Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Values in Sparring

This is a preview/think-out-loud for the print edition of "Drills" that should be out in 2012. The publisher wants added material, so that it can compete with the e-book version. That's fine. I'm going to add a section on sparring. Different types, different purposes.

The thing that hits me again and again about lots of drills is that what we are learning (or simply ingraining, creating a habit without any awareness) is rarely what we think we are learning. That's huge for instructors, too-- You may not be teaching what you think you are. There's a video out of some instructors 'woofing,' screaming horrible, rude things in student's (largely women) faces. The instructors are certain they are conditioning women to the emotional context of an attack. But the women are practicing, rep after rep, letting a threatening individual invade their space, take a position of physical and psychological dominance, and the women practice doing nothing.

Sparring, at any level, is a special case. Humans mistake intensity for truth. Things that trigger bigger reactions- fear or anger or exultation- simply feel more real than than the drudgery of day to day. In almost any given martial art, sparring is the most intense training methodology and feels 'more real' than any other exercise. Humans rarely question such a natural feeling. Most have never had their roulette table moment.

That means that any bad habits learned by sparring are learned deeply. And there must be bad habits. The essence of martial arts is the manufacture of cripples and corpses. If you have never crippled or killed anyone in training either what you do doesn't work or, more likely, you have also learned flaws with every drill. Those flaws are critical in any live training. Never forget that you are practicing at least as many reps of not hurting people as you are of hurting people.

Sparring is not a fight simulation. Maybe most types of sparring are intended that way and certainly people believe that they are, but the math doesn't work. At some point two oiled-up guys in speedos of the same weight getting together face to face without weapons at an appointed place (without obstacles) and time to work under an agreed set of restrictions somehow became 'reality fighting.' It's not, and if you feel a need to defend it as "as real as it gets" take a deep breath and think for a second.

So lets start there. MMA contact sparring/competition. It covers a lot of skills and it is pretty damn effective at what it does-- which is prepare you for MMA competition. I don't think that's it's real purpose, though. The real purpose is deeper than that. There has been a long evolution of coming up with the best venue for testing ourselves. Boxing and wrestling always tested the essence of manhood-- strength and speed and endurance and toughness and smarts. By making it broader, MMA added an incredibly valuable level of mental flexibility. MMA deepened how far you can go with strategy. At higher levels all contact sports are strategy sports. MMA took that to a new level. If you want to find out who you really are, MMA is the way.

There is lots in there that applies to self-defense. Same with any of the contact martial sports. People who get hit regularly have a huge advantage over people that don't (until the concussions start to add up.) People who actually hit moving targets are way ahead of people who hit air. The fact that it hurts... damn, people, fighting hurts. It shouldn't be a revelation to anyone. And pain is a great motivator to train harder.

It's good training, but it predicates on bad strategy-- equal people, weapons, techniques, location, no surprise. All that jazz. If this is your gig, be sure to spend some time working solutions when you give the opponent 50 pounds of weight advantage and your back. It can be done, it has been done. But if (again) you have this urge to come up with excuses about why it is impossible, you've confused the game (MMA) with the solution.

Similar stuff goes for all the heavy contact stuff. Boxers are formidable fighters because they are used to taking and giving hits. There is something fundamentally fucked up in martial arts if being 'used to taking and giving hits' is special. That's the natural environment of a fight, people. That said, there is also something fundamentally screwed up about a fighting style that has its own fracture. When boxers do use their skills in real life far too often their hands are shattered. Outside of the safety equipment (tape and gloves) the essential weapon of boxing is more likely to hospitalize or cripple the guy using it than the guy it is used on. That's a whoops. What does boxing develop? Courage, and that is huge.

Moving and controlling a body is one of the core skills of fighting. You will learn this in a grappling art (especially one with throws) better than anywhere else. It is huge and important. It makes everything else easier ("Position before submission!") Good grapplers/throwers will also teach you much of what you need to know to handle bigger and stronger people, especially if they are old-school enough to practice without weight classes. Definitely spend some time here... but it is not fighting. In a fight, moving and controlling a body is intended for another purpose, like escape or disabling. In order to get really good at grappling, people often forget the context-- bad guys and weapons and obstacles and "Why am I here?"

