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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I’ve been running into this concept of Combat Tai Chi a lot lately. First, I read an interesting post over at Formosa Neijia discussing an obsession people are developing with the combat applications of Tai Chi. Dave Chesser makes an argument that Tai Chi shouldn’t be thought of in the same context as marine combat.
I also visited Zyaga at Martial Thoughts and saw a fantastic video showing what tai chi for fighting would actually look like. I felt so inspired that I thought I’d share the same video here. Enjoy, and prepare yourself for combat tai chi.
Breaking into sparring can be intimidating. If you’re joining a martial art school for the first time and you’ve never so much as thrown a punch at a live target, there can be a lot of doubts running through your head. If you do have fighting experience, the prospect of fighting at a new school can be equally as nerve wracking. Here are some simple, easy-to-follow tips that will get you rolling.
Keep Your Hands Up
I know it sounds obvious, but it’s really easy to forget. Keep those hands up! Trainers have been yelling it at students for years, and they will be yelling it for years to come. This is a particularly volatile trap for students of the martial arts because there are a myriad of kicking techniques that cause the human body to naturally drop the arms. But it’s important for everyone. Here are two decent fighters that remembered to keep em up -
To your left, Muhammad Ali. To your right, Bruce Lee. Notice that Ali is in a traditional western style boxing guard position. You may train in an exotic martial art, but don’t forget the effectiveness of simplicity. The head is a valuable thing and you should guard it the way boxers do.
Bruce Lee utilizes an upper/lower quadrant style stance. In general, his left hand guards against high attacks while the right hand guards against mid-level attacks. By adopting more of a side stance, Bruce has allowed himself to cover up in this fashion.
Throw in 2-3 Combinations
A classic symptom of novice sparring is the game of TAG. Two fighters line up and dance around each other a bit. They then take turns trying out a single technique, hoping it lands. This is not a good habit to get into. Even if you do land something, you’re not following it up with anything significant. The goal of all martial training is to instill good habits that we don’t have to consciously think about. Therefore, adopt the practice of throwing two or three techniques right in a row. Jab, cross. Jab, cross, front kick. Jab, cross, high round house kick. You get it.
Don’t Tolerate Abuse
This one is just my personal opinion. There may be some out there who disagree. I don’t think that student’s being beaten to the point of nausea or unconsciousness is conducive to training. Some would argue that it weeds out the weak students and prepares people for the rigors of real fighting, where there are no rules. Here’s why I disagree -
By weeding out the weak students, you are weeding out those individuals who need help the most. If Kimbo Slice walks into your dojo…yea, I bet he would be tough enough to pass your curriculum. But he doesn’t need your curriculum, the smaller “average” people do. Funakoshi Gichin, known as the father of Japanese Karate, was a very frail and sickly child. If his teachers weeded him out we would all have missed out on one of the most brilliant martial minds in recorded history.
Secondly, physical contact helps desensitize us to the shock of being struck, but being knocked out repeatedly may actually lead in the opposite direction – concussion. It is commonly believed that concussions build upon themselves and have cumulative effects. Symptoms of concussion include dizziness, lack of motor coordination, difficulty balancing, and possible loss of brain function. Of course, not every knockout results in a concussion, but high impact to the head is certainly where concussions come from.
Don’t be duped into thinking that you have to get floored every week just to learn. It’s not true.
Keep Apologies to a Minimum
A lot of beginners have the habit of apologizing when they strike an opponent. It’s not a big deal, it just signifies a little mental block you have to overcome. Did you wail your opponent? If you did, go ahead and say sorry (control is important in sparring). But if it was a nicely paced, controlled technique, don’t worry about it! That’s what the padding is for. If you’re an apologizer, do your best to let that habit go.
Accept Black Belt Aid
One of the toughest hurdles to get over during sparring is ego. When we daydream about fighting off muggers or other baddies we all have one thing in common – we win 100% of the time. On top of that, we do so flawlessly. Unfortunately, sparring (or real life) tends to not work out that smoothly. That’s why if it seems like a black belt is trying to help you in your sparring, do your best to accept the advice. If it seems like they are going “easy” on you, don’t take it as an insult; they are probably just trying to guide you into combinations or concepts. On the other hand, if they turn it up a notch and dominate you, don’t feel bad – you’ll actually learn the most fighting those who are the best.
Try to Keep Anger, Adrenaline, and Tension Down
Adrenaline is our human-take on the incredible hulk. We feel stronger, more in-tune, and more capable during an adrenaline rush. That’s all good stuff…but an overdose of adrenaline also makes us sloppy, narrow-visioned, and mentally cluttered.
A lot of people will keep their entire body tense during sparring sessions, leaving them feeling wiped out by the end of class. Conversely, a skilled sensei could look as if he just took a leisurely jog, and no more. This is because the instructor has learned that he needn’t keep his entire body tense during sparring. Instead, he keeps it relaxed but on the ready – using tension and adrenaline as a springboard toward lightning fast technique. Sparring is intense, for sure, but try to relax as best you can. Eventually it will just become natural.
Muhammad Ali Image – http://www.bbc.co.uk/1xtra/blackhistory/gallery/70s/8.jpg
Bruce Lee Image – http://imagecache2.allposters.com/images/pic/CLASS/130-112~Bruce-Lee-Posters.jpg
Hulk Image – http://www.pisymbol.com/images/incredible_hulk.jpg