Sunday, June 3, 2012


If you are playing someone bigger, better, faster, and more skilled, at their own game, odds are you will lose.
It makes way more tactical sense, if you are outmatched, to change the rules of the game, or better, play an entirely different game than what you opponent is expecting.
In fighting against enemies, this is called Strategy, use this thinking whilst playing with your friends however, and they'll call it something else .... cheating.

Most of us grow up playing games with our friends. Games have rules because we are ultimately all on the same side and groups work best if there is trust.
Rules generally limit the options of the players, either for safety, or, in the arena of sports at least, to create a spectacle entertaining enough to generate an audience (and, no doubt, a healthy gambling industry). Basically, it is in the interests of everyone concerned that the playing field be as even as possible, so the game is enjoyable (to the audience) and repeatable (by the participants). But rules condition you to behave like other people expect, and though there is certainly room for being tricky and deceptive to a point, both the expectation of a level playing field, and general rules of behavior, make invisible much of what is possible outside of a game.
Once the playing field is tilted against us, if we play the game as though it was even, we will probably lose.

I have friends who like to play push hands, but will complain bitterly when the game turns into a shoving match and 'brute strength' wins out.
Now I know there is stuff to be learned from using push hands as a training method to learn certain skills, but if you are playing with someone bigger, stronger and more skilled than you, who is unwilling to help you build skills ... strategically speaking, why are you standing in front of them letting them put their hands on you ?
Are you 'investing in loss' as they say, in the hopes of eventually gaining rooting and yielding skills? Perhaps. Might you also be conditioning yourself to lose because you would be crazy to try to fight someone with such disparity of size, strength and skill, face to face, and by their rules ...?

Jake talks about another dynamic, perhaps related to this, on his blog:
Could it be that the smaller fighter knows on some level that he is toast in this head to head, and through a deep seated fear keeps playing full contact? Surely he is not volunteering for a beat down ...? Who knows, perhaps he thinks the bigger fighter 'can take it' , and is taking advantage of the relative safety of the class sparring dynamic ..? In any case, as Jake points out, neither fighter is learning anything worthwhile here. But what should the lesson be?

Martial Arts have created many games to mimic pieces of a fight, that can be played in relative safety. Most wrestling and grappling arts come to mind as do many(most?) sports like fencing, judo, boxing. Also rugby, hurling and other contact team sports. All are safe(mostly), non lethal, and are governed by rules.
However, all of them assume trust between the parties, and lack, by their nature, the very core of Strategy - Deception, adaption, changing of the rules, of the game itself.
So how do you bring that piece back into the equation?

How do you learn to break the rules? Subvert them? See the hidden, unwritten ones? Perhaps transcend them altogether ....?
How do you get past (most 'good') peoples' natural inhibition to cheat?
Perhaps you choose to play completely without rules .... Can't cheat if there are no rules ....

But you still have to play with others, and what if they are your friends? ... And what then of safety ...? Friendship? Trust .....?

I have been pondering for quite a while now what separates sword play, and particularly unarmored dueling styles that are not governed by the rules of sports, from other martial games. (Thinking here of my style of Eskrima of course, though I'm sure there are others.)
And I think it's this ability to learn about strategic thinking aka cheating, with friends as opposed to enemies.
It's scope is not unlimited of course, but it may go further than other practices in allowing for playing outside the rules in relative safety, because of the particular nature of the blade compared with other weapons of combat.

The biggest key is that sword needs no power to do damage in real life. You can add power to it, but it is not necessary.

This is huge.

This means that power is not a factor in winning.

Contemplate that for a moment - Power is not a factor in winning.

Take power out of the equation and you have not only satisfied the safety requirement, you have done it without compromising how you would actually use a real blade. No need to pull punches, wear safety gear, or limit targets.

So what skills are you left with to use to your advantage?

Size and reach? OK, it will have a effect, but if the hand is a valid target, reach becomes less of a factor.
Agility - Physical and mental? Absolutely.
Environmental factors, and ability to use them to your benefit? Sure.
Psychology and ability to read your opponent? Indeed.
Cunning and deception?  Oh yeah, definitely need those.
Ability to gauge when you need to not engage, or exit asap, i.e. know the limits of your ability? I think so.

If power can win out (and don't believe anyone that says size does not matter) none of this list is important. It rarely comes up.
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and it only when the necessity exists, i.e. the playing field is not level, and you are at the losing end, that strategy has it's place.
Unfortunately, many do not even contemplate it's existence. It may even be completely invisible to those conditioned from a very early age not to 'cheat'.

But if you are interested in exploring strategy, here are the pieces of the puzzle that seem to create the best venue to do so:
You will need
- Edged weapons with no hand guards, long enough to be considered a sword and not a knife (length gives you time, so more space to play). And training versions of same with which you can make contact safely.
- Respect for, and usage of training weapons as though they are the real thing.
- No armor.
- A limited practice area necessitating that you must engage your opponent before you can escape (too big a space and you never really NEED to engage, just run).
- No limitations on how you move - 360 degree field (in 3 dimensions).
- No limitations on using all the tools at your disposal to prevail - arms, legs, speech etc etc
- Freedom to add hidden weapons, use of environmental factors (walls, projectiles etc), others, if wanted.
- Living as a goal.

This is an evolving idea in my head, and this post has taken a long time to settle itself into something even resembling coherent thought. It is far from finished I feel all feedback would be gladly accepted.


Neil Bednar said...

Great post. I've been considering this same topic, though in a slightly different format for a while now as well. I should preface this comment by saying I know very little about non-Japanese sword arts. Still, many of the ideas you bring up have analogies in unarmed combat. Seems to me there are two glaring factors which continue to come back to haunt when thinking about how to train to 'cheat". I'm definitely not saying it can't be done because I know it can. Its just that as you allude to (I think), it's not common and I think because of that, it's not easy (right away).

The first is safety, and the second is ego.

