Monday, October 31, 2011

Front kick: ankle chambered up or down?

Introduction

I recently received two queries from Dave T on my article "Back to basics: the front kick". Because the queries raise quite important points I thought I'd canvas them more completely (and hopefully more clearly) as separate blog articles rather than as a reply in the comments section.

Dave's first question: ankle chamber

Dave's first question was as follows:
    "What is your opinion of the TKD style front kick where the ankle is fully locked so that the instep and shin are in one straight line and the toes curled up? At the chamber position, the feet points down except for the toes. For high targets, won’t this method give the maximum penetration?

    I find that when using the karate method of the feet parallel to the ground during chamber for high targets, the sole or heel hits the target instead of the ball, thus removing a lot of the power from the kick. The position of the feet during chambering has to be adjusted for targets at different heights to achieve maximum penetration.

    Problem with the TKD version is that for lower targets, the toes hit the target first, render the kick ineffective."
The problem: scooping

Dave, I don't see this as a "TKD version". I think it is just plainly incorrect - for taekwondo, karate - you name it.

The problem with the ankle down kick is that it can only lead to a scoop. The front snap kick is a straight kick not a scooping kick. Have a look at the adjacent image and you'll see the problem.

With the toes down (and ankle down), you can use a scooping kick as an attack to the groin using the shin or instep (known as "kin geri" in Japanese). But with the toes pulled back (and ankle down), it makes almost no sense. The biggest problem is that it puts the tops of your toes (rather than the ball of your foot) in prominence.

It is true that, when such a hybrid kick is done very high, the scoop will ultimately put the ball of foot in prominence. But what would be the target for such a kick? Under the chin? I can think of a hundred kicks that are more effective/useful than this - and that are less dangerous. Because while such a "scooping ball of foot" kick might be effective at its final point, at every preceding point of the kick your toes are in danger of being broken. In other words, if you happen to encounter an obstacle at any point leading up to the high contact, you will hit with the tops of your toes.

Indeed, this happened to me once. I got into a fight and had the grand plan of kicking my opponent in the face. My kick at the time was very poor, with a "scooping" action. Needless to say, it never passed his shin (which he raised in defence) and I broke 2 toes.

The ankle should "rotate" through the kick to present the ball of foot or heel, as the case requires

There is no problem with penetration with the "ankle up" chamber; it does not mean that you have to contact with your sole or heel. The ankle should "stay horizontal" as you kick - which in fact requires it to rotate your ankle while you kick. This ensures contact with the ball of the foot, not the sole/heel. Only if you keep your ankle locked in one place will you hit with the sole/heel. Note the movement of my ankle during the kick in the video below:


I demonstrate slow front kicks. Note the movement of my ankle during the kick. This movement ensures that the ball of the foot is presented as the contact surface, not the sole or heel of my foot.

So my advice is to chamber your ankle so that it is level because you want a linear kick not a scooping one. This is true regardless of the height of your kick.

"But I don't find my 'ankle down chamber' causes a scoop!"

My friend Jeff has said:
    "When performing mae geri, my ankle is extended, and quite consciously so. I find no impediment to perfoming an effective, penetrating chudan mae geri [chest level front kick]."
My answer is this: try locking your foot into the extended posture - without any flexibility in the ankle (eg. in a plaster cast) and try to kick with the ball of your foot. You will find it is physiologically impossible to do anything but a scoop - as my picture shows. Accordingly I suggest that what is happening is that in between the chamber and kick (ie. while the leg is extending outwards) the ankle is rotating up to present your ball of foot. There simply must be some movement of this kind in the ankle otherwise you will scoop - and you risk contact with, and breaking, your toes on impact unless your distancing is absolutely perfect (in which case you still have a sub-optimal kick that happens to contact with the ball of your foot, albeit with a "scooping" moment).

I don't recommend "late rotation"; if you're doing it (and you almost certainly are doing it when you have an extended chamber, even if you're doing it unconsciously), then you're leaving the ankle rotation very late - and the problem arises (as I found) when you encounter an obstacle (eg. raised knee) early in your outward extension.

A late ankle rotation upwards from an extended chamber also compares poorly with a rotation downward during the extension of your kick. When you rotate down your chances of impacting your toes are greatly reduced. An ankle rotation upwards means that your chances of impacting with, and breaking, your toes are greatly increased.

We've found the latter to be true during our "kick touch" drill; a late upward rotation of the ankle increases your chances of broken toes when the drill is mistimed slightly and there is an impact (which can happen when it is performed quickly).


Our kick touch drill. Don't try this with an extended ankle chamber!

"But 'ankle down' chamber is part of a powerful push-off!"

Jeff also raised the following issue in relation to the question of ankle alignment during the chamber:
    "If your chambered position has the foot up, then you have raised your leg with your hip flexors alone. What I have been taught, and teach, is that the initial motion involves pushing off the floor with the foot. The calf, then, provides the initial motion and is then supported by the hip flexors. This is one reason why we practice the following drill (forward to 2:43):



    If I see students with their toes up in chamber, I know they didn't push-off the ground, but only yanked up with their hip."
My answer to this was provided by another friend, Marcel who wrote:
    "I am personally a proponent of the foot parallel to the floor chamber, but I am not sure why pushing off the floor with the kicking foot prevents this chamber from occuring. As the foot reaches the full chamber point the foot should be able to reach parallel... the push off is not a full extension of the foot/ankle but an explosive shorter movement and is then pulled up. It stays there as the foot is extended and then the foot extends as contact is made depending on the distance. This also gives me the option (which I utilize frequently) to use the heel as a striking surface for the front kick. Depending on distance and kick placement I may opt for a strike with the heel, ball of the foot, or toes."
I agree completely with Marcel. I push-off quite vigorously but it doesn't mean I have my foot at full extension at any time, and particularly not in the chamber. And I find the travel from ground to chamber gives more than enough time for the "pull up" after the initial push off.

