Metaphors are awesome ways to teach students the essence of combat concepts. Teaching a technique to handle a specific attack is ‘giving them a fish’. Teaching someone how to apply that technique to various applications is ‘teaching them how to fish with a rod and reel’. Teaching them the essence of those defenses and counters is teaching them ‘the essence of fishing’ so they can make it work without buying a rod and reel.
1. Fights Are Hostile Conversations
At their essence, fights are conversations. Conversations where one or both parties have hostile aggression. If you step in the ring, both parties have agreed that ‘I want to avoid getting hit and beat you down’ is the story to play out. A street fight could be like that, but we can choose for it to be different and that difference represents opportunity. There’s usually an aggressor who starts it and a non-aggressor. The aggressor may seek to pick a fight, inciting the other person to fight because the aggressor wants to show dominance or just likes fighting. The aggressor might be a bully seeking to vent their frustrations on an easy target or someone forcing quick compliance with a mugging or some other bad purpose. Whatever their reason to start a fight, we have some choices in how we respond.
If the non-aggressor doesn’t want to fight, then its a hostile conversation between two parties who want different things. The aggressor wishes to damage, dominate or force compliance and the non-aggressor wishes to get out of the fight unharmed and get on with their day. Yes, I know I’ve just restated what every martial arts school tells students: ‘Don’t start fights. Do what you have to do to defend yourself, then leave.’ The interesting part is what choices are available. Except for an ambush or sneak attack, many fights actually start with verbal aggression and posturing as prelude. That’s why learning to handle yourself verbally, establishing personal space and assertive body language are so important in avoiding fights. When you establish that you are not an easy target, many physical fights just don’t happen.
Most people regard ‘self defense’ as code for ‘dodge, block, then strike the aggressor until they can’t fight you’. It’s so generally accepted that few think to examine that assumption. Some teach that you should do the minimum damage necessary to get away and others teach that you should go all out if threatened. Either way, there’s an implied assumption that we have to block, dodge or duck the aggressor’s attacks because they are wrong, and then try to stop them by being faster and more aggressive in response. Certainly you getting hit is wrong, but does that make every attack itself wrong?
2. We Don’t Always Need to Oppose An Attack
Here’s the radical idea. What if we don’t oppose what the attacker is doing? Whether you jump out of the way or do a hard block, you are essentially rejecting an attack, implicitly asking them to keep trying. They’ll keep attacking until they hit you or you hit them hard enough for one of you to dominate. It becomes a game of who’s faster, stronger, more agile and has better striking technique. Sometimes we can accomplish the end goal without rejecting every attack.
One of the concepts I teach is the ability to receive attacker energy. We can’t control other people, only ourselves. When you dodge attacks or block hard, you’re telling the attacker ‘that’s not working, try something else’. Instead of rejecting every attack until we can hit them back, sometimes we can reach out and receive the attacker energy and use that to help put the attacker down. The beauty of this concept is 4-fold:
- If you don’t dodge or oppose attack A, then it will take longer for an attacker to realize it’s not working and throw attacks B, C & D.
- The harder they attack, the more an attacker’s own energy will turn back on them or drive them into the ground.
- The harder they attack, the bigger of an opening they will hand you when their attack slips by.
- Receiving attacks instead of opposing them is easier to do successfully, especially if you’re smaller, lighter or slower than the aggressor.
I’m emphasizing this point because I don’t think it gets enough attention in martial arts instruction. I think everyone knows that there are cases where you need to “go with the flow” before turning the tables on an attacker. There are flowy martial arts and more aggressive martial arts, but I’m suggesting something more like a mix than one or the other. Aikido for example is all flow, but it takes a really long time to be effective. One of the most flowy guys I’ve met is a karate master who developed it from experience, not from kata or karate drills. There’s a time and place to dodge, block, disrupt or strike an attacker to stop their ability to attack, but receiving attacker energy allows you to transform the timing and energy in a fight to resolve it quicker and easier. I’ll do my best to explain with words below, but I’m posting a video soon to show what it looks like in application against full power.
