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Making a Technique Work

On this page:
Right vs. effective | Running the table | Before you start... | Diagnostics | L.A.C. Test | The bigger implications of all of this

People think technique and power delivery are synonymous...they are not. Just because you perform a technique doesn't mean you are delivering power.

Technique is a  way to manifest principles, not the source of them.

Not knowing this fact is the root of a whole lot of confusion. Not only in martial arts, self-defense and defensive tactics training but about them as well. That's right. It's not just the technique, it's the whole subject that is impacted by this problem. So let's take a look at why so many techniques "fail"

Right vs. effective
When you do a technique, you have to understand what not just what you are trying to achieve, but what is involved in achieving that goal. Just doing the technique doesn't mean that you are generating -- much less delivering --  power. A technique is a series of moves. In theory, each move achieves a certain component necessary for the whole process. While they are very much "a step in the process" a better way to understand them is that they are "building blocks" within the technique. You may be thinking a "wall of defense" but if you have bricks missing, you got some serious problems. The entire structure is going to be weakened and vulnerable.

With this in mind, it is easy to see how either a) failing to do a part of the technique OR b) if things have been lost from the technique, components just aren't there, you will fail to generate power.

The b) part of the previous sentence is grammatically funky, but it is exact. And it describes a very big problem. All too often you are doing a move exactly how you were taught to do it, and it still fails. The problem is not with you. Thing is, you did the move "right," but components have been lost. In these circumstances what you end up with is the shape, but not the function of the technique. The best analogy is imagine a car. It is shiny, polished and beautiful, except for one thing. It's missing the engine. What you are left with is something that is all form and no function.

The sad thing about this is that in the martial arts wars between schools and splits in styles have developed over who is doing the technique "right."  This is a meaningless concept on so many levels that it's hard to find a starting point, but we'll start out with the happy version first. To begin with, even in styles that have retained their effectiveness, there are always several ways to perform a move. Often each of these variations have different, but equally valid, applications. As such, there is no one right way to do a move. Do it this way and you get this result, do it that way and you get that result. Arguing over who does it the right way in their style is like arguing which is the one right tool to have in your tool box. You should have a variety.

Now the not so happy version. The pathetic thing is that often what the two schools are arguing over is who has the "true" car...the one without an engine or the one without the transmission. This is why we advocate you not looking at this problem in terms of "who is right" and "who is wrong." That approach not only politicizes the subject, but also blinds you to the technical problems. you're trying to fix.

Putting it mildly, we don't give a damn about who is doing it "right." And we especially don't care who has the "true" martial art. Our concern is very simple...does it work as advertised?

If not, odds are components have been lost.

So here you have two potential problems that supersede any argument over which school is doing "it" right. First is what they teaching effective? And if it is, then we move onto the second potential problem, namely: Is the student performing ALL the component parts? 

 The sad truth is that most techniques fall down long before you ever get to the second problem. If the student is not doing it "right," it only compounds an already existing BIG problem. Yes, the student doing it wrong does give the technique a flat tire. Well, if it weren't for the missing engine and transmission, that flat tire would be a serious problem.

Unfortunately for law enforcement/correctional officer, mental health orderlies and security personnel the problem is a little more immediate. That's because "departmentally approved techniques" are often intentionally gutted to make them less effective. That's right. Because someone upstairs is concerned that you'll hurt someone while trying to subdue them, an overwhelming majority of the techniques you have been trained in have been watered down to protect the institution. The components that would make them effective have been intentionally removed. This makes fixing the problems even more important because, unlike martial artists, techniques failing to perform will cost you pain, blood and injury when trying to subdue someone on the fight. Return to top of page

Running the table
In the book "Secrets" of Effective Offense we introduce the concept of "running the table" and then give you the tools to do it. What we'd like to do here is to give you a quick taste of this incredibly important diagnostic tool. A tool that will assist you to put back the missing components of techniques.

Have you ever played pool with a Poolshark? That is to say someone who is an expert pool player? While sharks may hide their skill level to hustle money, you get to see what these guys can do in tournaments (or, if the shark decides that he's not going to get money from you). In these circumstances you never will get a shot. The shark will "run the table," sinking shot after shot.

