There are lots of different ways to train in the martial arts. Different systems and indeed different teachers will weight their training along diverging lines according to their training aims, the student to coach ratio and the type of students they have. No matter how long we train, whichever way we turn, the roots of our progress lie in our attention to basic principles and the level of our understanding as to why we train in the manner we do. After writing a blog post on the subject of speed in training (here) I was asked about my thoughts on the relative merits of solo training, paired drilling and live sparring. All of these are useful forms of training, but in the majority of martial arts a focus on one alone will not develop as skilled or able a practitioner as the appropriate use of all three. The knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of each method should be understood.
Solo training can take many different forms. In this instance I am referring to training away from class or training partners rather than drilling techniques ‘solo’ in class. With this in mind the training can involve making contact on a striking surface, with all the benefits I described here, or nothing more than yourself and an empty space in which you can move. There are considerable benefits to training impact techniques solo against a bag, in particular the ability to go at your own pace and focus on elements in isolation, and not having one person neglecting their skillset by holding a pad (though being the pad holder can develop other useful skills – of which more later). Solo training is extremely valuable, and I would be the first to say that of all my training hours at least 70% have been solo, but it should never be seen as a replacement for any form of paired training, rather a complement to it. A practitioner needs to already have a good skill level to gain anywhere near the same amount of benefit from solo training as from paired training.
Correct biomechanics – ‘perfect practice’
Facilitates injury recovery
Allows more time for high quality visualisation during techniques or drills
Means of maintaining or refining skill without a training partner
Can improve power generation and striking technique without ‘wasting’ a training partner’s time
Can improve applied strength and balance
No external pressure
Very little feedback / resistance (in non impact work)
Limited value for techniques that rely on tactile feel (such as grappling) unless practitioner is extremely advanced and can utilize their memory to enhance rehearsal
Does not work reaction time
Limited value for training appropriate timing
Danger of rehearsing and ingraining poor technique, particularly in new students
Paired drilling is the form of training that makes up the majority of the classes that I teach. It can take the form of trainees attacking each other with pre-set techniques and defending with previously learned drills (with varying degrees of flexibility on either side according to speed and experience) or practicing power generation against partner-held moving or static pads, or even against an armoured partner, the benefit of which I have discussed previously here. The training can be done at a variety of different speeds depending on the desired outcome and format of the class. Depending on the system being trained, paired training can bring disadvantages as well as advantages. As an example, in self defence orientated systems students may often spend time drilling a less desirable technique such as a telegraphed haymaker for their partner rather than a less telegraphed pre-emptive straight palm strike or jab to the head, though a skilled coach can find ways to mitigate this. While a person is holding and moving pads for their partner to hit they are obviously not working their physical skills, which can be seen as a disadvantage, so it should be stressed that in doing so they are working their strength and stamina, often practicing maintaining their guard, developing a combative mind-set by standing fast against their partner’s attacks, and learning more about how both to use a technique and defend against it by observing their partner’s telegraphs and overall biomechanics.
Immediate feedback – pad work / pre-arranged combative drills
Controlled predictability allowing for technique learning, introspection, observation, coaching and refinement
Develops distancing and timing appropriate for the activity being trained
Excellent for developing reaction speed
Can improve both aerobic and anaerobic fitness
Can improve confidence
So long as students are not complacent can allow fast training with a high degree of safety
Often benefits one person’s physical technique more than another, especially in self defence training and pad work
Can be inappropriate for a student with injuries or medical problems
In theory live sparring may be what the majority of martial artists aspire to. If you are training for the competitive arena, or for self defence, the ability to execute techniques with precision at full speed under the pressure created by unpredictability is surely one of the most important aims of any trainee. There are many advantages of training this way, both psychological and physical.
Training unpredictably brings with it the danger of being hit – and the natural fear in many people of pain or injury. This in turn puts an element of pressure in the performance that cannot be matched in other forms of training (unless students are engaged in drilling where they have to be hit). Successful selection and performance of techniques under the conditions of live sparring builds real confidence appropriate to the arena being trained.
