Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Advanced techniques


Recently the subject of “advanced techniques” has been debated on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums.

I think it is self-evident that there are some techniques or forms are much harder to learn - not just because they require mere athleticism, but because they require subtler kinaesthetics and the ability to execute them depends on years upon years of “precursor” training.

They might be more effective, but frequently they won’t; simple is often the best.1

I happen to call such “hard to learn” techniques “advanced”. Why? Because I think beginners should start with things that are easier to learn.

Advanced techniques vs. advanced practitioners

My comments above are at odds with the views of those who would argue that “there are no advanced techniques, only advanced practitioners”. On this analysis, the techniques themselves are relatively simple. All that changes is the complexity of the combinations of these simple techniques.

Indeed there is something to be said for that philosophy. Most techniques are really quite simple: punch, kick, lock, etc. What differentiates one practitioner from another is usually not the advancement of the skillset, but the advancement of the performance of (basic) skills.

And yet recently I was reminded that this is not entirely accurate; that there really are techniques that are “hard to learn” - techniques that are best taught on the foundations of other, simpler, techniques or movements. Indeed, these simpler techniques are often essential (or at least highly desirable) precursors to the “advanced” ones, allowing the student to isolate and perfect the underpinning coordination and other necessary kinaesthetic skills.

Consider that all classical musicians will point you to pieces (for example, this one by Rachmaninoff) that are advanced; ones that require a level of skill that is beyond mere speed and physical agility. These are what I would call “advanced pieces”. Yes, you could say that what is different is that the playing is more advanced. But I’m saying that in order to play it properly you need to be sufficiently advanced - terms of technique, speed, phrasing and expression generally.

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor - one of the most challenging pieces in the classical repertoire. Wait till about the 3:00 mark!

Beethoven’s Fur Elise can be played exquisitely by a master pianist. The Rachmaninoff piece can too. But while beginners can play Fur Elise (it is one of the first pieces they are taught) they can scarcely attempt the Rachmaninoff piece. It is clearly a more advanced piece. The master’s performance of the Rachmaninoff piece isn’t a case of an “advanced performance of standard/basic skills” - that would be the master’s exquisite performance of Fur Elise.

A recent reminder of “advanced” martial art techniques

Last Saturday I was teaching a couple of northern shaolin forms to a small group of students. The forms are of a fairly high complexity and have a fairly long sequence (double or triple that of most karate kata). The group comprised a couple of brown belts and a few relative beginners.

I demonstrate the first of the northern shaolin forms we covered last Saturday

I demonstrate the second of the northern shaolin forms we covered last Saturday

In just over one hour the group managed to learn both forms - to a fairly high degree of skill. The form was near perfect with the brown belts - despite the fact that they are karateka, not Chinese martial arts stylists, and despite the fact that one of the brown belts had only ever seen the first form, and only once or twice before at that. The beginners didn’t look too shabby either.

So far you might be excused for saying “so what?” Indeed, this doesn’t show anything about the nature or meaning of “advanced”. It’s the next bit that provides the relevant contrast.

Because after the northern forms, I tried to get the same students to learn the little xingyi sequence below - and then to apply it in a 2 person setting...

The destructive cycle of xingyi - the 5 elements arranged into a sequence that can be applied in a 2 person setting. It might look familiar enough to karateka and other traditional martial artists, but it is surprisingly hard for students to perform correctly.

The result was, quite simply, unsatisfactory. The form was no where near right. I’m not saying this to be critical. It is just a fact. The movement looks easy and familiar. But it is far from that. In order to do this sequence and its techniques properly, you need years and years of training in more “foundational” xingyi (namely the “basics” known as the 5 elements) and, generally, martial movement.

Only once the form of the 5 elements is attained (at least to a reasonable extent) is it practicable to move to this little form. That is because this form assumes that you are familiar with the 5 elements; familiar enough to apply them in a more dynamic environment.2 The footwork alone is surprisingly difficult. It is next to impossible for a student to focus on, and perfect, the footwork if he or she can’t even do the macro movements of the 5 elements. There are simply too many things happening at once. It’s a bit like trying to learn to run before you can even walk.

By all means, try this sequence yourselves. Even some xingyi practitioners can’t do the footwork properly. I remember struggling with it for many years, so I understand why.

So there’s a good reason I haven’t yet filmed the 2 person version of this drill: as yet I don’t have any associates/students here in Perth who can do the techniques (especially the footwork) comprising this drill at least as well as I can.

At the very least, last Saturday made me realise the importance of doing the xingyi basics (the 5 elements) for significantly longer before we return to this 2 person drill. My students really aren’t ready. Their building blocks are all wrong - so the “house” is totally unstable. The drill is, quite simply, too advanced for them at this stage.

The relative complexity of xingyi

I think there is a tendency in karate and shaolin, for example, to make assumptions about the nature of “advanced” because karate and shaolin have relatively few building blocks and they don’t vary much from beginner kata/xing to the so-called “highest” ones. The building blocks of karate and shaolin are fairly common, making the lesson I taught more about learning a new sequence - not about learning new concepts.

The same is not necessarily true for the internal arts which are generally “harder to master” (even on a macro level) than karate and shaolin. This is particularly so in the case of xingyi.

My last observation might seem strange to some, as xingyi is sequentially so much simpler than its “cousin” arts of bagua and taiji. Many of my karate colleagues have said that it looks very much “like karate”. And on some levels it is - but on others it isn’t.

Is xingyi “more advanced” than taiji or bagua? I’m not sure about that. Bagua and taiji have their own complexities and subtleties. I suspect that while they are easier to perform on a macro level, they are a lot harder to master completely - and apply in combat. But either way, xingyi is, in my opinion, an art that is very difficult to learn.

When we do xingyi with my instructor, Chen Yun Ching, it is common to hear groans amongst the students. And Master Chen will “tsk tsk” and shake his head through the entire lesson. Master Chen has even expressed concern that xingyi might well die out one day because there are too few people who want to learn it.

It is important to note that while the training with Master Chen frequently involves time constraints and the attendant frustrations, in respect of xingyi this is rarely the issue. Year after year I see the same basic 5 elements being covered - because we still haven’t come close to looking good while doing it. It’s just hard stuff. I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain it much better than that, but I’ll try to give at least some sort of outline of the issues.3

Complexity in combinations vs. complexity in form

The xingyi drill to which I refer is analogous to “combinations” of musical notes comprising an “advanced piece” (as per the Rachmaninoff example). But from the preceding discussion it should be clear that it is not just the combination that makes such a piece difficult. Rather it is the form of the piece - ie. the manner and context in which the individual “notes” are executed - that determines its “complexity” and hence its “advanced” nature.

Consider that each of the 5 elements is short - a block and counter. Why is it so hard for students to learn them? We’re not talking a complex sequence - we’re talking 2 movements (block and counter) for each element. The combination of 5 elements (ie. 5 different block/counter sequences) in this drill just adds another layer of difficulty for them. But the first hurdle they can’t overcome is the correct performance of the individual elements. Following the musical analogy, there are only a few “notes” to be played - yet the way in which they must be played requires a much higher level of technical skill in order for the playing to be “correct” or “effective”.

In the case of the xingyi drill, students initially can’t do a proper pi quan (the first element which occurs as the opening move of the drill at 0:14, 0:21, 0:25, 0:29 and 0:34 - wherever I’m heard to say “one, two”). So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they can’t perform a pi quan in combination with zuan quan, beng quan, pao quan and heng quan (the other elements) - together with the correct “shifting” footwork required by the drill.2

Differentiating “concepts”

So what is it about the xingyi drill and the Rachmaninoff piece that makes their form “complex” and hence “advanced” (relative to, say, karate and Fur Elise respectively)? The answer lies in the concepts being introduced.

Let us consider for a moment some of the concepts introduced by xingyi and their comparison to an art like karate. One might be forgiven for assuming that the principles are very similar if not identical.

