All the gentlemen are dead

In the martial arts the concept of fighting fair often gets deeply engrained in the student. We can easily get swept away with the romantic notion of being able to dispatch a group of snarling, dirty fighting thugs with very clean knock out blows and solar plexus kicks that makes us the hero of good clean decent people.

As exaggerated as this sounds I think is this the secret image that many practitioners, teachers, and even master level teachers have. If you look at some of the mainstream applications to patterns it goes some way to support this idea. Simple brutal movements are often altered to make them more palatable. What may have been at one time a head butt changed to a shoulder strike or missed out completely and is just referred to as a step forward.

Techniques like, eye gouging, head butting, and biting are not only effective but easily accessible. It is sometime this accessibility that makes people disregard them as low skill techniques that should be left for the poor philistines and thugs that don’t train in martial arts or are so low skill that they will always be there for us when we need them. One more reason that they are being left out is that they are seen as unsporting or not fighting fair. Here in lies the issue, no one said fights were meant to be fair. In fact they are very often not. I don’t think that people head to the streets looking for a challenge match, what they want is a beat down with them on the winning side. Sticking to the idea of ‘fighting clean’ or ‘fighting fair’ could very well put you at a disadvantage

One argument that I hear from people who don’t want to include these techniques is that they are not traditional. This is based on the idea that they are not in the forms. This may very well be true but the fact that some of them are low skill, for example biting, that we can make the assumption that the student is already familiar with the ‘technique’. Therefore we can use the patterns to point out positions where a particular low skill technique may be applied.

The other issue with the ‘it’s not in the patterns’ argument is that they very well could be. Take a look at the opening of Toi Gye as an example. Instead of the first movement that is often seen as a block has our hand in the same position as it would be in a shirt or clothing grab. The following movement, pulling our hand to our chest and stepping forward, looks very much like a head butt to me. Later in the pattern there is a twin vertical punch., I don’t agree with the name or the standard application of the movement I teach it as an eye gouge.

Now this may be slowly my interpretation of the patterns but my point is that they techniques can be found there if someone wants.

We should of course look for skill and try to develop ourselves in different ranges and techniques, but this doesn’t mean that we should veer forget the low level skill techniques. In my next article I will be looking at ways of safely training these techniques.

Are you ready for applications?

Anyone that has trained anyone anything will have come across students who want to jump to the more advanced things without working on the basics. The instructor will often remind the student the importance of building a solid foundation before starting more advanced skills. Yet this sound teaching practice is all but forgotten when teaching pattern applications.

First the empty form is taught and then the and then the application but without teaching the student anything about distance timing control etc. in other words the bare techniques are taught without the basic support skills.. This leads to a set of largely useless isolated techniques. No matter if they are reactive or proactive without certain general skills the techniques become academic.

In the past forms were some of the last things that were taught in some systems. They were not seen as a product that is sold which is essentially how they are treated today. They were seen as the end of a part of training where they had the techniques show so as could better remember the techniques they had learnt.

So what dd they do the rest of the time? In a modern dojang patterns/forms training could easily take up 50% or more of class time. During that time the position of the hands are feet are analyzed to pin point precision but never used. In the past I believe in the past most of a class would be taken up with moving with a partner in a number of different formats. Only with that hands on knowledge can people have the basis to make use of the information in the patterns It is important that our students know what is it like to be hit, be grabbed or grab other people before we start looking at the details of techniques.

In my own classes there are 3 fundamental formats that I look for my students to be comfortable with before I feel they will really understand the patterns. We try to explore these formats as much as possible and the ability in the formats should rise with the level of the patterns.

The fundamental formats that I look at are:

Covering

This is a very natural movement, someone hits you in the head and you throw your hands up to guard. I want my students to get used to this and be desensitized to the panic feeling. We go from four main angles (front, back, left and right) and mix in some body shots. I don’t want student trying to block every shot nor do I want them just to weather all the blows. I want them to react in a protective manner, covering their head, and then escape or find a way to counter the attack.

Grappling

The students take hold of each other in a formal grip. Usually I go for tricep/elbow and back of the head/collar. Then they practice moving each other and being moved and touching target areas to represent a strike or grabbing at areas like the groin or throat etc. As we progress we vary the grips, look at defending the initial grapple, and breaking free and escaping.

