6 Ways to Be a Great Attacker

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In a previous post, I discussed ‘How to be a Great Martial Arts Student’. Part of that is being a good attacker. Let’s do a deep dive on that subject. First let’s get some things straight.

Martial Arts is a TEAM Activity

Anyone who treats martial arts as a solo activity is out to lunch, they won’t learn anything useful and won’t be able to defend anything for real. It’s a team activity. Note the word activity, not sport. You can treat it as a sport, but REAL MARTIAL ARTS IS NOT SPORT. If you’ve read my blog before, you should know that Martial Arts means “learning to handle real attacks from real attackers”.  Kata and forms have a place, but to learn to handle other people trying to hurt you, you need to work with other people. More importantly, you need to work with them in a useful way so that you get what you need and they get what they need.

“Real martial arts is learning to handle real attacks from real attackers.”

That Which Makes you Better is Good

Nietzsche said “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” There really is truth in that some of the time. You can learn a lot by losing fights, but there’s a lot of things you can’t learn that way.  The wrong challenge at the wrong time (too hard, too easy, off topic) will be unproductive. My own twist is the clearer “That which makes me better is good.” As one progresses through martial arts or life, there are many lessons we need to learn. When you get the right challenge at the right time, you grow and become stronger, more capable. Sometimes you need killer cardio classes where muscles burn and you are gasping for air. Sometimes you need someone to go full out at you, sometimes you need multiple attackers who don’t hold back, sometimes you need surprise attacks to work on reflexes. Sometimes, you need someone to just slow down and talk you through what you’re trying to do. When you work with others, you need to communicate what you need to improve and you need to listen and adapt to what other people need.

6 Ways Students Try to Be a Good Attacker (and Fail)

Obviously, part of the time, you are attacking others so they can practice and some times, you are defending. This can be combined into drills or sparring where you flow fluidly between defending, countering, trapping and attacking. That’s a good mode for part of your training, to test knowledge. It absolutely sucks for gaining new technique. Let’s break down just being an attacker. Here’s how students try and fail to be good attackers:

  1. Everyone feels safe because I never hit anyone.

    When new students start with me, it’s like pulling teeth asking them to really try to hit someone, even me. I understand that many martial arts schools are afraid to let anyone touch unless it’s sanitized, emasculated and timid to the point of boring. If you throw an attack and there is zero risk of hitting the other person, it is boring, unproductive bullshit. You owe it to your partner to create the feeling of attacker urgency. People pay attention when confronted with something real. It helps them pay attention and they learn from whatever they do. If they step wrong or block wrong, it will feel wrong because something authentic is going on. Playing it too safe is inviting their mind to wander. Don’t cheat them out of what they came to class for.

  2. I’m awesome because I always go full out.

    Here’s the flip-side of the point above. When you are attacking someone else, don’t just do your thing and hope they can deal with it. In a good class, you have a warmup, conditioning and easy drills to get combat reflexes flowing. Everyone needs to warmup because life outside kung fu is busy and tiring. Busy lives with kids, parents, siblings, teachers, co-workers, all sorts of crap going on. When you work with someone, you don’t know what mental/physical state they are in. Beginners especially take more warmup to ease into the groove. If you go full out before assessing whether someone’s ready for it, you’re a jerk who’s making them anxious and worried. There is a way to do it right.

  3. I’m sneaky to be more realistic.

    If you are working with someone who asked you to be sneaky, rock on because that’s what they need. It’s one of the great ways to push students to get their game on quicker and learn which techniques work (and don’t) in a surprise  situation. Of course, if the instructor or other student didn’t ask for it, it’s obnoxious and useless to be sneaky. Most of the time, it’s better to do the exact opposite.

  4. I move away and block all their counters to be more realistic.

    The principle is good, but execution is problematic. Advanced students expect some resistance they must overcome. Doing this right is difficult. What often happens is this: Attacker throws punch combo/kicks/grapple attack and defender starts to defend and counter. The attacker keeps moving and blocking, not realizing that half of the defender’s strikes actually would have hit them. It is immediately annoying and frustrating for the defender, and they end up chasing someone that they already clocked 5 moves ago. Light contact can help so you feel something, but when someone gets fixated on blocking everything, they can ignore a tapping strike or a punch toward the head.

  5. I attack but then look away to avoid getting socked by the defender.

    When you throw an attack, the defender should defend, counter and strike back. Especially with more energy and sparring movement, it’s very easy for the defender to hit when they didn’t mean to.  When you throw an attack, YOU are in danger of getting hit. Don’t look away. Instead, you must pay attention, look and protect yourself. Looking away is placing the burden of your safety 100% in someone else’s hands, someone who is concentrating on defending YOUR attacks on them. If you chicken out and look away, you will get hit and your partner will have to spend to much energy on you instead of what they should be doing themselves. When you look and pay attention, everyone gains.

  6. I point out every correction to help them.

    Less is more. If there are 3 errors, pick the most glaring error and focus on that. Instead of TELLING them what they did wrong, SHOW them. Do the attack/defense again and exploit that error you know they will make. Then the defender will ask “How did you get that hit in?” instead of you lecturing them on what they “theoretically” did wrong. It’s great to share knowledge and help someone, but too much information is overwhelming. Give someone a bunch of corrections and they’ll feel like giving up. If someone improves ONE thing every session, they will be awesome in no time. If a student gets one correction and fixes it very quickly, ONLY THEN give them one more.

6 Ways Students Succeed at being a Good Attacker

I hope the points above shed light on what NOT to do. When you throw an attack, you are either helping the defender get better or you are helping them get worse. It’s about doing the right thing for the moment you are in.

  1. Aim for x+1, the storyline of success.

    Consider this. When you throw any attack at any partner, they will start with some level of competency and after some practice with you, end up at higher competency (x+1). The progress might be small, but repeating this process with different attackers, variations, intensities and other variables over the span of weeks, months, years will result in a journey from complete incompetence to complete mastery. Every time you attack someone, in that moment, your job is to give them what they need to move forward in their training.

  2. Give the defender what they need right now. 

    Every attack you throw should have the right energy, intent and resistance for that moment. Always commit your distancing. You must go deep enough to actually hit if they are to learning anything, but if it’s a beginner or your first repetition with anyone, go slow and steady so you could pull it.  Feel out their readiness to up your game. Then do it. An advanced student working on a brand new technique could be just as befuddled as a raw beginner. What does the person in front of me need NOW. If they are complacent, add power, speed, change up sides, move around them, make them work for the counters. None of these things are a good idea all the time. Get a feel for what someone needs and adapt. Sometimes they need you to power down or slow down if they keep messing up something they are working on.

  3. Get your head in the game. 

    As the attacker, you are at risk. The more intensity you put out, the more at risk you are of being hit by your partner’s counter. Don’t chicken out. Pay attention, flow and move to protect yourself. Good attacking is HARDER than defending because you need to give the attacker exactly what they need AND protect yourself AND pay attention to defender counter attacks.

  4. Give pointed advice selectively.

    Don’t point out every mistake. As stated above, SHOW rather than TELL. If there’s several errors, pick the most important one. Do the attack/defense again and exploit that error you know they will make. Then the defender will ask “How did you get that hit in?” instead of you lecturing them on what they “theoretically” did wrong. People learn they are wrong by being hit (even lightly) and they learn they have fixed it when they don’t get hit in the exact same scenario. If you give too many corrections at once,  it drags your partner down, destroys confidence and the well-meaning corrections aren’t actionable. In each class, everyone should look to move from competency level to (x+1), just a little better than before. It’s digestible and actionable to work on one correction. Try this framework. ‘Hey, you did a great job side-stepping but did you see how I just clipped you as you were lifting your leg? You can fix that my lifting as you step. It took me a while to fix that myself and I find it helps a lot.’  Briefly mention something they did right, show the problem as concrete, present the correction in a positive light and let them know its a common error. Works like magic.

  5. Perceive & react when you would have been hit.

    When students say: ‘I kept countering and attacking because I didn’t feel they had stopped me.’, they might be right but often they didn’t realize the strikes their partner pulled to protect them. It takes awareness to perceive light counter strikes. Nobody is perfect at this. The answer is not putting on the gloves and hitting harder, although sometimes that helps. Unless I actually break your ribs and smash your jaw, you’re not going to genuinely ‘feel that I stopped you’. Open your awareness to perceive when a pulled, tapped or half-powered strike would have hit. An attacker can go full out if the defender executes control. However, going truly full out means both sides use full energy like a real fight. If you think that you go ‘full out all the time’, you either spend most of your time laid up with injuries or someone’s jerking your chain. An injured martial artist learns nothing.React to hits like they were full power. If your partner would have hit with a counter, react as if you received a full power strike.  Let’s say the defender sends a punch to your head or a finger poke to the eyes and you didn’t block it. Don’t just stand there unmoving. First, it’s dangerous to you and second, it doesn’t let the defender practice dealing with the resultant body position. Pain, fear and the urge to counter make people move and react to strikes. If you react realistically to any strike that would have hit, you and your partner gain more from practice.  Crumple or double over or move in a way that makes sense. That’s why I teach limited stunt fighting to make sure students “take a hit’ in a realistic sense. It protects in a real fight and makes training more useful. The eye poke is a simple example. If someone sends an eye poke finger strike at you, back up you head, neck and  upper body in a travelling wave as the strike is occurring. First, you will be creating a safe distance so your eyes don’t actually get poked. Just as importantly, your partner sees the effect an eye poke should create, which feels more real and automatically suggests where to followup to finish. React authentically or run the risk of your partner really hitting hard to force realistic reactions.

  6. Be Authentic.

    Be real as an attacker.  Keep the mood light, but don’t try to be so funny that it distracts from where you are and what you are doing. An attack is serious business. Control power and intensity for the context, but ALWAYS have attacker intent, the emotional content of ‘I’m not pretending to throw a punch. I am really intending to hit and follow through’. Attacker intent brings focus to the moment. It is just as important as attacking deep enough to hit. Your partner will pick up on it, focus and do a much better job defending.  Let me draw a metaphor from the world of movies.  The movie ‘Man of Steel’ was criticized for Superman actually taking a life, but what did it do to everyone’s perception of him? By breaking him out of  the previous predictable, boring character jail, he becomes dangerous and interesting to watch. The sense that “it’s important to pay attention, because I’m not sure what’s going to happen” is what makes a moment authentic. The metaphor I’m drawing is not that we should all smack someone very hard so that everyone pays attention to our attacks. My point is to authentically “inhabit the role of attacker” when we attack just as we authentically defend. It allows everyone learns more from the experience.

“Be in the moment. Pay Attention to Your Partner’s Needs. Be controlled.  Above all, BE AUTHENTIC.”

Peace, Sifu Bill

About Sifu Bill Stewart

Sifu Bill Stewart is a master-level instructor in Wing Chun kung fu. As the son of a boxing champion, he brings 32 years of experience with various martial arts including Wing Chun to inform how he teaches self defense. He is also a UX designer, inventor, and business strategist.

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