Imagine the most boring class you had in high school or college. The teacher’s droning probably made you itchy to escape the intellectual prison they called a classroom.
Now imagine the best class you had in high school or college. The impact of that instructor has probably lasted well beyond your school days.
Teaching a martial art is a rare gift and responsibility, one that has an amazing amount of freedom. In the public education system there are layers of governing boards and protocols to funnel what can be taught and how it can be transmitted. In the martial arts world, the possibilities are much more varied.
Sure, most martial art organizations have criteria for what it takes to advance in ranking…but are there guidelines for how that knowledge should be transmitted? Unlikely.
It’s possible of course to try and perfectly mimic your instructor’s style, but that’s rarely attainable (or even desirable). Personal experience, talent level, intellectual capacity, and philosophical beliefs will flavor everything you do in a unique way.
Therefore it’s wise to examine your own teaching methods and decide for yourself how you might best help your students. Consider the following three strategies for imparting a martial art:
Being a full-on dictator is bad…but sometimes dictating is good! Dictating refers to the act of instructing students in a very specific and structured manner. The teacher tells the student where to step, where to block, how to balance, what degree angle to turn, etc etc. Dictating is a powerful tool, especially in the early phases of a young martial artist’s career as he/she tries desperately to adjust to the rigors of training.
The weakness of dictation is a lack of creativity. Students are so busy trying to fit into the structure of class while avoiding technical mistakes that they rarely engage in critical thinking. Toying with technique, trial and error, and big-picture contemplation is not on the to-do checklist.
Of course, giving specific advice has been around since one caveman taught another how to sharpen a stick; there’s no question regarding the value of detail transmission. However, modern teaching has taken dictation to a high extreme, resulting in formalized classes filled with one-way information and strict regimentation. A lot of that can be attributed to military influence.
When military men first arrived in eastern countries and learned martial arts, they often integrated the material they learned with the military methods they had been molded in. They did so for purely practical reasons. The stakes were/are very high in military and law enforcement work. Following orders with precision saves lives while creating higher probability of success for an entire unit.
The west wasn’t alone in their military intentions; eastern countries like Japan and even Okinawa began teaching martial arts in larger group settings for the purpose of crafting young men into resilient, obedient soldiers. Strong dictation was a natural evolution of teaching style.
WAIT AND SEE
Perhaps the diametric opposite of dictating is the ‘wait and see’ approach. W&S involves demonstrating technique, kata, etc while offering no breakdown or explanation. The instructor performs and the students must watch and gather what they can. Discussion is not a big part of W&S.
W&S has been the method of choice for centuries in many of the eastern koryu arts. Due to the influence of Confucianism, eastern philosophy enforces the idea of quiet obedience and attendance when being instructed. W&S does not require the instructor to hold a student’s hand through every detail.
The strength of W&S lies in it’s focus and range of possibilities. When learning in W&S style there is no spoon feeding of information, and going on mental ‘cruise control’ is a very quick way to fall behind and eventually wash out. Furthermore, interpretation of what a student sees an instructor do can be highly varied. Since there is no specific guidance, the student is left to his/her own experience and critical thinking in order to determine how to achieve the same skill level as the instructor. W&S also has the benefit of being able to transcend language barrier.
The weakness of W&S lies in it’s roadblocks and time frame. If a student gets stuck and lacks understanding, they can find themselves in ‘learning quicksand’. Even if they do eventually struggle their way through a problem, it may have taken years longer than was needed. A few pieces of wisdom from an experienced instructor could have reframed perspective and fixed a wayward path, but with W&S there can be a lack of active course correction.
Another weakness of W&S is organizational. When an instructor allows students to interpret the art for themselves, each student will naturally come to different conclusions. When the senior instructor is not present, or has passed away, the result is chaotic and often results in massive splintering among students.
Nudging is perhaps a middle ground of the previous two methods and involves monitoring a student’s progress noninvasively, interjecting from time to time in order to enhance growth and understanding.
A nudge is not as concrete as dictation; if the instructor fixes the angle of a student’s stance, that is a dictated correction. If on the other hand he/she asks the student why the angle of a stance might be better increased or decreased, that is a nudge toward understanding.
Nudging is a powerful tool, especially when instructing higher level students. Advanced martial artists can become stagnant and bored if they only receive dictated training year after year. That is why challenging them to draw their own conclusions and guiding them to their own level of higher understanding is so essential.
The problem with nudging is twofold: difficulty and structure. Students can become impatient and annoyed with a teacher who nudges all the time because they feel a simple straight answer would be a quicker solution to their needs. Furthermore, teaching in a nudge style can be extremely tricky. It’s very easy to fall into a ‘false philosopher’ mode where the instructor simply projects student’s questions back onto them without providing any real insight. For example:
“Sensei, what does this technique mean? I can’t put it to any good use.”
“My student, what do you think it means? Once you know that, you’ll have your answer.”
This exchange sounds wise and zen-like, but it doesn’t provide any nudging.
The other difficulty is in structure. Instructors must navigate the complicated tapestry of tradition and ego. In some ways, it is an instructor’s duty to pass along a style exactly as it was handed to him/her (best done through dictation). Meanwhile, the more students look exactly like the instructor, the better pleased the instructor will be due to subtle ego (since I know what I am doing, the students should look like me!). Thus, nudging requires a careful relaxing of those rules in order to let students find their own path to higher effectiveness.
How does an instructor maintain the integrity of a tradition while helping students explore their own path? That’s the difficulty in nudging.
A Proper Mixture
I don’t believe any one of the methods above is superior to the others. In fact, I think most good instructors find a mixture of all three with plenty of other tactics mixed in. A skilled instructor will observe what each individual needs on a case-by-case, day-by-day basis. In fact, teaching strategy can change in mid-class (or even mid-sentence).
The key, I think, is to recognize the tools available as a teacher and use them to their highest effect. Knowing when to take the reigns and when to loosen them is critical in helping students achieve that rare but essential goal of self actualization. Only then can a martial art start to grow into ikigai.
If you’re a traditional martial arts point fighter, you could go your whole life without experiencing a good hook punch.
If you’re a street fighter, you could see it on any given day.
There’s something about the hook punch that is naturally ingrained in the human combative complex. When tensions raise and the body experiences a dump of adrenaline, some instinct in the primordial part of our brain knows how to throw a hook punch.
Of course, a lot of the panicked and sloppy “bombs” we see are hardly efficient, but that doesn’t mean they’re ineffective. Sure, a drunk street punk may sprain his wrist while swinging his fists wildly, but all that body weight and tension can hurt or kill if it connects.
What is a Hook Punch?
Let’s step back for a moment and define what a hook punch is. I think this video featuring Anderson Silva lays it out nicely in just over 1 minute:
You’ll notice the crucial element is that the strike engages the target from a side angle rather than straight on. The punching arc can range dramatically from ultra wide, to just slightly bent.
The modern day understanding of a good hook punch derives mostly from American Boxing. The footwork (pivoting the front foot, settling on the rear, creating a snapping action) is a hallmark of good boxers and fighters like Silva.
The major difference between good boxers and street attacks is the execution of the technique. Boxers keep the hands tight in and use the hook punch when in mid-close range. The punch snaps out and back in order to maintain proper coverage of the body. Street attacks are often deep, committed swings with lots of body weight behind them.
Why Are We Assuming Hooks Are So Prevalent?
As any good geometry student will tell you, the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line. Wouldn’t it stand to reason then that most attacks occur in a linear path, like a lot of TMA striking?
The reality is…no. The arc of the hook punch feels strong to novices and therefore comes out more naturally. Furthermore, American Boxing is still a very deep part of western culture and most youths grow up with a dad/uncle/friend who is willing to show them a few moves. Therefore, in times of stress, people go back to the experience they have.
Don’t take my word for it though, just observe a handful of untrained attacks (sucker punch and street fight). I think you’ll notice a distinct trend (warning: real violence in the following videos. Nothing deadly, but caution advised).
