The power of a technique, a method or a strategy is only apparent if it is brought to bear as planned. When we think about defending ourselves in a martial exchange the consideration of power and how we can minimize its effect is one of the first problems to solve. There are many ways we can avoid, re-distribute, transform or neutralise forces affecting us in the martial context. But one of the most useful, if often shunned, is the use of agility.
Agility is the ability to move or think quickly, appropriately and efferently. It is a characteristic that we see in some of the top-flight boxers or MMA athletes, who seem to have an uncanny ability to avoid being hit. But as a general point it is the rapid utilisation of the mind and body in a completely unencumbered way.
Often, we see that martial artists will promote the ‘immovable’ method of development. They will get partners or lines of people to push against them and not budge from the spot. This approach has its uses and at a high level represents very refined mechanics, but it can also become a trap. People chase this immovable skill and can end up rooted to the spot while an agile opponent picks them apart one Jab at a time. I have seen this directly many times. People from an immovable background simply unprepared for what true agility can bring to the table.
Ideally, we want to develop a body that can be both immovable and highly mobile, it may seem a contradiction but a consolidated body moving quickly through space is quite a problem for an opponent! A difficult balance and an inevitable trade off will result of course you may not be as immovable as the specialist in that skill, or as agile as the acrobat, but you will have some of both.
A good analogy for the agile body is to think of a boat on a stormy sea. It rides the immense powers of the ocean and can weather the storm. Contrast that to the solid coastlines that crumble under the constant pounding of the waves forces.
The agile fighter can be the boat. They can move in ways that can completely negate even the largest volumes of force.
Agility is born out of developing both our bodies and our minds. To be agile a fighter will need both the mind and the bodies ‘quickness’ to be developed through targeted training. Much of the methods for agile work can be found in the ‘ElasticBody’ section of the MartialBody system. Elastic in that context refers to both the quality of the tissues in the body and also the ability of the mind to stretch and spring into action.
Even complex forces can be avoided with the right level of physical and mental agility. It is very easy to not be affected by a force if you are not interacting with it and this is the most common way in which we see Agility utilised. The high level martial artist will have the ability to read the method of the opponent, sometimes subconsciously, and simply not be there when their method arrives. It is easy to understand how this looks in the striking context, there are in numerous examples of agility in use in combat sports where one persons strikes hit nothing but air. If you have ever sparred with a high level boxer you will know immediately what I mean. You can hardly land a glove on them and almost never with any efficacy of delivery. This is a clear and very good example of agility.
But sometimes it can be hard to see in the Grappling context. However there are some very good examples. Kyozu Mifune being a prime one. His ability to ‘go with’ and avoid forces is very refined and he really does look like a boat riding the stormy seas in the footage we see of him. In a contact situation the grappler can use a given force or move in a specific way so as to cause re-adjustment in the partner, even if they are as stable as a mountain. It is often in this re-adjustment that we can take complete advantage of the opponent. Similarly on the ground, a good grappler can display incredible levels of agility so as to completely negate the partners forces acting on them.
Mifune Accepts sparring from high level students.
Mendes Brothers winning the Rickson Cup against other Black Belts.
Watch how mifune uses his footwork and stepping to avoid being offbalanced. This is perhaps the first and most important expression of agility. However, there is a tendancy in some martial circles to avoid the step and try to deal with a force using body method. These ‘mountain’ focused methods like those found in Tai Chi’s fixed step pushing hands will reward those who can make a partner step and shun those that need to step to avoid the forces applied. But what are we looking at here, if we take the objective stance.
We could say that we are looking at someone ‘making’ there partner step, that they are taking their balance, their structure for later exploitation. Sure, this is valid and can be a very useful way of observing the interaction, indeed in upcoming articles we will discuss this even more. But looking at things from the other side, we could say that one partner tries to disrupt the centre and then the other individual simple steps to avoid losing it. The step completely neutralises and equalises the process of off balancing … sounds like a valid tool to me!
Many people I interact with, especially from arts like tai chi, will value making the partner step in a vastly over inflated way, often considering that one simple action the ‘win’!
When I go on to say, ‘The partner can simply step’ they even become offended and consider the step some ‘low level’ loss of position. They couldn’t be further from the truth. Stepping and using agility of footwork in a free and adaptive way should be a priority for anyone engaging with a partner. It should be welcomed not shunned. Yes, there are times where we are testing the body and step represents a certain condition as we will discuss later, but these are only for training.
Don’t mistake Agile for overt.
There is a tendency when we think of agility to envisage people leaping around or doing acrobatics like the Capoeiraista. This is the most common misconception I come across when we are talking about agility in the martial context. Of course, that level of mobility and motion control is a form of agility, but it is not the only form and there are accessible expressions of agility that are more common to the high level martial artists of any style.
Primarily, the agility we use to avoid or deal with force can be very small and tight. Think of the boxer slipping the jab by only a couple of millimetres or the Wrestler ducking under in a very tight circle. The movements size is not the defining characteristic of ‘Agility’.
What defines our agility is how easily and efficiently we can perform a given motion, how we time that motion so as to make it the most effective and how that motion is expressed. I have met some martial artists that could kick you in the throat with no wind up, no sign of it coming and no disconnection of their hand controls. This is a type of agility that is extremely useful, is subtle and is unseen. But moreover, it is effortless.
For true agility to be useful and used against any type of power we must be able to apply and express it in the moment and with the correct size. If I want to avoid a jab I do not need to leap 6 feet back for instance, I simply need to avoid it.
There are absolutely times when we should be ‘the mountain’ and times when we should be ‘the boat on the ocean’. Indeed, there is no set rule as to which should be present when and the expert will express a constant flow between the lightness of a feather on a stormy sea and the mountain on which the waves crash. It the even more advanced levels the expert will, in fact, be both at the same time … but that is for another article.