This post is sure to ruffle a few feathers here and there, especially those in the traditional arts, but the purpose of this post is not to put down or slight anyone’s personal practice. The aim here is to provide some practical methods to combat a habit that can often develop unconsciously. Understand that I maintain a respect for all martial arts and those who study any method should not read my words as a critique of them personally or even the style they study, simply of the habit itself.
So, with that in mind let’s get onto the subject of today’s post. We have talked about the place for co-operation and the place for testing yourself against a determined opponent. In this post I would like to discuss a phenomenon that I see and have experienced arrising, often unconciously, from certain types of practice. I call this problem, ‘Training to give up’.
To frame this discussion, first it is worth looking at some examples of this phenomena.
Watch this footage of some MMA guys sparring.
The point to note in this footage is not the techniques, the methods, the environments or the styles at work, instead note the constant search for the win, the lack of giving up, even when the opponent successfully completes their technique, and the presence of the will to fight on. Note that even when someone is punched, taken down or kicked they are still focused on returning the favour and completing their own methods to win the exchange.
Now let’s contrast that footage with the following of a traditional Tai Chi exponent sparring.
Here, again ignoring the actual techniques on show, note that after the initial exchange the partner essentially gives up, allowing further methods to take place. Whenever they reach the point at which they believe they are beaten, they simply lose their will to continue. This is the habit we will look at in this post.
The pre-arranged attack and the pause.
One of the reasons this habit forms is the method in which many martial techniques are taught as ‘applications’
Note that after the initial attack, the partner simply stands there allowing the techniques to be performed. This can be seen in virtually all martial arts styles, it is one of the ways in which people can learn specific techniques and it is a very useful tool, especially for beginners.
However, although the person performing the counters will be drilling a specific technique, few people think about the ‘feeder’ or the person making the attack. What are they drilling or engraining? They are drilling to throw a punch, make a grab or some other technique … then halt all further intent or focus so that the partner can train their method. They are actually training to turn off their fighting intent or will to continue after the initial feeder attack is made.
This habit, if trained a lot and not re-framed with free form drills, technical/ limited resistance methods will produce an unconscious response to ‘give up’ after an initial attack.
This is a problem I see as pervasive in some areas of the martial arts community. Even when the exponents honestly try to work with resistance, it is easy to see when they have engrained the habit once an opponent obtains a superior position, or completes a successful method.
The point of this post is not to deride the person searching for answers with real resistance. I absolutely applaud all martial artists who seek answers in difficult situations. My aim here is to try to help those in this situation make some simple adjustments to begin to combat the building of this habit, often completely unconsciously.
The warrior spirit – the will to not give up.
Here is a good video of an Aikidoka testing out their skill in the ring in a friendly exchange with an MMA guy. I love the attitude of the Aikidoka and the kindness of the MMA fighter to help his partner through the challenging and foreign situation.
Obviously, there is a notable different in combative skill level here, and the environment, familiarity etc should be taken into consideration. But how, when a technique doesn’t work or the MMA guy gets in some good methods, the Aikidoka essentially gives up and waits for the reset. This is a habit born out of the style of training this AikidoKa has undertaken, where you feed an attack and receive the technique. Contrast this with the MMA athlete who is constantly focused on the partner and even in retreat is ‘zoned in’. The difference is very apparant, and is almost entirely mental.
Also note that after a short time in the unusual environment of constant pressure, the AikidoKa starts to become better at maintaining their intent, even in the face of an advancing and dominating opponent. This should prove that the habit is reversable relatively quickly when the right focus or training is maintained.
To place context around this issue, it is important to note the difference in how methods are often trained. In a wide number of traditional arts they approach the application of their style to combat with a series of steps. The exponent will work on their basic techniques, sometimes without a partner, sometimes with, they may learn forms or loops to engrain movement habits. Then they will perform ‘applications’ of the techniques they are learning from pre-arranges attacks even going to loops or drills of these movements and, for most, this is where the process ends. For some of course, they will then try to apply these techniques in sparring or against some resistance. But often the practitioners will become expert at applying their method against a known attack with a known reaction from the feeder.
