Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Black Belt Curriculum: Low Block is Awesome

        As we have outlined in the previous post, understanding an Advanced Concept comes from starting with a single technique and exploring many different characteristics of that given technique.  This may be an analysis of the collected Um and Yang characteristics of a given technique (push/pull, tension/relaxation, upswing/downswing, etc.), could focus on the areas of greatest strength and weakness of the technique, or may delve into varying applications of a single technique.  For the purpose of this initial example, we will choose the following Advanced Concept:

One Basic Technique may have a nearly infinite number of possible applications.

In order to better understand this, we will use the following verbal device, which students will repeat, in order to convey this concept:

“A block is a strike is a trap is a lock is a throw.”

By using this device, we begin to get our students to think beyond the limiting basic terminology to which they have been exposed, and allow them to begin thinking of their techniques not only in their simplest defensive forms, but as offensive and immobilizing tools as well.
            We start to deconstruct this Advanced Concept with the first part of our verbal learning device: a block.  For the purposes of this thesis, we will assume that a “block” refers to any use of a technique that stops, deflects, or redirects an incoming attack but does not immobilize the attacker or inflict damage to a traditional vital point.  It is important to note that while blocks can and do inflict damage, they can be differentiated from strikes in that they are both primarily defensive in nature and do not typically directly attack the main vital points of the body.   The typical “low block” then, as it is taught to a white belt, is explained as a technique that uses a downward swinging and rotating arm in order to stop or deflect an oncoming attack with the Ulnar side of the defender’s forearm.  The typical example is one in which an attacker executes a low to mid-level kick, and the defender intercepts this attack with the forearm, as depicted below:

Limiting the application of this block to one single attack is somewhat shortsighted, though. When we begin to examine the path of the low block, we see that it can be effectively used against not only a variety of oncoming kick attacks, but also against striking hand attacks and grabs.  When we begin to stress the properties of hip twisting and initial hand positioning prior to the execution of the block, this becomes even more readily apparent.

Example: Basic application of Low Block against a frontal double-hand grab

So, through a very quick analysis of the motion of the low block, we are already shown a variety of uses for this “block.”  When we push deeper into our analysis, though, we find that this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
            We must move on to stage two of our verbal device: “a block is a strike.”  For the purposes of this thesis we will define a strike as any technique that is used to intentionally inflict damage by attacking a traditional vital point. When we look further at the motion of the low block, we can easily extrapolate that it can be used not only to stop an oncoming attack, but also as an attack itself.  By simply extending the range of the technique in relation to an opponent, we will find ourselves making contact with the fist, rather that with the forearm.  The so-called “low block” has now become a technique with which black belts will be familiar: the hammer fist.  While a hammer fist may not traditionally be held in this downward and side-oriented fashion, the effectiveness of the technique as a strike cannot be questioned.  It can be used to strike the inside of the knee, the shin, the ribs, the kidneys, the jaw, the throat, and virtually any other accessible vital point.

Example: Application of “low block” as a hammer fist strike to the jaw/throat

Again, though, we are merely scratching the surface.  By breaking down the arc of travel followed by the low block, we begin to see additional striking applications take shape.  The rising and falling action of the arm used to execute this technique yields a variety of elbow strikes, during both the initial preparatory upswing, and on the downswing, both of which become particularly useful if the opponent moves from a mid-range to close-range distance.
Further analysis will continue to yield an even greater number of possible strikes. For example, when taken to an advanced level, one low block may contain all of the following strikes, while assuming that the left hand is executing the “low block”.  Targets for each strike are dependent upon both the opponent’s reaction and the relational angle between you and the opponent.

  1. Moving into a standard “crossed arm/one arm up, one down” starting position, start by using the right hand to execute a punch to the opponent’s ribs, kidney, or solar plexus.

2.   Immediately following this initial punch, the opponent’s head will begin to move forward.  Execute a left handed uppercut punch across the neck, jaw, or temple. 

  1. On the upswing described in step 2 above, also execute a rising elbow/ forearm strike with the left arm to the opponent’s armpit, elbow, neck or jaw.

  1. Use the “chambering action” of the right arm to strike with the thumb knuckle, finger knuckles (backfist) or Radial side of the forearm to the opponent’s ribs or kidneys.

  1. As the left arm begins to descend into the low block, use the back of the elbow to strike the opponent’s philtrum, nose, eye, or jaw. Note: Photo is shown from opposite side for best view.

6. Finish the left hand downswing into “low block” by executing a hammer fist to the opponent’s nose, philtrum, jaw, neck, or temple.

While it is not suggested that this exact sequence of strikes will all be landed on an opponent, the progression of strikes does teach a very valuable idea: If one strike is blocked, the next strike should already be on its way.  Working on this drill with a partner may reveal even more striking opportunities, but even in this one exercise, we have now identified six new characteristics of the “low block” which many black belts may have never considered.  We are now starting to see with black belt eyes, but there is still more to discover.
Both the blocking and striking applications of the low block reveal more about the technique, and as we progress into the six-step striking drill listed above, we begin to uncover a vital characteristic of the technique that is often incorrectly ignored: Both hands must be considered when identifying applications for a given technique.  This idea leads us into step three in our exploration of low block: A block is a strike is a trap.  A Trap will be defined as a technique that catches or ensnares any of an attacker’s extremities by   compressing it between two bodily surfaces.  While not precluded from doing so, a trap does not automatically inflict pain; nor does it automatically immobilize an opponent. Traps usually come in one of three varieties: Leg traps, arm traps, and head/ neck traps, which are usually referred to as chokes.    How does the low block become a trap?  We must not only consider the use of both hands at this stage, but also the again reexamine the “starting position” of the technique.  Typically, a low block will be executed from one of two starting positions, each of which can be found in the pages of the Mooyae Dobo Tongji.

1.      The crossed arm/ one arm up, one arm down position

2.      The raised X position


Either of these starting positions can serve as an ideal trap.  The first of these two variations lends itself best to several different leg traps:

  1. Hook the rising arm underneath the attacker’s kick, while simultaneously pressing downward on the top or side of the leg with the descending arm.

  1. Using both forearms, bring the descending arm to the inside of the leg, while using the rising arm on the outside of the leg to compress the kick between each arm.

  1. From position 2 above, pull up with the downward arm to the “chamber” position, while simultaneously grabbing the leg.  Use the other arm to swing down into the standard “low block” position and trap the leg.

Similarly, when we look at the raised X starting position, we see that it lends itself to trapping the attacker’s arm, which is compressed between each of the defender’s forearms.  This trap can be executed easily from either an Inside Line or Outside Line defense.

  1. Inside Line Trap
  1. Outside Line Trap

Finally, by examining the traps we have outlined above for both the leg and arm, we can easily extrapolate these applications into traps of the body, neck and throat, which can serve as effective immobilizing or choking techniques:

For the most part, though, when we look at the trapping applications of the “low block”, we find that we are only using a portion of the technique itself.  If we truly desire to apply the entire technique, we must again move up an additional level in our original verbal device: A block is a strike is a trap is a lock.  For our purposes, a Lock shall be defined as a technique that immobilizes the attacker by applying pressure to a specific joint or series of joints in a manner that will hyperextend the joint beyond its normal range of motion, usually, but not always, resulting in pain. There are a diverse number of different types of locks; some straightforward and relatively simple in their execution, and some more esoteric and difficult.  Fortunately, the low block lends itself to one of the most well known locks: the arm bar.  An arm bar typically in some way grabs the attacker’s wrist, while applying pressure to and hyperextending the elbow, the shoulder, or both.  To apply the low block as a locking technique, execute the following steps:

1.         Start by blocking the attacker’s arm with the “Raised X” starting position for low block.  This can be done from either the Inside Line or Outside Line.

2.    Grab the wrist with the “chambering” arm, pulling to extend the attacker’s arm straight, while simultaneously using the elbow of the “blocking” arm to lock the attacker’s elbow joint.

3.      Bring the “blocking” arm down in the standard arcing fashion to execute a low block, while continuing to pull the “chambering” arm in towards the ribcage.  As the “blocking” arm descends, it should maintain pressure on the attacker’s elbow and/or shoulder.

While the above application of the low block as an arm bar is probably the easiest lock to execute for this technique, it is far from the only lock one can apply to low block.  Remembering that a lock applies pressure to a joint or series of joints in order to hyperextend these joints and cause pain, we may pick a different set of joints to lock.  In this case we will choose the elbow and the neck.  Here with proper execution of the low block, the elbow is hyperextended and immobilized by applying pressure with the defender’s body, rather than using the arms, while the neck is rotated to the side and locked by applying pressure with the descending arm along the jaw line.  Note here that the spine may also be considered a joint, and that by further extending the “low block”, we can lock the spine against the defender’s front leg/knee.

    We are starting to truly utilize all parts of the low block as we delve into these locking applications, but there is still one more kind of application to explore: A block is a strike is a trap is a lock is a throw.  A Throw will be defined as any technique which both garbs and releases the attacker in one continuous motion, while disrupting the attacker’s balance causing them to fall to the ground.  Once again, there are numerous different throwing applications for the low block, but we will only examine one in detail here.  For this final application of the “low block”, we will utilize a chokehold attack from the rear, in this case with the attacker placing her right forearm across the defender’s neck :

  1. The defender will bring his right arm upward to grab and rotate the attacker’s wrist, thereby freeing the airway:

  1. The defender will shift his left leg behind the attacker, while beginning to drive the left elbow back into the attacker’s body. Simultaneously, the defender will begin to use the “chambering” action of the right arm to pull the attacker’s arm off the shoulder, thus avoiding the possibility of being pulled down himself.

