Sunday, July 15, 2012

That first punch: can you really "block" it?

Introduction: that nasty first punch

I recently had my attention averted to a blog post of the (always interesting!) Wim Demeere, ie. "How not to block a punch". I find myself agreeing with pretty much all of what Wim has to say, but I have my own gloss on the issue – particularly as it relates to that all important first punch that people so often face.

First, let's have a look at the video that Wim critiques. I have embedded it below:

A video featuring an assortment of punches to the face – all of which are unanswered – and a particular practitioner's answer to how to "block" such punches.

"It's not possible to block this sort of punch – and here's the evidence!"

The first thing people think of when watching a video like this is to question whether it is at all possible to "block" such a punch. They will draw distinctions of the kind I make later in this article under the heading "What about the practitioner in the first video?" and conclude that blocking a fast punch of the kind seen in the video is, in fact, impossible.

This conclusion is wrong for so many, many reasons. I'll explain why below.

Most people who don't practise traditional "blocks" aren't entirely clear about what they actually are. Often they assume that the arms might be used to provide some sort of "shield". And in this assumption they are partially correct: blocks can indeed function as a simple obstacle.

In fact, boxers use this sort of "block" all the time, if you consider that having your guard up prevents your opponent getting a clear shot at your head. Indeed, the guard and "block" are really so inseparable that they could almost be regarded as one and the same: a good bare knuckle guard not only provides a physical barrier (a block) to attacks, it also allows you to slip or deflect punches when the attacker thinks there's a gap.

The guard as a punch deterrent

But more importantly, a good guard usually deters the attack from being launched in the first place. If your guard is properly up, an attacker will be reluctant to launch a punch at your face. Why? First, the attacker doesn't really want to be landing punches on your own bony arms and knuckles. It is not only a waste of time and energy, but can be painful. Second, and more relevantly, people understand instinctively that every time they punch they leave an opening. So no one is going to punch to a well-protected target and risk being counter-punched when their arm is extended.

A video in which I discuss how every technique you throw leaves an opening

Yes, fighters must, sooner or later, throw an attack. But a good fighter knows that timing that attack is essential. You must time it to ensure that you'll hit your target while minimising your own exposure to counter attack at the same time. Punching a well guarded target is, accordingly, the very definition of folly.

Milliseconds count!

The video at the start of this article makes various assertions about the speed of punches. And for the most part, I suspect that it is broadly correct.

It takes, on average for a youngish person, about 0.2 s (or 200 ms) to react to a punch. If it is true (as the video above alleges) that a punch can reach you in 200 ms, then you might be reacting as the punch hits you!

However, I don't think that being so completely beaten by sheer speed is a realistic fear. It is certainly inconsistent with my own experience. Yes, there are people who can hit you so fast you're only starting to react as the punch lands. But this isn't the norm. Not only can I say this from personal experience, but I can also rely on my experience in prosecution of cases involving punches outside nightclubs etc. (many of which were caught on surveillance camera). In other words, not every punch is going to take a mere 200 ms to hit you.

Rather, I think the time for a typical fast punch (not to mention a slower one thrown by someone affected by alcohol) lands in about 250 ms. This 50 ms difference might not seem like much but it is enough, as I will shortly detail.

The "80% rule"

You see, if a punch is going to hit you in 250 ms, and you react at 0.2 s (or 200 ms), you will react when the punch is 80% of its way to landing on your face.

Yes, someone young, fit and strong might be able to hit you in 200 ms. But then again most young, fast male attackers aim their aggression at other young males. In those circumstances, the victim might (like many young people) have a reaction time of 0.16 s – in which case we're back to where we started: the victim reacts when the punch is 80% of its way towards his face. [Remember that this is true of young people even if they are physically weaker than their attackers; reaction time is not dependant on your "fitness" or strength. It is what it is. Thankfully, the art of deflection does not rely on "strength" but rather on good technique and "situational reflex".]

This "80% rule" is consistent with my experience and observation over the last 31 years. It has consistently shown up in my training, that of my students and in my observations of fights (in my private and professional lives). Mostly, you will have 20% of the "punch time" left at your disposal (assuming you have an effective "situational reflex", of course).

Now I'm not suggesting that you should rely upon this! Indeed, you should take every measure to stack the odds in your favour, as I will soon discuss (see under the heading "Having a solid defence strategy"). This is particularly true for older people whose reaction time has decreased; you have to fight smart, not just hard - this is where an experienced fighter can still have the edge over faster, stronger (but less experienced) opponents.

For example, an experienced fighter would have noticed the "tell" of the hand gesture in the above screenshot taken from the first video (see point 4 titled "Look for non-verbal cues of imminent attack" towards the end of this article), not to mention observed all the other points I raise as tips for a solid defence strategy.

Despite this, the "80% rule" does provide some general guidance as to what to expect in relation to attack speed vs. reaction times, so I raise it for this reason.

"You can't beat 'em all" doesn't mean you should give up!

I also mention this "80% rule" in case some readers despondently conclude that if ever you are attacked with a punch, the situation is "hopeless". I know many people who would feel this way after watching the first video above (and that's despite the practitioner showing his own ability versus the 200 ms punching "robot"!). Common sense should tell you that not all punches land – whether it be on the street, in the ring or in military hand-to-hand combat. People can and do evade/deflect/block punches. They do it all the time.

What if you're an older person (with slower reaction times) being attacked by a fast and strong young man? Well, one might well ask: "What if you were attacked by an 8 foot giant? or "What if you are faced with a crowd of angry men with big sticks?" In the end, martial arts training can't prepare you for everything, nor did anyone ever suggest it could.

Anyway, even if you have a slower reaction time and you happen to be faced with a younger, faster and stronger opponent, there are things you can do to stack the odds in your favour (again, see under the heading "Having a solid defence strategy"). "Blocking" isn't the answer to everything (which was, I think, one of Wim's main points).

"What can you do in 50 ms?"

Okay, so you have 20% of the time left – maybe 50 ms. Is this enough? The answer is a resounding "Yes!" You can indeed "block" (ie. deflect) a punch in that time, as the practitioner in the opening video demonstrates. I will shortly explain why (ie. the science and art underpinning deflection).

