By Christopher Rappold
What is it that separates a good competitor from a great competitor? I have asked that question many times, and I have heard many answers. To be great, someone must be fast. Or must be strong. Or must have a long reach. Or must have superior strategy. The list of answers goes on.
While all these are valid, I believe that the biggest deciding factor between good and great is whether a person can control distance.
This answer is what I would call “the elusive obvious.” It is self-evident, but sometimes we are so close to it that we don’t appreciate its value. If distance is controlled, then offense, defense, blocks, punches and kicks all work. If distance is off, they all are rendered useless.
If distance is such a critical element of success in martial arts, why is it that most schools place a premium on punching and kicking and only teach distance as a necessary evil? As I reflected on the answer and spoke with others, two answers emerged.
The first one is a common excuse: “That is the way I was taught.” The second is about student expectations: “Well, kicking and punching are what people want to experience when they come into a martial arts school.”
Unfortunately, the first answer doesn’t allow for the possibility that there may be better ways of doing things. The second puts the student in the driver’s seat of dictating what and when things should be taught. That is not fair to the student, who cannot be expected to know the ins and outs of teaching martial arts!
I want to share some strategies my Retention Based Sparring program uses that are vital to the program’s success. First, a great deal of attention is spent educating students about the importance of distance control. Every martial art may have slight differences, depending on the delivery system.
To use karate as an example, imagine that I am in the guard position and can lean forward with my lead hand and touch my partner’s front shoulder with the tips of my fingers. Here, I am in the perfect position to effectively execute most techniques. But if I take a two-inch step back and try to execute the same technique, I will miss or be easily countered 90 percent of the time. If I get two inches too close, my partner will be able to easily execute a technique against me.
Controlling the distance enables everything to work just right. To reach the next level in sparring proficiency, you must be able to master this skill.
Distance also provides the space needed for safer exchange. When accidents happen in a martial arts class, they most often result from students not spending enough time learning to read distance.
Think about it: Class time is spent kicking shields, hitting pads and sparring. What happens to the holder if a kick intended for a head-level focus mitt goes just two inches off course? Potentially, a broken nose. Improving your students’ distance control will help reduce injury and decrease the chance of dropouts.
Here’s an exercise you can do to educate students on proper distance: Have them move around each other as though they were sparring, but don’t let them throw punches or kicks. Allow them to move, and move, and move. Then yell, “Freeze!” At this point, they must stop moving completely.
Now, make a quick visual measurement to ensure they all are at good distances from their partners. Can they touch each other? Are they too close? Too far? If so, give them pointers, then have them resume their moving and repeat the drill.
As they get better at gauging distance, their punches and kicks will naturally improve. This also will help retention. Just as nothing is more discouraging than a failure to improve, nothing is more encouraging than seeing success! Solve the two-inch problem for your students, and watch their progress and enjoyment of sparring soar.
Chris Rappold can be reached for questions or comments at [email protected]
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