We can learn important lessons from this. EVERY shot that the shark takes meets three criteria
1) It easily sinks the ball he is aiming at
2) It sets up his next shot
3) It prevents you from ever getting a shot

In the last one, not only do we mean that by sinking his ball he gets the next turn, but we also mean that if he misses his shot, he positions the cue ball in such a way that you do not have a clear shot at any of yours. Even if you ever get a turn, you're hampered. Realistically speaking though, you never get a shot off because he is controlling the action. And the reason that this works is that every shot he takes meets these standards.

So how do you 'run the table' in a physical altercation?

By doing the same idea. And that is to make sure every move you make meets three basic criteria. These are
1) It secures your perimeter
     (you don't leave any holes though which you can be attacked)
2) You disrupt his ability to attack you
     (his next move has to be to either get back into attack position or keep from falling)
3) It sets up your next move
     (there is no prep time, the move is right there, waiting to happen)

The problem with most techniques is that they have lost these critical components. They are so focused on it all working at the end that they have forgotten how to make it work in the process. OR they have become so fixated on the minutia of the detail of the process that they fail to see that they are not achieving their goals -- and that includes the criteria that the process is supposed to ensure

By focusing on the idea that it will "all come together" at the end of the technique you find yourself dealing with the following problems. Throughout the move, they often leave exposed to attack. While they might work at the end, until you get there you are wide open to attack. They leave your opponent able, not only still resist, but, more importantly, quite capable to counter attack. You have to do extra -- and unnecessary -- steps to attack again. Each of these give your opponent time to "get his legs back under him" in order to keep on fighting you.

This is why it is so important to break a technique apart into the component parts. The technique does not all come together  like some kind of super powerful pool table break that magically sinks all of your balls all at once -- thereby ending the game. A technique is you "running the table." Every move in it is a component part of the process that meets the three criteria we just gave you.

And if you find that what you're doing doesn't meet these criteria, you've just discovered why the technique is unreliable. Return to top of page

Before you start...
There is something you need to know. While we go into the subject of "patching" in depth elsewhere, we need to give you a quick introduction to the idea because it has a major influence on what you are being taught. In its most common form, patching is trying to fill in holes left by missing components with either speed, mass,  muscle or a combination thereof. This is to say that many people make up for missing components through these three. If you've ever encountered a move that you cannot get to work -- but someone with more size, strength or experience can somehow make it work -- odds are you are seeing patching in action. It isn't the technique that is working it is them compensating for missing components with these elements.

Problems develop if you don't have these attributes. If you aren't big, strong or fast the technique just doesn't work for you.

We'll use a judo throw as an example. A proper throw involves entering into the correct range and breaking a person's balance/structure. Once this is achieved then the person is accelerated/thrown through your body's movement. (thus giving you the formula: Enter, break, throw). These components all build on each other, but each is effective in their own right. And since they work on the principles of physics are not only effective by themselves, but easily demonstrable.

However, someone who is large and/or strong enough can walk up, pick up a smaller opponent and hurl that person. Someone who is fast enough can compensate for bad technique by moving fast enough to exploit any weaknesses in the opponent's stance/pose. (Basically pull the person over too fast for that person to resist). Both these tactics can result in a throw, but they are not the technique. The reason we say this is that techniques -- being based on the laws of physics -- should work regardless of the person's size. These two strategies will work against smaller and slower opponents. However, they will fail against a larger, stronger and heavier opponent. And they are, at best, 50/50 bet on opponents of equal size, strength and speed.

Okay, but so how does this effect you doing diagnostics on what you know?

Well here's the problem. Quite often you aren't trying to diagnose the original move. If that were the case, all you would have to do is put back missing components. A far bigger problem arises because what you are trying to diagnosis is something that someone has already tried to fix by patching -- or worse by adding in extra moves. Most often these extra moves were added in order to compensate for lost components.

As an example take a look at these photos from the book Becoming a Complete Martial Artist: Error Detection in the MA. Supposedly these are two examples of the same block. However, the first is an example of added movement. Extra movement that was put in to increase the velocity (speed) of the block. By cocking back in this manner, it theoretically speeds up the block to make the block "a hit." Which according to this cockamamie theory  was how you were supposed to block. In fact, teaching smaller, slower students to try and block this way was the only way that what they were teaching could move fast enough to work. The block isn't working correctly? Patch it by speeding it up.

