I really like to see positive innovation in training and teaching. I particularly like seeing exercises that help students develop the ability to move beyond single techniques, beyond combinations, into the ability to make seamless transitions to appropriate techniques. But sometimes I see things that while fun and popular appear to me to actually be detrimental to development.
I am fond of hitting impact equipment. Whether it is pads held by a partner, a makiwara, a heavy bag, a tyre affixed to a wall or a partner wearing appropriate equipment I appreciate the opportunity to develop my delivery of force into a target. It’s hard work, it’s (sometimes painful) fun, it relates to my skill set, and it gives good feedback.
Pads can be used in lots of ways. It’s unsafe to practice preemptive headshots full power against a real person’s head. The only equipment I’ve seen that effectively removes the risk of long term brain or spine injury to the receiver is currently so unrealistic as a target that I find a rounded Thai pad (or head mitt) a far better alternative (which doesn’t stop some groups from using less effective head wear for high contact training). Often a pad can be utilised as a safe contact medium instead of a glove, being swung on the hand towards your head, while its companion replicates a realistic target (such as head or ribs) that you can counter strike full power – allowing trainees to practice appropriate footwork, shielding and striking while developing their reaction speed. A pad can simply be held to provide a static or mobile target for force delivery practice. This is good training so long as both pad holder and striker understand their roles and the benefits each can bring.
A trend that I find disturbing is a halfway house of pad use. You may have seen some videos of these. There are lots of people in different martial arts doing them. They seem to be in fashion right now. They look fun, they look cool, but are they actually doing anything useful? Are they actually merely training bad habits?
The halfway house drills I refer to attempt to combine pad striking with grappling and striking on the part of the pad holder. In the (exceedingly rare) good ones the drill includes realistic movement, appropriate pad placement (it’s where the target would actually be, generally up against the body for any body shot) and the pad is hit full power with an appropriate tactic. The majority of drills I’ve seen brushing my social media feeds don’t meet these criteria. In most cases the pad may be incorrectly placed (giving inappropriate tactile stimuli and distancing), the pad is held in a way to encourage a standing person to punch a prone target (that’s a whole other post on those issues), the grappling position is incorrect due to the pad on the hand/arm, or the pad isn’t hit with anything like appropriate force – it’s pulled in a manner that makes the value of its presence pointless. Sometimes all these boxes are ticked and my language becomes colourful.
The net result of a lot of these poorly constructed drills are people who are spending time training to hit things that are in the wrong place and move incorrectly when hit (creating further incorrect follow up stimuli), or training with incorrect tactile grappling stimuli for the skills they are rehearsing, or not actually really hitting the pads. It may be fun but it’s not productive training. These drills are going nowhere. They aren’t enhancing striking ability, they aren’t enhancing grappling ability, and they aren’t enhancing the ability to seamlessly combine the two.
It is better to soft/slow hit through a real person in a real hands on position with real tactile and visual stimuli than practise soft hitting through a pad (which by being held is giving you false stimuli) or hitting a pad hard but held an incorrect position with inconsistent or non existent stimuli that your partner could provide if they weren’t holding the pads. Imperfect practice will lead to poorer quality technique. Do the mechanics with the correct stimuli and resistance on a real person, develop the force delivery mechanics with independent pad work.
Does this mean that you can’t integrate pad work with grappling? No, it can be possible, but you need to be absolutely clear as to what the objectives of the exercise are, what compromises are being made, whether you are actively training bad habits, whether the objectives are actually being met, and whether the exercise is more efficient than independent training. Always analyse everything you observe, anything you innovate, and keep applying critical filters. It might be brilliant for someone else because of the paucity of their other methods, it may look cool but be inferior to what you already do and detrimental to your development. It might have been great five years ago but rendered not only redundant but also harmful alongside exercises developed since. You determine how you practise and you determine the skills you develop. Apply critical filters.
Sweat saves blood, blood saves lives, brains saves both.
This pithy analysis is attributed to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, but despite the clarity of his insight and his credentials as one of the greatest generals of the 20thcentury, this simple premise seems to be largely unknown or ignored amongst martial arts and self defence groups.
It’s not hard to find advocates for sweat-heavy training sessions. I’ve even had someone leave my classes in favour of boxercise because a sustained aerobic workout rather than appropriate skill development was why she had looked at taking the training in the first place. Tough physical training – sweat – should definitely form part of a training programme for those healthy enough to do it, though brains would suggest that there is more to good practice than sustained hard effort.
I’ve written on the subject of speed and effort in regular training in the past: on the pros and cons of different methods and how they can serve different mental and physical purposes (the old article can be found reproduced in my book Karate and Self Defence). While training should be hard you always face the conundrum that under stress you tend to execute poorer technique, and as you tire your techniques deteriorate, and if you consistently train sloppy moves then that is what you are training to do (you get good at what you practice). There is a reason why some martial disciplines separate the stamina work (skipping and running for example) from the skill training. The comfort zone must be stretched, the body must be pushed, but skill development occurs in a different zone. It takes brains to find the balance in training to get optimum physical and psychological results.
Blood saves lives is more descriptive of the harsh reality of conflict than of training. The shedding of blood though is an indicator of training intensity and combative intent, and while it is not desirable, it can provide a bell curve marker of training quality. If no or very little blood is ever shed in a discipline reflecting physical violence then that could be an indicator of a dissonance from the subject matter in the training and pedagogy. At the same time similar low amounts of blood letting can be reflective of high quality appropriate training with good safety procedures, considered compromises and good practitioners. If you fall into the low/no blood category then you really need to look at what you are doing to make an honest call as to which camp your training belongs. Training reflective of the middle of such a bell curve, where blood letting is commonplace, might reflect the reality of physical violence or combat sports, but at the same time illustrates sloppy practice with regard to the short and long term health and safety of the participants as well as a lack of adequate skill development.
It all comes down to brains. Appropriate informed analysis of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and whether you are using the most effective methods or whether you need to change.
This does mean that it is important to research not only at what others ‘in your field’ are doing (and asking hard questions about their methods and results) but also at what others in apparently unrelated physical fields (for example athletics or rugby or American football) are doing. You cannot operate in a vacuum. What has worked in the past for others is no guarantor of success for you or your students, and tradition is not necessarily a byword for authenticity, safety, appropriateness, effectiveness or efficiency.
I’m not arguing in favour of throwing everything away. That’s not smart, especially if you’ve invested time in developing fundamentals that with a tweak of range or focus could become effective, or which with minor adjustments could be trained in a safer or more efficient fashion. You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not arguing in favour of picking up shiny new moves at seminars or in books and bolting them on to your repertoire, because unless it is designed to integrate with your main practice it isn’t going to function properly; anything learned at a seminar has to be analysed. I am as usual stressing the need for rigorous critical analysis of what you are doing: it doesn’t matter whether you are doing it for exercise, health, agility, mobility, self protection, combative sport participation, enjoyment, socialising, interest in the history of a foreign or native culture etc. – you should be thinking about it. Critical analysis involves the research to understand your medium, the integrity to see the weaknesses as well as the strengths in what you do, the resolve to make changes if necessary if what you are doing is harmful or unfit for purpose, and the honesty to recognise the true core purpose of your current methods. As Archilochus wrote, “We do not rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.’”
Your training should make you smile, it may make you cry, and yes if you want to achieve a high standard there may be blood and there should be sweat, but brains… brains always saves both.
“I liked that drill. It wasn’t complicated like the other ones.”
I forget the exact drill, or whether this actually referred to something taught by another instructor covering one of my classes, but these words were uttered by a student who had come to train with me after gaining a few black belt levels over a decade or more of training with another association.
This student struggled with a particular aspect of my training. He could cope with attack, parry/slip and strike. He had learned to cope with escaping clinches. He knew how to evade a tackle. In fact like many karateka who had learned one step attacks he could cope with my one step responses, even though I was asking him to work against different attacks at a different range.
The problem was failure, quite literally. My ‘complicated’ drills were/are simple predominantly gross motor and adrenaline tolerant responses to particular attacks or positions. Individually the student could do them. When I introduced the idea of moving from one drill he could do to another he could also do (because a punch became a clinch because the response ‘failed’), often the student froze and ‘failed’. The complicated element was that I was envisioning the possibility of failure, so a partner could move from one thing to another, so several drills could end up flowing together (and not necessarily in a fixed manner).
The fault was not with the uke for challenging him by pretending something had failed (as opposed to standing still, or pretending something had succeeded and dropping), thus moving to try and regain the initiative (which is a desirable attribute). The fault was not with the drills: they worked in the context for which they were used. Nor was the fault with the student. In my opinion the fault lay with the foundations on which the majority of the student’s prior training had been built: it failed him because it hadn’t trained him to be able to move or adapt to constant pressure.
In a lot of karate it is common to see students learn to deliver single techniques, then subsequently learn to deliver combinations. In a lot of ‘free sparring’ when something doesn’t work, an exit or retreat is made, and then the same or different combination is tried again. Similarly if a counter attack is made then a person often covers and/or retreats and looks/waits for an opportunity to respond, usually if the attack has exhausted itself. There is an element of turn taking. There is a rhythm of sorts and there are pauses.
This isn’t the case in all arts. Watch a BJJ class, a Judo newaza class, or a wrestling class, and it’s normal to see a students spend a large proportion of time not simply practicing isolated drills but actively working with and against each other, both constantly transitioning to gain and maintain dominance. This can be the case with karate training. I believe it should make up a significant proportion of karate training.
While there are some who choose to practice karate as almost exclusively a striking art, it is a generic term to describe a mixed martial art of striking and grappling made up of many different influences. It is both hard and soft, has grappling and striking, and is comprised of multi-range approaches. You grapple to gain an opportunity to strike and strike to gain the means to grapple, choosing and moving between tactics as necessary.
I don’t advocate complicated drills. I particularly don’t advocate long fixed sequences or unchanging continuous loops. The longest ‘set’ drill sequence I build, which intends to be successful on the first move (two chest strikes followed by a head strike, a spinning strike and a headlock), is actually specifically designed so that it can be broken up by either training partner in multiple ways at three different points, moments where the practitioners can do something different to force adaptation and movement into alternative approaches. It’s actually not fixed at all.
Keep it simple, but never forget even simple stuff can fail. Have a simple redundancy for that failure, and for every feasible position. That doesn’t require lots of kata, or lots of techniques, but rather an in depth understanding of a small number. Make sure these simple moves can fit and move together in multiple ways like Meccano, then work continuously against resistance, flowing from move to move.
It’s not complicated.
How do you maximise your ability?
This isn’t about training hours, training intensity, supplementary mobility or strength training, diet or sleep.
Paying attention to those will have a huge impact.
It’s not the size of the toolbox.
Most people realise that collecting tools does not necessarily make you an able, efficient or skilful tool user. A small number of tools can do the majority of jobs. You do need more than just a hammer otherwise everything will get treated like a nail.
It’s not about having high quality reliable tools.
Actually it is, but that’s not what I’m thinking about right now. Those are the type of tools you should aim to have and be proficient in using.
It’s about having tools that work together.
To stretch the analogy a little further, there are disadvantages in having one brand of cordless drill, jigsaw and other tools if the only charger and battery you own is incompatible.
The analogy only stretches so far. When it comes to combative techniques, they are all designed with human beings in mind (allegedly). But it is the case that some tactics fit together and feed into each other as redundancies in failure cascade and some don’t. It is also the case that if you have too many responses to the same stimuli (too many tools), as opposed to a limited number of tools that can handle multiple stimuli, then your reaction time will suffer as the brain has too many options from which to choose – unless of course your response is predetermined, but that then begs the question why you trained so many other options in the first place.
