Sunday, October 30, 2011

Playin' it safe

"Every decisive action changes the battlefield."

note: this is about sparring/competition, but i'm gonna use words like "fight" and "fighting distance" because it's easier than saying "competitive bouting situation" and "sparring distance" or whatever term would be emcompass combat sports in general. also my use of "you" switches at will between a theoretical "you" in a fight and a "you" in charge of training a group of the first "you"s. whatever!

It's hard to get people to take risks in a fight. The main problem is this: the default fighting distance is safe. You're as close as you think you can get without risking yourself, whatever the compromise is between wanting to hit and wanting to get away that you are comfortable with. You don't even have to think about it, your body just *knows*. Without experience, it's probably wrong, but nonetheless, it *knows*. So here's the thing: you're in a safe place, but in order to hit the other person, you gotta leave that safe place. And... you don't want to. What you really want to do is be able to hit the other guy without leaving your safe place. So you feint, you stomp, you bait, you do everything you can to make the other guy come a little bit closer and open up so you can just hit them. But they don't, because nothing you're doing actually matters to them because you're sitting way back there in your safe place. When they do get close enough and you finally swing, it's because they're already swinging at you and you hit each other. Simultaneous hits. Sad tuba noise.

What the deal is:

"Every decisive action changes the battlefield." Anything you do that actually matters is going to change the situation. Is going to take you out of your safe place. You'll occasionally be able to catch the other guy making a mistake out of nowhere, but that is relying on your opponent to make an unforced error. The higher the skill level, the rarer those are. Relying on unforced errors is extremely passive and generally not tenable unless you have a fortress to hang out in. You gotta get out there, take some risk, create forced errors, make your own openings. Create your situations instead of reacting to situations.

Let's fix it!

So you got a bunch of timid fighters, won't attack, won't take risks, and you resolve to train this out of them. You start the training montage sequence. You're working targets, getting faster, learning how to find openings, getting stronger, attack attack attaaaaack! And then, in the fight.... more simultaneous hits. Except now they're hitting and getting hit harder.


Yeah, I know. What happened? Here's the thing: the physical act of attacking was never the problem. The real problem is mental confidence. The question that weighs people down is not "What if I don't hit?", it's "What if I get hit?". And, faced with that question, most people will stay in their safe place rather than attack. Even if, objectively, it means they get hit more. It's a feeling thing, not a fact thing. You can't really talk them out of it.

Let's fix it! part 2: the fixening

You want to get them to attack? Work defense. Work it into their bones, massage it into their reflexes. Have them block and block and block. Have them step forward and block. Have them swing and miss, then block. Have them swing and get blocked, and block. Have them swing and hit, and block. Convince their bodies that, no matter how things go wrong, they can deal with it. (even if it's not true) In saber fencing, parrying is hard. The weapons are so light and fast, and the rules of right of way favor the attacker. Nonetheless, lessons in saber fencing are heavily weighted towards parrying. You do it at the start of every lesson, and work random parry-ripostes in everywhere. You got to. For the feelings.

And then...

They will attack. They always wanted to. They just couldn't because their conservative subconscious didn't like the odds. Now that they've learned some different statistics, and they like their odds better.


  1. Nice! Couldn't agree more.
    At least in the style I play, the later, and closer to your own body, you learn how to block, the more options you have, and the more tempting a target that you make. This also relates to your critical distance post.

  2. I teach a kicking/punching art, and a common problem is getting students to close the gap from kicking distance (where they feel safe, despite the fact that they are already trading)to engaging with the hands, up close and personal.
    A more defence-oriented training approach might well get them in there faster.
    great post.

  3. Glad you liked it. I know I felt a lot more comfortable working empty handed at close distance once I had trained last ditch, cover-the-head or scrunching the elbow down against the side against someone popping hook flurries with mitts. Even though it was a bad place to be- gettin' hit, not able to respond, behind the loop- having that basement floor level defense made everything seem more manageable.