The problems are that while the block is now moving fast enough to deflect an incoming blow, in reality, it triples the time of the block, leaves the blocker wide open to the original attack (much less a second one) and still doesn't fix the root problems with how they were blocking. The problems that originally lead to this change -- namely bad structure and a lack of understanding that blocking involves moving your body, not just standing there and letting your arms do all the work. Trying to block without moving is an invite to get hit.

While it put in extra stuff, it doesn't put back the missing components that would have fixed the problems they had with blocking.   







In comparison, look at what that block looks like when it does have all the components. There are so many details with how the second block is effective that they go beyond the scope of this Webpage. But we'll give you just one. Notice that when done correctly the blocker is covered from the beginning to the end of the move.

The problem you're going to face trying to do diagnostics is that some things just don't make sense until you look at them from the standpoint of a patch job. Extra, nonsensical moves HAVE been added both as attempted patching and, often, as a means to hide the fact that the kata was taken from other systems (in other words, as a way to differentiate what "we" do vs. what "they" do). Using, hard styles as an example, you can begin with a simple question: How many people are you supposed to be fighting?

Generally the answer is: One. However, a lot of silly and extra moves have been added under the guise of: You're fighting two or more opponents (1).When in fact, it was patch job.

The next question is "Is this flash?" By this, we're asking: Have these changes been incorporative not for combat application, but for winning forms competition in tournaments? Simply stated an incredible number of changes have been added into forms for the sole reason that there was a time in competition that one school did very well by doing it this way and other schools copied them. A good example of this is the flying, jumping and high kicks. These "flash" moves wow judges and win points in kata/forms competition, but these changes are often justified by stories of ancient battlefield application (like kicking a mounted rider off the horse)

This is where the rubber really hits the road with the question: Does this move work as advertised?

There are all kinds of modern tweaks, twists and gee-whiz moves that are being passed off  as "traditional" martial arts. They're not. They are new additions that often came about because someone was trying to fix something without realizing how it was broken. And that is going to make diagnosing what you know all that much harder. Return to top of page

So how do you run a diagnostic on a technique?

First, take a look at the generating power page.

Second ask yourself does every move in the technique meet the criteria of running the table? These are the elements that must also be present in every move

Let's take another look at the effective version of the block we just showed. To begin with, the flawed version is used as a starting position for the block. Whereas the effective version is not. The blocker has shifted his weight back into a cat stance to buy distance from the incoming blow. This changes the range to the target. Against a skilled fighter (e.g. a boxer) that should meet the criteria of running the table right there. A good fighter will not chase someone with his attack -- instead he'll launch another one. By simply moving out of range and covering in this manner the blocker has nullified the effectiveness of a correct attack. In doing so he has secured his perimeter (he's covered) and affected his opponent's attack and ability (the attacker will have to move into a new attack position). He has also set up his next move. A move that will block the next punch or, by moving back into range, will disrupt a kick.

However, against an overcommitted attacker, (someone trying to chase him with the original attack) this first move has not only done those things, but really set up the attacker. The attacker will have to sacrifice his structure/balance in order to reach the blocker with the attack. As the blocker shifts his weight forward and brings his block into play he is seriously going to affect the attacker's balance and structure. Because the attacker is overcommitted the block is not only going to deflect his incoming force, but like getting t-boned in an auto accident it will really blast his structure/balance. The attacker will HAVE to focus on getting his balance and structure back before he can continue to attack. Putting it simply, he has a choice, focus on this or fall. He's going to have to put his second attack on hold while he's trying to get his legs back under him.

That's effectiveness.

Now ask yourself if the flawed move does any of these things? Or is it all supposedly going to come magically together at the end of the move? We explain this idea as "Yep, when I get there you're going to be in soooooo much trouble!"  The problem with this approach is that often -- because your opponent isn't cooperating with you -- you never get there. Something goes wrong mid-process (like your opponent moves) and the entire technique disintegrates.

Third. Don't just pay close attention, pay microscopic attention to body movement.

Poorly done body movement tends to manifest in one of two ways. The first way is that it just isn't there at all. All too often people take a stance and then proceed to jut wave their arms around.

Let us state right here and now that this is a 'tournament kata competition' approach. It will win you all kinds of trophies. But it will not generate power. In forms competition, body movement is routinely sacrificed. This is to say that a person takes a stance and then proceeds to do incredibly fast hand and arm movement. He can do so because he is operating from a stationary and stable base. From this base, his hands can move with blinding speed. The problem is, without his body mass behind the moves, there is no power.

Well, okay, maybe he can kill a fly, but it won't work against a person. Power comes from accelerating mass, not speed alone. But, this incredibly fast (and precise) hand and arm movement looks REALLY good and wins competitions. Which is why it has become so popular.

The second way poorly done body movement manifests is it takes a "crash course."

By this we don't mean a short and intense study program, we mean it takes a head on collision bearing. Effective body movement has all kinds of small tweaks, wiggles, shifts and twists. The easiest way to understand why this is so is to realize that it is not only designed to get you out of the way of an attack, but to move you around obstacles (like your opponent's leg). For example, instead of crashing head-long into his planted and weight bearing leg by stepping forward, a circular step moves you around his leg so when you shift your weight onto it, you hit his knee from the inside, thereby disrupting his structure. By cutting his legs out from underneath him, you meet the criteria of running the table. If you're bigger than your opponent this strategy might work. But by crashing head-long into him, more commonly all you do is  momentarily destroy both of your abilities to effectively attack. That's because, with an opponent of equal size you're both going to be effected negatively. As such, you're both going to be spending the next second trying to regain your structure instead of attacking effectively. If your opponent is bigger than you -- or has better structure -- your going to bounce off. That leaves you unable to attack and him still able... not a good thing.

The fourth element of diagnostics is: Is it demonstrable? 

By this we mean that you can stop an effective technique anywhere in the process and identify what is making it effective at that exact moment. Gravity doesn't suddenly cease just because you are transitioning from one pose to another. An attack doesn't magically stall in mid flight while you move to block. An opponents leg doesn't flicker out of existence for a moment so you can move through it. An opponent's structure and balance doesn't suddenly fall apart just because you've moved over there.

You should be able to stop a technique at any point and identify what is happening and why it is working. This is how and why we came up with the idea of running the table. When you break a technique down into moves, you will see where a flawed technique is missing key components. Without these components, you will not be meeting the standards of running the table. And if you don't not only will he be able to resist, but he will be able to counter attack. Effective techniques should not fail because they keep you safe, keep him on the defensive and allow you to continue the offense. Whereas flawed techniques fail all the time because they don't meet these standards. Return to top of page  

L.A.C. Test
Take a look at these photos again.   
This is very good opportunity to run what we call the "L.A.C. Test" (lack test). The LAC acronym identifies the three main areas that a technique could have been changed -- and why. L - Lost
A - Added
C - Context

These issues tend to snowball on one another. (For English as second language, "snowball" is a slang term referring to a process that builds on itself and get bigger and bigger). A change in one will create a change in others. So in practice these issues tend to overlap; but for explanation purposes, let's look at these areas individually.

The first is what "component parts" have been lost? Usually when critical components have been lost a technique's effectiveness suffers. Overall the general "shape" of the move remains (especially the end pose) but the small, but critical movements that make it work are missing.

For example in the second set of photos, Tristan's body is constantly covered by his hands. The reason for this is simple, the set of movements he is doing is -- at the very least -- two blocks (one short range, one long range). Moving into the first position, he has executed the short range block(1). But in order to apply this bunkai, those small details that he is displaying must be there.  It's not just waving your hands around before you block, it IS defensive in nature. That often blown off as 'excessive movement'   is part of the onion effect of effective movement. Understanding the application is move is effective from the very beginning.

Contrast the move as it is commonly taught in commercialized schools (the first set of photos). The components that would allow for it to be used as two blocks have been lost. As such, the "block" only happens at the end of the move. In the first photo, I am left open and exposed against an incoming attack as I prepare to block. The components that would keep me protected have been lost from this version.

When trying to fix techniques that are not working one must look at the entire process, and not just at the end pose. Usually it is during the process that you will find where things have gone missing from how the technique is taught. For example, in a defensive move, ask yourself "where in the process are you vulnerable to being hit?" In the first set of photos, I am wide open until the end. In the second set, Tristan is constantly covered. While this may not show you what you need to do to fix it, it will show you where something has been lost.

