In tennis there is a concept known as “forced errors and unforced errors”. A forced error is when one player demonstrates superior technique and strategy, pushing the opponent into a situation where they cannot respond effectively. Essentially, any time you see a player outright win a point, he is forcing the other player to be out of position or to hit a sub-optimal shot.
An unforced error, on the other hand, is when a player makes a mistake through no direct influence of their opponent. If you see someone serve into the net, or hit a ball wide, those are unforced errors.
That being said, I’d like to share a story about how I came to understand this concept and how it can apply to your martial arts training.
Story Time – The Trashman
In high school I was a tennis player, although not a very good one. I enjoyed playing, but martial arts got most of my time and attention. As such, I generally played down in the Junior Varsity leagues, scrumming around and having a fun time. Something weird happened my senior year though – I managed to place as the #2 seed on our starting team.
I was getting a little better year by year, but not to the point where I was actually good. My senior year “rank boost” happened because I figured something out – tennis players are neurotic. Much like golf, tennis is a very individualized sport where players spend a lot of time in their own head. As a result, the biggest opponent on the court is often “oneself”.
With that in mind, I developed a strategy whereupon my only real goal was to get the ball back over the net. I wasn’t trying to hit down-the-line winners or blitz serves at 80mph. I hit sloppy, medium paced shots that managed to make it back to my opponent time after time. My instructor affectionately nicknamed me “the trashman”, since I was routinely putting up garbage.
Something that frustrates tennis players is when they KNOW they are better than their opponent, yet aren’t getting ahead. As their self talk spins further and further out of control, they begin committing unforced errors as they lose patience and try to press too hard. Before they know it they are losing to an inferior opponent…which is generally when the cursing and racquet breaking begins.
I was never good at tennis, but I did come to understand the psychology of forced errors vs unforced errors.
Forced and Unforced: Your Opponent
It’s quite possible you don’t care about tennis, nor have any desire to get better at playing it. That’s ok! These concepts apply just as well to the martial arts.
When thinking of sparring and fighting, we generally conceptualize methods in which we will force our opponent into suboptimal situations. For example, if we punch them in the face we can then kick them in the groin and throw them to the ground. Straight forward and effective. However, forcing errors can go a little deeper than that.
If you think about distancing and body positioning during a combative engagement, the opponent MUST use the information you provide to make an informed decision about what he/she will do next. If you are close, they cannot use high kicks. If you are far away, they cannot grapple (unless they close the distance). As a result, you can use the knowledge of the situation to force your opponent into moving in particular ways. For example, if you are standing at a distance with your hands dropped low, what is the likelihood that the opponent will attempt a high, long ranged technique? Furthermore, he/she knows that a high technique is the obvious choice, so they will likely attempt a feint high in order to open up a low technique, which is their real intention.
You can never know exactly what the opponent will do, but you can refine their options which will make them more predictable, reducing the needed response options on your part and increasing the chance of your own effectiveness (the end goal of any combative engagement).
As for unforced errors…
An opponent’s unforced error may seem obvious at first – bad technique or decisions that leave huge openings. This is indeed part of unforced error capitalization. But we can go a step further. In tennis I used a calm persistence to disrupt the psychology of the opponent. Do we not have that same opportunity in fighting? Of course, conflict never lasts as long as a tennis match, but we can utilize the idea of gaining a psychological advantage (and implanting suggestion) even before a single strike is thrown as well as during the engagement itself.
Forced and Unforced: You!
If you’ve ever sparred you know what it’s like to get pushed around the dojo floor from time to time. You also know the frustrating repercussions of trying something stupid that is immediately shut down and punished. If you want to learn more about forced and unforced errors, take an honest look at your losses. Take it one step further and ask the individuals who beat you what they saw and how they were able to exploit it.
Let’s step out of the combative ring for a moment though. Unforced errors play more of a role in training than most people realize. Think of all the solo activity that goes along with martial arts training – kata, demonstrations, testing, etc etc. During all of those events it’s just you, the open floor space, and maybe some watchful eyes. There is nothing standing between you and success…which can be a debilitating problem for many individuals.
Unforced errors (aka wrinkles in personal psychology) appear all the time in martial arts training and can be so smothering that they cause many individuals to quit altogether. Anxiety during a testing, cold sweat as people watch you…these are purely internal matters and can only be rectified by one person (you).
I have found that identifying and placing a name on this kind of anxiety helps to overcome it. If you feel an overwhelming sense of dread or tension during solo performances, just remember that nothing can stop you except for you. Don’t “throw away the match” by riding the psychological tailspin of unforced errors. Recognize it, put it away, and do what it is you’ve trained to do!
If you study a traditional art you’ve inevitably heard a speech regarding control. Control (as most responsible Sensei will tell you) is absolutely vital to safe and effective practice. But that begs the question, what exactly is control?
Let’s lay down a baseline definition of what control is in the context of martial training:
Control Rule #1: Execute techniques accurately to the intended target with proper form.
Control Rule #2: Execute techniques while preserving the safety of your partner via force temperance.
Rule #1 explains that your technique must express the intended concept as being taught. As such you must be able to strike to the correct anatomical parts of the opponent or execute joint locks and throws while using proper fundamentals (like kuzushi).
Rule #2 suggests that in order to preserve the safety of your partner you must be able to strike, joint lock, or throw with appropriate distance and power. That means if you can do nothing but full power or wild techniques you lack the needed control to train at a high level. You can’t be trusted with effective techniques.
That’s it! Well…that’s it if you want to understand the basic, foundational aspects of control. Of course, as training and experience piles up practitioners can begin to explore deeper implications of how to use their body to maximum effect. To demonstrate these more advanced ideas, I think showing as well as telling would be appropriate.
Watch the following video for a higher level discussion of control in martial arts training:
(If desired, click the small gear in the lower right corner to select 720p, high quality video. If choppy, let it load all the way)
As the video explains, sharp techniques that are fast and well placed do not automatically qualify as “well controlled”. Once a practitioner gets passed the basics they need to learn how to execute techniques that are completely capable of doing damage, but by the choice of the practitioner, are withheld.
“The choice of the practitioner” – that’s a key thought. As you might imagine, certain training wheels and precautions have been put on classical styles of martial arts over the years so as to avoid placing extremely effective techniques in the wrong hands. When a practitioner learns to be more deadly it is only their character and mental control that stays their hand and guides them.
To understand control fully, the methods of the body cannot be separated from that of the mind and heart. Mental control allows a person to maintain perspective even in times of high stress, choosing the right level of force for the occasion. Emotional control prevents anger, resentment, and fear from overtaking better judgment.
A good classical art will build all of these things over time.
GUEST AUTHOR: Johnny Nguyen is a boxing aficionado and owner of ExpertBoxing.com. He has been training with high level fighters for over 8 years. Throughout his training Johnny has developed an introspective and technical method of boxing training, learning and analyzing as much technique and concept as possible.
3 Reasons to Learn Boxing:
Boxing at its purest forms is functional and brutal. By partaking in boxing, you very quickly learn what works and what doesn’t work. Fighting goes so far beyond throwing and defending attacks. It’s about learning how to fight without getting tired, how to minimize damage of landed punches, how to follow up after a missed punch, how to counter a counter, how to apply offensive pressure without striking, how to use defense as offense. Beyond on all that is how to let a fight unfold as it should.
While form and technique are important, destroying your opponent is even more so. This distinction is often lost when fighting arts take the route of being “less brutal”. All fight training by nature will become brutal if they dare to be functional. There are few things as brutal as learning how to trade blows at high speed with an opponent only an arm’s reach away. The use of boxing gloves prolongs the beatings making it possible to exchange more blows without fight stoppage due to cuts.
While every fighting technique should emphasize the use of technique over physicality, athleticism is still of utter importance. Being athletic is what allows you to train at higher intensity, train for longer periods, and develop higher level efficiency. In reality, athleticism and skill go hand in hand. As you become more athletic, your skill and ability will rise, furthering the upward spiraling cycle of athleticism and skills.
Boxers are in incredible shape, there is no denying that. Boxers are however made of a different kind of athleticism. They are stronger, faster, have more endurance, and can take far more punishment. YET, they can do all this without really trying. They remain strong throughout an entire fight yet rarely fight above the 50-70% pace. This is a result of boxers learning how to fight while relaxing. In fact, it’s the only way to fight.
At some level, there is no excuse for not having superior athleticism. There is no excuse for being slower or weaker than your opponent. If you are athletically superior to other fighters, boxing will allow you to exercise that advantage. Moreso, boxing will help you develop that advantage to new levels. An extra inch of arm reach can help you win unscathed. A split second difference in speed will help you knock out opponents before they can respond.
3. Rhythm of Attack
I dare say that boxing is fought at the highest speed of attack. Why? Because the combatants are almost always in range of each other, in a style that is fought in combinations. When you have an art like kicking, it’s common to see distance used as defense. (Using distance as defense in boxing is unpractical because you spend more energy running than you do blocking.) With an art like grappling, smothering can be used as a defense. (Using smothering as a defense in boxing can be dangerous because you run into more punches.) The main difference is that grappling & kicking attacks are more easily thwarted with a single evasion.
With boxing, evading one strike still allows the attacker to threaten with many more. Not only will you learn how to fight at a higher pace, you learn how to defend at a higher pace.
For the best examples of boxing’s functionality, athleticism, and rhythm of attack, I suggest watching videos of:
- Pernell Whitaker
- James Toney
- Floyd Mayweather
- Prince Naseem Hamed
- Roy Jones Jr
- Mike Tyson
- Manny Pacquiao
- Sugar Ray Leonard
- Roberto Duran
I would suggest for you to watch their training videos and sparring videos. There are few other arts where you can see regular demonstrations of theory and principle being applied successfully on a regular basis.
Most people don’t know how to watch a boxing fight. Most people watching a pro see an even chess match. I would beg some to try watching a video of a pro fighting an amateur…two come to mind: