“Boards don’t hit back”: Part 1

The missing link between practice and application


There is a famous scene in Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” where the character O’Hara (played by Bob Wall) holds up a board in front of Lee’s face and breaks it with a punch. Lee stares back unblinkingly and says, slowly and emphatically:
    “Boards… don’t hit back”
That line is a fairly typical example of Bruce Lee’s philosophy. Nowadays people would say that it was trite. However in its day the statement was quite novel, at least in the wider public’s eye. You have to remember that up until the end of the ’70s traditional Asian martial arts were regarded by many in the West as exotic and mysterious - if not supernatural. People were deeply impressed by traditional demonstrations. And board-breaking was common in these, especially in the case of karate which was “king” of the martial arts until Bruce Lee started everyone “kung fu fighting”.

Of course, even back in the early ’70s experienced fighters knew what most people know today: hitting a “dead” target, however forcefully, doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to hit someone who is actively resisting your attack. In order to be a good fighter, you need to do more than practise hitting things that “don’t hit back”.

“Boards... don’t hit back” - Bruce Lee’s famous line from Enter the Dragon

And so, the question still arises for martial artists of all styles and methods: What should you practise in order to bridge the gap between the dojo and the street?

The goal

In order to examine this question, we first need to define the goal shared by civilian defence oriented martial artists. It is, I suppose, quite obvious, but it is still worth articulating clearly. The goal is not to get hurt.

As I discuss in my article “Civilian defence systems”, this is subtly, but significantly, different from combat sports (where the goal is "to win") and military engagement (where the goal is to "neutralise").

In relation to both sport and military defence one could broadly say that the objective is "to hurt", rather than merely "not to get hurt". Yes, civilian defence might well necessitate "hurting" your opponent. But it isn't your goal. In civilian defence, you "win" if you walk away unscathed - even if your opponent does too. If you can talk or run your way out of trouble, so much the better. If not, then you do what you have to do (but no more than that, according to the laws of most modern societies).

To the extent that this distinction matters, I'll expand on this concept later. But for the time being however, let us assume that there is no real difference between civilian defence and sport or military defence. Let us assume that the common goal is "to strike and not be struck".

Training for the goal

So now that we have established our goal, what do we need to do to achieve it? Clearly breaking boards and hitting targets generally is not going to "cut it".

Bruce Lee's statement gives you an insight into his "solution". Boards might not hit back - but you should. Lee had a very proactive system of civilian defence which he called "Jeet Kune Do" meaning "the way of the intercepting fist". The philosophy behind his system was/is that you should intercept your opponent's attack with your own. In other words, it was geared at "hitting your opponent before he hits you". As Lee once said: "If someone grabs you, punch him."

Given his famous speed in movement, it is unsurprising that this should have been the cornerstone of Bruce Lee's system. But what does this mean for those of us who don't have natural ability in speed? How do we train to "hit first"?

Sports scientists will tell you that no matter how hard you train, you can't change the nature of your muscle fibres. Some people are born to be fast, others for endurance, others for nothing in particular! Yes, you can improve your physical strength and fitness, and this is important. But unless we're comparing a couch potato with a professional athlete, the differences in speed attributable to training are fairly minimal.

Put another way, you should do what you can to be better, however in the end you can't change what you were born to be. Unless you're born with the right muscle fibre you're never going to be as fast as Bruce Lee.

Furthermore there is little you can do about improving your reaction time. It is what it is. And it declines with age. If you want to test your reaction time, try this website.

Developing better timing

So if hitting faster isn't your training priority what is? I suppose the answer to that is "hitting smarter". This means improving your timing. In turn, this means grooving appropriate reactions within whatever reaction time, and with whatever handspeed, God gave you.

We know good timing when we see it: 2 people are in a fight, one takes a big swing, but the other uses a straight punch that lands before the swing is even half way to its destination. Or one dives at the other's feet only to find himself pushed down and placed in a disabling lock. Or in a brutal exchange of punches one misses each time while the other inexplicably connects each time, leading to a knockout.

But this still leaves the big question unanswered: How in the world do I go about improving my "timing" so that I "get" my opponent but he doesn't "get" me? Haven't I just restated my goal and given it a clever label - "timing"? There has to be more to it than that; my training depends on it. I want to know how I can improve my "timing" so that mine is better than my attacker's. I want to know how to make my reactions "appropriate" and, ideally, optimal.

Bags and shields - the usual first "port of call"

Many people leave this question unanswered: they go straight back to the bags and shields. My late father used to roll his eyes when I mentioned my karate training.

"Humph - karate," he would scoff as he donned his mitts and went out to where the heavy bag was hung in our back yard.

There, he would pound the bag with blows that seemed powerful enough to fell an ox.

But as useful and important as "hitting things" is, that doesn't get us any closer to answering our question. Because, clearly, bags and shields "don't hit back". What was my old man missing?

Sparring and the "dyanmic environment"

Typically most people's answer to this conundrum lies in sparring - what is sometimes called "live training", or training against "resistant partners".

In sparring you face your partner and start "fighting". Not "real fighting", but a kind of "play fighting" where the rules of engagement are sufficient to protect you both from real injury, while leaving sufficient physical stress to "test your skill".

Setting aside the obvious points that people make ("sparring is not real fighting" or "your sparring doesn't have enought contact", etc.), I think it is safe to say that, generally speaking, sparring is an excellent training device. It gives you a chance to apply some of your skills in a dynamic environment.

I stess "dynamic" because this is a very important point.

Most training drills have a high degree of predictability. They start from a stationary position and end in a stationary postion. In reality, fighting (of any kind) is a process of constant, chaotic change. Usually both (or if there are multiple opponents, all) of you are in motion.

More than that, you or your opponent(s) might be accelerating. In other words, you don't just have the vectors and velocity of your own movement and your attackers' to consider, but also the way in which these vectors and velocities are changing. Last, you don't know how or when new vectors and other variables might come into play (including such things as obstacles, terrain, etc.).

In short, nothing about real fighting is predictable. In a drill, barring any silly mistakes or carelessness, the situation is entirely predictable.

So what is sparring useful for? You can take the skills you've learned in "static" (ie. non-dynamic) drills and see if they will work (at least in part) in a dynamic environment - ie. where the board you're "breaking" not only moves, but also "hits back". Even if it isn't "real fighting" it gives you a test environment that has at least some level of unpredictability.

So far, so good. But the fundamental question remains unanswered: how do you develop the "skills" that sparring tests?

Sparring tests skills - it doesn't teach them

You really do need a certain level of skill before you start sparring. Yet most folks I know in the martial arts start sparring from day one, before they have learned a single fighting technique or principle. God only knows what they are doing when they spar - but it usually isn't "skillful". [In the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts we don't start free-sparring until a certain basic level of skill is acquired - I'll expand on this topic another time.]

Invariably beginner sparring comprises an awful mess of inappropriate reactions. There's nothing being "tested" here except how good or bad your "base-level" reactions are. Some folks have a better base-level reaction than others. Some folks are "naturals". But in the end, you need to learn some skill before you start "testing" anything.

If you doubt me, take 2 people who've never played tennis before and put them on a court. Watch the resulting disaster and ask if it bears any resemblance to what you might see at Wimbledon or Roland Garros. Why should martial arts be any different? My tennis coach had me training for a full 2 months before he said I was ready to start playing tennis games. The same will apply to learning golf, ballroom dancing - any physical activity that requires skill and coordination. Yes, some beginners might be able to "jump right in" and look "okay". Just. But what they exhibit is just a naturally high "base-level". And it is still a far cry from what is appropriate, never mind optimal, movement.

And before you say that comparing fighting and sport/dance is like comparing apples and oranges, think of this: sport movements are inherently limited. You have a ball and/or racquet and a limited number of strokes/movements. In hand-to-hand combat the variables are exponentially greater. The greater the number of variables, the greater the need for training in fundamental skills before they are "tested" or applied. Ask a fighter pilot how much training he or she has had to undergo to prepare for real combat. Hand-to-hand combat might not be fighter plane combat, but it sure as hell ain't tennis neither.

What confuses people is that size and brute strength play a much bigger role in fighting than in a sport like tennis. But what if your opponent is at least as big and strong as you are? Then you need skill in timing and technique - ie. the appropriate or optimal reactions we discussed earlier. The bigger and stronger your opponent is, the more skill becomes essential.

So, in summary, sparring is a useful and, I think, necessary training device. But it doesn't teach you the appropriate or optimal reactions. It merely tests them. How do we learn the right reactions?

Drills - a forum for learning fundamental skills

The answer for most people in both the traditional and modern/eclectic martial arts or systems lies in drills. What are these?