Please note, I am not saying (as per the first video) that deflection (I'll call it "deflection" from now on to avoid misunderstanding) is "easy": this implies that the science and art of deflection is easy – which it most certainly isn't! If it were, no one would need to study martial arts. What I am saying is that if you have the requisite training and skill, the remaining 20% of the time left before impact is quite sufficient for the deflection of the punch that is flying at you.

Let's see how you can go about doing this:

The "centre sternum rule"

I've already made the point that, when it comes to punches to the face in particular, the guard and "blocking" are really indivisible. So it should come as no surprise that you can't expect to "block" any attack if your guard is down (in fact, it is highly improbable that you will be able to do so). After all, you might only have 50 ms (ie. 0.05 s!) to achieve your deflection! It is very hard to do anything in that time when your hands are down at your sides. It takes more than twice as long for them to be raised into the guard!

If you have only 50 ms or so at your disposal, you want your deflection to comprise a movement over centimetres or millimetres – not one metre or thereabouts!

Most traditional deflections are based on the anatomical model of the raised arms, where the elbows are kept low, but your hands are over the line drawn at the centre of your chest (ie. usually the line drawn through the nipples).

I call this the "centre sternum line".

In other words, traditional deflections against attacks to the upper body all proceed on the assumption that your hands are over the centre sternum line. If your hands are elsewhere, the deflections simply won't work.

A video in which I discuss the "centre sternum rule"

It is interesting to note that in all my cross-referencing of traditional martial arts from China, Okinawa, Japan and the Philippines, the same themes come into play and the same deflection principles are employed (often with identical movements – for example the rising block or "jodan/age uke").

In fact, the principles are really the same in Western boxing, savate, Muay Thai, capoeira, etc. And this shouldn't be surprising. Basic anatomy, hand speed and reaction time remain the same for humans across the globe.

With your hands above the centre sternum line, you should be able to achieve a deflection using a very small movement, as I illustrate in the video above. You don't need a huge movement of the arm; rather it moves only a few centimetres at most. Can you move a centimetre or two in 0.05 s? Absolutely! That's why deflections can and do work against punches to the face.

Forearm vs. palm

From the preceding discussion it should be apparent that your attacker's punch will be quite close to your face by the time you can realistically expect to react. Assuming you have your hands higher than your centre sternum line and you have them extended a bit outwards, it is accordingly likely that by the time you react, the punch will have passed your hands. For this reason, traditional martial arts overwhelmingly favour the forearm over the palm as a deflecting instrument. I discuss this more comprehensively in my article: "Why block with the forearm – rather than the palm?".

A video in which I discuss the use of forearms instead of palms for deflection

Yet the demonstration of blocking against the "robot" in the first video showed palm "slaps". Yes, there are times where palm deflections (including those from wing chun, such as jut sau, pak sau etc.) are useful and necessary. But the forearm is, and should remain, your primary deflection instrument. (Even wing chun uses its palm "slaps" more for trapping and control, not necessarily for the initial deflection. For the latter, wing chun uses forearm deflections such as bong sau and high and low gaun sau.)

Your forearms will always be your most useful deflection surface – particularly if you have a bare knuckle guard rather than one suitable for gloved fighting. This is for the simple reason that it will be the most available surface (given typical attack speeds and reaction times, combined with the safest guard posture).

What about the practitioner in the first video?

The fact that the practitioner in the first video manages to deflect the "robot" effectively using his palms is a testament to his own excellent skill and fast reaction time.

However it is in part aided by the fact that there is very little penetration with the blow: critics of the video might point out that there is a world of difference between how he is using the "robot" (ie. with shallow penetration) and how the punches in the first video where being thrown (ie. with a very deep penetration).

Had the practitioner stepped in half a step closer to the "robot" I'm not at all sure he would have been as successful (particularly given the fact that he is intercepting the attacks with his hands so close to his face - he is picking them off at the very last millisecond where the angle of deflection and the speed of his hands need to be much greater).

Furthermore, most of the attacking punches in the first video had some element of "curve" to their path. In my experience this greatly increases the difficulty of applying deflections generally, particularly palm ones which are really designed for countering "wing chun style" linear, direct punches.

By contrast, I'm fairly confident that forearm deflections of the kind I demonstrate in my video on the "centre sternum rule" would have had no such issues; in other words, he could have deflected the attacks even easier, and at a closer range, had he used suitable forearm deflections.

Moreover the deflection would also have worked against "curved punches" as I demonstrate in the centre sternum" video.

I demonstrate the single whip deflection from taijiquan against "curved" punches in the video below from 2:13 onwards.

Despite these comments, I feel I must commend the practitioner on his high level of skill and excellent analysis and presentation in terms of his video. In particular I am greatly impressed with his "robot" - I want one!

Many movements in traditional forms - eg. single whip from taijiquan - go to great lengths to keep both your arms above the centre sternum line, and for good reason as you can see from this video.

Having a solid defence strategy

Needless to say I have experimented with deflections and guards for the last 3 decades. But I came to some of the above realisations very early on in my "career".

When I was a teenager, there was a particular idiot at my high school who used to walk up to people and "give them the eyeball". Then, without warning, he would punch them in the face. I must stress that there was no provocation, no lead-up – nothing. He was a sociopath – pure and simple. He wasn't stupid by any measure: he won the economics prize in our final year. But he was utterly devoid of any sense of empathy and remorse – which, together with language define us as human beings, in my opinion. Anyway, seeing this happening to some of the young lads I knew, I trained for months and months for this scenario. I had a friend "eyeball" me and throw punches at my face. I kept training until I had a 9/10 chance of responding with a block/counter utilising the basic rising block.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, this idiot never picked on me, so I never got to test it. I'm fairly confident I would have flattened him and remained unscathed.

But one thing I did realise was the importance of having your arms raised above the centre sternum line. I began to experiment with ways of getting my arms up in a way that would not give this idiot warning of what I was trying to do (such as scratching my head or rubbing my chin or pinching my lip).

Overall, I came to the conclusion that I needed to be, at least in some senses, "proactive". In particular, I needed to avoid "playing his game". Here are the "proactive tips" I discovered way back then:

1. Don't do the "monkey dance"

Whatever you do, don't do the old "eyeball" or "chest bumping" routine – what Rory Miller calls the "monkey dance". It is pointless and dangerous. Don't posture at all. It is absolutely the stupidest thing you could do. So reserve it for stupid people.

