INB #21 Fooling the Flash

On consciousness and speed… “Each of you is as fast as I am,” I often explain to my class despite the looks of some who only appear to believe me because I haven’t been caught in a lie – yet. “I know this because if you were snatching your hand out of the way of a slamming car door you’d move like lightning.” Glib, but true. The instructor’s problem is how to get the most speed (or power, or whatever) out of the student who seems to live on molasses and only watch “Slowski” commercials. It can be a bit of a trial but there are ways. Personally I like speed practice because true speed suggests efficient neurological pathways and that seems beneficial to just about everybody. A similar approach could be taken to strength and postural training. Weights are wonderful feedback mechanisms for maximized efficiency. But here we’re talking fast.

Now all this is assuming the student has been with you a while, at least a few months, and you are beginning to suspect that the speed-deficit is also an obstacle in their development. Before working up a personalized and detailed training regimen, though, you might ask yourself a few deeper questions, just to set the scene. The first thing you always ask:  is the problem mental? And if so in what way?  Some people can’t imagine themselves moving fast. Others can’t move without clicking through a series of orderly, safe but exasperatingly complex instructions. You ask them to tie their shoe and they start breaking things down into an information tree. Some people are afraid of showing that much power or efficacy to another person (yes, even though they knowingly enrolled in a martial arts class). Some are stubborn and won’t be hurried. And yes, some people are not very fast, but that’s a minority.

The next thing is to make sure the person will actually benefit or, at the very least, can be accelerated without damage. Teaching a 70 year old woman to whip out a stroboscopic chop might require a little more prep time than usual and some serious thinking about the consequences. That’s the instructor’s duty.

Finally, give some thought to the speed zone for each person. If the guy is huge and appears naturally cumbersome, you might want to start mostly with short, cutting motions. Some people, on the other hand, are agile as monkeys and can clear six feet in one balletic instant. These might be candidates for a longer explosive range.

There are a million methods to get people to move considerably faster. Let me list a few for you to try out. (Instructors: If you have great tips on this send them in, we’ll keep this notebook entry open for your suggestions.) One initial point though, many of these techniques are based on deception. No, not of the opponent, of the student. Sometimes the student himself has to be fooled into revealing his own speed potential to himself.

Method #1, Backwards: Hard-wired, visceral responses are very often contractile. It makes sense. The body wants the threatened hand, arm, leg or whatever back home as quickly as possible should danger threaten. Because of this predilection,  movements like these are easier to access at the purely neurological level. For example, let’s say a particular student can’t extend some motion very well.  Suggest that she practice the same pathway but backwards. Have Slow Betty  place the extended back knuckle in your open palms. When you try to close your fingers on it have her snatch it back as though you were  a stove well and someone had just flipped on the burner. Make sure the path doesn’t end up with her whipping it back too hard and hitting herself in the throat or something. Obviously that’s embarrassing but it is also deeply counter-productive for your purposes. Even slapping her arm against her body to stop it isn’t a good idea because its’ a reward at the wrong end of the exercise. The whole focus should be on the initial burst of speed, in other words the other end of the exercise. Once you both have accomplished some degree of improvement have Slow Betty gently extend her arm in the aforesaid back knuckle motion and, when reaching your hands, then snap it back. Continue gradually asking her to back knuckle faster and faster until you can raise the speed of the extension to equal the speed of the snap-back. At this point you want to blend the whole cycle together in one fluid and blinding movement.

Method #2, Reciprocal Inhibition: When people think about moving fast they often think tense. Odd when you think about it because—had they tensed when they needed life-saving speed—that car door or falling hammer would have nipped a bit of them off. People confuse this. There is a huge effect, much like tension,  when the entire body complies with the speed impulse but that’s not so much a tension as the electric jolt which engages the entire body. So we often have to suggest a re-conditioning the connection of speed to tension. The version I sometimes use is very much like what some Yi Quan practitioners employ. Take a stance. Relax. Shoot. This is an exercise about association. Its’ like an elevator, you sink and sink and suddenly you are there. It literally follows the idea that “If you don’t know you are going to punch then the opponent won’t know either.” As the student relaxes she is searching for the moment to move, probably a completely new experience for him. The instructor’s job here is to watch carefully so if there is any intermediate tension between the relaxed state and the explosion he will pick it up.

Method #3, Movement to movement: All the previous is based on stillness to movement, probably the easiest way to start. However, using the concept of “fooling” the student, you can also employ movement to cover tension. In this method, borrowed in concept from Pigua, the hands move in some simple pattern, such as a rolling circle. The student is then asked to transition from the cyclical pattern to a striking action without stopping even for an instant. In other words he is asked to transition from movement in general to movement in the specific without breaking his flow whatsoever. Yes, it’s a little tough and all that concentration on not jerking or freezing often transports the student, without his knowledge or conscious choice, into the realm of instantaneous speed.

These are just a few suggestions. They pay off not when the student moves fast because, even though he has attained his level of skill, it all might devolve back to stunted and labored actions. No, it has really “taken hold” when the student realizes that he or she is capable of such speed. It is important for them to realize that they weren’t in control every instant but the effect was not only satisfactory but even preferable to such control. In other words that to move fast you can’t actually know you are moving fast. What you can know is that it was there and now it’s over. Special thanks to Diana Moll, Josh Miller and Travis Rath (photos)  for contributing to this article.

2 Responses to “INB #21 Fooling the Flash”

  1. Joanna Zorya says:

    Good article on a common problem. I train up speed in a number of ways – here are a few of them.

    1) Taiji cai (pluck) partner drill. The 2 students start in guard stances with the backs of their lead forearms crossed and touching. They then take it in turns to suddenly go from static to snatching diagonally down and forwards 45º to uproot their opponent – like a fairly aggressive bridging movement. The training partner tries to pull their hand away as soon as they feel the grab going on. The same exercise is done with the rear arms crossed and the plucking motion taking place backwards and down at 45º

    2) Training from an unready (wuji) stance. One partner feeds full speed attacks against the other who is stood with feet parallel, side by side, weight 50 / 50 and arms hanging at their sides. This can be done in a fairly improvisational manner or with the responder doing something quite generic that lends itself to any number of potential attacks with minimal adjustment – this is good for just training up reaction times. But it can also be useful if the attacker fires in any one of several rehearsed attacks and the partner has to respond with an appropriate attack-specific response – i.e. deliberately not in an improvised manner – trying to read the attack and respond with a specific counter in time, to train apt mental as well as physical responses.

    Both of these drills can be policed by a teacher or fellow student looking for any signs of telegraphed movement. Students are watched very closely to ensure they learn to explode directly from where they are to where they need to be without any prior coiling or shrinking action.

    3) Slo-mo to steady to fast
    We progress from slo-mo research sparring where each player has a defense followed by a counter-attack – done very slow, steady and conversationally… to having to perform a single action that simultaneously defends and counterattacks. At the same time we get students to progress from co-operative circle training to competitive circle training. Here, one at a time (to start with) someone from the edge of a human ring attacks the person in the middle and the person in the middle has to finish the fight. Before each physical encounter an intensity scale is agreed on by the two participants from 1 – 10. 1 = mutual co-operation. 10 = trying to almost kill each other. The jump from 5 to 6 is where it starts to get competitive.

  2. Jeff says:

    My instructor uses visualization techniques to increase speed.

    We also do a backfist exercise. We wear pads for this. Two people get in a horse stance, their right feet touching, hands resting on thighs. One tries to backfist the other, the other blocks, then return to the starting position. If your block is slow, you get a whack on the head. If you are hitting and lift your hand without striking, you lose your turn to hit.

    Then we add a reverse punch, so it’s backfist/reverse punch.

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