A problem that we commonly encounter in the training and teaching of martial arts in general, is the issue of how the “loser” of the training exercise is supposed to act and behave. Some common issues shine through both in videos explaining the techniques, as well as in partner exercises, where the employment of the techniques, for various reasons, end up lacking, flawed and even outright dangerous, due to not being properly applied. This brief essay is a small exploration of some of the issues involved.

The frozen kitten

Quite often we see the loser being far too compliant. The loser behaves like a kitten carried by the neck by its parent, limp and passive, allowing him- or herself to be stabbed and cut a dozen times by their opponent, while standing perfectly still, frozen. There is literally no attempt at resistance, and no initiative, nor even any rudimentary reaction, from the loser.

While this is quite obviously very unrealistic, it does make the technique appear cool and super-effective, deadly to the max. And perhaps this is also part of the drive behind this too common practice, at least in some of the instances where we see it. In some cases, this “extreme” is also a matter of custom, where the underlying motives are hard to discern for the outsider, but fair within the tradition and its practice. The misinterpretation here lies with the uninitiated.
In other cases it is likely just a case of the student/loser not knowing what to do, and sometimes even the instructor/winner not really having a well thought-out concept or understanding of it, since the sources often do not really describe how the loser is supposed to respond to the attacks and counterattacks.
Of course, students are also obligated to follow the instructions of their teacher, and thereby forced into a certain passiveness by default.
Likewise, it is not uncommon for the student to not have practiced the technique with the instructor before displaying it, meaning he or she has to play it extra safe, due to the element of uncertainty. This is of course also true for exercises with little or no protective gear, which require extra caution at the beginning of learning the technique.

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A certain fear of causing harm to one’s opponent, and wanting to be “nice”, can also have a strong effect here, especially with inexperienced, younger, or against smaller fencers and opponents. The same is true for “traditional” upbringing regarding exchange between men and women, or women vs women. While understandable, it can be harmful for the training if it becomes a habit and pattern. Commonly this results in weak, non-aggressive fighting that more resembles traditional, ceremonial dancing than combat.

Regardless of the motivation and drive behind this, this form of application creates flawed expectations on the effects of quite weak and ineffective actions. It inevitably leads to bad body & weapons mechanics, and in worst case we end up with something not entirely dissimilar to Ki/No Touch masters. It quite literally puts people at physical risk by making them believe they are more competent and skilled than they really are, a discrepancy which becomes obvious in tournament, sparring, or in actual self-defence, where the techniques simply won’t work as expected, if at all.

The Prescient Fencer & Schrödinger’s Cut

At the other end, we find ambitious students who have a strong desire to win and prove themselves, and who will try to win over the technique being trained, sometimes even wanting to show their cleverness and superiority over their opponent or instructor. The necessary resistance is exaggerated and riddled with other flaws that hinder the proper training of the technique.

Quite commonly, one here misses how both parties’ anticipation of what techniques are to be used can affect the application of them. This leads to over-compensation in timing, speed and even force, as well as in the choice of response. This can often be seen in flow drills, technique videos, and Katas, where one or both parties are already moving into appropriate stances, to counter the attack or counter they know is to come, before it is even initiated, thus gaining an advantage in tempo that is quite unrealistic and which may break the whole exercise, and which certainly negatively affects the actual experience and learning of the technique.

This is very easy to fall for, as we are all competetive. It lies in the very nature of martial arts. And as the exercise becomes comfortably familiar and routine, we start moving into advantageous positions without even thinking about it. And we end up with unrealistic and suboptimal training.

The role of the instructor

At the compliant and passive “kitten” end, it lies on us as instructors to both train and guide our students and assistants towards logical, realistic resistance. As already described, there are numerous factors that drives a student towards passiveness; respect, fear, lack of skill & knowledge, lacking info for analysis & decision making, etc, etc, and it is really only the instructor who controls the exercise who can help remedy this. In fact, for the student to do so would likely often be perceived as out-of-place. Protective gear is here important, allowing the students to attack with less concern for the safety of the opponent, even when there is a high risk of mistakes. The instructor, in turn, needs to encourage the students to apply appropriate force and speed in a dynamic environment.
And with the “prescient” fencers, the instructors simply have to alert the students to how they are taking advantage of their knowing what will happen, in the various ways they do it, pointing e.g to how they start preparing before the actions are even initiated. Here, recording video can also help the students a lot.

Furthermore, both the instructor and the student need to carefully analyze the sources, considering not only the techniques and the movements, but also the logic and motivations behind them, both for the “winner” and for the “loser” of the example. The latter is just as important as the former. In some cases, it may be necessary to consider also the context and circumstances for the historical origin.

So what should you strive for?

To begin with, we have to be honest and controlled in our actions during our training, learning to let go of our egos and our desire to win, so we can instead learn in the best way possible. The key is to cooperate without being compliant, and in a manner that offers realistic resistance. Naturally we also have to trust our partners, our equipment and even our own capacity, so we can act with confidence, even in hard exercise. 

Assuming we do not add randomness into the exercise, and instead stick with a single specific technique, the solution lies in mindset. Both parties need to strive for logical resistance, as if they do not anticipate a certain attack. The loser needs to act realistically, responding to the attack in the way that a fencer in the time period of the source would. In some cases, like with Joachim Meyer, this may even involve having to consider the personality types of the described “victim”, e.g. passive or aggressive opponents. Meyer describes the personality types as follows:

Therefore I should also say something here about the qualities of people, who in this art of combat can naturally be divided in to four categories, and thus four kinds of combatants are to be found based on diligent observation. Now so that you may have an introduction to reflect usefully about these, I will firstly ennumerate them to you, and then offer a short lesson and precept how you shall conduct yourself against each of them.

And the first are those who, as soon as they can reach the opponent in the Onset, at once cut and thrust in with violence.
The second are somewhat more moderate, and do not attack too crudely, but when an opponent has fully extended with a cut, fallen low with his weapon, or else has bungled in changing, they chase and pursue rapidly toward the nearest offered opening.
The third will only cut to the opening when they not only have it for certain, but have also taken heed whether they can also recover from the extension of the cut back into a secure parrying, or to the Defence Strokes. I also mostly hold with these, although it depends on what my opponent is like.
Now the fourth position themselves in a guard and wait thus for their opponent’s device; they must be either fools or especially sharp, for whoever will wait for another person’s device must be very adept and also trained and experienced, or else he will not accomplish much.

Now as the first ones are violent and somewhat stupid, and as they say, cultivate frenzy; the second artful and sharp; the third judicious and deceitful; the fourth like fools; so you must assume and adopt all four of them, so that you can deceive the opponent sometimes with violence, sometimes with cunning, sometimes with judicious observation, or else use foolish comportment to incite him, deceive him, and thus not only betray him concerning his intended device, but also make yourself room and space for the opening, so that you can hit him that much more surely.
-Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adelichen Kunst des Fechtens, 2.99V, 1570

… And he commonly makes small comments on the attitude of the opponent in the text.

This strive for realism also includes consideration for the fact that there can be no expectations for an instant kill in this context. You always have to assume that your opponent will try to attack you after you have hit him or her, thus requiring you to retreat safely in the Abzug, always going “… from the sword to the body, and from the body to the sword” (-Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adelichen Kunst des Fechtens, 1.34v.1), or with the threat of a cut or thrust.

Although, as they say, to have begun well may in all things practically half acquit you, yet equally on the other hand a poor finish may ruin and bring to nothing everything that was weIl and properly done up to that point, as may daily be seen. Now so that it does not befall you in combat, that after you have laid on weIl and soundly pressed after, you end up getting shamed at the last, I will here properly explain to you how the withdrawal shall take place. Now it is particularly to be noted that after every device has been executed, you must always withdraw in one of these three ways: either first, before your opponent; or last, after him; or else at the same time as him.
– – –
However since all devices involve this, you will weIl be able to learn it sufficiently in its place where I discuss the devices.
-Joachim Meyer, Gründtliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adelichen Kunst des Fechtens, 1.23V, 1570

What else?

Naturally, sparring will quickly teach you whether your understanding of a technique is flawed or not – or at least whether it works in that particular context, with the regulations and circumstances that control it, using the particular equipment you have, and facing a modern opponent. However, it doesn’t necessarily make it easy to correct the technique, due to the random and chaotic nature of sparring, and due to the difference in context between the modern and the historical settings.

Inbetween full on sparring and technical exercise, however, you also find sparring-like exercises that combine elements of both. For example adding one or more techniques into the mix, giving the attacker a choice between what to start with. This removes the element of prescience from the defender. Of course if the exercises uses fixed patterns, like a whole stucke or kata, then this will only be true for the first attack, but even then, the defender often is on the… well, defensive, as a result.

Another variant of exercise is Two Plus One, where both parties chooses two long distance and one short distance technique, and first analyses what circumstances are needed for the use of these, and then in exercise, working with distance and stances, waits for, or creates those circumstances, so that one of the three chosen techniques can be used. For uneven pairs, this exercise can also have an observer who tries to identify what the chosen techniques are, and who gives input to the fencers afterwards.

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Much more can be said about this topic, but I will leave it for another day as this is merely intended as a brief exploration, looking at the issue and some of the causes and solutions. Thank you for taking the time to read.