Either hit or don't hit. There should be no "in between". If you do the monkey dance and you get smacked you have only yourself to blame.

Many of the punches shown in the first video are the direct result of a monkey dance. Notice how many of the victims either walk into their attacker's punch or simply let the attacker walk up to them and punch – all as part of some sort of "chest bumping" ritual. Don't do it!

2. Keep your personal space - as much as possible anyway!

Part of not doing the monkey dance is keeping your attacker at a safe distance, which equates to having them outside the melee range.

Unless there is good reason for someone to be within that range (eg. when you're in a queue or at a rock concert, etc.) people will normally feel most comfortable standing a "safe" distance from each other when conversing. Entering the "personal space" is usually interpreted as (a) an act of intimacy; or (b) an act of aggression. No small wonder then that we can be disquieted by someone moving into that "personal space", however innocently.

I'm sure you all know people who don't have "personal space" – people who somehow don't realise that they are standing at a distance that is uncomfortably close for you. In most cases, these people are benign; they simply don't have the instinct that the rest of us have of keeping people out of the outside the melee range!

I have known many people who haven't had this instinct. When having a chat with them, I've had to consciously tell myself that it's "okay" to let them remain so close!

But with a physical aggressor it's not okay. If they approach within a certain distance you might well be justified in interpreting the act as an impending assault – and reacting with an appropriate (defensive) response (subject to my qualification below).

So I advise my students to step back with their preferred leg in a kind of defensive stance. Depending on the context they can push the attacker away and warn them, or if an attack really is imminent, strike. There are many shades of grey, so there can be no definitive advice. You have to take each case as it comes.

In this regard, please note that you can't go round hitting (or even pushing!) people just because they get too close - whether in argument or just because they don't have the same sense of "personal space". Sometimes you have to let people into that space; it's a risk we all take countless times in our lives. Many people will argue verbally at close range and there is no point in escalating the situation with a push - never mind a strike.

Note that many "reality based schools" go overboard here and advocate all sorts of simplistic violent solutions that, while manifestly effective, are so over-the-top that they are not only inappropriate and unethical/immoral, but practically guaranteed to bring you a great deal of trouble with the law.

A large part of wisdom is understanding exactly when a situation is truly verging on a physical confrontation. This wisdom comes from experience - it is not something about which anyone can give some sort of "guide". And in the end, many seemingly irrevocable conflicts have been "talked down" in that range.1

In any event, whatever you do, don't do what everyone in that video did, namely:
  1. willingly step into the melee range with someone; or
  2. let that someone hang around in that range,
when you suspect on reasonable grounds that this someone is intent on a physical confrontation. To do so is to invite disaster.

[In respect of "hanging around the melee range", my first teacher Bob Davies used to say: "Beware of the dog who hangs around the kitchen!"]

3. Keep your hands above the centre sternum line

Whatever you do, keep your hands up. This doesn't mean you have to adopt a formal guard posture. The latter can often escalate a situation pointlessly. Rather, use whatever is appropriate in the circumstances.

A "hands up and palms out" gesture is often seen as conciliatory but many attackers will be wise to this. It doesn't negate the usefulness of the "guard" but it is something to consider.

Another alternative recommended to me by the late Erle Montaigue and, more recently, Richard Norton, is the "contemplative pose" where your arms appear to be "crossed" with one hand near your lip. This is not as safe as the "palms out" posture but it is a lot less aggressive while still enabling your hands to stay above the centre sternum line (albeit with a bit less accessibility).

Other alternatives include gesticulating ("nervously" or in "exasperation", if you have to), counting with your fingers (eg. "I think there are two main things to consider here..."), scratching your head, rubbing your chin (or both!), etc. Most hand gestures involve you keeping them above the centre sternum line. Be imaginative! Remember: you don't have to be Italian or Balkan to gesticulate! Whatever you do, just keep your hands up.

Take note of the victims in the first video: how many had their hands up above the centre sternum line?

4. Look for non-verbal cues of imminent attack

A common tactic I grew up watching is that of an aggressor walking up to his/her victim, making some sort of "joke" or other (often nonsensical) statement, then looking away. The look away might seem innocent but it serves to allow the attacker to step deeper into your personal space and/or wind up for an explosive, unprovoked punch.

This "look away" is usually accompanied by a "weight shift" - a classic "tell" of an impending attack - as shown in the video below:

If someone is behaving strangely near you, whether with a "look away", weight shift or any other strange, inappropriate or confusing gesture or statement, be very, very careful – especially if they do so while moving into your personal space. Expect an attack and do the other things I've mentioned (widen the gap, raise your arms, etc.).

Take another look at the punches in the first video and see if you can spot the non-verbal cues that indicated an imminent attack. Most of the ones that erupt from nothing have some sort of "tell" beforehand – whether it is a weight shift, a glance downward, or a even a strange hand gesture. All of these are intended to distract you. How many of the victims responded to, or even seemed to notice, the "tell"? Not one.

Consider the fellow in the shop making a strange hand gesture: the victim does not even seem to notice that it is a "tell"; a subliminal partially clenched fist and a distraction from the other fist that will soon be hitting him. "Tells" like this are subconscious. Look out for them.

5. Keep your eyes on your attacker

This brings me to another, rather straightforward, but very important point: keep your eyes on your attacker!

This will not only allow you to do the obvious (ie. see any attack as it is launched) but it will also let you spot the "tells" of which I spoke above.

Consider again that fellow in the shop showing his strange hand gesture (ie. a partly clenched fist): the victim has his eyes averted, almost downwards, throughout the entire conversation.

Now have a look at the "weight shift" video above and you'll see an even more glaring example of the victim casting his eyes down.

In male dominance displays (ie. "monkey dances") this is normally a sign of submissiveness. Those who are dominated will do it subconsciously in the "hope" that the aggressor will be appeased and leave them alone.

Whatever you do, don't fall into this trap. Don't place your welfare at the mercy of your attacker - you might well find that he/she has none whatsoever! Keep your eyes on your attacker at all times.

