As your skills develop you increasingly become more of a physical threat to others. This requires us, as martial artists, to consider how we interact with others on a daily basis. There are some things we need to systematically avoid in order to ensure we remain productive members of society and so that we do not induce an unnecessary conflict.
There are many other things to avoid to ensure a healthy and productive life. In this section we explore these and other practices to be avoided as you train in the martial arts.
Inappropriate Levels of Force
You, as an increasingly trained martial artist, will be held accountable by law enforcement officials for your actions during a conflict. Within Tensoku Ryu we also hold our students accountable for using force inappropriately or unnecessarily. You should review the earlier article (in the Yellow Belt Curriculum) on Inappropriate Levels of Force. It remains relevant and something you should continually keep in mind.
Taunting is saying something that is intended to cause an escalation in the response of another. So, if you are dealing with someone who is irritated at you, saying something like, “Come on. Show me what you’ve got!” is taunting. In such a case you are trying to induce the other person into conflict, presumably because:
- You want it to appear as though the other person started the fight.
- You want to use your abilities to impress others who are with you.
- You want to prove your superior abilities at self-defense to yourself.
- You want to test out some newfound skills to see how they will work “in real life”.
- Your ego is getting the better of you.
None of these are a good reason to enter into a fight. Fighting always results in someone being injured, and that someone can easily be you. Self-defense is fantastic; fights are always bad and never end the way you envision.
I will not say that taunting is always bad. It can have its uses and later you will learn when and where they can be appropriate. But these represent very limited cases and occur in the middle of an existing conflict – not as a reason to begin a conflict. At your level of training and experience you should strictly avoid taunting another to initiate a fight.
Inappropriate Skills Testing
There are other situations in which students often try to test their skills on others. This seldom results in a physical conflict, but under the right circumstances could have that outcome. Whether the action results in a fight or not is actually not relevant. The behavior itself is inappropriate and should not be utilized, ever.
What I am talking about is the case where a student learns a new skill that seems fairly innocuous. For example, the student learns that pressing their shin into the back of another person’s calf can cause that person to lose structure and possibly fall. They’ve practiced the skill in class and think it might work, but are concerned about how beneficial it might be in “real life”. So, the student decides to test it out at a party with some friends. They walk up beside someone and, Wham! They put their friend on the ground and exclaim to themselves, “Hey, I guess it really does work!”
The problem is that students seldom consider the full consequences of these actions. What happens if the falling person cracks his or her head on a coffee table or stone wall on the way to the ground? What happens if the person was already nursing an injury on the same leg you have assaulted? What happens if the person falls into someone else causing that person to spill a drink or food, or worse, to suffer an impalement from the fork they had just placed in their mouth? It’s a bit like the videos you see where someone tries to ski off their snow-covered roof, only to have the snow avalanche down throwing the “skier” into a heap on the ground below. Not enough thought went into the preparation and unanticipated consequences resulted.
Students are cautioned to never practice their skills on someone who is not anticipating your specific actions. It is perfectly fine to work with someone you know outside of the Dojo, even if that person has no martial arts skills. It is not appropriate to do something to someone who does not know what you are about to do and how they might properly react to your actions. In short, don’t test your skills on someone who doesn’t know you are testing your skills.
Long Term Injury
As you train you will be interested in doing your movements and skills with increasing speed, intensity, and power. However, the methods you utilize to achieve these goals can sometimes lead to long-term injuries. These are injuries that slowly develop over time and that you may not be aware of for several years. Unfortunately, they eventually become chronic and very evident.
Some of the most common of these injuries result from over-extension of joints. Small hyperextensions of joints over a long period of time can cause lasting painful injuries. These can occur when small micro-tears occur in tissues at a rate that cannot be repaired by the body quickly enough. If you continue the same behavior constantly then the condition worsens over time. Punching often results in these types of injuries to the elbow and shoulder joints, and less frequently to the wrist (although contact drills will affect the wrist more dramatically).
When the arm is extended forward in a punch the laws of physics cannot be escaped. As the arm arrives at its maximum point of extension, inertia takes over. The mass of the fist and forearm can continue pulling the arm forward, causing a minor hyperextension at the elbow and possibly the shoulder. If repeated continually (not uncommon in marital arts training), then ongoing damage and long-term injuries may result.
You must be aware that these types of injuries can occur to the knees, hips, ankles, hands, feet, elbows, neck, shoulders, and any other joint involved in repetitive motion. In our training we stress that joints should never be extended forward to the point where these types of hyperextension can occur. This is one reason why we say all joints, especially those in the arms and legs, should maintain a slight flexing at all times. When punching, the arms should maintain a slight curvature so that the elbow never goes straight, thereby reducing the chance for these types of injuries to the elbow joint.
Punching causes another characteristic problem at the shoulder joint. Extending the punch so that the shoulder is moved forward of local octagon angle three or four can cause hyper-extension injuries in the shoulder joint. This is one of several reasons why we advocate only punching within your center triangle. Punches that remain in the center triangle naturally have the arm curvature that limits elbow injuries, prevent the shoulders from moving forward, and offer additional power and speed to these strikes.
Similar concerns involve kicking. Hyper-extension at the knee can cause long-term injuries and should be avoided whenever possible. Mae Geri, Yoko Geri, and any kick involving a thrust type motion are likely to cause hyperextensions over time if you do not consciously work to limit the amount that the knee, and to a lesser extent, the hip is forced to hyperextend.
These injuries can be quite severe over time. I recall one student who insisted on wearing ankle weights while practicing kicks. We repeatedly warned this student that this would cause him long-term injury. He insisted that the weights allowed him to train for faster and harder kicks. Despite our warnings he would sneak the ankle weights under his pant legs to hide them from us. We would catch him periodically and warn him again, but he insisted on using those weights. After about six months he had to stop training because he required double knee replacement surgery. By trade this person was a carpet layer, so perhaps his injuries were job-related, but I don’t think the ankle weights helped his cause much either.
The moral of this story is that repetitive movements in which you do not pay attention to the risks of repetitive injuries can cause long-term and quite severe problems. Be aware of this injury risk and take the necessary steps and precautions to avoid hyper-extension injuries and repetitive motions that do not allow time for your body to sufficiently recover. Your joints will thank you when you are 65.
Also be aware of other long-term injury risks. If you are experiencing bouts of tendinitis (a swelling of one or more tendons that connect muscles to bones) then you should examine associated movements to see how they can be modified to avoid these types of injuries. If you have these problems then you need to pay attention to what your body is telling you. Something is not correct in your technique, or you are performing a movement too often or with unnecessary power.
Small hairline fractures can occur in bones that are subject to repetitive or even momentary impact. We stress that it is important to avoid bone-on-bone contact to help prevent these types of injuries, but any impact runs the risk of small, even microscopic fractures to bones or damage to connective tissues. If you develop pains in a limb they could be the result of this type of injury. Find a different method for blocking, striking, or intercepting an opponent so that you lessen the chance of injuries to bones, nerves, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. If these pains persist you should seek professional medical advice.
Torso injuries are more prevalent than most people might think. Most martial arts injury discussions focus on the hands, elbows, arms, knees, and legs, but these are not the only areas of the body that are subject to repetitive injuries. When practicing kicks and punches with a partner the most common target area is the torso. When doing these types of strikes it is important to avoid striking or being struck in the area of the heart. This can have profound negative health consequences. But I can tell you from personal experience that repetitive strikes to the ribs can also cause long-term injury problems. After suffering several broken and dislocated ribs (which are both very painful) I began wearing a chest protector whenever contact was likely. Some more senior students encouraged me to avoid the chest protector so I would “toughen up”. I ignored them, and I encourage you to ignore anyone who thinks you should incur an injury to become a better martial artist. They are wrong.
Whenever you are likely to be involved in contact with another person (or a bag, for that matter) you should wear appropriate hand, arm, leg, head, mouth, foot, and leg protection. A bit of protection now will help prevent years of recurring pain later. Pay attention to pain – it is telling you that something should change.
