“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.
“Hi, I’m calling about a karate class for self defence, the Leisure Centre gave me this number, it’s for my nephew.”
“Can I ask how old your nephew is? The youngest I teach are thirteen years old.”
“Oh, he’s four.”
Despite my websites giving my minimum ages in several places, and having no photos of any pre-school children on any of my media, this type of enquiry regarding 4-6 year olds is the most common I get. If they are pre-school I tell them that I’m sorry but there is nobody I can recommend. If they are of primary school age I refer them to the local Judo group where I think the games and the contact will be good for the children (and I know they run a good youth programme).
Often my suggestion of Judo is rejected. They want their barely-shoe-tying offspring to learn self defence (or so they claim), or maybe have someone else instil discipline, self-control, and respect for elders, but they don’t like the idea that there might be contact or rough play. No, Karate or TKD (I also get asked if I know of any TKD clubs) are much safer options. No contact but happy smiling children marching obediently in silence to the command of an adult, or so the pictures seem to show. Every tired parent’s dream?
I should let this go. I should not get annoyed about the fact that karate is predominantly perceived as a crèche activity for children, or a safe no-contact form of exercise for parents and children to do side by side, because that probably does reflect the vast majority of karate available. Because I’m wearing the same uniform and using the same name I will naturally be placed in the same category.
With so much choice these days, advertising and the perception of keyboard warriors rule. Those who want to ‘fight’ or physically compete against others are drawn to Mixed Martial Arts, Muay Thai or Brazilian Ju Jitsu gyms or perhaps Boxing. All of which are disciplines visibly proven in their competitive arena. Others (especially those enrolled by their parents) might go towards Judo if they like competition and rough and tumble element but with perhaps more of the discipline aesthetic. Krav Maga tends to dominate the self defence market because of the gung-ho nature of its advertising.
The intake of your average karate class now, whatever the type of karate (sport, classical, traditional, practical, children’s, crèche, functional, applied, modern, combat…), is now subtly different to that perhaps of the first forty years of karate in the west. Now we seem to have a higher proportion of people that either come purely for the stimulation of a different form of exercise, or who like the idea of studying self defence but are put off by actual violence (although some people do choose based on proximity or recommendations as people do arrive ‘up for it’). Is this a bad thing? I don’t know. From my perspective I feel that the people who come to me are the ones I can help the most if they were too timid to try more overtly aggressive combat sports, but then they could just as easily have gone to a karate club that is, from my perspective, simply teaching them children’s exercises, and not learned there anything that might have helped them avoid, de-escalate or escape from real aggression and violence.
But how is that different from any of the other disciplines that they could have chosen? I’m not going to point a finger at any single art other than my own because I think all martial arts, in differing ways, suffer from the same issue of a huge diversity in club quality, approach and understanding.
I’ve seen a lot of different systems. I’ve seen a lot of different clubs. The good, the bad and the ugly; the deluded, the fantasists and the charlatans; the cults, the cocks and the c**ts. There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there. It’s no wonder Master Ken’s spoof of the martial arts community is so popular.
There is something for everyone out there, but if you want to find something that’s right for your needs you need to ask a lot of questions about what you really want to achieve, and be prepared to search for people who give you comprehensible explanations for what they are offering. There is nothing wrong with martial arts as a form of exercise, or as a crèche, so long as the instructor delivers that. When it boils down to it that’s how simple it is. Look past the style labels, look at clubs, talk to instructors, watch a class, talk to the students, talk to the parents, ask to see credentials and insurance, and then make an informed choice – you’re more likely to get what you want.
In any unsolicited violent or aggressive event our primary aim is to remove ourselves (and others if we feel responsible for them) from danger of bodily harm. The aim is not to ‘win a fight’ for this is not consensual violence; in most cases therefore (excluding for example threats on the doorstep of our own property) we are endeavouring to create an exit.
There are different means by which different groups of instructors approach this, particularly in the case of multiple threats or assailants. To a large extent the approaches they advocate will be coloured by their own training or personal experience and the nature of experience within the circles with whom they associate and study. A significant determining factor in the viewpoint of that circle will be the main training methodology employed, for you get good at what you train for (and base your conclusions on how it has worked), and the environments in which they have had to utilise such tactics.
To escape from a situation we need space to run/barge or walk through, created by the absence or inability/disinclination of prior threats to engage or stop us.
If there is no current attack (i.e. no-one is currently holding or trying to hit you) then you have space and can exit. If an attack is in process (in other words someone is currently holding you, hitting you, both of those, or standing so close and posing a direct threat of attack and an obstruction to escape) then you have to deal with that in order to exit.
Space is created by the freedom to move, which in turn is created by the sufficient removal of the threat of grabbing/striking/ and potentially chasing.
So now this boils down to the manner of engagement. How you make that space to escape and crucially how to reduce the risk of being attacked by others while you do so.
Space to escape in conflict is created by knocking another person back or down in a manner that they cannot easily resume the fight or block the exit or give chase. It is the desired end result, but not necessarily the starting or mid position.
The majority of non-consensual violent situations where you have to strike a person to make an exit will start close, the proximity being the key factor to determine both the use of force and the blocking of your escape routes. As a result most initial engagements will initiate with close range tactics. You will therefore predominantly initially engage at close range. This is not something that you are likely to be able to choose – the first person you engage with is almost certainly going to be at close quarters to you.
If you are lucky and you act first and you land a good strike (because you have trained to hit pads hard and you have fewer psychological barriers/inhibitions because you have also hit people in training rather than just pads), then you may have created the opportunity and space/time to escape. This might be because there was only one threat, or it might be because the other threats are too far away to impede your escape, both in terms of distance and in terms of time. Time and reaction time are huge factors.
It is no surprise that the person who waits to act is at a disadvantage. When a person acts and moves decisively others (whether hit by them or not) have to react to them. This is frequently seen in physical immobility in my Sim Days (and CCTV or mobile phone footage) – you can literally see on the feedback videos the OO of the OODA loop (Observe Orientate Decide Act) – while the person with the initiative seems to be constantly in DA – other people stand like statues for seconds as the action moves past them, unaware of how much time is passing (something often missing from regular training drills because the expectation of the other persons actions is greater). This has proved true even when I have given people in scenario simulations what seem to be overwhelming odds against them – a lot of the people aren’t in the situation at the same time because they are playing catch up. They aren’t being nice and taking turns, they are trying to catch up with what is happening.
But what if having engaged the first person (at the probable close range that prompted the need for action) there are other threats moving to engage (because you have not dropped that person in a time span quicker than their orientation and decision to act), or other threats so close that they have to be engaged to clear your escape?
This presents two potential types of situation.
1. You are currently still engaged at close range with one person (the first person you tried to go past/through who initiated the escape attempt through their physical and verbal actions), and others are trying to get to you. You are therefore trying to finish one close range engagement while others are moving to hit you or actively trying to hit you. You are fighting close range. You have no distance. This may only last a second before that person falls back and makes space, but you are still proximate to them.
2. You have just got past one person (or knocked them far enough away from you to present an immediate threat) and now you are either about to strike another person (or are on the receiving end of a strike from another person) with potentially further people about to engage. It is the starting position of that other person, the speed of the other person’s movement towards you and their speed of reorientation to your actions that determines their proximity (distance) and thus your tactics. As a result in this situation you will either
a) have close proximity forced upon you – you are fighting close range again, or
b) you move into them (potentially with a bridging distance tactic like a kick or a superman punch) to hit them to clear your escape route – you are fighting long range briefly for that moment if it creates an escape route. If it does not, and they do not fall back at all, you will end up closing and creating that escape space in a flurry or strikes at close range, or you may have space (if they have been knocked back but still pose a threat impediment to actual escape) to strike with a long range tactic again. All the time trying to create space to exit safely.
