Reading the action
Today I'm going talk about something that every martial artist need to "have" and therefore need to develop in order to make his of her art effective. I'is not a technique, it's an attribute. And attributes are what makes it all work.
This attribute is called "Reading the action".
The brain process in a fight
Actually, before we dive into the knowledge of such an attribute, I'd like to outline the brain process involved in the every fight. The dynamic of a fight is made by the interaction of the fighters' action, and this action is movement, motion, and for our brain this motion is perceived as an information.
We, as human beings, deal with this action, with this information, as follows:
- We gather (read) the information (in our case, the opponent's motion).
- Our brain treats this information, and choose the most appropriate way to deal with it.
- We respond, physically, to the action, which makes it a "reaction".
Obviously, it all happens quiet fast (or it should). Some factors, like the speed of the brain to treat the information in order to choose one option among endless possibilities, and the speed of our physical reaction to the brain stimulation, those are other attributes. But as the title suggests, in this article I will focus only on the first step of the process, and the reason why I described the whole process and decidebroke it down is to draw the big picture and see where "reading the action" actually fits.
So, as you can see, the very first step of the process is, indeed, gathering the information, and such an information in our world translates into physical action. But what does "reading the action" actually mean?
Well, "reading the action" is the way we gather the information we need to pass out to our brain so that it can treat it. The ability to properly read the action is a skill that makes the difference between a fighter and another, because no matter how technically skilled one is, if you can't "see" what it's happening, you cannot respond effectively, meaning you cannot use your technical skills.
We're going to see that, probably to your surprise, there are different kind of ways to "read the action".
Surely enough, the word "reading" suggests that it "happens with the "eyes", and in fact the first way to read the action is indeed visually. Reading the action "visually" means that we rely on our visual capability to pass the information to our brain.
This may sound like a very basic notion that doesn't necessary deserve a paragraph (or an article) about it, but my point here is to define the importance of this attribute, how it comes into play, and how to improve it. Believe me, when you are in the wild dynamic of physical threatning you want to have the ability to understand what's happening before it's too late. In order to "see" what's going on, what moves the opponent is about to make, one needs to be clear and focused.
Of course, visual reading happens through our eyes, but the eyes are only the tools that we use in the case of "visual reading". They don't do the hard part. "We " do the hard part. Our ability to stay focused and clear, without fixing our attention on something in particular but to the whole action, this will allow our eyes to "read the action".
Bruce Lee explains the phenomenon of "focusing without focusing" quiet extensively in his "Tao of Jeet Kune Do".
Visual reading is like having our "radar" on, being totally aware and being 100% present with all ourselves. It's being able to scan everything that moves in the action, so that "as soon as he moves, you move", and to make things like "he starts the action but I score before" happen.
Visual reading mostly applies in Boxing, Kickboxing, Stick fighting, Knife fighting, whenever we need to anticipate the moves to be able to react accordingly. Therefore, proper visual reading means being able to identify the angles of attack (straight, curved), the lines of attack (high, medium, low, right, left) and also and foremost the opponent's fakes or change of movement. Identifying what is about to happen is the most important thing in all kind of fights.
The opponent's attacks are not the only things we need to "read" in a fight. Other stuff can and need to be read: openings, hesitations, intentions. All of those things are stuff that, during a fight, we need to "read".
But are the eyes the only tool we need to actually "read the action"?
Well, they're not.
There are martial arts that focus their working principles on body energy, or more precisely, on the opponent's energy. Some of those are self-defense martial arts, others are combat sports.
However, those kind of styles rely very little on the eyes as a tool to gather the information from the opponent, and that is primarily due to the range of combat in which they use to live. Those are closed-range martial arts, and in close range, things are a little different than let's say, in kickboxing striking range. In close range, inevitably, body contact occurs between the fighters, so "tactical sensitivity" comes into play.
Some systems such as Wing Chun dedicate most of their training efforts to develop this tactical sensitivity, so that they can rely on this attribute rather than on their sight. In Wing Chun this strategic choice is pretty much intentional, I'd say, and it defines the whole style.
Another style that employs the principle of tactical reading is Aikido, for example.
Obviously, there are also combat sports that rely very much (if not almost entirely, in some cases) on tactical, energy reading, and in their cases the choice is probably "not intentional", meaning that they don't use this as a conscious fighting strategy (like with Wing Chun and Aikido) but they just "naturally" develop the "tactical reading" attribute because of the nature of the fighting style itself.
Basically, every grappling system relies on tactical reading, be it standing grappling or ground grappling. Judo, Brazilian Ju-Jitsu and Greco-Roman Wrestling are some examples of styles that need to "feel" the opponent's action with their own body, more than scanning it with their eyes. Even Muay Thai fighters, when clinching occurs, use this kind of attribute. It is very common, when grappling, that a fighter puts his head in a position where he cannot even see the rest of the opponent's body, but he does "feel" him, therefore he "reads" his action, and can therefore act or react upon that.
One last example of the use of tactical reading is in knife fighting. When a contact is made with the arm holding the knife, the opponent's action can be read tactically.
As a general rule, as soon as there is contact with the opponent's body, as soon as a tactical connection is established, there is energy (motion) that can be "read", and so "reading the action" becomes tactical, rather than visual.
Picture this: a master is quietly sit crossed legs in his dojo (I picture an open space dojo on some lost asian mountain). His eyes are closed. A disciple peacefully approaches him from behind his back. When he's close enough, he attempts to attack the master with a stick to his head. The master suddenly turn himself and grab the stick of the disciple, blocking his attack. The disciple asks: "Master, how did you know I didn't come to you to bring you a cup of tea or something? How did you know I was about to attack you with a stick from behind?" The master answers: "Of course I knew. I read your intention".
We are about to enter the mystical area of martial arts.
The martial arts world is full of this kind of stories and some are build on what could be defined as martial arts myths.
I'm not going to tell you that this kind of thing is possible, neither I'm going to tell you that it's impossible. I just believed that "metaphysical reading" was the next one to close the circle on the matter.
Now, can someone develop the skill of reading the action around him even with his or her eyes closed and without establishing any physical contact? If so, it is surely not an easy skill to achieve and it is probably not given to everybody to get to that level of sensitivity.
But on the other hand, there are people who don't believe in the "Chi" because they can't even acknowledge the concept of it, and surely they cannot experience it. Still, I do believe in it and for sure I do experience it in my practice.
Even if quiet skeptical about being able to read the action with the mind, I have to say that when you think about it we all happen to say or think, from time to time, "I feel something's wrong", even if there are not apparent reasons to feel that way. So, metaphysical reading is probably something that all of us experience on some degree and that could maybe be taken to an upper level.
As I said, either it is humanly possible or not, either it's accessible to some or to none, metaphysical reading is a third way of reading the action, and this way probably deserves its place in this article.
So, with all that said, how can one develop this essential attribute of "reading the action"? For a start, let's say that any kind of sparring develops that, and it is probably the best way to really build it up.
But beside sparring, there are some drills that can help the development of this attribute. Obvious examples for the "tactical reading" way are some sensitivity drills like the Wing Chun's Chi Sao or the Filipino Martial Arts' Hubud.
But what about "visual reading"?
If you want to build "visual reading" abilities you need to train in what I call the "variables training format", instead of the "pre-arranged format". That means that as long as the drills are pre-arranged you cannot develop this attribute. Instead, if you work a drill with variables, you force the student to having to "read the action". Variables are not the only factors that can be used. Tempo is another one.
I know, you want examples, so here are some.
Let's take Kali stick fighting, and let's take the tempo factor. Say this is the drill: you do a forehand diagonal slash (angle 1), your partner blocks with a Roof Block. Than he attacks with the same attack and you do the Roof Block. This makes it a continuous flow drill with the same tempo: I attack, he blocks, he attacks, I block. Now just add the tempo factor in the drill. One can break this tempo and after he blocks, he just wait a moment before attacking, while other times he attacks right away after the block. You'll notice that now the students will have to adjust to the action and respond with the movement of the block not automatically, but only when the actual attack occurs. They have to "read the action".
Another examples could be used with Boxing. This time let's use variables. The attacker uses a Cross, the defender uses a counter to the cross (no matter which one, this is irrelevant for the example). The attacker uses a Hook, and the defender respond with a counter to Hook. Than the attacker randomly fires one or the other, so to force the defender to "read the action" and respond with the adequate counter.
These are just some examples, the principle can be employed in endless ways, as you can imagine.
I often find myself using the expression "read the action" when I teach my students, so last week I thought that maybe some of them could be troubled by the meaning of these words, although I try to briefly explain it. So during a class I said I would write an article about it. And as with any published articles, this is not only for my students, but to anyone else. Hope you enjoyed it!