All / Originally Posted on Skirt

One Good Punch

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d say: a couple of days ago I punched a man in the face and he began to bleed.

We had the following conversation just immediately prior to and after my assault on my opponent’s visage:

Him: “Okay, good, but this time, really aim for my nose.”  (This was in jiu jitsu class.  My training partner, being significantly more advanced than I am, should be fast enough to get out of the way even if I really am aiming for him.  That’s the point of training, after all.)

Me: “But…”

“No, come on, really try to hit me.” 

I laugh nervously, make a sort of mewling whine, bounce up and down, shake my hands awkwardly.  We weave around each other.  Eventually I do something punchlike with one of my arms. 

(I hate this.  I hate what it means about myself if I actually try to punch someone in the face unprovoked.  I’m a believer in nonviolence at all levels, though also ferociously attached to my right to defend myself.  But punching someone in the face doesn’t seem like self-defence.  Everything about me screams against the idea of being an instigator of violence.  Even though this is training and you have to be the ‘bad guy’ half the time to give your fellow jiu-jitsees {new word?} someone to train against, I still hate aiming for people’s faces.  Come at me aggressively and I will merrily wrist-lock you until actual tears appear, but I will never, ever come at you first.  I am not an attacker.)

“Come on, go for it!”

I punch at my training partner again.  I miss.  (He is one of my favorite classmates to train with: patient, encouraging, always smiling, sparse with criticism unless also giving advice on how to correct it, generous with praise.)

“No, look: punch me in the chest.”  (This I can do.  My arms are like string beans.  I know it’s not really going to hurt.)  I wallop him one.  He smiles.  “Good.  Now, same thing, but in the face.”  

(Still don’t want to do it.  The face is different.  Your face is your personality.  I can’t punch someone’s soul, can I?)

A second later, a small bead of blood gathers under my training partner’s right eye.  “Good punch!  Well done!”  He seems genuinely delighted.

“Oh, gosh!  You’re bleeding!” 

He absentmindedly wipes under his eye.  “It’s fine.”

“No it’s not!  You’re bleeding!” 

“Seriously, I’ve had much worse.  Go again.” 

“I can’t punch you when you’re bleeding!”

Fortunately Sensei called us all in at that moment to demonstrate something new.  The whole scene probably took a minute, maybe less. 

Before you ask: training is about improving speed and technique, not about beating each other up.  I’ve yet to see somebody leave jiu jitsu class with a black eye; though we are supposed to genuinely aim for one another, we’re not supposed to hit our classmates so hard that it actually causes damage.  That wouldn’t be conducive to training.  The way you approach someone also varies by  level: when I’m being the aggressor against somebody of an advanced grade, they are supposed to be speedy and get out of the way–it’s my job to provide an appropriate challenge and take a pretty good swing at them.  (Despite my distress at causing my training partner to bleed, my classmates were unanimous in the opinion that I’d provided an appropriate challenge and the injury was caused by his failure to anticipate how fast my aim would improve.)  When it’s their turn to punch (or grab or whatever), they must also adjust to my level: a brown belt isn’t going to throw the same kind of punch at me that they would at another brown belt.  They are going to provide a challenge so that I improve, they’re not going to take out an eye. 

I do find it awkward to talk about these things outside of class; I’ve already had conversations where I feel like friends’ opinions of me have changed–not for the better–when they find out that yes, I actually do hit people during class.  It is difficult to describe this kind of training without making it sound violent or aggressive.  In the context of training, hitting makes sense.  It is a thing that we do to improve technique.  It is not something we do in anger, to test machissimo, or for any other purpose than helping our classmates improve their defensive skills.  Doing this properly in class results in praise, even if demonstrating technical improvement sometimes accidentally means a little blood.  When I try to explain these things to people who don’t take jiu jitsu, we just sound like a bunch of bloodthirsty maurading visigoths.  When I think about jiu jitsu I think about team support, cooperation, respect (I could write a whole entry just on how much bowing we do during class), mutual improvement, friendly competition, encouragement, and constructive criticism.  But when I describe jiu jitsu, it’s all bruises, strained muscles, and smacking people across the jaw.  I’m not sure how to resolve this, and I still feel pretty ambivalent about punching somebody square in the face. 

But I’ll leave you with the message Sensei gave us describing why we need to be skilled attackers as well as defenders.  Any errors or misinterpretations are mine. 

The point of training is to improve.  This means that without brutalizing your training partners, you must provide a challenge suited to their abilities and vice versa.  If people only aim past you in class, how are you ever going to deal with somebody aiming directly at you in real life?  If you want to be a better defender, then you must provide your classmates with an appropriately challenging attack, so that they will in turn do this for you.  They’re only going to improve if you help them, and you are only going to improve if they help you.  So do your bit. 

But also, you need to know from experiencing it what the effort of putting in a real punch feels like so you understand what it is to oppose one.  How much effort have they expended? Where’s their balance? How far is their arm from their body?  How will their natural sense of equilibrium react–how quickly and in which direction–if you start to move them around?  You can observe these things from the outside, but you also need to feel them yourself so you know what to do.  A skilled attacker will also be a skilled defender, because that person understands where the attacking body’s weak points really are, where its momentum is really going.

I may still hate being the aggressor in training and find it deeply uncomfortable to do so.  And in real life, I never have to be that person.  But at least now I can respect why it is important in class to be equally committed to attacking and to defending–not just for myself, but for my classmates as well.