Three very important dynamics immediately present themselves from what I have described above. The first is that continuous movement is key – other people have to be reacting to you; if you wait or get held up then you can get swarmed regardless of whether you are trying to keep people at a leg’s length or you are touching them. The second is that this isn’t chess – this is all happening in a few chaotic seconds (as you hopefully access your training), and people take time to observe orientate decide and act on your movements. The third is that close range is likely to be forced upon you at some point in time unless you make the decision to hit very early to make an escape route – and that is something rare indeed.
So there are long range engagement options and short range options, but is one best for training and is one more appropriate?
To state the obvious, you get good at what you train for. If you predominantly train a close range repertoire but then ‘bolt on’ a long range approach ‘in case of multiples’ then your bolt on is likely to snap off under pressure. You will work best at what you predominantly train to do. If you predominantly train a long range repertoire, then once the combative space for that is created that will give you the optimum results. People will generally advise what has worked for them and what has worked for them will often be determined by what they have predominantly trained. What they advise is also determined by their memory of events and their interpretation of events.
At all the times the aim is to knock back/drop a person or persons as quickly as possible so that you can take the first opportunity to escape. You are trying to exit. You are not planning to try and take on every threat one at a time.
While you are engaged at close range you can get grabbed by the person you are hitting, but you also have the ability to hit them very hard (just as with longer range hits). If you know how to hit in combinations with redundancies this should not be a protracted event – it should be over and space to escape created before others can orientate to you. An advantage of this temporary position is that the close proximity of the other person closes off more angles of attack by others orientating towards you – often they have to try and flank rather than move in directly and that gives precious moments to finish and exit. Fighting at close range does not mean you are static – it just means you stay close to someone while you are hitting them, they may be falling back with you moving forward throughout that. A disadvantage of being close to someone is that should all your hits be unsuccessful and you get tied up holding or clinching with the other person for a few seconds, then your back is vulnerable to being grabbed by those chasing after you.
While you are engaged at a longer range you have a greater ability to employ your arms and legs to strike at any angle. You are freer to move than at close quarters because you are not moving the body of another person with you as you hit. At the same time you are more open to direct attack from every angle by other people precisely because of your ‘distance’. The distance also creates a greater reactionary gap for other people to avoid your defensive exit-attempting strikes, thus potentially prolonging an event and lowering your odds of escape. If you are close enough to punch someone then they are also close enough to grab you, so unless you plan to exit a situation in a whirlwind of kicks the idea that grabbing is just a close range danger is misguided.
I advocate using close range tactics to create the distance I need to make an escape. That’s partly because I feel most comfortable with my ability to successfully and safely eliminate a threat at that proximity, it’s partly because that is where I expect to find myself in the first place, and it’s partly where I expect to be if I fail to remove the initial obstacle as quickly as I would like. It is also related to the fact that the majority of my training is focused on close range habitual acts of violence (HAOV). This focus is not going to stop me pushing or throwing a front kick or a low shin kick if I have to get past a second person and they happen to be that far away, because I also train to use those tactics. I weight my training for what I believe are the most probable things, multiple person events being less likely than single person events (both in general and in accordance with my lifestyle).
The truth is that the distinction between long range and short range tactics in a multiple person encounter is an illusion, and the idea that you get to choose your tactics (or maintain a distance/range) is largely an illusion too, a case of the brain reconstructing events favourably after an event. An event may seem like an eternity but it is actually seconds, seconds in which many people will be standing still as they try to process what is happening through an adrenal fog. The range you engage ‘the first person’ will be the range at which you have decided to ‘go’. It is highly probable that that will be close range. If you have then made the space to escape then you will do so. If you do not, if there is an impediment, then you will attempt to engage that impediment at the range it presents in order to escape.
Train hard, try it, and remember that contact (and surprise) changes everything – make sure you mimic its effects.