When is a punch…?

One of our DVD authors, and a darn good self defense instructor, likes to pose the following question. “When is a punch a punch?”  It probably won’t surprise you to learn that he often gets blank stares on that one. But he actually has a reasoned response; a punch is a punch when there’s an opportunity to be a punch.

Self defenseWhat does this  mean? First, you should understand that this particular instructor loves to punch. Many are the times he has adjusted my back by lowering a “little tap” onto one of my  expendable body parts.

He is equally familiar with fluid and devastating variations using palms, elbows and knees. Given that the best time for a punch, as opposed to one of those other options, is the moment that beautiful opening appears saying “now’s the time.” It can come in close quarters, it can come in the middle of grappling, it can come from outside range when the opponent suddenly makes an error. The hand doesn’t  even need to be in punch formation, and that’s what today’s story is all about, a little  refinement in your  training that might be of interest and usefulness.

What am I talking about? Hand changes, when, where and how. It’s true that when we first learn martial arts we are told exactly how to make a decent fist, a palm, a spear hand. We have to be told because it is all so new to us. Our teachers, like guardians of our bodies, make sure that the wrist is pulled back enough on that palm blow, and the knuckles are properly positioned on that punch. Forms are of great use here because they are slow enough and explicit enough to mold proper form all the way down to the fingertips.

Well and good. But what about doing it  in the middle of sparring or combative training? I certainly don’t mind watching it in my beginners but I get a little critical when I see my advanced students forming that tiger claw a full second before and three feet away from the target they expect to scratch. This manual preparation slows your hands down and can lead not only to damaged digits but improper technique. Let me take a simple example. You are going to just casually reach out and grab your opponent’s wrist for an instant before popping him with the alternate hand. You are fast and you are accurate and you have done this before. But, on the lightning track to your opponent you very properly open your palm, move your thumb down to the opposable position, then catch his arm.  It’s true this takes much less than a single second but, to the trained eye, it is far too slow. For one thing the hand  was forced to adjust its angle of approach just to accommodate your hand position. Better by far to reach out with the palm, or even forearm, slap the opponent’s arm and turn that hand into a four-finger, momentary grip. Count the advantages here. For instance,  you don’t commit yourself to what my become a nasty little Chin Na counter by telegraphing your grabs.

One of the main points shared by  sparring, forms and basics is limb management. This is beyond the quest for a more powerful  punch. It is the ability to do different things at different intensities all at the same moment. To be that spontaneous and fluid you cannot decide  in advance which tool fits into which groove. The hands launch and the shape of the opponent helps resolve the question of which task and which solution.

A punch becomes a punch only an instant before contact. The same with palm, finger strike or chop. It may be a decision or it may be circumstance. This stage of refinement carries over into the designation between striking and grappling, and—even more fundamental— it can cross the border between defense and offense.

photos by Debbie Shayne

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