Friday, April 25, 2008

What Is Intent?

The word “intent” gets bandied about a lot in WMA circles these days, and with good reason: Intent determines the realism of practice. I think, however, that sometimes people mistake the meaning of the word in our context so perhaps a little insight into this much-misunderstood word might be in order.

In my Jujutsu days we used to speak of someone as being a “good uke”, and it’s worth looking at that idea as a way of understanding intent. In Jujutsu the person who “loses” the engagement when executing a technique (not that anyone loses—but that’s for another discussion; in this case we’ll use the term for simplicity’s sake) is called the “uke” while the person who executes the final technique is called “tori.”

When some people talk about a good uke they mean he attacks in a way that makes it easy for tori to do the technique—a slow and obvious attack—and then goes along with the counter easily, making a big, flashy fall regardless of how well tori actually executed the technique. Some older instructors who are past their prime need students like that to “prove” they still have “it.” But this kind of uke teaches no one anything; his actions aren’t realistic and so a student doing the technique never learns anything.

Others say a good uke is someone who smashes a student with a powerful attack he can’t possibly counter at his current level of development so he sees what it’s “really like.” These folks are usually insecure “instructors” who are referring to themselves and want to make those around them see how powerful they are: “Look at me, I’m so good you can’t even do this technique to me because of the power of my mighty attack.” Another flavor of this problem is those who want to act absurdly macho; they usually speak too much of “real fighting” and “street practicality” (not that these concepts aren’t important—they are, but you can’t drop most students in at the deep end and expect them to swim straight away) and not enough of form and technique and discipline. These are usually very young people with little real understanding of serious combat who have watched too much television about “gangstas” and far too much absurd MMA; they are usually identifiable by their counter-culture look, their rejection of traditional martial arts methods and values and their lack of serious progression. These two flavors of mistake fail just as miserably as the uke above who goes along too easily: Both create students with no understanding of the real fundamentals.

A good uke is someone who acts and reacts “with intent” but who balances intent with an understanding of the person acting as tori. That means uke must have the insight to see tori’s level of development and must attack with just the right amount of intensity: enough to challenge tori, but not so much that it will overwhelm him if he really *tries*. Likewise, uke must respond to tori's technique realistically: If tori does the technique that’s being practiced correctly—given his current level of development—it should succeed; if not, it should fail.

So, in short, a good uke is one who does his job in such a way that if tori does everything to the best of his ability then the technique they’re practicing together (there really are no winners and losers) will work the way it’s supposed to.

Those who know me know that I work very hard to keep my Japanese martial arts experience from tainting my German martial arts practice; they are not at all the same, and I would consider it a shame to have the one taint the other. On the other hand, some training principles are perfectly suited to both, and this is one of them.

I think by now my definition of the word “intent” should be perfectly clear. Attacking with intent means that you attack as you would in a real fight, but that you temper that based on two things: First, the skill level of the person you’re attacking, and second the purpose of the drill, which should be to practice a specific technique or sequence of techniques. If you fail to consider the first thing you’ll never teach your students anything; all you’ll really do is make them either think themselves incapable of learning or make them believe the art itself is flawed.

If you fail to consider the purpose of the drill your student will never learn how the specific technique you’re practicing actually works and will therefore never be able to apply it in a realistic situation. Case in point, let’s consider the Block Croix technique with the pollaxe from Le Jeu de La Hache (para. 7-8): If the teacher attacks too gently (for the student’s level of skill, remember!) the student will never feel what it takes to stop the initial swing; if he swings too hard he will blow through the student’s defense and prevent the student from learning how the technique works. If the teacher doesn’t swing at the student’s head (many people, scared of hitting others, swing “short”, so that the blow would not have been able to hit the student) the student will never learn the “measure” (Liechtenauer: “all arts have length and measure!”) of the technique, which is fairly tricky with this particular technique. If the teacher does something “tricky” as he swings his blow the technique will fail and the student will be confused as to what the technique is actually supposed to do. (You can see the Block Croix in the video clip below.)

Acting with intent is important for the student, too. It’s easy enough to do on a single technique, but in a technique with multiple parts students often fail because they focus too much on the last part of the play. For example, let’s consider the cross-knock used when someone binds against your Zwerchau with the longsword: The teacher attacks with an Oberhau and the student responds with a Zwerchau to the teacher’s head that is intended to displace the blow and kill in one motion. The teacher then changes the arc of his cut to bind hard against the student’s Zwerchau in order to prevent himself from being hit, so the student knocks the teacher’s blade to the right with his cross to prevent him from responding for a moment while the student whips his sword around to strike another Zwerchau at the other side of the teacher’s head.

In order for the student to properly understand this sequence both the teacher and student must do things in a very specific way: The teacher must cut directly at the student’s head with an appropriate level of speed and force. The student must respond with a real attempt at a Zwerchau; here’s where most students err—they know they’re practicing the cross knock so they do a half-hearted Zwerchau that wouldn’t have worked at all. The teacher must then bind hard against the middle of the student’s blade or else the student won’t get the play; the cross knock doesn’t work, for example, if you bind at the point of the sword (in which case the student should Durchwechseln), so the teacher would be cheating his student. Then the teacher should hold fast in the bind so that the cross knock actually does what it’s supposed to.

(NB: Once a student has mastered the basics, of course, the teacher can build drills that create choices; for example, the teacher might do everything up to the bind described above, then vary his bind either to middle of the sword or to the point, forcing the student to actually read the bind and respond correctly. But this can’t be done until the student is doing the individual techniques correctly and without conscious effort.)

Another example is the Winden: When swords bind the teacher must hold a hard bind with his point on line (i.e., aiming at the student), and the student responds with the Winden. If the teacher pushes too much then the Winden won’t work; that’s not a failing of the Winden, it’s a different situation to which the student should respond by moving smoothly into the second Winden. But there’s no reason to push that way at first while the student is still learning the first Winden! The teacher must act correctly for the specific technique being practiced. Likewise, when the student is learning the second Winden he should still perform the first Winden with intent and only move to the second Winden when forced to do so by pressure on his blade from the teacher. After both Winden are learned well enough the teacher can make the exercise into a drill wherein the student must do the correct thing, either thrusting through with the first Winden or changing to the second, but in that case the teacher must limit his actions; pushing his sword up into Kron, for example, doesn’t belong in that specific drill.

Intent, then, isn’t about battering your training partners or students into humility, it’s about making your practice as realistic as possible based on the skill levels of the two people involved. Attack hard and fast, yes, but not more than your partner or student can handle. Make it as challenging as you can, and don’t let a poor technique succeed, but don’t create a no-win situation, either. Do *each* part of a technique or sequence of techniques as perfectly and as realistically as possible, as if you didn’t know what the next part was going to be. To the extent your gear and training permits, always aim for the correct targets. And, of course, always remember that you’re not out to really hurt anyone; use control. A little pain is good, of course, especially when it comes as a result of doing something wrong—our Schule motto is “Was Sehrt, das lehrt” (what hurts teaches)—but no one should be really damaged, and pain is pretty useless with a complete novice since they’re doing everything wrong at first.

So do techniques as fast, as hard and as accurately as possible while considering the skill levels of the people doing the techniques and the needs of safety (within reason). That is acting “with intent.”


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