact, untrained fighters can sometimes be the most dangerous opponents, as they don’t follow any of the ‘rules’ when it comes to attacking.

I did a couple posts on Aikido recently.  Working on the posts, I ended up watching a whole bunch of associated videos on YouTube. 

Aikido has some bad habits.  Many of the attacks are initiated from an imagined sword attack, with the attacker’s hand held as if it was holding a sword handle, sort of like a lazy downward chop.

I appreciate that Aikido was partially developed with this scenario in mind, and that’s great, but you are less likely to face a sword this days than in feudal times.

Beyond this example, which could be defended by applying it to an offender that might be armed with a bat, baton, bottle, or stick, there are other bad habits.

Take the grab. 

Grabs do occur, so I have no issues with practicing defenses against them.  What should be remembered though, is that grabs are not typically done just for the sake of grabbing; they are being used to do something else.  Usually, it’s a grab and pull, or a grab and strike.  It is part of a larger picture, a means to a nasty end.  To just have your opponent grab your wrist and hold it is not a productive exercise.

When I watch some Aikido demonstrations, I see an outstretched hand and arm being offered to the attacker, often at a specific angle.  The attacker grabs the proffered limb or joint and is subsequently sent for a ride, tossed about effortlessly by the demonstrator.

What I don’t see is the nefarious intent on the part of the attacker.  And the attack is static.  They simply grab the offered limb, and that’s it.  No pulling, no strike attempt.  They run around reaching for the fully extended hand. It's pretty clear that grabbing a hold of that hand or wrist is their end game.  If the person demonstrating did nothing, I'm pretty sure the 'attacker' would just end up frozen with their own arm outstretched, shocked that they had actually caught that illusive rabbit...

Who the heck would ever do this?  This is not an attack you will face.  That’s why it’s a problem.

A similar thing happens in Kali/Escrima.  When you watch two knife or stick fighters engaging in a demonstration or practice, quite often you realize they are fighting using the same ‘rule book’.  The attack, parry, counter attack all follow a certain flow, a certain stance is maintained, as is the distance between one another.  What happens if someone breaks the rules?  Well, they either get cut (a very real possibility) or they might end up landing a good strike or cut on their opponent since they broke rhythm.  Just as with my Aikido examples, I'm not saying that these drills don't have some value.  They improve hand eye coordination, timing, breathing and all that, but the drills, in and of themselves, do not necessarily denote combat ability, or applicability.  If you don't move beyond the set-pattern style of practice, you are selling yourself short.

Watching one video led to watching lots of videos. A video on Aikido led to one on Kali which led to one on Karate, then Ninjutsu, then Jiu Jitsu, and so on and so forth.

I kept seeing the same thing.  My own beloved Jiu Jitsu is by no means exempt from these bad habits. 
Now, as far as demonstrations go, I do understand that there is a certain degree of showmanship involved and you must take into account the safety of the uke (he/she receiving the technique) as well, so I dug a bit deeper.

I started finding clips recorded by students in dojos, clips on self defense websites, blogs etc.

Suffice to say, the problem of tailoring an attack to fit a defense is widespread.  When you look for it, you'll see it.

In Part II, I'll look at some things we can do to fix this problem.


  1. good post... in the art i study most of the lapel graps are done with the right hand of the attacker--while this may happen, i would imagine someone who is ready to strike might use the weaker hand to pull and the stronger one to strike. that's why i always enjoy a lefty in the dojo.

  2. Detroit is Hockeytown. A LOT of guys here have spent a lot of time playing hockey.

    If you tangle with someone who has spent a lot of time on the ice, he will grab you with his left hand and start whaling on your head with his right. If the opportunity presents itself, he'll try to pull your shirt over your head too, so it will be harder for you to hit back.

  3. Tailoring response to the attack is something I noted often in my early Combat Hapkido days. I did notice, though, that towards the end of my training as we did a little more free-flow drills that the strength of the style came from being able to bridge many different attacks to just a few responses:

    - defend right cross, distracting strike, place attacker in wrist lock, slam to ground
    - trap lapel grab, distracting strike, trans to same wrist lock, slam to ground
    - defend left haymaker, distracting strike, grab arm and throw to ground, trans to same wrist lock
    - etc
    - etc

  4. The hand grabs are interesting. My system, heavily influenced by Mochizuki, has a lot of defences from hand grabs, and a very sophisticated system of unbalancing methods from hand grabs. I'm now of the opinion that this focus on hand grabs came about from traditional jujutsu, and by traditional I mean non-peasant origins. How do you defend yourself against a swordsman? You grab their hand so they can't draw their sword. How do you defend yourself against someone who has grabbed your hand so you can't draw your sword? You develop all these defences against hand grabs, unbalancing and disengagements. When an understanding of the origins of the defences is understood, then we can see if they 'fit' the current reality or environment. I recall talking to an aikidoka at a seminar in Norway, and he told me they had a kata of 20 techniques where they defended a hand grab not drawing the sword, and 20 where they did whatever so they could draw the sword. Quite fascinating, even if just from an academic perspective.

  5. Rick,

    Thanks and yes, while it can be a bit brutish, the shirt over the head trick is surprisingly effective.


    It's always important to learn to react to the most likely kind of attack. You are absolutely correct that most 'righties' will do the grab with the left. Training should reflect this.


    The more you know, the less you know. Techniques shift to concepts over time. Good observation.

  6. Hi John,

    That's really interesting. And yes, we need to constantly evaluate to see if traditional techniques still 'fit' in today's environment. I can see some cross over for armed attacker, which is useful. I've also seen a lot of grab punch scenarios which I imagine will always be relevant.

    The hands access the weapons, so to shut down their ability to do so (if that is the intended attack) is interesting to ponder.

  7. John's comment about where the grabs from his style come from underlines something: you have to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. That understanding opens up all sorts of new vistas, while giving meaning to the traditional method.

    One of the wisest things anyone ever told me was the general manager of a division of a company I used to work for:

    When confronted with a problem, don't be in any forced hurry to come to any conclusion, barring a fixed dead line or something like that. Just keep turning the problem over and over again in your head. Slice it every different which way you can think of.

    You may not find an answer, but you might find something more valuable: understanding.

    1. Damn. Now THAT is worth writing down!

      thanks Rick

  8. Hi Journeyman, what you say is true - I've been there too! In fact the absurdity of needing to be attacked in the required manner dawned on me quite early on in my training - One of my earliest posts was about this very subject titled 'Please attack me correctly!' The other problem is being taught defences against attacks that are not common e.g the straight punch or the hammer strike or a hook kick. It strikes me as being more useful to learn to defend against the most common forms of attack. As you probably know this has been researched and a list is available of what is called Habitual Acts of Physical Violence (HAOPV). Patrick McCarthy is accredited with this research and coining of the phrase. He has also developed 2 man flow drills to help learn suitable defences against these attacks. We are now incorporating some of his work into our training so hopefully the days of 'attack me properly' will be over! One list of HAOPVs that I came across included these attacks as the top 10:

    A pushes, B retaliates with rear hook punch to head.
    Rear hand hook punch to the head.
    A front clothing grab, followed by a punch to the head
    A front clothing grab with two hands, followed by a headbutt
    A front clothing grab with two hands, followed by a knee to the groin
    A bottle, glass, or ashtray to the head
    A broken bottle/glass jabbed to face
    A lashing kick to the groin/lower legs.
    Side headlock
    Waist grab.

    I suspect the list would be different for women than for men, suggesting that women may need different training to men. There may also be cultural differences I suspect. Food for thought though!

    1. Sue,

      Thank you for the reference. Thru logical thinking I was aware that there are certain attacks that are going to be more common for me to encounter but I was not aware of this resource, or of Patrick McCarthy. I just pulled up some of his works...these should be interesting reading.

  9. Rick.,

    I think much of what I see as a decline in quality in the martial arts is connected to what you and John are talking about. You must understand what you are doing, and why. The GM of the division had some definite wisdom. Just looking at a problem from different perspectives can open up your mind and open up new possibilities. A good exercise for any long held belief as well. It makes sure you don't get close minded about training, or life.


    Glad you picked up on the problem early. I'll have to go back and read that post of yours.

    As you know, I tend to go on and on about the necessity of training to deal with the most likely type of attack from the most likely type of attacker, so your observations are spot on. As you recently explored on your blog, this does (and should) differ depending on gender.

    I will have to read about Mr. McCarthy and his work. I like the sounds of it right off the bat.

    As an aside, the bottle or glass to the face example was part of a case study I explored when researching the model of policing in the UK. I read that the problem of these types of attacks occurring was reaching near epidemic levels in the pubs. The point of the study was to indicate that societal issues with violence require creative thinking to solve and do not fall solely to the realm of police to do so. In the study I looked at, one of the strategies used for curbing the horrendous injuries were some establishments switching to plastic glasses. Yes, there was enforcement and other strategies used, but it was interesting none the less. The switch greatly reduced injuries in a very short period of time.

    The tie in to your comment is that the most common type of attack and type of attacker can vary from different locations as well. Knowing where you live, work and frequent must also be taken into account.