Teaching martial arts

Teaching martial arts

Quite recently, while exchanging all sorts of points of view with everyone’s good friend Roger Norling of GHFS, and upon stating that Jogo do Pau’s footwork does not entail any deliberate positioning of one’s feet, but simply managing one’s body in order to manage distance with proper balance, Roger presented me with his different view on this topic:

“… you move in a sometimes rather particular way that I don’t think is just a matter of stepping back/forth or to the sides to be able to hit at a specific distance, but also to hit/parry in a special way that requires certain footwork. The most typical examples would be the tornado …”

Roger’s assessment of this situation uncovers one of the most important issues pertaining the effective teaching of martial arts.

For reasons that I will not analyse or comment in this article, martial arts’ teaching have bought into a philosophy that values first and foremost the teaching of movements. Practitioners are routinely taught to manage their body in space in a certain way with no connection being usually made between the movement being taught and the combat context that solicited the development of that technique, and under which it is most effective.

The sequence of parry and counter attack Roger referred to, known in English as tornado (and in Portuguese as “vira-costas”), can been seen being demonstrated by the following photos. I do apologise to the readers for my bad form in the photos provided, but it was the best I knew how to perform in the distant year of 2003.


Surely enough that, occasionally, one may face opponents of lower skill level and, against such foes, fighters can be imaginative and execute whatever they are in the mood to perform. Nevertheless, this type of fighting mindset should be looked upon as an exception to the rule and not the rule, since it will not work when facing opponents of similar skill level.

In the present example, and contrary to the idea portrayed by the photos presented above, the tornado and, more importantly, the defensive footwork performed when parrying, isn’t meant to be performed when one wishes to perform the tornado. Instead, the combat context that brought about this particular “footwork” was the finishing of a strike as shown in the last photo from the previous sequence.

Performing a strike from left to right while holding the weapon with the right hand at the back and having the left leg forward, entails that the performer’s body is also rotating from left to right. This means that, should the opponent counter attack swiftly, the quickest way to exit is to follow through with the body’s rotational movement towards the right side. Depending on the distance one senses that he needs to exit, the exiting with the lead leg will result in positioning his lead foot either next to the back foot or behind it. Consequently, as the distancing motion is performed by following through the body’s rotational movement towards the right side, this movement will accelerate even more and, therefore, entail that following it through again will allow for the quickest possible counter attack under these specific circumstances, from which the tornado is born.

Unfortunately, failing to see things this way and limiting one’s teaching to “uncontextualized” movements, will lead to trainees being unskilled at reading their body and their opponent (combat context) and, thus, failing to make fruitful tactical decisions when sparring, as they are focused on forcing the execution of what they have already decided to perform.

For further information on this and other subjects, as well as seminars and books on training concepts, look me up at www.pretomartialarts.com

Best wishes to you all,

Luís Franco Preto
MSc in Coaching Sciences
[email protected]


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Luis Preto
Masters in Sport Sciences & Jogo do Pau Instructor.
Founder of Preto Martial Arts (www.pretomartialarts.com).

Jogo do Pau
Parrying skill
Understanding footwork
Teaching sequence of technique & tactics
Outnumbered combat
Teaching of technique & tactics
Physical conditioning: A movement based approach

From battlefields to duelling: The evolution of JdP
Combat tactics: Decision making in weapon based martial arts

1 Comment

  1. I do think we are not that far apart in how we think actually. Footwork is a natural result of an action that you desire to make, in response to your opponent’s actions or inactions.
    In different styles, and for different actions, the stepping can come before, at the same time or after the action, depending on various factors like; who has the initiative, distance, angles and type of action. This is quite obvious when you compare the difference in reach between striking/thrusting before, at the same time or after your step.

    Oh, and regarding the Tornado being the easiest way of exiting and counter attacking after a strike, this is pretty much how Meyer does it as well: Striking from your left to parry a thrust from the opponent, while stepping with your right foot forward behind your left and then simply twisting your body 180 degrees and then strike from above or from your left again, all in one single motion. The Tornado is very similar and I have even seen JdP fencers doing it by stepping back with the left foot behind the right, to maintain proper distance, and then ending in the same stances.

    Although this is single exercise, it can be seen here:

    It can also be seen here in this nice clip:

    Your argument I completely agree with. Even if we sometimes can force our techniques (and footwork) onto our opponents, we always need to perform it in correspondence to our opponent’s actions. Meyer actually tells us to never step wider or with broader stances than you can easily change direction from. So lunging forwards as in sports fencing is almost non-existant with Meyer’s staff/halberd.

    Btw, who’s this tall young guy? I seem to recognize him from somewhere. :)

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