July 21, 2014

Can’t Touch This.

In martial arts training, there is a balance between learning combat skills and avoiding the actual damage that can occur in a fight.  In Shotokan, partner training is conducted with no contact or light contact so the techniques can be trained at full speed without injury.  However, this simple rule actually has a lot of nuances depending on rank, skill, target area, circumstance, geometry, etc.  Although light/no contact is always the goal, we sometimes risk making more contact and accept that eventuality in order to practice with more intensity.

For instance, when two highly skilled black belts are practicing scripted sparring, the attacker can move with full intensity because a skilled opponent should be able to safely defend.  However, if the defender makes a mistake, the contact could exceed “light contact”.  This risk of heavier contact adds to the intensity and pressure of the engagement and allows skilled practitioners to derive meaningful training even from basic drills.

Conversely, a wide gap in rank, skill, age, etc. requires the advantaged opponent to reduce the intensity of their attacks to match their opponent, thus reducing the risk of contact.  This is because control is a shared responsibility between the attacker (controlling the attack) and the defender (moving in a way that supports their defense).  An example of this is an unskilled student making a kicking technique and stepping forward into stance without considering the opponent’s counter-attacking distance.  Since the opponent began countering at the conclusion of the kick, continuing to step forward closes distance on the counter and makes it more difficult to control.  Thus, the balance of intensity and safety in the engagement must match the control of the attacker and the awareness of the defender.

Related to the actual gap in skill between two partners is their awareness of each other’s skill.  Two partners that train together regularly are able to find the right intensity immediately without having to “feel it out.”  Additionally, if accidental contact is made due to higher intensity practice, two partners with a good relationship can easily brush off the breach in etiquette, whereas strangers may take it personally.  Excepting tournaments and exams, partners that have never trained together will likely err on the side of caution, setting the initial intensity from the rank, age, and poise of their partner.  As the drill gets going, the unfamiliar partners can adjust intensity to match each other in real time.  This is good practice for reading a person on the fly, and serves as a good reason to train with unfamiliar partners whenever we can.

Acceptable risk also varies by the role of each participant in the drill and the geometry of the engagement.  Contact on a scripted counter-attack against a stationary, non-defending opponent is not allowed, but some contact is acceptable if the opponent can defend the incoming attack.  In free moving drills, an incoming opponent is risking more contact than a retreating opponent, and the expectations of contact are adjusted accordingly.

The level of acceptable contact is something that varies by target as well.  No risk is ever acceptable to the joints or to the neck, with some contact risk acceptable to the head, and risk of heavy contact is sometimes acceptable to the abdomen (not ribs).  Obviously, the amount of contact risked by target is derived from the likelihood of injury in each location.

To be clear, no contact or light contact is always our goal in kumite, but there are many occasions where we risk medium and heavy contact for the sake of intensity.  The unwritten rules and expectations for acceptable contact generally take a while to learn.  It would be impossible to list every situation and justify a risk of contact, but we should at least acknowledge that the rules of contact aren’t as simple as they seem on the surface.

Submitted by: Matthew Baran, Sandan