I didn’t have to dig deep into Youtube to find these videos. If you type in “street fight” or “sucker punch fight” you’re going to see plenty of examples.
Why Is The Hook So Neglected In TMA Training?
The reality of the hook punch in real engagements, especially when sucker punching, is evident. Just as evident is the lack of proportional focus in traditional martial arts.
In a lot of TMA, we are taught the efficiency of linear striking. It stands to reason that when we work partner drills, we use those same linear strikes as a means to continue our training and development. The attacker strikes linear so as to practice his/her punch, and we defend in one manner or another.
Even TMA that are much more circular can fall victim to this because they maintain good technique when attacking. A powerful circular ridge hand or quick mawashi geri is not the same as a huge haymaker from a tense and lunging opponent.
The study of bunkai for demonstration has increased the problem as well. In order for bunkai to look orderly and organized, the attacks must be laser accurate and in time with the defender. Slapping and windmill punching from the attacker would be troublesome for the demonstrator, and disrespectful to boot.
Traditional training can be beautiful, but it can also distract from reality at times.
How Can We Avoid the Neglect?
If we conclude that the hook punch is an oft used weapon in real violence, then we should make an effort to improve our ability to handle it. Doing so is fairly easy if we take the time. To integrate more hook punch practice into your martial arts life, follow these steps:
1. Assess the amount of time you spend dealing with the hook and determine if you could benefit from more practice.
2. Learn how to throw a hook punch well…and poorly. Use the videos above and elsewhere online if you don’t have an expert in your dojo.
3. Communicate your desire to focus on the hook punch with your partner, show them the proper& improper ways to throw it, and have them attack you with it.
4. Attack slow at first so you can begin to analyze which of your techniques work and which are dangerously ineffective against the new arcs of attack.
5. Increase the speed and impact of the attack so as to feel the body weight and momentum.
6. Receive the attack from unspecified hands and at unspecified times. Remember, a sucker punch is tough to see coming so you want to practice natural response defense, not just thoughtful defense.
Most people have some sort of cat stance in their style. In karate, it is often referred to as neko ashi dachi (or neko dachi, niko dachi). It tends to look like this -
Now that’s a neko dachi you can set your watch to! Back foot at a perfect 45 degree angle, front foot with the heel raised in a high pointed fashion. Both knees unlocked. Most of the body’s weight being supported by the back foot, allowing the front foot to kick quickly.
This is a great stance…but a little obvious, don’t you think?
One of the most important parts of traditional martial arts is hiding intent and technique. An opponent who is given no clues as to your next action has little chance to defend against it. This is true in both sparring and street self-defense.
If you drop into a perfect neko dachi, what does this tell your opponent?
Why telegraph both aggression and intention like that? Instead, it’s much wiser to drop the heel back down to earth and make a more subtle shift of body weight onto the rear foot.
This guy is just hanging out…or is he? Now granted hands-in-pocket is a bad idea, but our focus is more on the stance. This gentleman is just as prepared to kick as his karate counterpart, but could easily fit into any public scene without sending signals.
Q: So why train in the photographic, heel pointed fashion?
A: Good habit development!
If white belts were trained to be casual right off the bat, they might not grasp the proper weight distribution and heel alignment. The instinct to balance themselves evenly or improperly would be very strong. By keeping the heel up and the knees flexed, instructors can analyze from across the room how good a stance is.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to get stuck in that mindset and never play around with adapting neko dachi into your day-to-day life.
Here’s something fun – in normal conversations with people throughout your day, try setting prime kicking distance, and settling into the natural neko dachi that I’ve shown above. Hypothetically, if the person you’re talking to suddenly made a move (secret ninja attack!), you should be able to stick them right in the floating ribs or knees with a solid front kick. If you’re getting weird looks from the people you’re talking to, you know you aren’t casual enough yet. Keep tweaking it.
final thought – what we’ve got here is karate training everyday, outside the dojo, that improves technique, distancing, timing, and mindset. What a beautiful thing!