"Attack, attack, attack!"

There's a Frank Zappa song called "Attack, attack, attack" that came to mind as I started writing this article. I suppose most kids today would probably be more inclined to think of the song by Ejectorseat, but that's a different story. Regardless of which song you prefer, it seems to me to sum up the tactics or mindset adopted in many martial systems. And I think it is something worthy of closer examination.

Somewhat synchronously, I have had a couple of different conversations over the last week or 2, all on the same theme. In particular, a blogger who goes by the nom de plume of Ymar Sakar averted my attention to a martial system called TFT (Target Focused Training). Then my esteemed colleague Victor Smith referred to this quote from “Motobu Choki – Karate My Art” translated by Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy at page 31:
    “The blocking hand must be able to become the attacking hand in an instant. Blocking with one hand and then countering with the other hand is not true bujutsu. True bujutsu presses forward and blocks and counters in the same motion.”
As my good friend Zach points out, this reflects a particular "attacking" or "aggressive" mindset:
    "The way I interpret the statement is that Motobu felt this idea of "defensive", or block + counter Karate is undesirable enough that you might as well just not do it at all... it is more important to have a strong core philosophy and strategy than it is to cover every little possibility in training... I believe the gist of the statement is, mindset is an important thing, and he is saying that you might as well simply not train with a defensive mindset, rather than saying "well...maybe sometimes"."
I had a good look around the TFT website and I find that, like krav maga and various other reality based systems, the philosophy is quite similar to that of Choki Motobu.

And, in broad terms, I find nothing to disagree with about that philosophy.

A krav maga practitioner friend once said to me: “Learning to fight is 90% learning to be aggressive.” I think he was right. So to the extent that systems such as those of Motobu, krav maga, TFT and others have aggressive, disabling attack as their mainstay, I can see why: it gives you a more immediately practical set of skills.

In fact, in any kind of conflict or competition, disabling aggression is going to be your first, most useful, weapon. Consider for a moment a genteel game like chess. You might think that aggression has no role to play in it, but you'd be wrong. And I'm not talking here just about the new sport of "chess boxing" - I'm talking the usual, sit down and think variety, where the only strikes comprise your hand hitting a clock, and your only grapples comprise taking pieces. How can aggression help chess? I'll digress to tell you a little story:

As a child I was very lacking in any competitive spirit. I had no interest in sport, academia, the arts - anything. I'm sure my parents and teachers despaired more than a little. Then, at the age of 10 or so, my family took in boarder named Charlie. Charlie was a knockabout 20-something year old who had grown up on the streets. He was lean, muscled like whipcord, explosive in his movements and intense, almost manic, in his manner. He certainly knew his way around real fights and we spent many an afternoon where he smacked me about until my nose was bloody (something my father tolerated for whatever reason - perhaps because he felt it would "toughen me up a bit", which I have to say it did).

Many of Charlie's lessons of combat remain with me still ("If you're going to kick someone, make sure you snap it back faster than you kick out otherwise they'll grab your leg and then you're stuffed!" and "Jab twice with your left and follow with a right cross - works like a charm!" - which, as I found, it did).

But Charlie also played a mean game of chess. And it was he who taught me that, as in hand to hand combat, attack is the most important factor in that game. "Attack, attack, attack!" he would say (and I'm pretty sure he was a Frank Zappa fan).

The concept was quite revolutionary for a disinterested, non-competitive kid like me. But I gave it a go. Before long I realised that while most kids (or even adults) I played vacillated on complex strategy, I headed straight for the jugular. Practically overnight I went from not playing chess at all, to becoming the school champion. Many of my early victories were based on the most innane chess maneuver of them all - fool's mate. But as time wore on (and the tactic stopped working) I had to become more sophisticated. Nonetheless, I was, from the very outset, formulating a victory plan. I was playing to win, not to "set up" or "dominate portions of the board". I was going for the jugular. Before I knew it, I was playing in, and winning, inter-school competitions. Then inter-provincial competitions (well, one anyway).

But my "chess phase" didn't last long. Why? The more experienced I became, the better the quality of my opponents became. While I was beating the local kids and even Charlie, aggression was most of what I needed. But then I started encountering kids who had read up on the greatest chess games of all time - who understood the nuances of the opening, a middle game and an endgame, who knew the Sicilian Defence, the Lasker-Bauer combination etc.

In short, they were adept at the science and art of thwarting my attacks, and how to (simultaneously) set up their own attacks. Unfortunately I was disinterested in studying the famous chess-plays and so I started to flounder. In a game of this complexity there really is only so far one can go as a "gifted amateur". You can only rely on quick thinking and cunning for so long. After a while you need knowledge; knowledge I really didn't care about acquiring. I have probably played chess only once or twice since those days.

Of course, in physical confrontations aggression plays a much, much bigger role. I simply include this anecdote to illustrate how it can affect even non-physical pursuits. In fighting, aggression really is almost everything - at least the 90% to which my krav maga friend referred.

But, after 30 years of training, I am increasingly interested in that last 10%. To me, that is what is most interesting. It is there that I think you find the true science and art of fighting. To be successful against most opponents, all you need is a small set of well-honed, disabling responses - and aggression. But to truly master the art or science of fighting, you need to understand the complex skill of the "set up" - where you thwart your attacker and understand how to turn the tables when you are being thwarted.

As I discuss in my articles titled "Boards don't hit back" Parts 1 and 2, the biggest problem with aggressive plays is that they assume your opponent is a dummy who will stand there inertly allowing you to attack. He or she won't. Instead, as you launch your attack you will find the "dummy" actively resisting you. Your punch will be evaded or blocked and you will be facing a counter. Indeed, as Choki Motobu suggested, you might find the counter emerging more or less simultaneously with the defence.

At this point it is important to note that I take aggression to be a “given” necessity – hence I have no disagreement with Motobu's quote or the methodology employed by krav maga, TFT etc. which, manifestly, works. For me it’s a question of: “Where to from there?” It really is no different in this respect to what I faced as a young chess player; I'd reached the end of where simple aggression and quick thinking could take me. I needed more - knowledge in the form of an art or science.

Clearly, if you haven’t got to this point in your martial arts study in the first place, learning more complex sets of skills is not inherently practical.

On the other hand, most folks I know in the martial arts don’t do it for practicality anyway. We can get carried away imputing our own reasons for training onto others. Periodically I find myself remembering that x or y does it purely for “gong fu” – to achieve a skill through hard work. So I try to avoid disparaging wushu or any other “artistic” form of martial art (unless it is manifestly silly, like some of the Xtreme martial arts which employ impressive gymnastics but add an unfortunate, cheesy parody of traditional martial arts postures/mannerisms). Increasingly my own reasons for training are straying further and further from "fighting" and "practicality". Today I mostly train because of "gong fu".

If, on the other hand, someone wants quick practicality, I can think of no better system than TFT or krav maga, systema and similar "reality-based" schools.

Consider the TFT approach, by way of example: it is very sound and effective. It is, under my definition, a system leaning heavily towards military or law enforcement model, rather than a civilian defence model. I say this because TFT is “target focused” by its very name/definition. While agreeing with everything I heard the founder Tim Larkin say in the TFT videos, the philosophy seems to be centered on attacking (albeit counterattacking) your target. It does not focus its primary attention on teaching you how to thwart an attack initiated by your "target" (except by the obvious tactic of disabling the attacker before this becomes an issue).

While disabling an opponent is clearly highly desirable from a civilian defence perspective (he/she can’t attack you any longer) this raises the question: If you can’t hit him first, how do you avoid being hit by an attack that is heading your way? You deflect/evade, of course. But how do you do this? It is easy to say “just deflect and/or evade” – in my experience it is another to do so.

To me, the primary focus of civilian defence-oriented traditional arts is always on how to deflect/evade/thwart that first (or second, third etc.) attack – be it by preemptive strike (which is rarely available when you’re surprised), by deflection, evasion or (more commonly) deflection with evasion.

Traditional fighting arts thus put a lot of emphasis on the art of deflection and evasion (or deflection with evasion). It is “target focused” more in terms of dealing with the attacks – not with viewing your attacker as a “target” for your counters.

This is true even of Motobu's karate: while he might well be seen as an early pioneer of "reality-based self defence" (I encourage you to read Graham Noble's article "Choki Motobu... A Real Fighter"), his fighting method retained the science and art of deflection. It's just that he applied it with a pragmatic "attack focused" emphasis or mindset.

So karate kata begin with a defensive move – as do most Chinese martial arts (including the internal arts). In this regard I invite you to read my various articles on “blocking”, evasion and evasion with “blocking” and on using and adapting the flinch reflex.

Then there is the specific traditional martial art focus of counterstriking after you’ve deflected/evaded etc. Learning how to strike disabling targets is necessary in training and forms a big part of the traditional fighting arts. But civilian defence arts go further: as I’ve said, they teach you how to avoid being hit by your target. And how to strike a target that won’t let you strike it.

Assume you’re down on one knee after being blindsided (as Tim Larkin shows in one of his videos). You see his groin and you hit it. So far so good: to this point the TFT and traditional martial arts approaches are identical. However what happens when you go to strike his groin but he blocks/deflects/evades your counterstrike? To me, that is the most interesting part – how to “turn the tables” and establish control. That is what the traditional martial arts spend a lot of time answering.

And remember that in my view the primary focus of the traditional fighting arts (as civilian defence systems) is not to hit a target – but to not get hit (ie. to avoid being a “target” yourself). This difference is subtle, but significant. The civilian defence focus is not suitable for military or law enforcement purposes where your goal is to effect a particular result to your target. But it is eminently suitable for civilian defence where you succeed so long as you remain unaffected by the threat posed. If you run away from a civilian defence encounter, you’ve “won”. If you run away from military or law enforcement encounter, you are remiss in your duties.

Because neutralising a threat through counterattack is a big part of civilian defence systems, there is a huge overlap with TFT’s approach. What TFT teaches seems very effective in civilian defence encounters. But there is a difference in emphasis and that difference plays out on the fringes. That difference is bigger than just the differences in our laws about self-defence in Australia vs. those in America. Wherever you are, running away, if it is feasible, remains an appropriate option in civilian defence. By contrast it is generally inappropriate in military and law enforcement situations. This philosophical difference filters down into technical differences and emphases in training.

Accordingly, "attack, attack attack!" is a necessary starting point for any person studying the martial arts for reasons of practicality. But where to from there? That's what I am eager to learn more about - not just for practical reasons, but because I enjoy the art and science for its own sake.

After all, most of what you are ever likely to need in defence will probably come down to your simplest technical skills - applied with a whole lot of aggression. If my reasons for training were confined to practical self-defence, I doubt I would have started studying traditional martial arts in the first place.

Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic