In this series of articles, I will be delving into the mechanics of force in the martial arts and the various ways in which it can be addressed. In the martial context, we could say that it is how we deal with forces applied to us or those that we generate ourselves that defines every exchange.
We will, over the coming weeks, be considering some of the myriad of ways in which forces can be reduced, transformed, neutralised, returned, balanced, and created. All the while maintaining the understanding that to perform many of the methods that are presented, we must, of course have and maintain the ‘Martial Body’.
The first subject we will investigate are the ways we can approach the martial exchange. Before we talk about the body, the methods of angulation mechanics etc we can take a higher level look at how people will approach the problem of dealing with force. There is sometimes a distinction made between two types of approach in the martial arts, often called the internal method and the external method. There are a variety of ways in which these terms can be interpreted and it would take another article to dig through them, but for the purposes of this article they can highlight two ways in which we can approach dealing with forces.
When we are talking about a martial exchange we are looking at how two (or more), highly complex structures (humans) interact with each other. There will always be some form of contact and obviously some form of motion or movement.
There are two different ways in which we can use our focus when such interactions occur. One where we actively try to manipulate the other, and one where we actively manipulate ourselves. This line is slightly muddy, and there is mixing of these two concepts, but let me try to pick through the basic details.
2 approaches to the problem of force.
In most of martial arts, we are trying to affect the opponent in some way, we are blocking their strike, we are kicking their leg or we are grabbing their Gi. Of course, these things are requirements in certain situations, but note the language used in the description of the methods. There is a focus on things external to ourselves, we attempt to affect or manipulate the other as a point of focus. This is an externally focused mindset and is highly successful. However, there is another method that we can employ, one which, especially in grappling has interesting results.
This is the idea of placing the focus on how we move ourselves and that any interaction with the partner is simply the correct action of my own movement. Think of it this way, is the Merry-go-round trying to spin the children, or are the children along for the ride as the merry-go-round spins. This is the distinction between external focus and internal focus.
With the internal focus method, when an interaction occurs, we are focused on making our body movement correct, connected, and powerful, without focusing on affecting the partner or opponent. The result is that, just like the roundabout, when the partner touches us in some way they are suddenly along for the ride.
Now, it is important to note that these two approaches create staunch advocates and absolutists on both sides, some will say that, to attack with efficiency and effectiveness we must be active and seek out the opponent, the external process. Some will say that if our internal focus is good enough it doesn’t matter what the opponent does, they will be off balanced or defeated as soon as they interact with us.
The reality, in my opinion, is somewhere in between these extremes. When I was a doorman there were times where I would absolutely have to be active, when breaking up a fight or shutting down an aggressor before the situation escalated. However, there were also times where I would be receptive, someone would contact me and, through my own body method, they would suddenly find themselves at the door and walking home without really knowing how I did it.
How does internal focus method create effect?
Just like the merry go round spinning the children must be a secure structure, the internal focus is predicated on our ability to maintain a structure that is consolidated and responsive. This allows the adept to be responsive without even thinking about it, a force applies, our structure seeks to regain harmony, we fuel this with specific power generation and it is from this that the effect is created. If our structure is not harmonised and consolidated in specific ways forces applied will be able to cause unwanted effects, more on this later.
But with the internal focus, and the trained body, we can simply move ourselves despite the partner. We prioritise our own structure and motion over the motion of the partner. The moment we pull ourselves out of the internal focus and we lose our introspection, the likelihood of the opponent making us enter a ‘reaction’ state increases. They can shift us into their game of external work like a switch. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the internal method, to maintain the priority of our own structure and movement over that of the partner.
As I say, it is important to be able to do both here, we can switch between them, if the body is correctly trained and adapted, although this is hard and few achieve it. The wiring is different and the mind has a hard time making the switch. Although the internal expert will never have some of the attributes of the external expert, the same is true vice versa. Things start to get complex when we introduce tactics into this equation. How, for instance, do you attack opportunities if your focus is on your own movement and body state? The answers will come in later articles.
How does the External Focus method create effect?
Imagine a missile defence system for a moment. The missile is launched and headed towards its target, the internal method would be to build the bunker that can withstand the missile strike and deflect it. Conversely, the External method would be to send up anti-missile measures to shoot it out of the sky.
The external focus method is the method of activity in the environment around us. It is the method of working with the tactics and skills of the style to influence the partner. It is important to know that it still requires highly refined movement, body usage and mechanics. It would be a mistake to think that external focus is somehow blunt or crude, as some people in the internal world would have us believe. Spar with any high level wrestler or kickboxer and you will experience their subtlety in a very real and immediate way, as you pick yourself up off the floor.
The external focus is aimed at effecting and manipulating the partner and their movement in as refined a way as possible. You are trying to create angles, spirals, circles and many other concepts using a trained body to affect the forces of your opponent with superior forces from yourself.
The responsive, balancing body
Both focus methods require the trained body to be effective, but it is much more vital in the internal focus method. If your body is not trained to be as efficient, effective, balanced and powerful as possible, no matter how you focus your attention you will be defeated.
In the external method, making your body capable of performing every given action of the style without encumbrance and with complete freedom is the goal. The exponent should not be limited by their body and the training is often focused on increasing traits like flexibility, speed, reaction, timing and adaptability. These attributes, when well trained, make the external focused fighter formidable and highly effective.
The internal focused fighter will also require a body that can perform effective action, but the method by which the actions are created and completed is slightly different. The internal exponent aims to create a soft but taut, responsive & balanced body. This is to say that the body is highly sensitive and responsive to force which enables it to naturally change and balance forces that are applied to it. This is a defining characteristic of the internal methods and one which perhaps the hardest for those hard wired into external focus to adapt too.
Imagine a ball, the ball is inflated and maintains a higher pressure inside than out. The static ball is in perfect balance, the skin of the ball balancing and holding in the high pressures of the interior with the low pressures of the exterior. When the ball is compressed, pressures inside the ball will be changed and expressed by distortion of the ball or by movement as the ball naturally returns to equilibrium. This internal change, in this instance of pressure, when forces are applied and the consequential return to equilibrium is a good example of an internal concept. We can take this further by imagining trying to compress the ball as it is spinning or moving through space as it spins, this is a good, if crude, analogy for how the internal focus method is effective.
To the observer, watching an exchange, these two methods of focus may seem the same, but when you look at the mindset and method of the two approaches they are uniquely distinct. The benefits of the internal approach are in its positional security, management of forces coming in and power. The benefits of the external approach are in its highly tactical outlook, active mindset and its agility.
We will be delving into both the external focus and the internal focus methods in upcoming posts, and how they can be trained to maximise our ability to express our art.