Pi quan, for example, is a chopping action. Yes, it is executed with the palm rather than the heel of the palm (as per a karate “shuto” or knife hand chop). But surely that isn’t really a major distinction? And to the extent that one might argue that there are very particular details about its execution, aren’t these simply “formal” requirements that exist in all traditional techniques, including in karate? As my friend Quint says:
    “A parallel example might be the exacting features of a proper seiken (basic punch) - drawing the hikite (pullback/chamber), the turning of the hand, elbow downward, shoulders down, tightening the lats, first two knuckles, hip girdle square with shoulders and firmly set, front knee dropping and back leg settling/squaring to brace and support (among a number of other factors).”
My answer is that these sorts of factors pale in comparison to how many such elements exist in pi quan - even though the movement scarcely has much greater apparent complexity than a proper basic punch. Quint and I can talk about the basic punch - its pullback/chamber, elbow position etc. - because we both know about this and we have common reference. But we don’t share a common reference with pi quan, so a discussion about its “formal requirements” is going to be difficult.

Yes, I can tell Quint that pi quan’s “pull-back hand” must create an arc in the shoulders, that the lead hand descends with the index knuckle closest to the palm being in prominence etc. I can tell him that the hand and foot must finish at exactly the same moment and that your back foot shuffles up and stamps a millisecond later. None of this sounds very difficult or remarkable when explained on paper.

But in the end I can only explain the pi quan details with the help of multiple essays - or by teaching someone the technique and demonstrating applications (and how the details are important to effecting the applications). One can only feel how much harder it is to get pi quan right than a basic punch by trying it.

Fidelity to form vs. fidelity to concept

Clearly one can teach formal techniques with such myriad fine technical details - but how do we know that those details aren’t just formal, “artificial” constructs that don’t really affect the technique’s application? As Quint put it:
    “You could sing Nessun dorma or play a Rachmaninoff or Bach fugue and do it more or less correctly but without a certain arguably necessary element, and to the extent that some would say you were not doing it, but that also becomes an artificial qualification rather than a natural one. Just the same, you could do a technique and have it “work,” but not fulfill the basic movement principles of your art...

    You might be doing the pi quan and succeeding by a natural evaluation (did it strike home and do damage) but not the artificial one (was it a fully correctly executed pi quan according to the principles of xing yi). I would agree that no, you are not doing a seiken if you are not fulfilling the rigid categories which are defined by the elements we’ve been describing. These artificial assessments are based on prescriptive rules, though those rules come out of an exacting look into the nature of the body. While you can succeed at the technique in broad objective terms, you might fail by highly valid subjective terms.
I agree with Quint, but I think what he is talking about is fidelity to form. I’m talking about fidelity to concept.

I get occasional flak from those who my friend Martin Watts has described as “infernal internals”. They say things like: “Your jins are corrupted with karate” etc. I think this is because they perceive my movement not to have sufficient fidelity in appearance and minor detail to their teachers’. I’m not troubled by this lack of formal fidelity; I’m more interested in the successful application of the technique. Hence my xingyi looks (to their eyes) “unauthentic”. My focus is however on whether the technique works, not on whether it “looks the part”.4

There is no question that someone could sing Nessun dorma, do it badly and still be singing Nessun dorma. That’s what last Saturday’s xingyi was like. But if you asked me whether it was being done to a remotely satisfactory standard, I’d say “no”. Ditto with a karaoke singer trying Nessun dorma. You need to have a tenor voice and you need to have considerable control to do a “passable” job.

Because martial arts are more goal directed, the “passable” element becomes more critical. If you attempt a xingyi move and you don’t do it “passably” it will collapse. The techniques rely on very, very fine angles and tangents of both deflection and counter. You might attack those angles and tangents with another, similar, move from karate etc. but you won’t be doing xingyi. It will invoke a different concept.

Consider “heng quan” (crossing fist) from the previous video at 0:18, 0:24, 0:28, 0:32 (wherever I’m heard to say “six, seven”). This technique is the hardest of the 5 elements. Karateka who attempt it invariably default to a crossing block (ie. soto uke) followed by a chudan uke or chest block. This is what I did for many years. This is completely at odds with the intended application of heng quan. You might still succeed in blocking and countering the relevant attack, but you won’t be doing so using the xingyi concept - you’ll be doing a completely different (karate) concept.

It’s as if you slid from Nessun dorma to the The Last Post mid song. Yes, The Last Post is a moving tune and some notes are similar to Nessun dorma. But it is clearly a totally different piece.

It is also apposite to note that soto/chudan uke is not an ideal response in the circumstances in which heng quan is used: Heng quan contains a counter strike as well as being a deflection all in one - however it is a risky tactic that only works with certain safeguards that are commonly left out in a bad performance). You can see the problem of heng quan at 1:39 below (although I’m not sure if the “safeguard” is entirely obvious in this video because of how “chopped up” the performance is). 5

A video in which I expand upon the use of xingyi’s 5 elements against each other in what is known as the “destructive cycle”.

So I don’t think it is a good analogy to say that you’re ended up with a “half-formed seiken (punch)”. I think a more apt analogy is that you’ve been asked to do a seiken, but you’ve ended up with a half-formed uraken (backfist).

Building on past knowledge

In my view, more experienced traditional martial arts students have a much higher likelihood of learning xingyi properly. Brand new beginners or even intermediate students just make a total hash of it and keep doing so for much longer than those who have years of solid traditional martial arts behind them. It’s true that the experienced students might have to “unlearn” a few things - but the bulk of what they know is still used.

I think xingyi movements rely upon having the common building blocks of traditional martial arts “down-pat” - and then taking the movement in another (subtle) direction entirely. I’ve previously likened this to “rewiring the brain” - except that much of the existing wiring can and should be used.6

In the absence of previous experience, a beginner will simply have to spend a great deal more time executing the basics of xingyi before he or she is ready to apply them effectively. As I’ve previously noted, it is common in the internal arts to speak in terms of years (if not decades) before you can “leave the training hall” (ie. actually use your techniques effectively).

It is for this reason that in our school, the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts (in Perth Western Australia) we have adopted a “sequentially relativistic” syllabus - one where you start with “external” skills that are easier to learn and progress to the more “advanced” “internal” ones.


It seems to me that there is something to the concept of “advanced” if by that we mean “movement that is harder to learn” or “learning that relies on what has already been learned”.

Xingyi is just the first example of this that came to mind because of last Saturday’s training: there have been many other times in my career where I have encountered techniques or concepts that relied upon earlier ones being truly “cemented” before the new ones could be absorbed. Not only has my study of the internal arts been rich with such experiences, but it is safe to say that I have felt this in every discipline - within karate, arnis/escrima/kali, grappling... you name it.

I hold it to be self-evident that “advanced” techniques exist. Is it necessary to learn such “advanced” techniques? Arguably, no.1 But just as a musician might want to attempt an advanced piece for any number of reasons - the expansion of skill for its own sake being just one - most martial artists will one day reach a point where practising the same basic material becomes boring and produces diminishing returns.

And I practise martial arts for a variety of reasons - civilian defence being just one. I want to continue to be challenged - and not just by advancing age.

I have found arts like xingyi have not only expanded my repertoire, they have expanded my mind.

But irrespective of your goals, it is still true to say that certain techniques require greater technical expertise to effect - particularly in a dynamic, resistant environment. They are, by their very nature, therefore “advanced” and should not be bothered with by someone who wants “quick results" but still has a long way to go with more “basic” material (which might be all they will ever need anyway).

On the other hand, those who are in it “for the long run” can take their time acquiring the requisite “advanced” skill, being sure to approach it by isolating that skill in its most basic context (eg. the 5 elements of xingyi) before moving to a more complex, dynamic context (eg. the destructive cycle drill to which I refer in this article).

If that sounds like common sense, maybe it is. But it should nonetheless serve as a useful guide to those who might feel the urge to “skip the basics and get to the ‘good stuff’”. It’s all good stuff - in its own good time.


1. Are “advanced techniques” better than “basic” ones? Almost certainly the answer is no. Let’s just say that the pragmatic nature of fighting means that simple is often the best. And if you can do something simple very well, then something complex is often unnecessary. I see “advanced” as something you move to when you’ve reached a point of diminishing returns in practising foundational stuff over and over again. This is true in music too. The Rachmaninoff concerto to which I refer above is not “better” than Fur Elise. It is however more challenging; it is a more advanced piece.

