Physical Training Mar 2007
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Crank up the Intensity

copyright © 2007 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved

How do you bump up the intensity in your martial arts practice?

This is a question that comes to every instructor sooner or later. Perhaps you've got a student who has the potential, or perhaps you've got a sensei coming for a visit and you need to get an entire class ready for something beyond what they're ready for. How do you get them "up" for it?

First, let's look at what intensity is not, it's not aggression, not "going at it hard" no matter what one might think. All that does is put you out of your envelope, beyond your skill level, and it gets someone hurt. Intensity is the ability to practice at a very fine level of control, a place where we're talking about times less than a second and distances less than an inch. Intensity is almost boring to look at, it's not flashy, it's not showy, and from the outside it always, always looks too polished to be true. But when you're involved, when you're on the other end of that stick or sword coming at your head it's anything but routine.

So how does one usually achieve intensity? First, through long and regular practice. I'm talking many years of practicing one martial art, and I'm talking about practicing the basics, not a lot of dance moves. You need to wear the art into your skin and bones, you need to get to the point where time expands and you can start seeing things between the movements, when your partner starts to move and you are familiar enough with everything he's doing that you see when the shadow of a thought crosses his mind, you know when he hesitates, when he stutters, when the hitch happens between the first twitch and when you have to move.

When that happens you naturally start to drift into a greater intensity, into that area where your motions start to leave the beginners wondering how you can do it.

The second thing that helps is to have a long time partner, one you've grown up with. With long time exposure you get to know and trust a partner, you get to know each other's timing, you become able to feel, through a fingertip, through a weight shift, when they're going to move and where. You develop a communication that is hara to hara, that doesn' t go through your rational brain. You listen to their suigetsu. It is clear in my head, as if it were last month rather than 20 years ago, the practices I used to have with Lawrence, my aikido partner. We could change technique in mid air and never hurt one another.

If you don't have a partner you've grown up with, you can still have the intensity cranked up by a partner who is so far ahead of you that they seem to be tapping their foot and waiting for you to get there when you attack. This partner can pull more out of you than you know you've got. If they're a good senior that is, one big problem is that a sempai at this level can also destroy you by simply not letting you even start your attack before crushing your movement, and your spirit along the way.

Now that sort of behaviour may be good training for an experienced student who needs to be shown just how far they have to go along the way. The good experienced student will be elated to know that they have years more productive practice to look forward to. The lousy experienced student will quit, dragging his wounded ego off the floor. But aside from that, it is more important to understand that all too often the "senior" student isn't experienced enough to know who needs this type of practice, he is simply demonstrating that he's ahead of the beginner who has a month or two in practice. In this case all that happens is that the senior proves he's better at the dance steps and the beginner learns that this guy is a jerk. All too often the beginner takes a walk out the door.

No, a good senior won't simply smother you as you start the attack, a good senior will pull you, just beyond the edge of your ability, further and further into that unknown and frankly terrifying realm of "out of control". The ground comes at you faster and faster, the stick gets closer and closer, the sword sounds louder and louder as it whizzes past your ear. But it's always just past your ear, the stick always stops just before your rib snaps, and you always manage, somehow, to get back off the ground to attack once more as you reach deeper and deeper into the void, into places where you have nothing left but somehow find something anyway. Those who know are feeling it now, deep in their centre as they remember every time they've been taken there and back again, protesting that it's not enough time... just one more ride, please.

My sharpest recollection of my student years in Aikido is a practice with my sensei, Bruce Stiles, where he "let go" on me. It was just an ordinary practice but I had a little more bounce in me that day I suppose and came off the ground fast enough that he knew I was ready. I flew. Farther, faster than I'd ever gone. It went on forever as I came back for more and more. Eventually upside down with the mat falling toward my head like the sky became my real home, I couldn't wait to get off my feet again as I ran for sensei. I suppose he saw eventually that my technique was getting ragged because he stopped me and we went on with the class, but if I had my way I would be running toward him to this day.

The care, the skill, the, well the love of a senior who can take you there is something that you never forget and can never repay except in one way only, and that's to take the next generation there when you're ready and able to do it.

Crank up the intensity
Entirely gratuitous photo, Dave Shannon (l) and Kim Taylor in Ottawa.
Photo by Dave Green

Unfortunately, not all dojo have seniors that can lead you onward like this. Not all clubs have long term students who have come up together with the sort of trust and bond that will allow them to crank it up naturally. Sometimes an instructor has to bring the whole class along inch by painful inch, pushing and pulling and trying not to get too far ahead so that nobody gets hurt. It's not easy.

Here is what I can tell you from my experience with teaching "first groups", and what I've observed with instructors who have had to bring students along in a rush, for whatever reason (and there are good reasons, not everyone has 30 years ahead of them to learn, or to teach).

First and foremost, you need competence in the movements, so your kata must be short and sharp. If necessary you must extract kihon out of the kata. If you're lucky your art has few and short kata so you're set... if you're not so lucky you're going to have to bite the bullet and cut out a chunk of practice. That means that you not only deny yourself the practice of "advanced" practice, you also have to deny this practice to your students and for a beginning instructor (let's face it we're often talking about a beginning instructor if they have to bring whole classes along like this) you have to get over the very natural desire to cover up your inexperience in depth with your superficial knowledge of the breadth. Inexperienced students are always impressed with large numbers of kata, or techniques or, lord help us, multiple schools worth of "learning" so it's always tempting to give it to them.

