"Boards don't hit back": Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

So, in order to learn to strike a "live" opponent the way we would strike a "dead" target, we need more than bags and shields. We need to learn timing skills - skills that comprise appropriate, if not optimal, reactions.

Sparring is going to test these skills, but won't necessarily teach them. What will teach these skills are drills: drills comprising elements of techniques isolated for practise. But as we've seen, such drills will probably not teach literal fighting techniques (ie. "when he does this, you do that").

Principles vs. techniques

So if martial arts drills don't teach literal fighting techniques, what do they teach? As one of my colleagues at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums is fond of saying, martial arts drills teach principles - not techniques.

When you are taught a martial arts drill you learn a general principle of movement; an appropriate reaction using the correct biomechanics, optimal positioning and other tactics. You learn things like methods of evasion and other body movement. You learn to use friction grips. You develop a productive flinch reflex. You learn angles of deflection. You learn principles of stepping. You learn not to over-commit to techniques. You strive to eliminate inefficient movement. You learn concepts of "flow". You learn when to tense and when to relax. You learn the secret of an effective guard. And so on.

There are so many, many principles that drills develop that this list is endless. And these principles are conveyed in martial drills in much the same way as principles are conveyed by tennis and golf drills. The difference is that in the latter activities, the drills also teach literal technique (ie. "if he does this, you do that"). This level of particularity is rarely possible in the exponentially variable and chaotic world of fighting.

Okay, so now I've learned some principles of unarmed combat. But which of these are going to teach me what I really want to know - how to time my strikes so that I "get" him and he doesn't "get" me?

Limitations of the stimulus/response model

Most drills today - whether traditional or eclectic/reality-based - follow the same model. There is an attack and you evade/deflect it, then counter. These are the classic "stimulus/response" drills to which I referred previously. They teach both evasion and/or deflection and counter attack. The counter attack should, ideally, be delivered as soon after the interception/deflection/evasion of the attack as possible (if not "simultaneously").

The stimulus/response model seems quite appropriate, particularly given my earlier discussion about the primary goal of civilian defence being "not to get hit". But, I hear you ask, why is it that this still doesn't really provide me with a ready "bridge to reality" - however much contact and protective gear my partners and I might use? Why is it that these drills still fail to give me a satisfying, scientific approach to "hitting him before he hits me"? After all, if we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that the moment we go into sparring, most of these drills never see the light of day - neither literally nor "in principle". In other words, at the first sign of a dynamic environment - of chaos, if you will - the drills are forgotten, and people default to "faux boxing".

And it's no use asserting (as one fellow said to me in one of my radio interviews) "that's because I'd have to kill you". Yeah - right! This is nothing if not a a big cop-out. After more than 30 years I know well enough when someone is in position in sparring to have dealt me a serious injury, but he/she chose not to. And I know all too well that many "grand techniques" taught in drills fail to make an appearance in sparring - even in "principle". Sparring might not be real fighting - but if you can't even start to apply a principle from a drill against someone who is "play fighting" you, what chance do you have when he is really fighting you? We're back to the start: what the heck do you do if the board hits back?

"Standing starts": the fundamental problem

The biggest issue with stimulus/response drills is that they usually start from a stationary position. This is quite understandable. Confrontations have to start somewhere, and often it is with the typical "push and shove" which are largely (though not necessarily) committed from a "standing start".

While it is certainly important to learn how to deal with "standing start" attacks, it is worth remembering that the "push and shove" comprises only a very small portion of most fights. Yes, the initial attack can often determine the outcome of the conflict, but regardless we need to keep in mind that the first attack occurs in less than a second. So even if you fight only for another 30 seconds, this will mean that the "standing start" portion will comprise less than 1/30 of the total "fight time". Yet many martial arts drills are focus exclusively on the "standing start" component.

Furthermore, while the first blow can often determine the outcome of the fight, you have to remember that you might not be the one to land it. You might be the victim of a "sucker punch". Or your attacker might be faster. Or you might just be "caught napping".

Even if you get the first punch in, you can't rely on it being determinative. It might not do the kind of "damage" you imagine. I have personally hit an attacker, only to be surprised at how little it did to "stop" him. The grand theories of dim mak (vital point striking) and "ikken hitto" (one punch, certain defeat) all seem to fall by the wayside when you are facing a determined, powerful opponent.

