This is part two of a three part series of articles. If you have not read part one, please read it before reading this article. As I mentioned in part one, I have identified three stages of learning only to make the material discussed in this series easier to organize, read, and implement. A more in-depth discussion could certainly subdivide these stages into many parts based on the science and development behind the progression.
In part one of this series, I began to explain my approach to teaching students how to learn to react. Part one was focused on the first stage of learning a new technique. This first stage is largely focused on learning proper mechanics and developing coordination. In this article, I will discuss stage two of the process. Stage two is primarily concerned with developing reaction under simple, unambiguous conditions.
Stage 2 - Learning to React
In order to be able to apply a technique in a stressful situation, you must train to make the technique reflexive. It must be ingrained so that, when desired, you will perform the technique without conscious thought of the mechanics behind the technique.
Learn to Read Pre-Attack Cues
The process of training a technique until it is reflexive starts with learning the cues that indicate a specific attack or situation is coming. If you do not have any way to predict that a particular attack is coming, then you are unlikely to react quickly enough to counter it. However, if you learn to recognize cues that indicate a specific attack is coming, then you will have time to mentally process what is happening and then react when it does come. Your ability to see and recognize these cues quickly is critical to your success.
Not only must you learn the specific cues that indicate a possible attack, but also you must learn to recognize them early. When an opponent moves in to attack you, it will take you time to recognize what is happening before you can take action. Even if you recognize what is happening, you still must have enough time to react physically. It does not help to recognize that you will be hit in the head if you have no time to do anything about it. If you recognize a cue early, then you will have more time to identify what is happening and more time to take action. You will have more time to react. To get good at doing this, you should spend time training to recognize specific pre-attack cues.
Drills used in this process are simple. A training partner delivers an attack, and then you react to it with the appropriate technique. With each repetition, study your partner for cues that are specific to the attack. These are mostly visual cues that are based on the movement of your partner. Some examples of cues include: how your partner moves his elbow prior to striking, how your partner twists his hips or shoulders before attacking, or how your partner shifts his body weight before he steps closer.
Some of the more useful, specific cues may be seen in the loading mechanics, weight shift or body lean, and footwork used as your partner initiates an attack. Sudden facial movements, target glancing, and a change in breathing patterns may also serve as good early cues that an attack is coming. Note that some cues but may not indicate which attack or which angle of attack is coming, but they may indicate when an attack is coming.
Having your partner exaggerate the cues that indicate an attack is coming will help you progress faster when you first start a new technique. For example: Your partner intentionally exaggerates the windup necessary before delivering an attack. This exaggeration makes the cues more obvious, so that you recognize them early. Recognizing the cues early allows you more time to react. This approach is helpful if you are struggling just to recognize the cues or you are not yet able to respond to the cues quickly enough. As you improve in your ability to recognize pre-attack cues and react, the exaggerations should be minimized, then removed.
Keep your Training Focused
At this stage, your training should focus on just developing one technique at a time. Drills should start with you only needing to recognize whether or not you need to react with that one technique. The reaction is based on an answer of yes or no. React or do not react. This means your training will be focused on developing your ability to know when to react rather than focused on deciding how to react. Also, at this point in your training, your feeder should not introduce any faking motions or other deceptions. He should deliver an accurate attack that employs the same angle and mechanics of the real attack.
Keeping the scope of your training narrow like this will allow you to make faster progress. This is because you will build more depth and experience with each technique if you focus on it alone. This simple approach will allow you to refine your ability to read the cues needed to react with a specific technique. It will also allow you to refine your movements under the stress of having to react to a stimulus, which is is more challenging than just performing at your own pace. When you later practice reacting to a variety of attacks, you will have the ability to distinguish between them because you know and have drilled how to read the specific cues for each attack. At that point, you will also have better control over your movements. Ultimately, this means you will spend less time remediating any deficient skills once the training becomes more intense.
Refine your Technique Under Pressure
After you develop the ability to recognize that an attack is coming, you need to refine the mechanics, precision, and accuracy of the technique while you are training for reaction. Typically, when a student first starts reaction training, the technique is very sloppy. The additional attention required to look for cues and react at the appropriate time often causes the quality of the student’s movement to drop. This is normal, and you should expected it to happen to you too. The solution is to improve your performance while under pressure.
Repetition, under this new level of intensity, will allow you to improve your reaction time and clean up your movements. Improving is simply a matter of trying to command better control while performing with the new added stress. As you become more accustomed to the stress, and improve your ability to react, your technical performance will improve as well.
