Making Contact

Seattle Escrima is a relatively young club. After two years in existence, we have built up a good core membership and now the questions of contact and resistance arise. These are fundamental issues within martial arts and combat sports and serve as one of the most important distinguishing characteristics between martial arts and combat sports. All combat sports use some level of contact and train against resistance with the goal of gaining skill for use in competition. ‘Martial arts’ often lack the clarity of focus of the combat sports. If you box, play judo, wrestle, roll jiujitsu, or fight MMA, your goal when training is to get better at your chosen activity. What are you doing when you do a ‘martial art’- a fighting system not clearly geared at a competitive venue?

‘Martial arts’ implies a very broad focus and different people bring many different goals and meanings to ‘martial arts’. Reality-based self-defense- combative systems for the military, LEOs, and other violence professionals- are a martial art. There are martial arts which exist for health, self-discipline, cultural preservation, and secondary social gain. If executing a skill under pressure, demonstrating what you do under unstable conditions is not a part of your goal in martial arts then contact and resistance are unnecessary. If you wish to perform any martial skill under pressure, against resistance, you must train under pressure, against resistance. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, delusional, or both. How much pressure, what sort of resistance, and when to incorporate those things are all matters for debate among reasonable practitioners but the reality of the need for resistance and pressure to develop those skills is not arguable.

Our goal at Seattle Escrima is to develop a set of core skills and attributes executable under pressure applicable and useful across a broad spectrum of combat situations, and to do so in a manner that is beneficial for as varied an experience level as possible. We are attempting to create an environment where a LEO, person training for a full contact match, and 16 year old girl who is learning something for fun and self-defense, can all train and benefit equally from the interaction. Contact and training against resistance are necessary to this end.

The term ‘sparring’ is often thrown about as shorthand for ‘training against resistance’ and is probably responsible for more injuries, stupid habits, and wounded egos than almost anything else in the martial arena. I have heard ‘sparring’ used as the term for all levels of contact from none to out of control full, for kicking only above the waist, kicking only below the waist, hands and feet, standing clinch work with and without strikes, ground work off the knees with and without strikes, guard pass drills, fencing, hits with weapon only, etc. People will use the term ‘sparring’ without good understanding of what both parties consider appropriate during the exchange, motion will drift into unfamiliar territory, and someone will get uncomfortable and freak out- resulting in injury to bodies or feelings. Most importantly, these sorts of interactions do little to develop skill and the goal of training against resistance is to develop specific skills.

Having made the case that training against resistance is necessary to develop skills executable against resistance, the question then arises of how best implement that sort of training. All useful and safe training against resistance has three fundamental requirements.

1). Explicit training goals and boundaries

Whatever you are doing you must have a clear picture of why you are doing it and what you hope to gain from it. Going into a boxing ring swinging for the fences looking for a fight is a good way to get a headache and have a *very* short boxing career. Train with a purpose. Gratifying your ego doesn’t count as a purpose.

One particular point most important within the context of weapons which should be brought up- the agreement on how to handle weapon hits. Our purpose at Seattle Escrima is to build skills with weapons. As such there needs to be some level of respect for the weapon when using padded weapons. If a hit would have had meaningful effect with a stick and you fail to acknowledge that and learn from it, you are simply building bad habits which will get you hurt should the context shift to real weapons.

Matt Thornton has an excellent description of his training process- the ‘Three I’ method- Iteration, Isolation, Integration. Do reps learning a guard pass. Pass against resistance. Roll free. Add strikes- repeat the three ‘I’s. Add weapons, multiple attackers, inclement conditions, etc. Make the skill yours and executable under all sorts of resistance. Given the variability of combat, creating the training environment which allows this with a partner brings us to the second requirement

2). Communication

Once you have a clear picture of what you’re working on you, and how you plan to working on it, you need to share this with the people you’re working with. This sounds simple and stupid, but ongoing communication is what prevents injuries, builds skill, and keeps things fun, which encourages you to train more, and allows you to get better and better. As long as all parties communicate- agree on goals and contact level, then communicate as to whether both perceive that agreement as being upheld- everyone can get better and enjoy the experience.

3). Familiarity and Community

Familiarity breeds skill, not contempt. I typically have found that my partners become most useful to me after we’ve worked together for 3-5 years. At that point we have shared goals, understand each others’ limitations and work ethics and have a level of trust that allows training with speed and power in ways that would be otherwise quite dangerous if we didn’t know each other so well. Skill is never developed in isolation- to get good you need a community of people who are comfortable with each other and share a goal of advancing everyone’s skill and understanding of the art we share.

I realize this has been a fairly abstract discussion of the most concrete of subjects, but it covers what I think is most important in training with resistance- the ground rules for how to interact and get better while minimizing risk of injury.

Have fun.

Come back and show me something you found while having fun someday.

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3 Responses to Making Contact

  1. Christian says:

    Thanks so much for writing such a thoughtful and insightful piece, Andrew. I’m still very much getting my feet wet, so to speak, but after a bit over a year of training with the club, I’ve consistently noticed your ability to identify the proper developmental concerns of both the group and its individuals. You and Eric are such great teachers and resources. In truth, everybody has taught me something.

    Your post is well-suited to the newer group of students, but the timing is also just right for me – I needed to hear some of these things now in order to improve certain areas of my focus. Watching some of the advanced folks engage really indicates how much communication takes place in legitimate sparring – it’s a treat to observe and, gradually, to learn. Thanks again for the insights.

  2. EKG says:

    I wish to train alone. What is the the proper stick to buy?


  3. andrew says:

    There’s no one answer. Get something heavy enough that it feels like it could do damage, but not so heavy you can’t control it, and can’t move it with speed. Not so long that you can’t use it one handed, or change, not so short that you can’t cover yourself.

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