As a general rule, if your grappling changes a lot when the other guy has a knife, you were probably a little too caught up in the game side. Or, to phrase it another way: If you grapple differently when the threat has a knife you were probably doing it wrong when he didn't.

And then straight non- or controlled-contact kumite. This was the big epiphany in Minnesota, at least as regards sparring. Marc has a drill he calls the 3-2-1. I will probably misrepresent it here. For the pure version, work with him. But my understanding (or misunderstanding) is damn useful, so here it is:

There are ranges and positions where someone can stand and hit you without any telegraph. The threat has to be in range (drop-step exception) and have their limbs in certain positions. This is a code red thing, or what Marc calls "1". The bad guy can hit you in one motion.

For the most part that's not true. Even in range, most positions require you to shift your center of gravity (CoG) before delivering power (again, there is an exception for the drop step. I love the drop step). Marc calls this a "two". It will take two motions, a precursor and the attack itself, to do you any harm.

"Three" means the threat has to change his foot position (and the drop step, in certain positions turns all three to a one... very cool) as well as shift CoG.

I spent a lot of time in close proximity to very bad people. More than a few commented on how relaxed I was. It's powerful. Relaxation can be disconcerting, it makes the criminal think that you know something he doesn't. This was why I could do that. Not only could I tell if the bad guy could reach me, I knew, in advance, exactly what he would have to do or where he would have to shift his center in order to attack. I knew when I was safe and I knew exactly what to watch for should the threat try to move.

These are critical skills in point sparring. Minor, maybe, and nothing like what I though I was learning (timing and strategy and ...) But killer skills in the real world.


Anonymous said...

Can you someday make a post about the drop step? What I have learned probably won't fit into what you will say, but I want to see the difference.

Ernie said...

The drop step is a lifting of the base to allow gravity to assist in dodging or gaining position. It's a very good way to make your way to the oblique of an opponent, and is referenced by many boxers as being the best way to do so. Takes practice, like anything else. Should be practiced naturally: Grab a partner and have him glove up and hit you. Get out of the way. Make sure he's really trying, and make damn sure that you're really trying not to let him. Try to dodge, but don't forget that this is training not to use your hands: Account for it, and be sure to include safety blocks shortly after you learn the "tai sabaki" of it all.

The focus on what we're training to do, and more importantly, what we're training NOT to do has been most influential. I've only recently exited a course in military that required us to call in supporting fire missions (artillery, etc...) over a computer. Clicking and clicking and clicking...but, in reality, we'll be calling these in over a radio. Aside from those trained to do so previously, none of the servicemembers that completed this training are capable of completing the actual task. We've been trained to click.

Ernie said...

^the military

Sake is a helluva drug.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rory,

This was a very interesting post. In karate, our drop step is analogous to yori ashi - the glide step. It's my personal favourite for closing distance and generating power in the shortest least telegraphed way possible.

The 3-2-1 idea you discussed has a name in karate called ma-ai. It is an imaginary line around your opponent (or yourself) that is the "red zone" for an attack. Inside the ma-ai, is safe (well - relatively), like the eye of a cyclone, and outside is safe. Each persons ma-ai is at different distances depending on the type of fighter they are.

We like to categorise fighting types using the four alchemy elements - Earth, Wind, Fire, Water. It might seem like arty-farty poetic nonsense but it is practical. determining the type of fighter determines the type of threat they pose and can guide your choice of tactics within your own personal strategy.

- Earth fighters (sometimes called stone fighters) are heavy, strong, but slow (again relatively). Their ma-ai will be quite close to them.
- Fire fighters (hoho) will explode into action if you touch their ma-ai. They will overwhelm you with speed and aggression. They generally suit the wiry, flexible, fit types. Their ma-ai tends to be further away depending if they like to use their legs more or not.
- Air (wind) fighters are small fast and light. They dart in and out. They rely on speed and agility and not staying around long enough to be vulnerable to a counter. They often use legs as means for creating openings for hands, and their ma-ai is never fixed.
- Water fighters quite literally try to flow. They give ground under pressure but immediately apply it when the pressure lessens. They try to go around their opponent and are relentless. They strategize more than the other styles and are the most conscious of their opponents style and ma-ai, trying to use it against them. Their ma-ai is generally determined by their opponent since they are generally counter attackers.

