Play is the Way?
One of my teachers, Ellis Amdur, characterizes the atmosphere of a good traditional dojo as a weave of relaxed camaraderie with serious, purposeful training.
Others elevate a spirit of “play” in training, and to be sure some of my best moments on the mat have been in those relaxed give-and-takes, 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. Play can break down barriers and slough off the burdens of the world brought with us into the practice space: 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 is “play” appropriate on the range?
At the firing line? In 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 be “playful.” That attitude just doesn’t properly describe the way we should be when working with guns. There must always be the looming awareness that things are more “serious” there – first because we are operating tools that could cause death or serious injury, and second, because the implication of their use is preparation for a life-and-death encounter.
Then isn’t this how we should approach combatives training?
Shouldn’t the Dojo, then, be approached with the spirit of the Range?
When we practice combatives, we are still using weapons which carry with them the implication of serious injury of death. With some, if not taken seriously, could injure or kill even through a mistake. Or if the wrong weapon is introduced into the training.
And play can be counter-productive to developing the proper mental switch needed in defensive or tactical encounters. After all, these are skills with which we will be protecting 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 for both ends of the spectrum. The practice of some element of mindset is then inculcated during training.
When the mind isn’t anchored with intent and imperturbability, and in daily life a sudden shift from 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 serve only to worsen its effects. Taking proper training 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, wired, 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 in the real world by handling training weapons as if they were real. Remember, 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 the formal training has ended. And lesser injuries often occur when people were just “messing around.”
The same goes for dangerous techniques that bring us to the edge of damaged joints and ligaments.
A lot of fun can be had when we practice, so long as it’s kept “in between.” The pressure valve can and should be opened, allowing for release of mental and physical tension, but the lines should not be blurred so that 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 and 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 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.