"Our greatest glory is not in never falling,
but in rising every time we fall."
Before starting this post, I must acknowledge and thank Mr. Dave Ilko, of Steel Dragons Martial Arts, for introducing me to some of these ideas and allowing me to share them with my students and others.
Nak Bup, usually translated as Safety Falling, or Break Falling, is a critically important and immensely practical part of our training. Without it, we can never properly execute our advanced One Step or Self Defense techniques, and can never truly develop a complete sense of dae ryun (sparring). Unfortunately, while it is extensively practiced in many disciplines, it is often one of the most neglected and underdeveloped parts of the Tang Soo Do Curriculum. This occurs for a variety of reasons: it is difficult to teach, it is likely to cause injury when done incorrectly, it generally requires specialized safety equipment, and some students are unable to fully participate due to chronic injury or disability. However, we have a responsibility as instructors to teach this skill to our black belts, and in particular to our young and healthy black belts, so that they may retain the ability later in life.
Step 1: Identify an Advanced Concept
As infants, we all fall before we learn how to walk properly, yet we continue to get up and strive to walk. At some point, the fear of falling has been engrained into our collective psyche, and once we learn to walk, we forget how to fall properly. As martial arts writer and Judo instructor Neil Ohlenkamp says:
The most universal and basic of all fears, across all cultures, is the fear of falling. Behavioral research has established that babies are born with only two natural fears. One is a fear of certain noises and the other is the fear of falling. Over time people develop other fears. Many can become critical problems that disable normal functioning. On the other hand, most people can also overcome their fears and learn to cope with them. Learning to deal with the fear of falling can establish an important sense of confidence that often will translate into the ability to deal with other fears.[i]
Most methods for teaching falling, then, concentrate on how to overcome this fear and avoid injury while falling. In essence, falling becomes a form of self-defense against the ground itself. Falling becomes a portion of the curriculum that is taught in a vacuum, and remains isolated and separate from the other portions of Tang Soo Do. This is a detriment to our students when they are confronted with the need to fall during One Step and Self defense Practice, and leads to unbalances and unrealistic training in these areas. it also ignores the basic truth that, in the context on Tang Soo Do and self defense in general, if we are falling, it is because someone else is making us fall. Finally, it does not fit into our Ideal Concept and its truth that we have accepted through our previous study of the Black Belt Curriculum: It’s all the same. From this, we see that we must better integrate Nak Bup into our training, and in so doing, we will arrive at our Advanced Concept:
Falling is fighting.
Step 2: Uncover Basic Concepts
Once again we are now confronted with the task of deconstructing our Advanced Concept into drills that will be used to uncover Basic Concepts, leading back to a greater comprehension of the Advanced Concept. If we accept our premise that falling is fighting, then we must again form our drills and lessons about falling with an idea in mind that we visited previously in our analysis of hyung: the use of a partner. We immediately arrive at our first Basic Concept:
If an attacker is making us fall, then we must practice falling with an attacker.
At first, this should be a relatively simple pairing, in which rather than actually attacking, a partner assists with the execution of the fall by providing a more realistic scenario for the student who is falling. Starting with front and back break falls, the partner supplies a slight push, propelling the student into the fall.
Assisted Front Break Fall
Assisted Back Break Fall
This can then be replicated with side and rolling falls, while gradually adding concepts such as sweeps and throws to provide the impetus for the fall. Over time, as proficiency with falling increases, each of these attacks should become more realistic, propelling the faller at greater speeds and from greater heights. To many instructors, this falling drill is an obvious one, and it is to some degree already present and replicated in our existing One Step and Self Defense techniques. It is far from the be all and end all of practicing Nak Bup with a partner, though.
The above drill, while a great starting point, neglects the simple truth that you are just as likely to be knocked to the ground while executing an attack as you are while you attempting a defense. This is actually more truthful to our One Steps and Self Defense, and not practicing falling in this manner is why some students experience problems in doing so while training in One Step and Self defense techniques. Start by creating a pre-defined attack and fall. Here, if we wish to work on a forward rolling fall, for example, the attacker will start by executing a punch to the defender’s face. The defender will intercept the punch and execute a shoulder or hip throw. It is important that at the early stages the defender should release the attacker’s arm after the throw, allowing the attacker to execute a proper break fall. At later stages, the defender should maintain hold of the attacker’s arm, forcing him to execute the fall without the use of this limb.
