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In Random Training Note #6 , I noted that:

Evasion is: Perception + Agility.

To elaborate further, perception is cognitive processing of sensory input, and is crucial to both attack and defensive skills. Fast and accurate perception depends upon having a large vocabulary of relevant experiences for cognitive processes to compare to incoming sensory input. This perceptive processing may be consciously directed or below conscious thought. We have multiple systems of sensory input, yet much of martial arts training relies on only the visual realm. This may be fine for the optimal, controlled conditions of the average dojo/club etc. However, surprise attacks, or those involving multiple people will likely present other types of sensory input, such as tactile contact or acting on “bad feelings” about a situation or person. Visual perception will not help against threats that cannot be seen or on conditions that prevent clear sight. Learning to perceive and act upon these is a critical skill for fighting and self-defense.

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Striking is the act of fitting a weapon to a target. Availability of targets may change very quickly, availability of weapons may change very quickly.  Learning to recognize these changes and adapt to them requires more time spent striking targets that are moving unpredictably and changing range than targets moving predictably or not moving at all. The speed and intensity of these activities should be varied to emphasize different attributes: tracking/accuracy, reaction time, fluidity, and power. Tracking, fluidity and reaction time are more important than focusing exclusively on power.  Reflection on which changes in target and range present the most difficulty is vital.

It’s important to keep your eyes on a partner or opponent as you duck under a strike (see RTN 2 for more on ducking). If you bend too far forward at the waist and round the back, eye contact is lost, peripheral vision is diminished and the head is at greater exposure to being kneed from below or struck from above.  A rounded back also inhibits the gluteal muscles, which are vital for driving forwards or stabilizing against pressure from the front.  Keeping the eyes up means that the back will be closer to 45 degrees, and slightly extended as opposed to rounded.

If you or a student has a hard time keeping the eyes on the other person while ducking, this is a sign of weakness/imbalance in the muscles of the neck and upper and lower back. If you notice that someone starts to bend at the waist and round the back after a few reps of a ducking exercise, have him slow down the pace and decrease reps so that he can maintain eye contact and keep the back more upright, and begin him on a program to increase the strength of the neck and back. Asking training partners to tap the back of the head when it is exposed can provide a good physical cue that the eyes are dropping. Several exercises can help to improve strength and performance in these areas:


  • Isometric neck strengthening and stabilization exercises. Standing or sitting with good posture, press your palm into your head with moderate pressure and keep the position of your head from changing. Do this against the forehead, temples, rear of the skull, under the chin and at angles.  Hold for 20-30 seconds, 1-2 sets each direction. Incorporate 3-5 days per week. Use a mirror to ensure that you are not excessively protruding or retracting the chin throughout.

Upper and Lower Back

  • Floor Cobras. Start with 3 sets of 3 repetitions 3-5 days per week.
  • Ball Cobras. As the Floor Cobras can be done with stability and control, begin incorporating 3 sets of 3 repetitions 3 days per week.
  • Back Extensions. Depending on how easy these are, incorporate 3 sets of 5-15, 3 days per week. Don’t swing- stop for a second at the top and at the bottom.
  • Pull ups. Grip an overhead bar at shoulder width or slightly wider. Contract glutes and abs, squeeze the shoulder blades together, and pull your chin to the bar. Avoid  jack knifing or bouncing to achieve the pull. If these are difficult or impossible for you, try squeezing the shoulder blades together so that your feet are lifted from the floor and hold for 20-30 seconds, or as long as you can maintain good form. As this improves, use a bench or jump up to get to chin height and hang in the top position for as long as good form can be maintained- shoot for 20 seconds. Lower yourself with as much control as possible, repeat. Start with low reps per set, increase as this improves, begin adding in full pull ups once you are capable. Some gyms have assisted pull up machines which can be helpful as well. Incorporate 3 days per week.
  • And as always, stretch the hip flexors before conditioning and class time. If these muscles are tight and dominant, they will encourage excessive forward lean at the waist.

*As with everything else described on this blog, these suggestions assume that you are in good shape and do not have any back problems that would make these exercises unsafe. If you’re not sure, consult your doctor and enlist the services of a  qualified fitness professional.

The terms “stress” and “fear” are often conflated when martial artists begin talking about real-world encounters and training experiences. The physiological and cognitive effects of both are different, and the methods for dealing with both are different. And they will be different across different people; one person’s stress might be another person’s trigger for a panic attack, something that puts one person into a full blown fear response might be moderately stressful to someone else.

Stress and fear are different:

We can retain rational thinking, higher cognitive functions and perform complex skills under stress. We can learn to control the effects of stress and become habituated to working under it’s effects.

Fear can override rational thinking, short-circuit higher cognitive functions and make even basic skills unreliable. We can not learn to reliably control the effects of fear.

