Insights and Training Tips from Tactical Arts
This article is part three in a series of articles focused on getting results when learning to apply the Filipino martial arts. If you have not already read part one and part two, please read those first to get the most out of this article. Each article addresses a different stage in the learning process. Part one was focused on stage one, developing the right mechanics in order to lay the foundation required for future training. Part two outlined a process for developing reaction with simple exercises. This article continues with a continuation of the the progression started in stage two, then progresses to stage three, which involves more open-ended exercises and live training with a resisting partner.
STAGE 2 Continued - Advanced Reaction Training
Once you have mastered the reaction drills described in part two of this article series, it is time for more challenging reaction training. Initially, you can do this by using a similar format to the drills described in part two, now adding more variables and varying the contexts in which you practice.
Add More Variables
Learning to react when there is only one correct response is the first step in building reaction. In this first step, you do not have to decide which technique to use. That response is given. You simply have to recognize when to use it. You wait for your partner to feed you, then you perform the technique. The challenge now is to train to react properly when you must also decide which technique is the right one to execute.
Initially, this training begins much like the reaction drills outlined in the previous article: While performing a pattern of movement, such as continuous one and two strikes, the feeder will deliver an attack, and you must react appropriately. However, now, you will gradually include more variables in the drill. The feeder will deliver one of two or more possible attacks, each of which requires a different response. With this format, you must then recognize each attack, decide which technique is the right response and react appropriately. Remember: The required responses must be already trained individually first, so that you are ready for this increase in challenge.
When there are multiple techniques being trained in this manner, it is best to start this process with only two techniques at a time. This approach will allow the drill to remain challenging, but not overwhelming. Once you are performing well with just two variables, then the feeder can begin combining the attacks so that there are three variables, requiring three different techniques in response.
Though the goal is to be able to react to any number of attacks, this drill format usually works best with no more than three techniques. Once there are more than three variables, students make more mistakes, get frustrated, and ultimately, the training stimulus is diffused because there are too many variables. Over the course of many training sessions and drills, you can learn to react with many different techniques. When too many are covered in one drill or even one session, the focus and attention given to each is reduced, which causes the training to be less effective. So, restrict these reaction training drills to three or fewer possible variables per drill. Over the long run, you will build a library of reactions. There is no need to try and cram every technique that you know into one drill.
Vary the Context
In addition to increasing the challenge by adding more variables, you should practice your techniques in a variety of situations. As you improve your ability to react, you should practice your techniques while engaged in more challenging striking patterns or flow drills. Instead of just making contact with angles one and two, you and the feeder can engage in a drill involving various strikes and counters repeated in a loop. At certain points within the loop, the feeder can insert the feed to which you must react. This will challenge your ability to keep moving and recognize the specific attacks for which you are training.
Do this with several different drills. Change the components of the drill, but insert the same techniques into each of the different drills. This allows you to practice the same technique in several different situations. By situation, I mean a brief moment: A moment when you are moving in a certain way, and in a certain position relative to your partner, who is also moving in a certain way. In that very dynamic situation, you will have to transition to your technique, and possibly back into the flow of the drill, without hesitation.
Over time, this training will help you map the options that are available to your opponent in a variety of positions and situations. This will help you be prepared to counter his attacks. When you first try these drills, you may incorrectly anticipate the attacks so much that you will have difficulty keeping the drill going smoothly. With experience, you will learn to read a wider variety of cues and get better at seeing the attacks as they are coming. You will become familiar with recurring situations presented by each drill. Eventually, you will internalize the knowledge of when and what attacks can come from your partner in a wide variety of common situations. Once internalized, this knowledge will allow you to analyze faster and respond sooner.
Remember to progress in difficulty gradually when changing the variables and the context. When you change the context, start with one variable for each drill and gradually add one or two more. Also, have your partner initially insert the attacks in a predictable way, such as in every other loop of the drill. Later, have him change the frequency used in inserting the feed to something that is less predictable.
