The problem with most martial arts teaching, especially in written form, stems from a basic misunderstanding. In order for me to explain the technique I want to teach, I have to break it down. I have to talk about the separate steps. If I want to teach a parry-riposte, I will talk about an opponent who throws an example attack, and then explain the parry. I might throw in a variation or two, and talk about the good mechanics opposed to the bad. I’ll do the same for the riposte.

The problem here is that the attacker has suddenly become a person who stands still. Or has become terminally stupid. It’s a small thing, but it crops up again and again. That tiny flaw starts to show up in students. It infects the minds of teachers. It’s a great big lie, the great big lie of martial arts…that you can somehow be the smart one, while your opponent is stupid. And you can achieve this superiority with the right technique. Combat should be a simple equation. Black and white…

We’ve all seen the student ask the “what if” question in class. A thing is taught, and they instantly ask “what if the bad guy did this?” If you don’t want the class to devolve into a fantasy session, you shut the student up right away…the best way is tell them to work on what’s in front of them right now, and talk about special cases after the drill. The sneaky bug of this question, as any honest teacher will tell you, is that you do start to wonder a little. Is the technique really good enough? Am I teaching it correctly? Have I screwed up? Do I not know enough?

The short term answer you give yourself is that real people don’t have the ability to think so fast in an actual combat situation. No one has the presence of mind to see and react to such a quick action. That’s true…but it’s sidestepping the reality. It’s again supposing the enemy is stupid. It supposes, at some level, that they will, indeed, stand still. We pretend that the balance will always be weighted in our favour, if we only train right. It won’t, though.

Sure, you might face a stupid, poorly trained or inexperienced fighter, and they might let you tip the scales in your favour…but the real fighters won’t. They will fight like you do, and will seek superiority of their own. This is how our minds work. We make ourselves +1 to our opponent’s -1, and we want to attack. But as soon as our opponent sees us +1, they seek a +1 themselves. We posture to come to a point of meeting in such a way that we are superior.

Watch any bout between good fighters in any art, and you see this. Wrestlers with their hand fighting, boxers with shuffles and shoulder fakes, historical fencers with guard transitions. The better the fighters, the more often you see equilibrium achieved. Change and counter-change lead to balance. The essential moment of meeting, the point of battle, is often a fleeting moment of contact where both sides meet in complete balance.

Two fencers face each other, maneuvering for position. They posture, and step, and suddenly meet at measure, blades touching true-edge to true-edge. Who wins? Marozzo, in great detail, tells us what to do in this situation. As a well-trained fencer, we know what to do here. But so does our opponent.

Two Sumo wrestlers meet with a terrific clash, both having chosen the same grip. All that power comes together in complete balance…the winner will be the one who is the first to yield, causing the other to over-commit and fall. But which one is first? Both are wily veterans, both know what must be done. Under tremendous pressure, at the height of human ability…equilibrium.

Carl von Clausewitz, the Napoleonic era general, talks about the essential skill of “coup d’œil,” the ability to see, understand, and act within the space of a stroke of the eye. The winner of the battle, the meeting of equal forces, is the one who possesses the right eye to see, to understand that equilibrium has been achieved. To be the first to understand that the battle is joined, that the skirmishes are over, is the first one who has the opportunity to act on their training.

We teach poorly when we teach technique always comes from a place of strength. We lose our critical quarter of a second, as I wrote about earlier. Teach students to look for the moment of equilibrium, and to attack from that place of war. The static drill has it’s place…basic repetitions to build familiarity with mechanic, or precision work after…but it should always be paired with drills that incorporate an opponent who understands the balance within the context. If we fail to do this, if we teach students that superiority is always the goal, then we start to see a lot of double kills. If we instead teach students to aggressively seek the equilibrium, to be the first to find balance…and only then attack…we are teaching better. Our students start to get their money’s worth out of their sweat.