Sparring with short weapons for the first time can be a jarring experience, especially when facing longer implements like bo, shinai (bamboo sword), or spear. Kata and pre-arranged drills can teach good handling and combinations, but when the opponent is live and aggressive short weapons can feel a little lacking.
One of the first things students usually realize when they take up short weapons in a sparring environment is that the opponent rarely hangs around long enough for combinations to work as planned. They find themselves poked, prodded, and otherwise harassed while catching nothing but air with their own attacks. One of the most common end results when watching a match such as this is an agitated small weapon user, slowly losing ground until they decide to execute a full out bum rush into short distance range. They usually get in, but only after taking two or three solid shots on the way. Of course, if it weren’t for the padding and control of the opponent the small weapon user would have been severely injured before completing their attack run.
Having been on the receiving end of this kind of treatment and seeing it happen to others, I know one of the most common mistakes small arm practitioners make- living too long in the dead zone.
What is the Short Weapon Dead Zone?
Most martial artists are used to setting distance in empty hand sparring. Typical distance for sparring is just about close enough for the lead hand of both contenders to touch when extended. Hitting the body or head of the opponent would require an aggressive step inward, allowing the defender an opportunity to react (theoretically).
When using a short weapon such as tonfa it feels as if the distance should be set the same way. However, that empty hand sparring distance is almost exactly the ideal distance for a bo user to strike without needing excessive body movement. The end result is unfortunate for the tonfa user – getting hit swiftly and with little warning.
Take a quick look at the picture below. Observe the standard distance set between the bo user on the left and the tonfa user on the right.
If you look specifically at the black tonfa figure, you’ll notice he/she is in typical fighting distance for empty hand (roughly). However, you will also observe that the action end of the bo is already in range to strike. A clever bo user will keep their opponent in this range for as long as possible.
Understanding Superior Zones
Look again at the image above. The shadowy gray tonfa figures show two zones where the tonfa user is no longer at prime risk. The farther out figure has an action end of the tonfa near the end of the bo. Although this will likely feel far away to the tonfa user, it is actually the ideal passive distance for him/her to set.
On the other hand, the close in shadow shows the ideal active distance. Although the tonfa user is still at risk, he/she is in prime location to do direct damage to the bo user. Once the dead zone of the bo is penetrated the short weapon user, with duel weapons and quicker manipulative speeds, is at a distinct advantage.
If the tonfa user is able to acquire either of these zones, the fight should be more manageable. Of course, that begs the question, how does one go from the passive outside distance zone to the close action zone? It inevitably requires moving through the dead zone.
Moving Through the Dead Zone
At first most small weapon users try the same tactic for penetrating the dead zone. They wait for an attack, try to block, and then rush into their opponent. Unfortunately, a bo or sword can be retracted at exceptional speeds and the small weapon user tends to eat multiple attacks on the way in. This is generally where an over-reliance on pre-arranged drills do a disservice to the student. A tonfa user may be in the habit of blocking, then swinging in retaliation, and finishing with a punch or swinging strike. Unfortunately, when attempting kumite (sparring), as soon as the block is made the bo user is retracting and striking again. The short weapon user tends to find themselves gaining no ground.
There are multiple tactics that can be used to avoid this core problem, but I’d like to share three in particular: simultaneity, sticking, and braving the gap.
Eventually most good empty hand fighters discover that if they block and counterattack at the exact same moment they tend to have better results. The same goes for weapons, especially if you happen to have two of your particular implement (sai, tonfa, tecchu, etc). There’s an added twist with small weapons work though. As the long weapon attacks, the defender needs to have an aggressive inward movement. The small weapons user needs to engage forward at the same time as the attacker, thus cutting the distance in a surprising fashion. This can be difficult because it requires moving deeply into an attack.
In Okinawa tode and kobudo we use the term “muchimi”, or stickiness. It is the essence of making contact with an opponent and maintaining that contact so as to better feel their intentions and manipulate their body and balance. Muchimi is more difficult to execute with weapons due to the unusual angles and hard deflections of the implements, however it is still very possible to achieve. Instead of hard blocking as a small weapons user, one can instead block-and-trap or parry-and-follow in order to keep contact with the aggressors implement. As a result, the small weapon user can “ride” the longer weapon as the opponent attempts to free it or retract it.
Braving the Gap
I often call tonfa and other short implements “weapons of bravery”. The movements required to make them effective demand complete resolve and commitment. A tentative attack or half-hearted leap will inevitably be deflected, dismissed, or suppressed. Braving the gap means waiting for a moment of over-confidence or laziness in the opponent’s defense and then completely cutting through the dead zone with a leap or short dash. This of course is one of the highest risk tactics but when effective can completely overwhelm the opponent.
It’s important not to confuse braving the gap with simply running in with abandon. Braving the gap requires pinpoint control of distance, waiting patiently in the passive distance range until the opponent reveals him/herself.
A Piece of the Puzzle
Distance control is only one piece of the combative puzzle. Timing, angling, psychology, and technique all play a factor. Not to mention, this article assumes combative engagements begin with a chance to establish distance (ignoring the reality of surprise attacks). Of course, that is one of the natural weaknesses of sparring, and the value in diversifying training. That being said, there is no feeling quite like having a bo or sword swung at you with unpredictable and focused intent.
One Final Note
As a weapons practitioner gets more experience the zones mentioned above tend to get tighter. The difference between the dead zone and passive zone can seem almost imperceptibly small, especially to the opponent. When this occurs, the opponent tends to swing, fully expecting to hit their target but missing just slightly. It requires a masterful understanding of the opponent’s length, technique availability, and mental intent to control distance in this manner. A worthy goal to strive for!
I’m pleased to announce an upcoming seminar to be held in Glenwood Springs, Colorado on Saturday, October 12th 2013. The clinic will be hosted by Two Rivers Shotokan Karate and is open to individuals of all styles.
Clinic Content Focus
This event will serve as an introduction to Japanese sword manipulation and usage for combative purposes. The content will be appropriate for beginners as well as practitioners with experience. The format of the clinic will change depending on the needs of the attendees, but will follow this basic structure:
- Introduction to the Japanese sword and it’s basic holding methods, footwork, and cuts
- Demonstration and practice of 2-3 Iaido forms for repetition of basics
- Discussion of distance, timing, parrying, and blocking with katana
- Practice of defense and offense with katana
- Discussion and practice of katana vs bo and katana vs sai
This event will take place at the Glenwood Center of Colorado Mountain College at 1405 Blake St. Attendees should contribute $10 to the host program Two Rivers Shotokan Karate, led by David Light (who will be in attendance). Specific time of event is set at 10am-12noon. Extra discussion and training afterward is a possibility.
If you are in the area and would like to attend, fill out the following registration form:
If you have any questions about the event you can reach out to me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org. It should be noted that this will be a “safety first” kind of event, so individuals looking for full contact weapons sparring will not be in the right place. Furthermore, all styles and experience levels will be welcomed so there needn’t be concern of judgment or prejudice.
This is a continuation of the interview with Ann Marie Heilman. Part 1 of the interview can be found here. In this segment, Heilman Sensei discusses what it was like meeting Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo and how it changed the direction of her martial arts career. She also contemplates the meaning of being a Hanshi in karate and her growing responsibilities as a role model for women in the martial arts. Please enjoy.
MA: Could you discuss how you met Odo Seikichi Sensei of Okinawa Kenpo? What were your early impressions of him that made you decide to train under him full time?
AMH: The first time I met him was during a banquet we attended with Trias Sensei over in Okinawa. When they announced us and our style as “Okinawa Kenpo” a very small Okinawan man jumped up and yelled “yay! Okinawa Kenpo!” with his arms in the air. That of course was Odo Sensei.
That’s the thing – he was always happy and joyful. Even when he was quite ill, he was always a happy funny man and it was easy to grow to love him. He was also an excellent teacher. We brought him over to the United States the following year and continued to train with him as much as we could until his passing.
We established a routine of going to Okinawa or bringing Odo Sensei to the United States every year. We would be able to spend weeks and sometimes months with him in focused training. It was a great relationship and we were blessed to have him here in our home so frequently.
MA: What did you find similar/different studying with Odo Sensei vs some of your previous instructors?
AMH: It was different in that he was very laid back. I’m not sure if my previous experiences were flavored with American military or Japanese martial art style, which is very very different in the dojo and very serious. While we were training and doing kata with Odo Sensei, although the training was rigorous and focused he always taught with a smile and laughter. That was different and good for me.
Odo Sensei’s training was exacting and he had a huge emphasis on kata. That worked well for us because we could receive the kata and bunkai from Odo Sensei, but then also receive high level application, theory, fighting, etc. from Trias Sensei.
I remember early on in our studies with Odo there was no particular structure for the material. He would teach you what you were interested in or what he thought you should know. I remember attending a meeting in 1984 with a number of other senior students of his and establishing an actual hierarchy of material that students would have to learn. Once we had that scaffolding set up, everyone could then test standardized material. It was in this way that I tested up to 7th Dan directly under Odo Sensei.
MA: Odo Sensei was known for teaching in the old Okinawan manner of suiting material to the student, tweaking it as needed to make it more functional for the individual. Were there any particular ways in which Odo Sensei molded your learning to make it work better for you personally?
AMH: I think the most unique thing about my relationship with Odo Sensei was how frequently he used me as his bunkai partner. Bunkai became a very live experience for me. Before Odo Sensei I trained with a lot of tall, strong men. It was really great to learn from Odo Sensei who was much closer to me in size. That being said, Odo Sensei was very muscular and had huge hands. He was a powerful individual. I remember when we put our hands together his fingers could fold over my fingers.
If I watched him very carefully I could learn how a smaller individual could move, especially with the weapons.
MA: Your husband Bruce Heilman is also a senior in Okinawa Kenpo. This would inevitably lead people to wonder if you were perhaps riding his coattails or getting free rank simply by association. Am I right in assuming this sort of thing came up, and how did you go about handling it?
AMH: Testing and receiving rank directly from Odo Sensei and NOT my husband was critical. In fact Bruce was of the same mind and made sure that it was not him who tested or promoted me. Over the years I noticed a few women who did receive high rank simply because of who they were married to. My testing was always public and I was always sure to keep my training as transparent as possible. This is another reason I did tournaments for a while. I wanted people to see what I could do and prove that I was not just a figurine following my husband.
MA: While studying under Odo Sensei you and Mr. Heilman were also busy building the IKKF (International Karate Kobudo Federation), which Odo Sensei approved and sat on the board for. Could you discuss the challenges of starting something of that nature?
AMH: The organization came about because we wanted to establish a personal identity while being a branch of Odo Sensei’s Shudokan. Bruce Heilman had a talent for organization and was experienced in setting up this kind of structure. He knew about getting accountants, and lawyers, etc etc. We had met a number of excellent martial artists over the years that we wanted to associate with, and we also wanted to help other styles learn things like Okinawan weapons that their style may not have had.
The growth of the federation allowed us to share our art, especially the kobudo, with many people both in the USA and internationally. I never would have thought it possible when I was growing up.
One of the challenges of the IKKF is the desire to maintain high standards throughout the entire organization. Sometimes our style is not ideal for individuals that want to join us, or perhaps our standards are not reasonable for a commercial school. We try to be fair while maintaining what we think is right.
MA: Recently you received the rare honor of being promoted to 9th Dan, Hanshi. I’m sure this was something impactful for you. Could you talk a bit about your feelings and reflections of the promotion?
AMH: I remember my husband brought up the possibility two years ago but I was staunchly opposed to it. I wanted no parts of it and that kind of responsibility. As far as this time around, I feel right about it because I’ve had two years to reflect on the possibility and the things that I’ve done, and the amount of study I’ve done and still want to do. I knew that if I received it this year it would be coming in a legitimate way from teachers outside of the IKKF who are respected in their own right.
(Note: Heilman Sensei’s promotion was made by Hanshi’s Larry Isaac, 10th Dan; C. Bruce Heilman, 10th Dan; and Jody Paul, 9th Dan; with the approval and authorization from Okinawa from Hanshi’s Shihan Toma (ratified before his passing), 10th Dan; Shigemitsu Tamae, 9th Dan; and Kyoshi Satoshi Yamauchi, 9th Dan, representing both the Seidokan and Motoburyu lineages. Additionally Heilman Sensei received recognition from the IKKF (her home federation) and the United States Association of Martial Artists (an organization connected to the original USKA under Master Robert Trias). These ratifications were important as they connected Heilman Sensei to her roots in training (Odo Seikichi and Robert Trias), as well as continuing the historical connection between Okinawa Kenpo, Seidokan, and Motobu Udundi.)
To be honest, I was so much more involved and excited with Mr. Hayes getting his promotion that I was not thinking too much about my own. It felt good that I was more concerned with him than myself – I felt it was a moment of personal growth.
As for the promotion night itself – I do not remember a moment of it! I don’t remember standing in front of everyone…things were a dull roar.
MA: When you think about your overall legacy on the arts, what do you hope your lasting impact will be?
AMH: I’d like to be remembered as a good and fair karate woman, teacher, and judge. If I can do that, and combine it with the IKKF learning materials we have already created, I would be happy. We have set up the scaffold so that people will have what we created for a long time to come.
I’ve never considered myself (nor was I in truth) a natural talent at martial arts. Everything I learned was through repetition over and over and over. I would watch others get it much sooner than I could. I’ve had multiple injuries as well that were very debilitating. In total my learning process has been slow, with many ups and downs.
I hope that other “non-naturals” out there can see my struggles and continue to push through too. I would say to them, surround yourself with a good support system and never let “quit” enter your equation. As I was once told in grade school: “Aim for the moon…even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars”.
MA: Thank you very much Mrs. Heilman for your time and thoughts!