In "no rules" (Sparring) between friends wouldn't you want to train some of the higher percentage techniques like smacking the back of the neck, eye gouges, shin kicks to the groin, etc? Seems to me you would definitely want to train precisely these things (though I'm not claiming they are the be-all, end-all of techniques). In and of themselves Ii think it's safe to say they are "more effective" all else being equal. Of course a well place punch to the jaw might be just fine. A gut punch however is unlikely to stop a determined threat in his tracks. So then the challenge in dealing with getting slammed in the back of the neck, full-on eye gouged, and having someone shin kick your groin is that a method must be found to train this...safely. I'm certainly not signing up for the groin kick without a modification of the full force, full speed, random variety. Again, methods exist but they are often scoffed at by supporters of the dueling-only mentality. Not to denigrate dueling I believe it has an important function.

Ego comes up often in training, as Jake (and Wim Demeers) have spoken about before in blog posts. For advanced practitioners it's less of a problem I think. The ego challenge lies in dealing with the compulsion to "win" during drills designed not for "winning" necessarily. If two people are practicing a knife defense movement for example, if the "attacker" constantly prevents the "defender" from ever doing anything successfully because the "attacker" wants to show "good" he is, then what will the "defender" ever learn except how to lose? Granted, allowing the attacker to sometimes allow the defender to prevail can be a slippery slope if it's too often and too egregious since the defender risks developing a superman complex. For this reason I believe it's critical as an instructor to play the part of "attacker" with students as often as possible. As an advanced player, I can feel the level of struggle on part of the student "defender" and I also know what level I'm attacking at. When an instructor only ever plays the part of defender it always makes me raise an eyebrow.

beungood said...

Maybe we train these "lower success " techniques to feel what it is like BEFORE we get to that point so that we can change the game and exploit it?

Rory said...

Nice Maija and you are definitely on the right track. Much harder in UA, because since you can't make the tools safe, you wind up making the techniques safe which is synonymous with ineffective. I think your training methodology leads to this place. Not many do.

Hertao said...

I think 'breaking the rules' MIGHT be the wrong way to look at it. Or, if a person is thinking along those lines, then the rules are still there...since they're being 'broken'. You know Maija, obviously, that in reality there are no rules. There are natural/physical limitations, but no rules. Rules are something we may establish in our minds. They're 'limitations' that don't really exist. In my experience, the best way to teach someone to 'break the rules' is to teach them that they REALLY don't exist. If they don't exist, you blow right through other people's limitations or boundaries without even needing to try.

Although I've practiced various martial arts, they've only been tools I use for self defense. Some martial arts may indeed have rules that are observed, but in self defense there are none. It's one of the first things I used to teach...that there are no rules and no such thing as cheating.

So you don't teach someone to cheat. You teach them that there is no such thing as cheating. At least that's what makes most sense to me.

Maija said...

@Neil: The biggest problems I see in training, are 1) Not presenting the right questions to be answered, or better, realistic problems to solve, and therefore
2) coming up with answers that make no sense ... or make sense but don't get attached to a real question ... or then again may be a correct answer, but to an imaginary problem that has nothing to do with what people actually do.
This then leads to the importance of creating real questions ... and thus to your point in having the teacher be the attacker. Of course, the teacher has to know how to present real questions. And by 'real' I mean in context, in time and space, i.e. a reason why the next thing is happening.

@beungood - I don't really like the idea of training something that has to be untrained later. The logic should be consistent.

@Rory - Thanks ... now just to work out where this track is leading ;-)

@Hertao - I think we all have internal rules .. just can't see them all. In any case, even though it may be intellectually easy to discard them, emotionally and physically I think it's much harder. This is just a physical method in which to try to do so in context ...

PeterA said...

Great post Maija, Thanks for sparking my mind. Can't wait to train some dueling at Soja with you and others soon. I want to consider the pejorative nature of one of the words you used: "cheating." I liked that you used it by the way, no need to change it, it's quite helpful. :)

With a person just trying to win for their ego's sake, it is definitely a negative. For those not trapped within their ego it's often to survive through creative problem solving; it's a positive. Which leads me to desire to add a different phrase to your dialogue: creative problem solving.

So then, long term martial arts study is about expanding one's choices/possibilities in life on all levels. The more someone has access to creative problem solving strategies, the more options they have in life.

I just used this analogy in a meeting last week with one of the most successful commercial real estate developers of the SFBay area. He has never trained martial arts and respectfully didn't understand my passion for it after having 'mastered' many techniques for years. I explained that long term study of martial arts is a process of creating continuous and diverse personal challenges within the martial context. I see him the same as myself when I 'duel' with another martial artist. He does this 'dueling' every day in his work. His particular duel may be how to raise millions in dollars that he may not have access to to cover a shortfall because of some challenge with a building project. As a commercial developer he's leading a small army into an intense and constantly changing battlefield, traversing planning departments/local residents/political agendas and the such. His ability to not break under that constant pressure (fail and go bankrupt for him, take the punch or get cut for us) is dependent upon his experience at creatively using what resources are available to him at any given point. So with that in mind, we (as martial arts teachers and everyone else) want to continue to develop ways of keeping people really keyed into a process of feeling calmer with ourselves to come up with realistic and creative answers under life's normally challenges. This is why I look forward to dueling with you soon! LOL.

Looking forward to your next post Maija!

Maija said...

@Peter - I think we all have internal 'limiters' as to how greatly we are willing to break the rules (which is a good thing). Just today, strangely enough, on NPR was a segment on a book called something like "The Honest Truth About Cheating" (sorry, too lazy to go find a link) Anyway .... the author talked about how MOST people are only willing to cheat to the level where they still see themselves as 'good people'. Being a good person is important to us ... or at least feeling as though we are one.
Your usage of the words 'creative problem solving' is a lovely rationalization to be able to still be a good person ... and still cheat, or at least bend the rules in your favor ... It's like the hook that people often need to do violence - 'They gave me no choice, I had to do it'. As in, 'I'm still a good person even though I did something antisocial because ... (insert rationalization)'
There are still rules here, in both cases, like 'I am only allowed to hit BAD people' or 'If my cause is GOOD I can bend a few rules'. Nothing wrong with that, but useful to note I think.

Pure Strategy might play with social mores, but seems somewhat asocial in nature, and I suspect that true freedom from rules puts you fairly squarely outside 'society' as most of us know, or want to know, it.
But I do think it's useful to explore there, and at least SEE the rules we play by, as we are so used to them, many are invisible to us. Using the perjorative 'cheat' might help us notice some of the things that inhibit us.
In the context I am writing about on the blog, I am commenting on the fact that we train martial arts with our friends, by playing games, or doing stuff with rules - for good reason of course - but ... what about the rest of it, the important stuff that actually makes it work?

Jake said...

Tried writing a response to this earlier, but a combination of computer weirdness and baby hunger pulled me away. Hopefully, this will now make sense.

Some of this is all about context and goals. Hell, all of it is about context and goals. In Muay Thai, we use sparring to prepare skills that are used in an actual ring engagement. That means that breaking the rules is a serious no-no, not only because of social mores, but because it defeats the ultimate purpose. If you consistently get disqualified from your matches, you are not a very effective competitor.

But of course, that's about combat sport, not about survival. Change the context, change the rules.

RE: The small fighter vs. big. I think there's a few things at work, sometimes separately, sometimes concurrently. Some of it is the assumption that the bigger guy can "take it". Sometimes I think it's not dissimilar to the psychology of the five pound rat dogs that go after my seventy-five pound shepherd mix; the small dog knows the big dog isn't going to bite back, so it attacks with impunity. Sometimes it's an ego trip; the smaller fighter wants to prove they can hang with the big one. Which is stupid, even in a sport context. You don't fight the other person's fight.

The game you posit sounds interesting; as you point out, the advantage of edged weapons is that you can make the blade safe while retaining the tactics. Your game also allows for unarmed tactics though, and as Rory points out, it's hard to make those safe without fundamentally changing them, or using gear. Just something to think about.

This is really cool stuff Maija. Thanks for sharing.

Maija said...

Thanks Jake, yes a I got a bit blurry with the 'arms and legs' thing.
In dueling you can, and should, indeed fight with your whole body in addition to the sword, though the blade is usually the primary method of dispatch ... and so as you say, there ARE certain things off limits.
Those that have read old dueling manuals will know however that there are also other ways to involve the body. The 'live' hand (without the blade) for instance, can get up to all kinds of fun stuff, real time and speed. Also, my teacher would often disarm and block with his feet ... not that I can pull that off, or recommend it ... but the option IS there for those that wish to try ...
I didn't want people to forget that everything is usable, but indeed I was lax in implying that you could drop in a nice left hook on your unsuspecting partner with no consequences :-)

considerphlebas said...

couple thoughts. One is that, with a long blade, you can't really negate power as a factor. Power is not important a factor in doing damage- but the second you make blade contact with someone, power comes back into the equation. With good technique, you can get the leverage advantage, but if someone is much stronger, they can make you pay for it in terms of endurance, shock/numbness, and erosion of any margin of error you have. It was a long struggle for me to come to terms with what it meant to spar regularly with a more powerful opponent, and have abilities to defeat them- but they had a price tag in energy, potential injury, etc, and it didn't make sense to use them every week in repeated encounters. The struggle was in trying to get hold of the reality- if i could gear up and win when I really wanted to, but not regularly, was that real? hard to know.
Second thought is about that potential injury- it was mostly due to artifacts of the training game and equipment, not the underlying combat. which leads to: think of some "safety" equipment. If you really wanted to, could you hurt someone with it? Probably yes. Is the way you would hurt someone with it the way you would use the equipment it is meant to represent, or is it a consequence of the safety design? There's implications both ways- that you're holding back, even with something supposedly safe, or that there is potential in the game for things that are not actually effective to gain a sort of "nuisance" effectiveness- it wouldn't bother you in a life or death conflict, but in a weekly practice, it wears you down and you don't want to deal with it, and so avoid or give away things you wouldn't. Whether you allow it or disallow it, either way impacts how you learn and perform.

Jake said...

A nice left hook has it's moments :-)

Maija said...

@cp - Absolutely agree that contact, body or long blade, does bring power back in to the equation, and it seems from your training experiences you have understood the sad truth that size does matter, and that your odds are indeed slimmer, the tactics more subtle and risky, and that potential for injury increases even if you prevail. I am speculating here that this truth may not be learned so easily WITHOUT a sword in your hand ..... For some reason, swords seem to make many things obvious.
I know for instance, from experience playing with my much larger and heavier friends, that even with a single handed, short sword, if you get grabbed by a stronger, bigger opponent, especially if they have trapping and locking skills, that your odds go way down ... therefore, it makes sense to play the outside and try not to end up there.
I think it's realizing these things that create smart tactics in a physical, experiential way.
Of course you also have to explore what to do if you DO end up there, but understanding your strengths and weaknesses, as well as the opponents is what strategy is all about.
As to your 'rate of success' well, that seems as true to being 'real' as anything can. Seems like the reality you can draw from your experience is that sometimes you can win .... but you can never really know, however much training you do.

As to the safety gear. I get your point, and I think that you have to mix things up, not always play with the same gear for instance so you don't build ruts into your behavior. If the context changes, it would be nice to think that you would start seeing the useful qualities in everything you are wearing or is usable in your environment.
My biggest problem with safety gear of course is that it makes people stupid.

AndrewS said...

A few comments.

First, with regard to the little guy/big guy problem. I've been the recipient of the little guy teeing off my entire martial career. I've seen this phenomenon play out time and time again and see ways in which this both develops and retards skill. From the 'little guy' perspective- the very good smaller folks I have worked with tend to be ruthless and unrestrained in moving in with connection and commitment, what they do in training has little holding back to it, with little concern for their partner's safety. This leads to some very good fighting habits, but is rough on the training partners, and can lead to a false sense of confidence, if they're such out of control dicks that the big folks just roll over for them, rather than deal with their spastic ways.

From the 'big guy' perspective (which I'm much more familiar with)- you get *extremely* wary about watching for cheap shots and liberties in any scenario, no matter how mellow the drill or sparring scenario is supposed to be. My experience has been that I've gotten very comfortable with people going ballistic, using choppy timings, and generally freaking out and using everything they have, and I've learned to deal with that sort of energy in a calm and collected manner, with the confidence that size and power bring, allowing me a margin to work technically against someone 'breaking the rules'. For me, this has built a fairly useful habit of working in a more relaxed way when put under pressure.

