It is said
that you should "practice forms as if facing an enemy and face an enemy
as if practicing forms." The first piece of advice is a safeguard against
allowing your solo training to become too abstract to be useful. The
second recommendation should enable you to remain reasonably calm in
a combat encounter and importantly, help you to perform your fighting
techniques accurately instead of resorting to unskillful and panicked
The "3 internal
harmonies" of arts such as Taijiquan and Xingyiquan address our ideal
mind and body state in some detail. Let's just deal with the first harmony
here which is that a fighter's xin
(heart / emotion) should harmonise with their yi
(intention). I see the emotional content as the driving force during
a real life dangerous encounter. You would generally be trying to protect
yourself or someone else from harm. You would be "fired up," either
with your sense of morality inflamed or your sense of danger on high
alert. Hormones would be surging through your body, preparing you to
make lightning fast reactions and making you a lot less aware of pain.
A martial artist needs to be able to control and channel this emotional
content so that it aids rather than hinders her cause, so she may still
appear fairly calm on the surface.
concerns the specific task at hand, which technique you are going to
use. But what is your overall intention?
What do you see as the desired outcome
of the encounter? Are you trying to restrain someone, injure them, or
merely prevent them from hitting you? Having a clear idea can help you
to optimise your technique, as well as enabling you to fine tune your
ability to cause or avoid injury. Performing a smooth firm joint lock
might be good for restraining someone, but if you want to cause a disabling
injury to the joint, you will need to perform the lock with a sudden
sharp burst of force. This is probably not appropriate during routine
The premise of this article is to divide martial intention into 4 Levels,
ranging from Level 1 - least intention to harm, up to Level 4 - active
intention to harm. I have used a number of examples, dealing first with
martial training and then applying the scale to real life scenarios.
All examples given assume a one-on-one encounter, but the idea can be
expanded out to include group training or group encounters. I have based
the model on Taiji (yin / yang) theory, but the symbolism is fairly
inconsequential and merely provides us with a convenient conceptual
At its simplest,
in any physical conflict scenario we can consider:
actively trying not to injure
actively trying to injure (yang)
Here we are assuming
that the more gentle yin response reflects a desire to put the interests
of an opponent before our own, and the more aggressive yang response
is an indication of putting our own interests first. We can elaborate
on the scale to add a deeper level of differentiation:
1) actively trying not to injure (greater yin)
2) not trying to injure (lesser yin)
3) not trying not to injure (lesser yang)
4) actively trying to injure (greater yang)
At first glance,
the difference between 2) and 3) might seem hard to understand, but
2 is based on a non-aggressive (yin) platform while 3 is based on an
aggressive (yang) one. Here are some specific scenarios to demonstrate
Within Martial Training
A Sparring with boxing gloves on
1) If a teacher is doing some light sparring with a novice student,
s/he might tap in the odd jab whenever the student leaves an opening,
to encourage the student to maintain an effective boxing guard.
2) Two students
engage in light sparring. They are just testing each other and taking
advantage of any openings with light punches. They don't want to hurt
each other - only to have some fun and challenge each other a bit for
mutual benefit. There is an acceptance that there is a possibility that
an injury could occur, but only by accident. Both 1) and 2) show a non-aggressive
and essentially non-competitive attitude. In 1) the object is to develop
the student's skill, in 2) both students are sparring with the object
of mutual improvement.
point sparring (e.g. sport sparring). Participants are scored on their
ability to score permitted strikes, but while uncontrolled or overly
aggressive behaviour will be challenged by a referee, the onus on avoiding
injury falls chiefly on the defender. A winner is usually determined
by a high score, rather than a knockout, but there is an acceptance
that injuries are fairly commonplace.
4) Prize fighting
- e.g. Western or Thai boxing. Combatants are actively trying to knock
their opponent unconscious, put them out of action or soften them up
for a finishing blow with every strike. Injuries occur in every bout.
Both 3) and 4)
show a fighter who is fighting for personal advancement, rather than
Application / Martial Technique Practice
1) Student A delivers a pre-arranged attack to student B. Student B
applies a specific counter technique with a mutually agreed level of
intensity. Both students are trying to stop short of causing any injury.
They will probably perform many repetitions and swap roles back and
forth several times. The purpose of the exercise is firmly on the learning
or refinement of the technique.
2) As the students
get more experienced, they might deliver their attacks or counter techniques
with more velocity and power. They might also allow unrehearsed attacks,
responses, variations and follow-ups to take place by mutual arrangement.
Both students will probably still be trying not to injure each other,
but will be chiefly relying on their partner to counter effectively.
However, at this level, if it becomes apparent that either student has
failed to defend himself effectively, the technique will be "pulled"
where possible to avoid or minimise injury.
3) Here the students
are helping each other to deal with attacks delivered at full speed
and full (or close to full) power. Some form of protective clothing
may be worn to enable participants to fire in attacks that they might
normally have to hold back on for safety reasons. The aim of such training
is to learn how to cope effectively with real life attackers. Usually
considered a more advanced form of training, the onus on effectively
defending oneself falls squarely on the defender with each attack, so
techniques will not typically be pulled.
4) Not all martial
artists practice at this level. This is generally the stuff of the competition
/ prize fighter. Students go all-out to knock out or defeat their training
partner. Some form of protective clothing may be worn by mutual agreement,
but other than that, no other precautions will be taken to avoid causing
Life - Reasonable Force
At this stage in the article, I'd like to start applying the scale to
possible real life encounters in the interests of comparison. In British
law, civilians are told that they are allowed to use "reasonable force"
in the process of defending themselves, but the term is nowhere legally
defined. Rather, it is left to the discretion of legal professionals
to ascertain, on a case by case basis, whether a civilian has behaved
in an reasonable manner during a physical conflict.
A big, strong householder awakes in the night to discover a smaller,
weaker, teenage burglar in their home. They might: 1) Try to persuade
the burglar to give themselves up, or try to wrestle them to the floor
until the police arrive (assuming that a partner / someone else is on
hand to call the police.) Due to the difference in size and strength,
the resident knows he should be able to overpower the burglar reasonably
easily, providing he does not put up too much of a struggle.
2) Perform a firm
arm lock and take-down in the process of subduing the burglar. The householder's
intention is still on restraint rather than injury, but is aware that
the burglar might be injured if he struggles.
3) Put on an agonising
wrist lock as fast and strong as possible, and stamp on the side of
the intruder's knee to take them to the floor. The householder will
do whatever it takes to force the burglar to the floor, with little
concern for their safety.
4) Pick up a heavy
object and try to knock the burglar unconscious with it.
In the above example,
the jump from Level 2 to Level 3 is very apparent, as this is the stage
at which the householder ceases to be concerned with the avoidance of
injury to the intruder. Level 4 might only be seen as reasonable within
the eyes of the law if the burglar had pulled out a potentially lethal
weapon, or if the resident was smaller and weaker than the intruder.
It is worth noting
that the actual outcome of a violent action, even when performed as
a genuine act of self-defence, can seriously affect the legal implications.
The law will always assume that a civilian should cause no more injury
than absolutely necessary to another person, whatever the circumstances.
In the above encounter,
if the intruder was seriously injured or even killed, the court system
would try to firmly ascertain the intentions of the householder and
how much danger he could have reasonably felt himself to be in at the
time of the incident. If the intruder fled out into the street and the
householder pursued him, any further violence committed against the
intruder would almost certainly be seen as retribution, for which the
householder could get into serious trouble.
force in the line of police duty
Note: here the levels related to a police officer are intended for illustration
only. They do not correspond to actual police training methodology.
A police officer is making an arrest on a thief who has broken into
a warehouse: 1) The policeman tries to persuade the thief to come along
quietly. If the criminal is not compliant, the policeman might try to
restrain him, handcuff him, and force him into a police vehicle in the
process of making an arrest. Both of these instances are within the
remit of Level 1 - trying not to injure.
2) If the criminal
becomes actively aggressive and starts throwing punches, the policeman
might need to step things up to Level 2 - not intending to injure, but
accepting that injury to the criminal might occur in the process of
subduing him. A blow or two might be used to wind the thief, followed
by a forceful arm lock - a joint or impact injury might result.
3) If the criminal
pulled a knife, the policeman might need to step up to Level 3. He might
need to perform a weapon disarm with little regard for the health of
the criminal, and may use a truncheon / baton / stun gun / CS gas spray
4) Level 4 - actively
trying to injure, might apply in the case of a criminal who was presenting
a serious danger to others, e.g. a gunman who had refused to drop their
firearm on command. A police marksman might shoot to injure in this
An important point to raise here is that in a real life situation, hostilities
can escalate or reduce. In the EXAMPLE C above, if the intruder suddenly
pulled a knife, then the householder could quite legitimately raise
their aggression by a level or two, to restore an appropriate balance.
In EXAMPLE D, a policeman would always be trying to reduce the hostility
level from level 3 or 4 back down to Level 2 or even 1 as soon as a
violent situation was under control.
Such a "sliding
scale" approach would not be acceptable during martial training where
everyone really needs to understand the rules of engagement before contact
or combat commences.
we have explored the concept of intention in some detail, I'd like to
look at some of the ways we can train for combat effectively, but at
the same time safely.
Specific techniques / applications with a partner
Obviously our intentions need to be tempered during our average martial
arts class. A technique that could be used to seriously injure (or potentially
even kill) an attacker could not be used in the same way on a fellow
student. Either we have to alter the technique in some way or perform
the correct technique, but differently. As we will resort in battle
to the methods we have trained, I strongly advise taking the latter
approach for most application work. Correct distance and accurate targeting
This then presents
us with a problem - if we perform a technique accurately, at the correct
distance and to the correct target, we have to move slower and / or
perhaps with less follow-through, so as to avoid injury. We may need
to use long (pushing) power, instead of short (shocking) power. Here
is where a change of intention can really come in to play. We know that
we would execute a certain technique in a real fight with a sudden burst
of explosive force. When training with a partner, we can practice the
exact same body mechanics, but with a push instead of a punch.
For training dangerous
attacks such as fingertip strikes to the throat with another person,
I recommend touching the target lightly but not continuing with the
movement beyond that point, at least, not with any kind of speed. If
you train at an accurately close distance, you should be aware that
versus a real assailant you would continue turning your body into the
strike while extending your arm to drive through the target and out
of the other side. During partner training, if you are going to stop
a blow short of its finished position, you must ensure that your whole
body stops short. I've often seen inexperienced students start to get
into the habit of continuing to turn their body and shift their weight
towards the target but then allowing the structure of their arm to collapse,
so as not to hurt their training partner. Such bad habits should be
ironed out as early as possible.
Now if we only
ever trained in this slower and more deliberate way, we would find it
impossible to develop our reflexes and quick-twitch muscle fibres to
be effective in real combat. So we must supplement our training with
additional full speed and full power training.
We must train our bodies to also be able to perform our techniques rapidly
(where appropriate), either by:
a) practicing fast solo forms against imaginary opponents, or
b) using training equipment such as focus pads or heavy bags.
As well as the
obvious punches and palm strikes, techniques such as fingertip strikes
can be practiced on focus pads or hanging bags, but take care to build
up the strength of your fingers gradually, and remember to keep your
nails short. Another good tip for practicing fingertip strikes with
speed and power is to perform them on a sheet of newspaper hanging down
from the ceiling. If you hit the paper with enough explosive force,
you'll puncture the paper. Hit it too slowly and the paper will just
For targeting practice,
you can also dangle a loop of stiff string (such as parcel string) and
practice firing your fingers or whole hand through it without touching
the string. This method is also good for sword thrusts, especially if
you practice "cutting" the string first (with a blunt blade) so that
you then have to thrust the sword through a moving loop. Work towards
being able to cut and thrust in this way first try, every time.
Sparring training can be useful for training the combat skills you can't
practice so easily during specific technique or application practice,
especially when boxing gloves and or other protective clothing is worn
to enable unhampered and unconstrained movements. Such training enables
you to develop distancing, timing and (crucially) rapid fire movements
performed with power, without causing un-necessary injuries. It is always
a great irony, if the process of learning fighting skills to protect
yourself and others from harm results in debilitating injuries.
The basic rule
that I tell students in all forms of training is to make things challenging
for their partner, but not impossible. This basic rule is fairly self-regulating.
As skill levels improve, it takes more to challenge a fellow student,
so everything should raise in intensity reasonably naturally.
While this discussion
might seem a little rudimentary to many teachers, it has been my experience
that many martial arts classes, without any discussion at all, settle
in to some rather uncomfortable and highly variable training cultures.
While some students might be prone to being overly tentative, others
can sometimes get away with being quite reckless. The student who can
reliably knock things in a bit harder than their peers might come across
as more skillful, but it might just be that they are training at a slightly
higher intensity than their fellows, which in a worst case scenario
can be tantamount to bullying. There is certainly a lot to be said for
many people toughening up a bit and desensitising themselves emotionally
with regard to taking a few knocks, but the teacher should be aware
if some of their students are overstepping the mark.
Use of reasonable
force should be as applicable in the training room as it is outside
of it. Martial training puts us in control of how much or how little
damage we can inflict on another being. If we are to truly master this
art, we need to start seriously considering the intention of every action
we make. We should seek to be masters of the application of force and
learn to apply it or withhold it with precision, care and deep mindfulness.