I used to fight like a rabbit. Being a small guy in a world of giants, I learned to move fast. I’d hit hard and dart right back out, dodging every shot that came at me. I built a fight style around the speediest and safest shots I could throw, and tried to never let anyone touch me.
So I was a bit surprised when I switched over to boxing, and had some big galoot smash a haymaker right into my jaw in the first class. Knocked me about five feet over, he hit me so hard. Didn’t hurt me a bit. All this time thinking I was the little guy who should never be hit, and it turned out I was a tank. And once I learned that I could stay close and take shots, I learned that I could hit a range of new targets, and hit them hard. Suddenly everyone else was being a rabbit, trying to stay away from me.
Of course, there is no such thing as being tough against a blade. Some people like to point out historical anecdotes that point to other conclusions. I hear a lot of stories of people surviving gunshots these days, I don’t think it’s a good idea to teach people to survive a gunfight by planning to suck up a shot or two…forgive the poor logic, I hope you understand what I mean. Let’s just suppose for a moment that swords are lethal. Given that, I’m generally going to train my students to not get hit.
Generally, but not always. Anyone who tells you martial arts is black and white, and you must always do things one way or another, avoiding the corrupting influences of other thought patterns…that person is either an idiot or lying to you. Probably lying to themselves, from a state of ignorance. I’ve done it, most experienced martial artists have at one time or another. We always go through a phase of thinking we hold the truth, and it lasts until time kicks us between the uprights with a more humble reality.
Which is why it’s worth spending a short session of sparring being invulnerable…making sure your partner knows what you are doing, be the rhino…ignore all the shots, or all but the most obvious between-the-eyes headache-enablers. Spar as if nothing matters, as if nothing can count against you. Which, I should point out, is different from sparring as if nothing can hurt you. Bouncing your face off of a sturdy thrust will hurt, even with the best helm. Ignore the cuts and thrusts to the arms and legs, ignore the torso shots and the grazes to the mask. There is a value to training this way from time to time.
A parallel is to fight like an idiot…like you are being choreographed to fight in a movie. Be stupid and showy. Try the crazy things…toss your sword about, switch hands, try the sneaky behind-the-back stab…whatever. Be creative and make yourself laugh. Have fun.
Both of these approaches have value in helping you break out of habits. They can show you things you didn’t think you were capable of, things that might be very successful when incorporated back into real and safe play. If you always fence as if you were made of glass, you might have started to develop a rigid belief in what is or isn’t possible in your fight game. You can start to believe you can only fight one way, and that maybe you are just not as good as others. A heavy focus on pure defense can make you a predictable fighter, one that is very safe for other people to fight. Other people that might really enjoy the game of finding new ways around your stiff and limited guard. Or you might be really boring everyone with your constant running away and rabbit flinches.
By making yourself bulletproof for a session or two, you might start to see things that had been invisible to you. Maybe you don’t need to parry all those shots, if you find your footwork can do the job for you. Maybe you have more reach or speed than you thought, maybe more strength to control a blade than you expected. A lot can happen when you open your body of technique up, and let your mind explore.
Being crazy and stupid in your attacks and movement can show you new angles and possibilities as well. You might find you have an amazing ability to peg people on the chin, or cut deep across the legs. Maybe you can pull off crazy blade engagements that make no sense. Or maybe you find something simple like a better way to align your elbow and wrist that gives you just that much more mobility to make your pure historical technique just a hair faster and more precise. Never know until you try…
Play black and white from time to time, but never live in either extreme. Don’t let your game stagnate and stop growing. Sometimes you have to buckle down and grind out the basics in ever deeper detail, but sometimes you have to cut loose and have some fun.