6. Learn some defensive skill!

Last, but not least, learn some defensive skill for heaven's sake! I know I'll get the inevitable rush of responses about how "attack is the best form of defence", yada, yada. As I've noted before, if you face a surprise attack, chances are you will barely have enough time to intercept the attack – never mind hit your attacker.

Think about it: if you find yourself facing a punch – one that you couldn't "pre-empt" – you'll have maybe 50 ms to do something before a punch smashes you in the face. A strike to your attacker will take you at least 200 ms. A move from a guard to a deflection will take you 40 ms. Which one should you try?

This is why even top MMA fighters, who never use "blocks" in the cage, are occasionally seen to default to "blocks" when facing a surprise attack in a civilian defence context.

Consider Guy Mezger's successful defence of a woman who was being assaulted and note his own words:
    " He was throwing a really kind of wild punch, which I thought was a punch — I didn’t know he had a knife in his hand — and I kind of blocked it with my left and hit him with the right and knocked him out again."
Yes, Guy got a bad cut on his hand courtesy of this defence. But he didn't get killed. And the "block" was his instinctive, defensive response.

The art of deflection ("blocking") isn't "easy". You need to study it. Don't rely on your natural "flinch reaction" to throw up a "block". Learn how to do it properly; groove the angles of attack, the planes of deflection, the different ways of slipping a powerful punch or strike. Make these movements second nature.

And don't just learn how to "block". Learn how to evade as well. You can't rely on arm movements alone. If your body is moving away as your arms are moving outward, you have the best chance of not being hit. If you rely on only one and not the other, you have twice as much chance of getting hit – it's as simple as that.

Moreover, as I argued in "Surving the surprise attack", you can "buy more time" through evasion. In fact, I've found that evasion can easily double the "time to impact" (if the impact is even going to land): in other words, you can increase that 50 ms to 100 ms or even more.

You might use evasion alone to avoid the impact, but generally a punch launched in the circumstances seen in the first video is too fast and too close to be evaded completely. (Remember that it takes much more time to move your head or body than it does to move your hands, which are so densely "wired" for speed.) This is why even experienced MMA fighters like Guy Mezger can be forced to include some sort of "block" in their defence of a sudden attack in a civilian context; the "reactive" nature of the context1 and the consequent "short time" (say, 50 ms) available usually necessitates both evasion and deflection.

Now take a look at the video at the start and take notice of who does what in response to the attack. In all but two cases, the victim doesn't react at all. No "block", no "evasion". Nothing.

Yes, in two cases the victim starts to lift an arm or tries to evade, but in the rest there is barely a twitch in response to the punch. This is an absolute failure of any appropriate reflexive response – what I have called a "situational reflex blindspot". You need to make sure that you don't have such a blindspot.

And in the two cases of attempted defence (depicted above and to the left), the movement was so late, and so inadequate, that it might as well not have occurred at all (the fellow to the left has his hands up in guard but does no more than look away from the punch - instead of ducking/bobbing/weaving, and despite having his hands in a perfect protective position to deflect or block the attack).


The sort of assault depicted in the first video is, realistically, most people's main "defence nightmare". Not because it is the most serious form of assault they could possibly face: far from it. Such punches, as serious as they might be, are a far cry from an attempted murder, a gang attack, or a rape, to name just a few of the more serious violent offences.

Assaults of the kind depicted in the video are normally over in one punch; the attacker doesn't press the attack relentlessly. Yes, that one punch can even be fatal, particularly if you strike your head heavily as you fall. But in the end, it is hardly the same as facing an attacker with a knife or a gun, or multiple attackers, or anyone who intends to kill or seriously injure you (rather than throw a punch at your face as part of some dominance display).

No, it is most people's main "defence nightmare" precisely because it is the most likely to happen - particularly in the case of young men.

You can help to avoid this "nightmare" through some simple measures:

First, avoid the chest-bumping male dominance display (ie. the "monkey dance") that so often leads up to this sort of assault. Second, keep your personal space. Third, keep your hands above the centre sternum line. Fourth, look for non-verbal cues of imminent danger. Fifth, always keep your eyes on your attacker. And sixth, learn some proper defensive skills - in particular skills appropriate to civilian defence tactics (as opposed to the tactics of cage fighting or some sort of modified military assault system).1

These 6 lessons are what most ordinary folks need to observe in avoiding violence. The rest of martial arts and combat sport lore is of variable significance to them.


1. As I will discuss in a future article, due to legal and ethical/moral constraints, the tactics (as opposed to the techniques/skills and conditioning) of the cage/ring, where attack is the very aim, are profoundly unsuited to civilian defence.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, July 9, 2012

A sense of perspective: why (and how) I write this blog

Okay, so I talk a lot. I mean a lot. All my family, friends and students know this. Reading this blog, you would also know this because I write as I speak.

So we (my friends and I) laugh about it. That's the way I am, and I cannot change, any more than a leopard can change its spots. Nor do I believe I should try. As John Fowles' character "Conchis" said in "The Magus":
    "Be true to yourself".
I used to wonder what that expression meant, but in recent years I've come to understand what Fowles (speaking though his character) was trying to say: you can't be somebody you aren't. Not only would this be futile (because, logically, you can't be someone else), but it would also constitute an attempt to lie to yourself (which is also, ultimately, impossible).

That's not to say that you shouldn't try to improve yourself, the quality of your work and/or your general behaviour; we should all strive to do this. But you shouldn't bother trying to change your very nature (especially if your nature is benign).

So I'm garrulous. By contrast some people are quiet (whether shy or the strong silent type). Some people are cynical. Some are jovial, others depressive. Some have strong opinions on everything, others don't know what to think. Some people don't think too deeply, others think too much. And so it goes. In my case, I love to talk: anecdotes, jokes, philosophy, history, linguistics, astronomy, music and, of course, martial arts. In company I try not to "hog the conversation" but I will certainly fill all the "empty spaces". That's just the way I am.

So when someone recently described me on an online forum as "incredibly verbose" I had to laugh. It is true. I am. My blog posts can also seem somewhat circuitous; a bit like this one. You might well be wondering where I am heading with this essay: Is it worth reading or not? If you have the patience you will find out. If not, you'll stop reading about now. Whatever your inclination, I can promise you this: I always have a point. And I generally think it is a point worth making, otherwise I wouldn't bother writing it. I don't do things (like writing this essay) for nothing. Generally I write things that I wish I'd read somewhere years ago; that might have saved me the effort of finding these things out the hard way.

