Almost every form of martial arts training requires a training partner of some sort. In group classes, selection of a good partner can make or break the lesson. Whether sparring, practicing self defense, working two man forms, or just working out, the partner is key to the lesson, and BEING the partner is often a lesson in and of itself. Many high level practitioners of the martial arts were often uke (the receiving partner) to their instructors, and many instructors will only work with partners who have an intimate knowledge of what is being taught. This allows the instructor to demonstrate motions for instructional purposes without injuring their partner.
Not all training partners are created equal, however. In fact, while being a good partner is a lesson in the Middle Way, it seems that many people prefer to take things to one extreme or the other. This guide is designed to help these people figure out which extreme they can most easily develop in order to become the worst possible training partner as quickly as possible. OK, actually, this guide is a checklist of things for you to use as you examine your own actions within class so that you might better serve your classmates and yourself, but if those other types of people are reading, I suppose they might learn something, too, by simply doing the opposite of what is mentioned herein.
Many of us work a full time job (or two) to help fund our martial arts training. Often, we come right from work, grab a quick bite, change into our uniforms, and rush out to class. When you get to class, you work hard, sweat a lot, and may even end up a bit…. aromatic… by the end of class. This is expected, and most people have the grace to deal with it. But if you walk into class and are already leaving a wake of dead flies, perhaps a quick detour to the rest room for a John Wayne shower is in order. Most forms of hand to hand combat require proximity to the opponent, and nobody wants to work with a partner who makes their eyes burn. In addition to personal cleanliness, make sure your uniform is clean, and your fingernails (and toenails) are cut.
The other extreme of the hygiene spectrum is the partner who cowers at the mere thought of coming into contact with another person’s sweat. We are there to work, and the sweat we may encounter while training is a fact of life. We must learn to deal with it. In a real life encounter, the bad guy may not have had access to Gold Bond Powder and a hankie, and during the ensuing conflict, we may come into contact with blood, sweat, and other unsavory body by-products. The time to worry about this is AFTER the conflict has been resolved. Similarly, in the training environment, we must learn to deal with that which is presented to us. After we complete the exercise, or at another appropriate time (especially when switching partners), feel free to towel off or to apply some hand gel.
When studying martial arts, it is not enough to simply be in class, we must be present mentally as much as we are physically. When learning new techniques, it is normal to stumble at first. But, if a training partner has no clue what is happening because of a lack of focus, time has to then be taken away from drilling the technique in order to explain the meaning of life, the Universe, and everything. Or, even worse, a training partner with a lack of focus but ample confidence will jump into the lesson with both feet, but not knowing what is actually supposed to happen, will either end up injured or injuring someone.
Hyper focus, on the other hand, can also be a bad thing. If a person is so focused on what is being done that they lose awareness of what is actually happening, they are likely to be involved in an accidental injury. As mentioned, the learning curve involved necessitates that there will be mistakes made as a new technique is drilled. It is important to remain aware of what our partner is actually doing. Sometimes they will punch with the wrong hand, or forget to block, or simply freeze. If we continue with what we are “supposed” to be doing instead of responding to the actual situation, someone will get hit fairly unexpectedly. Regardless of whether we are working on direct contact or just a pad drill, both partners must remain engaged and alert.
The learning environment requires a finely balanced level of intensity. Go too hard and people get hurt unnecessarily, go too lightly and a false sense of confidence is fostered, which leads to people getting hurt unnecessarily. In the article “Put a Little Oomph Into Your Training” we discussed finding a perfect balance between the classroom and the real world. We must train in such a manner that injury is not the foremost thought that crosses our minds, and that a certain amount of effort is required to elicit the responses necessary.
If my training partner is always going 100%, I cannot focus on taking the time to learn the nuances of a technique because I am too busy defending myself from my partner’s advances. Conversely, if my partner never puts up any kind of realistic resistance, I will never be able to learn what it takes to make a technique actually work. A perfect example is the learning of a new take down. If my partner engages me full force, before I have had a chance to learn how to manipulate his entry force, then I am left with no option but to absorb the attack. On the other hand, if my partner falls over as soon as I lay hands on him, then I may believe that I know how to put a man on the ground when all I have really learned was a lie about my ability.
Teaching the Better Way
There are many, many ways to execute a given technique. It is said that each posture in our forms has a thousand applications. Take that one step further, and each application has a thousand variations. While a textbook application may work for a student, once we begin modifying the conditions under which the application is applied, we must also adapt the application to match. I may be stronger, taller, faster than my opponent, but these are only contributing factors, not deciding conditions. I may grab at the wrong angle when performing at full speed, I may misjudge my foot placement, I may underestimate my opponent. Any of these factors may make the textbook application that we learn less effective without completely invalidating the technique itself. However, just as we learned basics and stances before we put on sparring gear, we must fully understand what is being taught before we modify it.
When working with a partner in a group class, it must be understood that, while experimentation with respect is ok, it is NEVER ok to disrespect a teacher by discrediting what he is teaching. It is better to simply ask for clarification, or to discuss the matter at a more appropriate time. Similarly, when working with a partner, stay focused on the lesson. Do not go off on a tangent trying to show your partner a better, more effective technique. Very often, a new technique is taught a specific way that will allow for later modification. If something isn’t working, ask the instructor; do not assume that you know better (if you do, it is time to open your own school). For safety reasons, there can be only one teacher at a time. For respect reasons, that teacher should be the one leading class.
Every so often, we come across a student who violates the previous three categories at the same time. This person decides it is his mission as a training partner to PROVE that something doesn’t work, or that their partner is inferior. When executing throws, locks, and strikes, he does so with full force and no regard for his partner. When serving as the recipient of a technique, he refuses to “go with” the technique, thereby not allowing his partner to learn. When working with an instructor, this type of partner will often resist. What we must realize is that, when learning, it is necessary to go through the motions at first. Using the previous example of the throw, we must be able to experience blending with the attacker’s motion, we must learn to find balance as we uproot our opponent, we must learn which muscles to engage in order to move the opponent without causing injury to ourselves, we must learn to control where we place the uke in order to maintain control. And we must do all of this with control and precision. Only when everything is done correctly do we start adding force to our motion and resistance to the actions of the attacker.
When a partner offers undo resistance from the very first demonstration, he is allowing ego to enter the training hall. Most schools I have ever visited do not allow ego in the learning environment, and often have a free ego-checking service. When serving as a partner to someone trying to demonstrate, you must realize that you can either assist the learning process by following where the instructor leads (thereby gaining deeper insight into the workings of the technique by being the recipient), or you can assist the learning process by allowing the instructor to demonstrate the force and ferocity required to MAKE the technique work. When I teach, I demonstrate the technique. You can go with it, or you can resist. My follow through will not change, though your level of enjoyment might. Similarly, when working with another student, it is important to allow your partner to experience the full range of motion, without ego, so that you both might improve your skills.
Like any relationship, we must work on our relations with other students and other martial artists. It is important to lay down ego in favor of respect. There will be times when our experiences are almost magical, but there will also be times during which we are miserable. Even when we find ourselves paired with a less favorable training partner, we can still learn a lesson: that of healthy boundaries. If someone is trying to hurt you, you have a right and a responsibility to yourself to defend yourself. In the kwoon or dojo, this can be as simple as respectfully asking someone to ease up, or even respectfully declining to work with someone who is not clean. If you have trained long enough, you may even find that you have been the over-enthusiastic partner. If someone asks you to go slower, simply acknowledge and comply. By developing a healthy relationship with a training partner, we all stand to gain a deeper understanding of the martial arts; and is not that the goal?