If you get into real combat, you should assume you are going to get hit. No matter how much you develop skill and awareness, it’s part of street defense. One you accept this reality, it’s clear that being able to take a hit is a skill worth developing.
1. Street Defense is Dirty
Street Defense is not Marquess of Queensberry rules. It’s not point sparring. It’s not full contact sparring or UFC. All of these things pretend to be real, but they aren’t because they have rules and limitations. On the street or in a bar, the only rule is to win. To quote Sammo Hung, ‘If it helps me win, it’s Wing Chun. Wing Chun must win at all cost!’. Attacking from behind isn’t fair. Attacking 2 on one, 3 on one, 5 on one isn’t fair. Using a crow bar on someone unarmed isn’t fair. Attacking a smaller person with no obvious skills isn’t fair. The saying ‘assume the worst and hope for the best’ applies. NOBODY starts a fight looking to lose, so they’re not looking for a fair fight. The guy(s) who start a street fight with you will use every unfair advantage available.
2. Getting Hit Isn’t the End of the World
If you accept that an attacker will do ANYTHING to make sure they win, especially at the start of a fight, it’s easier to accept that you’ll probably get hit. This is not the end of the world. Many people learn martial arts to be safer, to decrease the chances of injury and to decrease the chance of being attacked at all. This does make sense. The more trained you are, the more your confidence and awareness can prevent trouble. But you still might get attacked or end up defending someone else. The average student starts out imagining that after they learn all these skills, nobody will lay a hand on them. Sometimes it works that way, we all want it to work that way, but assuming you won’t get hit if you’re good enough isn’t reasonable. If you don’t learn how to take a hit, you’re one hit away from losing. As Bruce Lee said ‘One should be in harmony with, not in opposition to, the strength and force of the opposition’.
3. The Problem with Getting Hit
Let’s examine our assumptions for a moment. People assume that getting hit is horrible, tragic, painful, damaging. It can be. At the moment a strike contacts the body, most people resist, subconsciously firming up to tough out the blow and stand their ground. That’s why strikes do so much damage. The more rigid a person or object, the more damage a strike will do. It’s human nature to resist. If the wind blows, we firm up and brace to not get blown off our feet. When people push or strike or pull, we firm up and are tempted to push back. This is doubly so for men. Men are hard-wired to resist, but it also applies to anyone who freezes in a sudden panic.
4. Being Strong Won’t Save You
Some people lift weights and train hard to be so strong that they can withstand any blow. While I believe in training your body, it’s a fool’s errand thinking you can train so hard that you can stand there and take strong hits. You aren’t likely to get attacked by some spindly shorter person. It’s likely to be someone bigger, tougher, stronger. Ergo, training your body to be strong does help, but it doesn’t address the heart of the problem. It also misses the point that a very experienced attacker can attack body areas you can’t protect by getting stronger. For example, all the strength building in the world won’t protect your knees, feet, wrists, neck, spine and many other points.
5. Be Like Water to Take a Hit
Powerful strikes are intended to damage the body and break bones. The more rigidly you resist a strike’s power, the more likely it is to damage you. Consider why drunk drivers experience less injuries than those they hit. It’s because they are floppy, they simply aren’t capable of resisting and going rigid when they are hit. The lack of control and dexterity (& lack of awareness of how out of control you are) make it dangerous in a fight or behind the wheel to be drunk, but the attribute of flowing with impact is useful. Your body is like water and not only because a large percentage of your body IS water. If you freeze or rigidly try to take a hit, you are like water freezing into ice. Ice shatters easily. Liquid water is very hard to smash, but it does get displaced sharply if you hit it hard enough. Water that has phase changed to water vapor is almost impossible to affect in any significant way. Therefore, if you can train fluidity as your body’s reflex to impact, you become very difficult to damage. Increased fluidity makes you almost vaporous. It isn’t instinctive, but anyone can learn it and it’s important. If you get hit with a surprise attack and don’t flow, you may be stunned until you recover. If they attack while you’re fazed, it can be game over with serious consequences.
