August 15, 2013


Exerting control over an opponent is often the objective of a partner drill to practice resolving physical conflict.  With control over your opponent, you can safely escape or neutralize the threat to ensure your safety.  In training, control over the opponent may be indicated by “getting in” with your attacks, making contact, unbalancing, or simply neutralizing all of the opponent’s offense with your defense.

People practice controlling opponents physically to learn about themselves, to help teach others, and sometimes for dubious egotistical reasons.  Learning about ourselves is the prime reason for practicing the physical control of other people in a karate class.  By practicing defending, attacking, unbalancing, and dominating an opponent, we quickly find out what works and what doesn’t work within the limits of a drill.  On the flip side, the opponent can learn their own openings and weaknesses when we successfully control them through attack or defense.

However, when a skilled practitioner indiscriminately dominates an unskilled practitioner, the ability for either person to learn from the encounter is lost.  Excessive domination during a drill can cause damage to unskilled opponents or instill a sense of hopelessness in their training.  Students that are severely outmatched often revert to “survival mode” which can be a safety risk and a recipe for disaster.  Some even give up, in a show of submission (the opposite of what martial arts should be teaching us).

The use of indiscriminate power against lesser skilled opponents is simply a domination game to feed the ego of more skilled practitioners.  The domination is not indicative of any actual superiority outside the rules of the drill, and an ego-driven practitioner may even break those rules simply to maintain their domination over the opponent.  Likewise, they may break the rules to avoid being dominated.  And what does this prove?  It means nothing except in the fragile mind of the “skilled” practitioner – they didn’t lose the drill.  However, from the perspective of a less skilled opponent, intense domination can come across as great strength and skill on the part of their opponent.

From an instructor’s perspective, that perception from the less skilled student is regrettable (I don’t really give a hoot about the ego-maniac).  Students perceive a domineering person as intense and skilled, even if they broke the rules to win the drill.  I wish the students could see the difference between pushing their limits to learn about themselves versus outright domination for the purpose of setting social status.  They need to see the value in getting information from a drill rather than gaping in awe at overwhelming intensity. 

Competitive social domination games come with no analysis of how control was gained in the match.  Someone “won” and that means they are better, and that’s the end of it.  Partner training should not be a competitive game to prove status.  In meaningful training, someone gained control – how did they do it?  Why did it work?  Will it always work? Did they break the drill to “win”?  What is this drill working on anyway?  Maybe that’s the most important question – what are we working on here, and did this round help me learn it, or just demonstrate that someone more skilled than me is more skilled than me?
Submitted by: Matt Baran, Sandan