IMO, the great flaw that comes out for bigger folks is the contrary of the advantage for little folks, and gets to a core disagreement I have with your central thesis regarding power. Once you start to move with any coordination and connection, simply moving with speed when you are larger results in significantly greater consequences for your partners - you *have* to hold back on some level. When you're 200+lbs and moving in roughly one piece and someone walks into your shot ( twists the wrong when when you grab them, enters into a throw poorly coordinated, etc), it is extremely easy to break the little person. Most bigger folks tend to expend a fair bit of energy not hurting smaller people, and thus build an unfortunate habit of restraint.

The core disagreement this gets to is the importance of power. At the heart of it, while a sword doesn't require power to wound, moving a weapon with body connection (not just using arm or wrist) allows for better weapon control, greater ability to change (not being slave to the weapon's momentum), and greater resistance to your weapon's path being altered by beats and parries. Connecting the weapon to the body is analogous to sitting down on your punches- you start to punch above your weight, get harder to move. This is a form of power, and it has profound implications for any form of contact- hand, blade, or stick. Using the whole body as a unit is part of what allows smaller skilled people to disrupt larger less skilled folks- their connection allows them to functionally bring more force to bear as they use 'more' of themselves than larger, less connected folks (disregarding the abilities to recognize and change). If all other things are equal and weapons come to crossing, the person with more power with gain a moment's advantage- two people launch diagonal forehands to the head then cut down to cover to avoid the double hit- there will be a moment where a bind occurs- power is one of the variables that goes into determining who 'wins' that encounter.

AndrewS said...

One last thought with regard to cheating- this gets into how you you view training. If you are trying to build certain combat habits, design the scenario with a goal in mind, but no restrictions on how to attain it, rewarding and encouraging creativity and lateral thinking. This is distinctly different from the example of push-hands- an extremely artificial environment best used to develop specific body and awareness skills, and which should be approached with clear goals in mind and a plan as to how to attain those goals.

Just some thoughts.

Maija said...

@ Andrew - I don't think we disagree about power being always a presence in any interaction. A bigger, stronger person will always be ... bigger and stringer. However, using an example from my own training experience - I was sparring with a guy who is 6' 5", and a skilled stick fighter, but we were using swords. In a stick fighting or empty handed scenario, face to face, he would have walked all over me, literally!
BUT ... with a sword in MY hand ... he couldn't close enough to do so. I never got past his hands as targets, not one to his body ... but he could never closed on me either. Stalemate really, and that's my point I guess - and goes back to the earliest beginnings of martial arts training IMO ... If my guys are bigger, stronger, meaner and more numerous, we can pretty much go take anything we want ... It's the smaller, weaker guys down the valley that had to come up with ways to keep their winter stores from getting pillaged if they were to survive ....
The disparity CREATES the tactics, and sword play seems to be one of the few places to experience and play with this 'other' stuff, that is so fundamental to the art of winning :-)
Mick Coup (Not a small man by any stretch of the imagination) always says that we can always be the smaller guy in an altercation, if there are more of them than you.

AndrewS said...


The distinction I'm trying to make here is that power is not necessarily about size and strength- it's composite effect of your coordination/connection, balance, speed,internal timing, and size and strength.

I agree that sword work done as one on one engagement with no strict time or spacial constraint allows you to function less in oppositions, but would contend that your ability to change and not oppose power with power is greatly benefited (requires) that you generally move with connected speed (which will be powerful motion). Disconnect too regularly (if linking and unlinking is part of your weapons strategy) and you can potentially encounter force at a bad angle while disconnected, which is extremely disruptive.

In a contact context, within push-hands/chi sao/rou shou/hand-fighting, the only effective softness I have encountered has been based on excellent body connection and structure, combined with awareness and sensitivity. It's not that there's no power/structure there, it's that you're relaxed and aware enough to not let another person find a direct line to put power into you. The perception of softness as requiring no strength is invalid and misleading, IMO.

A last thought with regard to swords removing the need for power- the case you are stating allows for free motion and a luxurious amount of time. I agree that creating that environment will allow an outside game and neutralize some advantages of size and strength (move your weapon weight down to foil and there will be further effect, though I would point out that competitive fencing is not a power-free activity- the speed of their footwork and recovery requires significant power). I would contend that outside the salle or dueling environment, opposition, a strong bind, becomes much more important, as time and position become constrained. If you're fighting with a sword (and you're not in a duel), you're on the clock and you have somewhere to go. If you're one person with multiple problems your motion is constrained by your multiple problems, and if you have someone with you (or you are part of the unit) moving out of a support position can be disastrous. This is likely why older manuals focusing on martial use of the sword emphasize the cross and close work, while, later works move away from that emphasis into outside play, as the sword's use moved from war to duel.

Maija said...

@ Andrew - Agreed, power is not necessarily about size and strength ... we can all generate power through body integration, structure, torque, etc, and relative power by using timing, angle, momentum, and using your opponents power to your own advantage.
What IMO, size and strength give you above all else, which creates the greatest disparity between opponents of different weights and sizes ... is the ability to TAKE punishment.
Again, you can learn how to slip, absorb, yield etc, as the smaller party ... BUT if the larger feels like walking in, perhaps taking a few hits on the way, grabbing hold and thrashing you ... they pretty much can ..... unless there are swords in play. The dynamic changes from - Big guy needs little defensive game, and pretty much can enter when they please ... to
- Big guy cannot just walk in, and small guy can STOP big guy, with the barest of contact.
I would suggest this concern with not taking damage applies just as well with one against many, even with heavier weapons where power does play a bigger role .. but the 'not getting hit part is equally as important.
Oh, and yes, agree with tactics changing when dueling replaced warfare ... though I would like to point out, that the tactics for foot soldiers on a battlefield were not particularly concerned whether the participants living through the adventure ....

AndrewS said...


I think we're appreciating sword work for similar reasons here, and are chewing around some definitional/foundational stuff which is extremely productive, as neither my thinking nor my motion when it comes to swords is well defined yet.

The point you make about a bigger player being able to enter on a smaller player at will in the absence of the sword brings up some interesting issues. In essence, swords make smaller people functionally far more powerful. The thing which prevents a larger person from entering on a smaller one is a weapon they have to respect. If a 120lb person stands against a 200lb person, the bigger player can crash in *unless* the smaller one can create enough threat to generate hesitation. It requires much less skill to do that with a sword than empty hand. In this case, the sword becomes a substitute for/amplifier of power- contact must be respected much more. In essence, a sword makes a smaller person function like a much bigger one with respect to the damage they can deal out.