Don't get me wrong: I'm more than happy to train so as to deal with the first attack decisively. Stimulus/response drills are excellent for this. They develop the right flinch reflex, to some extent they groove automatic responses that can function despite the "adrenaline dump" etc. But I wouldn't be putting all my eggs in the basket labelled "I'll always beat him on the first attack".

My fundamental question remains: what is it that will give me the skills I need to ensure that if I can't end the fight on the first attack, I will on the second or third? What drill can teach me better timing than my opponent - ie. optimal responses in a dynamic environment?

Side-track No. 1: denying late initiative

As I discuss in my article "The flinch reflex" I think it is likely, if not inevitable, that during an attack you will be "surprised" enough to be "on the back foot". In other words, you will have to deflect, evade or both - and only then counter. A "simultaneous" and decisive defence/counter won't always be open to you.

I hold this to be self-evident. None of is are perfect. No training device can help you avoid completely the possibility (if not the probability) that you'll be dealing with an attack using "late initiative" and that you'll have to "claw back a position of dominance" after that.

Yet many martial artists today will imply the opposite. They assert the (obvious) preferableness of maintaining a position of dominance from the start - as if this assertion were some kind of guarantee that your preference will be realized. I hold this argument to be nothing more than an obfuscation.

The question I posed remains: how in the world do I learn to hit him before he hits me? Okay, you've shown me how to do it from a "standing start" where I have sufficient opportunity to "seize initiative" immediately. But what if I've just been surprised or overwhelmed? How do I "claw back a position of dominance" if a melee exchange has already begun and I'm not dictating the terms (shutting down his attacks, etc.)? What element of "timing" allows a good fighter to "turn the tables" where others succumb?

"Standing start" drills don't even begin to address this - especially when they assume that you'll always be able to "seize the initiative" from the "get-go". Rather than answer this question, the "late initiative deniers" are simply avoiding it.

Side-track No. 2: string attacks

Many martial artists put all their eggs into another basket, namely what I call "string attacks".

Typically string attack drills (also called "complexes" or "chain attacks") involve a furious response to an initial "standing start" attack - ie. a string of counter attacks that overwhelm or "bulldoze" the opponent into submission.

Like the "late initiative deniers", some proponents of string attacks assume that initiative can always be seized for the outset. Accordingly all of my comments in the previous paragraphs apply equally here. Certainly "string attack" drills don't address the question of "turning the tables" or "clawing back" initiative.

Otherwise, these drills are very impressive. But, like my old man's bag punching, impressive doesn't necessarily equal applicable against a "live" target. In my article on "string attacks" I discuss issues with these drills, the foremost being lack of predictive ability: The drills often assume a stationary opponent, where in reality, a resistive opponent in dynamic environment is going to be moving - doing anything but standing there, taking your "string attacks" on the chin, nose, groin etc.

American kempo is big on string attacks or "complexes"

And not only is the opponent moving, but he will almost certainly be actively resisting your attacks. In other words, he will fight back. By now it should be apparent how I came to choose the title to this essay; the "board" won't just stand there. It will "hit back".

The most sophisticated string attack drills attempt to address this issue by "shutting down" responses. And I have some time for this. Such drills can be an invaluable part of civilian defence strategy. But in reality, chaos theory should tell you that you can't predict with any certainty that you'll be doing "X" at "Y" time during a fight. You'll be lucky to predict the next move, never mind the next 10. Even the best designed string attack drill can't guarantee any kind of "shut down". Different people will respond in different ways. Chaos theory tells us this.

To give you just one example, I once had a student in a sleeper hold on the ground. He was face-down and I was on his back. Unbeknown to me, the student was a contortionist; he bent his back double and cracked me on the temple with his heels - sharp blows that had me lying dazed on the ground next to him a second later.

And you needn't just look to the above, extreme, case for evidence of "predictive failure". Because I have yet to see a "string attack" drill that featured optimal responses to your string attacks. Most of the responses built into the drill are token. Others are realistic enough - but certainly not optimal.

Attack as the sole form of defence: what's wrong with both side-tracks

By now the central problem with both of the above "side-tracks" should be obvious: they base an entire strategy on attack. In other words, they use attack as defence. Blocks/deflections and evasions - anything that is not directly part of the attack - are denigrated as "impossible to apply" or "inefficient" or "ineffective" or "vastly inferior technology". Both the "late initiative denier" and the "string attack proponent" argue that "attack is the best form of defence".

I can't help but think back to my old man, slugging away at the bag. The only thing that is different is the form of drill. Otherwise the core premise is the same: just concentrate on hitting hard and hitting fast. Everything else will work itself out. But it won't. All the above approaches are valid and indeed vital forms of training. But the fact remains that boards, bags, "standing start attackers" and "string drill victims" don't hit back. But real attackers do.

So can we identify the "missing link" that helps us address this issue?

Rephrasing Bruce Lee's quote

I mentioned at the start that civilian defence had a subtly, but profoundly, different goal to sport or military defence strategies. Instead of "hurting", civilian defence focuses on "not being hurt". And that, dear reader, is the key to resolving this conundrum.

In this article I have deliberately done what most martial artists do: focus on attack - attack from a "standing start", attack as defence, attack in a dynamic environment and a counter to an attack.

But the real issue, one that has slipped into the background, is defence - both your own and your attacker's.

I think that the best way to express my point is to rephrase Bruce Lee's initial quote. What if he hadn't said what he did. What if, after O'Hara broke the board, Lee had slowly, and emphatically, said:
    "Boards... don't thwart attacks."
The actor Bob Wall probably would have burst into laughter. And the dialog would have been truly crappy. But maybe, just maybe, Lee would have said something that wasn't trite (for a change).

Because the issue isn't that dead targets "don't hit back". The problem is that they don't stop you hitting them. In other words, what stops you applying your bagwork and other drills to resistant opponents doesn't depend on whether your attacker is going to hit you; that issue impacts on your defensive strategies - not your offensive ones. The main thing that differentiates your ability to attack "dead" targets as opposed to "live" ones is that the latter generally don't let you hit them! In other words, they resist or thwart you with defensive measures as much as they might attack you.

Sure, some attacks function as both defences and attacks "simultaneously". But not all defences and counters are "simultaneous"; watch any fight - on a street or in a ring - and you'll see many, many purely defensive measures. And, as I've discussed previously, even when defences and counters are "simultaneous" the defence component will almost always precede the attack, if even by a millisecond. In other words, to understand the dynamics of a fight we need to understand that defence and attack can't just be lumped together. Conflating them simply buys into the sort of false assumption propagated by "late initiative deniers" and obscures important data.

So it is worth repeating: "hitting back" isn't what stops you from landing your punches against a resistant opponent. It's a problem, for sure. You have to watch out that you don't get smacked. But what stops you from landing your punches is the fact that your opponent is not letting them land! It's really that simple.

Accordingly, if you want to land blows on a "live" target, you need to understand how your opponent will thwart them. Inevitably, this will be followed or accompanied by a counter. But the first thing your opponent will do in a dynamic, melee range environment will be to thwart your attack. He/she will stop it, evade it, deflect it or neutralize it. The counter comes second - even if by a millisecond.

Again, I'm not talking about your opponent simply hitting you first; as I've said, that is a question of your defence failing (whether this is because you launched an inappropriate attack or otherwise). I'm talking about your opponent using a defensive measure to prevent your attack succeeding. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the problem. It is the "forgotten elephant in the room".

They say that if you define a problem, you are half-way to solving it. So what's the other half?

A part answer: drills that address what happens when your attacks fail

I don't have a panacea for the eternal question of how to bridge the gap between the dojo and the street. But I have at least one method of addressing timing in a melee exchange. It might not be much, but it is a method that trains appropriate, even optimal, reactions for when your opponent has thwarted your attack. What is it?

I have outlined this approach in my article "Really USING your kata". Essentially it is (somewhat strangely) the exact opposite of the "decisive", "bulldozing" drills where you overwhelm your opponent. It involves drills where your partner thwarts your attacks - and thwarts them in the most optimal way. In other words, it involves putting you in a situation where your attack fails.

The next part of the drill is just as important. You need to find the way to thwart your opponent's (optimal) counter. Just because your attack has failed, doesn't mean that you have to get hit, or that you can't turn the tables (ie. "claw back a position of dominance"). In doing so, your response also needs to be optimal (because there's no reason to groove sub-optimal reactions).

In fact, you don't want either side "losing" - because that side will be knowingly launching a doomed attack; he/she will be "learning to lose"! In order to work, both attacker and defender must have optimal responses.

What should be obvious by now is that this set-up poses one immediate "problem": how can such a drill ever end if both sides are thwarting attacks and launching optimal counters?

The answer, as I detail in the article referred to above, is to create a "looping" drill; one where the sides swap - ie. what I've previously described as a "rock, paper, scissors" format. It is a format that is as old as the most ancient martial art of the Far East - xingyi (see my article "Cracking the xingyi code").

I can see why this isn't popular. It doesn't look "sexy". It isn't impressive. Next to a "reality-based" practitioner's simple "standing start" drills it looks overly complex, detailed and pre-arranged. Next to a "steamrolling" attack string it looks positively pedestrian and contrived. Generally speaking, it looks "unrealistic" and formal.

But I really don't care about "appearances". I don't care that it is "unimpressive" compared to other, simpler drills. It doesn't teach literal techniques. It teaches principles - principles that are not being taught anywhere else. It teaches you principles that apply when your attack fails.

Our gekisai embu which teaches you principles relevant to when your attacks fail


I started this article by posing a question: how do you train the kind of timing that allows you to land blows on your opponent, but not to have blows land on you? How can one train to do to a "live" target what one typically does to a "dead" one - be it a board, a bag or a shield?

We all know that striking things is important. So is sparring. We know that "standing start" drills can teach us vital principles, if not literal techniques. Furthermore learning consecutive "string attacks" or "complexes" gives you great practice in combinations.

But overwhelmingly today, the trend is toward training attacks. Attacks against bags, attacks as defences, attacks in combination. This is great and I'm not saying this isn't important. But what's missing? Defence is what is missing - in particular the defence required immediately after your own attack has failed.

A few weeks ago a fellow wrote to me by email and asked the following question:
    "What is it that you exactly teach? In your articles, you talk about "Civilian self defense" and how Karate is good for self defense in most cases i agree, but in your video's i see you doing ( Very good) traditional Karate. What i don't see is scenario training, like one student is the attacker and starts of with verbal agression, then starts pushing and then takes a swing at the defender of if a guy grabs you by your clothing and slams you in the wall, that kind of training is for me a must for self defense training."
What this correspondent wanted to know is why I don't appear to promote "standing start" drills of the kind one sees in "reality-based" schools (I do practise them - I just don't push them to the fore in my videos or in this blog). The answer, as you can see, is not a short one. Why? Because in explaining my perspective I've had to address the many, many unwritten, unspoken assumptions martial artists routinely make.

The truth is that if you want to do to a "live" opponent what you can do to a "dead" target, you need more than attacking skills. You need to know what to do when your attack fails. For this you need drills that have you both attacking and defending. And your partner needs to be doing the same thing.

It might not be "satisfying" going without a "finishing blow". But there are other drills for that. "Finishing blows" are, after all, attacks. At the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts, we train them every day, against bags, shields, in kata, in bunkai, in "standing start" drills, etc. On the other hand most martial artists never train to deal with the failure of their attacks.

And this is something you have to do if you ever want to figure out why your carefully wrought attack plans don't play out in sparring or in the street. You can't just ignore this issue, hoping that it will somehow work itself out through a mixture of bagwork, sparring and attack-centred drills. You might fumble your way to a part-solution through the school of hard-knocks, but it sure as heck ain't a scientific or efficient method of training. If you're serious about it, you need to tackle the issue head-on.

Because boards... don't thwart attacks.

Further reading: Pre-arranged Sparring: Definition, Purpose and Value by SooShimKwan

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. (response to response from part I)

    My apologies for the lack of clarity. I was speaking in generalities regarding what I believe to be over-arching shortcomings in training as related to "the missing link between practice and application," you were addressing a specific issue. I'll try to clarify my framework of thought. :)

    Broadly speaking, I was attempting to intimate that each of the combinations I mention above present (at least one) gap, and the gap for each combination is different, and should be addressed differently. Your article delves into detail regarding one such gap, which I would probably place in either the "partner + rules" or "partner - power" bucket, depending on the exercise; it depends on how your Uke is preventing your attack from succeeding. You outlined this in your part II descriptions of the limitations of various drills. I think your "part answer" yields a reasonable and valuable exercise, with the caveat that there are definitely "rules": a programmed loop with specific techniques. This does not reduce it's value.