Clearing

This is done in a number of ways. We start with one partner standing in a guard and the other working round them practicing clearing arms to open target areas, this shown by a light tap to the area. We can then move on to moving and adding more resistance.

In all of these formats we add in various strikes and tactics as the students progress.

If you have read my previous articles you may notice that these three formats come from my interpretation of the patterns, covering from the crossed hand position, clearing from knifehand guarding block, and grappling from forearm guarding block. In themselves they seem very easy but as you work on them you can keep adding new variables to make them more challenging. They give the student the basic skills to at least understand where the application of the patterns fit

With practice the three formats can blend into each other. When covering, either person can go into limb clearing, which could be responded by grappling. This added with striking is already a fairly solid, if basic, stand up system.

From there we add in and investigate the techniques found within the patterns. Surprisingly a good deal of the techniques may have already been discovered by the students through just practicing the drills. From there we can formalize them and make our TKD to a truly integrated system

Taekwondo Grappling

The question of whether TKD has grappling included in the forms is an old one that has been answered many times. Whether a person wants to study it or not,however, is up to them. Grappling will have no place for the competitive TKD fighter but is very important for someone wishing to use TKD for self defense..

For someone starting out I would think that the place to start is getting use to the basic grappling range. This is represented in the patterns by forearm guarding block. Similar to knife hand guarding block, forearm a guarding block has a few issues when applied as a defense to a punch or mid line attack. However, it fits very well into a grappling grip maybe elbow and back of the head or lapel. From there we first get used to moving with someone and being moved around by someone. One student should be leading and the other following strongly. It is important that the ‘follower’ is not being too relaxed and just going anywhere and not resisting too hard. Both open you up to getting tossed around.

The next step is to add some sort of resistance or competition. To do this I often put something in the back of their belt, maybe a training knife, and give one student the goal of working round and getting the knife out of the back of the belt. I find this as a useful bridge to grappling as it helps with moving around and dealing with arms without the stress of being attacked. These are basic drills or games that are just to get people used to moving around with another person. There are lots of other progressing from just moving to some sort of competition.

This process I believe is actually closer to the traditional process of training. According to some of my older teachers, forms were some of the last things to be taught. Before getting in to the technical aspects people had to be given a frame of reference to what it was like to move with someone. This is why in the past forms were considered important and even secret in some styles no like today when they are typically bought from the instructors

When the student are used to holding and moving with a person we can start to adding techniques. After doing releases etc,. Since we are using a forearm guarding block frame the next logical step is to look at the forms and investigate the techniques that follow immediately after a forearm guarding block. This uncovers throws, defenses to tackles, and close in strikes. All of which can be developed and built upon to create new techniques based on the same principles.

Of course it doesn’t stop there. With a little work you could be amazed at how many movements work from the grappling holds. For me working at this range really opens up the patterns, and in fact opens up the whole art of TKD.

I hope you found this article interesting and it make you want to go and play with the close-in range of TKD. Thank you for reading.

It’s OK it’s art

Time and again I see the movements of forms dismissed as ‘art’ whether it is the movements themselves or the application that has been demonstrated. The idea that anything is OK if you refer to it as art is not one tht sits well with me. In this article I will be looking at the art argument.

Over the years “it’s art’ has slowly replaced the answer “I don’t know” ask many teachers about the application for a movement in a pattern and maybe they will show the mainstream application. At this point if the student questions the application he is quickly closed down being told it is the art side of TKD. This excuse has been used so much now that almost the entire style of TKD has been reduced to ‘art’, save the small handful techniques that you need for competition.

However if we look at the history and purpose of forms, to hand down fighting methods from teacher to student, then why would art be included? This would be akin to asking a boxer to perform a pirouette during a session of shadow boxing. It serves no purpose and if the forms were created by fighters for fighters then art would have no place in practice.

To take a more modern day view, if I paid someone to fix something in my house but instead they did a whole lot of extra work that looked good but had no practical purpose and in fact didn’t address the issue I needed fixing. Very likely I would call the police. However, this is exactly the same thing that happens when someone goes to a traditional martial arts school wanting to learn self defense. They are put through learning a whole series of applications that aren’t addressing the issue of self defense but is passed off as art.

