“An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.”
Mohandas K. Gandhi
Political activist and spiritual leader
In part one of this essay, we had established that each encounter is situational and that one of the biggest challenges to proper execution of any move in the martial arts is to pull it off accurately in real time. Attributes like timing, speed, balance, range, strength, body movement and angles of attack are universal and are used to achieve different effects in different arts. The key is taking these attributes and harnessing them via an effective system to train a student to develop productive and positive skills. The aim of every system should be to enable students to develop appropriate responses and learn to execute moves in real time. Easier said than done.
In part two of this essay, I shall discuss what I believe are traits and characteristics of effective martial arts and teaching systems and how Tabimina Balintawak exhibits these traits. Much has already been written about how the system works and training progresses so I will only be highlighting certain aspects of the training. During the course of this essay, I will make references to practices I have observed in other arts. Please note that I do not mean to discredit any art nor do I mean any disrespect. Rather I seek to use a wider base of examples so that learning and discussion can be more meaningful. I would invite all readers to keep an open mind and give this essay a fair reading before making judgment. Now that all the formalities are out of the way, let us begin our discussion in earnest about what works in a martial art.
1. Attacks must be random and dynamic
Here is a hard truth: many martial arts and martial artists do not train for the “what ifs”. What if my opponent moves or blocks? What if I miss? What if he does not go down? What if my disarm goes awry? Many systems have students practice using compliant opponents i.e. students allow themselves to be used as dummies in order to for their partner to practice and learn. For example, to practice a throw, one student may allow another student to move in and execute a throw without resisting. The attacker gets to practice his throw and the defender gets to practice protecting himself when being thrown. (Guess who has more fun.) Many weapon arts also have one attacker strike and then “freeze” so the defender can practice a block and execute a counter-attack. This can be followed by more strikes, disarms and/or a takedown. It may be hard to make out but this “freezing” does take place quite a bit. At higher levels the “freeze” may be very minute because advanced students move faster and can take advantage of this gap but it is still there.
Right now many are probably going to say, “Hang on! Isn’t that the whole point of training? To get so fast that we can recognize opportunities to attack and execute our moves?” I agree completely but I am of the view that this kind of training is incomplete. Before the flaming begins, please note that in and of itself, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this freezing. Sometimes, this is needed to allow a student to practice and achieve a greater degree of finesse. However, if this is the only way to practice, then something is lacking because everything is still cognitive and ultimately students are trained using memory and anticipation which is completely different from reaction. Both sides know their roles (i.e. who is attacking and who is defending) and what is coming (i.e. who is going to end up on the ground). So the outcome has more or less been determined. This is why there is a lack of randomness and few are trained for the “what ifs”. What if a student is non-compliant and resists? What if I don’t want to be disarmed and keep up my attacks? What if my partner panics and swings wildly at me? Can all of us effectively handle a non-compliant partner?
Tabimina Balintawak, on the other hand, is completely random. From day one (and this is typical for any new student), we spend about 15–30 minutes on the 12 basic strikes and counters and from there it is all random. There is no set way in which the feeder or attacker will come at us and where, when or how he will strike next. As the training progresses, the student or defender learns a greater variety of moves and counterattacks so his repertoire is widened and the attacker himself cannot always predict how the defender will counter-attack. At the highest levels, the distinction between attacker and defender is blurred since all moves are non-choreographed and both sides have no clue anticipation what is coming next. It is completely situational and both must react based on what happens at that point in time. Who gets hit, disarmed and/or thrown off balance is really up in the air. By engaging in the process of agak (or play as we love to call it), we are training for all the “what ifs” because we actually execute them and test ourselves and our opponents. If we never train for the “what ifs” then we can never discover the truth of what happens for ourselves.
