Monday, October 4, 2010

The Student's Creed - "Training Your Off-Side"

As a student of the martial arts, I'm continually amazed at how much there is to learn. I welcome the learning process - I find the study, the practice, the theory and the history of the martial arts fascinating and enjoyable. I also like hearing the many different perspectives that exist on a wide range of martial arts topics. It shows that people (or their instructors, or their instructors' instructors) are taking time to think about their art and form conclusions about it. One of these topics that I've encountered personally is the question of training your "off" or "weak" side.

The woman who informally taught me how to spar is my wife. When we began, she was an active ni-dan in karate and was happy to help expand on the year or so of training I'd already had elsewhere. In her dojo, it was commonplace to switch your leading side whenever it felt appropriate. Perhaps you'd throw a kick off your rear leg, then land with that leg forward, advancing on your opponent. Perhaps you'd simply throw a combination and shift your foot position. Whatever the reason, it kept me on my toes because I never knew from which direction the next punch or kick would come, and I automatically started to switch sides myself so as to maintain what felt like a good defensive posture.

Jump ahead about fifteen years, and my family is training at a local dojo in a new style. A few months in, it's time to put on the gear and start facing off. Without any instruction to the contrary, my wife and I both find ourselves routinely switching position, sometimes leading with our left, sometimes with our right. The instructors notice, and advise us of the many reasons not to ever lead with our weak sides. They make it pretty clear that they'd like us to stick to a standard left-forward defensive posture, keeping our strong right arms and legs at the back, ready to launch powerful reverse punches and rear-leg kicks. We find it hard to overcome so many years of habit and training, but we do our best to comply.

Finally, we settled at our current home dojo where we plan to be for the long-term. Curious, one of the first things I asked our new instructors was their thoughts on this topic. Again showing their enthusiasm for and experience in the art, they were able to discuss the topic at length and clearly gave it some serious thought that informed my own understanding of the pros and cons. Below, I'll share what I've learned on both sides of the issue, and I'd welcome comments from the community as to your opinions and experiences in sparring, competition, and even real-world combat.

Summary: Is it preferable, when training in the martial arts, to switch your stances and attempt to become equally adept at offense and defense using either side of your body, or are you better-served by concentrating on developing as much power, speed and flexibility as possible in your primary or "strong" side?

Analysis: Presented as the pros and cons of developing both sides equally.

  • When you need your training to kick in, whether in an actual self-defense situation or competition, you may not be able to choose which side to put forward. You may be blocked by furniture, doorways, walls, etc., or you might be facing an attacker who is committed to a stance that's opposite the one you're used to.
  • If your strong or preferred side is disabled (because you're injured or being held by a second attacker), you're still able to defend yourself using your "off" side.
  • I've personally witnessed that it seems to disorient people when I line up against them with my right side forward (putting my weaker left side in the strong position). Anecdotally, I've heard from others that they've experienced a similar reaction of opponents being thrown off their game by the "southpaw" stance. Thus, being able to fight from either side might yield a tactical combat advantage.
  • Related to a couple of the items above, your opponent may be a genuine lefty, and you don't want to be the one put at a disadvantage because you're only used to fighting right-handed people. In fact, they're probably used to fighting right-handed people, too, so you may still gain the same advantage over them that you'd get over a righty by switching up your stance.
  • Depending on when and how you switch your stance, you may be leaving yourself momentarily "open," off-balance and facing straight-on to your opponent. This is a very vulnerable position to be in, and if your opponent takes advantage of it could more than offset any perceived gains.
  • It's naturally going to take more coordination to execute strikes and blocks from your "off" side. After all, that's why it's your off-side. Likewise, it's called your weak side because it's simply not as strong. So even if you're landing blows on your opponent with your off hand (or foot), you may not be doing it hard enough to make those strikes really count.
  • Every minute spent training your off-side is a minute you could have spent making your primary side more effective, more powerful, faster and generally stronger. In other words, you're neglecting your most advantageous attack to improve a secondary attack that's never going to be as powerful. It's arguably a lose/lose proposition.
  • Related to the above, unless you train intensely on your off-side, it's never going to be as capable as your primary side. You want to face your opponents with your "big guns" at the ready, so you can get in, strike hard, put your opponent down quickly, and move on. This is especially true in real-world self-defense, where every moment spent in combat offers more chances for a freak accident or a misstep that leaves you severely injured. The argument here is one of "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight." Use your strong side and end the confrontation quickly.
I know that my preference is to train both sides. Partly that's because I find the "Pros" above to be more compelling, and partly I have to admit to myself that it's because I'm used to switching sides and it's easier to keep doing that than to suppress the habit. But I'm a student - I don't have the experience to say conclusively which is best. What's your take? Are there major points that I haven't identified (or that nobody's explained to me)? Do you have real-world examples that seem to support one "side" (no pun intended) or the other? How do you teach this topic to your students, or has it ever even been an issue at your dojo? I welcome your feedback in the comments below.

The Student's Creed is a series of blog articles I'm posting at the ChampionsWay martial arts community. Since most of my Virtual Vellum readers probably don't visit that site, I'm posting them here as well.

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