When students come to me to learn martial arts, they usually have one prime goal: they want to learn how to defend themselves. They’re concerned with what the other guy is trying to do to them and how they can stop that. Unfortunately, this thought pattern actually puts them at a disadvantage when trying to use “defensive” techniques. By focusing on stopping their opponent’s actions, they allow him to set the pace and choose timing that’s comfortable for him.A good example of this problem can be seen in the chi sau (sticky hands) drills of Wing Chun. Wing Chun is known for fast, efficient hand techniques that use the elbow, forearm, and hand as a sort of fencing tool to deflect the opponent’s arms off target and open up lines down which to strike. When practicing chi sau, partners will cross hands (much like crossing swords). The position of both partner’s hands is mutually neutral at the start. Then each partner tries to hit the other without being hit themselves. There are two primary modes of practice: single hand and two hands.
Let’s look at the problem of defensive focus in the context of single sticky-hand practice. Partners face squarely, right vs. left. The right-hander is in the inside/bottom position, and the left-hander is in the outside/top position (wrist to wrist). Both partners are equally extending their arms, elbows bent and pointing toward the floor to form a wide V-angle with their arms.
Even though their positions are neutral, their focus is opposite. Our right-hander is primarily concerned with stopping the left-hander from hitting him. His hand has a nervous, ready-to-go type of energy. He sits, waiting to see what the left-hander will try to do. The left-hander has a different focus. His primary thought is finding a gap in his partner’s defense so he can strike. He is also conscious of the need to protect himself. He knows that if he disconnects from his partner and tries for a strike, he leaves himself vulnerable. So he applies a very gentle pressure, feeling for weaknesses in his partner’s arm.
Here’s how it plays out. When our right-hander feels the left-hander slipping in, he quickly adjusts to block the line of attack, but the left-hander has already changed his approach. The right-hander moves to cut off that line, but he’s later this time. The left-hander has changed again, and this time the right-hander can’t catch up. The left-hander lands a blow.
Both partners had neutral positions at the start, with equal opportunity for attack and defense. They both had equal knowledge of the various techniques for attacking and defending. So what was the difference? With all his focus on stopping attacks, why couldn’t the right-hander shut his partner down?
The answer can be illuminated by something called the OODA Loop. OODA stands for “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.” Before you can defend an attack, you have to see it coming (observe), or in this case, feel it. Then you have to figure out exactly what is coming (orient). Then you have to decide what to do about it (decide). Finally, your mind sets your body to motion (act).
In the above case, both partners had the knowledge to decipher what was coming in (orient), and both had pre-trained responses for what to do to defend against the various attacks (decide). The difference was that the left-hander had already decided and was in the “act” phase of the Loop, while the right-hander was constantly set back to “observe” and “orient.” By focusing on attacking (act), the left-hander kept his partner reacting, one step behind. He didn’t simply attack with reckless abandon, however. He attacked while maintaining protective postures and covering his partner’s best angles of attack.
While I used a Wing Chun drill to make my point here, you could apply this principle to any method of fighting. A boxer will use evasive movement and cover his chin and ribs as he throws punches. He’s focused primarily on landing blows, but he is aware of his opponent’s ability to attack at all times. A grappler is focused on taking his opponent down and securing a submission hold, but he’s constantly adjusting to his opponent’s postural changes, disrupting his motion and balance, and “checking” his opponent’s torso and limbs to diminish his attacking ability.
Having offensive focus that is tempered with defensive considerations will allow you to stay calm and in control, and give you the ability to see and take advantages when they present themselves. This is an important lesson for the budding martial artist in training. It can make the difference between your techniques working for you, or feeling overwhelmed and ineffectual.
This is what is meant by the saying “you’re always attacking.” That doesn’t mean you’re visibly attacking; it means you’re always seeking an opportunity to attack while remaining well-defended.