One of my teachers, Ellis Amdur, has characterized the atmosphere of a good dojo as a weave of relaxed camaraderie and serious, purposeful training. Others elevate a spirit of “play” in training, even coining the phrase “Play is the Way.”
To be sure some of my best moments on the mat have been in that relaxed give-and-take with another, the joy of movement and momentum, and the abandoned scramble of two individuals having fun, playing a game as they challenge themselves and one another. It can be transcendental: friends in intimate, platonic physical contact in a way that is not only acceptable, but encouraged: a “hug with impact,” as Ellis has also said. Such play can break down barriers as we slough off the burdens of the world, resulting in relaxation, stress reduction, and release, and where people of all stripes and and orientations can be physically close without the psychological load of sexualization or social anxiety.
Some say that if training isn’t fun, most people won’t train. They probably have a point.
But what about on the Range? Is “play” appropriate on a shooting range?
At the firing line? Between courses of fire? How about behind the line?
And why not?
Well, how playful would we like the armed people standing around and behind us to be as we shoot a course of fire alongside or in front of them?
Most would argue that training with loaded weapons, on a live range, is not and should not ever be “playful.” The attitude just doesn’t properly describe the way we should be when working with guns. There must always be a looming awareness that here, things are more “serious” – first because we are operating tools that could cause death or serious injury, if even a critical mistake is made, and second, because the implication of their use is in preparation for life-and-death encounters.
Then isn’t this how we should approach combatives training?
After all, when training in the serious use of force that we may apply against others, are we not still using weapons which carry with them the implication of serious injury or death? That if not taken seriously, could injure or kill even by mistake? Including if the wrong (live) weapon was introduced into the training.
How playful would we want people to be during the “Safety Check” when preparing for combatives training?
Shouldn’t this kind of Dojo be approached with the same spirit as on a Range?
“What such bowing accomplishes… …is to make a break between practice and ordinary world. …practice can be – in fact should be – dangerous. The bow cuts off the ordinary world, whatever its joys and hardships may be, so that one can focus with one’s entire mind on practice.”
Ellis Amdur, Old School, p 333-334.
When we aren’t familiar with, or anchored in serious intent in ordinary life, when a sudden shift from easy familiarity to intense and potentially violent unfamiliarity comes, the result can be fear, reactivity, and grasping – “holding on too tight”- in order to reign in that fear. This can serve only to worsen the effects. Play does not prepare us for this kind of thing.
Taking training seriously mitigates against this. And this can start with something as simple as a bow to the practice place.
Too often, the bow is but an extension of play. Whether the proud traditionalist making a a theatrical production of this simple act – play acting – or the half-assed head bob that modern practitioners – including in some Brazilian Jiujitsu schools I’ve seen – simply to get out it out of the way. Instead this is a moment for pause. To re-set the mind and re-consider that what one is doing could have consequences. Even in the training hall.
Play acting – or half-assing – training is counter-productive to developing the proper mental switch needed for true defensive or tactical encounters. These are skills with which we protect lives – our own and potentially those of others. We will be using levels of force ranging from simple restraint to that capable of causing horrendous injury and death, and in our society there are moral, criminal, and civil stipulations at both ends of the spectrum.
This does not at all mean that we should be walking around the Dojo, or on the Range, all the time tense, always on guard, coiled wires, our helmet cords ever tight.
Quite the opposite….
It is a reminder to not lose ourselves in an atmosphere so relaxed that people screw around with dangerous weapons – edged and firearms, to include their training stand-ins. Never mind that we can gain many valid repetitions in handling weapons by treating training tools as if they were real. By taking them, and their use, seriously.
Training deaths are recorded each year in tactical training, and many occur not in the training itself, but in the “between” times when people are mucking about, just going to or getting back from a meal break, and suddenly struck with a bright idea and producing the real weapon they had transitioned back to when training ended. Other injuries often occur when people are just “messing around.” Playful acts extending outside the training space into the real world.
The same goes for dangerous techniques that bring us to the edge of damaged joints and ligaments.
There is a reason for the warning that “horseplay will not be tolerated” in pre-training Safety Briefs and Safety Checks.
A lot of fun can be had in practice, so long as it’s kept in the appropriate spaces. The pressure valve can and should be opened, allowing for release of the mental and physical tension that builds up through training with intent, but the lines should not be blurred between training time and play-time.
The guns and blades don’t come out, even their facsimiles. We don’t twirl them in our fingers or suddenly jump our partners mid-conversation and start stabbing them. We can joke and be physical, but we don’t try to disarm each other before going to lunch, or start an impromptu grappling match by jumping on a partner’s back and strangling them during a break.
There is no wink and nod and “watch this!” going on….
We…take a break. In this way we can also practice knowing when – and how – to flip the switch. When to go from playful jocularity and a relaxed awareness of what’s going on around us – our everyday mind – to purposeful intent when it’s appropriate to do so. And we train our minds how to tell the difference as well.