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I am beginning to spar in class

I am beginning to spar in class. I found myself flinching and closing my eyes. Short of just getting used to it, are there any drills I can do to train against flinching? Philip - USA

It is a natural reaction to flinch and close your eyes when something comes near your face. It is, however, a reaction that can be controlled, to your advantage as a martial artist. It is easy to see that while closing the eyelids can protect the eye from minor irritations such as dust or other small debris it is no protection from a blow with any force. The ability to avoid a strike by being aware of its trajectory and proximity to your face is all-important to being able to avoid it. We must retrain what is a first defense instinct into a more useful second line of defense that can avoid and deflect any danger to the eye, and thus the face and head.

- Begin by generally improving your speed of movement and blocking. By gaining confidence in this area by way of exercises in footwork, displacement, bobbing and weaving, as well as repetitive basic exercises in all the standard blocks, you will be more able to redirect your reactions to the stimulus of an attack. The unconscious must be trained along with the conscious mind in evaluating and determining a response.

- Practice with a partner who you can trust to be accurate and exercise control. You can begin to slowly and progressively train the eye and brain to perceive and follow the line of movement and co-ordinate it with your own avoidance, and if necessary, deflection motions. Work with a variety of trajectories: straight on, uppercut, descending as well as circular roundhouse strikes. Practice systematically, beginning with very slow motions and gradually speeding them up only when you are able to dodge and deflect without a flinch or blink.

- Another exercise is to use a small basin of water. Using the fingers, flick droplets of water near the eyes; your cheeks, forehead, chin. Concentrate on your awareness of the water and your response. Try to develop a diffuse range of vision, not focusing directly on the incoming water (or fist) but a general radar that you can monitor both with direct and peripheral vision. Take your time. The training of this response will improve gradually through regular practice.




I still drop my guard on my face leaving me open...

I have been training in taekwondo (ITF) for 4 years now and I still drop my guard on my face leaving me open to many hurtful kicks and punches, my instructror and seniors all tell me to correct my habit and have given me many training tips but none seem to work. Can you help? Matthew - Great Britain

Thank you for your question which may require more than one answer, some of them probably were already instructed to by your teacher.

1) Taekwondo has a very good define repertoire of stances and techniques, including the guard, but the actual tendency and influence from its sportive and tournament modality, works in detriment to acquire a useful and versatile guard. However, beyond that perspective, you can start improving it while you keep your arm elevated during the rest of the practices that doesn't involve sparring. Raise the elbows until they are level with your shoulder and the fists higher than head. You will notice that your shoulders will work extra but the effort worth it. The idea is that when you train with our arms at that height, once they get "tired" they will drop to the needed level, but if you train at the "regular" (actual) height, once "tired" they will be very low and lack of the face protection. We are referring to "tired" no just physically but also mentally (which can be even present before the sparring begin). As a illustrated note, many boxers touch their noses with the thumbs (gesture that very frequently is comically imitated), it is an old resource to help them to "remember" their guards up. Keep it in mind.

2) Focus in your hand techniques while doing pre-sparring with a partner that can help you training with a slow speed until you "gain" your confidence and correct your guard.

3) With an experience partner, starting at slow speed and with good control to avoid injuries, focus on your upper defenses while he/she applies techniques to your head. Once you fell comfortable with your results, progressively increase the speed, number of combinations and continuity. Later add your counterattacks (with equal speed, control, and increments).

4) A simple solo exercise:

Here are some suggestions.

In a standing position (with your feet as if you are assuming your guard), with your hands and arms relaxed and down beside your body, raise them quickly to your "regular" guard (exhale the air fast - tightening the abdominal muscles) and immediately and very quickly elevate them to a level higher than the head (exhaling an extra bit more), finishing with a very slow drop of the arms to the start position (breathe in and out normally and relax).


- same dynamic but with a single hand

- same dynamic but alternating sides

- same for one hand and just before one hand drops, bring the other up as fast as you can, continue descending both arms very slowly.

Do 1 series of 10 repetitions at the beginning for 2 weeks and after continue with 2 series of 15 repetitions each.

Once you feel that you are breathing comfortably and have good control of the speed and height of your arms positions, you can do the same exercise with a more loose rhythm and foot work mobility (little steps too) while you are covering the floor as if you were sparring with somebody (not quite shadow boxing but fun anyway).