After mastering the types of drills described above, you will be ready to move on to stage three in your training. In stage three, you will more thoroughly integrate your techniques into your system by using a different approach to your training.
STAGE 3 - Integrating your Techniques
The final stage of the progression in training for application is to integrate your techniques into a web of skills that functions like a system. At this stage, you will assimilate your new skills with the skills that you already have to build a mental network of interrelated options and contingencies. By knowing how each technique interfaces with another, you will create a web of connections among them. This includes how one technique counters another, how one transitions to another, as well as how groups of techniques fit together based on certain contexts like range, loading positions and the behavior of your opponent.
Each time you train, you will map this web, making it a little more thorough and detailed. Over time, you will begin to understand the relationship of all the parts in this web. Eventually, your skills and techniques will be organized and function together as a system, rather than just as a collection of disparate techniques.
This system is not a single formula to be memorized. It is something that can only be developed individually, through experience. To integrate your techniques more deeply into a system, you need train the techniques with enough depth, intensity, and frequency that they are very familiar to you. You need to train them and test them in a variety of ways, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the techniques. You need to mentally and physically connect them to other techniques that you already know. You need to train them in a way that challenges your reaction skills under a less predictable format.
You must also pursue training that helps you build experience by developing your skills in environments that increasingly resemble the conditions in which you would actually apply them. This means you should progressively remove the scripted structures of the drills that you use, and transition to more practical drills that may have more than one right answer. It also means you need to develop your ability to apply your techniques when your training partner is actively trying to prevent you from doing just that. The most common practical drills here include a variety of sparring drills and drills wherein your partner resists your attempts to counter him.
Use Practical Drills
This final training stage requires that you change your training approach to one that is more practical than technical in nature. In this next step, you will gradually change the emphasis from that of stage two drills, which predominantly focus on technical objectives, to drills that are focused on practical objectives. This means that instead of trying to cultivate responses with a very specific set of techniques, you will now develop your problem solving skills in drills where there could be any number of good responses.
For example: In stage two drills, your objective was to learn to respond to specific attacks with very specific techniques. A stage two drill may limit your possible responses to only one, two, or three techniques. In the stage two drills, those techniques are the focus of your training.
In stage three, the drills become increasingly more open-ended. The drill format will still have a structure to direct the training, but the attacks from the feeder and/ or your responses may be restricted by parameters that are designed to direct you to work on certain situations or tactics, instead of restricting you to specific techniques.
For example: Your partner feeds you a variety of attacks, but he is limited to certain targets, such as only the head and the legs. You must respond to each attack with a counter. The choice of techniques that you use is up to you as long as you effectively counter the attack.
The main objectives of this exercise are for you to learn to recognize the attacks, decide what to do about them, and perform a technique with at least enough form to work. A distinction here is that the feeder is no longer facilitating the execution of a specific technique. He is delivering the attacks in a more open-ended and realistic manner to give you an experience that is less scripted and less predictable. It is this focus on function and the use of more realistic, less scripted attacks that makes this a more practical approach.
Stage three drills are more open-ended, but they must still have boundaries. They need boundaries so that you can limit the scope of the drill to focus on certain skills. Without these boundaries, you may not get enough repetition for significant development. The boundaries of these drills may be limits on the things such as the range of attack, the angles of attack, the targets allowed, or limits to techniques that follow a certain principle or tactic, etc.
For example: If you want to develop your ability to evade attacks to your hand, then you may use a sparring exercise wherein the only targets allowed are the hands and the head. To hit your partner's head, you must reach out and expose your hand. Your partner must do the same to hit your head. This format will give you plenty of opportunities to evade attacks to your hand and to attack your partner’s hand as he extends it.
Here, the boundaries of the drill help you target development in a set of skills and tactics by increasing the likelihood that you will encounter multiple situations wherein those skills can be tested and improved.
When structuring practical drills, the specific parameters of the drills should often still be related to the techniques that you are developing. For example: If you have been learning how to react to low line attacks, then the parameters of the related practical drills should direct the feeder to include some low line attacks as he feeds you. If you have been training a lot of counters to low line attacks, but the drill only allows head shots, then you will never get an opportunity to work on the low line techniques that you have developed in stage one and two. Furthermore, you also may have issues with technical performance if your training of the techniques needed to protect your head have not been adequately trained beforehand through stages one and two.
The value of organizing the practical drills with structures that limit the attacks and responses is to have control over the process. Imagine if all the sparring and practical exercises you do are completely open-ended. You may never get the opportunity to even try the techniques that you have been practicing. By using a structured approach as outlined above, you can focus on certain skill sets or tactics. By design, you will have multiple opportunities to implement your newly developed techniques within one training session.
Start with more focused drills and progress to more open drills. There is a spectrum of how open or how focused the parameters of the drills are. Just remember: Like any increase in challenge, it is usually better to advance in measured doses, than to make a huge jump in difficulty. Jumping ahead too soon will likely be unproductive.
In addition to moving towards more open-ended, practical drills in your training, you should also increase the resistance that your partner provides when you are attempting to apply your techniques.
When you first learn a technique, your partner helps you get it right. He remains static or moves very slowly, so that you can work on the details of the technique without worrying about timing, speed, force, etc. He may deliver an attack and leave himself open, or telegraph significantly, so that you clearly see when to react and apply your technique. This is good because it provides you with enough time to evaluate and make corrections as you cultivate your skills. As you improve, your partner should increase the challenge by increasing his resistance to your techniques. He can do this by delivering attacks that are faster, with fewer tells, and not as open or vulnerable to counter as before.
The appropriate progression from here is to have your partner gradually introduce more difficulty by competing with you, rather than complying with you. This increase in difficulty helps you develop better timing, improve your ability to see less obvious cues, and refine your movement. The process starts with your partner feeding you attacks and resisting your attempts to counter with a low intensity effort. He can do this by going slower, using less force, or less skill than he is capable of applying. He can then gradually increase his resistance, measured as a percentage of his normal abilities. He may first offer you 10% resistance, then 25%, later 50%, etc.
More challenging drills will progress so that both you and your partner are competing rather than having one person designated as the feeder. This is a shift to low intensity sparring, sometimes called technical sparring. Here, you and your partner will still cooperate within the format of the drill. You will initially "hold back” and only offer a low percentage of resistance so that you can both maintain control. You "give and take" by repeatedly shifting roles back and forth from feeder to trainee by allowing your partner to win some exchanges without escalating your speed and force to counter his every move. He does the same for you, so that you both can organically explore attacks and counters without the fear of being hammered by your partner. This low intensity sparring is a good way to learn control while still introducing resistance and competition.
As you become more comfortable with this drill at low intensity, incrementally increase the intensity. Over the course of several sessions, you and your partner should gradually resist more and use more effort to counter each other. As you and your training partners develop proficiency, confidence, and trust, the drill format can become more and more competitive with you no longer allowing your partner to get the attack or counter and him doing the same for you. By gradually removing the limitations of the drill and intensity of the feeding / competition, you will have a bridge to progress closer to a completely open-ended situation. Eventually, you will simply be sparring.
The value of gradually progressing from a lower level of resistance and competition to higher levels is to create more opportunities for improvement while ramping up your skills. It is hard to make adjustments to your tactics and your techniques when someone is trying to hit you in the head with one hundred percent effort. Imagine going from zero sparring experience to suddenly being marauded by more experienced students. You will have little opportunity to refine your skills. By gradually increasing the intensity of resistance and competition, you will have more time to cultivate your poise under pressure and calibrate your tactics to this more dynamic format. You will have more time and mental clarity to analyze your mistakes and make corrections. Remember: Even if you have progressed to a high intensity in your training, there is still value in continuing to train at lower intensities. The key is that you learn to adjust to resistance.
In addition to developing your skills through practical drills with increasing levels of resistance, you should also strive to develop experience through your training.