The footage of Higaonna sensei showing push-off from the ground is something we practise too. We use this for "hiza geri" (knee kicks) particularly in the kata saifa (see the adjacent pictures). But you'll note that when the kick transfers to a mae geri (front kick) the ankle lifts to horizontal as soon as possible.

Conclusion

An "ankle down" chamber cannot be "held" rigidly if you want to avoid a scoop with your front kick. If someone purports that their ankle is "locked in place" from the chamber to the target (avoiding need for any ankle rotation), then they are either:
  1. scooping (which is undesireable); or
  2. they are unaware that their ankle is actually rotating mid-flight to present the ball of foot.
The problem with the latter is that it requires you to rotate a great deal more, and a great deal later, than you need to. It also requires you to rotate your ankle up instead of down during the extension of your kick. All this leaves you at a greater risk impacting with, and breaking, your toes.

Nor does a front kick require a push-off such that you end up in a downward chamber. For a start, the push-off simply doesn't require that level of extension in your ankle; the majority of the power of a front kick is delivered with a snap or flick - which comes at the end - not with the initial "drive". The situation is different for hiza geri (knee kicks) where the initial drive is all you have. So in the latter case, your ankle should be down - but then again, so should your toes! Secondly, there is ample time for your ankle to return to a horizontal plane before you kick out.

So for a front kick you can and should chamber your ankle horizontally - to avoid the potential for scooping, late (and inappropriate) rotation of the ankle and accordingly broken toes.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, October 28, 2011

Situational reflex: the key to martial effectiveness

Introduction

In a recent post I discussed a query from a Traditional Fighting Arts Forums member, Emero, about how to deal with circular kicks such as roundhouse kicks, spinning kicks and crescent kicks. In particular Emero wanted to know how he could improve his responses to his master’s use of those kicks in sparring.

Clearly, the goal for a martial artist is to develop reflex reactions. Emero’s goal is to do better when sparring with his master. Specifically, he wants to move forward, at the right angle and at the right time, into his master’s circular kicks so as to negate their effect. He’s tired of “eating” them.

How can he get his body to do this in sparring?

Reflexive response

Clearly, Emero doesn’t have time to “think” about each kick as it’s happening. He needs to act subconsciously, reflexively, automatically - pick your own adverb. There simply is no time for logical “planning”.

In this regard Emero is no different to a tennis player who is trying to develop good ground or volley skills. If you watch a professional tennis player, you’ll see all sorts of apparently “intelligent” plays; set-up shots that seem to be calculated well in advance, like an elaborate game of chess.

Except we know that the speed at which the game is being played makes “intelligent” or “logical” thought processes impossible. When someone like Roger Federer displays his genius on the court, he is not “thinking things through”. The speed of the exchange makes such conscious thought processes impossible.


Some of Roger Federer’s amazing tennis shots - featuring “intelligent” play. And yet, we know there simply is no time to be “intelligent” on a conscious level…

You could show a less-abled tennis player a few of Federer’s tactics from the above video. But isolating and examining these tactics doesn’t help you acquire them - not by itself anyway. At this point the less-abled tennis player is no different from Emero; he’s been told what he needs to do - now there is the “small” matter of getting his body to do it under speed and pressure in an unscripted environment! Both the tennis player and Emero need to be able to act appropriately even though there is no time for intelligent planning or other conscious thought. How do they acquire this ability?

Reflex vs. reaction time

At this point I’d like to draw an important distinction between two variables: reflex and reaction time. All too often these are conflated. But they are not nearly the same thing.

Let’s consider Emero. I don’t know him, but I gather that he is a young man, possibly in his early 20s. That would mean that he has a fairly fast average reaction time. Your reaction time is something you are born with - some folks are naturally faster in their reactions, some are slower. But we know that it is going to be pretty good for most people in their 20s. For a young man of Emero’s age, this could be anywhere from 0.16s to 0.20s.

The sad news is that once you pass your physical peak (in your late 20s) your reaction time starts to decline. For example, mine is currently 0.28s or so on average.1

In any event, let us assume that Emero has a fast reaction time suitable to his age. Clearly this doesn’t mean he can read his master’s movement and thwart his kicks. After all, he says he is still “eating them”! He has a fast reaction time, but something is missing. What?
    The answer is that he is missing an appropriate reflexive response.
The problem isn’t that Emero doesn’t react quickly enough: The problem is that he doesn’t react at all - at least not in a useful way. He has the potential to react very quickly indeed. But that potential does not, of itself, confer upon him any advantage in the present circumstances.

Situational reflexes

Consider this example:

Recently I was walking down the fruit and vegetable aisle of the supermarket, pushing my trolley. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a ripe mango starting to fall. My hand shot out and grabbed it just before it hit the ground. A man standing nearby exclaimed: “My, you have a fast reaction time!”

But he was wrong. In truth, I had reacted relatively slowly - the fruit had almost hit the ground. What surprised him wasn’t the shortness of my reaction time, nor the speed of my hand movement.
    What surprised him was that I reacted in the first place.
He was surprised that my subconscious even had an automatic reaction to a piece of fruit dropping. After all, his didn’t. He was nearer to the falling fruit than I. He was younger than I am and probably had a faster reaction time and a faster hand speed. Yet he didn’t so much as twitch when the mango began to fall. In other words, he had no reflex reaction for that situation. But, for whatever reason, I did (being a parent of young children who are continually dropping things might have something to do with it!).