That being said, my point is that moving the weapon and body with connection (which done quickly, is with power) generates fundamental advantages in sword work which should not be discounted, especially when thrust and 'good downright blow' are mixed.

As far as battlefield tactics for foot soldiers go- I would argue that the people on the field have always had a *keen* interest in survival, and have, through the ages, worked very hard to develop ways of making it to the next battle. There are habits in individual combat which are are not as advantageous for survival when in larger engagements (i.e. the thrust in medieval engagement- as is pointed out in Vadi and Alfieri- I suspect the Legion would have frowned on excess mobility back in the day, too).

Must run,


Maija said...

@ Andrew - Indeed. That's the point I a playing with.
Taking into account that, as you say, power is still a factor .. especially with contact ... how do you deal with that? Work on never giving any contact perhaps? Or working on manipulating the moment of contact, to suit your own needs.
'Connectedness' is a very interesting subject, and quite large in scope depending on the weapon(s) you hold in your hand. In my mind, the more important skill, beating out power, is the ability to recycle the hit, whether it be from one angle to another, from a cut to a thrust, from offense to defense, left to right, long to short, and be able to change your mind DURING the recycle into whatever opportunity presents itself. That to me is full body/weapon integration.

Nick said...

What a fantastic point about Pushing Hands. We have pretty much discarded it from our training, after spending six or seven years trying to "make it work". We found we can train good structure and resilience as a conditioning exercise, rather than relying on a flawed game which trains people not to move their feet and that hen they are pushed or move their foot it is "over" and they have "lost", despite the fact they may end up in a tactically advantageous situation.

AndrewS said...


How am I handling the power issues? That's a complex question, as it depends on what I'm doing and with whom I'm training. I don't have an overarching set of training rules that fit all goals and situations, but tailor what and how I work based on what I'm working on. With that disclaimer being made, I think about four issues around weapons these days.

First, as you suggested, there's minimizing the power/contact/speed component. Treat everything seriously and attempt to gain advantage prior to contact- manage measure and contact point. This is fencing, with whatever weapon you do it, and can introduce some sport flaws (stopping on hits, acknowledging hits, etc).

Second, try to make sure that in the process of minimizing reliance on power, mechanics aren't getting distorted to the point where motion wouldn't be effective with a blunt weapon or empty hand, making similar transitional action. Doing drills/scenarios making sure the ability to return fire after moving/evading convincingly is maintained.

Third, I'm working on exploring the use and advantages of power/connection. Interestingly, steel longsword seems to reward this more than wasters. The impact of steel on steel seems to give more opportunity to manipulate the other person's blade and reward cunning expression of power, while staying connected makes you less susceptible to that sort of manipulation. This ties into the ability to cycle the hit and keep motion going which you point out is so important (and is necessary for another really interesting piece of sword work- working on handling the double hit and the late hit- something I find incredibly beneficial and am working on- part of the 'exit strategy' discussion we were having a bit back).

The cycling/continuity piece is huge and, to me, is inescapably related to continuous use of body connection- building a habit of stopping that is really one of my big worries with 'sport' fencing practices (as is developing the habit of acknowledging hits).

Maija said...

@ Nick - The yielding skills and ability to use the opponents momentum to move are obviously useful skills ... but only for a moment in time. Like you say, the ability to read that moment coming does not seem to come easily from practicing the push hands game, and in fact the game runs the risk of building in odd notions of what the 'smart' thing to do is ... where standing still is equated with winning, and moving with losing ...
Rou Shou is better, especially when you add the trips, sweeps and throws, but is still prone to muscle and force on force issues. Luo DeXiu said something interesting once, perhaps related. He said (paraphrasing now) only play with your friends and training partners, don't play with strangers as competition.
I thought that was interesting, and what I took from that was that these games are meant as co-operative exercises where both parties are trying to help each other to gain skills (efficiently or not). He implied that there was more danger of injury with strangers as you don't know what 'rules' they play by. He said many such games were won even before the touch, and to be particularly careful in the moments before contact when playing with people you don't know.

@Andrew - As to your point about making sure that the mechanics are not getting distorted for impact or empty hand usage ...
I don't think everything crosses over. Only train such that your power mechanics are preserved, and you'll miss many things the sword can do ... but never train the power, and what you do with sword will not always cross over to other weapons.
There is much that does cross over, but the sword is a very individual specimen and works in a way unto itself ... in fact every sword design works differently from every other ... so to train as though there is only one way I think is a mistake. The feel of the particular weapon in hand should dictate the parameters and quality of the movement, the necessity of power, the angles of attack, the targets, etc etc.
A guard on a sword, and even the TYPE of guard makes certain things possible that are not without one. Targeting the soft part between the lower ribs and the hips makes little sense with an impact weapon but a great deal with a blade.
FMA particularly likes to use one matrix, and like I said, many many things cross over... but I think it's more subtle than that.

Wim Demeere said...

Hi Maija,

I can only speak for my own school so please keep that in mind as you read on:

Not all push hands drills are about facing somebody head on. A bunch of them are all about evasive footwork (amongst other things).
For free style, we have three different kinds: fixed step, restricted step, moving step. They all teach something different. But in the latter ones, you shouldn't just stand there and take it. On the contrary, you're supposed to move. Some examples of that here:

So maybe it depends on the specific kind of free style you practice.

Also, if you're facing a bigger and stronger guy in free style pushing hands and he tries to overpower you by relying on those factors, he's missing the point.
Whenever I push with people I don't know and they act like that, I shake their hand and walk away whenever I can.

When you can't because they escalate things right away, I feel you're justified in responding in kind. As in, if he acts like an asshole, so can you and then kick him in the balls. But I'm a Neanderthal so maybe I'm wrong. :-)

YMMV of course,


Maija said...