One of the most important results of training is gaining experience. Training can give you experience with techniques, tactics, and situations similar to what you may encounter in a live scenario, be it sport or defense. The more complete and well-rounded that experience is, the better your chances of success will be. This is because experience will give you a deeper understanding of what you study.
In the three posts of this series, I have attempted to summarize the approach that I use in training my students. In this approach, the training objectives transition from technical to tactical, and the drill formats transition from being very tightly structured to more live and open-ended. In that transition, the steps are gradual, and because they are gradual, they are thorough. A gradual approach gives you more steps to ramp up your skills. It gives you more time and opportunities to absorb what you are training. It gives you more details. It gives you a more complete experience.
Though you can become functional without training with this entire progression, I believe you will find it easier to recall and apply your techniques if you do complete the entire progression. When you master of the mechanics of your techniques, you are no longer hindered by the lack of coordination or physical performance. When you train how to react to attacks using the right technique, you embed those reactions into your long term memory, making them accessible under pressure and without conscious forethought. Finally, when you attempt to apply those techniques in a more open-ended, live training environment, you will develop a deep understanding of them including how to modify them for any given situation. This combination of skill and knowledge will allow you to depend on your techniques when you are under pressure.
These three phases in the training process make your training more well-rounded and complete, but, it is the final step that really prepares you for success. It’s the work you do, while training in the open-ended, live environment that creates the skill and experience that is the most relevant to applying your techniques. By nature, every live drill challenges you with a different perspective or a different scenario. Even though some of the elements are the same, each drill presents situations and problems that are different in some way. Because of that, you are forced to adapt to those situations and solve those problems by adjusting the way that you perform your techniques and tactics.
In this process, you learn to quickly assess the situation and make those adjustments in the moment, under pressure. Through many iterations of this process, you will catalog memories and develop schema that will allow you to make quicker decisions and weigh more information when making those decisions. This is what you need to guide you when you must respond to attacks in the future.
The experience, composed of the memories, schema, knowledge, and understanding, gained through all of your training, is the real fruit of your labor. All of the training you do in stage one and stage two of this process is crucial, but ultimately, the purpose for all of this training is to develop both the skills and the experience that give you the understanding that you need to apply your techniques in any situation. Strive not only to develop your ability to perform techniques cleanly and with fast reaction times, but also to cultivate the experience that you need to apply the art.
In the beginning of this series of articles, I introduced my approach for training the Filipino martial arts with a primary focus on learning for application. When training with this objective in mind, every exercise and drill should have a purpose. This purpose should be communicated to the student, so that he can align his expectations and goals with the training progression.
When the student knows the purpose of the training drills and meets the objectives of those exercises, he will not only gain confidence in his abilities, but also be able to assess his overall ability to apply the art. This confidence and understanding together will lead him to the answers for questions like the following:
"When will I know I can do this?"
"Will my techniques just come out when I need them?"
"How can I remember all of these techniques?"
By understanding the training progression, he will know when his skills are ready for application thanks to the experience and development he has gained through mastering the mechanics of the techniques, learning to react with those techniques, and honing the supporting skills through practical exercises. He will have the physical skills to perform the techniques he has learned. He will understand how his training has prepared him to react, wherein the techniques and tactics he has learned will “come out” when needed. He will not need to actively try to remember the techniques, nor hold them in his conscious thought, because they have will have been trained throughly enough to embed them in his long term memory and become a part of his network of skills and base of experience.
Whether you are designing a program for yourself or simply doing homework while under the guidance of an instructor, you can take an active role in your development. When you have a clear understanding of the design of your training program and goals, you can augment the training that you have received under an instructor with exercises and drills that are consistent with the objectives of that program.
If you are an instructor, it is your duty to organize your instruction in a way that gives your students the best training that you can offer. By keeping your students informed about your training methods and program goals and by continually improving your program and your skills as an instructor, you will lead your students to success.
Tips for Improving at this Stage