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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Etching vs. Reaction

Just got through watching Dan John's half of this DVD set. It's a great lecture (I'll do a full review once I get around to watching Chip Conrad's half), but one of the ideas I thought was incredibly valuable was Dan's discussion of Etching vs. Reaction.

As it happens, here's a clip:

I think this is a really valuable concept for the fighting arts.

Many years ago, one of the more popular martial art message board arguments revolved around the subject of "Aliveness", a term promoted mostly notably by Matt Thornton and his Straight Blast Gym organization. The argument put forth by the "Aliveness crowd" (and I am paraphrasing here, so any misrepresentations are my own) was that training had to contain some level of resistance in order to be effective. "Dead" training was the rote repetition of movements and patterns, and was seen as useless at best, and counterproductive at worst. Most "traditional" martial arts were deemed to consist of dead training methods, which explained their ineffectiveness in the UFC and other competitive formats.

One of the common follow ups, particular from those who thought the "traditional arts" had some value was "what about heavy bag training, and the like? What about uchikomi? Aren't those "dead" drills? Why do competitive athletes do them if there's no value in dead training?"

The most common answer was, in essence, those are conditioning drills. They're not actually producing fighting skills.

[Please note: I'm really not looking to re-hash those arguments. If I've misrepresented something in the SBGi's position, I apologize.]

That answer never really satisfied me.While there certainly is a conditioning component to bag work and the like, viewing them solely as conditioning drills, even sport specific ones, just didn't work for me. The use of bag work in its various forms is an integral part too many successful systems for me to dismiss as just a sport-specific way of breaking a sweat. There's other value in it as well.

This idea of etching, for me, makes more sense. Bag work is etching. Uchikomi is etching. It's grooving the movement pattern over, and over again until it becomes seamless. Until it can be done without thought.

The fight, however, is reaction. Technical excellence is secondary to effectiveness: while the two can certainly correlate, the world is full of videos of a fight being won by the fighter who threw a harder, meaner, but less technically correct punch. An ugly throw that wins the Olympic gold in Judo is the throw that wins you the gold, and no one but the most pedantic martial artist will care that your foot was turned out 27 degrees instead of 25 (or whatever...I'm making up numbers here).

Certain drills are about reaction. Sparring is reaction. Positional wrestling is reaction. Anything where the script is off becomes reaction. Which is good--reaction is necessary for the fight.

But etching has its place too, I think. Etching lets you react better. It takes out the thought process. I've seen beginner students miss strikes because they had to think about how they were striking, while more advanced students just strike when they see the target.

Mostly, I like the distinction for martial arts because it removes the pejorative "dead" from the training vocabulary. Being dead is, generally speaking, bad, and no one wants to do it. "Dead" drills sound not only purposeless, but outright bad.

Etching, by contrast, has a purpose. So does reaction. Right tool for the right job. Both can have their place.

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