Thanks for your comment, Wim.
I saw the video you posted on your blog a while back. It's cool.
I absolutely agree with you that push hands is training, not fighting, and the point you make about the practice working skills at the moment of contact, gaining advantage from understanding strong and weak angles and use of momentum, is much how I see the point of it too.
But, here's the thing I have a problem with.
Now, I understand that this video was an open event, playing with whoever chose to play, rather than an example of you teaching your students in a class setting, but what do you think the guys you pushed hands with learned here?
Your skills a very good - you have a large repertoire of options that you played with - unbalancing, use of momentum and stepping, turning, throws, step throughs and trips, a bunch of stuff - really good! But not one person could pull anything off against you.
You said at the beginning of the clip that you chose to work from a defensive position instead of just mowing your opponent down, and tried to work closer to their level, and I saw you make adjustments, but I have to say that with your body mass, coupled with your rooting skills and long base, all your push hands partners had NO chance against you ... so what are THEY learning?
Again, I understand this was not a clip of you teaching per se, but this is my issue. Only one party here is learning useful stuff especially when the size and skill disparity is so large.
If I had been there, my lesson would have been - don't let Wim make contact!
A big, skilled guy like you is only manipulable IN MOTION, so in my mind, my best bet to prevail (without a sword in my hand lol) is to catch you in motion, and BEFORE contact, by either getting you to over extend (by evasion or psychology), or trip over something (my leg or something in the environment). Otherwise I'm kinda screwed .... not totally perhaps, but my odds certainly plummeted.
Personally I would love to see you play with someone your own size, or bigger, with a similar skill level.
That would be an interesting game ... :-)

AndrewS said...


We're getting into the realm of intellectual preference here- 'lumper' vs 'splitter', if you will.

At this stage in my thinking, I don't agree that training so your power mechanics are preserved loses you anything with the sword. It may be *harder* to execute some strategies without unlinking your body, but I view that as a training benefit for me, not a negative- adding a challenge to a simple activity. Is there an example you can give where being able to express and receive force at at instant within that example loses you something?

As far as transition goes- I am in violent agreement with you about the individual characteristics of weapons. That being said, my preference is to work with a close eye to the fundamentals that do cross over- so my knife, sword, empty hand, and long weapon work get as much benefit from one another as possible.

While exploring the unique characteristics of each class of weapon (and of individual weapons) is a joy and has merit, I tend to aim at getting better at those things which cut across different weapons, looking to maximize the benefits of training time. I would suggest that earlier in one's training age looking for unitary stuff is probably higher yield, while down the road looking toward more specific issues may be more appropriate.

Take care,


Wim Demeere said...

Hi Maija,

I'll try to answer by point, it's probably easier that way.

- "But not one person could pull anything off against you."
This clip is only about 10min from a 3h event. They got me too. Probably not as much as they'd wanted to but it did happen. I just selected the scenes in which I'm showing cool stuff or where there's an emphasis on something I wanted to talk about.

- "so what are THEY learning?"
Lots of things. The primary one being their own limitations. This sounds like I'm boasting but I'm not. The thing is, when you do a lot of push hands, you get used to doing things a certain way and it's easy to become complacent or not see what you're doing wrong, simply because it works against people your own size. When you face a bigger and stronger opponent, those don't always work anymore so it forces them to rethink what they know and do. So in that way, the students grow because they get taken outside of their comfort zone.
As soon as they do so, they start experimenting with and tweaking their techniques (I see it all the time at those events) and they get better. the cool part is that that progress translates perfectly towards opponents their own size.

- "Only one party here is learning useful stuff especially when the size and skill disparity is so large."
That's not entirely true IMO. The reason why I usually don't counter right away is to allow them to look for a solution to the problem I'm giving them. If I were to attack all the time or to counter right away whenever they move, then the training would be useless to all parties. But this way, I make them work on a problem they haven't resolved yet (and something lighter partners will only give them if they're a LOT better than them) while giving them all the space they need to experiment. You don't see it in the video but some of these bouts take 2-3 min. of me doing nothing but defense before I finally counter. So I'm giving them a live training dummy to go nuts on until it's my turn to finally do something. :-)
As for me, I'm always testing my structure, trying to achieve the same results with less effort, finding different/better solutions, etc. But most of all, I'm allowing my opponents to attack as much as possible and put me in increasingly difficult positions regarding structure, distance, timing, etc. The more I let him work, the better the chance he eventually gets me. So I try to prolong the bout and push it as far as I can to see where the point is that I can't recover from. As my partners are always enthusiastically doing their utmost to get me, I have to work real hard to push that boundary back. I definitely learn too.

- "If I had been there, my lesson would have been - don't let Wim make contact!"

But then you're missing the whole point of pushing hands IMO and are basically doing the same thing than what your friend complained about: trying to overpower the other person so you can win.
Who "wins" in these bouts is irrelevant. As in 100% not important. If your solution would be to avoid contact, then you're not training what we're supposed to be training: working from contact. So then the result (winning) becomes more important than the goal (specific skill training) as you can't do pushing hands without contact.

Wim Demeere said...

Part 2, because Blogger said my comment was too long. :-)

Which brings me to another aspect: I remember when I first pushed hands with one of my teachers and I felt him do what I do in the video. I thought "WTF?!" because he did things I not only couldn't do, I didn't understand how he did them. I'm still not totally sure about it. But I'm closer than I was back then because that eyeopener motivated me to train harder and work towards that skill set. Had my teacher slammed me to the floor every time, like he could have, I would have discounted it as him just being stronger. But as he wasn't using raw muscular strength and I was pushing with all I had, something else must have been at play.
If at all possible, I look for people who have that kind of skill and try to learn from them. If people push hands with me, I usually don't use it, along with other stuff I rarely use in public. This meeting here is one of the few places I can do all the stuff I know because it's a friendly environment, I know the people and they're all there for the same reason as me.

- "A big, skilled guy like you is only manipulable IN MOTION,"
My teachers would disagree and them putting me on my ass all the time when we play, I think they're right. :-)

- "Personally I would love to see you play with someone your own size, or bigger, with a similar skill level."
Last Summer I pushed hands with Rory and Kris Wilder. I think their skill speaks for itself. So you should ask them about it. For me, it was tons of fun. I enjoyed it immensely.

Just my thoughts, no offense meant.


Maija said...

Always training in what would be considered a 'connected' way, in the sense that you can issue power, as opposed to a connected way that recycles and creates movement, means that you are missing many of the things a sword can do - swords can whip, flick, gouge and 'pick', slice, scrape, and flash - none of which require power.
Some of these may be fight stoppers in their own right if the targeting is good, but mostly work to create opportunities for applying 'finishers'.
These tactics can cross over through categories, and could be classed as distractions, to off angle an opp or 'make time' through creating momentary freezes.
Perhaps you are right about wanting to be efficient with your training time, but honestly though there is a great deal of cross over, there are also great differences, and being locked into the modality of only one type of weapon will make you miss much of what is special, and particular, to each category (empty hand, impact, edged), and then within each category - Right down to how the individual curves, weight, handle and overall design of each weapon drives it's use ... and it's limitations .....

Maija said...

@ Wim
Thanks for replying back, and absolutely no offense taken. Disagreement and different points of view are crucial to understanding, and growth. I appreciate you taking the time :-)

I love your point about giving opportunities for your opponents to find options that might work, and about putting yourself into worse and worse positions to experiment from.
That is what a good teacher should do, as this way both parties have something to work on and can build skills.
I also have little disagreement with the validity of push hands as a place to play to understand certain things about contact. However, I question it's efficiency as a training method even if you get to play with someone really good who can present realistic 'questions' to 'answer'.

My main gripe is that it is implied that push hands is a step towards fighting for real, and if I was going to fight you, for instance ... I just would not do it from contact IF I had a choice. If I did not, and contact had already been made, the place where push hands is useful to me is fleeting at best, as so many other factors come into play that push hands purposefully excludes (like striking) ... so why would I do it if learning to prevail is my goal? .... And prevailing IS the goal in the end, it's what the training is FOR ... no?

Perhaps you disagree, and that's where we have different point of view ...? I mean I would totally love to play push hands with you ... just to play push hands :-) But to learn fight tactics ...? Not so much

NOW .... I TOTALLY understand that people train martial arts for many many different reasons, including explorations of physiology, space, time, others, history, traditions, context, etc etc. And push hands is part of a venerable tradition that teaches you a bunch of stuff ... some of which may be transferable to fighting .... but if it conditions reactions that are not tactically smart ... then is it a good idea to think of it as 'fight training'?
Are the positive skills you get from push hands balanced by the negative mind set and body memory that it builds in as to what would actually be a good idea in a broader sense?

You talk about your opponents learning their 'limitations' ... surely the smart thing to do when those limits were reached was not to keep trying to find a solution by doing the same thing ... especially against someone purposefully holding back and 'giving' opportunities ... but to try something different?

That's basically my point. Push hands is a thing unto itself that can improve your tactile sensitivity and understanding of balance, and these skills MAY transfer over to prevailing in a fight - I'm sure it does for you for instance ... but it limits your thinking by it's nature. I just don't think it's efficient, especially for smaller people where it may even hinder their agility and evasion skills, which are so much more important when you can't afford to take hits, or win a war of attrition.

As to your teachers, I have no doublt one can attain a high level of skill through practice, regardless of size, though I would submit that motion, however subtle IS what creates opportunity, in a weight shift or rotation ... it's just that stepping/running makes the opportunuty bigger.

Oh, and I heard you and Rory had a grand old time, sounds like both of you enjoyd it immensely! Wish I had been there to see it :-)

Wim Demeere said...

Hi Maija,

- "My main gripe is that it is implied that push hands is a step towards fighting for real, and if I was going to fight you, for instance ... I just would not do it from contact IF I had a choice."

To me, that sounds like mistaking the drill for the goal. PH is (amongst other things) a step towards fighting but a very specific one:
- It teaches you to listen for, divert and discharge force.
- It teaches you the limits of your balance in a dynamic fashion.
- It teaches how to generate power while keeping it under control in a chaotic environment.
There's more but just these three are all important skills to have when you fight. PH allows you to *isolate* them with the goal of developing them to a higher degree.

The way I understand your response, you're saying it's not a valid way to train because you are not allowed to use techniques/tactics that will increase your odds at winning. To me, that sounds like you don't see value in doing drills training specific skills in isolation so you can focus on them better. I disagree with that, if that's what you mean. IME, there's a lot of value in them.

- "If I did not, and contact had already been made, the place where push hands is useful to me is fleeting at best, as so many other factors come into play that push hands purposefully excludes (like striking)"

Some PH drills exclude striking but not all. We include it in some of our drills and it’s the true skill set you’re going for. But we don't do it right away because otherwise it becomes*just* striking instead of PH *with* striking. And then you're training something other than what you set out to train.

- "so why would I do it if learning to prevail is my goal? .... And prevailing IS the goal in the end, it's what the training is FOR ... no?"

Because you won't always face a bigger and heavier opponent. The skills you learn can be of value against people your own size or a bit bigger. But those skills training against a bigger opponent tests them in a way that training with a lighter or equal weight partner cannot. Like I said, it’s not about winning. It doesn’t matter who wins. What matters is you getting better at it.

- "I mean I would totally love to play push hands with you ... just to play push hands :-) But to learn fight tactics ...? Not so much"

I can only comment for my own style not others but for us, PH is an integral part of learning techniques and tactics (we prefer to counter attack). The primary goal, above all else, is to apply PH skills along with the techniques. The skill we're really looking for is to allow us to get to the techniques we want to do regardless of what's in our way. As soon as you make contact (which usually happens fast enough) you use the skill set to either perform the techniques or to transition from one to the other.

But for that to work, you cannot train push hands in isolation. You have to train it with the other components of the style, with striking and working your way up from basic PH to versions where you can punch, kick, grapple, do anything you like without losing the skillset. It's about analysis and synthesis together, not either/or.

- "but if it conditions reactions that are not tactically smart ... then is it a good idea to think of it as 'fight training'?"

I don't think it conditions those things if you train correctly, though many practitioners seem to make that mistake. You're not supposed to practice PH in isolation, you're supposed to use it in application with the actual techniques.
The way I understand your comment is like saying line drills are useless for football players because it doesn't involve playing the game. I humbly disagree with that.

Wim Demeere said...

Part 2:

- "Are the positive skills you get from push hands balanced by the negative mind set and body memory that it builds in as to what would actually be a good idea in a broader sense?"

I don't see the negatives you see. The skill training is one thing. Free style like I did in the video is another. And then there's competitive free style where bouts usually last only 1-3 seconds before somebody is on the floor. Kind of like in fighting... :-)
But again, to us, that stuff is not the true goal but only a means to an end. The goal is to have the skill set and use it along with the techniques when you have to defend yourself.
IMO and IME, along with that of my teachers and many other students, it works quite well. Though it takes a lot of work to get to that point.