Moderate to extreme stress may be encountered frequently in the training environment. The vast majority of people will never experience true fear in the training environment. Do not mistake controlled stress with uncontrolled fear.

Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence is strongly recommended for useful observations and suggestions on recognizing and dealing with the effects of both.

Experiencing the failure of a technique is just as important as experiencing success of the technique. When failure is experienced, take the time to explore contingency options.

In the dojo, people often unintentionally  manufacture success by creating optimal conditions for a technique- certain distancing, against a certain attack in a certain way, or unconscious complicity on the attacker’s part. Be aware of this tendency. Sometimes this is necessary in the initial stages of teaching or learning new techniques.  Be up front about this fact with students and with yourself. Know when to take the “training wheels” off.


Evasion is timing + agility.


Addendum: Evasion is perception + agility. Timing is usually referenced with relation to optimal conditions, such as sparring. Perception can operate in sub-optimal conditions.

Noted following a very fun and educational session with a phenomenally skilled wrestler, in which he handled me like a  kid and pointed out that a few of my favorite reversals only work against people who aren’t trying/able to dominate you first…thanks Nich!

Regular training can enable people to do all sorts of physically impressive things, but most of those things require specific conditions in order to work. The dojo is an optimal environment. Training partners can unconsciously be too cooperative.

Is it more valuable to be able to do impressive things that require optimal conditions, or to be able to do necessary things under non-optimal conditions?

Which one are you training for?

Rule of thumbs:

If you end up with an opportunity to manipulate a wrist but are not sure where to go with it, remember to move towards the thumb in the direction that is already pointing in:

  • If the person’s palm is facing down, twist the hand counterclockwise and forcefully flex and evert it so that the thumb points down and then to the outside.
  • If the person’s hand is facing palm up, turn the hand clockwise and forcefully extend and invert it.

Being able to turn the wrist forcefully  into it’s limited range of motion is more important than the other elements. Experimenting with a  compliant partner will let you develop a feel for how to transition between the two as he tries to turn away from the force.  Experimenting with a non-compliant partner who is trying to hit repeatedly you will point out how unreliable this as as a primary defense.

Consider using the momentary control of the wrist to achieve further ends:

  • explosively jerk the arm while moving backwards and lowering your COG until they are face down
  • fold the arm into their body and get control of the shoulder and neck
  • use the captured hand as an anchor while attacking with the other arm and legs

Once control of the wrist is established, take the first opportunity to  attack rather than focus on fighting for continued control of a single limb.  The goal is to put the person on the floor or pin against a wall as opposed to struggling for standing control, where they may strike you, regain their COG and use the legs for assistance.

That being said, if the initial wrist control is immobilizing,  keep it. But don’t count on it.

The Missouri and Virginia TKRI clubs have lately been working with unexpected attacks from the rear and sides at extremely close range:

The goal of this series of drills is to react to the stimulus of a shove and/or grab to the hair or clothing from behind with an aggressive response. The technique is not as important as the recognition of aggressive contact and the ability to respond with the same.

The position of the hands on the head protects the face and the vulnerable temple and coronal regions of the skull. This position also anchors the neck so that the musculature of the upper back and shoulders can stabilize the head against further acceleration while contributing to the charge and a successive flurry of elbow strikes.

At this range, complicated techniques such as joint manipulations and fully extended strikes will be of little use. Such an attacker will have the element of surprise and the advantage of initiating the attack, allowing them to land several strikes before the victim can can decide upon a response and make it. At speed and full force the victim will be disoriented and in a poor position from which to fight. These drills aim to train students to move into an unexpected attack with an equally aggressive response using gross body movements, hopefully creating the space to escape or fight from a better position.

Give it a whirl, and after folks get the hang of it pick up the intensity on the attacker and the defender’s part- just watch the face and throat. It’s hard to control the amount of contact delivered by whirling elbows at this range. Mouth guards for the attacker are recommended, headgear might not be a bad idea at higher speeds.

When throwing hooks and uppercuts, use the return as a strike in the opposite direction instead of pulling the hand away after the strike is complete. For example, after throwing a hook to the head, return with a backfist (or elbow) to the other side of the target and follow up with a strike off of the other hand in the same direction. Or after an uppercut, bring the arm back down sharply to strike with the elbow or a backfist.

Done in succession, this creates a very rapid flurry of powerful strikes that can be overwhelming. With some practice on the heavy bag you can start to link each coupled set with a series off of the other hand. Change angles and target zones as you do this, working gradually up to faster speeds. Think about your overall movement as working around a ball in front of your torso, as opposed to simply moving the hips back and forth on a horizontal (transverse) plane.

A few examples of this can be seen on the clip below at :50

"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin


February 2020
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