Practice What You Are Bad At
We all have things that we feel comfortable doing. Likewise, we all have things we feel are uncomfortable or that we know we are not performing properly. If you are good at something then additional practice will yield only small improvements. If you are really bad at something, then additional practice will likely yield more substantial improvements. This does not mean you should focus entirely on practicing skills where you are lacking. But it does mean you should not ignore these skills either. A good rule of thumb is to spend half of your practice working to perfect those things you are already good at, and then spend the other half tackling those skills where you have a significant deficiency. This is the area where you are likely to have the most profound insights that will change you as a martial artist.
You might also consider working on areas where you require the most improvement first. That helps ensure you won’t cut training short when you become frustrated with a difficult or complex skill.
There is a great deal of psychology involved in movement. As you practice movement you should begin to notice how each movement affects you mentally. What do you feel when you do the movement? What do you see?
But movements not only impact yourself, they impact your training partner or opponent as well. If you move your hand up and outward slightly, how does your opponent respond? Does their body reposition in any way? Do their eyes track the movement? Do they become more aggressive or more cautious?
People do not always act the same way when exposed to the same stimuli. Someone who is very sure of themselves at one moment may react differently to the same stimulus than they will if they are less confident. You may find you can make someone who is very aggressive into someone who is timider by eroding their confidence. This is dependent upon circumstances and may not be entirely predictable. Sometimes you can do this easily, and sometimes it is much more trouble than it is worth.
At times all you need to do is display extreme self-confidence yourself. This may cause your opponent to think that perhaps they had better reconsider their actions. Of course, at other times this may simply lead the person to attack you immediately. Either can work out well for you.
Psychology has many other uses that involve distorting a person’s perceptions. You might make a person believe you are larger or smaller by how you hold your head or bend your knees. You might appear more frail or vulnerable if you round or slouch your shoulders. Conversely, you may appear more dominant if you raise and square your shoulders. Pretending to look away nervously may lead a potential opponent to think you lack confidence or determination, while a steely-eyed stare may convey extreme confidence.
You can also use psychology to reposition yourself without your opponent noticing you have moved. Raising one or both hands slightly in a simple gesture may cause the other person to track your hands. This allows you the opportunity to subtly turn one or both of your feet so that your hips and knees are technically repositioned. You want to do this in a way that does not transmit these shifts in position through the torso of your body. If you can do that then the opponent is unlikely to notice you have moved. This is an effective way of positioning yourself behind your opponent before they have even moved.
Using the above idea you might raise your hands to disguise a movement and to plead with the other person to let you leave peacefully. It seems to be a weak gesture, especially if your hands are open with the palms upward near your face. The other person will likely see this as a sign of weakness and perhaps cowardice. We see it as an effective guard position from which we can readily manipulate an attacking opponent, quickly strike with Onna No Atemi Waza, or extend our already-positioned fingers to the eyes.
Psychology has unlimited applications in the study of movements between yourself and an opponent. Contemplate how various closing strategies are psychological ploys to trick the opponent. Study how striking at the Gedan level provides you with an opportunity to immediately strike to the Jodan level. Notice how a smile or a frown can have an immediate impact on the opponent’s demeanor and behavior during a conflict. Consider how you might use a display of cowardice to your advantage. These are but a few of the innumerable ways in which you can use psychology as an essential part of your martial arts skillset.
Using Clothing as a Weapon
In a life-threatening confrontation, much of what you may be wearing could be used as a weapon. If you are wearing high heel shoes then a simple law of physics can come to your aid. If you press down swiftly with your entire leg then all of this force can be focused through the very small area of the back heel spike on these shoes. This is a lot of force delivered to a small area. If you drive this down into the top of someone’s foot it is likely to be very injurious and quite painful. Then ditch the potentially damaged shoes and run.
In a similar vein, you might use the toe portion of a steel-toe boot to good effect. A well-placed kick may put an end to an attacker’s plans. The downside is these boots tend to be fairly heavy, making them tiring for sustained kicking and a bit of an encumbrance when running.