Unfortunately, such training is worthless. Look, I don't pretend to be a very nice person all the time, so bear with this story. When I am asked to teach something, and I don't particularly care about the group I'm teaching because I won't see them again, or am cranky, or feeling lazy, or just want them to be impressed and like me, I ask them what they want to learn. I say "Would you like to learn one technique for the next two hours or would you like to learn the whole school/set?" Now if they all say "one technique please" I'm stuck and have to sweat, but usually they say "the whole set" and I can simply lead a dance class while having perfect confidence that they aren't going to remember any of it in a month, but they'll be very impressed with me and the way I could "teach all those techniques" in that short a time.

I didn't teach them a damned thing and I always feel ashamed of myself later. Beer helps.

Short, sharp and few of them. Concentrate the practice and ignore the hints that "everyone else is learning all the kata". The answer to that complaint is to suggest that the students might be happier in the other place where "everyone learns everything". If you're a lucky instructor half the class will move out.

Next repeat those few techniques until it's worn deep into the sinues. Then practice it until half of the class leaves to join the other guys at the other club. The 25% still with you are ready to move on.

Never moving away from those few techniques, start the real work. Pair up and practice in unison. You'll find that everyone has pretty much the same timing anyway, but now is the time to make sure of it. Get them working in the correct rhythm for the kata.

Now go faster. Up to now they've been weeding themselves out, you haven't done anything except restrict their diet, and the strong ones, the ones who can sense there's a goal beyond what those on the outside can see, have stayed. From now on it's up to you to push and pull them along, so speed it up. Doing a kata that is so familiar just a little quicker than usual isn't very difficult, so they'll fall into it well enough while beginning to pass the control from their own wills to your experience. Watch them carefully and don't let them think that speed is what they're after, jerk them back into the proper rhythm, roughly if you need to, and never let the kata deteriorate. Now is the time to watch for aggression because here is where most "seniors" go off the track, we're really not after speed, we're after time dilation, we're after the feeling that the kata takes forever.

Start tweaking the movements as soon as they are comfortable with speed and start to get ragged in their movements. Make the movements shorter, make them more economical, show them how to cut away all the wasted motion, all the inefficiency of their kata. This is why you sped things up, so the inefficiency will reveal what you need to fix. Sand off those rough edges.

Now it gets weird. Now you have to show them how to slow down, to stop and wait, without losing the speed. Now the defender has to wait longer and longer before responding to the attack, and when they can do that, start closing the distance. The movements become smaller and smaller, the weapons miss by less and less while the waiting gets longer and longer, yet the kata still takes the same amount of time to perform.

This needs to go on for a long time before the next step. They need to have control before you push them into yet another realm where they can be lost in an instant. If they have it, you start playing with chemistry. Their body chemistry to be precise, you need to provide them with an adrenaline dump.

There are a couple of ways to do this, easiest will be to keep the unified practice but instead of simply yelling or clapping to start them off, you need to start counting the kata, give them an external cue to put them all into unison once more, count within the kata for a while. Then slowly drop the internal counts but subtly, without them realizing it, speed up the count. Since you are dropping internal counts it may even seem like you are slowing down but the actual time between the start of each kata is getting shorter and shorter. It needs to get to the point where it's too fast for them to get ready between kata, but they must, and they do. They start digging deeper and deeper as they get more and more out of breath.

Breath is the key here, or rather the lack of it, because with less and less breath they must rely on internal reserves, and eventually an adrenaline dump. No breath means the technique gets ragged, you're still counting, their partner is still attacking, it's falling apart and a realization of just how close those sticks are coming creates the predicted reaction in their bodies. This lack of breath can happen in any art and is perhaps best used in kendo. Nothing drives the intensity of a beginner's practice higher and higher than kiri kaeshi after an extended period of keiko with sensei, nothing makes a student dig deeper into themselves than having to kiai when all they want to do is breath in. Or throw up.

Another way to get the adrenaline dump is to adjust the posture and the kata. This is not a recommendation from me but I've experienced it first hand and it certainly works. The whole dropped shoulders, hara breathing, bent knees relaxed arms martial art thing is designed to keep us under control and to prevent the loss of fine motor skills associated with an adrenaline dump. So raise the diaphragm, breath shallowly in the chest, tense the shoulders, shorten and stiffen the stance and make the movements ever more expolsive. Sooner than you think the kata will fly to pieces forcing the students to dig deeper and deeper for control.

As I said, I don't recommend this since you are messing around with the core movements of the art, but it works.

Once you start getting into the chemically assisted practice, you must understand that you can't keep it up for more than half an hour or so. These practices must be short, or must be surrounded by more relaxed practices.

In the longer term a differentiation between this type of practice and the usual "check the stance, tweak the timing" practice should be made. The intensity will naturally leak over into the regular practice. On an even longer term, it's highly useful to make a distinction during class between off and full on, between complete relaxation and GO with no preparation and no warmup. Those who have practiced in an "old school" dojo are familiar with the relaxed, joking, almost sloppy way of hanging out, interspersed with terrifying and absolutely concentrated bouts of kata.

One cannot maintain absolute concentration for an entire class. If it's attempted the kata and the "down time" will average out to become a sort of "more or less paying attention" attitude that isn't, in itself, a bad thing. In this case the class is more or less a meditation period, where you can put aside the cares of the week for a while and allow the brain to re-boot.

But it's not what we have been discussing, which is that special intensity that makes it feel like you're actually receiving sparks from your partner, he is the steel and you are the flint and when you move.... well you get the idea.

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Physical Training Mar 2007