And so what Emero is missing is not speed nor reaction time.
    He is missing what I call a “situational reflex” - an appropriate reflexive reaction for the relevant situation.
Faced with the circular kicks, his body does not do anything. If it does anything, it is probably some kind of unproductive flinch - eg. a cower, an outward movement of the hands or both (see my article “The flinch reflex”). But there’s a good chance it doesn’t even do that. Just as the man in the supermarket didn’t have a “falling fruit reaction” Emero doesn’t have a “circular kick reaction” - yet, anyway. It’s that simple.

“Situational reflex blind spots”

Lest Emero think I’m picking on him, I must point out that we all have our “situational reflex blind spots”. In other words, all martial artists face situations for which they don’t have an appropriate reflex. It is a fact of life.

Consider the fight between Lyoto Machida and Randy Couture. Machida won that fight with his infamous “Karate Kid” kick as depicted in the adjacent animated gif. It is clear to me that Couture did not have a reflexive response to the set-up moves initiated by Machida - at least, not one that was remotely appropriate. Machida starts to make a fairly big jump. During the whole jump all that Couture’s flinch reflex does is to make him draw back and down a little. Simultaneously he starts to raise his left arm in a triangle shield.2 Meanwhile Machida is flying into him with a jumping kick!

I raise this example not to belittle so fine a fighter as Couture, but to point out the manifestly obvious - he did not have an appropriate reflex response to a jumping kick executed in this type of situation. Instead, his body defaulted to a more generic flinch reflex, which was manifestly inadequate for the task.

An appropriate situational reflex would have had Couture pushing forward or backward the moment Machida started to jump. Instead, Couture was caught flat-footed in no-man’s land. It just goes to show that even the best fighters can have “situational reflex blind spots” (Couture is still most certainly one of the best fighters in the world).

I’ve previously discussed how the front snap kick is a very effective weapon - and how I pass by a certain boxercise school practically every day only to see people circling each other while standing directly in the firing line for a front snap kick - clearly oblivious to that fact. In this case I think it is self-evident that their training is not providing them with a reflex to deal with front kicks. Instead they unknowingly working around a “situational reflex blind spot”. This is not an issue in a boxing/boxercise environment. But if one wishes to expand one's fighting skills to kickboxing, MMA or civilian defence, then this blind spot needs to be addressed.

It is precisely this blind spot that we see in the Anderson Silva front snap kick knockout of Vitor Belfort. The two fighters are squared off facing each other. I could see immediately that they were standing in prime front snap kick territory. Belfort however was oblivious to this. Silva was not. He launched a front kick and Belfort just stood there - he barely reacted at all.

Belatedly Belfort raised his right knee - most probably because his reflexes expected a roundhouse kick to his thigh; this was the “closest fit” reflex his brain could muster. But really, like Couture, he was caught flat-footed in no-man’s land. Why? Because the technique that caught him - the front snap kick - was not something he typically trained for. And he had no appropriate situational reflex for that technique, launched in that circumstance.

Conclusion

So martial arts training involves much more than training for speed, strength or endurance. It involves more than trying to “speed up your reaction time” (which isn’t really possible) or “improving your reflexes” in a general sense.

Rather, what Emero, the budding tennis player, Couture and Belfort - in fact, all of us - want to do is to acquire an appropriate reflexive reaction for each potential situation we might face. In other words we need a well-rounded, comprehensive set of situational reflexes.

How can we get these? I propose to deal with this specifically in coming articles.

Next: Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex

Footnotes

1. If you want to test your reaction time, try this website.
2. It is apposite to note that this withdrawal of the body and protective movement of the arms is more or less the default “flinch reflex” (altered a little to the MMA environment, as evidence by the triangle shield) - see my article on this topic.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dealing with circular attacks

Introduction

Recently a member of the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums, Emero, posted a query where he asked how one would defend against a spinning kick and a reverse crescent kick, pointing to the 2 examples below:


A video showing the spinning back kick


A video showing the reverse crescent kick

I answered Emero on the particular thread, but I thought the question was appropriate enough to pose, and answer, here in my blog - especially since it will feed into my upcoming article “Situational reflex: the key to martial effectiveness”.

Challenges in dealing with circular attacks

What Emero notes is that powerful circular attacks are hard to respond to. A linear attack is relatively easy to understand and can be dealt with by controlling the center line (a topic I hope to address in the future). But circular attacks don’t really respond to the same methods; for one thing, they don’t move along the center line, so controlling it does not yield the same benefits.

Now it is true that a simple swinging punch (ie. a “haymaker”) is not a terribly effective punch. Not only is it relatively long-winded and weak, utilizing nothing more than the swinging momentum of your arm, but it is also highly telegraphed.

However circular attacks can be, and in experienced hands usually are, far more sophisticated than that. And they can be far more powerful. In fact, they can be the most powerful techniques of all.

A good circular attack properly utilizes a curved path to generate a great deal of momentum; the longer travel time means you have more room to accelerate the attack, hence increasing the velocity at impact (see my article “Hitting harder: physics made easy”).

Also, properly executed, a circular attack can approach from your blind spot, making it a surprise and negating any telegraphing of your attacker's intention. The circular attack can accordingly circumvent your guard or other control of the center line by going around, over or behind it.

So for example, a cross punch can carry with it some element of circularity without resorting to an amateurish haymaker swing. This circular element can enable it to come over the top of, or around, your defences, making it hard to see in advance as well as block/deflect/evade.

