When I set out to write this article I was reminded of this old Jim Carey sketch from In Living Color (be warned it involves some stab wounds and bad 90s humour). In the sketch, Jim Carey as the martial arts instructor informs his demonstration partner, who has just stabbed him with a knife, that the reason he failed to defend is because she was “attacking wrong”.
Though the sketch is absurd and represents the worst in martial arts—a school where the techniques being taught are dangerously disconnected from reality—it demonstrates an important truth of training: you need to understand the other side of any drill to appropriately challenge and refine your technique.
What’s the Other Guy Doing?
To fully understand how to apply a given technique it is imperative that you understand what your partner was trying to do. If you are defending, what is the nature of their attack? If you are attacking, what is the circumstance of the opening/opportunity?
Every technique has a context in which it lives and it is impossible to appropriately challenge and refine a technique without fully understanding that context.
Understanding Physical Context—The Four Pillars
The four pillars (measure, cover, line, and tempo) are the underpinnings of all good technique and act both as a type of litmus test as well as a means to analyze the strength, weakness, and context of a given action.
You can use the four pillars to analyze both the technique of the “student”, the operator of the technique we’re learning, and the “instructor”, aka “the other guy”—the one who cues the student’s technique with their own stimulus action.
Look at the technique of the instructor and use the four pillars to guide the following questions:
- Measure – What range is this technique conducted in? Is the instructor extending or working close?
- Cover – How is the instructor protecting themselves? Or is this a completely undefended action? An accidental opening? An invitation?
- Line – Where is the instructor presenting threat? If this is an attack, what is the target and the level of intent?
- Tempo – What is the timing of the instructor’s action? Are they acting while you are standing still and ready (out of tempo) or are they trying to catch you in a moment of activity—perhaps as you step in or change position?
Sometimes we train in a less contextual way (e.g., we remove timing) to help us focus on mechanics, block out the general movement, or give greater attention to the other pillars. In these circumstances it’s important to be mindful of the fact that you are training a partial technique in that moment. To truly be able to conduct this action in context you’re going to need to eventually train the whole gamut—with the timing aspect brought back in.
Make the Instructor’s Technique Work
Generally when you are working a counter-technique the technique you are working against has some kind of error—position, movement, blade control, distance, timing—otherwise it wouldn’t be able to be countered. Can you work that technique without error? If the opponent was savvy, wise, and had good mechanics and timing, what would they be trying to accomplish and how would they accomplish it?
Make time in your training to work the other side of every drill and make sure you can enact the opponent’s intent effectively against someone who does not know the counter or when the action is made without error.
Some counters specifically target the techniques of opponents who are naive, foolhardy, or incompetent, but it’s important that you understand those pre-requisites and know how to identify them. Every technique is “undefendable” only under the correct circumstances.
Exercise as Experiment
One way to operate inside of a drill is to view it as a kind of scientific experiment. You have created a controlled environment or laboratory where a particular moment of fighting is taking place.
- The drill is a research question, which might be something like “Against an opponent who is seeking to earnestly strike me, in X distance and in N time, can I deflect and counter-strike them?”
- Your counter-technique is the hypothesis: “A counter-thrust in quarta will deflect and counter-strike an earnest attack.”
- There are controls and methods that help focus the practice and define the context where the question is being asked:
- A set starting position or configuration of weapons
- Defined intent for both parties and rules about what they are allowed to do (for example for this question, the opponent should seek to earnestly strike rather than back up and defend)
- Appropriate protective equipment to allow for intent or combat speed, and the inevitable contact that results
Each rep in the drill provides you with a result. The question rarely changes but every variation of your technique is a new type of hypothesis or question: What if I place my hand just a little bit higher? What if I act just a little bit later?
And at every stage it is essential that the instructor be holding up their end of the drill. They must be asking you the exact same question, and asking it effectively. There truly is a “right way to attack” but it must be asking the question you want to answer.