The second area is what has been added?  Having lost certain components that make the move effective, many martial arts instructors add "tweaks" to get the move to work again. The problem is that these tweaks are usually specific to the strengths of the instructor (e.g. if the instructor is fast, his tweaks will be speed based. As such, he can successfully execute a tweaked move that a slower individual can't). Let's again look at the first set of photos. By extending the right arm back like that, there is a slight increase of speed as the hands snap back. This unnecessary movement is a wind up to make the block more powerful. By "snapping" into the end pose (second photo) the muscles can be tightened in order to compensate for bad structure. In addition, the sweeping action down into the end pose increases the chances of the blocker accidentally stumbling into a kind of structure. While this change in the handwork doesn't "fix" a flawed technique, it does patch it. Thereby allowing it to function with sporadic success. The problem with this is that while the instructor might be able to make it work, the student can't.

Another common reason to make these kinds of changes is that by putting in unique variations one can deny that the move was pirated from another style. This isn't just a problem with shady marketing in stripmall dojos, it is very much an issue of nationalistic pride, rewriting of history and longstanding ethnic tension between Asian cultures. (Misconduct in the martial arts world is not exclusive to countries east of the international date line.)

These small tweaks add an extra level of complication when you are trying to diagnose what is going on with a troublesome technique. At first is was just something missing. While you still have the original problem, now you have something else mucking up the whole. Where it becomes extremely complicated is how several small tweaks can be added to enhance a larger one. For example notice the differences in body position between the two sets of photos, a slight weight shift forward can increase the force of the tweaked version. The problem with this is in attempting to "hit" with one's block, one can go too far out and lose structure and power. So now you're trying to figure out not only was the original problem, but are left asking "what are the additional problems that the supposed 'fixes' created?"

The third and final area one must consider is context. For example, how have these moves been modified to function in a sport or tournament context? The physics of a correct blow are not the same physics that make for the crisp clean and -- most of all -- stunning visual displays that one sees in kata competition.

These modified versions of techniques will not deliver power, but they are guaranteed to 'wow' the judges because they look damn good. In that context, this kind of movement is much more useful to win. But if you try to punch someone like that in a fight, you're going to get creamed. This is why you must always ask "What is the focus of the style you are being taught?"

The bigger implications of all of this
One of the most common questions we are asked is "Which style is best for self-defense?"

As we have stated repeatedly on this Website, this is a B.S. question. But this page points out  why it is so on an entirely different level than elsewhere. But let's give the answer again: Any traditional martial art can be used for self-defense (2).

"But... but... no...which system is the best?" they ask

This kind of thinking has become so ingrained in the MA world that people accept that it is a legitimate question. It's not. In fact, it is just a bigger version of the very problem that we have been discussing on this page. If someone thinks that the technique is what generates power, it is just a small step to thinking that it is the system that really matters.

It's not.

It's how effective what they are teaching is. It's how many components have been lost and how well the instructor knows what he is doing. We have seen terrible examples of a system and we've seen incredibly effective examples of the exact same system. And both parties will absolutely insist that what they are doing is the "true art."

This is why we don't care about lineage, titles, associations or how many hashmarks someone has on his/her belt. It has been our experience that the more these issues are stressed, the less adept those people are at what we consider important. What we care about is effective physics. That is the difference between a paper tiger and a real one.

The sad fact is that it takes just as long to learn a flawed system as it does an effective version of the same thing. And unless you know how to diagnose what they are doing for effectiveness, you can waste a lot of time and money learning a flawed system.

Return to top

1) The school where we got the first example will swear, on a stack of Bibles, that what they are doing IS the original move. Furthermore, they explain the extra movement as a back handed block to fend off a second attacker. This explanation ignores the fact that if such a person existed, he would not conveniently stand there and wait while you fought his friend in front of you. Students of that school are doing this move in good faith that it would work. They also believe that it how the move has been done for over a thousand years. They have no idea where it originally came from, what it looked like then or when, where or who instigated these changes...much less why. Return to Text

2) In fact, there are many more bunkai applications inherent in that simple movement. The short range block can easily be turned into a grab of the incoming punch, twist to hyperextend his arm and then deliver a shuto strike. But without the correct pose you will not be in position to to execute this bunkai. Return to Text

3) These days we are hesitant to even to use the term "traditional" because so much of the types of problems we have discussed on this page are reflexively called traditional by practitioners of these flawed systems. And because they are "traditional" they don't have to make sense outside that school or book. Return to Text

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