Recently I have offered some criticism on a video clip that a friend had posted online, dealing with empty handed work against knife in Russian Systema. Of course, some people did not agree with my point of view, some did, but in the process I have noticed something that I am going to discuss here. Namely, while most comments about martial art demos, either live or on video, are geared towards the performance of the defender/trainee, I usually tend to pay attention to the attacker/feeder. The way I see it, it is the latter’s approach to work that will directly impact the overall quality of the work in training.
If you have done any serious reflection on how you (or other) drill and practice their material in training, it should be clear that practitioners cannot really grow much further in their work than the level of challenge presented in training. In view of drills, critics frequently address the points such as the speed and force of the attack, implying that anything but full-speed, full contact work is meaningless. I strongly disagree with such attitude, especially in certain domains and certain levels of training. The slow and/or soft work definitely has its merits, as long as it is done in proper context.
OK, this is where we reach the guiding theme of this post – INTENT. That, in my humble opinion, is the decisive element in drilling, if it is meant to prepare one for actual, live combative performance, be it in the sportive arena or in the streets and back alleys. Basically, the intent boils down to actually trying to connect, i.e. place, the technique one is feeding. In case of striking it means connecting the tool and the target, while in grappling it would mean obtaining the dictated position.
We see therefore, that full speed attacks, if kept short, or missing the target “for the sake of security” are just as prone to ingrain bad habits and grow illusions in training (maybe even more so) than slow ones. Rory Miller in his Book “Drills” (highly recommended) observes that every drill has a built in flaw that acts as a safeguard of sorts, and adds that the flaw of timing (doing the drill slowly) may be the least detrimental, because nobody is really inclined to act slowly, due to such training, in a realistic combat situation. Of course, the main tendency to screw up the value of slow training is one side speeding up (usually the defender), which enables them to do stuff that would not be doable in the real time, on the account of not being able to be that much faster then the attacker. This for example happens rather frequently in the Systema circles.
Honesty, then, is the best policy when doing the slow work. If approached in that manner it offers a lot of good things. Probably among the most important ones is finding new possibilities to experiment with later at more intensity, in order to find out whether those could be included among the probable repertoire of responses (please, see thispost).
The same objections stand for one-step sparring in karate and taekwondo, or all those cyclic drills found in arnis/eskrima (hubud, sumbrada etc.), and which even happen to be the staple of some schools and styles. The very nature of those drills is such that they contain possible bad habits, and if done without proper intent from both participants, than there will be no good habits to compensate. How often have you seen people do hubad and sumbrada in a way that looks like patty-cake sort of exchange? Unfortunately, more often than not – both actors standing in place, attacking from a wrong distance (the neuralgic point of one-step sparring practices), not even seeking to place the technique, reckless in defense… Now add actual intent to that drill, even at slow or medium tempo and lo and behold – they start moving around, realigning to keep the proper posture, being attentive of their defensive techniques etc.
The intent reminds one of the actual purpose of the work and the context in which the drilled material is likely to be applied. It brings to mind an excellent observation by Charles Staley, in his book “The Science of Martial Art Training”, saying: “[…] without the bigger picture in mind, someone is not really training, but rather, simply exercising. This distinction reveals the significant differences between an athlete (in our case fighter – D.M.) and a fitness enthusiast”.
In conclusion, be sure to which category you wish to belong (refer back to this post for assistance), and train accordingly, with the right INTENT.