A blocking drill from goju ryu karate

In their simplest sense, drills are means of inculcating a particular, appropriate move until it is reflexive. Solo drills typically involve a person repeating a movement, in a very particular form, again and again.

Two person drills however involve stimulus/response training: one person provides the stimulus, the other the response. Typically the drill loops so that a sequence is repeated - either with both sides doing the same action over and over, or with both sides swapping roles.

The concept is that a particular movement is taken out of the relevant art/sport/activity (eg. grappling) and isolated into the drill. But is this strictly true? In martial arts and systems of all descriptions there are countless drills that bear little or no resemblance to the actual activity. What's going on here?

Sometimes the difference is because the portion of the movement taken from the activity is very small. So, for example, some drills in Brazilian jujitsu involve a discreet ground movement repeated endlessly because it is a critical point in maneuvering into the guard. On its own it has little resemblance to the activity, but when seen in context, it does.

The similarity of drills to their eventual application

However in many other cases there is little to no apparent nexus between a drill and the "real thing". Examples range from the speedball in boxing through to traditional "blocking" exercises in karate. Even shadow boxing seldom looks anything like what happens in the ring (as much as people would have you believe otherwise). Look at Muhammad Ali's shadow boxing in preparation for the "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman and then compare it to the untidy, sluggish and ultimately chaotic rope-a-dope tactics he actually employed. What accounts for such differences?

The reason comes back to the number of variables contained in the relevant art/sport/activity. As I have foreshadowed, martial arts and sports have many more than ball sports.

Generally speaking, the fewer the variables involved in the activity, the closer the drill movement will resemble its manifestation in the activity.

An activity like golf, difficult though it might be to master, has very few variables. For example, the ball is stationary; all you have to do is swing at it. No one is trying to thwart or otherwise obstructing your swing. Though you are competing against others, when it comes to the drive or putt it's just you and the ball. Accordingly it should come as no surprise that the "drills" you employ at the driving range or on the putting green comprise exactly the same movements you employ in a game of golf.

With something like tennis, a small disparity between drill and activity starts to creep in. Tennis has greater variables than golf, but they are still comparatively small, and accordingly so are the disparities. There is only one ball in play at any time. It takes a certain amount of time to cross the net. You and your opponent may only employ one arm and in doing so you can only use the tennis racquet (not your forearm or hand). Only a limited number of strokes are feasible or possible (ground stroke, volley, half-volley).

As a result the drills my tennis coach had me practising were pretty darn close to what happened in a game. I'd have to return repeated ground strokes from the baseline, or I'd stand at the net and volley repeatedly. These drills resembled the movements employed in a game however there weren't identical (as per golf). Rather there were important differences: I knew my coach would be giving me appropriate shots for the baseline or the net. Accordingly I wasn't forced to make any real guesses as to my court positioning, other than a little shift to the left or a little shift to the right. And my stroke was pre-chosen, leaving me with a choice of forehand or backhand only.

Martial drills

By the time we get to martial activities the variables increase exponentially. You're not dealing with a handful of racquet strokes and a ball travelling on a fairly limited range of trajectories over a net. There is no defined "start" or "finish". And in true civilian defence encounters there are no rules. Rather, in fighting any portion of the body can do anything at all at any time and from any angle. There might even be more than one opponent.

Accordingly I think it should come as no surprise that combat drills might look far less like the actual activity. After all, there is no such thing as a "typical fight". Given the almost infinite variables it is very hard to isolate drills representative of something that might actually happen in the particular form and sequence. This contrasts heavily with golf, where executing a drive or putt will happen in precisely that form and sequence, albeit with different terrain. Or tennis, where you might well drill a volley, ground stroke or overhead smash in more or less the same form as you would execute it in a game.

Again, compare this to your martial arts training: when is the last time you executed a kata application in free-sparring in anything approaching the "when he does this, you do that" methodology employed in standard bunkai study (typically involving a single step and a single attack)? I'll wager that your answer is "never".

Yet this does not diminish the importance of drills. Professional combat sports practitioners, the military and pragmatic or "reality-based" civilian defence instructors would not practise them if they weren't an effective training tool. When training for a complex activity such as fighting, a drill used in that training need not look exactly like the activity itself in order fulfil a useful (if not vital) purpose.

Continued in Part 2.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic