Please Don’t Kill Your Uke – Practice vs Real Life

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Cory Miller in his book, Meditations on Violence explains how martial arts practice moves are intentionally flawed since it is not possible to simulate damaging your opponent. You either hurt your opponent or you don’t. Since we like and respect our partners and do not want to hurt them, we need to change our moves either by redirecting or holding back force. As my students will tell you, I am a believer in Miyamoto Musashi’s lesson, “You can only fight the way you practice” so we have a bit of a conundrum. We want to practice in a way that will prepare us to defend ourselves but we don’t want to injure our partners when we practice.

Because of this conundrum, it is important for us to always keep in mind that many practice moves need to be intentionally flawed. There is a fine line between dangerous training and effective training. If your students are always missing class due to injury you are not helping them. On the flip side if your water down your style by not acknowledging the intentional flaws in your practice moves, you are setting your students up for failure when they need to defend themselves. There is not an easy solution. As an instructor, people rely on you to show them ways to protect themselves in a safe environment. Unfortunately, the goals of safety and learning to protect oneself are not always in sync.

If you practice thinking that these intentional flaws do not impede the move’s effectiveness, you risk watering down your system. The most common manifestation of a watered down system is the reduction or elimination of moves that on occasion cause injury. Punches to the head are a good example. Nobody likes to get hit in the face, but it teaches several important lessons. To be effective in an altercation the punching student needs to practice effective strikes and the receiving student needs to realize that poor defenses have consequences. In the controlled environment of the dojo and with appropriate safety equipment to protect students from full face strikes people can experience the hit without the hit causing damage.

Getting hit in the face teaches lessons:
1. You can survive getting hit in the face. The idea of being hit in the face is scary. Experiencing the hit and moving forward shows that the blow is not necessarily final.
2. The shock of the hit is usually more pronounced than the pain. Being able to get over the shock quickly will allow you to be better able to defend yourself and counter.
3. It is important to defend yourself. Being hit in the face is unpleasant. That unpleasant experience is great at teaching that keeping your hands up is important.

So how do we maintain a safe environment but teach the students to use the moves effectively? In order to prepare our students to use moves effectively but to keep everybody safe I like to have the students practice the moves in several different ways:
1. Drilling the techniques without an uke. Whether you practice kata, individual techniques, or combinations/set techniques, your students need to practice with proper technique and intensity.   Allowing poor technique or a lack of intensity prepares your student to react weakly to an attack. Good technique with high intensity builds the muscle memory to use the move effectively.
2. Drilling the technique with an uke. We adjust the move so we don’t hurt our partner, but not so much that it becomes completely ineffective. Strikes need to come close to the targets. Both the uke and the practicing student need to use accurate strikes. The practicing student needs to feel that they will be struck or submitted if they do not perform their technique correctly. Also, adding the uke puts the pressure on the practicing student to familiarize themselves with personal confrontation to effectively act in an altercation.
3. Students need to spar. Sparring needs to be controlled, so it is not a true representation of a fight, but it gives the student a taste of the adrenalin rush and the anxiety of an altercation. If a student has never been struck or submitted, they will not have the experience needed in a true altercation and if that strike occurs on the street, the shock will freeze the student and the student will not react appropriately.

Since there is a fine line between effective and dangerous training, there are risks of injury. Continuing with the punched in the face example, hits to the face come with risks: concussions, bloody/broken nose; bloody lips and tooth injuries. These risks can and should be mitigated by using the right equipment and practicing in a controlled environment. As I mentioned earlier, I believe the benefits in being able to defend yourself outweigh the risks. However, softening styles for children makes sense. Martial arts is good for children but children don’t have the control to not hurt their partners. Once people are of a certain age, the training wheels should be taken off.

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