It’s Not Working! Now What?

Tips for Troubleshooting Martial Arts Techniques

If you’re training correctly, not everything will work all the time. If you are successful 100% of the time in the Dojo, it probably means you are only doing prearranged drills with limited resistance, which ultimately is inadequate in simulating the unpredictable and aggressive nature of either competition or actual self-defense scenarios.

Certainly drilling techniques and prescribed sequences have their function in developing ideal body mechanics, timing, flow between movements, and ability to sense the right opportunity for the right technique. However, these don’t always translate to functional ability to use each technique against resistance. It’s important that sparring, wrestling (attempts to clinch and throw an opponent), and submission fighting against a non-compliant partner are integrated into the process.

The following are the steps that you should take when you run into the situation where a technique is not leading to the desired outcome, either in controlled or uncontrolled circumstances.

Ask the Instructor

I know, it sounds crazy, right? But when something that should be happening isn’t, or something that shouldn’t be happening is, ask the instructor to watch what you’re doing and correct it. A lot of students are quick to blame the technique itself rather than their own execution of it when things go wrong. The unfortunate truth is that, most often, user error is to blame.

The other reason to ask the instructor is to get their legitimate opinion of the techniques or strategies they are demonstrating. I openly let my students know what methods are high-percentage and low-percentage ones for me. However, I also let them know that individual variation is a huge factor; some techniques might not work as effectively for me, but a student or peer will find a great deal of success with them. Some things are requirements that are prescribed by the curriculum, but not necessarily that individual instructor’s favourite choice. Knowing that, a student can take certain explanations or techniques with a grain of salt.

From a student’s perspective, asking questions is also an opportunity to double-check that you are training with someone competent. If all that the instructor offers in terms of fixing your technique is vague theory (such as “Drop your Chi into your belly”) or the advice that “You’ll figure it out. Just keep practicing,” then you might want to re-think your choice of martial arts school.

Call a Friend

Your peers are experiencing the same challenges that you are, so it can be helpful to discuss it among your classmates to determine how well it works for them. The difficulty you are experiencing might be unique to you, or it might be unique to your partner. Even something that seems as universal as a choke may, in reality, be harder to apply on one person compared with another.

If everyone is experiencing the same struggle to make it work as designed, then either the instructor didn’t adequately teach the execution or the technique itself isn’t effective. If everyone else is having success with a technique, it is either you or your partner who is the problem.

Talking with others can be a way of sharing information about what works against whom, how it can be executed effectively, and when is the right time to use it. Discussing your execution with your partner is of vital importance as well. They can feel what is painful and what is not, so playing a little with the technique to test out results and get feedback is an important step towards improvement that doesn’t necessarily need to involve the instructor at all.

Pressure Test

There are a few different phrases that encapsulate the same concept, but the basic idea is this: you have to see whether something works under pressure and where it begins to break down in order to see where it can be improved. It is analogous to the project that many of us had to do in high school where we build a bridge with Popsicle sticks, then gradually add weight until the bridge breaks. You want to train, at least some of the time, at that line when things begin to crack.

Whether it’s through rolling, sparring, wrestling, or what my Sensei terms Riai Tegumi (理会い手組)[1], a flow exercise where you combine striking, clinching, submissions, and Gyaku-Waza (reversals and escapes), practicing the skill of using your techniques with “functional spontaneity”[2] is a key to developing correct execution. Drills and structured practice serve as an important introduction to key concepts and principles, but limiting yourself to only these methods will often lead to a plateau when it comes to facing aggressive resistance. You don’t know what really works unless you experiment and fail.

Of course, success in the controlled environment of a Dojo or gym needs to be taken with the understanding that it doesn’t guarantee success in real violence. I would argue that effective training and preparation increases the odds of protecting yourself (i.e. survival) when confronted with actual violence, but the nature of this type of violence makes it impossible to predict, as well as dangerous to simulate fully in a class. You are most likely to be attacked when the circumstances of the encounter are not in your favour. Therefore, all the preparation in the world doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory.

However, pressure testing your technique gives you a taste of the adrenaline spike, intensity, speed, stress, and sloppy execution that is likely to occur when faced with an uncooperative assailant. It is an important reminder of the unpleasantness of violence and helps the practitioner maintain a healthy balance between confidence and humility.

Get the Context Right

A lot of problems and issues with execution in martial arts are a result of the square peg, round hole phenomenon. Troubleshooting technique has a lot to do with not only making sure you do the technique itself with correct positioning and mechanics, but making sure you do it in the correct context.

Karate runs into this issue a lot when it comes to Kata application. Frequently instructors may use a valid technique, but put it into a sequence or situation that isn’t fight logical (to coin a phrase). The classical “Oi-tsuki” attack, where the Uke lunges in with one straight punch, a perfect pulling hand, and then stands like a statue while the Tori executes a series of blocks, strikes, locks, and then finally a takedown, is a perfect example. These might be useful techniques, but they are placed into a context where they don’t work if the attacker resists.

To correct this issue, analysis is key. What would an attacker (not just a static Uke) actually do in that situation? How would they react to what was previously done? How would resistance change the position or action of the attacker? These are questions that you should be asking yourself when developing or drilling combinations and sequences.

In addition, for any traditional martial artists, understanding historical context can be insightful to help apply the techniques to the circumstances. A simple example of this is Gi vs. No-Gi. Obviously the Gi is very similar to the type of clothing that was worn in ancient Okinawa and Japan, so techniques evolved to match the attire of that society. In modern society, depending on the climate where you live, they may still be valid or not. Hoodies and jackets can be utilized in a very similar fashion as a Gi. T-shirts are more difficult to manipulate in exactly the same way, so more modification is likely to be required.

Context also has to do with the outcomes you hope to achieve in your training. How you follow up from a throw, for instance, will depend greatly on what your desired result is. For self-defence, if you successfully take down your opponent, you want to strike quickly if necessary, disengage, stand up, and get away. Bad things are likely to happen if you stick around to continue the confrontation. However, we frequently practice follow-ups such as joint locks or holds that are advantageous for submission fighting or competition. There is nothing wrong with either option, but you should know why you are doing whichever one you are doing. I frequently tell my students to differentiate between the strategies they would use for self-protection and the ones they would use for submission fighting.

Addressing context will also help bridge the gap between controlled and spontaneous practice. A lot of the time, what works for us in drilling doesn’t work when it comes to free training. “More practice” is a frequently prescribed solution (and yes, sometimes with greater quantity, quality increases as well), but if the technique is not learned in a context where it is likely to succeed, then often the practitioner is doomed to failure.

Conclusion

Especially now, in a world of YouTube and instructional videos galore, it is not good enough for an instructor to simply present information about martial arts techniques and expect successful execution from his or her students. Students can access a lot of that information online, which makes the instructor’s explanation redundant if they don’t go deeper. The bread and butter of teaching is in anticipating what will go wrong or observing what is going wrong, and provide tips with how to remedy these errors.

For practitioners, before blaming the technique itself and simply concluding, “it doesn’t work,” do your due diligence in terms of asking the instructor and your peers, pressure testing, and correctly contextualizing what you are learning. If, after all these steps, the technique still doesn’t work for you, then you can discard it with the confidence of knowing you’re not missing anything of vital significance.


[1] McCarthy, Patrick. Personal Instruction. (For a demonstration of Ri-Ai Tegumi Futari-Geiko, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72sigZhvITU)

[2] Funakoshi, Gichin. “Speaking About Karatedo”. Tanpenshu. Trans. Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy. International Ryukyu Karate Research Society, 2006. Pg. 73.

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