Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hammers, Screwdrivers and Pliers

This morning I was teaching a lesson that focused on empty hands, my goal being to show applications based on Serrada’s weapon techniques. Midway through the class the student expressed frustration at learning a lot of things, saying he preferred to get just one. Now I don’t disagree with this, since one good move is better than a lot of poorly executed ones, but the guy was confusing himself by trying to make everything a memorized pattern to fit specific situations, which is rather contrary to how I see the art or teach it.

This fellow is an old-school karate guy in the true sense of the meaning. He’s about a dozen years older than me and was probably churning out kicks and punches when I was still a toddler. On the other hand he probably hasn’t trained since about the time I began getting serious about this stuff, which would be, oh, around 35 years ago (yikes!) On the one hand I give him credit for knowing a fair amount, but then I see his sticking points, where half-remembered techniques of yesteryear freeze him up in the moment. He’s a physically powerful guy; the challenge is to keep him focused in the moment.

Anyway, we were analyzing the cross block, which is where we deflect an attack to our left side, right side forward, with our weapon or lead hand angled downward and the check hand crossed underneath. From there, as the check hand controls the opponent’s arm we were doing a raking downward backfist (or chop) to the bicep (as opposed to the neck) and then a short straight punch to the solar plexus. One variation of a finish from there was to close in and trap the head with the left while delivering a smash with the right elbow. It’s a nice, short explosive combination but he was over-thinking it and freezing up. I was trying to get him to relax and see how the moves flow from one position to the next logical available target.

It was at this point that I came up with a new analogy. I asked if the guy did home repair and if he had a toolbox, to both of which he answered affirmatively, so I surmised that he probably knows the difference between a hammer, screwdriver and pliers. Again hearing confirmation, I then said that he probably would not be confused as to which he’d need for any particular task, to which he also agreed. Here I drew the analogy, calling the bicep strike a hammer, the short punch a screwdriver, and the head smash pliers. He immediately got the message.

I then asked if philips head screwdrivers were better than slot head screwdrivers, making the point that neither is better, but each is the proper tool for a particular job. So it is with punches. A twist punch is neither better nor worse than a straight punch; each has suitable applications though there can be overlap in choice.

Since he got this too, I then described the technique as a work project, where different tools might be needed along various stages of the process. Rather than pre-determining what tools he might need at any moment, I suggested that he dip into the toolbox at any point to get the one needed right then.

Sometimes martial arts seem such a mysterious and confusing whirlwind. Usually that’s because the vision is too tightly focused and cannot see the forest for the trees. I had already described applications of several punches, each of which basically used the elbow to create a defense against a counter while attacking. You may recognize this as the JKD principle of an intercepting fist. By seeing them as similar, not unlike a slot or philips screwdriver, it becomes easier to focus on the main idea of hitting the target while simply integrating the angle of the arm for protection.

In this case using the toolbox analogy brought some clarity to seeing options. With the three basic tools of hammer, screwdriver and pliers we are either smashing, drilling or squishing a target. The most important thing is to see the “what” while being flexible and adaptive about the “how.” I constantly reinforce the mindset of being “target oriented” - see the target, hit the target. How you do it is a variable, and training should teach us how to use our tools and why they fit certain situations. Correctly understood, this should lead to efficiency because one learns to strike quickly with any opportunity rather than wasting time and motion trying to find some position that might distant or unavailable. Again using JKD philosophy, it’s using the most direct weapon to the closest target.

It is said that speed cannot be coached. However there is raw linear speed and then there is adaptive speed, which includes the mental triggers that initiate timing and control motion. Watch a world-class sprinter sometime. Everything propels him forward towards his goal. The arms pump straight ahead and back; rocking them side-to-side is less efficient and unbalanced and will cost the runner time in races that are measured to 1/1000 of a second.

It is the same with fighters. A good fighter may see someone draw back an elbow to throw a haymaker, and respond by shooting a jab straight forward. It isn’t necessary that the fighter be faster than his opponent, though it may appear that way to onlookers. Simply by being more efficient at identifying the threat and responding, he is quicker to the target though not necessarily moving at greater physical speed. When we know how to use our tools, we don’t spend as much time thinking about those choices. When we know how to use a greater variety of tools, that opens our creativity.


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