In 2013, I made a mistake that still affects my physical abilities—everything from Okinawan weapons training to using a screwdriver.
Two students, father and son, began classes at my dojo. The son was an energetic eight-year-old. The father was a six-foot-six retired drill sergeant who’d trained in a similar style about twenty years prior, but who wanted to start again as a white belt in order to train with his son, and had observed enough of my classes to decide he wanted me as an instructor. He was the kind of returning student who makes a sensei’s job easier by acknowledging long-ago rank is not a measure of present ability. He was fun, supportive of his son and other students, perfectly respectful, and quick to smile. I liked him. Still do.
As I mentioned in The Snarky Partner, I teach hold escapes not only as a basic self-defense technique, but as foundational training for partner work. That’s what the man and his son were learning, alongside another dozen or so new students. As usual, one of the first escapes I taught was a shoulder-hold escape: the bad guy grabs your shoulder, and you break the hold. It’s a totally simple technique I’ve taught and performed thousands of times. I not only know how to teach it in a few minutes, I know the counters, the means to avoid injury, the importance of release, and so forth. So I worked my way around the circle of young and older students, letting them each try it a couple of times with me as their partner, before reaching the father.
I reached up to take hold of his shoulder with my right hand. Just as I grabbed, a younger student starting spinning in place. I gave the child my attention for two seconds—”John, eyes on Sensei!”—and that’s when the father whipped his arm around to perform the escape.
But he did it as if I were an actual attacker. He grabbed my hand, trapped my wrist, tugged my arm straight, whipped his arm around and brought it down on my elbow with force. Even though I dropped to my knees and fell against his leg (an attempt to put my straightened arm as parallel to his body as possible), everyone heard the crack and snap.
You know those sports videos that make us woozy? The ones showing a limb bending in the direction it is not intended to bend? Yeah. That was my arm. The bones hadn’t broken. But the force and torque tore the tendon on the inside of my elbow, damaged the tendon on the outside, and tore up cartilage.
Though I taught the rest of that class, and the two classes after it, the arm was useless by the time I made it home. Merely turning the keys in the ignition—let alone turning the doorknob to enter my house—was impossible.
While I could say that injury was caused by my moment of inattention, or my failure to clearly tell the adult student to wait a moment, the source of the failure was really a single decision: I’d assumed, based on his past training and present niceness, that he had the same understanding of partner-work as I did.
It was a stupid mistake that could have had consequences much worse. Worst of all, I knew better.
Most martial arts students and instructors are pretty cool folks. We enjoy meeting students and teachers from different styles and philosophies, sharing experiences, drilling down into techniques, and comparing helpful and not-so-helpful learning experiences. There are folks who are really, really curious about what others know, and folks who want to test themselves against an unknown fighter.
But the last thing you want to hear from any of these folks, whether nice or nasty, in the first few minutes of the conversation is any iteration of, “We should spar sometime!”
Maybe you and I are the same rank. Maybe you know the same or similar counters, throws, and joint locks. Maybe you come across as an easy-going person. Great!
But I don’t know you.
Maybe your training experience consisted of demand balanced by kindness, your confidence is solid, your control strong, and your invitation kindly motivated. But maybe—just maybe—you were taught to approach every sparring match as an obligation to take down your opponent with overwhelming force. Maybe—just maybe—you’re a very nice person, but prone to losing control of your power and targeting or distance-judging, when you’re nervous. Maybe—just maybe—your goal is to learn something new, but you’ve trained at a school that doesn’t require true skills mastery for promotion and thus have an inaccurate view of your fighting ability. And maybe you’ve never worked with a stranger before, and have no idea how to approach that situation safely and respectfully.
You could be the nicest person on the continent, the best-intentioned soul in the room, or a jerk able to hide your jerkiness well or poorly. I don’t know.
But I do know you thought it proper to want a mock fight when you don’t know me, and that makes you dangerous, even if you don’t mean to be.
And no person past the basics of training considers it smart and brave to, without reason, play at fighting with a stranger.
I met an interesting woman at a con last year who claimed to hold a brown belt in her style. She was nice, and she was interesting, and she was very into discussing how realistic her martial arts training was. Heck, I like to talk about those things, too! But there’s a difference between sharing experiences and perspectives, and polishing the gigantic chip on your shoulder. “We work up to doing drills at full speed” conveys a different subtext than “We don’t mess around with wimpy stuff. It’s all full speed drills!”
Truly, she wanted to be seen as the badass, and asked two or three times when I wanted to “mess around” throwing punches and kicks at each other.
There’s a reason we use the term “brown-belt-itis.” That point of training, usually between two to four years in, is when most students feel pretty damn good about themselves and their skills, but don’t yet realize they’re measuring their skill by how much they’ve learned rather than how much is left to learn. There’s a bit or a bunch of cockiness at this stage, and some of it is hard-earned. But for others… Well, some brown belts are certain the only thing separating them from a black belt is time in rank rather than skill. And frankly, many schools not only encourage brown-belt-itis, but are led by instructors who never mentally and emotionally progressed past that stage.
I politely declined her, um, invitations, and changed the subject each time. She eventually wandered off to find someone she thought more interesting, I suppose.
At 4th Street Fantasy this year, I met three people (that I know of!) with a martial arts background. We had fantastic conversations, and not once did anyone lay down such an “invitation.”
Darlings, it was bliss. And because we’d done so much talking about how we train, and shared what we liked and disliked about various instructors we’d trained with, I would have been perfectly comfortable with an intermediate step: “Would you show me how you do a <insert basic technique>?”
It’s an assessment, you see. I’m not interested in whether or not they can teach well, and I’m only partially interested in the correctness of the actual form. (After all, aspects of “correctness” vary from style to style…) I am extremely interested in how the person behaves while demonstrating. If all looked and felt good, in exchange I’d demonstrate a mirrored technique. If we’re both comfortable, we might share another technique. We might do a slow-motion block-and-hit with each other, and we might speed it up. If we find ourselves a good match, we might be throwing each other within the hour. Or I might be asking the person to teach me that nifty piece of footwork, and offer a joint lock in return.
I’ve been in the middle of those give-and-take dances, and it’s really a comfortable, energizing, and fun exchange.
My favorite happened last October at MileHiCon, when I met a (somewhat) local instructor who had a decent reputation. I bumped into him in the Dealer’s Room, explained what I was looking for in a training environment, and asked for his recommendations. He asked to see a couple low-key movements; I paid close attention to his reactions. I asked what he thought about a certain training situation; he answered clearly and immediately, and gave a no-contact demonstration. We threw a couple no-contact strikes and blocks back and forth—each of us meeting about the same standard of controlled energy and pulled punches. By the end of the weekend, we and his wife were thick in conversations and technique-sharing. I had “interviewed” him not for his particular style of martial arts, but for his respect of students and peers and the instructional process. He passed.
And—this is the important part—he was interviewing me, too. As an instructor myself, I appreciated that immensely. He was not only discovering if he’d need to teach me how to behave on his mat, but if I’d be a good match for the training community he’d already created. By the end of two days of sporadic conversations, jokes, technique-exchange, and whiskey, I knew I’d have only the usual nerves—rather than fear of the unknown—when I was ready to walk into one of his classes.
That’s how you learn from a martial artist you’ve just met.
Fighting is, at its core, an exchange of energy and information. Training to fight can be quite intimate because it requires a different depth of vulnerability. So if you’d agree it’s inappropriate to conclude a brief conversation with, “We should get naked together!” you can easily apply the same logic to, “Let’s fight each other!”
Understanding the steps that lead to comfortable and beneficial experimental sparring is a sign of both experience and professionalism. Trying to push past those standards does not in any way demonstrate bravery, coolness, youthful ability, or power. It instead shows a dearth of experience, a question of confidence, and a lack of interest in learning from others. Keep all those pieces in mind the next time someone tries to taunt you into a confrontation that’s not only unwanted, but completely unnecessary.
Whether working on style or sparring or self-defense, partners must build and maintain a level of trust based on agreed-upon guidelines. When a group of students with varied experience train together for the first time, it’s up to the instructor or senior student to set and enforce parameters. Without that senior influence, you must establish for yourself the boundaries and expectations for the open exchange of skills that can cause pain, temporary injury, permanent disability, and death.
Put that way, it makes sense to be a tad cautious, yes?
But I don’t want to put the curious off from asking questions. If we ever meet up at a convention, and you’d like to see how that elbow-ruining hold escape works, just ask! I’ll teach it to you the same way I teach the kids, complete with discussion of how to scoop up your superpower before unleashing it on the bad guy. I promise we’ll not get hurt in the process, just so long as you agree to the ground rules.
Three years after my elbow injury, I still cannot completely straighten my right arm. The scar tissue prevents full range of motion just enough to be noticeable, but only if you’re looking for it. And the elbow becomes extremely painful if I type, handwrite, or drive too long with the right hand as the dominant force. Working with Okinawan weapons (bo, nunchaku, and so forth) is uncomfortable, but doable for up to thirty minutes of training if I wear a pair of compression braces for the duration. But if I end up sleeping with the arm bent, the elbow will feel bruised for hours the next morning.
I spend ten minutes, three times a day, with a weight in my hand to keep the scar tissue stretched out. I’m told this might eventually get better, but since a few years have already passed, I’m not that hopeful. For the rest of my life, my elbow will hurt when I lift things, when I sleep wrong, when I train techniques I know so well, when I train on a heavy bag, when it gets cold and damp…
All from an injury that happened under controlled conditions, all because I took for granted that a nice person’s partner and training etiquette resembled mine, and all because I dropped my guard in his presence.
The student felt awful, but there was never-ever a question in my mind of him being fault. After all, it happened on my mat, during my class, under my watch. The fault lives exclusively with me. Had I taken a mere thirty seconds to clearly explain expected behavior rather than assuming he had both adequate experience working with partners and observing/modeling demonstrated behavior, had I told him to wait, had I not assumed he knew and understood my expectations, I wouldn’t have that stupid injury.
The lessons of my lapse are now there for you to learn from, and for your writerly folks to use at will:
Remember control is skill learned over time. The lower-ranking student is far more likely to blast off with poor targeting and overcompensating force than the higher-ranking student. Assuming the lower-ranking student is less of a danger in a learning environment is precisely ass-backwards, and leads to things like dislocated elbows.
No matter how nice and skilled a stranger seems, never assume you share the same ground rules for contact. Not even shared terminology is a sign of safety. My version of “testing strikes” might not be anywhere near what you expect. You do not want to discover that difference during the flash-second face and fist share the same space.
Sharing and exploring martial arts with others is an awesome thing, and anyone you’d want to learn with won’t be affronted by establishing boundaries and setting expectations before things get physical. Students well-trained will appreciate and share your insistence on knowing parameters ahead of contact.
As always, questions and comments are most welcome!
For more self-defense and fight-writing related articles, check out this page.