    I concur with your evaluation of the limitions of solo work, sparring, and standing start drills, when performed as outlined. Obviously, each of the aforementioned categories can have drills structured a myriad of different ways, and the proposed solution still falls under my rubric of "partner + rules." Note that any tuple of the triplet doesn't define what the focus or focii of a given exercise should be: technique, timing, balance, flow, recovery, speed, footwork, etc. In case of your article, the focus is timing with optimal response when attacks fail.

    If it's not too obtuse an analogy, if a "real fight" or "putting into application" is a circle, all of our training exercises are doing is shaving straight lines off a square (or triangle might be more appropriate here), trying to acclimate ourselves some element of the "real deal" in order to get closer to that perfect circle shape. When we notice another gap in our training (a pointy bit on the edge of the circle), we have to come up with something to address it -- which will obviously have it's own gap in the big scheme of things. As long as we are aware of that, we can use the exercise effectively.

    My intent was not to present a concrete solution to any specific gap, nor critique your solution. I'm suggesting a way to look at training excercises and assess "what portion of this is artificial?" The answer should help focus on a complementary exercise to address that gap. From my perspective, your article is an elucidation of exactly the type of process I go through when I find a new gap or learn a new exercise; if I think in terms of power, persons, and rules, and drill down from there.

  2. Thanks for your informative and thought-provoking response.

  3. @Unfiltered,

    With such a contemplative mind, it is a pity you don't post more articles on your blog. It would have been nice to read more of your ideas on martial arts.

  4. I was just thinking that myself.

    I visited your blog Unfiltered and I noticed you hadn't posted in a long while. Might this be a good thought to post up there?

    I hope to read more.

  5. Well, thank you. I haven't posted in a quite a while. (New, more time-consuming day job means I have a tendency to train, given the choice between training and writing.)

    But, perhaps a little encouragement is what I need to find to time to get back to some writing. :)

  6. Cool. you used my question in one of your articles

  7. In one of the first conversations we ever had, I remember engaging in a drill with you that confused me greatly. I tried to land a reverse punch, and you evaded and countered. That much I had expected. As a drill, one person learned how to attack, one person learned how to counter attack. But you pointed out the great weakness in my “attacking” side of the bargain- I didn’t learn what to do once the other person had defended. Truly, once I had been thwarted I didn’t know what to do other than stand there and wait for the drill to be over. This happened once in free sparring with a friend of a different discipline- he had entered the melee range and landed a number of consecutive, clean attacks on me, and I lowered my guard and backed away expecting him to stop because it was clear he had the upper hand from that exchange. He didn’t, and continued to attack me until I started bleeding from the eyebrow. I had no notion of what to do when my attack (or rather, my defence) failed.
    Never once, in all my martial education, had I invested any effort into training my defence. In all those static drills, and in my faux boxing sparring, all I had ever needed to win was to “hit the other guy”, preferably so hard and often they weren't able to recover and I was “victorious”. But when I tried to attack you and failed, you taught me the very new lesson that if a person’s defence is very good, then it negates even the best attack. To put it in video game terms (which, for some reason, makes it easier for me to understand), if a player invests a lot on his character’s strength but not on his accuracy or defence, then he will be utterly defeated by a player whose character has superior defence and reasonable accuracy/strength.
    I know from my experience that the surprise of missing a committed, full powered attack which I was certain would land creates a window more than large enough for an effective counter. It’s very confusing to expect to hit true and hard, only to feel air and imbalance instead.

    A very witty and well-reasoned article!

  8. Thanks Xin. I remember our first discussion well. It was in Donnybrook near our parked cars.

    "I know from my experience that the surprise of missing a committed, full powered attack which I was certain would land creates a window more than large enough for an effective counter. It’s very confusing to expect to hit true and hard, only to feel air and imbalance instead."

    Curiously and synchronously, this is the very topic on which I have been writing an article this last week!


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