My blog seems to be drawing at least some traffic, which is a little suprising, so I suppose I had better write something.

I will be returning to training very soon, my nose is now almost fully healed. Just the occasional dribbles and paranoia attacks—the doctor had actually accidentally left a rather large chunk of gauze up my nose. I didn’t realise this until days later when I sneezed and it started to come out. I ended up pulling it all out myself, quite disgusting and painful. So I think my nose is fully healed now.

Anyway, I’m going to talk about aggression in martial arts.

It’s a very complex subject and I don’t think I’ll be answering many questions here, probably only raising them.

Firstly, we have to define aggression. Dictionary definition: aggression: hostile or violent behaviour or attitude towards another, readiness to attack or confront. Now, of course, we are practicing martial arts, so there is an inherent physical aggressiveness in that. But for the most part, it’s a physical aggressiveness, and not a mental one.

You want your armbar to physically overpower their armbar defence, but you don’t want to snap their elbow or hurt or maim them in anyway. You might even be laughing and joking split seconds later about the armbar you have just done (or not managed to do.)

I only once felt aggression strongly during BJJ. It was during my third competition. I had been fighting a guy for a few minutes and it was reasonably equal. We exchanged a couple of sweeps if I remember correctly, and I was on my back. As I scrambled for position and he tried to pass, I kneed him in the face by accident. His contacts popped out and time was stopped while he recovered. Initially I felt terrible (strange emotion to feel during a fight—”Oh no, I hurt you!”) but as we were stood up and I waited, the crowd was quiet, my breathing heavy, and his eye was being attended to, I felt violent. Suddenly, out of nowhere. I wanted to kick this guy’s arse. I have no idea where it came from. Perhaps it was something primal… I had seen him injured, smelled blood, and wanted to finish him. I felt something in me set, and when we restarted, I went after him.

Unfortunately he proceeded to wipe the mat with me.

I did win though, with a very cheeky armbar from the back mount with about two seconds left in the fight.

Anyway. Aside from that time, I have never really felt aggression in either my training or my BJJ fights. And I can’t say I’ve ever felt it towards me, either.

Is that good or bad? Is that a good thing to be able to say when I’m supposed to be learning how to fight? I know one thing is for sure, when I was doing Wing Chun, there was never anything particularly aggressive about the training. At least in BJJ the physical aggression is very real—case in point, my broken nose.

When I did Wing Chun, I started to get a fucked up view on what fighting was about. I started to believe the lines they were feeding me: I was studying the greatest martial art in the world. I could pick apart pesky street thugs with my well-timed straight punches and groin kicks. I fooled myself into thinking I had “deadly” moves that I could unleash in “life or death situations”. Well, when one finally did come along, I froze. Almost literally. My mouth barely worked, but it worked enough to be able to talk some guy out of smashing my head in. However I think if he was really serious about it, he would have just done it. I think he was all talk. However that didn’t stop my two friends from getting the crap kicked out of them as I stood there, literally too scared to do anything to help them. I had no aggression. My aggression was a small, whimpering blade of grass being trampled on. These thugs were huge black-holes of negative energy ripping through anything in their path.

I had nothing to fall back on except my mouth, which had always been pretty quick on its feet, and I didn’t get that from Wing Chun.

Now, part of me acting like a pussy there is the fact that I am a bit of a pussy. But a big part is that my training in no way prepared me for the reality of a big, scary, odoriferous person with mean intentions who wants to feel his knuckle slam into my cheek or squash my eyeball.

At least in jiu jitsu, when we spar, we really spar. When I am trying to escape from somebody’s mount, I’m being physically very aggressive. I’m not holding back. Obviously, because I want to do a good technique, I won’t be trying to muscle through it, but I will be trying my hardest to escape. And when I’m sparring someone and have them mounted, I know that they are thrashing around for dear life under there, and I’m doing my best to control the position. Especially beginners—for them, it is a real fight.

I can’t remember a time in Wing Chun where I actually tried my hardest to do anything at all. During punching drills, I was never actually trying to hit anyone. If I had tried, I am pretty sure I would have hit them in the face. And the same goes for the other direction… Nobody really tried to hit me. Not seriously, anyway. Perhaps that’s my fault? But it’s something I think we are all guilty of. And the fact that it is allowed to happen is not our fault, it is the fault of the instructors. This kind of lackadasical approach to training should be recognised and stamped out early.

Demonstrations with instructors were a funny thing, too. When they said “resist me as hard as you can,” how many of you actually did? As hard as you can? I mean, until you are red in the face? Not many times, I’d vouch. Surrounded by students, with an instructor you admire, doing a martial art that you’ve invested time in, how much of a good idea is it, really, to start picking it apart, or overpowering the instructor, or even the sifu, with sheer willpower and brute force?

Well, actually, in the long term, it’s a great idea. But it’s probably not one that you think is a good idea at the time.

Now in jiu jitsu, of course, it’s the same. Instructor pulls you over for a demo and shows a technique. You don’t resist full force. I understand that. But the difference is, the jiu jitsu instructor doesn’t lock on an armbar and say “resist me as hard as you can. Go on. Yeah. Just try it.” Because a) it’s likely to end up in extreme pain, and b) it’s stupid. That’s for you to test out yourself in sparring. The instructor is just showing you a technique.

But I can’t tell you the amount of times in Wing Chun an instructor (usually a two-year “expert”) has told me “go on, resist me. Yeah. Harder. That’s right. See that? You can’t budge my tan sau. Yeah. Go on.” etc.

So where do you draw the line on aggression? How do we know the boundaries?

You’ve got to know when to apply physical aggression, when to apply mental aggression, and what the two feel like when they are done to you.

I’ll be the first to admit that my BJJ doesn’t address the mental aggression aspect nearly enough. Although, I do occasionally roll with the Shootors in my class (MMA fighters) and I can tell you most of them have a mean streak that’s not really present in the BJJers, and that is a good experience that I highly recommend to any aspiring martial artist. Train with real fighters; they have an edge that you don’t, and as they say, iron sharpens iron, so our training partners sharpen us up.

Your (my?) training has to have the right amount of pure technique training (with little or no resistance – for learning mechanics), then physically aggressive sessions, and finally, some training that somehow exposes you to mental aggression. Rolling with someone you don’t like, or who doesn’t like you, for example.

But because it is only a martial arts class, you’ll almost never be scared for you life. It will never feel the same as it does on the dreaded streets. That’s an important lesson I think we should all learn. No matter what lines your sifu or sensei feeds you, standing in line and defending against looping roundhouse punches by raising your arm is definitely not going to prepare you for a real fight.

Martial arts won’t make you a street fighter, no matter what permutation of ex-Russian Special Spetznaz Israeli H2H WW2 Special Defence Death Squad Nazi Blade program you study. If you don’t have that something inside you, you will fold under extreme pressure. At least the first time.

In my opinion, the only thing that will help people like us (pussies) survive on the street is experience. So, the first few times, we are basically screwed. The other thing that helps is training with a realistic idea of physical aggression, if we can’t get the mental thing happening.

I’m interested in Animal Day, a concept of Geoff Thompson, famous British martial artist and all-round tough guy.

It’s about pressure testing your martial art, and simulating the mental aggression I’ve outlined above—in effect, giving you “street” experience but theoretically without the actual danger of being beaten to death. Now, the danger of being beaten to death is what separates training from street experiences, but I think I know where the guy is coming from and I think it could help with training.

Put simply, I don’t have mental aggression, or the desire to hurt someone, and I can’t summon it up in training or when competing. And I’m not sure how aggressive I would become in a real life or death situation. I suppose if someone were to physically threaten my partner it would incense me enough to get a little crazy, but I just don’t know. Because my experience tells me that, the first few times at least, fear got the better of my aggression.

One thing I learned, though, is that you’ve got to take whatever your instructor says with a pinch of salt. Street self defence is not clean cut or simple. And training with your friends in the safe environment of the kwoon or dojo just won’t prepare you for a fight. Aggression is a dangerous thing, but also, useful. Sometimes when people are being physically too aggressive, in training, they make a mistake. They get too anxious, tense up too much, leave themselves open. Other times, they smash the shit out of you.

It depends. But it’s not simple. Ask your wing chun instructor next time—how am I supposed to relax my arms, legs, spine, muscles to the point of jelly when I am shitting a brick for fucks sake? When I’m so shit-scared my vision is swimming and my head is pounding? Is having relaxed pectorals and a straight spine going to save my life? Is “keeping my shoulder in my socket” (sic) going to stop a 90 kilo pisshead from clotheslining me in the street?

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the post, I agree, resisting demos is silly (resisting an armbar is plain stupid…).
    There are way too many instructors out there that ask you to lie on the floor and leave your arm out so that they can demonstrate their techinique. That’s fine, but don’t ask to resist once you locked my arm as that’s not realistic.
    If you want me to resist I’ll be most happy to, but take it from the top and submit me from standing while I offer resistance… Now that will prove that your technique works…

  2. Hi I’m a new fan of your blog.

    ‘“keeping my shoulder in my socket” (sic)’

    Did you ever buy this inaccurate description? If so, when and how did you realise this was pseduo-anatomy? In your experience on other martial arts communties have contempt for basic anatomy?

  3. My housemate just bought a dvd set of documentaries by David Attonbough. I was watching the one on the ‘cats’ and ‘dogs’ – the major land predator families. I noticed a striking thing. In the social animals, when their was fighting between members in the same group or between two packs of (say) lions, there was a lot of noisy, energetic aggression – a big who-ha. But when a predator was fighting for food, stalking, chasing, kills – it was all ‘cool headed’, “rational” if I can slightly abuse that word.

    I would like your opinion on the value of this second type of aggression, this killer instinct for ‘pussies’. Can it be cultivated, and trained for? If so would it be better for yourself and other ‘pussies’. By the way, I’m a ‘pussy’ to. 🙂

    Thanks for your time.

  4. Ive been reading, and didn’t realise ‘killer instinct’ was a concept used in the street vs sport debate. I would like to clarify what I meant by using the term.

    All I meant by that is, is it possible to fight and train to fight ‘cold’ instead of ‘hot’. Your afraid, angy or whatever, but you aren’t concerned with making an extroverted threatening display complete with fiece facial expressions, wild and threatening gestures and aggressive and fear-inspiring language. That’s why I brought in the animal stuff. I saw another doco today this time a fight between a pack of hyenas and a pack of lions – it was a ‘hot’ fight.

    In the same doco it had a fight between a snake and a mongoose – it was intense, but ‘cool’. It was literally life and death – the mongoose lost, which I thought was funny because in all the other docs I have seen with a mongoose and a snake fighting, the mongoose wins. Let despite its intensitiy they both were all business with no attempts to threaten or intimidate.

    Instead of this, its all business.

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