But the circular techniques that are possibly the most powerful, and difficult to deal with, are the kicking variety.

Kicks: the most difficult of the circular attacks

It comes as no surprise to me that Emero finds it difficult to deal with the two circular kicking attacks noted at the beginning of this article. Any kick is going to be hard to deflect and evade. Circular kicks are a whole other ballgame.

I have canvassed some of the traditional tactics used against kicks in my article: “Low blocks against kicks - are they ridiculous?” and from that you can see that body movement and cutting the right angle of deflection are crucial. If you get it wrong, your risk breaking your arms against the significantly more powerful legs. I can attest to this personally; I still have a bone that juts out of the back of my hand, courtesy of trying to jam a kick using my palms circa 1988.

Circular kicks are particularly difficult to deal with using your arms precisely because they build up so much momentum. It would be foolish in the extreme to attempt to physically block the extremity of such a kick at full swing; the kick would simply smash your arms and penetrate through to your head/body.

The simple roundhouse kick to the thigh is the “king” of circular kicks. On its face it is a technique that ought to be easy to see and avoid due to its telegraphed nature, but is nonetheless very difficult to deal with (as is evidenced by its prevalence in MMA fights.)

See for example the controversial first fight between Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Lyoto Machida, where Rua dominated Machida with punishing kicks to his thighs. Given Machida’s superb timing and reaction skills, you can see how even the most highly trained fighters can find such kicks difficult to deal with.

Similarly, spinning kicks and crescent kicks, when executed by a highly trained fighter, can sometimes find their mark in the most effective way. When they are overused, the person at the receiving end can adjust, taking advantage of their relative indirectness and telegraphing. But when used sporadically, they can be surprising and deadly. Just watch any taekwondo competition and see the occasional knockouts achieved through such kicks.

Entering: the key to dealing with circular attacks

It is said that the key to deflecting/evading a straight attack is to use a circle. Accordingly it should come as no surprise that the key to deflecting/evading a circular attack is to use a straight line. In this case, that straight line should ideally cut an offline forwards angle, moving with the direction of the spin as illustrated in the adjacent image (there are exceptions and I'll deal with these another time).

You should move along that line to intercept the attack at the center of its axis, avoiding the fast-moving extremity. Once there you can either jam or block the technique at the point where it is moving most slowly, or you can “join centers” with the technique, harnessing the circle and redirecting the force elsewhere.

This approach is sometimes “slowing down that attack”, not because you are actually slowing it down, but because your forward movement will enable you to confront the attack where it is moving more slowly.



The animation above illustrates a “tenkan nage” (“turning throw”) which features an “irimi” (“entering”), a joining of the circle and a redirection. This is a fairly “soft” answer to an attack and is an illustration of the principle only. I’ve mentioned before that “leading momentum” in this way is unlikely except against the most committed attacks. However the example is still fairly illustrative of the principle of “joining centers”.

Retreating: the second best option

Another approach is to evade the attack by moving away, allowing the technique to slip by.

This is sometimes called “speeding up the attack” - again, not because you are actually accelerating the attack but because you don’t interrupt the acceleration; you let the attack reach its maximum speed and then exhaust itself. You can then deal with your opponent in the aftermath.

A duck, weave or lean back would all come within this approach, as would any retreat.

The down side to this approach is that you have failed to close the gap, arguably leaving you in no better position than where you were before the first attack.

The video below illustrates the dangers of such an approach. In it, an MMA fighter faces a capoerista who attacks with a series of spinning kicks. The MMA fighter evades by moving backwards until he reaches the ropes and can retreat no more, whereupon the capoerista lands his spinning kick in a spectacular knockout.


A video illustrating the dangers of dealing with circular attacks by simply retreating - you might be putting off the inevitable.

In other words, by retreating from a circular attack, you might be simply putting off the inevitable.

The most important lesson

So when facing a circular attack, your best option is to groove a flinch response that drives you inwards and at an angle, moving with the spin, not into it. Mostly if you move into the spin you face colliding with the attack head first (again, there are exceptions, but this is an issue I'll canvas another time).

Either way, the lesson is clear: When you are facing a circular attack, don’t stand in “no-man’s land” - the place where the attack is at its optimum speed. Move in or move back. But whatever you do, don’t just stand there, flat-footed.

Moving on the inside vs. moving on the outside

As I’ve said, if you are moving forwards into a circular attack, you (mostly) have to do so with the spin. This has an important side-effect, which is this:
    You will necessarily be “moving on the inside” of the attack.
This is contrary to the philosophy/methodology of many schools of close quarter combat such as wing chun, bak mei, southern preying mantis and indeed all of the Hakka school of southern China. It is even contrary to what is taught in many internal arts schools and in Okinawan karate. This is unsurprising; most of those schools emphasize linear strikes and kicks, with only a small percentage being “circular”.

And clearly, being on the outside of an attack is far more advantageous to you. For one thing, you don’t face the prospect of immediate follow-up attacks (at least not the same extent). So I don’t, for a moment, dispute the relevance of this philosophy. It’s just that there can be no blanket assurance that you will always be able to end up on the outside of your opponent. Indeed, it is my view that if you are facing powerful circular attacks, moving to the inside will, at some point, become unavoidable.

I propose to deal with the whole question of “moving on the inside” vs. “moving on the outside” in a later article. For now it suffices for me to say that moving on the inside against a circular attack is a virtual certainty. And it needn’t be disadvantageous, as we will soon see.

How to deal with roundhouse kicks to the thigh

Given my mention of the roundhouse kick to the thigh being the “king of circular kicks”, let me begin by addressing how one might deal with that technique.

There are a number of very effective counters to this kick, the simplest being a retreat. The roundhouse kick to the thigh is highly telegraphed, so it is comparatively easy to avoid (as many MMA fighters do - more thigh kicks miss than they land). However, as discussed previously, this still leaves you with the problem of how to close the gap.

If you’re fast, you dart in just as your opponent’s kick misses. This is particularly attractive if your opponent is so committed that his kick makes him over-spin, turning his back to you. But as attractive as this is, you need to be aware that your timing has to be perfect; if you aren’t careful you’ll simply walk into a spinning backfist, as happened to Frank Shamrock against Bas Rutten in the King of Pancrase competition (see the video below).


Bas Rutten shows how to follow up a missed roundhouse kick to the thigh with a spinning backfist against Frank Shamrock

There are other ways of evading the roundhouse kick to the thigh, including some methods from bagua and taiji, which involve letting it slip under your leg. I have yet to film these and they are quite effective, without meaning that you have to “reclose the gap”.

But in general I favor the entry approach in dealing with roundhouse kicks to the thigh. The video below shows me using this method in conjunction with the ashibo kake uke (leg hooking deflection):


The ashibo kake uke or “leg hooking deflection” which is useful against circular leg attacks and which relies on an “entry” response

You will note that his method requires you to lunge forward, albeit only slightly offline, to jam or wedge your opponent’s thigh. In order to be successful, you must lift your front leg and push off with your back, so that your weight instantly falls forward. Your shin is raised and wedges into your opponent’s thigh with a slight circular action. Your arms should be ready to smother any hand techniques and deliver your own. I particularly favour a backhand followed by an elbow smash to the head (an application of naifunchin/naihanchi) (see my article “Forgotten techniques #1: haiwan nagashi and ashibo kake”).

How to deal with spinning kicks

Dealing with spinning kicks is easier. As discussed you should move forward at an angle. There you can use an ashibo kake uke to smother the kick, or alternatively simply strike your opponent: Once you are inside his circle, there is no real danger from the spinning kick - the bigger danger is a potential follow up backfist, a la Bas Rutten.

Another option is to accompany your forward step with a reverse downward block/deflection, as illustrated in the adjacent image. So, if you step forward with your right leg, you should use your left arm in a downward block.

How to deal with crescent kicks

Against cresent kicks, once again your main weapon is the lunge forward - with or without the ashibo kake uke. Don’t try to stop the crescent kick with your arm; the kick simply has too much momentum behind it. If you must wedge/jam the kick, do it with your shin against his thigh, stopping the kick where it is moving the slowest and with that part of your leg which is the strongest.

Moving forward - the hardest reflex to acquire

You might well be forgiven for asking why people don’t use these options more often - in MMA, in sparring or elsewhere. If it is so “easy”, why don’t we see it being used? Well I never said it was “easy”. Learning to modify your flinch reflex so that you explode forward takes many years of training. Learning to move forward diagonally and with the spin is even harder. In order to modify your flinch reflex appropriately you need to do up to 10,000 repetitions of forward lunging in response to a threat. It takes at least that many before you’ve inculcated the response so that it is reflexive.

How should you start developing this reflex?

The question of how to develop the right "forward" flinch reflex is something I hope to address at some length in a subsequent article. For the time being, I can give the following general advice:

I have previously posted the video below where I show forward, offline evasion using your reverse arm to deflect. Solo practise is a good idea at first (or whenever you don’t have someone to work with). It takes a while to make the movement smooth and efficient anyway. If you go straight to working with a partner, you will very likely make compromises in technique. Exploding forward into an attack has the potential to make you "cringe", when that is the last you want to do. You have to be assertive and bold.


I demonstrate offline forwards evasion of the kind employed generally in xingyi, but using karate techniques

Once you’ve refined your solo movement sufficiently, you should start practising against a partner (also shown in the above video).

Start by focusing on such things as general direction, then work up to correct distancing, then add intent to land the blow, remembering to use protective equipment if you are going to connect. Do it against circular attacks only well after you are used to entering diagonally forward against linear attacks (such as the front kick or even the side thrust kick).

Conclusion

Over the last 31 years of training in the traditional martial arts, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: the vast majority of scenarios used for practicing traditional techniques involve linear attacks. Think about it: whether you are studying karate, kung fu, taekwondo, silat, jujutsu, judo, aikido, shaolin gong fu, taijiquan, you name it, whenever your instructor wants to show you the meaning of a technique, chances are he or she will ask you to punch a straight punch, throw a thrusting strike or kick a straight kick.

Entire art forms are built on this assumption; that the attack you face will be linear. And while linear strikes, punches and kicks make sense to a civilian defence specialist (who wants to avoid taking risks in counters), is it really something the average attacker is likely to do? Is the average attacker really going to throw a straight punch, never mind a straight kick?

Many years ago I was involved in a physical altercation – one of the few I’ve had. The fellow had hit a friend of mine (not terribly well) and I remonstrated with him. So he threw a swinging punch at me as well. I partly blocked it partly ducked, so it glanced my ear and the side of my head fairly harmlessly. I then punched him twice – two straight jabs to the nose which made it bleed.

I remember that I really didn’t want to hit him very hard, so the punches were shallow. Thinking back, this was a mistake. It enraged him and he started throwing massive swinging roundhouse kicks to my thighs. I dodged them fairly easily, but I realized then how foolish my tactics had been. I responded with a sharp front kick to his face. But again, I hesitated: I was wearing heavy shoes and the thought of smashing his teeth didn’t sit comfortably with me. So I missed – deliberately – kicking precisely to one side of his head. I can still remember my foot focused briefly next to his startled face.