In contrast sport fighters will often be working against resistance and random delivery from the first day. They will be provided with a basic tool kit, then work on the pads or drill movement on a live partner, they will then start applying their method against controlled resistance, in a positional spar with a more experienced partner or with limited tool sparring. Here we see a complete beginner starting their sparring with a much more experienced partner and in a controlled, but free way.
I am not saying either is a better approach, indeed, we can point to examples from each where high level combat skills have been obtained. But I can say that the second method, will reliably create a more adaptable and more determined focus in the uncooperative exchange.
The other side of every 'application'
The inherent problem with the first model I describe is that practitioners are constantly training to switch off.
Forget the person performing the given application, the ‘feeder’ or ‘uke’ is spending at least 50% of their time (when they are not applying the method) switching off after the initial feeder attack. They will throw a punch then their attacking mindset stops as the given technique is completed by the partner. This may be repeated hundreds of times in a session. Even if the feeder strikes or controls are aggressive and fast, the moment after they are thrown, the mind loses its determination. We are training our minds, our intent, and our bodies to simply give up after the first attack.
In sparring or fighting, it is after an initial attack or flurry that a good exponent may take advantage, this is the natural time for the mind and body to be regrouping, something I call the ‘Recovery Phase’ and offers an extremely useful opportunity to someone with sensitivity to the moment and the MartialBody to take advantage of. I have found that many people who have engrained the ‘recovery’ mindset are very easy to spot and take advantage of in a free exchange.
I have witnessed the same problem develop in BJJ athletes who dont spar much. They tend to 'give up' more than their counterparts who compete or spar alot. They are more used to giving up and allowing a technique to be completed than to use a combination of intent, fighting spirit and skill to escape.
How can we fix this?
Of course, as I have mentioned in previous articles, there is a place for co-operation. It is not enough to ONLY apply methods in a free environment and this is not the most effective way to learn.
So how can we maintain the practice of technique and to application, without also training ourselves to give in. There are several ways that we can approach this problem.
One key is in how we utilize our focus and our intent. In the Fluid body section of MartialBody, we place an emphasis on the use of the mind, the intent and freedom to adapt and change in line with the situation. This adaptability is a key aspect of the elite martial artist and one thing that differentiates the best I have met from the rest and arrises from a freedom to observe the situation as it is. However, this doesnt mean that we must only work in the freeform way to achieve this adaptability.
Even when you are simply feeding a punch to a partner for them to practice a technique, you can work with true intent to keep fighting or to check or avoid the partners responce. Now it is important to note that ‘intent to keep fighting’ does not mean aggression, speed, power, or any of the other points which can break down a co-operative drill! In fact, it means quite the opposite. The will to continue can be trained by feeling and observing how you would counter their method, how you could move to avoid or negate even the worst of positions. This mindset, of observation, awareness and scenario building will begin to free up the mental processes and train your body to continue, even when the situation becomes dire.
When you have trained with this mindset, you become acutely aware of the options as the landscape of possibility opens up to you when you finally move into free exchange. The body and mind will have trained to adapt and continue rather than to simply give up.
Secondly, we de-emphasize the ‘Uke’ or receiver mindset. In some traditions the Uke holds great levels of importance and indeed there is a place for the approach when training is framed in a certain way. However, it builds the habit we are talking about here directly.
We can counter this by using a friendly controlled environment where prevailing intent is the primary focus. The partner will feed the initial punch but the response will be countered as best they can until the drill breaks down. Here a coach is required to keep a close eye to avoid escalation. There are hundreds of methods that use this concept in many different systems, from Systema to Silat, from MMA to BJJ. It is an extremely valuable and fun way to maintain a prevailing mindset without sparring, and is much more akin to a chess match than a fight.
Next time you are working with your partner and are applying a pre-planned application, try the techniques I describe here. Observe how it changes the drill or the practice, and how you can build the will to fight on, even when the technical method requires you to stop.