Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Need for Flexibility in the Martial Arts

It's not uncommon, in some martial arts schools, to insist that a technique be performed only one specific way by all students. While this is especially true in forms (and that's a rant for another day), I've been taught this to be true in self defense techniques as well in my martial arts journey.

Take this group: do you think that every technique would work equally well for each person?

Our Arnis class circa 2011-2012.
I'd be the shorty in the red pants in the back.
The male blue belt (Mr. Stick Chick) and the arnisador I'm playing with are about the same height and weight, but I'm noticeably shorter, smaller, and weaker in upper body strength, and the guy in the black and white pants is middling height and very fit and strong.

So, should we all use the exact same techniques all the time?  Obviously, the question is no!

Here's one simple example. Let's take what we call the #1 combative response:

Empty hand interpretation, of course...
Typically, we train that you block with the same side hand on the incoming attack, and you strike with the opposite side hand.  As you can see here, the #1 target we teach is the face, head, or neck.

However, perhaps the defender in the gray shirt, who is not much taller than I am, has a better target available on the torso - the palm-heel he is delivering isn't as strong as it could be if both partners were of similar height. It might be best for the defender to alter the target for the counter-attack based on where he can deliver the most damage - in this case, the solar plexus, the ribs, or the groin.

Perhaps, versus a very tall opponent, the #1 combative response isn't the best choice at all - he could choose to palis-palis (go with the force), passing the incoming weapon over his head, for example, which opens up a host of targets for counterattack (and has the advantage of moving away from the area of attack by the other hand/foot not being engaged).

Does that render the #1 combative response invalid and something he shouldn't train?  Of course not!  Just because it does not work well for him versus this specific opponent, does not mean it might not work very well versus someone else.

My instructor +Mark Lynn  at Hidden Sword Martial Arts says he heard +Datu Hartman explain it thus (paraphrasing, of course), in context of "category completion":

Let's say you learn four techniques well enough to teach them (call them #1, #2, #3, and #4).

For me:
  • "A" technique (the one that works best in most situations) might be the #3 technique
  • "B" technique (next best) might be the #2 technique
  • "C" technique (not a go-to unless a specific situation arises) might be #4 technique
  • "D" technique (not something to choose) would be the #1 technique
I need to know all four, because for a student who is taller, stronger, shorter, or weaker than I, the order of preference may be different.  I should "complete the category" so that I understand all the variants.

To be fair, sometimes, it makes no sense to do something purely for category completion's sake - such as supported blocking against the low strikes to the knee, where a different block (a straight on force-to-force block, for example) would always be better.  Still... just because it's not ideal for you, does not mean it wouldn't work well for someone else or in a different context, and thus, you should complete the category.

My instructor has been a martial artist for 30 years, and is always training to learn new things - it's one of my favorite things about him.  In class, it is not unusual for someone to come up with something he'd never seen or considered before (because they aren't him - they aren't his size, don't have his experience, don't have his strengths and weaknesses).  He's always delighted by this and adds this to his toolbox when it happens.  This is, in my opinion, one of the major things that makes him an excellent martial artist and teacher - his flexibility of mind.

I aim to that same level of flexibility, so that someday, I can be a good martial artist and a good teacher to my future students.

What do you think?  What's the downside to flexibility in training?  Is there a one best way that you've found?  I'd love to know!