2. Note that the particular sequence might be my own creation, but the individual movements and footwork are not - they are entirely xingyi as taught by my first teacher Bob Davies and my current teacher Chen Yun Ching, albeit that the footwork is an extrapolation of that found in other contexts.

3. I can tell you more or less exactly what it is that makes xingyi hard for beginners (I’ve previously discussed just one of the “lesser” elements - timing the front foot landing and the punch during stepping. But you need to experience the movement yourself and try to get it right. Only then can you understand what is so “hard” about it. Then you need to get the movement more or less right.

So I can tell you about the xingyi - I can go into exhaustive detail about timing the footwork with the arm movements, the nuance of the stance, the control of hip movement during stepping etc. I will almost certainly do this in my blog in future articles. But this is unlikely to add clarity to this debate in the absence of a shared experience. And the information won’t help in understanding other examples.

4. I’m very fortunate that while my teacher Chen Yun Ching is very pedantic about form, he is more concerned with correct application of principle. Hence even though I might not have “classical form” he has granted me an instructor’s licence in his system (and I’m one of only a dozen or so who presently share this honour).

5. In heng quan the body withdraws in a “ribbon-like” fashion as you execute the first part (a deflection), then “whips back” with the second with a curving strike. This avoids the pitfalls inherent when you are on the inside facing a second or third attack.

6. For example, a good, experienced karateka can “reuse” all of his or her knowledge. And should. Some “infernal internals” are likely to disagree with me here, but then again, I’m equally likely to think they live in a fantasy world of “jins” and “qi power”.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, November 4, 2011

Front kick: body leaning back or forward?

You will recall that I recently answered a question from Dave T about the chamber of the ankle in the front kick.

Dave had a second question, which was as follows:
    "I was once showed a front kick where the body is leaned forward towards the target. The kick is similar to the karate version except for the deliberate forward leaning motion of the body.
    Some reasons for the forward leaning body:
    1. Speed. The natural backward movement of the traditional front kick (due to the hip) slows the kick and telegraphs it.
    2. Power. With the body in front, it supposedly adds more power to the kick due to the kicker’s bodyweight.
    3. Balance. With the body in front towards the target, it helps the kicker keeps his balance especially if his kick is blocked or the opponent rushes forward during the kick.
    4. Groin protection. With the body leaning forward, the groin is less exposed.
    5. Lastly, related to point 3, with the bodyweight in front towards the target, it makes the kicker less vulnerable to a takedown. Also, if the kicker’s leg is grabbed, his body position allows him to strike/ grab the opponent.
    Any opinions?"
Many of the karate forms I know (eg. shisochin and kururunfa) feature a front kick where your body is moving forward as you kick. In such a committed kick, you might well think that the body is "leaning" into the kick.

However I hold it to be self-evident that this is not an accurate assessment of such a committed kick. The hip is always pushed into the kick. If it isn't, then there can be no power. And if the hip is pushed into the kick, the body cannot be leaning into the kick.

The adjacent images shows my senior, Gordon Foulis, performing the kick in kururunfa. In the first one he is at the start of the kick. And he is clearly thrusting his hips into the kick - note that his hips are forward from his body.

However you will see from the next image that as his kick reaches full extension, the forward movement of his body has caught up, making it appear as if he is leaning into the kick.

In a sense it is almost as if the body is being snapped onto the kick rather than the kick being snapped back to the body.

Done quickly, this kick can make it appear that the practitioner is leaning into the kick. But in fact the hip is always thrust into the target. And if the hip is being thrust, then the body must lag in accordance with the rules of staged activation of body parts.

My senior Gordon Foulis performing kururunfa at a festival in 1985

Needless to say, this only occurs when your kick is done in a manner so that you are committed to driving forward into your opponent after your kick. It is not appropriate for a more conservative kick where you want the option of retreating after kicking. In that case, your hips should noticeably push into your target as per the following video, in order to maximise the force of your kick:

A video showing the correct hip use in a front kick

I hope this answers your queries Dave!

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dynamic context drills


In my article “Situational reflex: the key to martial effectiveness” I discussed the importance of appropriate situational reflexes in martial arts.

Then in “Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex” I discussed how such reflexes might be developed – ie. through drills that set up the relevant situation in a dynamic context. A “dynamic context” is, of course, one where one or both parties are in a state of constant movement. It compares to a “static context” where drills start from a position where both sides are stationary - what I call a “standing start” drill (eg. one step sparring or “ippon kumite” as it is known in Japanese).

In “‘Standing start’ drills – what’s wrong with them” I discussed how “standing start” drills are not up to the task of situational reflex development. In the absence of a dynamic context you cannot establish a rhythm that is sufficient to enable:
  1. pattern recognition; and
  2. the inculcation of a matching of a situational reflex.
So what drills are up to this task”?

Lessons from Filipino weapons arts

Over the years I’ve copped the occasional bit of flak for training in multiple martial arts - see for example my article “You know too many forms”. One of the criticisms that I face is that I have become a “Jack of all trades, but a master of none”. And to some extent, this is undeniably true.

But one of the biggest benefits of this cross training for me, as a martial arts teacher and researcher, has been the chance to cross-refer not just techniques, but training methods.

In this regard, one of the biggest revelations to me about the need for drills to be placed in a dynamic context has arisen via the Filipino martial arts of kali, escrima and arnis (FMA).

These martial systems are highly functional and pragmatic, having their roots in either warfare or dueling “street arts”. I have no doubt that when it comes to baton and short blade weapons, they are among the most practical and efficient fighting systems around today. And it is salient to note that they are based almost exclusively on drills. Furthermore, none of these drills are anything like the “standing start” drills taught in self-defence courses or in some “reality-based” schools. Instead, they focus almost exclusively on setting up a rhythm, where a tight sequence of moves is repeated over and over again.

Consider the following video from a recent documentary on FMA:

Some footage of arnis/kali/escrima stick and knife fighting drills. Note that constant rhythm is one of the key features - “standing starts” are nowhere to be seen.

When starting these drills you will initially practise them slowly and softly. Over time, you speed up and add intensity. And with greater familiarity, you can even practise with live blades.

What you’ll notice from the drills is that experienced practitioners can move through a particular sequence at bewildering speed (more on “simple speed” in a minute). This is because they are utterly comfortable with the natural, inherent flow of human movement within the confines of those particular movements. Their subconscious knows that the elbow can only bend in this way, the shoulder in that way. If he stabs and you deflect, he only has these options, which means that you close them off with this movement. And so on.

In other words, over time these drills lead to a kind of “neural mapping” of these biomechanical options. This gives the practitioner a kinaesthetic awareness of the dynamic context of close quarter blade/baton movement. Importantly, the drills also give the practitioner appropriate reflex responses for that dynamic context - allowing the practitioner to control it.

Testing the reflex mapping of FMA drills

In order to get relatively new students to appreciate the function of the FMA drills, I often get them to do the following:

I will give them a single baton each and ask them to start sparring (lightly, of course). The students will move around, making a complete hash of things, not doing anything productive.

I then stop them and get them to work on one of the basic arnis/escrima drills - like the one below which we would call a “box pattern”:

A “box pattern” drill from the Kali Sikaran school, demonstrated at a fast speed

At the end of the lesson I ask them to stop practising the drill and start sparring again.

Immediately can I see a completely different paradigm: the students are no longer “grasping at clouds”; rather they are using tactics, blocking, deflecting, countering, trapping, controlling and disarming. All from one simple drill. In short, they are using the techniques from the drill, even though the drill looks nothing like sparring.

An instructional (step by step) video of a “box pattern drill” from arnis/escrima (done at a very slow speed initially, although there is some faster movement further on). Later in the video I demonstrate some impromptu sparring using techniques from the drill.

Okay, this is not “real fighting”. But my point is not that they have developed fighting skills. It is simply this:
    They are visibly transferring knowledge from the drill to an unscripted environment.
It is just the first step - but it is an important one.