What does the term ‘art’ mean in this sense anyway? In demonstrating these movements there is no high level of skill presented, most of the poor applications are not ascetically pleasing. In fact I feel the word ‘art’ in this sense only has one other meaning ‘fake’ a useless defense against a useless attack. This idea has allowed people to create any number of applications and forms that have no purpose. Is it any wonder then that respect for traditional martial arts have declined over the years.

In my mind what the term ‘art’ should be meaning is’ beyond skill’. When a person reaches the level that ever the most complex movements are part of their natural responses. As an example I also study the Filipino marital art of Balintawak, the movements of this style are vicious to say the least, but when you see two high level practitioners training together it Is impressive and beautiful. There are no wasted movements but just people acting and reacting. Like all other expressions of art to get to this level takes time and dedication. Most importantly it takes research into the real purpose of movements.

2 Seconds

A quick look at YouTube or even a walk around the town on a Saturday night will give you some insight in to violence and how it happens. One thing to notice is how it begins, it is fast , explosive and well…..violent. If you don’t have an answer for the first 2 seconds of a fight then you may not last long enough for you to use any of your fighting ability.

Very often in the martial arts we look at techniques from a point of view of being ‘ready’ in some cases even dropping back in to a ready stance waiting for the attack to commence. This practice is of course a little bit misleading as fights more often than not happen when we are not ready for them. Whether it be an ambush or an attack leading off from an argument we won’t have the time to assume a stance or even really move our feet at all.

Luckily our body has an inbuilt defense for things kicking off, simply put we flinch. We see something coming at our head and, no matter what our training has been, we throw our hands up to stop whatever it (usually a fist) is making contact. This is our most natural reaction so instead of trying to change it completely I think we should be using it and in fact building on it. We need to get use to applying techniques from the flinch position so that when we throw our hands up in defense we are still in familiar territory and still able to defend ourselves.

The key for this training lies in the patterns. The cross hand position that is often regarded as a preparation for a block or strike is in my opinion the block itself, with the following movement being the counter. If we look at most of the movements from this point of view we can see that they start to make more sense. We throw our hands up to protect ourselves from an attack , say a large haymaker swing, As the attack makes contact we can secure it with one hand and drag it down (the reaction hand goes to the hip) while the other hand can begin to counter.

Of course knowing the theory isn’t enough, we must train in a way to activate the flinch response. One way of doing this is by increasing the power and speed of the attacks. However, if we know what is coming, it is not a surprise and therefore won’t affect us in the same way. By adding to the variety of possible attacks (haymakers, kicks etc) including dialogue or anything to take the defenders mind off the coming attack we can better simulate a flinch and can better train our responses for an initial unexpected attack. From there you can start to employ your other fighting abilities

Sparring drills

To follow on from my last article on sparring, in this article I am going to describe some sparring drills that I practice with the guys I train with.

The drills that I use have been collected from seminars, past instructors and my own personal training.. It is likely that you have come across some similar ideas before. Since we are all trying to solve the same problem of fighting same solutions will be reached by people. The drills described below are ones that I have tried and work for me and the guys I train with.

Before describing the drill some basic points about my general approach to sparring practice

Whenever I start a sparring session my first concern is safety. As I mentioned in the previous article fighting by its very nature is a dangerous pursuit. In order to effectively practice it we must pay attention to students’ safety. Students must be well versed in the techniques that are going to be used, and the correct protective equipment must be used.

One more important thing is letting people know roughly what to expect during any drill. For example if one person thinks that we are practicing stand up, and then his partner does a takedown there is a higher chance of injury. So I make sure that all students are on the same page.

Of course that the higher level of the student the more scope you can put into a drill. You may start isolating drill for beginner students, i.e. only stand up or only ground but for more advanced students who can breakfall you may want to leave the drill open to both

The final point is that as much as possible sparring drills should have a goal, whether it is escaping, or scoring points etc. students should be sparring with a purpose in mind

Elevator

For this drill you need a few people holding kick shields forming a small elevator sized area. Two people step in and on the command start fighting. There is no room for footwork or feints so often it is a very quick blast. On the command two people holding the kick shield step away (i.e. the doors open) and one person tries to escape. You can either nominate the person or leave it to whoever is in the better position to get out. The rounds tend to be very short none lasting more that 40 seconds.

