GAME PLANS FOR CROSS-TRAINING
This article is for martial artists who are interested in cross training (or just beginning to cross train) and want guidance on how to balance their priorities. It may also be useful for bunkai-focused traditional karateka who study many different kata.
Most of you are probably already familiar with the concept of a game plan, especially if you compete. In a nutshell, a game plan is a list (or map) of your most reliable, high percentage techniques. Some people write them down on notepads, some people draw them out as flow charts, but I prefer to just make a list on my computer.
Here are the three core elements of an effective game plan:
- it should include the techniques that work best for you,
- it should connect some of those techniques together, and
- it should be relatively simple and understandable.
GAME PLAN DESIGN
As an example, let me describe how a novice might design his or her martial arts game plan. Let's say our hypothetical novice has a solid grasp of straight punches like the jab and cross. He's decent with his hook punches but they don't have as much power as he'd like. He almost never lands uppercuts in sparring. His game plan could be very simple at first: "whenever I see an opening on the enemy's jaw, I'm going to launch my right cross."
The novice is training in bunkai-oriented karate, so he's been taught the basic concept of applying hikite to control limbs. So he incorporates this in his game plan: "whenever my enemy lifts his arms to cover up his head, I'm going to grab one of those arms, pull it to my hip, and use my free hand to punch him in the jaw." Now he's starting to connect his techniques.
Our novice starts to get better at striking and he's ready for a more sophisticated game plan. He realizes that other students in the class are using jabs to keep distance from him and shut down his offense. So now he adds another layer to the game plan: "if my opponent jabs, I will parry it or slip it and I will launch a counterpunch immediately after." So he drills the elements of this technique until he can use them, then he starts hunting for that parry-counterpunch in sparring. And if he's lucky and he works hard, pretty soon he'll start to see his game plan materialize in sparring.
GAME PLAN ESSENTIALS
There's no perfect template for a game plan, because the core of the idea is to make one that fits your body and your attributes and your style and your preferences. It's about you. But most game plans should include these essentials:
First, you should choose one preemptive strike. (If you aren't familiar with this idea, you can find Iain's writing on it here: www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/pre-emptive-striking-and-karate-ni-sente-nashi.) The forum has a lot of resources on preemptive striking, so I'll save space and won't discuss it further.
Second, you should pick an "oh shit" move (we'll call it the SHTF move). This is what you do when you don't know what else to do. You can get creative here. I personally like to use the flinch reflex: I throw my arms up instinctively and lunge into the enemy, trying to drive my forearm into his neck or my palms into his jaw. Iain teaches this move here: https://youtu.be/ptpALIuZBwQ?t=20. But you might prefer another option, such as:
***covering up and firing your jab to create space (while you move at an angle),
***covering your head and closing the gap to clinch the head (shown here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2juMhXuzEjc),
***covering your head and closing the gap to secure a body lock (if you're a grappler, example: https://youtu.be/ycLeAPx23Rg?t=19),
***launching a straight blast (i.e. a rapid-fire offense of straight punches, example: youtu.be/XwnQ9hKNtOc?t=111), or
***any of these weaponized flinch options helpfully taught by Wastelander (shown here: https://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/kusanku-opening-flinch-and-limb-control).
Keep in mind that the SHTF move is never going to be perfect. It's just meant to buy you a few seconds of time to orient yourself in the chaos. If you're lucky, you'll surprise your enemy and interrupt his decision cycle (sometimes described as resetting the enemy's OODA Loop).
GAME PLAN TEMPLATE
Here is an incomplete game plan example to show you what I have in mind.
***Sprawl (for takedown defense)
***Fight for clinch, launch knees (example: https://youtu.be/RUlHxXC6t1I?t=79)
***If clinch isn't there, launch punches.
***If he lifts arm while I am punching, control limb to open strikes.
***If necessary, consider quick takedown (example: https://youtu.be/amC7TEboz3k?t=23), strike once or twice, then flee.
***If he grabs wrist, defend (example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-r2YygHmswM)
GAME PLAN MANAGEMENT
Many martial artists will discover that they quickly "outgrow" their game plan. That's a good thing, because it usually indicates that you're improving. Here's a few guidelines on how to keep your game plan effective:
First, keep the game plan narrowly focused on common, key scenarios.
Second, choose one technique per problem.
Third, be very careful about which techniques you put into the game plan. Most of the techniques in your game plan should be high percentage OR should be techniques that you are planning to practice until they become high percentage.
Fourth, try to choose techniques that work in multiple contexts. For example, in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu there are techniques that will only work against an opponent who is wearing a gi. Unless you're routinely competing in BJJ tournaments, you'll usually want to fill your game plan with techniques that can work in self-protection/no-gi grappling/mixed martial arts/and gi grappling.
