Normally I practice with a natural flow, keeping tight but exploring how things like footwork, body angle and alignment, weight distribution, etc. all are components that contribute to the outcome of any specific phase of an encounter. In other words, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
I decided this morning to break my movement down to the lowest common denominator, stripping techniques down to the absolute minimum. I used two tools in this exercise. First was a blade; specifically one made for me by Sonny Umpad. It was playing with this that got me into a creative space, feeling the balance, hearing the “swoosh” through the air.
The second tool was a mirror. Live time feedback, how we did it before video. Great for checking alignment, seeing what others would see. Just don’t fall in love with your own image …
Here’s the exercise: stand in front of the mirror; fine-tune your best alignment with that “opponent”. Do each movement of a technique extremely mechanistically, as tight and minimalist as possible. Don’t worry about speed; that always comes with familiarity. This is about precision, identifying start and stop points, how to get from one to the other as efficiently as possible.
Kung-fu practitioners talk about tendon strength as being more important than muscles. That's because their elasticity can generate a powerful pop in striking, but puts great stress on these connective tissues. Muscles grow and increase strength faster, making one look and feel strong, buta danger is if one part of the system overwhelms another. A possible sign of steroid use is when bulked up athletes constantly tweak tendons and joints, which have not yet caught up in development. It takes time to handle as much power as one can generate, so don't rush and risking injury.
Make each movement a “snap”; just go from touch at one point - SNAP – to touch at the next point. Don’t worry yet about trying to string it together, just feel each snap. The whole body should move together as one, every part doing what it should do, going where it needs to be. It’s a bit choppy at first, but it defines your tightest options within the technique.
Example: On a Serrada inside block there are essentially five moves: parry, counterstrike, hit under the arm, hit over the arm, lock (en garde) position. Each of these movements has an apex in time, where the energy of that move completes itself and begins turning into the next. This is the moment of impact where a blow discharges energy. Too many people think past that to the follow through, but that is relative, depending on many factors including the design of your technique.
I’ll postulate a theorum here: The least amount of movement necessary at the end of the chain has the most control. Everything preceding the strike – root, foundation, trunk, branches and stems – has done everything to maximize the potential at the end, so there is less final adjustment and therefore a finer degree of tuning. More like a bullet than a boomerang ;)
Back to the exercise …. So I’m practicing using the target in the mirror and I start picking up a distinct rhythm as I’m linking together the snaps in a technique (specifically an inside block for angle #1, a tip-up defense common to most systems). The first move snaps hard and rebounds to the next position, which cuts with a slower tempo. An inside block would start as a parry/counter in snap/cut timing. In Serrada our next moves would be to cut under and then over the arm, so that’s the next snap/cut pair. It’s important, especially on this one, not to skimp past the first impact point (snapping upward into the arm) just to get to the next. It isn’t a race, it’s about being effective, so each move gets dialed in.
Why is this important? Well, besides making each strike potent in its own right, it also allows us the versatility to respond more effectively to unexpected changes. Having a good base means having resources available. If your base is weak, you are fighting yourself as well as an opponent.
To continue the exercise, there are now two phases, to which we’ll add a third. The first phase is snapping to each move individually to dial it in. The second phase is snap/cut in pairs. The third phase is turning the in-between transition points into snap-cut combos. In our inside block, we would now look at the counterstrike/upward cut as the snap/cut, and then the downward chop and lock position as the next snap/cut.
Each sub-pattern within the larger framework becomes more focused, utilizing more sudden “shock power.” Now with a sense of continuity between each of these points, begin doing triplets. This would be parry/counter/upward cut, then the forward spin cut/abanico/turn-and-check (the last 3 – abanico, turn, check) are all components of returning to our lock (en garde) position.
Can we just snap each and every hit? Probably, but will it be targetted well enough to be effective or just a flurry of motion? Eventually our patterns become so ingrained they are natural and unconscious, and that kind of tight, focused speed comes from an inward sense of touch and balance; proprioceptive qualities.
A whole technique should be strong in all components. What you don’t see (or know or understand) CAN hurt you, which is why every detail in techniques is important. These are the elements that comprise the polishing process. If we want to have longevity in the arts, eliminating mindless errors minimizes careless injuries. The best techniques don't just strike an enemy, they protect us internally as well. Deepening our self-understanding elevates our process on multiple levels. We may never use everything we practice in a real situation, but the better our attributes, the more we improve our chances.