Sunday, 17 December 2017 12:20

Etudes for Boxing (or 'Learning How to Make a Great Speech') - Drills for Timing, Range and Self Expression

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Martial arts are a form of self-expression, so let's compare them to the one tool for self expression that we all share as human beings - speech.

We don't all speak the same, and every language sounds differently. When we speak a sentence, we put emphasis on particular words. We may speak slowly or quickly, and change our rhythm and pace. We use pauses to give meaning to certain words, and to allow the listener to process what we are saying. We change our pitch, tone and inflection to convey feeling and meaning. Where we stand (close, far, in front, on an angle, etc.) and how we use particular body language has a massive impact on the message we send when we communicate.

To me, sparring is the physical manifestation of the same principles. It is when we stop practising putting words together, and actually converse freely. It's when we improvise. So how do you learn to make great speeches when sparring?

The drills in this article are variations of things I used to teach when I taught music, and when I used to teach professional communication at university. 

I am writing about this in the context of boxing, but these are concepts I believe you can apply to any style, as they are not ‘technique specific’. Secondly, I also think that as these drills focus on variations of techniques, it's important to make sure you understand the basics and have a good technical foundation before changing things around. 

But before I go on, let me explain my approach to this. 

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, as well as different preferences when it comes to fighting. Not just stylistically, as in grappling over striking, etc., but also stylistically as in offensive or defensive, speed over power, etc. Exactly like the way we speak - some of us are loud, and some speak softly. Some prefer to use slang while other prefer to use big, fancy words. Some answer everything with one word and others speak in long sentences. Some talk slowly and empathically while others chit chat quickly. 

On a personal level, what I have always enjoyed the most when sparring is working on timing and countering. I love the idea of setting traps, taking my time and baiting someone to make a mistake that I can capitalise on. I’ve never been a slugger. I’m not exceedingly strong, fast or flexible, and after being injured for something like 2-3 years out of the last 5, I’ve had to find ways to spar that will not cause me further injury.

As such, I’ve been exploring a lot of timing variations for footwork and striking. I LOVE doing these drills, but some people find them frustrating. This is because they require us to go back to doing things very, very slow and with great attention to details.

Maybe I love these because they are similar to how I used to learn music. In fact, these drills are almost like etudes for boxing. I believe learning any art (or anything, really) follows a similar process and you can read more about this here and here.

So as I said these drills can be hard to start with. But I found that once I had internalised the new patterns and/or variations, I could attack and defend much better and from a wide variety of angles and positions. I could speak more freely.

So after a long introduction, here are some of my favourite drills:

  1. The Rhythm Drill –  The traditional way to throw a jab is to step forward with the lead foot and extend the hand, so that the foot and hand land at the same time. This is a good place to start. Every style will have its own variation, of course. But that can often become predictable, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it means that often there will be a big movement, as the hand, foot and body will move together. This means it’s easier to see. Secondly it makes the rhythm predictable. So some of the variations I like to play with are:
    1. Hand moves before body and feet, but the hand and lead foot still land together.
    2. Hand moves after body and feet, but the hand and lead foot still land together
    3. Hand moves before body and feet, and lands before the lead foot
    4. Hand moves after the body and feet, and lands after the lead foot
    5. Hand moves before body and feet but lands after the lead foot
    6. Hand moves after the body and feet but lands before the lead foot

      Once you get these down, you can start playing around with any other combination of hands and feet. For example, focusing on combinations of the front hand and rear foot, or rear hand and front foot, or both hands and lead foot, etc. You can create infinite variations of this drill. This will give you the ability to mess about with timing and fight with a broken rhythm.

  2. The Proxemics Drill – The previous drill focused on timing. With this drill we start to add directional movement. Our physical distance and positioning when we speak with someone has a huge effect on the meaning of what we say. This is the same here:
    1. Throw a jab while moving forward. Then do the same with moving left, right, back, diagonally or when pivoting.
    2. Throw the jab before moving forward, back, left right, diagonally or when pivoting.
    3. Throw the jab then move forward, back, left, right diagonally or when pivoting.

      Once you are comfortable with this, put drills 1 and 2 together to control both movement and timing. Obviously you can do this with any strike or combination. You can also change this to apply to grappling. Do a takedown, and then practice getting into a variety of positions. Sweep from the bottom and get into a variety of positions, etc. This will build on the previous drill and will allow you to add angles and movement to you broken rhythm.

  3. The Accent Drill –  Think of how putting an accent on a particular word in a sentence can change it's meaning. This is what gives us our 'tone' when we speak. Saying 'why are doing THIS?' is totally different to 'WHY are you doing this?'. This is the same as practising putting accents on different notes in a music phrase. Traditionally when working pads we are encouraged to hit as hard and as fast as we can with each strike. This is a good way to build speed, power and fitness. But when we compare this to the way we talk, this is the same as being monotonous. Every word is said at the same pitch and speed. Being able to vary these is important if we are to communicate our message correctly. Pick a combination you like and try these variations:
    1. Select which shot is your ‘power shot’ and make all the other ones light and fast, and only the power shot is hard.  If we look at a 4-strike combination you can look at:
      1. Light, light, light, heavy (most common)
      2.  Light, light, heavy, light
      3. Light, heavy, light, light
      4. Heavy, light, light, light
    2. Once you are comfortable with these, do the same with speed:
      1. Fast, fast, fast, slow
      2. Fast, fast, slow, fast
      3. Fast, slow, fast, fast
      4. Slow, fast, fast, fast
    3. Then put them together in any combination you can think of:
      1. Light + fast, light + fast, light + fast, heavy + fast
      2. Light +slow, heavy + slow, light + slow, light + fast
      3. Come up with your own combinations and try every variation

        Once you are comfortable with all of these, put them all together. This should give you the freedom, ultimately, to fight with a broken rhythm, in every direction, at any level of speed and power.

  4. The Body Language Drill – When we speak, our body language makes up a huge portion of the actual message we send. For exaple, imagine you were telling someone to relax but were standing in their personal space with with your arms flaired, weight forward (i.e. leaning towards them), fists clenched and making direct eye contact. Doesn't really make you want to relax, right?
    In much the same way, the way we position our hands and shift our weight sends messages about whether we are looking to attack, defend, counter, etc. It's another way to build on the previous drills and add freedom to movement and timing:
    1. Run through the above drills with both left and right leads
    2. Run through the above drills with different weight distributions:
      1. Most of your weight on your front leg (and in different proprotions, i.e. 60%, 70%, etc.)
      2. 50/50 split between front and rear 
      3. Most of your weight on your rear leg (and in differnt propotions, i.e. 60%, 70%, etc.)
    3. Run through the above drills with any different hand position/stance/guard you can think of. For example:
      1. Left hand down, right hand up
      2. Left hand up, right hand down
      3. Both hands up
      4. Both hands down
      5. Left hand up and to the far left, right hand down and tight to the body
      6. Any other variations you can come up with.

Practising this will allow you to take the words you already know and put them together in exciting new ways. This way you can change the meaning of a sentence by changing the timing, inflection or emphasis of a single word in that sentence. It will help you find how you like to say things. 

In other words (pun intended), this will give you even more freedom to strike in any direction, from any hand and foot position, with broken timing and with varying levels of speed and power. And to do so based on your personal preferences and natural attributes.

Are these things you can master in the course of a week? Not for most of us mere mortals. I mean, how long did it take you to learn to talk?!

But even doing these drills for only a few minutes every day – for example as part of your warm up – will give you huge benefits! Some of these include:

  • It will open up different sides of your brain and improve neuroplasticity
  • It will focus you on controlling the sync of your body and greatly improve coordination
  • Give you greater freedom of movement in sparring
  • Improve your timing and range
  • Allow you to attack and defend from (ideally) any position
  • Allow you to find and explore individual expression of techniques you already know. In other words, it will help you make the art your own!

Finally, much like speech we need to practice these regularly if we are to be fluent. There are other variations of things we can add to this in order to increase our vocabulary, learn to paraphrase better, etc. 

If you are going to make an amazing speech, make sure to explore the language you use extensively and continuously!

I hope this helps!

Stay safe, stay tuned,


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