I am fond of telling my students that kumite does NOT teach real fighting, but it can help you learn to assess an opponent, become accustomed to fists and feet coming at you, and teach positioning. Although we are a non-contact style contact from time to time is inevitable - and that is actually the time when you can really learn something.

The concept of the 'training-flaw' for me has been one of the most important in my martial art journey.


Charles James said...

Mr. Miller: Generally I get a ton out of your blog posts. Then I get more when I read a post like this one.

Your insights as to experience and the fight are priceless ..... much appreciate your efforts.

This one is very cool, got any more on sparring, etc.?

Nick Lo said...

I second Anon's request for a post about the drop step. I can think of several variations I've done that I could think of as a "drop step" such the cut/step timing in kendo, a step-in strike in wing chun or even to some extent the simultaneous step and thrust of a hip throw in Judo. A quick youtube search showed a couple of variations of what was called a drop step (even the basketball version) but nothing really definitive (if in fact there is a definitive drop step at all).

Scott said...

Hey that's great. You just made me realize another reason why training complex martial arts choreography (like Chen Style Tai Chi) is so valuable. It the beginning the student simply does not know where to look in order to learn the movement. After training for some time they start to see the essential patterns of weight and coordination that allow them to pick up new movements quickly. That's the same skill that will allow them to know what movement is threatening in a potential attacker, and just how threatening it is.

Anonymous said...

"Your insights as to experience and the fight are priceless ..... much appreciate your efforts."


"This one is very cool, got any more on sparring, etc.?"

Also seconded, especially after this very interesting comment:

" After training for some time they start to see the essential patterns of weight and coordination that allow them to pick up new movements quickly."

That is an excellent point. A lightbulb moment for me.


Jim said...

My definition of sparring (received from my own instructors) is "a method of practicing the learned techniques under the pressure of an opponent."
Key points: "A method" which implies that there are others, serving different purposes and goals.
"Practicing"; performing something to get better at it. (The noun practice -- the application of a skill rather than the theory also has validity here...)
"Learned Techniques" -- if what you're doing in sparring doesn't look like the rest of what you do -- something's wrong. I'm not saying sparring -- let alone fighting! -- should exactly resemble kata or drilling, but if the two aren't recognizably related... one of them is wrong.
"Pressure"; under pressure, the mind goes blank. Sparring is one way to expose yourself to pressure. Scenario training is another. And there are more.
"Opponent"; it's easy to do things right when your partner is cooperating or letting you, or when you work them in the air.

Bottom line: There's a huge range of "sparring", from one-step exercises that are highly scripted to heavy contact rock & roll. Jujutsu rolling, wrestling, tournament dueling... all falls into this huge category. What a lot of people call "sparring" doesn't because it misses those key elements. Just getting out there and swapping leather isn't necessarily sparring. It's just moving around.

Sparring, in each form, has its lessons to teach. As Rory pointed out, both the intended and hidden lessons. Some forms of sparring will teach you to roll on through being hit -- but also teach you that it's OK to get hit and stick around, or even re-engage. Not necessarily a smart idea...

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem I see in sparring ...all the time actually, is the purpose can get lost in the fun of it. I tend to have fun in what I'm doing and can forget what is supposed to be being developed in it. Less of a problem when I am teaching others, but I notice this in myself.

Contact training with a partner should have a developmental goal. In the moment, people bring their own purpose into it. Actions can align towards an altogether different direction when ears are closed. Thus, "sparring" of "fighting" have a very broad definition across schools, teachers and students.

Getting on the same page in a class means listening and accepting a value in training the purpose at hand. Its also easy to run a bad class, ( sparring or other) by not being clear about the point of the day. I'm sure we all know this, but it just jumps right out at you when you start to lose a student or group's focus because they aren't on board with the point of the training. And, just the opposite when they are.

-Billy G.