Lessons from Japanese weapons arts

The same process is even more visible with a staff - possibly because the longer the stick, the more it amplifies your errors - and your triumphs!

Again, I will ask students to try their hand at sparring with the jo (4 foot staff). Predictably, they make a real mess of things. Then get them to practice some dynamic context drills from our jo syllabus (the topic of my forthcoming book “Essential Jo”).

A sample of our 2 person jo drills

As with the baton, at the end of the lesson I get them to try the sparring again. Voilà! They go from doing random, ham-fisted and jerky movements to using the beginnings of intelligent tactics and proper techniques. Of course, it isn’t anything like real fighting. But it’s a very good start at inculcating appropriate situational reflexes.

With the length of the jo, the dynamics tend to shift a bit. As a 2-handed weapon it tends to involve more commitment and more whole body use. Your stances tend to be narrower (ie. the feet line up) and you work at a greater range. The “whole body” element also means that you move differently, integrating the weapon movement with your body movement (where in baton fighting the weapon is wielded with greater wrist use and “flail-like” independence from your core).

But such differences are to be expected. What doesn’t change is the fact that the drills and the sparring both have the same rhythm. They both “feel the same”. Matching the rhythm of the drill to unscripted sparring really is the key to unlocking the door to useful situational reflexes.

Transferring the lessons of weapons to unarmed fighting

So, many years ago, it got me thinking; if only we could use the same weapons platform for unarmed fighting. Surely there has to be a way in which you set up sequences of movement in an appropriate context so that you can actually develop reflexes - not leave your basics and kata behind, just to start floundering away with faux boxing. There had to be a scientific way of learning how to apply the techniques one did in “standing start” platforms. Surely the weapons methodology would be equally applicable?

Well, as I’ve noted before, these drills take a series of movements and put them in a “looping” pattern1. There is nothing preventing one from doing the same with unarmed fighting. All that changes is the focus; weapons drills are focused on an implement - a baton, a knife or a stick. Unarmed fighting does not have that focus, so the movements change a little. But in principle, it is otherwise the same: take common technical sequences (ie. techniques in a relevant context) such as you already find in your kata (more on that in a minute) and arrange them appropriately.

I suppose there really is nothing terribly surprising about the concept of 2 person dynamic context drills. It has been around since the dawn of the fighting arts. Historically it has formed the basis of drills used in practically every weapons system. And arguably these predate the unarmed Asian fighting tradition (see my article “My meetings with masters in Hong Kong” where I describe martial historian CS Tang’s view in this regard). The concept of dynamic context drills is also evident in what is arguably China’s oldest unarmed fighting art, namely xingyi.5

I think it is only in fairly recent times that some have “forgotten” the importance of dynamic context in the traditional kata/xing/form-based fighting arts.

However there are certainly many, many schools of martial arts still teaching dynamic context drills.

Intent: connecting dynamic context drills to fighting

Okay, so we have a whole bunch of drills and they have a dynamic context. How do we know that they will work to improve our martial abilities?

Well the first thing is to remember what it is you’re doing. Just because you’ve strung together a particular sequence that has a “looping” pattern and a rhythm doesn’t mean you have a useful martial construct. Otherwise drumming patterns and baton twirling would count as “martial drills”. They don’t.

Accordingly it is important to remember that a dynamic context drill isn’t a dance or courtship ritual. It isn’t a gymnastic display. It isn’t intended to provide entertainment. It is a drill for inculcating situational reflexes for martial purposes.

Consider the following drills based on the “de cadena”4 hand trapping of FMA: It is indeed “impressive” in its speed. But what has it become? Does it have any martial connotation in this form? I would say the answer is definitely “no”.

An example of various arnis/escrima/kali hand trapping drills. Note the speed, but total lack of intensity.

Compare this to the video below of my own performance of a similar 3 point4 de cadena drill and I’m sure you’ll agree, that while my student and I don’t go anywhere near this speed, our movements remain recognizably “martial”. The same cannot be said of the hypnotic rhythm set in the above video. Impressive as the speed is, it has robbed the drill of its “intent”.

De cadena #1 as practiced in our school – a 3 point4 symmetrical1 dynamic context drill derived from FMA. (Note the speed and intensity are matched – cf. the preceding performance of a similar drill.)

So what do I mean by “intent”? You will recall in my article “‘Standing drills’ – what’s wrong with them” I discussed how dog playfighting still looked like “fighting”. In other words, the intent was still there – just “toned down” to accommodate the corresponding circumstances of a reduced speed and intensity. [You’ll notice that I’ve emphasized both speed and intensity – and I’ve done so for a very good reason as we will soon see.]

In the above example, I take it to be self-evident that intent is entirely absent. And a drill without the requisite intent is not going to be effective as a martial drill. Why? For this reason:
    Your brain needs to be able to make some connection between the drill and acts of aggression. Without that nexus, no useful situational reflex can be inculcated; the brain simply simply won’t recognize the “situations” as being related in the first place!
So how do you know if your intent is sufficient? Well, a disparity between speed and intensity is the first, and usually most reliable, indicator.

Speed without intensity – a sure sign of lost intent

The first thing to note about the earlier “intent-deprived” de cadena drill is the speed at which it is being performed. It is being done at a bewildering tempo. The second thing to note is the almost total lack of “intensity”.

I mentioned before that in dog play fighting both speed and intensity were correspondingly reduced. This is because the 2 variables are inextricably linked in real fighting. Try to imagine “panicking slowly” or “panicking with feather touches” and you’ll see what I mean.

So in order to ensure the requisite pattern recognition and situational reflex matching to real fighting, you need to make sure that they remain in balance; if one is reduced, so must be the other.

However if you increase one and not the other, you get a dichotomy that never exists in real fighting. Your subconscious knows this. Throw out the balance of speed and intensity, and your brain no longer recognizes what is happening as “martial movement”.

Put another way, if you reduce speed and intensity at precisely the same rate, you can retain some nexus to the martial origins of the movement – sufficient anyway for patterns to be recognized and matched to reflex martial responses. Increase one variable while ignoring the other and your chances of that recognition and matching start to reduce exponentially.

Consider the drill below by way of comparison: It is a one point2 symmetrical1 dynamic context drill we call the “kick touch” drill. Note that the practitioners (my brother Nenad and one of our black belts, David) start off slowly, then speed up. But notice that the intensity is also increased. Each kick is being delivered as it would in combat. This is made possible because they are not contacting. But the lack of contact in no way affects the speed or intensity or the feeling that this is “related to fighting”.

The kick touch drill: note the speed and intensity both increase proportionately

If I were to say what one of our greatest “secrets” of martial arts training was, I would say this little drill is it. It conditions you to start moving/responding the moment your opponent’s kick begins. And on a broader level, it conditions you to read the movement of a front kick in the melee range. It is one of the drills we use to address the sort of “situational reflex blindspot” towards front kicks that Randy Couture and Vitor Belfort suffered in their fights against Lyoto Machia and Anderson Silva respectively.

Yes, it might not look like much, but I believe it to be the backbone of correctly matching the cues for a kick in melee range distance. The response might seem token (a tap on the side of the calf) but I’ve personally found this reflex being used (and adapted) in hard sparring. And I’ve found it often enough to appreciate its lessons. The connection, established by this drill, between the kick beginning, and your body responding reflexively, is undeniable.

“Hand drills” - ie. stationary dynamic context drills

You’ll note that the dynamic context drills to which I’ve referred above are all more or less performed from a standing position, with no stepping or substantial movement off one spot). I call these “stationary dynamic context drills”.

These are common in FMA as well as the other southeast Asian systems (ie. those in Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand etc.).

They are also common in the southern Chinese martial systems (eg. the Hakka school, in particular arts like wing chun). The latter include the many “chi sau” or “sticky hands” drills used to train sensitivity.

An example of classical wing chun “chi sau” (sticky hands) drills

Apart from their “stationary” position, the drills are also typically very short, comprising mostly one point2 drills.

These design elements allow a fairly easy inculcation of reflexes; the lack of stepping and shortness of the sequence mean that practitioners are free to focus on what is a fairly simple series of movements. This in turn allows them to become accustomed to the movements relatively quickly, go through them very rapidly and frequently, and match reflexive responses to those movements.