Fifth, "prune" your game plan frequently. I usually update mine the day after a class finishes. When in doubt, err on the side of deleting techniques rather than adding new ones. As you progress, you'll discover that some techniques will eventually become instinctual. That's excellent. That's what you want. When that occurs, you can usually delete them from the plan. (Exception: I would always leave a preemptive strike and a SHTF move on the game plan, no matter how good you get. It's important to train those consciously and endlessly.) Sometimes you will leave them on, but only as part of a combo.
GAME PLAN APPLICATION
As you cross-train, you'll be exposed to a variety of different skills and techniques. Use the game plan to manage these effectively. After a while, most of the techniques you learn will not end up in your game plan.
Remember that you don't have to memorize the game plan. It's not like you're going to be in the middle of a fight and think: "OK, it appears that he is now in the process of tackling me. What did I write down on my game plan? I will remember that technique and use it now." The goal of the game plan is to help you prioritize and structure your training, so that you can apply the game plan thoughtlessly when the time comes. Game plans tell you what to practice. Practice makes those techniques instinctive.
For this reason, I think the most important function of the game plan is for use in designing drills. For example: a lot of karateka will put shuto-uke on their game plan. If so, you want to drill shuto-uke frequently against a variety of scenarios, over and over and over again.
You can also use your game plan to structure your strength and conditioning work. This is useful because you're not just doing sport-specific training, you're doing game plan-specific training, so you're dialing down on your precise needs. I don't want to pretend to be an expert on weight training, because I'm not, but I'll share some of my notes to spark your creativity:
***To my knowledge, most karate styles emphasize using the hips and stance to generate power. Power drives up from the floor, through the core, into your strikes. This will show up in a karate game plan. For this reason, a good default program for healthy individuals with adequate mobility would be Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength.
***For bunkai-oriented karateka who focus heavily on limb control (especially pulling arms to the hips), I would tweak the routine to prioritize chin-ups, deadlifts, and rows. Stronglifts 5x5 (plus chin-ups, example here: stronglifts.com/5x5/) could be a good starting point. I would do those chin-ups from a dead hang, so you're hitting the full range of motion. Once the deadlift stalls, you might add in work with a grip trainer (e.g. captains of crush or something similar). (If you can't do a chin-up, try gradually working in negative chin-ups: https://youtu.be/Dx740NIKX94 - these can optionally be augmented with lat pulldowns. Over time, build up the frequency and volume of the negative chin-ups, and you'll see significant improvement.)
***For individuals who want overall strength and conditioning development but who struggle with recovery (maybe because they're cross-training a lot), I'd consider a program like Jim Wendler's 5/3/1. You could do kata, footwork drills, and jump rope as your warm-up (to support striking), and do one conditioning session per week (maybe sprinting). Consider adding lunges as part of your assistance work once your body can take it. (https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/531-how-to-build-pure-strength)
***For individuals who are already strong, Crossfit might be a decent choice, so long as you're careful to start slowly and you're obsessive about good form.
***For recreational martial artists who don't much care, consider just a basic, low-key bodybuilding routine. To draw upon the common-sense advice of Bill Pearl, devise a program that will fit in your schedule, and don't perform any exercise that causes pain to old injuries.
***Be careful if you're not used to heavy lifting. Get proper instruction on form.
Once again, I am not trying to present myself as an expert on strength or conditioning. I am only providing those resources so you can use them as a starting point for your own research.
WHO DOESN'T NEED A GAME PLAN?
I've pitched this article at individuals who are just starting to cross-train or who are thinking about cross-training. In most cases, I think these are the people who will need a game plan to stay on track. But there are some cases where you could skip this.
For example, if you have a great instructor who has plenty of time to spend with you, and who knows your strengths and weaknesses, you really don't need a game plan of your own. That instructor will essentially do all of this work for you. He or she will push you in the right direction, will give you the feedback you need to succeed, and will schedule classes so you're drilling your fundamental skills over and over again.
Another reason to skip the game plan is if you only focus on performing a single kata, and you've pretty much internalized its lessons. In that case, the kata is your game plan. It will show you how to connect your techniques together. It will show you how to prioritize your drills. Once you're sufficiently familiar with the kata, you don't need anything else.
The last reason you might not need a game plan is because you're already skilled enough that you know what works for you, you know how to drill it, and you aren't planning to change it.
Game plans are a simple concept that have been around for a long time. Even though they appear deceptively obvious, I believe that they're a very effective tool for individuals who are cross-training. Cross-training exposes you to a lot of unnecessary techniques that you don't really need. To make the most of your cross-training, you need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Game plans are a good tool for that. They help you stay focused on what's important.
In a future article, I'll explore how to take this game plan concept and apply it on a more granular level to individual kata (giving sample game plans for Heian Nidan/Pinan Shodan, for Tekki Shodan, for Kanku Dai, and for Ji'in/Jion).