"surely the smart thing to do when those limits were reached was not to keep trying to find a solution by doing the same thing ... especially against someone purposefully holding back and 'giving' opportunities ... but to try something different?"

Of course, that's the whole point. My teacher often says that the essence of tai chi chuan is having the ability to change (depending on the needs of the situation). So the whole point of me giving them those problems is to entice them to find another solution. And in doing so, they are no longer predictable and I have to stay sharp too. The only limitation is that they have to do something different within the limits of the PH format. Otherwise, you're no longer doing PH and it defeats the purpose of the practice.

- "Push hands is a thing unto itself that can improve your tactile sensitivity and understanding of balance, and these skills MAY transfer over to prevailing in a fight - I'm sure it does for you for instance ... but it limits your thinking by it's nature."

I disagree. It only does so when you isolate it, which IMO is a mistake. It's supposed to be integrated within the rest of the curriculum. The most well known drills isolate the skill set. When you are good enough, you do the other drills and start applying it with techniques. For us, we don't do it for the sake of doing the drill. We do it so that as soon as the SOB makes a move and we have contact with his body, we don't have to think about anything because we know what's going on and can just get down to business. It also serves as a warning system when things go wrong.

Wim Demeere said...

Part 3

- "but it limits your thinking by it's nature. I just don't think it's efficient, especially for smaller people where it may even hinder their agility and evasion skills, which are so much more important when you can't afford to take hits, or win a war of attrition."

I disagree, my experience is very different from what you say. For the record: the person who gave me the most trouble in free style push hands was a woman half my size with no training. The only way for me to break her balance was to pick her up and drop her on her butt. Anything else she evaded and regained her balance. She was the perfect example of soft overcoming hard. I've encountered that many times before, so I very much disagree with you here.

That said: please remember that the fixed step push hands drills are not our tactical dogma: We absolutely do not advocate standing there in front of an attacker and taking him head on. On the contrary, evasion and footwork is the primary strategy of our style. But that doesn’t mean you always get to do that. Sometimes the bastards just don’t give you a choice. 
We do fixed step stuff so we can handle ourselves when we can't (or don't want to) step. We do restricted and moving step so we can move freely when we need/want to. It's not one or the other, we want to be able to do both, depending on what the right answer is against a specific opponent. We also do it so we can transfer the skillset to whenever we pick up a sabre, sword or spear.
The thing is, it’s all very specific to our style. We have some very specific guidelines and strategic preferences. So within the context of our own system, it all makes perfect sense. Which is why I’m not qualified to talk about other styles. I have no idea what the Chen or Yang people are doing. A lot of their PH drills don’t make sense to me at all. So please take my words with a grain of salt.

Maija said...

Hi Wim,
I have a feeling that we agree on more than we disagree, but *where* we disagree puts your comments and mine in parallel courses.

The places where we have the biggest differences in opinion, are perhaps more about overall method, where to start, what path to take, and what the end point will look like.

I believe that the mind is hugely overlooked in martial arts training, as possibly THE most useful tool in the box. Physical skills are also important, sure! But natural physical advantages, as in reach, strength, weight, and build, tip the playing field in ways that physical technique alone is possibly not enough to prevail.

I worry that this, plain, fact, creates training methodologies that propagate fairly low percentage solutions to those fighting from disadvantage. These solutions are fine for sport, but possibly not for more combative encounters where disparity of force (either in size, numbers, weapons or surprise) is pretty much a given.

In your example about doing PH with the woman with good evasion skills, you said yourself, that you could have picked her up and dumped her on her ass at any time. She may have been hard to 'push' ... but absolutely easy for you to knock out or throw out of a window! And herein lies our point of difference -
You see PH practice as a useful piece of the puzzle, a drill with parameters and rules that focuses on a specific skill set that gets added to the tool box to build up into a complete picture.
I have no argument with this logic.
Your point about it being only a short stop on the path that other pieces get added to as skills integrate, is well taken.

It's just that the logic is itself limited, in that the mind, and strategy/cheating/thinking outside the box, and playing with being unpredictable are either left out completely ... or else taught very late in the game.
You need context to teach these things, and 'safe' context is hard to find when you start throwing out the rule book ... not just in the physical realm, but the mental too.

And we all have rules .. even the ones we don't see, and the more safe games we play the more rules we have to learn to break when push REALLY comes to shove.

Wim Demeere said...

Hi Maija,

You're right, we do agree on more than we disagree. That said:

"It's just that the logic is itself limited, in that the mind, and strategy/cheating/thinking outside the box, and playing with being unpredictable are either left out completely ... or else taught very late in the game."

I would agree if that kind of PH was all we did. But it isn't. We are talking about PH specifically so I mainly stuck to that topic. But there are 4 other main components to tai chi chuan and we haven't even scratched the surface on all the parts of the training. Nor have I mentioned any of the numerous non-PH drills and methods we use. Doesn't mean they aren't there.

Also, strategy, cheating and the other things you mention are not taught late in the game. You learn them from the very first class and are supposed to use them all the time. The art assumes we will be weaker and smaller than the opponent, so we don't really have any other choice. I'm a poor example of it really, because people see my size and think I'm using muscle. My mass is there though, can't do much about that. :-)

Maija said...

Hi Wim,
It's taken me a few days to reply as I did not know whether it was worth belaboring points that are rather hard to discuss in words.
One of the basic ideas that inspired the 'Cheat' post, is based around the idea that because of safety issues, it is really hard to practice tactics, as a particular way of thinking, empty hand, but it IS possible when swords come into play - specifically in the way I described, where power does not have to be a factor in winning.
Anyway, I'm going to post a series of video clips from a guy who has his own, slightly different take on the same idea. A student of ancient warfare and battlefield techniques from Greece.
My friend (Thanks Matt!) found them and I thought it interesting to compare his ideas with mine.
I'll post them over the weekend :-)

Wim Demeere said...

Hi Maija,

No worries, I think we're indeed at that point. A lot of this kind of stuff I really don't know a good way of putting into writing. Easy to show and to explain within a certain context when you do it but writing it down never quite does it IMO.

So I'm going if we leave it here and will probably go into lurk mode. I look forward to seeing the videos.

Have a great weekend,