The down side to this is that the dynamic context is necessarily truncated - ie. there is less of it. Accordingly the reflex is applicable in a much narrower range of situations.

Body movement: a necessary element of unarmed fighting drills

Another issue presented by the relative lack of movement is that there are very few (perhaps no) reflexes being inculcated to deal with penetrating, powerful techniques. This is not an issue with bladed weapons or batons which can be wielded with short, sharp movements yet still have maximal destructive effect. However the situation is very different with unarmed fighting, where greater momentum is required to make the human fist, hand, elbow, foot or other body part become a truly effective “weapon”.

Consider for example Lyoto Machida’s jumping kick knockout of Randy Couture. In fact, any kick carries a lot of momentum and must be countered using substantial tenshin/taisabaki (body evasion/movement).

Accordingly, while FMA and similar weapons disciplines provide some sort of template for dynamic context drills, we need to look somewhere else for drills that cover the wider spectrum that is covered by the human body. But where?

Using kata as your template for wider dynamic context appropriate to unarmed fighting

The beauty of your kata/xing/forms/patterns is that they already contain contextual movement directly relevant to unarmed fighting. Kata contain not only the hand and leg techniques, but also steps, lunges, shuffles, evasions and other body movement.

Moreover, it is important to note that every punch, kick, block, lunge, step, evasion etc. forms part of a sequence of related movements. As I’ve discussed before, I don’t believe kata is simply a collection of unrelated, disjointed techniques. Rather, a block should be connected with a body evasion; a counter should be set up by that block and evasion; and any step or lunge used in the counter should add power to it.

What’s more those movement is designed to be efficient: traditional punches are straight, techniques generally have no telegraphing or extraneous movement, etc. The context that remains is “bare-bones”. If you find cues in that context to trigger reflexes, those cues will be essential. You’ll be training to react to only that which really matters – not to feints and other false cues.

Put another way, if you can respond to minimalism well, your ability to respond to an inefficient, telegraphed attack will be enhanced. It doesn’t work the other way.

I’ve previously noted this usefulness of kata in creating dynamic context drills: consider my articles “Really USING your kata” and “The ‘Oh sh*t!’ moment: more about 2 person forms” as well as “Muidokan embu: 2 person forms for karate”.

It is precisely the use of kata (especially when one understands the movement underpinning the applications of kata) that one can start to address the sorts of concerns Emero had in trying to find a means of dealing with his masters circular kicks. You will recall that I advised Emero to enter into the attack on the inside, moving with the circle. But Emero’s reply was: “But what drills can I use to teach me to do this (reflexively)?”

One answer can be found in a dynamic context drill we teach in conjunction with our very first kata – fukyugata ichi (based on pinan nidan and Nagamine’s fukyugata ichi). Our “embu” or 2 person version of that form is a multi-point3 drill that teaches, among other things, moving on the inside of kicks that have the potential to become circular. The sequence is short enough – 7 points5 and symmetrical1. And it can be practiced with considerable intent – ie. with speed and intensity. Or it can be slowed down and eased off for examining finer points.

Our fukyugata embu which employs a lot of offline forwards evasion in a dynamic context

The above dynamic context drill is, of course, very basic. The higher kata have correspondingly more complex, less “formal” and more realistic patterns of movement, as one would expect. Consider our embu for the kata seiunchin by way of contrast:

Our seiunchin embu - the difference in complexity and “realism” between this and the fukyugata embu (which is basic) should be immediately apparent

”Tit for tat” – the first of the remaining straw men

A few criticisms remain of this approach to training. One of the arguments I frequently encounter is that it teaches students a “tit for tat” reflex. I take this to mean that students are inculcating a reflex response to “trade blows” or “take turns”, rather than “win”.

First off, I’ll note that the reference to “taking turns” is misleading. It implies that “waiting for your partner to do x or y” is somehow an issue with dynamic context drills, but not in other ones. In truth, all drills necessarily require you to “wait for your partner to do something”. It is part of what defines a “drill”. If it is a problem with dynamic context drills, it is a problem with each and every drill.

In a “standing start” drill, the defender “waits for x or y” (a known attack). The attacker then “waits for x or y” (a known defence). Then they swap sides. How is this not “turn taking” exactly?

What’s different with dynamic context drills is that I’m always learning to deflect/deal with an attack, then counter (perhaps “simultaneously”). My partner is doing the same. What’s more, both sides should be learning optimum responses. If that’s “tit for tat” give me more!

This contrasts with “standing start” drills where one side is purportedly “learning to “win”.
    However if this is true, the other side is necessarily “learning to lose”!
The attacker is knowingly launching doomed attacks. And with the “string” attack variety the attacker is also learning to stand there, absorbing multiple counters without a single response.

It’s a good thing that “standing start” drills are so ineffective at inculcating situational reflexes. Otherwise the results might actually be catastrophic. Imagine the situational reflexes inculcated in drills where you spend exactly half of your time “losing” - often in the most daft way!

The only valid “tit for tat” criticism that I can see is when the drill loses its martial “intent” – where a sequence becomes the means and the end. That’s another issue entirely. Taking turns at certain non-martial movements becomes an elaborate dance/ritual and nothing more.

Otherwise, with the correct intent and focus, dynamic context drills provide valuable situational reflexive training. Consider for a moment how the kick touch drill teaches you to react to a kick the moment it is launched. This “bare” reflex is further refined in such dynamic context drills as our gekisai embu (see below), enabling a student to use downward deflections against kicks (something that many people have considered “impractical” - probably because they have never inculcated the relevant situational reflexes from kata to enable them to do so).

Our gekisai embu - featuring defences against kicks in a dynamic context

Accordingly, the fact that dynamic context drills feature “turn taking” is simply part and parcel of the fact that they are drills. The fact that this “turn taking” is more noticeable with dynamic context drills is largely due to the following:
  1. the repetition is greater (ie. sufficient to create a rhythm and actually inculcate reflexive responses for a change); and
  2. the repetition does not allow one side to lose (for obvious reasons).
Otherwise dynamic context drills are no more or less “flawed” in the “turn taking” element than any other drill. Indeed, the increased repetition and rhythm of “turn taking” is precisely what enables the inculcation of situational reflexes where otherwise they would not be developed.

“Lack of finishing blows” – the second of the remaining straw men

The second and final criticism of dynamic context drills is related to the one above. It concerns what people have described as the “lack of finishing blows”.

My first response to this is: Do your “standing start” drills really have finishing blows? How exactly? Do you really hit your partner - with full power? Do you really “finish him/her off”?

The answer is, of course, “Not at all!” You aren’t “finishing off” anything.
    You just aren’t having your own blows thwarted/countered.
If you want that, I suggest you hit a bag or dummy. Your partner shouldn’t play your dummy just so that you can get this “satisfaction”.

And against a bag or dummy you at least get the chance hit properly. The “power slaps” given to your unfortunate training partners in “string attacks” are a poor substitute. If anything, they groove a series of “sub-optimal” strikes - pulled ones - compared to those you would deliver to a bag or dummy. In short, if you want to practice combinations, an inert target is better than a live person.

“Power slaps” given to your unfortunate training partners in “string attacks” are a poor substitute for striking bags and dummies

The corollary to this is that the best use of live training partners is to let them do what they do best - and that is resist you!

Make no mistake, “standing start” drills are useful for learning a series of blows (whether in a string or not) as a comprehensive counter to an attack. And there is no reason why such drills cannot co-exist with dynamic context drills and bag/dummy work (as they generally must).

This merely highlights that dynamic context drills cannot be “all things to all people”. They are useful training devices in the context of a wider training methodology. They are no more “flawed” in their absence of “finishing blows” than any other partner drill - unless you’re really in the business of “finishing off” your training partners (and I hope you aren’t)!


A week or so ago, I set about answering a query by Emero as to how he could learn appropriate reflexes to deal with his master’s circular kicks. I started writing an article that has evolved into this series of 5 separate articles, namely:
  1. Dealing with circular attacks”; and
  2. Situational reflex: the key to martial effectiveness”; and
  3. Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex”; and
  4. ‘Standing start’ drills – what’s wrong with them”; and
  5. this article.
I’ve had to chop the original article into all these separate ones because, during the course of writing it, it became clear to me that many of the premises I had taken as “givens” (situational reflex and “situational reflex blindspot”, the role of rhythm in developing situational reflex, the limitations of “standing start” drills, the types of dynamic context drills and their function) were often unknown or at least misunderstood - even in the traditional martial arts community, never mind the eclectic/combat sports world.

To some extent, my previous articles about 2 person training have also assumed the arguments I’ve made in this series of articles.

But recently I have become aware of the need to address fundamentals more thoroughly. Accordingly, I hope that these articles have shed some light on the whole question of situational reflex development and the importance of training in a dynamic context in achieving that objective.

I say this because I really believe that situational reflex development is the key to moving your traditional techniques out of your kata, onto the dojo floor and (hopefully) into any civilian defence situation you might encounter.


1. Most dynamic context drills in use today employ a symmetrical design: that is, both sides use the same sequence. This is useful pedagogically (it cuts down on teaching time and avoids confusion in students) but it also increases the repetition time – and hence opportunities for pattern recognition and situational reflex mapping. A good example of such a drill would be the “de cadena” hand trapping drill (see the second video under the heading “Intent: connecting dynamic context drills to fighting”).

A second variety features both sides repeating the same sequence, but on opposite sides (ie. mirror image). This is sometimes necessary to permit flow to continue, given the nature of the particular techniques, their sequence and human physiology.

A one point2 dynamic context drill where both sides execute the same sequence, albeit mirror image to each other

A third variety involves both sides repeating separate sequences. This is particularly useful when one side is required to execute “simultaneous” deflection and counter responses or when it is not practicable for one side to “recover” from a position.

A deflection drill where both sides execute different sequences to each other (necessitated here by the “simultaneous” deflection and counter)

2. The simplest dynamic context drill involves only 2 movements in a sequence, albeit that the movements comprise one response – eg. a deflection and a counter. Accordingly I call this a “one point” drill – there is only one response by both sides, and that response is repeated continuously. The drill below is an example of a one point drill:

An example of a wing chun based “one point” drill. Note that both sides do the same thing – deflect and punch. The deflection and punch comprise one response, hence the reference by me to “one point”.

3. When drills involve multiple responses you get what I call “multiple points”. Typically, there needs to be an odd number in order for the drill to loop.

4. For example, most FMA based dynamic context drills are based on 3 points (ie. 3 different responses) through which each side cycles.

An example of a 3 point dynamic context drill is the “de cadena” (the chains) – a hand trapping exercise, a video of which you can see under the heading in this article "Intent: connecting dynamic context drills to fighting".

5. An example of a 5 point drill would, of course, be xingyi’s 5 elements. I have covered the use of the use of the elements as a drill in my article “Cracking the xingyi code” so I don’t propose to do so again here.

6. An example of a 7 point drill would be aikido’s 13 count jo form, as I’ve described in my article “Genius and the “13 count” form”.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

“Standing start” drills – what’s wrong with them


In my recent article “Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex” I discussed the need for martial arts drills to take place in a “dynamic context” – namely a context in which a rhythm can be established so that situational reflex can be inculcated.

But what do people usually do when they wish to practice a technique?
    They isolate the movement into a “standing start” drill.
What is this?

A “standing start” drill is where one side is the attacker, the other side is the defender. The attacker will start from a stationary position and launch an attack - often on a count called by the instructor, but sometimes of his or her own motion.

Sometimes the attack will involve a step (eg. “ippon kumite” or “one step sparring”), sometimes it will involve just a lunge and sometimes it won’t involve any substantial movement off the spot.

The most analogous drill in a game like tennis would be practising a return of serve; each serve is its own distinct play with no nexus to the preceding or succeeding one.

What “standing start” drills are good for

Lately a few people have been at me to explain what it is that I have against “standing start” drills. Actually I don’t have anything against them. On the contrary, I think very highly of them and regard them as essential for starting to learn a particular technique/tactic.

For example, it is very difficult to explain an application of a kata/xing/pattern/form without showing it in a “standing start” format. Accordingly, at the very least, the standing start drill is a necessary platform for application/technique analysis.

Furthermore there are certain civilian defence situations that mostly occur from a “standing start”. In that case it is appropriate to practice against techniques launched from that platform – at least part of the time.

However it is also true that I regard such drills as having fairly significant limitations. What are these?

Limitations of “standing start” drills

The principal limitation of “standing start” drills is that on their own they simply don’t inculcate a reflexive response in a free-fighting environment.


The latter occurs in a dynamic context while the “standing start” drill does not. And as I discussed in my article “Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex”, a dynamic context provides you with cues for pattern recognition. Your subconscious can then match a situational reflex to these cues. But without a dynamic context there is little chance for the appropriate situational reflexes to develop.

If you doubt me, consider this:
  1. In a “standing start” drill, the defender knows exactly what attack is coming.

  2. And although the defender might not know exactly when the attack is coming, he or she still has a pretty good idea of this - whether through the instructor’s count, or simply because both sides have been primed for what is about to happen.
So it is unsurprising that, when the attack is launched in a “standing start” drill, the defender successfully performs the requisite evasion/deflection and counter, both sides reset and it starts again.

And it is also unsurprising that, when the defender comes to a similar point in unscripted sparring, all of that “standing start” / “one step” drill training falls by the wayside. I challenge anyone to show me otherwise – I certainly haven’t had any experience to contradict this conclusion in the 31 years since I started martial arts training.

In short, there is insufficient nexus between the “standing start” experience and the unscripted sparring. The subconscious simply doesn’t recognize any pattern/rhythm from the “standing start” drill which it can match to the unscripted situation, and accordingly no appropriate situational reflex is established.

But sparring is not fighting!

However you might argue that you are still managing to inculcate a reflex response to a particular attack. So what if it doesn’t show up in sparring or some other unscripted practice environment? The only unscripted environment that matters is real life!

Indeed. I’ve never argued that sparring is like real fighting. Rather, my point is this:
    If the reflexes you’ve gained don’t show up when you are in a “safe” unscripted environment (eg. your dojo, with friendly training partners), what hope do they have of showing up when you are facing the stress of a real confrontation?
I hold it to be self-evident that fear, stress and adrenaline only serve to add layers of interference with reflex response rather than bring it to the fore. Students are more likely to freeze in the face of real danger than respond with their training. Indeed, if their trained reflexes emerge in combat, this is very likely despite fear, “adrenaline dump” etc. – not because of it!

Accordingly I believe it is vitally important to ascertain, in various “safe”, unscripted environments, whether you have, in fact, actually grooved an appropriate situational reflex - or whether you have a "situational reflex blindspot" instead!

If you have a reflex to deflect/evade/pre-empt a punch in sparring then maybe, just maybe, you might find it emerging against a punch thrown in a real civilian defence confrontation. The more deeply grooved your situational reflex is in the dojo, the greater the chances of it being effected in the street.

And if you’re not seeing it in sparring, what makes you think it is there at all?

Situational reflexes built by “standing start” drills

There are still those who will argue that they do see the reflex in the dojo – just not in sparring. They see it in the “standing start” drills. And these are “more realistic” than sparring!

Well, it’s true that “standing start” drills give you a situational reflex. However it’s not the one you imagine!

What is the reflex grooved in “standing start” drills?

It’s the one where you square off with a partner, knowing more or less exactly what technique is going to be executed against you, and someone says: “Ready, set, GO!”

Sadly, there really is very little wider reflex inculcation than that in the case of “standing start drills”.

Conflating “realism” and “reflex”

When someone argues that their “standing start” drills are “more realistic” than sparring, I also think they’re confusing issues. As I note in my article “Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex”, “realism” and “reflex” are totally different things.

You will recall from that article that dogs preparing for hunting/fighting don’t enact “standing start” scenarios, featuring short sharp bursts of faux aggression and other attempts at “realism”. Rather, they settle into a slow, brawling, rhythm where they try to groove situational reflex. Natural selection has favoured abandonment of “realism” in "fight preparation" of animals (at least to a large degree, as I will elaborate on below).