Ambush

In this drill, the students are in groups. One person stands with their eyes closed and the other are free to start the fight. Usually this is with attacking the person with punches or kicks. The initial attack should be controlled as the person has their eyes closed, but should also be continuous. One issue I have with this drill is students throwing one punch then stepping back ready to spar. The person who was attacked then has to defend themselves and make their way to a ‘safe zone’ in the training hall’

To bring up the challenge I sometimes have the person with their eyes closed turn in circles while waiting to be attacked.

Pick a skill

After going over a series of attacks based on kicks, punches and grappling the students pair off to spar. Before sparring begins, a cup of small bits of paper is passed round. Each student takes a piece of paper, on it is written either K,P, or G to indicate if the student should use kicking, punching or grappling for that round. Whatever they pick that is the only range/attacking method they can use. They can of course defend the attacks but not attack with anything other than what they picked. When the round finishes the students change partner and then pick a new skill.

Get up

One student lies on the floor the other student/s have 3 seconds to get in position in order to hold the student down. The object for the student on the floor is to get up and get to the safe zone. I allow striking in this drill, and also focus on dirty fighting, so student call look for opportunities to bite, eye gouge etc

The ring

The students stand in a circle and two students start fighting in the centre. The rules of the sparring can be anything you like but as the two people spar if they get close to anyone in the circle that person can join in. They can choose to attack either or both people. This continues till everyone is fighting. When everyone is in, I let the fight continue for a set amount of time them reset with a new group in the centre.

These are just a few of the drills that I use in my training. I occasionally mix one or two ideas together for extra challenge and there is always the option of multiple opponents or weapons to be included. If you are already doing something similar or try these drills after reading this article, I would love to hear your feedback.

Happy Training

Sparring

Many martial arts are measured by their sparring, and possibly quite rightly as it is the end goal of many systems. Whether it is no holds barred, full contact, semi contact, light contact or maybe the art someone studies has no sparring; they all attract a different kind of person. In this article I will be examining TKD sparring and looking at the pros and cons of the rules and sparring system.
Certainly the way that we spar is a safe and enjoyable way to experience something approaching a fight. The damaging heavy blows and strikes to vital areas have been taken away in an effort to make an inherently dangerous pursuit, that would be fighting, as safe as possible. But in doing so have we also accidently softened the art?

The gap between practical self defence and sparring is getting wider and wider with sparring taking on the dominant role in how we engage with people, and self defence being added with a handful of techniques that we do with a compliant partner. Therefore when we are in a violent confrontation there is only one of these that will come to the fore front. Your brain will immediately try to match the situation you are in with the closest thing you have experienced. In short you will probably go into sparring mode up, on your toes, looking for an opening, dodging and weaving, etc.

If the situation you are in is not serious and/or you are very good at sparring in that manner then maybe you’ll be ok. TKD forums are full of people recounting stories of when they took someone down by kicking them in the head or dropped someone with a spinning back kick. I believe their stories but I also believe that maybe they weren’t against the most serious of opponents.

No matter true or not, the issue still exists that for more serious situations or older slower people standard sparring is not an effective solution for self defence. Training a young 20 something who is working on their competition career is a world away from training a middle aged person who spends most of their working day sitting in front of a computer.

Competitions, however, are not going away anytime soon and the current rules of sparring fit the competitions that we have perfectly. We don’t prepare on one or two big fights a year but possibly anything between 5-10 fights in a single afternoon. For this reason I think we should keep the current sparring rules, but we should stop trying to find ways of fitting sport fighting in to real life situations. We should accept that they are different and instead create club level sparring systems that allow students to better prepare themselves for self defence.

In my opinion there should be a whole host of ‘sparring’ formats practiced at club level. These should cover a wide range of skills and abilities. Ground fighting, multiple opponents, ambush attacks, and weapons should all be included in our sparring training. Through this we can better emulate what real fights might be like and better equip our students to deal with real life situations.

In doing this, I feel we would be better serving all are students. Not just the ones who want to compete but all levels and ages groups. In my next article I am going to introduce some of the sparring formats I practice with my students.
Thank you for reading