5) Improve your footwork for better control of your distance with your partner, as well as the head and torso mobility from the waist. This will "save" your head from your opponent's attacks and will give you more time to "rearrange" your guard.

Be sure that you keep your eyes open in a natural way, enjoy your training, accept this time to improve and better yourself no matter how long it takes (when you least expect positive results they will sometimes make their appearance), and have fun.





Health and the Heavy bag

I have been training in karate for over a year and I would like to improve my skills by using a punching bag. I am 14 and I read that it is unhealthy for young adults to use heavy bags because it can effect bone structure. Is this true and if it is what can I do when we use the bag during class?

You are wise to exercise some caution and restraint when it come to the use of the heavy bag. We must remember that the bag is only one of many training tools and there are a variety of exercises that will assist in the development of the martial artist.

Speed, accuracy and distance are ultimately more important in improving technique and power than just hitting hard. The risk to joints and the spine from repetitive stress injuries is real especially for young people and those in the early stages of physical conditioning.

Moderate use of the heavy bag can still be productive if you concentrate on percussive strikes rather than blows that attempt to force through the bag at full power. Imagine striking a large drum with a clean precise stroke that resonates rather than smashing it with a blow that could break the drumskin.

There are other ways to develop strength and exercises that do not involve impact. Your health and an injury free future should not be sacrificed. Developing control and direction of intention will be far more useful to you as a martial artist than the ability to pound a heavy bag.




Full broadside body in iaido

I practice karate, kobudo and aikido. A year ago I started iaido. In all Martial Arts you turn your body in an angle towards your Partner so you give less space to get hit. In iaido-kata you stay full broadside. Is there a reason for it? Comments: My Teacher didn't know it, and has not even considered this up to now. He is more a sportive type while I'm more interested in traditional ways where almost everything has a special meaning. Jochen - Germany

Your question is very interesting and we have given it some thought which you no doubt will be able to expand on as your training progresses.

We must remember that traditional martial arts have evolved from practical ways. To respond in a self-defence situation requires being able to move from a natural stance in any direction. In iaido, the formal training presumes an attacker who is also drawing a sword. Except for a few techniques which involve direct forward thrusts or downward strikes, the weapon is wielded in a circular trajectory. The effect of turning to the side would in this case offer more vulnerable surface area as a target than facing the opponent front on.

Also, in order to successfully counter a sword attack by moving away and deflection of the blade (using two hands) you would not want to find yourself overly committed to one side and unable to twist behind you. One handed sword work, as you might find in fencing with a lighter blade, would occasion a different technical response.

The physics of controlling the blade for accuracy and overcoming its inertia in preparation for the next move, also demands a certain position of the hips as the blade passes across the center of the body.

It is also possible that psychologically the effect of facing your fate calmly and directly can be more intimidating to the attacker.

These are some thoughts to ponder as you practice.




Improving my flexibility properly?

How do I know that I am improving my flexibility properly?

A good martial arts teacher will insure that his students seek improvement in their flexibility as a result of consistent regular practice, good warm-ups and cool-downs, and stretching that is longer and deeper by gradual degrees. It is more important to maintain flexibility on a daily basis and stretch intensively only occasionally. One should stretch only when the muscles are fully warm and to the extent appropriate for the level of activity performed that day. It is prudent to know your limits and wisely improve upon them.

A good stretching exercise will create a sensation of sweet discomfort, not pain, and there should be a feeling of release in tension from the other areas of the body not directly involved in the stretch. It helps to smile, relax the face, jaw, and tongue, and wriggle the toes to ensure that you are not overly tense or causing damage. Exhalation while stretching is vital. Good breathing practice before and after a session of stretching will help the circulation of oxygen and removal of waste by-products from the tissues by the bloodstream.

True flexibility is not measured by the degree of final stretch in an exercise, but is more effectively measured by where you start the next time. Even so, abilities from day to day will be affected by how intense the last class was (was there some new exercise?), outside activities (the Saturday softball game or the office picnic), your workday footwear (high heels or construction boots), sleeping position, etc. Factors such as the weather, humidity, room temperature, and even what you ate for breakfast can also enter into the picture.




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