Assisted Shoulder Roll Break Fall with Prearranged Attack/Defense (holding arm)
Now additional attacks, defenses, and falls should be developed in order to help students reach an understanding of different falls and different situations. For example, a side fall may occur as a result of an initial kicking attack, in which the defender moves in, traps the kicking leg, and executes a sweep to the attacker’s supporting leg. The possibilities are again endless, and students should be reminded that they do not “know” how to fall properly simply because they have practiced the movements of the fall.
Assisted Side Break Fall with Prearranged Attack and Defense
In order to make this a truly advanced and dynamic drill, we must introduce some elements of the unpredictable. In this case, it may be either the attacker or the defender who will be taken to the ground. It is suggested that this stage is only introduced after students have already demonstrated proficiency with all of the prerequisite skills and drills of falling, but once they have done so, this next step will both diminish the likelihood of boredom and provide a bridge towards sparring. At this stage, the attacker will make an honest attempt to execute an attack that will knock the defender to the ground, while the defender will attempt to remain upright and reverse the drill on the attacker, causing the attacker to be taken to the ground instead. In either case, emphasis is placed on proper falling technique, and the attack should be improvised, remaining unknown to the defender in order to avoid anticipation of a pre-determined attack. This drill should first be executed slowly so that students can understand its basic premise, and then quickly should move towards greater speeds. Once performed at speed, it will help students uncover two additional Basic Concepts:
Any defender should always be prepared to be taken to the ground.
Any attacker should only attack as hard and as fast as they are willing to fall.
These drills, while getting us closer to the realization of our Advanced Concept, do not actually reach quite far enough. They ignore the very real possibility that both the attacker and the defender will sometimes end up on the ground, and they assume that a fall is always something that is done to us, rather than sometimes being a conscious choice. We have an innate fear of falling, and therefore it is hard to grasp the idea that someone may choose to do so. It is for precisely this reason that falling is sometimes the best choice to make. Once we begin to accept this idea, we can see that:
A fall may actually be an attack or a defense.
Let us start by looking at the forward, or front, break fall. It is one of the first falls many of us learn, because we are able to see the ground, thereby diminishing our fear of the fall, and because it can be taught relatively easily from a safe sitting or kneeling position. Typically, this fall is, when working with a partner, done from a position in which the attacker is behind the faller, and is pushing from the rear. What if the fall is actually the result of an attack? One of the most instinctual forms of attack is a headlong charge into a tackle. The front break fall in this case is useful both when the tackle is successful and when it is not. In the case of a successfully executed tackle, the front fall teaches us several important principles: to keep our hands n front of our body, to turn our head to the side, and to form posts with our extremities, avoiding crashing to the ground with our bodies. These concepts translate well to the successful execution of the attack itself. By keeping our hands in front of us as we fall, we assume a natural and effective defensive position to protect us from counterattack. At the same time, the triangular hand position usually assumed in this fall simulates bringing the hands together behind the opponent’s body or legs. Turning the head to the side helps us to avoid injury while falling, and is actually a crucial step in the tackle, or double leg takedown. By turning the head to the side rather than charging straight forward, we reduce the likelihood of blows being landed to the head and neck, while at the same time maximizing use of the head and shoulder as weapons of attack. Finally, by learning to post on our extremities, we are able to maintain balance, increase mobility, and maximize our options once the fight goes to the ground. If the tackle/takedown is not effective, the front break fall is just as important. If the defender evades the attack, by sidestepping, circling, or sprawling backward, the attacker may fall to the ground, and must be prepared to do so safely.
Application of Front Break Fall as an Attack
The front fall shows us how a fall may be successfully translated to an attack, but what of defense. If we look at the same scenario of a tackle from the perspective of the defender, we see how the backward, or back, break fall may be used as an effective defense. In the back fall, the arms come up in front of the body and face, typically in a crossing fashion. The chin comes down and tucks into the chest. The knees bend as the fall begins, then straighten in order to help propel us back safely, avoiding the possibility of kneeing oneself in the face. As the fall is completed, the legs remain relaxed, kicking into the air as the backward momentum is stopped by the arms. Each of these characteristics lends itself to defensive applications against a forward tackle. First, as the attacker wraps his arms around the defender, the defender raises his own arms towards his face, in a crossing motion. This brings the defender’s arms above the attacker’s head, and allows for the use of elbows to strike at the attacker, or, even more effectively, allows the defender to grab the tackler’s neck or head. Bringing the chin to the chest helps us to prepare for the fall, but also helps us to keep our eyes on the attacker and monitor his actions. Bending our knees will help us absorb and redirect the energy of the attack, and will also help us to drive our knees into the attacker’s body or face, effectively countering the attack.
Defensive Application of Back Break Fall
If the attacker is able to avoid these counters, then the extension of the legs can be used to kick at the attacker, either landing a blow to the body, or propelling the attacker over the defender’s head, face first toward the ground. Here the ground itself becomes the defender’s weapon, and the attacker once again becomes a defender, with his only logical defense being to roll away from the defender, once again executing one of our standard break falls.
Secondary Defensive Application of Back Break Fall, into Shoulder Roll Break Fall
Step 3: Understand, Apply & Improvise
As was true with hyung, it is not possible to completely separate the stages of Understanding, Application, and Improvisation. Each is inextricably linked to the other, and some exploration of each conceptual stage is present in our deconstruction of the Advanced Concept. Here we can revisit and reconstruct the drills outlined above in order to see how each of these stages of black belt development fit into its progression.
When a black belt reaches toward true Understanding, he is asking a number of questions, but the central of these is: why? As soon as we begin to work with a partner in our training of break falls, we begin to understand why they are both important and practical. Although reported statistics regarding the number of fights that go to the ground are extremely unreliable, it is safe to say that at some point in our training, we will be knocked down. This begins our journey towards Understanding, but it is realized fully only when we comprehend that falling may actually be a choice, embracing the idea that falling is fighting.
Application refers to how we use something, and in the case of Tang Soo Do, refers to how we use something to defend ourselves. When we separate Nak Bup from the other areas of our curriculum, we only apply it as defense against the ground. When we incorporate a partner, though, we begin to see falling as both a defensive and an offensive tool. We also develop an understanding of how to make an opponent fall, and can analyze what their options are while they do so. In this way, we truly see the varying ways in which falls can be applied to realistic scenarios.
Improvisation comes to us when we are able to make choices; at the point which we are able to choose when we apply a certain technique in a certain way. In our Nak Bup drill, this initially comes from a choice of attacks leading into a fall, and the corresponding choices of defense that will ultimately determine which fall is performed. At a more advanced level, Improvisation comes when an attacker or defender chooses to fall, and results from a decision regarding how that fall is to be applied in the course of a fight.
Nak Bup: Conclusions
Falling is fighting. Treating it as a separate entity or thinking of it as something to be feared and avoided is a critical error. Only when we approach the training of break falls as another form of true defense and incorporate a partner into this practice can we really begin to see with our “black belt eyes” where it fits into our overall curriculum. Once we have done this, we see it is another valuable bridge towards dae ryun, and will also begin to see it when contemplating the expected outcomes of techniques in hyung. In this chapter, we have explored the following Advanced and Basic Concepts:
- Falling is fighting.
- If an attacker is making us fall, then we must practice falling with an attacker.
- Any defender should always be prepared to be taken to the ground.
- Any attacker should only attack as hard and as fast as they are willing to fall.
- A fall may actually be an attack or a defense.
It is once again hoped that a further analysis by the readers of this chapter and the concepts contained herein will, in turn, yield new Advanced and Basic Concepts from which they can form their own independent curricula. There will always be more to discover, and this is the path of the black belt and of the instructor. If we fall, we must pick ourselves up and continue on the path set before us.
Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.
[i] Ohlenkamp, Neil. (2000-2011) Overcoming the Fear of Falling,