It is gratifying that, for the most part, people seem to find my blog useful in this way. The internet is truly a strange and wonderful beast. Who would have thought, even a decade ago, that a private citizen could expect to receive, each day, dozens of email messages from perfect strangers from all over the globe, providing feedback on his work? This is not to mention other messages in the form of Youtube and blog comments as well as Twitter, Facebook and online forum exchanges. I also get referred to frequently in articles and other blogs, which always surprises me. That the latter data (ie. site referrals etc.) is available, in great detail and scope, as a standard feature of Blogger and Youtube is truly astounding.

The overwhelming majority of people who contact me are polite and decent. Most are encouraging and kind, even flattering, in their remarks. Many ask questions on technical matters. Some are neutral or indifferent, seeking to clarify or correct some detail. And a very small minority are derogatory. (More about the derogatory comments in a moment.)

If I were ever at risk of getting a swollen head, these derogatory comments would be sure to prevent it. Because even if I get 10 flattering emails in a day, one nasty one is enough to make me question everything I do and consider giving it all away. I suppose that is human nature. We listen to criticism far more than praise; the former bites deep and hard while the latter can seem a bit hard to accept as even approaching the truth. That is human nature (or at least, mostly human nature – including my own). And a good thing it is too; people with swollen heads are hard to live with. And those who have them are probably suffering the negative side of the "Dunning-Kruger effect" (I know at least one such idiot, who shall go nameless but who is to poetry what Cacofonix was to music).

Generally I come back to the same "neutral" position. I am neither "hero" nor "weak as piss". Like nearly everyone on the planet, I'm somewhere in between. As a martial artist and teacher I'm just trying to do what I do – sincerely and honestly. I write about the martial arts because I'm passionate about it. I write:
  1. what I believe to be true; and
  2. what I hope to be useful – at least to somebody.
Which brings me back to "verbosity": why do I write (at least occasionally) in such a "circuitous" way? Why do I go into such exhaustive detail in relation to things others might consider "minutia"? I do so for the following reasons:

First, in my articles I will often try to present an argument that I feel hasn't been presented before. For example, my theories on civilian defence, the "melee range", the role of "blocks", the "flinch reflex", the "situational reflex", "dynamic context", "standing start drills", "string attacks", the "friction grip", why traditional martial arts feature stopping techniques at a pre-determined point etc. have all been generally "novel" – ie. I haven't seen them discussed before, at least in the way that I have wanted them to be.

And some of these issues go to the core of traditional martial arts technique. As I said to a correspondent recently, we traditional martial artists want answers to why we should do things in a particular way. If there is no good reason for, say, chambering or "corkscrewing" punches, or otherwise doing a karate punch rather than a boxer's punch, then why should we bother? I've tried to answer these questions; questions that are common to most traditional martial artists. In so doing, I feel I've come up with some interesting, perhaps novel, analyses.

So in order to explain these novel analyses I simply must to go into detail – otherwise they will be easily dismissed with a few offhand remarks. It takes a while to describe a new concept. It might even require the use of "new terms", which I have done from time to time. An example is my use of the term "melee range" (which I note has been part of video game programmers' language for a long time, indicating that there is probably a need for the expression anyway!). I have however used "new terms" sparingly because, like many people, I dislike jargon for its own sake. (On this issue, I do not agree that expressions like "dynamic context" are jargonistic - I use such terms to mean what they already mean. I note also that criticism of me in this regard comes from those whose arts are chock-full of jargon.)

Put simply, I don't want my sincere and considered arguments, formed after decades of diligent study, "lumped" with some other flawed reasoning.

It doesn't matter if people disagree with me; I just don't want to be dismissed lightly as this has the potential to void my considerable effort almost entirely. To circumvent this as much as possible I have to differentiate my arguments from similar-sounding, yet different, statements that others have made in the past. This requires detail.

Second, the internet is an interesting place; you typically get put to proof on every single point you make. It's not like writing a book, where the interval between writing the book and reading a review about it can be in the order of years. Online writing is capable of almost immediate response – and challenge.

I try to address any challenges in advance. If I didn't, the articles would be shorter, but I'd have my comments section full to the brim with demands for supporting evidence and, more worryingly, arguments that misapprehend my thesis and raise fallacious objections.

As galling as it might be to see my careful, considered and hard-wrought arguments casually (and spuriously) dismissed in online debate, at least I know that I've done all that I could to make my case. I can't help the fact that some people will disagree anyway, as is their prerogative (they might also be right!). I can't help that others might misunderstand my argument, take offence at something I haven't actually said, or otherwise fail to read what I've written (at least properly or completely).

And if I haven't addressed an issue or evidence a point, or if I'm just plain wrong about something, I can always come back and fix it (which I frequently do). I'm not averse to changing my opinion or admitting I was wrong. If you look up my forum exchanges online, you'll find many examples of this.

Third, I think that details and "minutia" count. And understanding the physics , philosophy and morality underpinning what we do is, I believe, a necessary part of the process of our own progress and empowerment.

Last, but not least, there is the question of how I choose (and am, in some respects, forced!) to write:

I don't sit down and plan each essay meticulously. Rather, I write in one, continuous stream of consciousness – from start to finish (or, if I'm interrupted, separate sittings where I take up the stream of this "one-sided conversation" where it left off). Mostly, I don't go back. I don't rewrite. I don't edit. I write exactly what I'm thinking as I'm thinking it. This essay is a prime example. I'm making it up as I go along. Right at the end I'll read through the whole thing and see if it makes sense. I might re-arrange some paragraphs or put in some headings. But mostly I don't do much other than correct typographical errors.

This is the way I've written every single essay/article in this blog. Any appearance of "structural planning" is illusory. If the essay is tightly written it is because my thoughts were especially well-ordered before I put my fingers on the keyboard. If I ramble a bit with anecdotes (eg. "Attack, attack, attack" and "My unlikely relationship with the jian"), get too philosophical or obtuse (eg. "Memories of Taiwan: Third Eye Blind" or "Mathematical dimensions and martial arts analysis") or otherwise introduce too many topics in one essay (eg. when I had to split "Forms: their core purpose" and "Sine wave vs. the core purpose of forms" into two different essays), then my thoughts were, obviously, less well-ordered.

However, at no stage do I concede that my essays aren't "thought out" in the broader sense of having a cogent argument/statement to make. I have a good idea of the basis of each essay before I begin. I just don't plan the writing part of it. I do that bit spontaneously.

In some cases, the result has been less than ideal. On the other hand, some of the best compliments I have ever received have been in relation to "less-structured" essays (eg. "Memories of Taiwan: the calligraphy master". That is the beauty of the "stream of consciousness" writing method. It can produce duds, but it can also produce gems (albeit "rough" ones that could do with some polishing).

I could write another whole essay (see – I'm tempted to get side-tracked!) on how "stream of consciousness writing" taps into your lateral or thinking or "right brain" – the creative side. I could refer you to Dorothea Brand (see "Becoming a Writer") and the work of Jack Kerouac , both who have influenced me greatly in this regard. Creativity isn't logical. It arises laterally, intuitively. Editing (the logical "left brain") is necessary, but it just tidies things up. The real genesis of creating something unique arises from the creative "right brain".

Frankly, I have enough "left brain", logical editing in my "day job". As a legislative writer, up to 10 hours of my day is made up of double-checking, pruning lines, rewriting and more rewriting; agonising over every single word and punctuation mark. So when night falls, work and training are done, the family is tucked into bed and I creep to the computer to write another blog post, I don't feel like doing the same "logic thing" all over again. You could call it "laziness", but I call it "a need to explore my creative side". In my personal writing I like to have a freer rein. I'm tired of cold, hard logic and its editorial intrusion.

But the main reason I write in the way that I do is really quite simple: it comes down to the small matter of time.

As Blaise Pascal famously put it:
    "I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter."
I have always taken this phrase to make perfect sense, but I am amazed by the number of people who "just don't get" what Pascal was talking about. Let me explain:

In my "day job", I know only too well how hard it is to get something to be both (a) accurate and complete; and (b) concise – never mind elegant – at the same time. It is relatively easy for someone to write 8,000 words on a topic. But to say the same thing in 4,000 words is much, much harder. To do so in 2,000 words constitutes art. To do so in a couple of lines requires genius. This is why I admire the writing of my (now good friend) Jorge Morales-Santo Domingo. If you haven't read his blog "Memories of a Nidan" and other writings, then do yourself a favour and start today. His is the epitome of succinct, elegant, meaningful writing; the essence of poetry.

Sadly, I am not Jorge. And while it is possible for me to write shorter, terser and "to-the-point" essays (that would still fall short of Jorge's brilliance), I typically choose not to do so here. Why? First, as I have stated, I don't have the inclination to do so. But more importantly, I don't have the time.

As I've previously stated, I don't do this martial writing for a living. It isn't even my "main hobby". I don't have the luxury of hours upon hours to "plan" anything. Instead, my time for writing these entries is "stolen" – usually from sleep, but sometimes from time with my family. This "stolen time" is comparatively little: too little for me to make the essays and articles any "shorter" than they are.

I approach my videos in the same way: most are filmed during ordinary class time. Some are filmed afterwards when I'm already late for dinner. They aren't scripted and they aren't choreographed.

The net effect is a compromise. Of course it is. The articles and videos aren't what I would ideally want to produce. But it is a compromise I can live with. Why? Because the material still serves its purpose: to record information and knowledge that I have acquired in over 3 decades of continuous training so that it might be used by:
  1. my students; and
  2. possibly, someone else.
If I didn't feel the material served that purpose, I wouldn't produce it. And of course I can also live with the compromise simply because I know that this is the only way I could realistically produce anything – on the run, with no planning and little editing. This is our "modern life"; we have marvellous technology and hardly any time to explore its full use.

Unfortunately we also live in an "Information Age", when attention spans are short and a sense of entitlement to free information is very high. I certainly provide my information for free (not that I have anything against selling information anyway – I just haven't "got my shit together" to make a living out of martial writing/filming, and maybe I never will!). But from the negative comments that I get, it seems I often fail to fulfil the second part of the modern expectation: instant accessibility.

So we come back to my "verbosity" again. As I've acknowledged, I allow myself a little self-indulgence in writing and filming; it would be disingenuous of me to claim otherwise. But on the whole I think my blog and videos fulfil their primary brief.

What they don't do is make it easy. As much as it is true to say that I could write shorter, terser, more disciplined essays, it is equally true to say that many who find me "verbose", "too complicated" or "too theoretical" are very likely "irritated" by the simple fact that I haven't provided my (free) information in bite-sized Twitter chunks. They are annoyed that they might actually have to read something a bit longer and more detailed; that they might, for a change, actually have to think for themselves.

Well I'm not going to give them that. As Robert A Heinlein put it: "Tanstaafl." There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. I might be willing to give what I know freely. But I'm not spoon-feeding people.

Those of my generation and older can easily remember the days when seeing a particular kata or technique meant going to the public library and browsing the shelves, or going to your sensei, or another sensei, or paying a lot of money to fly to a distant part of the world to train with someone who might, or might not, show it to you. The accessibility of information today makes many people think they born with an entitlement to it; that the someone, somewhere "owes" it to them to make the information available now and for free and in a form that they would ideally prefer.

In other words, the internet has spawned a new phenomenon that I would never have imagined even a decade ago: the psychology of "entitlement to knowledge" – including knowledge paid for by others over decades – not just monetarily, but with blood, sweat and tears. This is the height of arrogance.

I once had someone write in about one of my videos – the one concerning "internal" karate movement. The particular video (embedded below) features the "xingyi drop step" of which I've written so much lately, but done in karate's sanchin stance. The fellow wrote in the comments for that video, asking:
    "Could you please make a video explaining how to master that footwork step by step."
This is precisely the sort of "you owe me a better free video – now!" mentality to which I'm referring.

Nor have I been immune from this phenomenon:

In around 2005 I pestered a senior martial arts practitioner (who I'd only just met but who is now my good friend and Chen Pan Ling brother) to show me a particular, rare, white crane form. He said: "You do realise that it cost me over $2,000 to learn this form?" (he'd had to travel to Japan to study it). I said I only wanted to see it performed - not to learn it.

Despite obvious reservations, he proceeded to demonstrate it. And I began to realise the point of his reservations. Actually, as I watched I felt ashamed. What right had I to any of his hard-sought and expensive knowledge? Did I even have the right to ask for a "demonstration"? I had fallen into the same "entitlement mentality" which I've just discussed.

I've lost count of the number of people who haven't justed asked but demanded things of me – for example that I "reshoot" a particular Youtube video from a "better angle" or "in better lighting" etc. It's as if they had paid for a video and weren't happy with the product.

I'm also reminded of the "Dunning-Kruger" idiot "poet" who I mentioned previously; he recently asked me the same (basic) technical question for the hundredth time. And I patiently re-explained it to him. He abruptly stood up, pointed his index finger at me and declared angrily: "You know, that's the first time you've ever explained it in a way that made sense to me!" I see. So it was my fault that this (commonly available) knowledge hadn't gotten into his head? What cheek!

The arrogance climbs to new heights when it takes the form of accusations of "unnecessary complexity", "apolgoism" or "obessions with trivia".

Naturally, I don't agree that I make concepts about which I write "difficult". They just are. I might not fit someone else's paradigm of "making it all simple", but I really don't care. Martial science isn't simple - at least not in the way some would wish. Those who would accuse me of being "unnecessarily complex" are people who I accuse of being simplistic.

What irks me the most is when one of these people goes on to accuse me of "poor technique". My most recent video is a case in point:

I filmed the video with the intention of writing an article about the function of "basic" kata - in particular the "hard" and "linear" kata known as heian shodan or pinan nidan (in our school "fukyugata ichi"). I wanted to show why they are important repositories of knowledge, even if they don't appear to be, in almost any sense, "practical" at first glance. The idea came to me during "kitchen training":

I had just read an article on stem cells and their ability to develop into any specialised cell. Doing the opening movements of heian shodan / fukyugata ichi very slowly made me realise the potential for these movements to be adapted to practically any context.

Of course, much of this would not have been apparent from the video I posted. The video wasn't planned, as I've previously discussed. It was shot from the sidelines that night during my lesson.

Rather than wonder whether I had some sort of point to make, one young martial artist, Marius, had this to say:
    "I was fascinated at first with all your articles. But it seems to me that all your theory and talking, has gotten in the way of effecient good techniques. You can debate back and forth for eterntiy. But at one point you have to chose to dedicate yourself to a way of training, and perfect that. You dont even execute gedan barai correctly."
Now I think I understand Marius' "beef":

First, he was annoyed at my "verbosity" and "complexity". And I get that. As I've said, I know that I can get bogged down in detail that interests me (but might not interest others). Maybe this was one such circumstance. Had Marius expressed his statement in this sort of way I would have accepted it as valid constructive criticism, however he didn't.

Instead he went on to note his second objection: He felt that I had demonstrated poor technique - that I didn't even know how to "execute a gedan barai correctly"; that this was attributable to my lack of "dedication".

It is at this point that I lost any patience with this fellow. In his arrogance and ignorance he had assumed something about me which was totally unfounded and deeply insulting:

First, I know only too well what a gedan barai is. I wasn't purporting to demonstrate gedan barai (a circular downward movement found in goju ryu and other Naha te systems) but the more basic gedan uke - a linear block found in shotokan and shorin ryu generally. Of course, this subtlety was totally lost on him. He leapt to a conclusion about my "poor technique", basing it entirely on his own lack of knowledge of the basics of different karate styles. This has all the hallmarks of the "Information Age" psychology of which I spoke previously; Marius is so caught up in his own "sense of entitlement" to information that he has forgotten the basic courtesy one should extend to perfect strangers who are not impinging on one's rights in any way.

In case Marius ever reads this, my discussions concerning gedan barai are well documented. I have even covered it in a specific "back to basics" article. I have made at least 4 videos specifically addressing gedan barai. I include a couple below:

My gedan barai, gedan uke, or any other technique is far from perfect. But it isn't "weak as piss" either (to quote another infamous troll). But mostly, I take grave umbrage at the suggestion that I haven't dedicated myself to my study; that I haven't paid my dues over 30 years of blood, sweat and tears; that I'm not paying those dues even now as I work through pain to do ordinary movements.

However in the end I accept Marius' point. I do have room for improvement. I could be less obtuse, less philosophical, less self-indulgent. I should do so even though it is my blog, written as a kind of "running note" to myself. Why should I do this? Because I do care about my readers and I do care about producing something that is useful to them, in particular those who are my students.

So I will take on board Marius' criticism. However that does not mean I will let Marius off the hook; he is blocked from my Youtube and Twitter accounts. If I could block him from this blog, I would. I would do this for one simple reason: I will not abide rudeness.

What Marius and others like him don't seem to realise is that the internet does not give you licence to "talk" to people in a way that that you wouldn't talk to them if you met them face to face. This is very easy to forget when you're just another Youtube user who hides under the veil of (at least partial) anonymity. In human discourse, rudeness is rudeness - there is no "separate standard" for the internet. I have no reason to tolerate someone who would abuse me, albeit across the internet all the way from Norway. But I can still take something positive from his remarks: the need to make my material accessible.

So I will continue to write this blog, and prepare the videos, as I presently do. Some articles/videos will be more useful than others. Some of my arguments and conclusions will certainly be flawed, at least in some respects. But I will try to avoid this, just as I will try to make them a little less self-indulgent and a little more relevant. In other words, I will try to improve my "product".

Has this essay been worth reading? If you were expecting some martial information, almost certainly not. But if you were at all curious how this blog is written and why, I hope it has filled you in. And if you are the type who thinks that the internet gives you some special entitlement to:
  1. get information for free; and
  2. stop thinking for yourself; and
  3. be rude to others,
then maybe it will give you pause to consider. I certainly wished I had read something like this before I so arrogantly demanded the demonstration of that kata back in 2005. It might have given me the sense of perspective I now enjoy having written this blog for more than 4 years. (There - I've finally justified the heading to this essay!)