In physical terms, only unpredictable training can assess the accuracy of a student’s ability to read body movements and spot the telegraphs of techniques in time for threat avoidance, and put their reaction time and speed of movement to a real test – whether in attack or defence.
The disadvantages of live sparring are linked to its role within the training regime. When a person moves fast and are under pressure, or even if the live sparring is done slowly and they are simply having to improvise in reaction to an unexpected event, they tend to make mistakes: non optimal postures, over-extension, greater telegraphing, not enough torso or hip rotation to give a technique as much power as it could have. How well a person performs in live sparring is dependant upon a number of factors, but two very simple ones are:
- how familiar they are with working under those conditions,
- how skilled is their existing technique.
Regular live sparring will address the first factor, but spending too much time in live training is likely to be detrimental to the second, since the more you rehearse a technique sub optimally – the more likely you are to perform that way consistently: practice does not make perfect: only perfect practice makes perfect.
Only real test of practicable ability
Develops anaerobic fitness
Excellent for developing reaction speed
Develops distancing and timing appropriate for the activity being trained
Places students under psychological stress.
Over use will reinforce poor technique
Generally does not allow for refinement as fine motor skills will be inaccessible if placed under real pressure
Can only be sustained for short periods of time.
Just like judging a system by how many students it has, how many techniques it has or how fast they are training, something impressive and useful as live sparring can be a false indicator of the quality of training. A predominant focus on unpredictable training does not necessarily develop skilled students, and while a lot of paired drilling or solo training may be less visually impressive, it can not only be technically and physically demanding, but also be a reliable way to develop a high level of skill. Too much of any type of training has the potential to be detrimental. Ideally training should be balanced, with different emphases on different methods according to the health and level of the student, but both students and coaches should know what they are aiming to achieve with each training method when they do employ it.
As I sat in the crowded bleachers overlooking the Olympic pool I couldn't help but be proud of my little Michael. There he was, 8 years old, sitting on the edge of the pool, his feet in the cool, clear water. It was his first night, but he acted so brave, trying to hide his fear.
Two boys from the neighborhood, the Parkinson boys, were down there next to Michael, and their dad, Phillip, sat beside me in the stands playing with his smart phone. His boys were senior students at the Dolphin Club.
Me: "Your sons don't seem to mind the water."
Him: "What's that?"
Me: "I was just saying that your two boys seem comfortable near the edge."
Him: "Oh, right. No they don't mind it. They've been down there so many times that it's nothing to them any more. We even went out deep sea fishing last year off the coast of Florida, and there they were sitting on the side of the boat like it was just another day at the pool."
Me: "Wow. Micheal seems a little scared, but he's doing a good job hiding it."
Him: "Sure, he'll get used to it."
Me: "So, when do they actually get in the water?"
At this point the conversations around me stopped, and Phillip actually put his phone in his pocket. He got up and moved next to me.
Him: "What do you mean 'get in the water'?"
Me: "I'm just wondering when they'll learn to swim, that's all."
Him: "You better talk to Coach Richards. He'll fill you in. But (and he lowered his voice), don't get the other parents upset."
I went to the Dolphin Club office and knocked on Coach Richard's door. He invited me in and shook my hand, and I introduced myself. I took a seat and looked around the office. Trophies, pennants, ribbons, medals, and certificates were prominently on display.
Coach Richard: "I apologize, but I've only got a few minutes. Planning for the big meet scheduled for next weekend you know. How can I help you?"
Me: "Phillip Parkinson suggested I talk to you. He was concerned that I might be upsetting some of the parents."
CR: "What exactly did you say?"
Me: "I just asked when the boys would actually learn to swim."
He got up and closed the office door. He sat down and thought for a minute before speaking.
CR: "How much do you know about swimming?"
Me: "Well, I'm from the country. We did a lot of swimming when I was kid...had a big place in the local creek...spent a lot of time down there in the hot summer."
CR: "I see. And did you ever know anyone who drowned?"
Me: "No! Thank God. Why do you ask?"
CR: "Surely you know the statistics. The water is dangerous. Swimming is risky. You can easily drown in a pool, or a lake, or a river."
Me: "Are you kidding?"
CR: "No sir...I can assure you I'm very serious."
Me: "But this is the Dolphin Club. You have a big pool. Are you telling me the kids don't swim?! And what about the big swim meet coming up?"
CR: "First off, I didn't say it was a 'swim meet.' Look, our students know more about water safety than most. They learn all of the basic strokes, learn first aid and watch videos about drown proofing and life guard duties..."
Me, interrupting: "Just no swimming, right?"
CR: "I'll have you know that I have a responsibility to the children and their parents, and I take that responsibility to heart. I can't let them get in the water where they could just drown!"
Me: "But I thought they knew all there was to know about water safety. Surely they've done a little swimming..."
CR: "Not at MY school they didn't! At Dolphin Club the kids learn to swim to avoid swimming. Getting in the water is not necessary. Everything you need to know you can learn on dry land!"
Me: "That's just ridiculous! Kids can't learn to swim on dry land! Besides, what's the fun in that?"
CR: "It's a different world than it was when we were kids. Things have changed. Kids are more technologically savvy than we were. They play video games and do most of their learning on the computer. Believe me, they most certainly can learn to swim without getting wet. Heck, just last weekend we had a sleepover at the club, gave parents the weekend off! And you know what we did? We watched UWS on pay per view!"
CR: "Yeah, UWS--ULTIMATE WATER SWIMMING--and the kids loved it. I'm surprised you haven't heard about it. It's a competition where 2 people at a time actually get in the water and swim with all the energy they can muster. And essentially there's no rules! There have actually been several near drownings in the UWS! Of course, that's for the professionals. Our kids mostly watch that for the entertainment value. They talk every now and then about entering the UWS when they grow up, but it's a pipe dream. The average Dolphin Club member, I'm sad to say, gives up the pool after only a few months. Some might stay for a year or two, but in the end we lose most of them to other sports."
Me: "To be perfectly candid with you, I'm not surprised. It sounds boring as hell at this club!"
CR: "I'm sorry you feel that way, but we have lots of activities. The kids learn choreographed swim routines. They can join the demo team. And they can earn special patches and certificates. Some can even enter competitions, like the big meet next weekend."
Me: "You mentioned that before. But if they don't swim, what is it they actually compete in?"
CR: "Several events: Sitting at the deep end. Breath holding competitions. Simulated first aid to a drowning victim. And those choreographed swim routines I mentioned are a big hit."
Me: "Well, I'm sorry. I thought my kids would learn to swim. I'm going to pull them out of this academy and find another swim club."
CR: "Be advised that you'll be in violation of the contract you signed. And besides, you'll be putting your son in danger!"
Me: "Screw you AND your contract. We're getting out, the sooner the better!"
I got up, left the office, and yelled for my son to get his feet out of the pool because we were going home. He looked confused but started jogging towards me. A lifeguard blew his whistle, and reminded my son that there was no running by the pool.
LET'S HAVE A RETIREMENT PARTY!
Following are my nominations for retirement. Some should have never been around in the first place. Others were fun for awhile, maybe even a little interesting. But that ship has sailed, that shark has been jumped. So adios, bonjour, auf wiedersehen, au revoir, ciao, and aloha.
TRYING TO MAKE THE WORD 'KARATE' LOOK LIKE ASIAN WRITING__________________________________________
PATRIOTIC MARTIAL ARTS CLOTHING__________________________________________
THAT DAMNED KICK FROM THE KARATE KID
SHOWING OFF YOUR MARTIAL ARTS SPLITS TALENT _________________________________________
CHRISTIAN KARATE CLUBS
BOARD BREAKING DEMONSTRATIONS__________________________________________
PRESSURE POINT KNOCKOUTS__________________________________________
ANIMAL INSPIRED MARTIAL ARTS BULLSHIT__________________________________________
THAT POSE THAT TRIES TO MAKE YOU BELIEVE KICKS ARE POWERFUL