And last, but certainly not least, consider brain injuries. As all football players should know, repetitive head trauma can lead to permanent brain injury. Students who wish to practice sparring without any head gear are simply asking for major problems later in life. We require that all sparring be done with head gear to help reduce the chances for these injuries. You should understand that head gear does not prevent head injuries, it only lessons the chances for them (and perhaps only by a small amount). Any sudden jarring impact to the head can cause brain injury no matter how much padding you utilize. Do not accept that being hit in the head is normal martial arts behavior or that it demonstrates how indomitable you have become. Find ways to prevent these strikes from landing. Learn to move out of the way, block better, or use more padding. Or perhaps do Kumite instead of full contact sparring. Explore all possible methods to avoid brain injury. These injuries may go completely undetected early, but may have very profound consequences on your behavior and quality of life later. Quite often this type of injury results in a shortened lifespan.
Disrespecting Other Styles
It is common for a martial artist practicing any style to eventually believe that the style they practice is the best. That is basic human nature. But it is never true. Even in the case of Tensoku Ryu it is not true. There is no “best martial art.”
All martial arts styles have their strengths and their weaknesses. That doesn’t make one style inherently better or worse than another. Where one style is stronger another may be weaker, and vice versa. You have to consider a martial art in its entirety, and most, on the whole, are quite good.
When you look at another martial art you are viewing it from a generally uninformed position, unless you have studied the art for some significant period of time. Therefore you do not fully appreciate the intricacies and subtleties of the art. So there is a great deal you do not and cannot understand about the art. So you should not be too quick to form an opinion about the relative strengths or weaknesses of the art.
We consider all martial artists to be our brothers and sisters. Everyone is trying to do the same thing, learn as much as they can so they will improve their physical and mental abilities and general self-defense skills. Some have other motivations, and those are fine (provided their motives are not intentionally injurious to others).
Further, we think that other styles can teach us a great deal. No single style can teach everything about the martial arts. There is always some gap or some area that is not fully explored within the art. We strive to cover as much as possible, but there is such a wide variety of skills and concepts that it is impossible to explore everything. Therefore you may find that other styles have aspects of their studies that you do not find in Tensoku Ryu. When you encounter these differences you should study them to see what they may teach you. Your Tensoku Ryu instructor will be perfectly fine with that.
As a result we make it our practice to not disrespect or disparage other martial arts styles. It’s all good, to one degree or another, so why belittle someone who is trying to do exactly what you are doing. Where there are differences, note and consider them. Where there are similarities note those as well, for they indicate a fundamental insight that is applicable across multiple martial arts. Have respect for other martial artists and martial arts styles.
If they disrespect you or your art, that demonstrates something for you as well. That disrespect originates not from a position of strength, but from a position of fundamental weakness.
Holding Your Breath
When students practice rapid motion drills (for example, speed punches) they often hold their breath for long periods of time. This is not healthy and simply makes you more winded, tired, and flush in the face over time. Learn to encourage yourself to breath. Let your breathing be natural and not forced, but ensure that you are breathing at regular intervals even in the most strenuous of exercises.
This does not mean that you need to breathe unnecessarily. Some short duration exercises do not need even a single breath. If you are performing some form of self-defense skill that involves four or five movements concluded within a second or so, there is no need to breathe at any place within those movements. You can easily hold your breath for a second so there is no need to slow down the entire sequence of movements just to insert an artificial breathe. But if the movements require four, five, or six seconds of strenuous movements it is time to consider where and when you might want to breathe.
If you listen to different senior martial artists discuss eye contact you will find some striking differences of opinion. Some will say they like to stare directly into their opponent’s eyes to instill fear and intimidation in the opponent. Others will say they never look at the eyes but instead focus on good peripheral vision so they can see anything coming from any direction.
You can easily find situations where both opinions have merit. But we lean more toward the latter approach for the following reasons:
- Making direct eye contact may intimidate your opponent, but it may also invite them to attack you. If that is your intent, then fine, but realize this is a significant possible outcome of direct eye contact.
- Looking directly into the eyes narrows your vision and you will be less likely to notice movement from an opponent’s friends or to see movement initiated by your opponent’s feet.
- Focusing on the area of your opponent’s eyes allows them to perform “eye fakes” in which they suddenly flare or squint their eyes in an attempt to get you to commit to some movement which they will use to their advantage.
From our perspective it is better to have a wide gaze with a non-specific focus so that you observe and notice everything that is going on around you. For this reason, and those mentioned above, we strive to avoid direct eye contact unless a specific situation suggests that direct eye contact is somehow warranted.
Lifting the Feet
When you walk naturally you lift one leg, place it forward of the other and then shift your weight onto the front leg. Then you lift the other leg, place it in front, and repeat the process until you reach your destination. That is certainly normal.
But conflict is not normal. Anytime you lift a leg you are standing on only one foot. This makes you susceptible to strikes, jostling, throws, and attacks against your pedestal leg. Raising a foot off of the ground is a habit you will want to break very soon.
Keeping both feet on the ground at all times (except if you are in the process of kicking, which for the above reasons, is also risky) provides you with the best stability and structural integrity. As you move slide your foot along the ground rather than lifting it. This allows you to quickly put weight on that leg if you a forced to move in that direction. Something you will be unable to do if the foot is in the air.
When practicing Kata develop the habit of leaving your feet continually on the ground except in those cases where a kick or stance requires the leg to be raised. All steps should be done with a foot that remains in constant contact with the ground. The foot should not lift off the floor for even a microsecond. This is not easy to do, but it should remain a training goal every time you practice a form.
As mentioned before, fighting can be injurious to your health. It sounds romantic and macho, but it is in reality very dangerous. Broken noses, broken eye sockets (and possible loss of an eye), missing teeth, broken hands or arms, and lasting groin injuries are all potential outcomes from a fight – and that is just for the winner. The loser could fair far worse if they lose consciousness, suffer a serious beating, or encounter an opponent with a concealed weapon of some sort.
Avoid a fight whenever possible. Make yourself look like a coward if necessary, escape through trickery if possible, or simply walk away, but avoid fighting except when you have no other option. Even if you were to win, everyone loses in the end. You may suffer permanent injuries, your opponent may be injured, and you (or your parents) are sure to be sued (even if the opponent was the instigator, he or she may still sue you). Your goal in these situations, as the more experienced and mature practitioner, is to ensure nobody gets hurt. That is best accomplished by ensuring nobody is hit.
This is clearly not to say you cannot defend yourself. Escape whenever you can. Thwart an attacker whenever possible. Destroy the opponent’s ability to fight when necessary. Use the most appropriate tool from the ETD Model, but do your best to avoid a fight.
From time to time over the years I have noticed students performing a particularly bad hand movement or posture. I’ve often wondered where they got the idea for that movement only to discover that I am doing it myself and the students are merely copying me in the hope that they are moving correctly. This doesn’t mean my movements were incorrect (though sometimes they were), but it means the students were mimicking a movement they did not fully understand and were perhaps using it at an incorrect time or in an inappropriate manner.
You will undoubtedly find yourself copying the movements or behaviors of your instructors. This is only natural. You view the instructor as the keeper of knowledge and feel that their movements must, by definition, be correct. But alas, that is not always the case. We are all human and all fall into incorrect usage or behaviors at times.
When you find that you are simply copying a movement but do not really understand why, ask your instructor why that movement is used. Know why you are doing something and avoid simply mimicking the movements of others without rational justification. Perhaps you are simply copying a personal behavior pattern of an instructor who, in truth, would prefer you use some other behavior. The instructor may be using some more advanced conceptual knowledge that you are not quite ready for yet and therefore copying these movements may actually put you at a disadvantage. Strive to know why something is done and avoid simply copying a movement or behavior.
This same thing applies to Kata. You do not need to the do a given Kata in the same way your instructor does it. You will be required to do the same movements in the same order, but you can opt for different timing and varying levels of speed and intensity that are distinct from your instructor’s movements. This adds a bit of creativity, personal style, and personalization to the Kata, but more importantly it allows you to explore a variety of different Bunkai so that you derive maximum benefit from the study of the Kata. A good goal is to never do the same Kata the same way twice.