The fight was broken up then by others (thankfully) with promises from him that he would track me down and give me a hiding (a promise which came to nothing).

What did I learn from this? First, I learned to appreciate Theodore Roosevelt's quote: "Don't hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit soft."

Second, I learned that people don’t attack you with straight attacks. We traditional martial artists counter with straight attacks. But our attackers are unlikely to be trained, traditional martial artists. They are usually nothing of the sort. What do they use to attack? To quote Patrick McCarthy, their “habitual acts of physical violence” fall into a number of typical attacks. And chief among these is a circular punch and a “soccer-like” circular kick.

Accordingly it strikes me as very odd that traditional martial arts have largely failed to address this issue. Instead we have what can only be described as grossly artificial attack scenarios in traditional training environments.

I have attempted to address this issue in my own school by including defences against circular attacks. And even where I haven’t used circular attacks, I’ve tried to factor in defences that go to the inside of the attack knowing that had the attack featured a circular element, the defender would almost certainly have had to move there for the reasons I’ve detailed previously. I have done so even though I knew it would meet with some criticism from the “center line theorists” – many of whom are my good friends in the martial arts. I hope this article goes some way to explaining my reasons for factoring in “inside movement” and all the issues that spring from that.

I also hope it explains my preference for basing my art on both deflection/evasion (as well as counter attack) – both of the kind that moves in (“slowing down the attack”) or moves out (“speeding up the attack”). Because when you face a circular attack body, evasion is all the more relevant. You can slip a straight attack with minimal body movement. But unless you pre-empt or negate a circular attack with a simultaneous response, you will need to move – in or out – and do so efficiently and effectively. Because failure to do so can have catastrophic consequences, particularly for a traditional martial artist unused to being attacked in such an “unorthodox” way.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, October 24, 2011

Blocking with the “Goldilocks zone”

Introduction

I have often spoken about what I call the “Goldilocks zone” - the optimal place on your forearm for intercepting and deflecting or blocking strikes and kicks. However it occurs to me that I haven’t even properly explained what I mean by that term.

As you will recall from the children’s fairytale, Goldilocks sampled three bowls of porridge at the bears’ house - one was too hot, one too cold, one just right. She did the same for the 3 chairs (one too small, one too big, the other just right) and ditto the beds (too hard, too soft, just right).

Astronomers refer to the “Goldilocks zone” in a solar system - meaning the zone ideal for liquid water and hence permitting life of the kind we know here on Earth; not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

So it seems to me that it is also quite fitting to refer to the portion of the forearm ideal for intercepting attacks as the “Goldilocks zone”.


A video in which I discuss the “Goldilocks zone” for blocks/deflections

The Goldilocks zone on your forearm

I have previously discussed why the forearm is used for deflections/blocks (see “Why block with the forearm (rather than the palm)?”) so I don’t propose to go into that again.

Assuming that you intend to use your forearm for a deflection, the next step is to make sure that you use the Goldilocks zone on your forearm.

Where is that? It is roughly in the center of your forearm as measured from your wrist to your elbow, and includes the 10 cm or so on either side - in other words, not too close to the wrist and not too close to the elbow.

However… The ideal position shifts within that Goldilocks zone dependent on the nature of your attack and its angle, and on the deflection/interception strategy you’ve chosen.

Variable 1: sliding up the forearm

You might be wedging a blow so that it slides up your forearm (ie. from your wrist towards your elbow). This is the case with the “primary” arm of the chudan uke and jodan/age uke (ie. not the “secondary” or “crossing” arm).

In this situation you need to start slightly nearer your wrist (but still in the Goldilocks zone).

I say nearer your wrist because on no account do you contact on your wrist as many people do; that is manifest ineffective.

Your forearm is highly moveable at the wrist, where nearer the elbow it is strong and stable. Connecting at the wrist could lead to a total collapse of your deflection/block.

So instead, when wedging up your forearm, catch it on the wrist end of the Goldilocks zone and slide up to the elbow end of the Goldilocks zone.

Variable 2: sliding down the forearm

You might also be wedging a blow so that it slides down your forearm (ie. from your elbow to your wrist). This is the case with most “secondary” or “crossing” blocks/deflections and the soto uke.

In this situation you need to catch the attack on the elbow end of the Goldilocks zone and then slide down to the wrist end of the Goldilocks zone.

Presenting the “flat bones” of the Goldilocks zone

It is also important to understand what side of the forearm should be used to intercept the attack on the Goldilocks zone.

As I discuss in my article “Why blocks are not ‘strikes in disguise’”, when using a jodan/age uke (rising block) or similar, you should use the top, flat, part of your forearm – ie. using both the radius and ulna – to intercept an attack, not the side of your forearm where you would contact with only one of the forearm bones.

The impact thus occurs on the “flat” part of your forearm, and only then do you rotate around to the single bone (using the “torque” or spiral of your forearm).

The situation is obviously different with blocks that don't use forearm rotation (eg. hiki/kake uke, Naha te chudan uke, etc. where you don't normally rotate - see my article "Chudan uke: to spiral or not to spiral").

The Goldilocks zone on your opponent’s forearm

However, understanding the importance of using the Goldilocks zone on your own forearm is only half of the equation.

The other half is understanding that the same rule applies to your attacker’s forearm (in the case of a punch anyway).

In other words:
    When using a forearm block/deflection, you must use the Goldilocks zone on your own forearm to intercept your attacker’s forearm on his or her Goldilocks zone.
This is most important. If you fail to intercept your opponent’s forearm on their Goldilocks zone, your block/deflection will likely fail. This is particularly so with deflections on the inside, where timing and placement are at a premium.

Consider for a moment a cross, hook or haymaker:

Most folks would accept that with such a curving punch it is difficult (though not impossible) to “deflect it on the outside”. I think it is fair to say that, especially with an element of surprise, you will find yourself on the inside of such a punch, (possibly facing a second and third attack - which is, in itself, not an insurmountable problem and one with which I propose to deal in the near future). In order to survive such an attack you must ensure that your initial block/deflection works.

Your deflection won’t work on the inside if you intercept the attack too near to your attacker’s elbow. Because we’re talking about a “primary” movement, this means your deflecting arm will slide “up” towards your attacker’s elbow.

If your arm slides to their elbow at any time during the deflection process, your attacker’s arm will still curve around and land on your face.

Conversely if you intercept the attack too near the attacker’s wrist, you will have left it too late to deal with a punch that carries a great deal of momentum.

Any displacement you achieve will be too, little too late. Again, the punch will land on your face.

However if you intercept on the Goldilocks zone of your opponent’s forearm, you’ll find that the deflection works like a charm; even the most powerful cross won’t be able to land.

If you doubt me, try it (wear gloves and really try to get through)!

As I’ve said, this issue is most noticeable on the inside.

Again, I’ll deal with the challenges raised by moving on the inside in another article. Trust me for now when I say that:
  1. you’ll be caught there sooner or later; and
  2. it isn’t as insurmountable a position as you might think; and
  3. the answer to the “inside dilemma” doesn’t lie in denying that it will ever happen because “I’ll just move to the outside” or “I’ll just hit him first” or “I’ll hit him with the same arm that I use to deflect/block”.
The last of these points is crucial: if you are on the inside and you attempt to deflect and counter strike with the same arm, you’ll almost certainly find yourself intercepting your opponent’s punch near the elbow - leading to a failed block/deflection.

This is part of the reason why I argued in my article “Simultaneous techniques: Part 2 - seizing initiative” that:
    One should not assume that the angle for successful deflection and the angle for successful counterstriking are always the same.
They often aren’t - certainly not when you are on the inside (as you will be sooner or later). In those cases, focusing on a counterstrike rather than the deflection will often mean missing the Goldilocks zone - and missing your deflection altogether.

So if you want to ignore the Goldilocks zone and pursue a pre-emptive counter above all else, then you really need to be sure you hit your attacker well before he is in a position to hit you. You can’t rely on any “simultaneous” deflection: there’s a good chance that deflection won’t be effective.

Conclusion

If you are serious about learning how to use forearm blocks/deflections then you need to know about the Goldilocks zone. In fact, it is part of the “critical information” that make forearm deflections work (along with distancing, use of the circle, etc.).

It is my belief that a failure to understand this subtle factor is partially responsible for so many modern and eclectic fighters rejecting forearm deflections as “ineffective” - when they have been around since the dawn of civilization.

So in order to use forearm deflections you need to know that:
  1. your forearm must intercept the attack on the Goldilocks zone of your forearm; and
  2. it must also contact on the Goldilocks zone of your attacker’s arm.
Only in this way will you ensure that the deflection will succeed. And remember, in civilian defence, your primary goal is “not to get hit” - not “to hit”. A good block/deflection is the traditional martial artists first line in ensuring that this goal is met.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, October 21, 2011

Refining your front snap kick

Introduction

Further to my recent articles on the front snap kick, I thought I’d go through some of the finer points of how to do it. I hope this will be especially useful to beginners since this is the sort of information I found very useful early in my career.

In fact, I still have these points in the back of my mind every time I practice front kicks. I think it is important to keep trying to attain the unattainable - the perfect front kick, free of any extraneous movement before, during and after the technique.

The importance of refining your techniques

Why is technique refinement so important to the front snap kick?

There are 2 reasons:
  1. to avoid telegraphing your kick; and
  2. to make your front kick as efficient and economical as it can be so as to maximize the force applied to your target.
There is a high premium on both of these.

First, you don’t want to telegraph your technique at the best of times. The issue only gets more urgent when you are standing on one leg - as is the case with a front (or any other) kick. The last thing you want is to have your kick miss, and then have your relative lack of balance exploited. I should know: I once kicked with my right leg and missed, had my leg caught (on the retraction) near my ankle, then suffered the indignity and pain of having my entire leg rotated inward (anti-clockwise). I tried to ride the movement but it was too quick; my body simply couldn’t keep up. Before I knew it my knee had passed the point of no return and was badly twisted. I limped on that leg for the better part of a year. But things could have been much worse.


I discuss how to refine your front snap kick

Then there is the question of force. In my article “Enter the front snap kick” I discuss how the front kick is not particularly forceful as techniques go. I believe that it is for this reason that the front snap kick has often been ignored by combat sports practitioners. On the heavy bag it feels almost insipid. And true, it is not a very powerful technique; it relies on correct timing, placement and distancing to work properly. What this means is that you need to work extra hard at making it efficient, thus squeezing the most force out of the movement. Inefficient technique - where you have extraneous movement - will not only make your technique slower and less effective, but it will also increase the chances of your kick being evaded or deflected. And, as with telegraphing, you might just end up with your relative lack of balance being exploited - in the worst possible way to you!

So let us examine the finer points of the front kick, and the ways of practising it, in detail:

Using a support to isolate the kick movement

In order to refine your kick, you need to eliminate any telegraphing and other extraneous movement. I’ve found that the best way of doing this is to kick slowly while using a support. I hold onto the ropes we have on our dojo walls, but you can use practically any other support - a door handle, a chest-high wall, a piece of gym equipment, etc. Just find something you can hold onto tightly.

Next, kick out slowly, trying move only those parts of the body that you need to move - ie. trying to isolate the kick. Once you can do the kick well with the support, start letting go and trying the kick without it.

The importance of slow kicking practice

When trying to refine your kick, practice at a slow, even pace (more on the evenness in a minute). Only once you are able to kick efficiently and economically should you speed up your kick to ¾ speed and eventually full speed. Why? Speed masks errors: I recall my later father and I watching a karate demonstration where a girl kicked a head height mae geri with slow, deliberate precision. I scoffed, saying: “I can kick better than that. Look how slow she is.” My father replied: “Anyone can do it quickly. Can you do it slowly?” The answer, at the time, was “no”. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

The flip side to slow kicks is that you develop strong core muscles and stability, which is not only good for your technique but it is also excellent for your health and well-being.

Maintaining even height

You’ll note from the previous pictures that I am taking great care to keep my height even. This is the first, and most obvious, error made by beginners. Bobbing up and down as you kick is a major indicator of the fact that you don’t yet have “full” control of your movement. Not only is this bobbing uneconomical (and therefore inefficient because you are wasting valuable time and energy in an unproductive movement, leaving less to be transmitted into your target) but it is also a fairly obvious telegraph.

Some people rise just before they kick. Others “crunch up” a little. Some do a bit of both (start with a rise, then crunch). A good opponent can and will read that rise/crunch and react to it appropriately, dealing with your kick before it has even properly commenced.

So you don’t want to bob up and down: You don’t want give your opponent any cues at all as to what you’re about to do. And you don’t want to waste precious time and energy in unproductive movement.

Snap back to full chamber

Earlier on I referred to the time I had my leg caught during a kick. It wasn’t caught on the outward journey, but rather on my retraction. Many beginners (and some more senior martial artists!) will snap out appropriately, but when it comes to snapping back they only do it about half-way, dropping their foot casually forwards, or using a raking back motion. This is dangerous. It might be hard to catch a kick when it is going out, but it isn’t nearly so hard going back.

Remember the advice given by my old sparring partner Charlie Rhumond:
    If anything snap, your kick back faster than you snapped it out.
I wish I’d followed his advice all those years ago - my knee might not have become as problematic as it has.

Maintaining consistent speed

Here is another common error, albeit not one that many instructors pick up: Students need to be aware that the speed of their movement is even throughout the technique. There are no points where one should slow down. If you are performing your kick slowly, then the whole kick should be slow. If you’re performing your kick fast, then the whole kick should be fast.

The most common error is in this regard is where the student does a fast snap out, then pauses in the chamber (on one leg) for a brief second before putting his or her leg down. This is a very bad habit to get into. You must get your foot back on the floor as quickly as possible. The last thing you want is to be facing your opponent standing on one leg.

The second most common mistake is a slow movement to chamber before the kick, then a fast kick out, and then another slow movement back down from the chamber (ie. a “slow, fast, slow” sequence). The same issue arises here as with the previous example, except you’re also giving your opponent plenty of warning that you’re about to kick. Thankfully, this mistake is rare. But if you’re doing it, then for heaven’s sake, stop! If you need any proof as to the need for a quick outward kick and quick return to the ground, look at the examples I provide in my article “Enter the front kick”. Note how each of the practitioners kicks "out of nowhere" and then drops his foot back onto the ground immediately. The adjacent images of Justin Bucholz are directly on point.

Correct hip projection

Last, in your quest for avoiding extraneous movement don’t forget what it is you’re trying to do. You want a powerful kick, not an insipid one. Don’t get so caught up in maintaining even height, snapping back, maintaining even speed etc. that you sacrifice practicality. It’s one thing to kick without extraneous movement - it’s quite another to kick without necessary movement.

One such “necessary movement” is to be found in your hip. Your hip needs to push forwards into your opponent. If it doesn’t you won’t be putting your body into your kick - only your leg.

Conclusion

The front snap kick is one of the simplest - yet hardest - techniques in the traditional martial arts arsenal. What do I mean by this? The front kick is a simple movement, yet it is not one we tend to do in everyday living. We are more inclined to do movements akin to the “soccer/football” kick than a movement approximating the front kick.

Accordingly, it comes as no surprise to me that many eclectic/combat sports martial artists eschew the front snap kick, preferring the more familiar roundhouse kick using the shin. The latter has its place in martial arts, that is true. But the suggestion that it is “faster” and “more effective” are manifestly false. A huge, sweeping roundhouse kick is going to impart more force. But it will be diffuse over a larger surface area. Moreover it will be highly telegraphed and take a relatively long time to execute.

By contrast, the front snap kick is not as “forceful”. But it has the advantage of being a far more direct movement. After all, the shortest distance between 2 points is a straight line. Your front snap kick should be geared at making that line as straight and unwavering as possible. Your support structure needs to be solid and any extraneous movement before, during and after needs to be eliminated. If you can manage this, I’m confident that you will find (as I have) that it is the “king of the melee”; it can come out of nowhere, find its mark, and return to the ground - all in a tight space not much larger than a telephone box and in a timeframe that is a fraction of any other kick. This is of vital importance to any kick used in a civilian defence environment.

Get it right and it can work wonders. Get it wrong and you might as well go back to the roundhouse kick using the shin.

[As an aside, I have my hands relaxed in the video and in the screen shots. This is intentional as I try to be as relaxed as possible while isolating my movement in slow techniques. What I haven't shown here is that I spend considerably more time with my guard in clenched fists (to protect my hands). Accordingly, please take the video and these pictures in this context.]

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic