A good few years ago I did a tour of Italy with a group of other top martial artists. The tour lasted ten days or so and we did demonstrations all over. It was great fun and we got to make friends with some great guys. On the first day all the performers were doing their thing. Most of them had a rehearsed demonstration. The capoeira team had a routine but there was an element of play in it whereas most of the other guys had their Kata or pair routines. My training partner Savash Mustafa and I didn’t have any of that. We just had a a few basic setups and a theme, everything else was improvised. Initially I was disappointed as we didn’t look as sharp as the other guys who were superb. However things changed as the days wore on. We started boxing with the capoeira guys before they went on as they liked the freeform way we trained. This was great fun against guys who could box and who were great athletes. One demonstration in Florence we were doing knife. We had a start point and a finish point of a disarm if I could find it, or if not we’d find something significant to finish on. Early on Savash got cut up near his eye and the blood started to run. It seemed a lot of blood in the heat and lights but it was just a nick. Together we entered a bubble where everything went slow, we could hear the audience but they seemed distant. I said to him ‘you’re cut’ which he acknowledged, I too had a nick on the hand. Slashing and stabbing we relaxed and went with the flow and had an unbelievable but bloody time. The audience loved it. After the finish a close friend who’s a very high degree in Karate spoke to me with tears in his eyes. He said your doing what I always wanted to do, what I wanted my Karate to be like. I’ve wasted 25 years!
I don’t think he’s right, but the huge knowledge base he had, also had little or no improvisation in it. You get better at improvising if you do it all the time. The trick is to have drills so you get to see common body shapes. Then build skills through repetition, but, repetition has an effectiveness curve to it. Too much repetition of the same thing and you lose the ability to flow. Therefore what you’ve got to do is do rigorous training in repeating skills but adapt those skills so that there’s always a different element like an entry or the energy is different. Disguised repetition like this keeps drilling interesting. Then you’ve got to do your technical sparring and try using the skills you’ve trained. If you don’t use it you don’t know it. As the saying goes no plan survives contact with the enemy. Training in all its forms is great and hugely rewarding but pulling techniques off in the moment, catching them on the wind is one of the best things that can happen to you. When you’re in what Tennis coach Timothy Galway calls the ‘inner game’ then you’re in that zone where you are an observer just watching your training unfold in response to the challenges of the moment. You often hear a hum which is the sound of your body working, then you know you’re there. Many people don’t like training like this, they like to know before hand the outcomes of anything they do. They don’t like to take risks. However, risks are what you have to take. The more you train and live this way, the more you realise that there are always opportunities as long as you relax and just follow the path that your body dictates. Have a concept that your are working on or an intent and go with the flow. Wayne Shorter a famous Jazz saxophonist was asked how he rehearsed. Broadly he said ‘How can I rehearse when i don’t know what’s going to happen’. The answer then is drill the basics hard, add variation, then spar and learn to relax and go with the flow. You’ll probably enjoy it. As to the tour were we the best? the answer, probably not. When we were good we were great but fixed demos look better to the untrained eye. Like a Jazz band or rock group you’ve got to catch them when they’re hot. We’re we the best at improvising? Probably because that’s what we were working. In the street and in Life there are no set ups, no form, you have to go with the flow. Enjoy!