Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Flow" Drills and their Value in Combative Training

One of the things that attracted me to the Filipino martial arts (FMA) many years ago was their use of reflex training or “flow” drills. Although I was already coming from a somewhat non-traditional martial arts background, most of the training I had done still followed a classical format: dedicated technique-based practice, sparring, and tool development on striking pads and bags. The most dynamic thing we did was “technical sparring,” which was basically technique-based training in a multiple-attacker context--in simple terms "combative monkey-in-the-middle." The addition of multiple attackers and a higher degree of spontaneity allowed this form of training to better simulate the adrenal stress of a real attack; however, it was very dependent upon the skills and intensity of your training partners. When done right, it was magic. When done wrong, it looked like a bad kung fu movie.

When I finally got involved in the FMA, I was amazed at the wide variety of flow drills and the way that they accelerated both skill and reflex development. At a basic level they get you to repeat key sequences of movement with a partner in a way that has scalable speed and intensity. As you get better and start moving faster, you can incorporate more aggressive energy, footwork, and other elements to increase the performance anxiety. As the saying goes, “Repetition is the mother of all skill.” To take that a step further, “Repetition under stress is the mother of higher, more reliable skill.”

As my skills and understanding of flow drills developed, I realized that it was possible to use the drills as a foundation of a very dynamic training method I now call “the chess game.” Since many drills include similar angles and movements, it is very easy to “substitute” the response of one drill for that of another. That substitution may be a simple variation within the flow of the original drill, or it may prompt your partner to transition to the new drill. Once you understand this concept and the basic mechanics of substituting and transitioning, you have a very dynamic, spontaneous set of choices to play with. Better yet, so does your partner. Since there are no verbal cues in this process to prompt each other, picking up on and flowing with the transitions becomes extremely spontaneous and develops amazing reflexes. In fact, in many cases students do everything right and respond with perfect reflex and technique, yet are unable to mentally “keep up” with their actions to register them cognitively. As we say in MBC is that “Drills give you repetition; transitions give you reflex.”

Once I discovered the “chess game” method, I began analyzing the drills I had learned to see how well they supported actual combative application. I also began modifying the drills to make them more knife-oriented and to more closely replicate plausible attacks. Through this analytical process—and the concurrent development of MBC’s stopping-power-based targeting system—I realized that some FMA drills, like Sumbrada, provided an outstanding template for very effective combative technique. I also realized that many of traditional FMA enthusiasts who practice Sumbrada regularly have no idea of its true purpose. Since MBC is, by design, a results-oriented system, I was determined to include only those drills that support worthwhile skill development. Over time, I have added, deleted, and modified drills to “fill holes” in MBC’s reflexive response patterns and avoid unnecessary “martial masturbation.” That process still continues as MBC--and my understanding of combative training--continue to evolve.

Earlier this year, I taught a seminar in Switzerland for a group that included instructors of several Filipino systems. During that seminar, they asked about my approach to flow drills. Since there are many different names for the same drill and many different variations of specific drills, I picked Sumbrada (aka 10-count, Large-Box Drill, etc.) as a good place to start. I first demonstrated the MBC version of the drill to provide a frame of reference. I then demonstrated a traditional FMA version of it and contrasted it to the MBC version, explaining in great detail why I did specific things differently. Finally, I invited my hosts to show me their version of the drill. When they did, I noticed that they did some things very differently than any other version of the drill that I had seen. Always eager to learn, I asked them why they did things that specific way and how those differences supported the combative applications of the drill's movements. Their response, which shocked me, was that they didn't know the drill was supposed to have combative applications. It was just a drill. My response, which applies to ALL training methods, is "if you don't know WHY you are doing something, don't spend your training time doing it."

MBC's approach to reflex training drills is all about ingraining patterns of motion that have direct combative application. If we don't understand why we're doing something, we question its usefulness and typically stop doing it to focus on things that make more sense. This approach has evolved significantly since I first began teaching MBC publicly in 1997. Although it will continue to evolve, its current state of the art is documented in my most recent training DVD "Martial Blade Concepts: Volume 3."

MBC Volume 3 guides you step by step through the drills of the MBC system and, very importantly, explains why the drills are included in the system and what skills they isolate. When appropriate, I compare them to traditional versions of FMA drills and explain why I have chosen to alter specific elements to be consistent with MBC’s tactics and methods. Finally, I explain and clearly demonstrate the combative applications of the drills—how the practiced movements and sequences of angles can be reflexively applied in a high-speed, spontaneous defensive situation.

Once the foundation of drills is established, I teach you the basics of the “chess game” and how to use it to create a dynamic, unpredictable, yet safe training methodology that provides a format for scalable progression. I also explain how this training method fosters a higher degree of “fighting spirit” by allowing you to work through your mistakes without ever breaking stride.