The answer to that question is simple. You need exposure to a number of options to discover which is the best ‘go to’ fit for you. If you intend to teach you need to understand those options so you can offer your students the same choices. But when you train yourself? When you train you should focus the majority of your time on the things that are the best fit for you. This is not to limit your repertoire: it’s to increase your effectiveness and your skill level.
“A skill is the learned ability to bring about pre-determined results with maximum certainty; often with the minimum outlay of time or energy or both.”
Barbara Knapp, 1963
As a result you do need to apply analysis and selection or pruning when it comes to how you build your personal training repertoire (or your syllabus). This does not mean that you shouldn’t cross train and expand your horizons to the ideas of different instructors or different arts, far from it because that often provides invaluable insights into movements you already train – allowing you to use a single tool for more than one purpose. It does not mean that grappling is one thing, striking another, and never the two shall meet. It does mean that you should think critically about what you are seeing, learning or drilling, and make an informed decision as to whether it should be rejected, added to your repertoire, or replace something else in your repertoire.
Bolt-on elements added as an afterthought are not going to work as well as stripping something down and rebuilding to incorporate the new element – if it is compatible. If it isn’t compatible then it most likely won’t work in an unpredictable environment because you can’t integrate it with everything else. You may go to a martial arts seminar and find nothing compatible, but if you’ve had a fun day of exercise and exposure to new ideas that have made you see your own practice in a new light, then I would not regard that as a loss. While many karate instructors on the international seminar circuit might appear to be teaching drills, we are usually just using the drills to teach principles – so it does not matter if you ‘don’t do that kata’, there will be something for you to take away if you take the time to analyse it.
This is not a suggestion that you should embark on a ruthless purge of your repertoire. It is a suggestion that you should think about how and why you are doing everything that you are currently doing, whether the movements fit together (in multiple ways), and whether you should make any changes. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally doing something ‘for fun’ if you are aware that it is simply that (and has no practical combative use or combat sports use whatsoever). But your core training repertoire should have integrity.
Anyone involved in the martial arts who uses social media will no doubt have seen many different memes purporting to inform them what a black belt is, and what a black belt isn’t.
Some of these are apt, others simply amusing or ignorant. I once saw a group of people whom I’ve taught in a meme that compared them with another group of black belts. “There are black belts and there are black belts!”it proclaimed proudly. As the group I trained with surrounded a former army full contact champion still training and teaching at a very senior age, and was made up of instructors who regularly gave up their evenings and weekends to teach and train on top of their normal occupations, people who had competed or coached competitors to good levels in their chosen discipline and who also had the guts to take part in my scenario training, I had no doubt who to me represented the spirit and technical ability I rate.
But this isn’t about black belts, it’s about brown belts, or is it?
I can remember I had my brown belt for about two years. Although my association at the time had multiple stages of brown belt, I chose to simply add and remove coloured tabs with each grading rather than buy a new belt. Although I was focused on achieving my black belt, when the time came to retire that belt I was actually very attached to it: we’d been through a good deal together and I’d worn it longer than any belt I’d had up to that time.
Watch out for the brown belts. They’ve trained long enough to have a reasonable amount of power and skill, but not so long as to have the control and timing of the Dan grades. That’s a combination that can lead to painful mistakes.
One of the characteristics of brown belts is that they know they aren’t black belts yet. Does that seem a little obvious? Let me explain.
As a brown belt the symbol, status or ability of the black belt remains a goal. The brown belt itself is a constant reminder that although you’ve done well to ‘hang in there’, there is still work to be done, things to be learned, things to be refined. That’s not a bad thing. The brown belt may be confident, cocky even, but there is ‘in the belt’ the constant reminder that they’re not ‘there’ yet.
There is a quality of seeking refinement and new knowledge in brown belts that often Dan grades seem to lose. Casting aside those black belts who quit on reaching the goal they (or their parents) set, it’s easy for many to get trapped into simply repeating the same training year over and over again; gaining longevity but not necessarily increased experience, knowledge or skill.
So what makes a black belt?
The brown belt mentality.