  1. The defender will pivot his hips to the left, while maintaining pressure on the attacker’s body with the left elbow, and will begin to swing the left arm down into the low block position, sliding the arm along the attacker’s body toward the head, knocking her backwards.

  1. Finally, the defender will continue to pivot his hips forward while applying downward pressure on the attacker, driving her to the ground.

While it is difficult to convey this application using static photographs, when it is executed at speed, it is a dynamic throw that quickly lifts the attacker off her feet and sends her sprawling to the ground.  Astute black belt students may even notice that this technique directly correlates to other techniques they already know. Reflection upon this will help them to build bridges towards even more Advanced Concepts.           

Concepts, Not Techniques?
            At this point, the reader may be asking, “Isn’t this really just teaching a bunch of new, albeit more advanced, techniques?”  This is actually a difficult question to answer.  From a certain point of view, yes this is true. We really can’t escape from teaching techniques to our students if we wish them to learn how to apply their art.  However, as Obi-Wan Kenobi says in The Empire Strikes Back, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."  It is equally accurate to say that all of the above applications are encompassed within only one technique.  The difference is really one of both focus and scope.  The focus, or area of concentration is shifted away from the memorization and repetition of these techniques. It is instead centered on the concept that one technique has many different uses, functions, and applications. By focusing on the concept rather than the techniques encapsulated within that concept, we find that the students’ retention of the drills actually increases, and that they are able to now improvise by applying the same ideas presented to new techniques, which brings us to the subject of scope.
            The scope of this curriculum is actually beyond our ability to document and categorize.  Throughout this chapter, we have touched on only one technique.  Students must now be asked to reflect on the presented drills for low block, examine their level of Understanding of the material presented, and identify some of the concepts discovered.  In so doing we actually discover that the verbal device we have used throughout our exploration of low block is actually an Advanced Concept itself:

A Block is a Strike is a Trap is a Lock is a Throw

When we analyze, deconstruct, and then reconstruct this concept, though, we also learn that:

A Strike is a Trap is a Lock is a Throw is a Block

A Trap is a Lock is a Throw is a Block is a Strike

A Lock is a Throw is a Block is a Strike is a Trap

A Throw is a Block is a Strike is a Trap is a Block

Even this does not cover the concept adequately.  What we really begin to see is not possible to depict in words or pictures, but perhaps this comes close:

Once students begin to display even some Understanding of this Advanced Concept, they can then begin to Apply the drills we have done for low block to another technique such as high block or inside to outside block, and in so doing will then begin to Improvise entirely new applications and drills of their own, while keeping in mind that along the way, we tend to discover Basic Concepts as well, such as:

  1. If one strike is blocked, the next strike should already be on its way.
  2. Both hands must be considered when identifying applications for a given technique.
The Conceptual Model: Conclusions

Once our black belts begin to embrace the Conceptual Model for a new Curriculum,  they can begin to move closer towards the Ideal Concept.  What is the Ideal Concept of Tang Soo Do?  It is, of course, our ultimate goal: to become one with nature.  Perhaps this means something different to everyone, but it does not make it any less ideal, and I think that even when exploring the Ideal, we do some away with some universal truths.  One of these is that in order for our techniques to truly become natural, we must move away from the idea that everything we do must somehow be categorized, classified, and compartmentalized.  We must instead begin to realize that in truth, everything we do in Tang Soo Do is directly related to, and inextricably linked with, everything else we do in Tang Soo Do.  In other words: It’s all the same.  Everything we do is actually the same as everything else we do, whether this is techniques in drill, performing hyung, practicing one-steps, or sparring.  It’s ALL the same.
          Getting black belts to really understand this, though, is no easy task.  For this reason, we must continue to deconstruct the Ideal Concept into easier to understand Basic Concepts (most useful at the Gup Levels), and the more difficult, but also more valuable Advanced Concepts that are crucial to the black belt’s development.  We have previously in this chapter defined a concept as it relates to Tang Soo Do as an idea of a technique formed by mentally combining all its characteristics or particulars; the conjunction of all the characteristic features of a technique.
         We must move beyond even this definition as we continue to move forward.  It is time to start substituting other areas of our curriculum for the word “technique.”  We actually must start with:

An idea of ______ formed by mentally combining all its characteristics or particulars; the conjunction of all the characteristic features of  ______.

We must fill in the blanks with whatever subject matter we plan to explore.  Perhaps we use “hyung”, or “dae ryun”; “ho sin sul”, “kyuck pa”, or “il soo sik”.  The possibilities, and therefore the concepts, are limitless.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.