6. How to Learn to Flow with Strikes
There are various ways to develop this skill. The obvious way is to get hit a lot, but there’s more than one way. Full contact sparring involves getting hit. A lot. If you get hit enough by strong opponents, you will either get seriously damaged and stop martial arts altogether or you will subconsciously learn to flow with strikes. When I was a small kid, I was regularly beat up by bullies more than twice my height and weight. At first, I got injured a lot, but over a span of time, I developed a reflex action to flow with any impact, whether I saw it coming or not. It wasn’t thinking ‘This is a strike, I need to flow’. It was a developed reflex. The problem with learning by getting hit a lot is that you get hurt a lot before you reverse your instinct to resist and develop reflexive flow. Without knowledge of the problem and what you wish to develop, it takes many painful experiences to change. In a sense, I benefited from the certain knowledge that there was NO WAY I could brace and take hits when I was so outmatched. But do we really have to get beat up to learn to flow with strikes? No, we don’t.
Armed with the knowledge of the reflex we’re altering, you can work on the skill by flowing with low-energy attacks that gradually increase in power. There are many drills to develop a sense of flow with energy. However, it’s important not to dwell in the softball low-power range and think you’ve really got it. To develop the useful skill, you need more power, increase the amperage. Then you can have the confidence, consciously and subconsciously to flow reflexively without hesitation. The principle is to let the energy of the strike flow through you like a travelling wave while keeping a sense of balance. If you have to think to do it, it’s too late. For example, if someone side kicks you in the chest, instead of bracing to absorb all the power and stand your ground, you can let it flow through while dissipating the power with controlled movement in the direction of power. The same applies to punches or almost any other attack. When you can’t avoid getting hit in the first place, it’s incredibly useful to dissipate the power you feel. Instead of being fazed, freaked out or damaged, a strike may move you as you feel the force flow through, but you’re undamaged and you’re back in the game immediately to fight or run. Don’t be stuck on holding your position unless you want to savor the full power of a strike.
7. Does This Really Work?
It works for me. It can work for anyone who trains to develop it. Our belief systems limit us. If you can’t believe it’s possible, if you have a fixated belief that being struck is a horrible thing, then you won’t be able to loosen up and flow properly. Fear of pain makes it worse. Before I learned to flow with strikes, I had a lot of injuries and broken bones from fights and simple accidents. Once I developed this skill, I hardly ever got injured, even in severe dustups. As a top athlete who played competitively with much older players in hockey, lacrosse, football, soccer and other sports, I was often targeted to be hit hard with intent to injure by the biggest guys on opposing teams, often from behind. Not only wasn’t I ever hurt this way, I got a reputation as unhittable because I would either let the attack flow through me harmlessly or the travelling power wave flowed back into the attacker so they would literally knock themselves off their feet. As a martial arts instructor, I depend on this skill daily. When students are learning something new, they may lack control, so I often put myself in harm’s way so they can sort it out with me before working with other students. I don’t have an amazing pain tolerance. I’m not “so tough” that I can brace and take it. My flow reflexes allow me to be safer in situations others would find dangerous. I have taught many people to develop this skill. You don’t have to be me and you don’t need to do Wing Chun to do it.
What is a Strike?
A strike is anything with power and energy directed at your body with the potential to damage it. When I first started competitive tennis as a kid, I didn’t know anything. An adult competitor sent a bullet serve my way that knocked my racquet out of my hand and hurt my wrist badly. We normally think of punches and kicks as scary and tennis as pretty safe. If you don’t know how to receive power coming at you, the whole world is fraught with danger. You are much safer and at ease when you can flow with strikes (or bullet serves). My favorite move was to send a bullet serve back at the server twice as hard as it came at me. People stopped sending me bullet serves. The point is that energy that feels harsh is a strike, but anything you can receive smoothly, isn’t effectively much of a strike.
It’s a Life Skill
Learning to flow with strikes is like learning to breakfall gracefully. It’s not just a fighting skill, it’s a helpful life skill. While nobody wants to get hit, getting hit *is* almost inevitable if you find yourself in a street fight. When you can perceive the attack, by all means move, redirect, block and counter when you can do so safely, but you need to be able to handle getting hit, flow, recover quickly and take action to fight or run. This skill doesn’t mean that strikes can never hurt you. If you flow well, you don’t get hurt or damaged nearly as much (often not at all), you don’t get stunned senseless, it’s simply not as big a deal.