If, on the other hand, you see this essay as just another annoying self-indulgent rant on my part, then remember: I said I'd try to improve. I didn't say I'd get there straight away. And it's still my blog. ;)

Stream of conscousness over.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Elbow locks: an introduction


In writing my preceding article "The ikkyo projection", I became aware of need to address the (rather basic) question: "How should one go about locking an opponent's elbow"?

Elbow locks are among the most common techniques in grappling - both in standup and ground fighting. Please note that in this article I'll be covering the type of elbow lock is commonly known as an "arm bar" - ie. a simple hyperextension of the elbow. I'll cover more elaborate twists of the elbow, eg. the "kimura" or "figure 4", another time.

Furthermore, in this article I don't propose to analyse ground fighting, at least to any great extent. My primary purpose here is to write an adjunct to my previous article which relates to controlling your opponent's elbow in standup fighting. However I think it goes without saying that the basic principles I cover here are equally applicable both in standup and ground fighting.

So what are the ways in which one can lock an elbow? I'll start with the weakest and move to the strongest.

Locking an elbow by a wrist twist

In theory, you can lock a person's elbow straight using only a twist of his or her the wrist. This can be achieved by pulling your opponent's arm straight and turning it over so that it is "elbow up". The important part to locking the elbow from the wrist comes next; a simultaneous twist and a bend to the wrist so that the fingers point towards the elbow (and are being turned anti-clockwise, as illustrated in the adjacent image).

But this is one of the most difficult small joint locks to effect.

As a matter of interest, the only way I have ever ended up in this sort of situation is when a preceding lock has fed into it (ie. where the line of least resistance / best escape makes your opponent pull his/her arm straight into this sort of "elbow locked from wrist" position"). At the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts we have incorporated this principle into our sanseiru tuide lock flow drill as depicted below:

Our sanseiru tuide lock flow

Locking an elbow with palm/hand assistance

It's also possible to effect a elbow lock by pressing your palm into the "sweet spot" just above your elbow. Indeed, this is commonly done by many aikidoka.

What's wrong with this? Well, firstly it requires incredible precision with your hand; the small surface area of your palm (relative to, say, your forearm which can slide up or down to "capture" the "sweet spot") is very unforgiving of error. I can't tell you how many times I tried to apply an arm bar with my palm under the pressure of hard sparring, only to find my hand slipping/glancing off.

But the worst is yet to come. You see, most of the time, using your palm to effect an arm bar is simply too weak!

If you doubt me, try this simple exercise: have an uke grab your wrist. Then try to lever him or her into an arm bar using your arm, with the uke resisting the moment the arm bar is applied. The first thing you'll notice is that the uke will be pulling his or her arm back. You won't have a totally straight arm by the time you get your supporting hand/forearm into position behind the elbow. What you will have is an arm that is slightly bent – and is in the process of being bent even more! In other words, you have the task of reversing the momentum.

Now I doggedly preserved with the notion of using my palm/hand to apply pressure behind the elbow to straighten it. Somehow I always defaulted to using the forearm under pressure. Then after about 20 years of persistence the penny finally dropped. I wasn't "cheating" by using my forearm; it was the only realistic way to get sufficient force behind the technique!

Let me put it this way: In order to get the necessary force, you have to put your whole body into the technique. This means your body has to be "up close and personal". That is what grappling is all about. You can't grapple at arm's length. You have to be "hip to hip" (as the B52s used to say). On its own this factor is sufficient to make the "palm-assisted" elbow lock ineffective; the latter simply puts too much distance between you and your opponent.

Locking an elbow with forearm assistance

My next comment should come as no surprise; the most effective way to lock an elbow straight under pressure is to get up close and put your whole body into it – using a forearm to do so. It is not only powerful, but the larger surface area is more forgiving, allowing small last-moment corrections without the risk of slipping off.

I don't know why it took me so long to realise this, given that forearm-assisted arm bars are common place in taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan – the "soft" or "internal" arts of China. Never once have I see an palm/hand used to assist elbow straightening. Ditto with the pragmatic external art of karate. I could show you literally thousands of examples and variations, but I'll settle for just one – our shisochin tuide lockflow which has a variety of forearm-assisted elbow locks:

Our shisochin tuide lock flow

Locking an elbow using your tricep or armpit ("wakki gatame")

Another alternative is to let your opponent's elbow slip under you armpit. In this case you lever against the elbow mostly using your tricep. This lock is called "wakki gatame".

It is slightly less forceful than the forearm press, but it is arguably more stable and secure.

A drill where I show the use of the "wakki gatame" - locking the elbow under the armpit

Furthermore, it is possible to slip from a forearm-assisted elbow lock to the wakki gatame; there are even locks which straddle "in between" - see the video below at 0:15 where you can use the very top of your elbow to press down onto the "sweet spot" behind your opponent's elbow:

From our seiunchin tuide lock flow: note the pressure on the uke's elbow is exerted by the top of the defender's elbow, not his forearm or his tricep/armpit

Locking an elbow using your body ("juji gatame"), legs or other body part

Elbow locks that utilise the body or legs constitute a massive topic all to itself - one that moves heavily into ground fighting strategy.

The primary technique to which I will refer is called "juji nage". Essentially it is performed by holding the elbow between your legs at your tanden/tantien (at the front of your hips) and levering your opponent's arm downwards (little finger towards your body) with both of your arms, while pushing upwards with your hips. In my experience this is by far the strongest, most secure elbow lock of all.

Variations on the theme include the "flying armbar", the "helicopter armbar" and "sankaku gatame". If you want a quick run-down take a look at the wikipedia entry on this subject.


In fact there are so many variations to each of the above elbow locks that it is almost impossible to list them.

While the juji gatame is "king" of the ground-based elbow locks, I hold it to be self-evident that the forearm-assisted version (followed closely by wakki gatame) is "king" of standup elbow locks.

At the very bottom of the practicality scale come the palm-assisted and wrist-twist elbow locks. Why? Because they require pinpoint precision and timing and are largely unforgiving of error. Although I know some practitioners who can pull them off, I wouldn't expect to do so against a resistant, determined and strong opponent. Accordingly I would advise against relying on them for civilian defence. However this is not to say that they won't ever be useful or that they should not be studied! After all, for many (most?) people today, martial arts is a lot more that just "civilian defence".

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic