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Partnerships

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by Tim Becherer, JKD

To say that getting good at martial arts requires plenty of repetitions is stating the obvious. You need a good instructor, strong desire, and plenty of willing training partners.

We've all seen the musical montages from the Kung Fu movies where the hero takes on some crazy solo routine usually involving painful conditioning exercises, contortionist style flexibility exercises, and tons of breaking of boards, bricks, and pottery all by himself/herself. Realistic? Not at all, and this should not be a surprise to any reader that has ever practiced martial arts.

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We can each do a lot of stamina training on our own but our functional skills really require a training partner. For the vast majority of our training time, we should have a partner when we train in and outside of class. Your training partner is probably the most overlooked training aid and reason for your improvement. A great teacher is a good thing, but, unless you are doing private lessons, you are most likely getting your crucial repetitions with a training partner. If you want to get better quickly, you need to have and BE a good training partner.

A training partner is the coach and trainer while you work on your repetitions. If you don’t take your role as a training partner seriously, your partner will not get the most from their training and will probably most likely reciprocate the half-assed partnering.

We have two types of training partners: Those we regularly train with and those we don't. There are the obvious benefits to the partner you regularly train with, such as familiarity and, hopefully, absolute trust. For those we don't regularly train with, we at least have some mutual respect.

All students fall into one of the following categories of martial artists (in the class you are taking, not necessarily in martial arts in general): Beginner, low Intermediate, high Intermediate, and Advanced. These categories only mean something as a relationship between you and your training partner. Usually, your regular training partner's are close to your level. When getting a training partner you don’t usually train with, there can be a difference in level.

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No matter the level though, you will have the same responsibilities towards each other. Yes, I said responsibilities.

1) Train safely with your partner, watch your control. There is absolutely no reason for repeated hard striking of your partner without an understood amount of control.

2) Check your ego at the door, merely training with someone is NOT a competition.

3) Coach one another to correct any mistakes in form or technique (as shown by the instructor in the particular class you are doing at that moment. As we all know, there is more than one way to skin a cat, so contradicting the instructor of the class on technique is counterproductive to both of you).

4) Pay attention to make sure that you are giving them them the correct feed, energy, etc.

5) Allow your partner to “score” if you are practicing technique unless the instructor tells you to give some resistance. Training is not a contest nor is it a fight between you and your partner. Internationally famous instructor Guru Dan Inosanto uses the example of taking a child out to teach them to bat for the first time. You don’t throw a 90mph fastball at them and expect them to hit it. Be aware of the level of success your partner is having with your feed. They should be succeeding 70%-80% of the time to gain any value from the practice. Occasionally instructors will tell you to push your partner to a lower success rate but unless instructed to do so, you should be conscious that your partner is getting “good” reps.

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6) Listen to each other. If your partner asks you to slow down or lighten up, then do so. You may be larger than your training partner and what seems light to you might actually be to forceful for them. If you are smaller than your training partner, a bigger person often doesn’t equal a higher tolerance for pain so it is not okay to just hit them harder. Big people bruise and have nerves too, so it sometimes hurts them just as much to be hit.

7) Sparring and rolling on the mat should not equate fighting. Know your own strength! Do not assume your training partner wants to go full contact at full speed. If you blast him/her in the face with some power, don’t whine when it gets delivered right back to you. If you bowl them over on the mat or move fast and aggressively, you’re asking for arm bars and chokes to come on fast in response and possibly injure one of you. If your not familiar with this training partner, you can agree on how “intense” you want to go. You should automatically start lighter and come to a mutual agreement if you're to take it up a notch or two.

8) When sparring or doing some freelance drills in a crowded class, be aware of your surroundings. Share the space. Just swinging limbs and weapons with no regard that others are doing the same around you is dangerous. If you can’t be aware of your surroundings at the speed you are going, you and your partner need to slow down to a pace in which you can pay attention. It’s frustrating to have your ankle rolled over by surprise, get kicked in the back, or hit in the head from behind with a blow by another student in class who is not paying attention to the space.

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9) If your sparring partner looks behind them to mind the space and not hurt somebody, taking advantage of that and scoring on them is just simply disrespectful. Again, sparring is not a real fight so the excuse of having to be aware of the “unexpected” is just a negligent excuse to satisfy your ego. Accidents do happen but there is no room for injuring your training partner because of ego or negligence.

Safety is everyone’s responsibility.

No one ever signs up for martial arts lessons to be a punching dummy or to receive the displaced aggression of others. The only thing gained from going hard all the time is an increased potential for injury. Why do you think professional football teams do not do full contact scrimmages all week before the game? Or why do you think boxers don’t do hard sparring every day leading up to a fight? Injury. We are training to deal with the aggressors outside of class (or in the ring/cage for professional fighters) and it would be awful to face that situation with an undo injury created by one of your brothers or sisters at your school.

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In the best of all possible worlds, it is good to have a training partner who is of a similar skill level as you so you both can work through the puzzle of learning together.

However, it isn’t always possible to train with somebody of a near equal experience level and you must sometimes team up with somebody of an experience level unequal to yours. In this situation, you have other responsibilities toward each other to keep in mind.

For the student who is of the lower skill level:

1) This match up is NOT a private lesson for you so don’t treat it that way. You need to pay your utmost attention as best as you can to the technique or drill the instructor is showing. Don’t just assume that you can daydream during the explanation and the more advanced student will just show you. That is disrespectful to your training partner.

2) Pay attention to the feed you are supposed to be giving. If it calls for a straight punch, don’t feed a hooking punch. Watch your form, do it correctly.

3) Do not go faster than you can safely and properly do the feed or the technique.

4) Listen to and apply any corrections the advanced student gives you.

5) Ask questions about the things you don’t understand. Don’t just assume and do it incorrectly as you could cause injury to your partner or yourself.

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For the student who is of higher skill level:

1) You may clearly be teaching here, this is an honor not a burden. Many of the greatest martial arts masters have said in various quotes that you do not truly understand something until you can teach it. Think of this as an opportunity to really test your knowledge.

2) Understand that you may not be able to work on every variation of a technique the instructor gave you because of the lower level of your partner, so make use of the time instead to examine closely one or two of the variations. Perfect those variations, there is always time to learn the others.

3) Pay attention to your feed. Don’t just roll your eyes and go off into “la-la land” when feeding the less experienced student just because you’ve already done this a hundred times.

4) Go slower, you’re partner isn’t as experienced as you are. Remember: you were once at a lower level too. Again, work to refine your technique even more at the slower speed.

5) When sparring, it isn’t open season on the “fresh meat” time. Don't go out for his blood! Pick one or two things you want to work on and see if you can set them up from different situations.

Reminder: When training, don’t be afraid to tell your partner if they are making too much contact with you or going too fast. If they refuse or keep doing what you’ve asked them not to do, there is nothing wrong with simply stopping your training with them right then and there.

I understand that in some of the eastern philosophies and the rigid structures in many of the more traditional martial arts schools might find this to be an offense, but if that school is in a western culture then it must recognize and abide by the fact that there is a choice in which to continue to the point of injury or stop before an injury can occur. Your safety and health are ultimately your responsibility so don’t be afraid to take responsibility for them.

Getting injured in a way that takes you out of your ability to continue training for any time at all is too much of an expense to simply “save face”.

Eventually, all martial artists pass milestones of rank achievement, a victory in competition, or perfecting techniques. You owe that to your own hard work but also to those who have helped to give you all of the repetitions that got you to your goal.

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Your final responsibility to each other as training partners is to be thankful to one another. I am very grateful to my many great instructors but I am equally grateful to all of my amazing training partners though out the years.

Step up, become a great training partner and you will find that you will also become a better martial artist, a better fighter, a better teacher, and...most likely, a better person.

In my opinion, seminars are the one place that a large gap in knowledge between training partners is a large disadvantage to both involved, especially the more advanced practitioner.

In a seminar, because of the cost involved and the amount of information given in such a short time, it should not be considered disrespectful if a student who is at a more advanced level, politely declines to partner with someone who is at a novice or beginner level. For everybody to get the most out of seminars, it is most beneficial to team up with someone of a similar skill level in that particular martial art, even if it means training in a group of three. To benefit from a seminar, you really need a training partner who you are able to go at the same pace with.

Most of all, you should enjoy developing special partnerships with all of your fellow students and help each other to create mutual working relationships that can assist you to continually evolve your abilities and make progress in your martial arts training.

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