2. There must be a strong element of defense
Looking at the human race, it amazes me how we have made it this far. From birth, we are completely defenseless and totally reliant on a caregiver for the first few years of our lives. Animals have to learn to move by themselves within hours of being born or risk being eaten. We learn to walk after a year or so. Some animals are immediately left on their own the moment they are born but manage to survive. Granted we have a fantastic brain which does make up for it in later years (although some people I have met make me want to believe otherwise), we are completely vulnerable for the first part of our lives. When provoked, we can instinctively lash out by punching, kicking, slapping, biting, pulling and shoving. However, we do not seem to have any instinctive defense against punching, kicking, slapping, biting, pulling and shoving. Animals, on the other hand, have survival mechanisms and are not defenseless. When chasing a zebra, lions have to be extremely careful of their prey’s powerful hind legs for a kick can seriously hurt them. I am pretty sure zebras do not sign up for classes to learn how to kick.
This leads me to ask what defense mechanisms do we instinctively have? For the life of me I cannot think of any other than running or hitting back and even the latter does not seem effective against a skilled or armed opponent. This strongly suggests to me that as human beings, we have lost our defensive capabilities and must re-learn them. Too many arts focus on strikes but pay little attention to defense; believing that “the best defense is a good offense.” I believe that the best defense is a good defense. Before the objections come flooding in, I would also like readers to consider the previous point above about randomness in attacks. If one can successfully fend off truly random attacks then one has a strong defense.
Right from the outset, Tabimina Balintawak focuses on developing a strong defense as our most fundamental tenet. Again, attacks are random and students are trained to react appropriately. It is through such practice that students develop their own sense of timing and good body mechanics. The key to strong defense in Balintawak is good body movement — not the weapon. If our defense is completely dependent on our weapon, then we are virtually naked without it. On the other hand, our body is our greatest weapon and ultimately that is what we are training; the stick is only a training tool for the body and this ensures that we are never truly defenseless. We have a saying when we play: “My defense is my problem. Your defense is your problem.” So in short, there cannot be a truly strong defense without genuinely random attacks.
3. There must be stress
Many arts allow for students to practice when there is little stress. The result is that many are unprepared for the adrenaline dump that kicks in during high-stress situations like sparring, fighting and ambushes. Many may now ask, “Isn’t the whole point of sparring to get students to put everything together and practice their attack and defense?” I would answer “yes” and “no” to that question. “Yes” because sparring is supposed to do that but “no” because it does not always managed to do so.
I have come to learn that true skills can only be installed and accessed under stress. When we are under stress in an adrenal situation, when we are tired, fatigued and desperate, our body will react the way it knows best and this is when we show who and what we really are. Think about it – if one normally train and practice under safe and sanitized environment, and everything he does are systematic and planned? What would likely be his instinctive response when fists are flying and $#!* hits the fan, fine motor skills or wild haymakers?
However, all is not lost. Some people do learn to deal with it over time and get better with more sparring. They get more confident and more adept. But that still leaves us with 2 common problems.
Firstly, what about those who give up because they do not want all that sparring? Let’s face it — sparring often hurts. At some point or other, we have to ask ourselves if all this sparring is worth it if we get more banged up from it than from actual fights and ambushes. The easy option is to give up. Some may say, “Too bad. He’s weak and can’t hack it.” I disagree with this response and shall explain why shortly.
The second problem is that no matter what, sparring will have 3 R’s present that can limit an art’s true effectiveness: Rounds, Rules and Referees. These 3 things will ensure that at the end of the day, no one gets hurt too badly and everyone lives to spar another day. For those who still believe their arts’ sparring is effective in all scenarios, I would like to invite you to do a Google search on “London Prize Fighting”. Not to take away anything from anyone but the things these men did to one another were so brutal that it would make many professional fighters today consider a career change if they were asked to fight like that.
Tabimina Balintawak offers a solution to both problems. All attacks used in this system are on the right spot and students are taught to defend accordingly. We emphasize accuracy of strikes and accurate defense. What is the difference between this and close-quarters point-sparring? 2 things — range and stress. Because Tabimina Balintawak is so close, there is a real sense of danger that is presented to the student at all times. It is the job of the feeder to constantly challenge the student by pushing him to the brink of jeopardy and then getting him to move and react to defend himself. The result is that students are never truly comfortable and it is under these stress-filled conditions that skills are imparted and installed. Also, there is progressive stress. As the student progresses, the attacks come faster, harder and are far more difficult to counter. This ensures that students are constantly challenged. So what you will see from the outside is sticks flying and bodies moving with no damage or injuries to either party. This solves the problems of discouraged and damaged students.
4. There must be continual learning
In general, I do not like belts, ranks, grades, titles or certificates within the martial arts. The reason is because I feel it is too easy to get comfortable. Our instincts teach us to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Having the entire class stop what they are doing and greet you when you walk in is very flattering. Being called “Master” wherever you go is very pleasing. Walking around with a black belt is something many are proud of. Again, in and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with any of this. The problem comes when this stops us from learning anymore because we think we have “arrived”. In reference to my friend Josh Walker’s earlier article, we think we have learned all there is to learn and stop getting “IT” anymore because it is too easy to stop learning and just enjoy the position we are in. To me, all of these accolades are mental traps and must be handled carefully. That is why the only belt I care about is the one that holds my pants up.
In Tabimina Balintawak, there are no belts or ranks. In order to understand where we are and who we are up against, we simply play. It is a performative art. We seek to be able to perform under stress so belts hold little meaning for us. Learning should be ongoing and limitless. From discussions with my Balintawak instructors, we have all come to agree that learning is endless. Even the most adept at the art are constantly learning new things about themselves, new things about their students, problems they had not previously encountered or new solutions to old problems. As cliché as this may sound, it really is a journey and not a destination. There must be growth and evolution.
On a personal level, I have come to see that the finishing line keeps moving further and further away from me. I know I am progressing but with each step forward, I realize that there is so much more to learn. I now believe I will never learn all there is to learn but I sure am going to enjoy trying. On a larger level, many arts I see are facing a difficult choice — change and adapt to today’s context or maintain their course in line with tradition and purity. There is nothing wrong with either choice and I have no views about it either way but I do have 2 concerns.
My first concern is when instructors from arts with a long tradition and lineage insist that everything they have to teach is still applicable and useful in today’s context. Remember that many arts were developed for specific contexts in mind and these contexts may not be the same today. It is thus vital to be clear exactly what we are training for — combat, fighting, self-defense, sport, competition, performance or health — because the teachings and objectives are not the same all across the board. My second concern is with arts that insist they have all the answers and have no need to grow and learn. I think it would be useful to be truly honest about the limitations (where applicable) of every art. Consider the situations we find ourselves in everyday — the clothes we wear, the places we frequent, the people we associate with and the things we carry with us. Is this commensurate with the things we do in the context of our training?
I must acknowledge that all these ideas are not entirely my own but I do hold them to be true. They have come from a combination of my past observations, discussions with friends and experts, research from books and the Internet and teachings from my instructors. Isaac Newton put it best when he said, “If I have seen a little further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Credit must be given to those to have worked long and hard to seek and understand these truths and who have dedicated their time to sharing it with others. Again, I am not claiming that Tabimina Balintawak is the “most effective”, “the deadliest” or “the best” — only that it works. I would like to invite all readers to examine and reflect upon their own training and systems in light of the criteria above. Does your training involve all or only some of these traits? If your training involves all these traits, then congratulations — you are learning something wonderful and genuine and I encourage you to apply yourself to it wholeheartedly. To those who may feel that something is missing, I encourage you to examine exactly what is missing and to seek to understand what really works and what does not. At the end of the day, we are all responsible for for our own education. If we are not progressing at the pace we should be, then I think it is necessary to examine why. I do not expect all readers to agree with everything that I have put forth but I do hope that I have helped to shed a little light on a subject which so many people feel so passionately about. To round off, if there is only one thing I could share with you, it would be this:
Train the way you fight and fight the way you train.
Stay safe and keep playing!
About the author:
Marcus Poon is a middle school teacher in Singapore teaching Social Studies. He is married to his job (the beautiful woman who sleeps next to his snoring form every night might have something to add but this is his blog, not hers) and is an avid student of the martial arts. He also likes pizza and for people to send him money. (Hey that mortgage isn’t going to pay itself.)