I think that it is almost certainly because reflex training is more important - and any attempts at “realism” would be woefully inadequate anyway. Make no mistake - the play fighting is still visibly related to real fighting. For example, it doesn't look like a courtship ritual (which is part of many animal species' instinctive behaviour). Rather, it does look like slowed-down fighting. There is even a kind of "toned down intent" (more on that in my next article).
    It's just not "realistic" in the sense of tempo or intensity.
We humans obviously have far greater cognitive power and future-planning ability. Accordingly, as I've noted in my previous article, we are not limited to "play fight" sparring in our preparation.

Yes, you should practice “standing start” drills. And, with the appropriate protective gear, you can add levels of contact that might approach those experienced in the street. You can create “more realistic” scenarios, enact aggression etc. (more on the limitations of "realism" of "standing start" drills in a minute).

But in the end, this type of exercise is primarily about learning and refining a technique – not about whether the technique will arise reflexively in an unscripted situation.

And while your technique might be tested and found to work very well indeed in a scripted, “standing start” environment, it will be of no use to you if it never sees the light of day because you suffer a “situational reflex blindspot” (as happened to Randy Couture and Vitor Belfort when facing front snap kicks).

Accordingly, we humans need to develop intelligent drills that give us a more scientific, targeted means of situational reflex inculcation. This is where we "improve" on our animal counterparts - not by focusing our attention largely (or even exclusively, as I know some do) on "standing start" drills.

Testing the reflexes built by “standing start” drills

To be clear: “standing start” drills are necessary for practicing techniques. But they are next to useless for grooving a situational reflex for unscripted environments.

If you doubt me on this, try the following:

Do lots of repetitions of “standing start” drills for 3 different attacks, say:
  1. a mid-level front kick; and
  2. a face-height punch; and
  3. a low-level roundhouse kick.
After you’ve practiced each of them numerous times, have you partner choose from the 3 attacks at random so that you don’t know which you will receive at any particular time.

Having tried this training method over the years, I can tell you that you'll be lucky to correctly predict and defend even one out of every three random attacks. Why? I think this is because there simply is no “transfer” of reflex from one “standing start” drill to another. They are like islands, separated from each other by a great expanse of sea. And we haven’t even got close to the chaos of free sparring – never mind real fighting.

What constitutes the “sea” that separates these drills from each other and from unscripted fighting? The answer is: contextual movement. It is this contextual movement (comprising set-up of, and recovery from, techniques), and the natural rhythm of that movement, which gives the brain vital “pattern recognition cues”. In turn, the brain matches these cues to a reaction you’ve learned to associate (subliminally) to those cues.

So you’ll find that if a person has just completed a cross punch, the recovery from that will affect the means by which he or she will approach a subsequent technique, be it another attack or a defence against one of your counters. If a person has lunged forward with an attack, certain rules govern what can and cannot happen next. Ditto when a person throws a roundhouse kick to your thigh/knee, and so on. Human movement might be almost infinite in possibility - but it nevertheless obeys some sort of logic or rhythm. The options are necessarily constrained by the context.

Good reflex-training drills will grab meaningful and useful (ie. frequently occurring) “bites” of this context and enable the practice of techniques within that context.

Problems with the “realism” in “standing start” drills

Of course the problem with “standing start” drills is that they feature very little context. What context there is (eg. when schools enact “realistic scenarios” with some pushing and shoving preceding an attack) is often highly artificial, relying on the acting skills of the practitioners rather than any realistic, subliminal pattern recognition, and appropriate reflex matching, by the brain. Even our most “realistic” self-defence scenarios are really nothing more than pantomimes - someone’s impression of a very small number of possible “start” scenarios.

Also, consider that most “standing start” drills focus on a single attack. The most impressive of these drills involve literally dozens of counters that follow from this single attack (see my article “String theory: combinations and their effectiveness”). But in reality we all know that people don’t attack you with one punch/kick/strike. More than likely they will come at you with arms swinging away - multiple punches raining down upon you, kicks following. The idea that someone will take a single swing at you and then pause while you inflict upon him a series of devastating counters is plainly ludicrous.

More “string” drills – impressive, multiple counters, but all based on a “standing start” model that is never even questioned

In fact, the most common assault I’ve seen as a prosecutor involves at least 2 punches in quick succession. Show me a “standing start” drill that follows this model, and it will be the exception.

That “standing start” drills never reflect anything other than the first second or so of a civilian defence situation (ie. an initial attack) is a whole other story. As I’ve noted in my articles “Boards don’t hit back” Part 1, and Part 2, even if a fight lasts only 30 seconds, the “start” component (as significant as it is) will only occupy 1/30 or less of it.


When I was anchoring my radio show (the Combat Sports Show on 91.3 SportFM) I once had a guest who proudly proclaimed how his system involved no sparring at all - it was based exclusively on "more realistic" "standing start" drills. He said (in answer to another guest, who was an experienced ring fighter) that "I wouldn't know what to do in sparring - I would probably kill someone". In other words, he doesn't have time for inculcating less than optimal reflexes. He's too busy inculcating "killing" ones.

I wondered then, and I wonder now, what possible reason he had for thinking this. He's certainly never tested his reflexes in an unscripted environment to see what would happen. Given my own experience with the limitations of "standing start" drills, I have no doubt at all that this fellow was/is living in a world of fantasy. Under real pressure, his techniques, practised exclusively in "standing start" drills, are unlikely ever to see the light of day.

All martial artists need “standing start” drills. But they are useful for learning, refining and testing techniques – not making sure that those techniques arise as appropriate situational reflexes.

The central problem with “standing start” drills is that the dynamic context of the attack is largely absent. An attack might occur from a stationary position - that’s true. But it might equally occur when you and your opponent are mid-way through a scuffle. It might be the first, second or third attack in a series. It might be something you face as your own attack has been evaded/thwarted. The situations are endless.

We don't need drills to attempt to replicate each of these endless situations. That would be impossible - a fool's errand. Rather, we need drills to replicate the dynamic context of those situations. Why? To enable the inculcation of situational reflexs through use of pattern recognition and rhythm.

We can’t assume that the “standing start” will even begin to reflect the dynamic context of an unscripted situation. They can't. "Standing starts" are just snapshots of some of these. They are certainly not representative of any of their patterns and rhythms. And the poor transition of techniques from “standing start” drills to unscripted training is a good indicator that this is true. We can choose to ignore this data, but it doesn’t lie.

In other words, “standing start” drills need to be supplemented. But with what? As I discussed in my article “Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex”, sparring is part of the equation – but it is principally about testing situational reflex rather than developing it.

Accordingly, what we really need are drills that approach the whole issue of situational reflex on a scientific, time-efficient basis, rather than an ad hoc one. We need drills that occur in a dynamic context. Such drills, in combination with sparring (which tests our situational reflexes) are going to be the biggest factors in transferring your traditional techniques from kata/xing/forms/patterns and the related "standing start" displays into unscripted civilian defence situations situations.

Next: Dynamic context drills

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rhythm and its importance in developing situational reflex


In my previous article “Situational reflex: the key to martial effectiveness” I discussed the need for martial artists to develop “situational reflexes” – ie. appropriate reflexive reactions for the potential situations we might face.

To do this, I think the first (and most pressing) issue is to identify the situations that we are likely to encounter. These include what Patrick McCarthy has described as “Habitual Acts of Physical Violence”. However a martial artist might also want to include other, less common, situations – whether for civilian defence, for use in the ring or on a mat, or simply in dojo sparring.

Once we have isolated the relevant situations, the next step is to identify any “situational reflex blind spots”, other deficiencies that we wish to rectify or tactics upon which we want to improve. For example, in my article “Dealing with circular attacks” I recounted how a Traditional Fighting Arts Forum member, Emero, was seeking to find a way to deal with his master’s circular kicks in the dojo.

Drills for developing situational reflex

Okay, so let us assume that we’ve isolated a particular situation for which we want to develop a particular reflex. How do we go about this?

The most obvious way is to set up a facsimile of the situation and run through it repeatedly until the reflex is ingrained. This is commonly known as a drill.

So a tennis player will stay at the net while his or her coach will hit balls towards the player for forehand and backhand ground strokes alternating between these either sequentially or at random. Ditto with volleys, overhead smashes, top spin lobs, etc.

An example of a tennis drill for forehand baseline play

At this stage it is important to note that such tennis drills are designed with the following elements:
  1. The drills contain a limited set of movements, but those movements occur in a “dynamic context” - in other words, they occur in an environment where there is continual movement by one or both parties.

    And, most importantly, this movement is faithful to what happens in an unscripted environment - at least in principle. So there is an initial stimulus (the ball being hit over the net), a set-up move by the player responding to the stimulus (eg. a lunge or step together, with a wind up or positioning of the racquet), and a response (eg. a volley, baseline stroke or smash).

  2. The drills repeat this dynamic context frequently and rapidly, preferably running one dynamic context seamlessly into another (again, in a manner that is faithful, at least in principle, to what happens in an unscripted environment).

    The principal reason for this is to maximize the number of times the player is exposed to the situation - and is forced to react successfully to it. The more times the player reacts successfully to the situation, the greater the chance that the successful reaction will emerge reflexively in an unscripted environment.

    A secondary reason for having one dynamic context rolling into another is a little more subtle and relates to how the brain inculcates reflexes, as opposed to logical thought. I’m talking here about the need to set up a rhythm.
Rhythm - the key to reflexive response as opposed to planned response

If you look at any drill designed for pragmatic inculcation of reflexes, you will find rhythm. When it comes to reflex development, rhythm trumps earnestness, enthusiasm, “realism”, intensity - whatever else you want.

For example, you can earnestly and diligently practise tennis ground strokes with maximum force and concentration. But if you pause and “reset” between each groundstroke (as you might between serves), it won’t do you much good in developing situational reflex for baseline play. Good groundstrokes require you to read play in a much wider context than what you get with a “standing start” serve. Specifically, they require you to read the game in the context of its rhythm – which, in the case of baseline tennis play, is clearly discernible.

Similarly, the goal of any other drill is to enable pattern recognition in the wider context of its activity – and match your reaction to the rhythm of that activity. And this needs to happen subliminally. The conscious mind learns through analysis. The subconscious mind learns through rhythm. It recognizes a familiar rhythm and matches your reflex to it.

Drills and their "fidelity" to real-life situations

It is for this reason that I said the set-up moves comprising the dynamic context must be “faithful to what happens in an unscripted environment - at least in principle”. What I largely meant was “at least in rhythm”. Because, often enough, an effective drill need have none of the urgency or intensity of the unscripted situation. The drill can occur at a slower rate and will typically occur in the absence of any panic or stress. But this doesn’t really matter; so long as the rhythm is the same, the reflex will be adopted.

Put another way (and continuing with the musical analogy), you can inculcate the right reflex despite different tempos and different emotional input - provided the time signature remains the same. Because it is the recognition of the patterns that counts. The tempo and intensity of the patterns are largely irrelevant to the process of pattern recognition.

It is important to note here that when confronted with a sudden threat, people don’t startle or flinch “slowly”. They do so as fast, and with as much gusto, as their body will allow! This isn’t something that needs to be learned - it is innate.

The exact form of movement also needn't have perfect fidelity; movements can be larger (as is frequently the case with kata) or more complete than they would have in a real confrontation (real-life movements tend to become abbreviated or have less than "ideal" form). As with tempo and intensity, necessary abbreviation is something that the brain handles automatically.

For example, if your drill has you moving in deep, formal stances, you aren't in danger of defaulting to such formal stances under the pressure of real combat. Rather, a kind of "law of entropy" operates, where you are continually being drawn to the lines of least resistance and greatest ease. I've never, in all my 31 years of training, ever seen someone default to a deeper stance than is necessary. It always goes the other way.

Once a pattern has been recognized, and an appropriate reflex to that pattern has been inculcated, the body can and will adjust the tempo and intensity of your reflex appropriately, as it will take the edges off any "strict form", whenever the pattern is recognized in an unscripted environment. These are things that happen subconsciously.

An example from the animal kingdom

I have previously discussed my school’s use of slow to medium speed sparring in a flowing, rhythmical environment (what we call “randori”). I’ve compared this to how dogs “playfight”.

You’ll notice that when dogs playfight, they move at about ¾ speed in a constant flow of movement, while controlling their bites so that neither is injured. This is the only “practice” they get at fighting. And yet we all know darn well that when they really fight, they won’t default to this ¾ speed nor control their bites! Instead their subconscious will ramp up both the speed and the intensity appropriately.

So what is it dogs are doing when they playfight? They are instinctively setting up a natural flow - a rhythm - appropriate for pattern recognition and inculcation of reflexive responses.

It is apposite to note that dogs never “ramp up intensity” of these playfights to short, sharp, disjointed exchanges that are “intended to mimic the real thing”. Rather, they settle into a sprawling, medium-paced flow - a flow that is faithful to the rhythm of movement in a real dog fight, albeit at a (much) slower speed and without any of the intensity that would accompany a real dogfight.

Instinctively, dogs (and other predatory mammals such as cats) use this method of fight preparation instead of any other. Their behaviour has been naturally selected to inculcate reflexes for attacking (whether in fighting or hunting) and dealing with attacks (whether from other predators or even a defence by their prey). Natural selection tells us that this method of preparation is very likely optimal for inculcating a productive reflexive fighting response in animals.

Drills for human fighting

Coming back to Emero, how can he set up a “facsimile” of his sparring encounters? As I discuss in my article “Boards don’t hit back”, particularly in Part 2, the problem with fighting is that you have so many more variables than you do in a ball sport: First, you’re not dealing with a single point of focus such as a ball. You don’t have a limited number of possible strokes using a racquet. The movement of the ball and your racquet does not occur along a limited set of trajectories. Rather, you’re dealing with virtually unlimited possibilities in movement, at any angle, using any part of the body. Fighting is chaos.

By contrast, a game like tennis is, on a universal scale, relatively ordered and predictable. Accordingly, setting up a “facsimile” of human fighting is going to be a tall order.

I’ve already suggested that one might adopt a “free-fighting” method like the flowing ¾ speed playfighting of dogs - and indeed our school uses this in its “randori” sparring method.

But as I’ve detailed in my articles “Boards don’t hit back” Part 1, and Part 2, sparring doesn’t so much teach you tactical approaches as it does test them. We martial artists still want to isolate specific, optimal responses and inculcate them so that they occur reflexively in certain situations. In particular, Emero would like to isolate and inculcate a particular defence to a spinning kick. If all he does is spar, he won’t have a ready means of achieving this goal. Yes, he will (sooner or later) manage to deal with one or two spinning kicks correctly. But this is hardly a scientific way of approaching the issue.

So while dogs might playfight, they aren’t exactly adapted to think more deeply about their tactics and adopt a planned means of improving them. We humans are. We need more than playfighting. We need dedicated, instructional and reflex-grooving drills. We can modify our “playfighting” so that we can focus more specifically on those skills that we seek to acquire.


Accordingly what we need to develop appropriate situational reflexes are drills; drills that set up the relevant situation in a dynamic context.

That dynamic context must reflect the natural rhythm of the situation as it occurs in an unscripted setting. More than anything, the dynamic context needs to afford us oft-repeated opportunities to recognize the patterns of the relevant situation - and respond appropriately.

Once we have done sufficient repetitions of the drill (commonly said to be around the 10,000 mark) our brains will have connected the patterns of that situation with the response – and made the response reflex.

Clearly, the critical element in drill design is what I have called “dynamic context”. Because it is only in such a context that you can establish a rhythm - and it is only through rhythm that you can inculcate a situational reflex. Unfortunately, dynamic context is the very last thing upon which many modern martial arts schools choose to base their drills. Increasingly, I'm seeing so-called "reality-based" systems basing their entire pedagogy on "standing start" drills - drills have virtually no dynamic context at all...

Next: Standing start” drills – what’s wrong with them

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic