“Don’t be a knucklehead”

I got this clip via a mailing list I’m on and want to give mad props to Mr. Owen. First, listen to what he says:

“Don’t be a knucklehead”. Isn’t that the truth? At every stage in your training, there is one consistent factor: the need for technical training. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rank beginner or have been training for decades, you always have to focus on increasing both your technique knowledge and skill. Why? Simply because there is no alternative: one day, you won’t have anything else left to make the magic work.

Strength fades as you get older, speed goes away as well, anaerobic conditioning will become harder and harder to do and so it goes on. But technical skills and experience only continue to grow. The one caveat  is that you have to maintain a minimum of physical training to access techniques. Technique can compensate for a lot of deficiencies but there is a physical threshold you have to pass or it won’t work: If your body is as solid as a wet noodle, that Neanderthal brute who’s pissed at you for “stealing” his parking space will blast through your exquisite technique anyway. So there are physical minimum requirements you can’t ignore.

On the other hand, I’m not saying you can neglect your physical attributes anymore when you reach a higher skill level. Technique can certainly trump raw force but what if you can maintain your speed and strength to the highest level for whatever age you are? Wouldn’t that trump just having loads of skill?

I certainly think so. That’s why I still do my conditioning as much as possible: Tabata protocol training, bodyweight exercises, much less than in the past but I still lift iron occasionally, along with speed work and everything else I can think off. I want to stack the cards in my favor as much as I can, for as long as I can.

My guess is that it takes a while before you figure out the importance of technical skills and how there’s no real limit to them. Many beginning students fall in love with training hard and rough. I agree that it’s fun and has immense value but there are also limits to it. If, as Mr. Owen says, you go 100% all of the time, you end up hurt all the time too. You’ll also lose training partners/students to injuries and burn out: very few people like to be in pain/get beat up all the time.

Dont be a knucklehead...

Don't be a knucklehead...

But what’s more, it slows down your progress. The 100%-mode doesn’t allow for much experimenting or creativity. Nor does it let you iron out small (or bigger) errors in your techniques because you’re too busy trying to win or beat the other guy. It becomes too much a result-oriented approach (beat him) and no longer process-driven (do the techniques correctly).  For best results, you need both. You need to go after your opponent with the will to beat him. But you’ll achieve that faster and easier the better your technical skills are. So it’s a trade-off.

I’m a firm believer in training hard and sparring hard. But there’s no need to do that all the time. Sparring is synthesis, where you put all the pieces together to the best of your abilities. Training is analysis, where you look at each piece and polish it. After the sparring, you go back to perfecting and polishing the attributes that went wrong or could have been better during sparring.

You need both but not in the same amounts if you want to train for the rest of your life. As a teacher, you need to make your students understand the importance of both and the differences between them. Case in point:

Yesterday in my class, we sparred for 20 min. at the end. It wasn’t an all-out session, just technical sparring. One of my newer students (about 1 year of training) has a habit of cranking it up when he gets hit. This isn’t a bad thing per se. I prefer a student’s fighting spirit to rouse when he gets hit over cowering or giving up. But that surge of energy needs to be controlled and he never managed that before. As he’s getting better and tougher, I took him up on it this time:

I tagged him with a punch and he reacted with a full power kick, which I blocked. The kick was much harder than anything he’d thrown before. His leg wasn’t even back on the floor when my on kick slammed into his stomach. He dropped and sucked air for a while.  Now I hadn’t hit him full power (I never do with my students) but it was harder than I have ever hit him before.

I then explained to him how his fighting spirit is letting him get carried away when he’s tagged. Which results in a telegraphed kick and an easier job for me to counter him.  But more importantly, he no longer pays attention to what his opponent is doing because he becomes too focused on hitting hard. Once again, it’s easy for me to exploit that and counter successfully. I was also not at the ideal distance for the kick he threw and he also didn’t turn his hip correctly, giving my a clear path to counter.

He understood and in the next sparring session, he can work on taking a step back when he gets hit. To think about his next move instead of running into a counter.

There’s nothing wrong with training at 100% intensity. You’ll learn loads. But it’s just another tool and not the be all, end all.


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  1. Steve Holley says

    Bravo! I’ve always trained with friends. Even starting out with a new group, it only takes a short time and they’re all friends. And you don’t hurt your friends. Check your ego at the door – those words should be at the entrance to every training facility.

  2. Steve Holley says

    Bravo! I’ve always trained with friends. Even starting out with a new group, it only takes a short time and they’re all friends. And you don’t hurt your friends. Check your ego at the door – those words should be at the entrance to every training facility.

    • I agree Steve. There’s no need ot bust up the people who’re there to learn just as much as you are. Ego, man’s downfall… :-)

  3. Jeffrey Behiels says

    I agree! I’ve come to notice that one of the hardest things, in pushing hands for example is maintaining that focus on technique and not on brute force, which in this example is the whole point. But stressing it over and over again is important nonetheless,because it extrapolates to how you go about fighting in general.
    Training partners don’t get replaced when you break them, is my axiom.

    In general, I love the way you approach martial arts in general, taught me loads just by reading!

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