If you have already put adequate time into developing your coordination and consistency of movement in stage one, then this process will move quickly. However, if you prematurely moved from stage one to stage two, then the movement will likely be even more sloppy and require more time to improve. For best results, be sure to have clean and consistent movement before you start stage two. If you find your movements are not as clean as you would like, continue to work on your coordination and body mechanics in a slow and deliberate manner. Build up again to working on reaction when your movements are more precise and consistent.
As you improve, gradually add pressure to your training. Add pressure by having your partner feed more quickly, more frequently, or with less obvious cues. If when you add pressure, your movement degrades, improve it before adding any more pressure. Once your movement does improve, add more pressure.
The key is to find a balance of pressure and performance quality. You should be challenged, not overwhelmed. If you are performing the technique right one hundred percent of the time, you need more challenge. If you are getting it wrong one hundred percent of the time, then you need less challenge. I find the sweet spot of being adequately challenged, but not overwhelmed, is when the student gets the technique right about sixty to eighty percent of the time.
Progress from Static to Dynamic Drills
The process of developing reaction skills should gradually move from simple, static exercises to drills that are more dynamic. In initial reaction drills, you may start by waiting in a ready position until the feeder delivers an attack from a stationary position. As you become more consistent in your successful performance of the drill, the format of the drill should become more dynamic. The drill can be made more dynamic by putting both you and the feeder in motion prior to the delivery of the attack.
This approach can be as simple as having both you and the feeder perform basic strikes in the air or strike your weapons together in contact before the attack is delivered. A good starting point is to have a student and feeder continuously strike in diagonal angles one and two. At some point, the feeder will change from the angle one and two striking pattern to deliver the attack that you are learning to counter. You must recognize this change and react to the attack.
The intent of this drill format is to train you to react while you are already in motion. Reacting while in motion is different from reacting while stationary. To make a transition, you will have to flow from your current movement into the movement of the proper response. This more dynamic format is a step up in difficulty from drilling in stationary ready positions. It is more difficult because you must not only recognize the attack, but also transition your movement from the default motion of the drill to the correct response. Learning to make these transitions while in motion is important and very useful when done right.
From our example above, when first inserting an attack into a flow of continuous one and two strikes, the insertion of the attack should be at a predictable frequency. Doing this will make it easier for you to perform the technique correctly. It will allow you to count the beats created by your strikes, while knowing at which beat the attack will come. This way, you and your feeder both know that after x number of strikes, the next strike will be the attack that cues your reaction. This approach is a good way to help you get started with a new technique.
As you progress, the frequency of the attacks from your training partner should become less and less predictable. Once you can easily perform the technique as the attack is delivered at a predictable frequency, then the frequency should vary. Otherwise, the counting could become a crutch. When varying the frequency, you should no longer be able to count the number of strikes and thereby know when the attack is coming.
This change is important because the final training objective is for you to learn to react based on the cues that are relevant to the real attack. Using a predictable attack frequency in a drill is just a stepping stone to get there. Changing the predictability will increase the demand on your ability to react, and when done gradually, will improve your skill quickly.
When you begin developing reaction with a technique, learn to read pre-attack cues. Keep your focus on one technique at a time. Gradually add pressure to your drills so that you remain challenged. Progress from static to more dynamic drill formats. Reduce the predictability of attacks by varying their frequency. By using the methods explained above, you will expand your understanding and skill with each technique and prepare yourself for success with more challenging reaction training to come.
Tips for Improving at this Stage
- Use more than one training partner to feed you. This will help you learn to recognize more pre-attack cues, improve your ability to adjust to differences in how your opponent attacks, and get more varied feedback on your performance.
- Continue to improve your coordination and mechanics. The more practiced you are with your mechanics, the less you have to think about them. This allows you to give more attention to what is going on with your partner.
- Test your skills by going faster and increasing the frequency of attacks. Use this to see where your skills break down. Once you find a weakness in your skills, slow down and address the weakness with exercises that will improve the skills needed to overcome it. This may include working on coordination while moving at full speed, trying recognize cues earlier, or just progressing more gradually through the drills you have already been doing.
- Be patient with yourself. Reaction drills can be frustrating when your technique is not coming out right. It’s better to use exercises that bridge from one level of skill to the next in a more gradual manner than to jump into faster, more complex drills right away.
That’s all for now. The final portion of this article will continue in part 3. In the next post, we will discuss integrating the individual skills developed in stage two into the whole of your experience and knowledge base. This includes developing reaction to variable attacks and adjusting your skills to more dynamic and less predictable situations.