A common problem for people learning martial arts is that they tend to rush techniques, as though the goal is to get finished as fast as possible. However, each move in the overall technique is as important a step as any other. Think of martial arts more like dancing than a race. Timing is important and one can be too fast as well as too slow. Arts like Kenpo are based on knowing how an opponent will react to a strike, using each blow to set up the next. If you execute your next move before your opponent gets there, you will won’t hit the target because it isn’t there, or at best, hit it at a sub-optimal angle or with less power than intended.
This kind of delayed setup is less common in arts like Escrima because we are using weapons and targeting limbs, both of which call for speed and precision. This does not negate the importance of timing, just speeds it up a bit, since arms in particular tend to be more mobile than body shots. What remains constant, however, is the importance of completing hits to intended targets.
There is a built-in dichotomy in the dynamic of hitting between the need for focus and the desire for smoothness and flow. In a sense this mirrors the two sides of the coin between stances and footwork. One is a snapshot in time, the other a diagram giving directions between those points. The points are important because they show us what happens at certain moments, highlighting key structures in a framework. Without knowing how to connect those points, though, we only have gibberish. It’s like those children’s puzzles with numbered dots on a page, where we learned to draw lines from one to the next to reveal the picture. Thus the flow is how the story is told, the dots the details that define its parameters.
Arts that are more linear, like many karate styles, tend to focus on those dots - this stance at the moment of impact with this strike – and so students tend to lock themselves into these structures. On the other hand, arts that emphasize flow tend to have nice movement but lack intensity at the point of impact, either whipping through the strike (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) or simply overlooking the value of a good hit because the mind doesn’t catch that precise moment. This is the issue at hand. What is needed is a balance between the two.
Bruce Lee described it well, calling a punch a “rock at the end of a rope.” The idea is to remain relaxed, loose and flowing until a split second before impact, and then focus all that power into a split second. It’s like injecting your energy into the opponent with hypodermic-like precision. Another analogy would be cracking a whip, which is why training with this weapon is useful. It is fluid all the time, but at the exact moment it cracks, there is an ear popping conversion of energy that cracks the sound barrier.
In Escrima we place a high premium on flow, because we have to contend with the speed with which weapons can move and change direction. We also emphasize looking ahead with our need to monitor for the next incoming attack. These same positive qualities, however, can create the negative downside of missing opportunities to deliver a strong attack of our own. We cannot be so forward-looking that we bypass the openings that appear for us; it is imperative to stay mindful in the present moment.
The other day in class I realized an analogy for what we are trying to do. Our skill is like shooting a gun. We cannot pass two bullets down the barrel at the same time. We shoot, then we shoot again. Each shot has recoil that we must absorb and control. Having recovered our equilibrium, we then re-target and squeeze the trigger, controlling the mechanical balance of the gun up to the point of the bullet firing, then once again recovering our control. If we don’t focus our moves, it is like waving a gun around aimlessly. If we don’t take our strikes to the target, it’s like aiming and not pulling the trigger. If we look ahead without finishing what we are doing in that exact moment, we fail to deliver payload to target.
Think of this like a laser-guided missile. Once we see our target, we need to lock on and focus to the point of impact. Then, while we are recovering from our recoil, we are identifying and targeting our next opportunity. In fact, think of each move as an opportunity to be exploited, not just some vague motion through which to pass. Boxers use the term “stick and move” to describe a hit-and-run strategy. Even if we are holding our ground, our hands have to do this. The fluidity is not stopping to admire what we’ve done, or having so much tunnel vision that we don’t see where we need to go next.
The final analogy is like driving a car. If the light is red, we stop; if it’s green, we go through. We don’t stop at each green light to look ahead for the next, so if we miss a target or don’t have one, we keep going. If we hit a red light, we don’t just roll, it is a specific point of attention on the roadway. In our case, think of red as “condition red,” that point of cumulative action where we pull the trigger before green-lighting to move on.