Isness and Ifness

by Burton Richardson August 01, 2002

What the heck is “isness”? It is simply what is. What in the world does this have to do with our martial arts pursuits? Everything. Every person I have ever met who practices martial arts believes that there is a self-defense benefit to their training. They all believe that the way they train lends to their ability to develop real skill that could translate to success in an all-out street attack. The truth is that this is seldom the case. The reason is that the majority of people training in the martial arts are wrapped up in ifness rather than isness. If we want to become good at anything we must strive for the truth. We must look at what we are truly trying to accomplish and set our course in that direction. It always helps to find people who have been there before so that we can learn valuable lessons to make our journey easier, more direct, and less perilous. This makes perfect sense. You find someone who has already done what you want to do and you follow the method that they used to achieve success. What happens in martial arts? The majority of people want to learn how to fight; yet they follow someone who has little or no fighting experience. Why does the instructor have no fighting experience? Probably because his instructor had no fighting experience. Here we come back to isness. What is fighting experience? Doing forms? No. While you can become stronger and faster doing forms, the truth is that doing forms will make you good at doing forms. There is no fighting experience. How about doing sensitivity drills like chi sao? That should give fighting experience. No. Practicing drills like chi sao will make you good at chi sao. This is not fighting. Thai pads and focus mitts can make you better, right? While hitting pads will develop many attributes of a fighter and can ingrain certain moves, it is not fighting. It is drilling on equipment. Doing forms is what it is. Doing drills is what it is. Hitting pads is what it is. If you want to develop yourself as a fighter, you have to spend time fighting. Why? Because fighting is fighting. You can’t become skillful at anything unless you practice doing that thing. You may add supplemental training to enhance your attributes, such as hitting pads, but this is just an adjunct to the core training, and must not be substituted for the core training. When I played baseball, I spent at least one hour each day hitting a ball off of a tee and into a fence. This is not hitting, but it was a valuable addition to batting practice and game time. Batting practice was the key element. I took lots of batting practice, but the time there was limited, so I supplemented it with hitting off a tee. It worked very well. What would have happened if I just hit balls off a tee, and never hit a ball that was thrown fast? Would I have done well in the games? No. I would have had good technique, but no timing and no ability to adjust to the pitches as they came in. What if someone came up to you to teach you baseball and told you that they have the greatest method ever for learning to hit. They proceed to pull out a tee, take you to a fence, and have you hit balls off the tee into the fence. Seems reasonable enough, but what if they told you that this is all you need. You don’t need batting practice against a live pitcher. You don’t need the batting cages. As a matter of fact, you don’t even need to play in any games. You will hit the ball so hard after working off the tee that you may accidentally hurt someone if you play in a real game. It would be best if you only spend time hitting off the tee, and safer for everyone. Would you believe this? I hope not. The only way that you could buy into this is if you have never played baseball. Anyone who actually plays knows that hitting a slider is very different than hitting off a tee. The coach is either lying to you, or he has no actual experience either. Hitting in a game is what is. Hitting off a tee has benefits, but it is not hitting a live pitch. In martial arts people practice techniques against an “attacker” who stands with arm outstretched like a statue. What is this? Practicing against a statue, and statues don’t hit back. Once this notion of practice is challenged, ifness comes into play. “If the attacker does this” or “if I was in this position” this and this and this would be applied. “If I do this drill long enough I will be able to defeat anyone in a fight.” This is “if” not “is”. Isness is when you have someone actually fighting you. If we are talking about fighting arts, then the game is fighting. You have to practice fighting to become skillful at it. There is no other way. None. People will now say, “but if I hit mitts with proper feeding, it is like fighting.” No, that is hitting mitts with a good feeder. What if the feeder never took the time to set the pads so that you could hit them, but instead punched and kicked and grabbed you the whole time? That would be more like fighting. Then come the excuses. “If we actually fought, someone would get hurt.” It depends upon the intensity of the fighting and the protective equipment you use. Just as pitches in batting practice are thrown at about 75% of game intensity, fighting can be practiced at a lower intensity to minimize injuries and allow the participants to improve. This said, you must apply isness to this as well. Sparring at 75% is very different than going all-out. If you want to be good at fighting, you should go 100% occasionally. It depends upon your goals. The truth is that if you want to be good at something you have to spend time doing that thing. Doing forms is doing forms. Practicing static techniques is practicing static techniques and doing drills is doing drills. Only fighting is fighting. If you want to learn how to fight, you must practice fighting against someone who is fighting back. It is what it is.


Burton Richardson
Burton Richardson

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