A drawstring from a jacket or sweatshirt might be used to ensnare an attacker’s wrist. This might provide you with an effective control mechanism, but it might also bind you to your attacker. It is, therefore, useful to employ cordage so that you can easily release it when appropriate or necessary.
Some long-sleeve clothing may have metal zippers or buttons near the bottom of the sleeve. These make good contact weapons when striking to vulnerable locations such as the eyes. And no, we are not advocating that you wear spiked wrist bands as part of your everyday street attire.
Even a heavy jacket can be used in some situations. The jacket near the crook of the elbow may afford you protection while you place it over the mouth and nose of an opponent to gain temporary control. You must be extremely careful to avoid suffocating the other person so this must be considered to be a temporary way of gaining control. At the earliest opportunity, you will need to find a different control mechanism (their hair?) and open the airway for the opponent. Fatally smothering a person in this way, even in a self-defense situation is almost certain to be considered as an unjustifiable homicide by law enforcement. It’s also a pretty terrible thing to do to another person when you have other means of control at your disposal.
A belt can be an effective ensnarement, striking, and control tool, but can be difficult to deploy in a hurry. But if your belt is sufficiently sturdy and can be removed quickly then it may be a useful tool in a self-defense situation. If you use a belt to control someone by placing it around the neck then you must ensure the weapon (which is what it has become at this point) does not cause permanent brain injury or death to the attacker.
In a self-defense situation, you are unlikely to be carrying a Jo or a similar weapon. You might have a concealed weapon of some sort, but even this may be ineffective if you are suddenly surprised. If you find you are suddenly in a defensive situation then take a quick mental note of what portions of your attire might aid you in your defense. Better yet, know that in advance.
Variable Timing (changing speed)
A useful skill to develop is the ability to vary your timing to good effect. Humans are very good at recognizing patterns. Pattern recognition occurs both consciously and unconsciously (but probably not when you are unconscious). You can use this psychological aspect of human behavior to your advantage.
Let’s say you have thrown four blistering fast strikes toward your opponent’s face, all of which he or she successfully avoided in some manner. You have established a pattern. The opponent thinks they have you figured out. Now advance very slowly and at the last instant strike at high speed. This often works because the opponent does not expect this very slow approach. They have become accustomed to fast movements and may not even notice a slower approach strategy.
Naturally, you can move slowly until you have established a pattern as well. The other person may then be surprised by a sudden burst of speed.
But hidden in these two examples is an underlying problem. In both examples, you have established a pattern. Your opponent will notice. In some cases, this is exactly what you want. You want to trick the opponent so they fall for your scheme. But if you are not doing this as a deliberate ploy, then your opponent will find a way to take advantage of you. To avoid setting patterns train yourself to operate at different speeds and with different overall timing. Vary your timing consistently so there is no discernible pattern. It will help to confuse the other person and make it much more difficult for them to anticipate what you will do next.
In some martial arts styles breaking boards and concrete blocks is a fundamental part of their training. The idea is that you must toughen your body so it can withstand this type of contact. In doing so you help ensure your strikes will be devastating to an opponent.
It is hard to dispute that this type of training will strengthen the bones and soft tissues in your striking surfaces. It has been scientifically demonstrated that repeated impacts of moderate-intensity help build bone mass and makes bones denser (Wolff’s Law).
But there is more to breaking boards (or concrete blocks) than simply the strength of your hands, feet, or elbows. You can break a board pretty readily without the extensive strengthening of bodily striking surfaces (this is not always true for something like a concrete block). The key to breaking boards is primarily focusing. Do not strike at the surface of the board or a painful and unsuccessful breaking effort is likely to result. Instead, focus your efforts several inches through and beyond the board. This focus will generally allow you to press directly through the board without much effort. You will likely experience little or no pain (provided you have a good punching form). You must strike quickly and with extreme focus. Once you can do that the average pine or fir 12”x12”x3/4” board will break rather easily. Boards made of hardwoods are very hard to break. Don’t even think about trying to break a maple board unless you have trained for it extensively.
On occasion, you will find a pine or fir board that is nearly impossible to break. I can remember one such board that several instructors, including myself, found nearly impossible to break. Several days later someone was finally able to break it with a Yoko Geri (he was not the only one to have kicked it), but it was a very challenging board. Most boards break on the first try, but sometimes you will find a tough one.
Breaking boards is not a fundamental skill, but it is something people enjoy as a challenge. Once you know you can break a board, it becomes less interesting. There are artificial reusable breakaway boards that simulate the effects of breaking boards without the splinters, sawdust and waste pile of demolished lumber.
We do not require anyone to break boards. There is a significant risk of injury to your hands, wrist, and arm when you attempt to break boards. If you want to challenge yourself then go ahead. Just be sure to use proper form and use an artificial board or a board that is likely to break (certainly avoid oak, ironwood, maple or other hardwoods). Again, we do not require that anyone practice or attempt to break boards. You assume full risk for any injuries you sustain in such an attempt.
Tighten Muscles When Being Struck
When you are being struck it is critical that you immediately tighten the muscles in the potential target area. This isn’t always beneficial or possible. Tightening the muscles in your face may not protect your nose. But tightening your jaw muscles could protect your mandible, teeth, and tongue (assuming you have kept it in your mouth).
If you are kicked or punched in the abdomen then you will want to tighten your abdominal muscles to lessen the penetrative power of the strike. Behind your abdominal muscles are your stomach, intestines, liver, and pancreas. These are all vital organs. If these are torn, detached, or otherwise damaged you could experience some significant and potentially fatal complications. Learn to tighten your abdominal muscles as a simple reflex so that any strike to this region of the body results in an automatic tensing of the affected muscles.
Tensing a muscle may help protect the muscle itself as well. If you are struck in the thigh, then tightening the targeted muscle may make it less susceptible to damage. As in this example, many muscles cover bone structures that are susceptible to impact injury. Tensing a muscle just before impact may afford you some additional protection for underlying bones and soft tissues.
Once a strike has occurred you must immediately relax the muscle so that you can more readily move in the future and so that you are expending less energy. Tense only those muscles that you need at the moment.
There may be some benefit to tightening a muscle at the moment of the initial impact and then relaxing the muscle to more broadly absorb subsequent energy. This is taught as a more advanced method for dealing with impacts. It takes significant skill and its benefits may be somewhat limited since it is difficult to both flex and then relax affected muscles within the short duration of a rapid strike. Still, there are benefits to exploring every possible advantage.
You will want to pay a great deal of attention to muscle tension. Most people, particularly those who are relatively new to martial arts and sparring have far too much muscle tension in their bodies. They waste energy and slow their reaction times by carrying excess tension in their shoulders, legs, back, and neck. These muscles should be as relaxed as possible and only tensed when that action is necessitated. Tensing a muscle is needed when you wish to use that muscle for movement or when you need that muscle to act as a shield against a strike targeting that part of your anatomy. Otherwise, the muscle should be generally relaxed.
Open Versus Closed Hands
At this level of training, you should begin to use open-handed blocking techniques when you see little risk of injury. Open hand blocks are usually faster and more powerful than closed hand blocks. They also then allow you to encircle and snare an appendage at the completion of the block or to move quickly into a subsequent open or closed hand movement.
When practicing Kata, kicks, and anything requiring that your hands be placed in a guard position, try to use an open-hand guard. This facilitates the use of open-hand blocks and will provide you with the means by which you can better manipulate and control opponents.
Of course, this does not mean you should abandon closed hand blocking altogether. It is still prudent to block kicks with a closed hand. It can still be beneficial to use the rotational delivery associated with a Chudan Uke or Ura Chudan Uke to control and manipulation an opponent.
What we would like to see is that you are able to use open hand blocking and guard positions predominantly and then apply closed hand methods when they are appropriate.