The quickest way to get hit by a good fighter is to block them.
Can you visualize what happened just a moment before this picture was snapped? The leftside downward block should give you a big clue. The kicker sold the defender completely on a low technique – probably snapping a front kick before rolling right into a high roundhouse.
The defender deflected the initial attack, but in the process hung himself out to dry for the follow up.
Independent Blocks Will Get You In Trouble!
So why exactly did our wayward defender get rocked? The answer is that he relied on independent blocking.
During basics training, we move up and down the dojo floor practicing our blocks. Left hand blocks high, right hand blocks high, left hand blocks low, right hand blocks low, etc. This drilling is critical to learning good technique, but can also leave practitioners disjointed if they never learn how to integrate it into more natural movement.
Skilled fighters will be able to notice disjointed blocking and capitalize on it immediately. Let me further explain through the magic of stick figure drawing:
As you can see, a disjointed block is really when one arm or leg moves to create a block without the rest of the body doing something useful.
Generating these kinds of openings is a huge staple of fighting, and tournament combatants have made entire careers on knowing how to do it. The more you are able to dictate the movements of your opponent the more you command a fight. What that means is, as defenders, we have to do our best to eliminate falling into these traps.
It is impossible to know what exactly our opponents are going to do. Furthermore, it is wasted mental energy trying to figure it out. If you are constantly trying to analyze and asses the intentions of your opponent, you give him/her the opportunity to dictate the essence of the fight. You will always be a half step behind. Eventually it will catch up to you and you will get overrun.
Fixing The Blocking Problem
In order to fix a problem with reactionary, independent blocking, you have to understand the nature of tactics. Tactics are designed to make you move in a certain way and dictate your train of thought. So that means if your opponent punches low, he wants you to block low in order to create an opening for his/her next attack (or if you’re not fast enough, to actually hit you low).
To nullify the effectiveness of these tactics you have to learn to cover zones and control centerline.
Let’s say you have one hand high covering your facial region, and one low covering your midsection. If the opponent steps in with a low kick or punch and you drop your high hand to block it, you must develop the habit of rotating your bottom hand high to cover the zone you just left open. By cycling your hands in this fashion, you never leave a clear opening even for a quick second attack.
In addition to covering your zones properly, you must develop a good sense of centerline (and distancing) to foil the intentions of your attacker. To use the same example as above, if the attacker comes in with a low kick, instead of blocking at all, you have the option of moving just slightly backward out of range and leaving your hands completely unmoved. At most the kick will graze your bottom hand, which is there to cover anyway.
At this point your defense is completely unaffected by the opponent’s tactic, which means his next attack will be very manageable and unsurprising to you. As he comes in with that high punch, your defense is still in place, which means you can gently brush the punch aside as you step in with your own attack.
This distance and centerline control is also critical when moving side-to-side and on the 45′s.
The key to beating a superior tactician in sparring is to not play the game at all. As they try to invoke movement in you, your superior control of distancing and timing combined with a calm mind can allow you to move in very small increments, and capitalize on openings created by their complex intentions.
Never move your guard unless you have to or unless you want to create an intentional opening. Many people are amazed at how much excess blocking and moving they do simply because their body tells them that they SHOULD block. If a kick comes grazing near your head but never touches you, there is no reason to block. If a person punches at you but is just out of range, no need to block.
Become an enigma of simplicity! Conserve your movement and wait patiently for the right time to be aggressive.
Find someone in your dojo who has good control. Have them come in at you with attacks while you are in your on-guard posture. Make sure you are guarding your high zone and low zone, however it is you like to do that. Have your partner come in with various controlled attacks and practice avoiding the attacks with minimal movement. Keep your hands as still as possible, brushing attacks aside just enough so that they barely miss you. Don’t commit to blocking and don’t chase their attacks. Be as simple as possible and if you have to drop or raise a hand, make sure to cycle the other hand to cover the exposed zone.
This drill is all about feeling. Feel just how little you need to do to move outside, around, or in front of their techniques. Keep your legs underneath you and ready to spring backward, frontward, or to the side. With your body doing so little, your mind will be free to notice the cues the opponent is sending when they are about to attack (or are in a position of weakness), and since you are still in a position of strength, you’ll be able to act and dominate.
When I was around 16-17 years old I received my Shodan in Okinawa Kenpo. It was a great experience and had me riding pretty high. Around the same time, I was actively participating in tournaments. Unfortunately, my youth and ‘confidence’ stopped me from thinking twice about the inevitable shift I would have to make from brown belt divisions to black belt. It doesn’t matter, I figured, I’ll just do my thing.
The transition for kata, weapons, and even self defense demonstrations went fairly smoothly. In each of those, it was a matter of personal skill and showmanship. I lost some, I won some…no big deal. Unfortunately, the transition for kumite (sparring) wasn’t quite as gentle.
For tournament sparring at that time, the general rules for green/brown belt divisions stated that there was light contact allowed to the body and no head contact. Punches could be thrown toward the head, but actual contact would result in a warning/penalty point deduction. Needless to say I had grown pretty accustom to those rules.
The black belt divisions, on the other hand, tolerated moderate body contact and light head contact. A subtle but important shift. Furthermore, the rules were only vaguely enforced in the black belt division with a lot of flexibility on what was considered ‘light’ (as I would find out later).
As a fresh shodan, I arrived at one particular tournament raring to go. It was very exciting walking around in my black belt, feeling a whole different perspective as I was privy to judging and other privileges . Everything was going smoothly until my division was called up for sparring: adult black belt men (no weight or age differentiation).
I lined up next to a very serious looking individual. As I gazed up at his face, he cast a downward glare on me like so:
Feeling his intensity and aggression, I joked around: “hey, if I get paired up against you, don’t kill me ok? hahaha.”
He didn’t response – only glared.
I allowed my awkward laugh to trail off as the judges collected name slips and announced the match.
“Apsokardu (me) against Death Giant (I can’t remember his name)”
I swallowed hard and lined up across from him. We bowed, got into a ready stance, and waited. As soon as the center judge shouted “Hajime!” my opponent leapt forward and punched me full force in the throat.
Gasping, I staggered back as the judge stopped the round. The throat is not a legal point target, so no points were awarded. I shuffled back up to my line and acquired my fighting stance. At this point, my fragile confidence was beginning to crumble and I felt like one of the little kids fighting Kramer in Seinfeld:
The next round began and we threw a few techniques back and forth. Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable again my opponent launched in and struck me in the throat once again. The judge stopped the round and one of the side judges came over and massaged my neck to promote breathing and make sure my esophagus had not buckled.
We began again and I desparately threw out weak, high kicks to the head. One managed to graze his headgear and I received a point for it.
Since he was now losing 0-1, my opponent became visibly irritated. When the next round began he threw a punch so hard that it busted through my defenses and crashed straight into my nose. The blood slowly began to trickle.
After that I don’t remember too much, but I do know that the match quickly finished 3-1, him. The next two points must have come very easily.
After the match I hobbled away into the bathroom to find tissue for my nose. While washing myself off I quickly noticed that I could only take half breaths. No matter what I did I could not deeply inhale – this was my first and only real experience with hyperventilation.
While in the bathroom a spectator walked in and while washing his hands casually looked over at me and said “tough fight out there – you got pretty lucky with that high kick.” Trying to stabilize my voice and keep it from quivering I said “yea…that was lucky…”
While I wouldn’t wish this kind of experience on anyone, it did help me learn some very valuable lessons.
First – There are underhanded strategies for winning a tournament match. My opponent realized that if he incapacitated me by punching me right away in the throat, he would have a much easier time beating me. Furthermore, he must have known through his experience as a black belt combatant that the judges would not penalize him too quickly. Other strategies like this include punching someone after a round is over or leaning into a punch to draw a penalty point on your opponent.
Second – Tournament or no, martial arts are serious. In my youth I assumed that everyone ‘played’ martial arts the same way I did. I was wrong. This individual, although perhaps TOO aggressive, took his art seriously. It would have been wise for me to be just as serious.
Third – You have to learn to flip the switch. on and off. One thing that neither me nor my opponent knew how to do was turn our intensity on and off when appropriate. Focused on raw winning as his only goal, my opponent was willing to beat me and beat me until the match was over. On the other hand, my confidence quickly turned to fear when I was injured for real. This incident helped me turn a corner and develop a deadly seriousness to be used and controlled with extraordinary care.
Fourth – Even bad lessons can be good lessons. Whenever I find myself ‘playing’ a kata or karate in general, I have this experience to reflect upon. I ask myself – what happens the next time I come up against a big, mean, angry a-hole? What if it isn’t a tournament? It would be very easy for me to hold a grudge against the competitor I faced that day, but instead I want to use that energy to push me forward and make me better.
When it comes to sparring, one invaluable piece of advice is to keep your hands UP. When the hands are up, they can protect against quick strikes to the head and can be dropped quickly to guard the body. Keeping the hands up is common sense to anyone who has gotten clunked in the cranium, and is the go-to stance for boxers and mixed martial artists.
That being said, there are also times when it is acceptable to keep the hands down. Why would you want to do such a crazy thing? The answer is simple – deception.
That’s right – chicanery. misdirection. good old fashioned martial arts mind reading. Keeping your hands down during a combative engagement can open the door to all kinds of possibilities…if you’re shady enough to utilize it.
‘Hands Down’ From A Sporting Perspective
One of my favorite movie quotes comes from Spaceballs, directed by Mel Brooks. In it, Evil Dark Helmet is fighting the hero Lone Star and he exclaims – “If there is anything I despise…it is a fair fight.” Have truer words ever been spoken?
Even in the sportive realm of sparring we are constantly trying to get a leg up on one another through speed, power, and technique. But just as important as physical prowess is mental dexterity. Think of it like a mental chess match. Some of the best fighters I’ve ever encountered were great “chess” players. I’m constantly reminded of that whenever I spar my instructor Bruce Heilman. He makes the whole concept of sparring look easy because he manages to stay one step ahead of his opponents. Distancing, timing, and strategy allow him to beat punks like me all the time.
One of the tactics he and other well-honed artists utilize is mental suggestion. For example, by keeping your hands down, you send a subtle signal to your opponent that you are open and undefended in the head region. On top of that, humans have a natural instinct to strike toward the head first (it’s a primal target, like when dogs capture each other by biting and clamping down on the back of the neck). These instincts and signals create the impulse to attack, and since you are aware of that impulse, you can have a reactionary concept already prepared.
Of course, you then need to consider who you are sparring. Is it someone who is likely to know about your tactic? Will they intentionally preempt you by faking high and striking low in an effort to stay one step ahead of your trap? If so, you’ve managed to stay ahead of their strategy again.
Think of it this way -
The Princess Bride is my favorite movie of all time. I say that without hesitation or remorse.
The layers of mental positioning can get quite complex, but luckily mushin can help quell the problem of over-thinking. Tactics like keeping your hands down and the possible outcomes of that setup can become instinctual, and when that happens, it can be an effective concept indeed!
When Fighting Isn’t A Sport
Sparring with your hands down can be a clever way to outmaneuver a sparring partner, but it can also serve a much more useful purpose.
Outside “in the real world” there are few occasions when we find ourselves with our hands up in a guard position. Whenever we are at work, out shopping, at home, taking a walk, etc. we move around with our hands down. We might even be carrying something. In these situations, if we are attacked, it won’t be preceded by bowing and gauging ma-ai. Even if someone gives us the evil eye or starts mouthing off (indicating a potential for escalation), we don’t drop back into a combative posture.
Wouldn’t it be wise then, to do some training out of the stance we would likely find ourselves in?
A lot of people think of fighting as something that happens gradually with some warning. In reality, violence tends to happen quickly with some sort of sucker technique. If you ever see two guys square off against each other, there may be chest puffing or shoulder pushing, but eventually one guy hauls off and tags the other in the face. The days of two gentlemen putting up their dukes is long gone. By taking some of your sparring time and practicing your reactionary techniques from a hands down position, you are effectively teaching your body how to react when an aggressor makes his move.
Learning From Kata
Did you ever notice that kata start with the hands down? I’m just saying.
Other Casual Stances
If you get the chance, try to pay attention to other natural stances you utilize throughout the day. This will be a good way to gauge what kind of postures you might need to react from in a hurry. For example, most people fold their arms. But the real question is how do they do it -
Do you know which habit you are in? The left picture is preferable because the hands are completely free to deflect attacks without a moments hesitation. The right picture, while certainly not an undefendable position, suffers from a moment of tangle. Furthermore, both arms in the right picture could be compressed or seized with a single hand from the opponent, leaving his other hand free to do whatever.
Keeping the hands down gets a bad rap because a lot of people do it for the wrong reasons. High kicking, lack of tactical understanding, and sheer laziness all result in the kind of ‘hands down’ sparring that gets people thwacked in the head. But, if you know why you are doing it and how to utilize the potential outcomes, you can manipulate hand positioning to your advantage.
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