Watch ‘Slowhand’ Eric Clapton play guitar; smoking cigarette stuck in fret, his hand moving slowly and with apparent ease this incredible sound just oozes out. How does he do it? No frenzied antics like the ‘amateur’ youngsters, just skillful professionalism. Ben E. King, the late great Johnnie Lee Hooker and a host of other incredible musicians could just stroll out on stage as though it’s the most natural thing in the world and make incredible sounds with ease.
So what happened to the martial arts? It never ceases to amaze me how many people equate haste with speed. You see them struggling to move like someone trying to drive a car with the handbrake stuck on, eyes bulging, snorting their breath and making each move look like it’s agony to perform, and for me watching, it is.
When you watch the Olympic athletes running around the track they look as though they’re running slowly, but if you tried to run alongside them, you would realise that they are in fact running efficiently. Watch any master of their art, a top pianist, guitarist, artist, sportsman of any type and you marvel at how easy they make it look. Walk into many martial arts clubs or Kata tournaments and you see the opposite, why?
Often it’s because these practitioners don’t hit anything or fight outside their own limited arena. After all, if you are only punching air and have no other criteria than ‘how it looks’ how do you make it look ‘hard’? I remember one Karate 3rd Dan being surprised to find out that I almost never wear a Karategi and asking how I knew whether my technique was any good if I couldn’t hear my gi ‘crack’?
Watch a Mini and a Porsche have a ‘burn up’ from a standing start, the Mini will make loads of noise, screeching tyres, engine screaming and it will look as though it’s going fast. The Porsche will leave it standing and be quieter than a whisper. The question to ask yourself: ‘Is your martial art more like the Mini or the Porsche?’
Speed is an optical illusion. Force is Mass x Acceleration so we want to move our mass efficiently in the direction of the technique and behind it. We then want to accelerate the movement as efficiently as possible and give it the appropriate focus according to the result we desire.
This means that to move we have to ‘soften’ first. If we have residual tension, particularly from the focus of a previous technique, our muscles are going to work antagonistically and will produce the look of ‘a car trying to drive with the handbrake on’ which is so common.
Any technique has a beginning, a middle and an end. To make a movement, if you soften in the right way first you will connect the upper and lower body allowing your legs to take the power from your feet and propel you in the most powerful fashion. With the upper and lower body connected your waist and hips can then manipulate and enhance the power to the whipping motion of the arms or legs in a variety of ways. By withdrawing the whip they can also assist in the focus along with the use of elbows, wrists, knees and ankles.
So a good technique should look ‘easy’ and flow naturally and its efficiency should be judged by the person on the end of it rather than a naïve spectator.
Another facet to consider is that most techniques don’t have to be ‘fast’, they need to mirror the opponent’s movement to be able to ‘get through’ their defence. Also, with practice, a ‘slowhand bomb’ moving with apparent ease is not perceived by the opponent’s natural defence system as a threat until it explodes.
When you’re sparring, try lifting the knee surreptitiously first before driving the kick with a whipping movement from your centre of gravity.
It nearly always deceives the opponent into thinking that you are ‘amazingly fast’ when actually they didnt detect the knee rise because you deliberately didn’t alert them.
Fficiency should b< nan a naïve spectai As a demonstration I would often put a student into a guard and tell them to block any punch coming through, then, whilst talking to the class, slowly feed my hand through and then punch him on the jaw saying, I told you to block any punch coming through! Of course, as I wasn’t looking at him and as I didn’t put any ‘intention’ into the punch his mind didn’t perceive it as a threat, so demonstrating the ability to mask your intention which will delay your opponent’s reactions and make you ‘faster’.
Also, if you withdraw your hand even a fraction to punch or shift your head or body ‘telegraphing’ your movement, this will make you appear slower whereas if you don’t, you appear faster.
In conclusion ‘speed’ is not simply a result of effort but of skill. Many people have told me that I practise ‘soft’ and ‘slow’ styles until they get on the receiving end. Actually to me they just practice ‘stiff and ‘clumsy’ styles. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.