Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Making it Work: The Long and Short of It

Last night in class, we worked more ippon kumite add-ons. Our instruction from Sensei S was to pick a technique from our ippon library and add at least one (or two, if possible) to it so our uke was eventually on the ground and neutralized. The goal, he said, was to get us to the point where the technique flowed without pausing to think "What should I do next?" Real fights, he said, don't happen at half-speed like they do in the dojo. Now, I've only been in one "street" fight in my life (a second-grade bru-ha-ha with a classmate named Terry: she pulled my hair, I pulled hers and it was over), so I kinda have to rely on his knowledge and the testimony of others who have felt the adrenalin-drenched "fight or flight" response that comes when a confrontation is eminent for detail of what a knock-down, drag-out fight is really like (like this description by fellow blogger ZenHG, for example).

Anyway, my uke was a woman who hasn't been training in our style for long. A black belt in another art, she donned a white belt and jumped in the back of class over a year ago to earnestly learn USA Goju. She's strong and very fluid, but the ippon she wanted to start with was one she didn't know very well. Subsequently, we spent much of the time that we were supposed to be trading techniques helping her transition from Ippon #5 to dumping and "finishing" me. We got down to brass tacks and eventually, the techniques became seamless for her, but when Sensei S wanted to see what we'd all worked on, he wanted to see each of us defend. Because I hadn't gotten a chance to go through my add-ons, I instantly panicked. When my dojo brother, Ed, saw my face he leaned over and said "Don't worry - it's in your head!" - meaning stop thinking, trust the training and do the damn thing. So after my partner did her thing to me, I got ready to do just that.

Trouble is, the technique I'd picked wasn't very effective at all. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that until after her punch was coming and I tried to get out of the way. Not only did I barely move, I ended up behind her in a most awkward position after a hook kick to her back and just kind of swept her lead foot in a way that was strained and forced, not smooth and fluid. In my head, I was saying "What the heck was that?" so I'm sure it looked a bloody mess to everyone else. Of course, Sensei S had me do it a few more times, but it got no better. Eventually, he replaced my 5'2", 105lb. white belt uke with Sensei J, a 6'2" 250lb. fourth dan who is lightening fast. Yep - trouble.

As you might imagine, getting out of his way didn't go so well either, so much so that our knees literally bumped as he came forward and I had absolutely no chance of getting any follow-through technique off. Sensei S got on me for not using my height/fighting like a much shorter person (he literally says this about every third class or so - and he's absolutely right, but I'm working on it). While the rest of the class moved onto refining the subtleties of their add-ons, I was getting remedial "this is how you move out of the way" assistance from Sensei J. Sigh...

Have you ever watched a fellow martial artist or dojo mate do a technique with the grace of a ballerina but looked like a total rock when you tried to emulate it? That's what stepping to the left - a simple tai sabaki move to avoid contact - felt like to me last night. I knew what I needed to do: start moving as soon as Sensei J's hand began moving towards my head, but each time I did, I either moved too slowly, moved too far away (which put me out of range to counter), didn't move far enough (which didn't give me enough room to get the hook kick off) or simply couldn't get my feet to go to the angle they were supposed to. It wasn't like I wasn't trying; I just couldn't do it.

"This really shouldn't be so hard," I kept telling myself. I've been doing Ippons for years, daggone it. Nobody else in the room had any difficulties moving at all. It's simply a STEP TO THE LEFT, for crying out loud! But my feet and the rest of me just couldn't - or wouldn't - cooperate. I had become the "Here's what NOT to do in a confrontation" poster child.

But Sensei J was patient. He physically showed me exactly when I needed to start moving (just when his hand came to the edge of my "danger range" which was just inside my fingertips when my hands were extended in front of me), which we did v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y at first, then sped up a bit. He moved my body to the position it should have been to get the hook kick off effectively and let me try to get it higher - to his head, actually - again and again. He showed me other openings and how to use my legs to get to those openings. When Sensei S glanced over to check my progress, he saw the kick to Sensei J's head and simply said "That could work for you." Then he began telling us all how important it was to get comfortable with and use techniques that would work for each individual. I'm tall and have long legs, but I'm rather light. I know that the techniques that might work for someone shorter or against someone stronger - like a hook kick to the back from close range or dragging a bigger adversary down with one arm - might not work for me. So I need to find other things that will. Finding my "go to" technique(s) so I don't have to wonder "Now what?" may save my hide someday.

The moral of my story? Perhaps every technique won't work for everybody, but knowing what won't work for you is as good a place to start as any - that and the idea that trying and failing miserably is always better than not trying at all. But, of course there is much work to do, as there always is. As I've mentioned before, a musician friend of mine refers to the sharpening of his skills as "shedding" - as in taking it apart, doing it again and again in an effort to learn how to do it better - all in the woodshed behind the house, which is how it was done back in the day...

Heading to the shed again :-)


  1. Hi Felicia - you have my sympathy, we were doing ippon kumite last night as well and had to make up 3 different defences against 3 different attacks. This was surprisingly difficult but I did find that I favoured certain techniques that just seemed to flow better than others. I generally prefer strikes and sweeps to kicks but that's probably because my kicks are so bad! However, I do think it's important to explore a broad range of techniques in order to discover the ones that really work for you. I expect you are much further along that path of discovery than me, especially as you do goju which I think focuses more on this kind of thing than we do in shukokai. Good luck with it!

  2. Hi, Sue - I'd much rather lead with a strike or kick then finish with a sweep --> kick or strike if I can. That seems to flow for me (most of the time, LOL), but it isn't easy. My frustration comes from the idea that I guess this is what the fighting end of things is all about. If I've gotta stop, think about it and adjust my position, it ain't flowing and I'm probably going to meet the ground with my forehead...

    Keeping me humble, though!

  3. Hi Felicia:

    I like the term "shedding".

    In my own training, I think of karate as a process. There are techniques that work great for my husband but are miserable for me. It depends on body type, strengths/weaknesses, injuries and preferences. It is good to explore and find what works and what doesn't. After we work on combinations in the dojo, I ask the group if any patterns emerge or if there are techniques that repeat often. My preferences are strikes to the knees and throat.

    Nice post.

  4. Hi, Michele...

    There are self-defense techniques that are part of our curriculum that I would never in a million years rely on to get control of a situation. Still I have to know them - and now be able to show them to others - because they are required. I guess it's good that I know those particular techniques wouldn't work for me, but it's still frustrating, you know? My classmates can make them flow but mine look like chunky Lego blocks next to their architectural masterpiece. GAWD...

    But I agree - it's all about body type and strengths vs weaknesses - but still! Liking the knee and throat strikes, though :-)

  5. Our curriculum does not have set self-defense techniques. We are required to know defenses against particular attacks. We need to demonstrate 25 combinations (left and right) and 25 take downs (left and right).

    I know what it feels to be like a "chunky Lego block". My husband makes everything look so easy. He walks on the dojo floor and everything just flows.