3. An Attack is a Gift if You Know How to Receive It
Developing an ability to feel attacker intent is important. The Wing Chun concept Chi Sao means contact sensitivity. As applied to combat, it means that when we are touching an opponent, it’s possible to feel the intent and commitment of attacks, sometimes before they even launch an attack. In dance, it allows a girl to perfectly follow whatever a guy leads to her (and vice versa) as he follows the music. It’s no surprise that Bruce Lee was an expert dancer as well as martial artist because it’s another way to cultivate contact sensitivity and feel. Developing an ability to quickly get a read on an attacker allows us to feel intent, power, direction and respond without conscious intervention.
4. Receive Whatever They Are Giving You
Instead of viewing an attack as a problem, consider it just a thing. Whether it’s a punch or a kick or a grab or a tackle, it’s energy coming at you. If you can connect to that energy, you can redirect it so it passes by without hitting its intended target. The energy has to go somewhere if you don’t stop it. Doing so will create vulnerable openings to strike the attacker. Sometimes we can even accelerate the attack so it puts the attacker right into the ground. The trick is to learn how to receive all the different kinds of attacks. While I start off teaching my students specific ways to handle specific attacks, I like to go beyond that to understanding the essence of each attack and what are the most natural and robust ways to redirect that energy, counter and end the conflict quickly. It’s going beyond ‘learning how to fish’ to ‘the essence of fishing’ and opens up avenues to flexibly handle anything from faster, more powerful attackers.
The exciting and scalable aspect of this is that redirecting a powerful attack doesn’t take nearly as much power or speed as the attack itself. Any approach that requires you to be more agile or powerful, a superior athlete in any way, is something that breaks down under pressure. Why would anyone start a fight unless they sized you up and thought they could take you? It’s better to assume that only bigger, tougher people would attack you than the reverse. I believe in training the body for strength, agility, power delivery, but expecting you can out-tough all possible attackers is unreasonable.
Summary: Train to Receive Power
When training in ‘listening and responding’ to attacker energy, it’s important HOW you do it and whether or not you test it at all. I look at everything through a reality lense. How do I know this will work? How do I know I can do it right against full power attacks? I think the answer should be obvious.
You start with Phase I, develop the ability and skills in low power safe drills. Then you take it out of it’s nice, safe box in Phase II and test it. When Wing Chun practitioners do drills where both parties are doing Wing Chun chi sao, it’s a great, structured way to do Phase I. If you stop there or you only test it with low-power attacks, you don’t know if you’ve got it or not. You can be seriously deluding yourself. I’ve heard so many Wing Chun students visiting from elsewhere who tell me ‘I’m great at Chi Sao, but I never tried it against non-Wing Chun. I don’t know if it would really work in a fight’. I don’t think you can say your chi sao is ‘great’ without testing it against non-Wing Chun attacks at power. To know for sure, you need to test your techniques and feel against attackers who come in from distance and throw strong street attacks and combinations. When you have attackers throw Taekwondo, Karate, jujitsu, Muay Thai, MMA or street attack, you can test out your ability to feel, flow and counter. Start low power, then up the amperage. While receiving power is a natural fit for certain martial arts, it can apply to any martial art. It’s an approach that can change the storyline of a fight so it’s more about timing and feel than agility and power.
Another good use of this approach is in dealing with people you don’t want to hurt. In a street fight, use as much force as necessary to defend yourself and others, but no more. However, if someone gets drunk at a party, especially a family friend, you might want to de-escalate the problem without actually hurting them. Redirecting power gives you options on how to end the conflict.
For anyone unfamiliar with this concept, I made a video to show how this can be applied to almost any attack. I hope it inspires others to see if they can apply it to what they’re already doing. It’s not the answer to all combat situations, but it’s very useful.
Peace – Sifu Bill