Is Play the Way?
One of my teachers, Ellis Amdur, has characterized the atmosphere of a good traditional dojo as a weave of relaxed camaraderie and serious, purposeful training.
Others elevate a spirit of “play” in training. To be sure some of my personal best moments on the mat have been in the relaxed give-and-take with another grappler, the joy of movement and momentum, and the abandoned scramble of two individuals having fun 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 and 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 loads 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?
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, even if a critical mistake is made, and second, because the implication of their use is in preparation for life-and-death encounters.
Isn’t this how we should approach combatives training? When we practice combatives, we are still using weapons which carry with them the implication of serious injury of death. If not taken seriously, some could injure or kill even through a mistake. Or if the wrong (live) weapon is introduced into the training.
Shouldn’t the Dojo, then, be approached with the spirit of the Range?
And wouldn’t play be counter-productive to developing the proper mental switch needed for defensive or tactical encounters? After all, these are skills with which we protect lives – our own and 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 and legal stipulations at both ends of the spectrum.
When the mind isn’t anchored with intent and imperturbability, and serious purpose – in daily life, when a sudden shift from easy familiarity to intense and violent unfamiliarity comes, the result can be fear, reactivity, and grasping – “holding on too tight” in order to reign in that fear, which can only worsen its effects. Proper training taken seriously mitigates against this.
This does not mean that we should be walking around the Dojo or 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. We gain much valid practice for handling weapons out in the real world by handling training weapons as if they were real. Remember, too, many of the training deaths recorded each year in tactical training 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, or suddenly struck with a bright idea after formal training has ended. Lesser injuries often occur when people are just “messing around.”
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.
A lot of fun can be had when we practice, so long as it’s kept in the appropriate space. The pressure valve of training with intent can and should be opened, allowing for release of mental and physical tension, but the lines should not be blurred between training time becomes playing time.
The guns and blades don’t come out. We can joke and be physical, but we don’t try to disarm each other when going to lunch, or start an impromptu grappling match by jumping on a partner’s back 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.