Friday, June 1, 2012

Bad Habits in the Martial Arts - Part II

In Part I, I identified and discussed what I believe is a serious issue in the world of martial arts today - The practice of tailoring attacks to fit defenses. 

I had a lot of great comments on that post.  

So now that I've identified the problem...

What can we do about it?

Well, it’s not the easiest thing to fix.  It’s actually a bit more complicated than it might appear on the surface.  So, what does it take?

  1. An understanding of what real attacks look like.  In a safe training environment, it can be challenging to have people attack realistically, especially if they’ve never been involved in real violence before.  You must balance the need for scripted attacks based on real world probability and the need to have an element of unpredictability. 

  1. The decision not to stop if your partner attacks incorrectly.  Figure it out. If your intended technique doesn’t work, adjust it or change it to one that does.  Only after successfully working through it should you request the ‘proper’ version for the next time.

  1. The understanding that you need to break away from exact responses to exact techniques.  As time goes on, the requested technique/defense selection should get broader.  For example, ask for an arm lock or a wrist throw from a punch, but leave it to the attacker to decide which type.  Or from a grab, any type.  This way you have a general goal in mind, but the attacks, and subsequently your responses, will have to vary.  This will help you develop the mental flexibility and the physical skills needed to respond to the unpredictable nature of a real violent encounter.

  1. Building on number 3 - Use randori, or free practice.  No set attacks, no set defenses.  Just spontaneous attack and defence, preferably with multiple attackers.  You’ll quickly forget about someone attacking wrong and you’ll just do what you have to do.  See previous posts on Randori here.(links to several in post)

  1. Testing criteria should take all of this into account as well.  In my system (the one I study), the higher the belt ranking, the fewer the number of techniques are outlined in ‘required’ lists.  Instead of having each technique listed and from what attack, it simply lists things like:


Type - Hip (3 variations)

Attack – Punch/Kick/Grab - Any

In this example, it could be any punch. Then any kick.  There’s still structure for required techniques and an order for grading, but a certain degree of spontaneity is maintained. 

Go higher and you’ll find:


Type - All

Attack - Any

Essentially controlled, or led, randori. 

Earlier belt grading will have set lists which outline the specific attack and the specific response required.

Anyone can spend enough time and memorize a set number of attack/defense combinations.  On the surface, demonstrating forty techniques in a row from a lapel grab or a choke may look impressive, but in truth, it doesn’t tell you too much about the student’s ability to defend themselves.  The same can be said for kata, but that's a topic that deserves it's own post.

I’d rather see three or four well performed responses in randori. The true measure of success is the student’s ability to react, adapt and respond successfully to unscripted, unrehearsed and unpredictable attacks, all while under stress.  It doesn’t really matter which technique they select, as long as they react immediately and are able to adapt and adjust as needed until they reach a successful conclusion.  It doesn’t have to be pretty, as long as you never freeze up or stop fighting. 

This is how it is with real violence, so it’s important to recreate this dynamic (safely) as much as possible in training. 


At the start of our journeys, we work on building a decent foundation.  Repetitive practice of a set number of techniques is one excellent method for developing a good amount of skill in the basics.  Once you have the mechanics nailed down, it’s time to build on that foundation.  Learning to apply and adapt to more realistic attacks is important. 

Don’t get stuck in a right or wrong way of attacking or defending.  Shift away from specific techniques and understand that often your response will most often be dependent on what option is presented to you, not what you have pre-selected in order to deal with an incoming attack.  This is where the concept of Mushin, or empty/no mind, comes into play.  Not many people can observe, identify, and then select a specific response to an unexpected and spontaneous attack in time to execute it successfully. 

Strive to be like the willow tree.  The willow can survive storms that topple other rigid trees.  The willow, while it has a strong set of roots, is flexible.  It doesn’t fight against the force of the storm; it simply adapts and adjusts by being flexible.  So too, should you be at higher levels of training.

Don’t tailor your attacks to fit your defenses.  Don’t practice attacking or defending in ways you never would in a real situation.  Strive to achieve Mushin.  Accept that real violence in unpredictable and that even a successful defense will rarely resemble the smooth response you so deftly demonstrated in a controlled training environment.  Don’t worry about looking sloppy. 
Establish roots in the basics but never stop your training there.  Learn to apply and adapt and always remain flexible. 

Train well.


  1. Great advice here. Thanks for the article - very useful :-)