Flow drills are the secret to developing real, dependable combative skills in the MBC system and are an incredibly dynamic training method. For those of you who don;t have training partners, they also form the foundation of a solo training program that is much more meaningful and applicable than traditional "kata" because there is no mystery to the application of the movements.

Drills provide the repetition you need to develop skills and, ultimately, the reflexes necessary to use those skills in a real defensive situation. Although they may look intimidating at first, I have successfully taught them to thousands of students. If they can do it, so can you. And if you're not doing it, your training isn't reaching its full potential.

Go with the flow!

Stay safe,


Friday, February 18, 2011


The 2011 SHOT Show was a great success on many fronts. And although most SHOT Show debriefs focus on cool new products, the highlight of my show was meeting a very resilient, articulate young lady who shared a very personal story with me.

It was close to the end of the day when this lady and her significant other came to visit me at the Spyderco law enforcement booth. Her boyfriend shook my hand first and thanked me for the instructional DVDs I’ve produced. I thanked him for his kind words, but quickly realized that his appreciation was much more than a casual comment. Showing genuine emotion, he explained that the information I presented on my DVDs saved his girlfriend’s life.

Needless to say, I was very humbled and very curious to know the details of the story. After meeting the young lady, I asked them to come back to the booth the next morning to share the story. They politely agreed.

The next morning, they returned and I invited the lady into the booth to sit and talk. After we sat, she took a deep breath and told me her story:

She explained that about 10 years ago, she was attacked and sexually assaulted. Although she knew the identity of the attacker and reported the incident to the police, due to the mishandling of evidence and a number of other factors, her attacker was not prosecuted.

In the years following the incident, her attacker began to stalk her. Once again, the police were of little help, so she chose to relocate and hopefully avoid further problems. To her credit, she chose to establish her new home in a state that permitted the concealed carry of firearms. She dutifully completed the necessary paperwork and sought out responsible training in defensive shooting skills.

Unfortunately, before she could complete her personal-defense preparations, her stalker tracked her down and attacked her a second time. During this attack, he threw her against a wall and shattered her shoulder, inflicting injuries that still plague her to this day. Yet again, law enforcement efforts were inadequate and her stalker remained on the street.

During this time, this lady met her boyfriend, who trained actively in all aspects of self-defense. In addition to formal hands-on courses, he supplemented his training with instructional DVDs—including the Personal Firearm Defense series produced by my friend Rob Pincus and marketed to the NRA membership. Among the videos included in this series was my DVD Practical Blade Defense.

Acknowledging that carry of a firearm isn’t always possible, the couple watched my DVD intently, invested in proper training equipment, and diligently practiced the skills presented in the video. They also invested in high-quality carry knives as back-up/alternate weapons to their handguns.

In 2010, the lady’s stalker decided to attacker her again. He had tracked her to her new home, in a new state. One evening, after she was returning home from the gym, which had a strict no-firearms policy, she was not carrying her firearm. However she did have her knife. When she turned the corner of her building, her stalker was waiting, having just left dead roses and a note on her doorstep. He confronted her and insisted that the two of them were destined to “be together.” She ordered him to stay back while she reflexively bladed her body to him to protect her injured shoulder and deploy her knife. Undeterred, the stalker lunged forward to attack. Remembering that the ultimate goal of self-defense is safe escape and that the best way to achieve that with a knife is through a “mobility kill,” this lady crouched low and attacked the stalker’s right thigh, just above the knee. Using all her strength, she cut deeply, severing the stalker’s quadriceps muscle and dropping him instantly to the ground.

After escaping safely and calling 911, she returned to the scene with the police. There was a significant pool of blood and it appeared that her attacker had lain there for some time before he was able to hobble away. Sadly, he is still at large.

It should be noted that the knife used in her defense was an assisted-opening folding knife with a 3.5-inch blade. She did not recall the exact model, and the knife was later lost during travel. It should also be noted that the attacker was approximately 6’ 4” tall, nearly 300 pounds, and very physically powerful.

In an e-mail she sent to me after the show, this brave lady offered the following words:

“I wanted to again take a moment to thank you for the training video you produced and how it played a significant role in me still being here (alive) today. The techniques you demonstrated and the manner in which you presented the knowledge were easy to retain and remember in a stressful situation. [My boyfriend] (whom you met as well) took the time to teach and practice your techniques with me before we sat together and watched the video. Those skills are what kept me from being a victim again in a very bad situation that is on-going in my life.

I appreciate you taking the time and wanting to hear my story and get my feedback on your materials. I am a true testament to being a survivor and not a victim. If there is anything I can do to assist you or attest to the viability and necessity of your training please let me know. I would be happy to help.”

Those words—and the fact that my instruction helped this lady survive a potentially deadly situation—mean more to me than anything else I’ve accomplished in the martial arts. I am incredibly proud of her and extremely grateful for her confidence in the MBC system and our teaching methodology. I sincerely hope that her skills, determination, and amazing will to survive continue to keep her safe always.