Importance of Solo Training in Taekwon-do and other traditional martial arts
This is the subject of much controversy. Many people in the wider martial arts fraternity view solo training as being pointless, unnecessary and misguided. They cite the fact that true application of technique cannot be practiced through training of this kind. They suggest that training of this kind leads to the creation and reinforcement of impractical assumptions as to what the functionality of a given set of movements will be. They disregard any practical use or benefit that may be gained from these types of training modalities, preferring to suggest that they are merely carry-overs from the past kept in respect of tradition and little more. Whilst there is some credibility to this point of view, it is an exaggeration at best to suggest that there are no practical benefits to be derived from solo training. In fact there are several key reasons why solo training should remain as a key part of a martial artists training matrix and routine. This article seeks to explore and suggest why solo training remains beneficial within the context of martial arts practice.
What is solo training?
The first step on the road of investigation here is to give clarity to the types of training drills we are referring to as solo training. Within the context of traditional martial arts there are several types of drills which could be considered solo training. Traditional practice of fundamental techniques with or without a training aid (pads, bags and other targets) can be considered solo training. Set sparring practice without a partner (3,2 or 1 step) and forms practice are again both forms of solo training. Mirror drills and shadow boxing are more commonly found within the context of combat sports, but again should be included under the umbrella of solo training drills.
The latter is an interesting side bar for discussion. It would be very brave to suggest to a competitive boxer, kickboxer or mma practitioner that there is no benefit to be found with shadow boxing. Indeed the similarity between solo drills for combat sport and those within traditional martial arts are oftentimes either completely disregarded or too readily overlooked. What is good and of benefit for one combative context is often of benefit in some way to other combative contexts, therefore we have to recognise that there are key similarities between shadow boxing type drills and more traditional forms of solo drill practice within the martial arts.
Simply put, solo training is any form of training drill in which techniques are not practiced on a ‘live’ opponent or training partner. They are most often, but not exclusively, found within arts which favour striking techniques such as Taekwon-do.
Types of Solo Training Drills
Fundamentals: Practice focusing on individual movements and technique acquisition and development. Typically performed without additional training aids or equipment. Emphasis is placed on development and repetition of high quality movements.
Set Sparring: Associated to the above however using pre choreographed routines which may include both attacking and defensive techniques. Again these are performed without need of additional equipment, with the emphasis being placed on delivery of high quality technique and individual timing.
Patterns and Forms: Long sequences of movements comprising both attacking and defensive techniques. These are often standardised within the given art and all students of that art will learn a similar, if not identical sequence of movements. Practice of patterns is performed to develop high quality movement and timing, emphasising fluid and rhythmical motion. Forms and patterns can also be considered to be an encyclopaedia of potential techniques, allowing students to practice and acquire certain techniques which would otherwise not be possible through conventional sparring.
Shadow Fighting: Typically found in the pantheon of training modalities for combat sports, ‘shadow’ work allows the practitioner the opportunity to fluidly and creatively begin to develop their own combinations, style and presence with respect to the techniques present within the art. Shadow training may be freestyle, allowing for a totality of individualistic expression, or isolated to a certain range, set of techniques or scenario (for example, defensive work only, transitions between standing and ground fighting etc.) With the inclusion of active visualisation, shadow training (similar to forms training) can also allow for the rehearsal and development of techniques which otherwise would not be possible (for example, full contact intentional striking to vulnerable areas such as the groin, throat or joint complexes).
Bag, Pad and Target drills: These drills utilise external equipment (such as punch bags) to provide a viable striking target. As before drills of this type can be either freestyle, allowing for individual creativity, expression and investigation, or isolated to focus on a specific routine, combination or technique. These types of drills allow for the generation of optimal power within the striking techniques, without risk of injury to a training partner and therefore are of key importance for the practitioner to gain confidence in their own capabilities. Often these types of drills are also used within combat sports to encourage the development of specific fitness and conditioning, as well as technical development.
Benefits of Solo Training
This may in the first instance not sound like a benefit, more an outcome of training, however if we consider the low stress opportunity that solo training provides this may become a little clearer. Training with a partner, particularly live sparring type training, does not merely occur on a physical basis. To be competent at live drills, practitioners must become familiar with and essentially desensitised to the emotional load and psychological stressors associated with this type of drill. It is very normal for practitioners to feel anxiety around these types of drills; fear of failure, injury or poor performance may well contribute to a state of psychological and emotional tension which then compromises the physical performance. This is particularly stark if the practitioner is rehearsing a technique, combination or routine which is essentially unfamiliar, or set to spar against a new partner or someone who is essentially unknown to them.
Solo training therefore allows the practitioner an opportunity to investigate their own movement, coordination and technical proficiency, without risk of being injured or impacting on the training of another person. The emotional load connected to solo training is significantly lower than any form of drill which involves a partner, sparring or otherwise. This therefore should provide a condition whereby the practitioner can more appropriately relax psychologically and focus more attentively on the ‘feel’ of their own movement and technique. The initial stages of learning any new technique is oftentimes best served as being an individually isolated procedure; appropriately coached and directed certainly, but still intrinsically personal and performed to one's own individual pace and potential.
Individual Fitness and Conditioning:
Solo training provides a great opportunity for variation of pace (intensity), technique (type) and duration of training (time). As any great fitness trainer will tell you these are three of the four essential principles of fitness programming (frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise). The opportunity for an individual to make immediate changes to their training mode, intensity and focus does not exist when training with a partner, as it does within solo training. Solo training drills can be tailored exactly to the physical level of performance of the practitioner and/or their needs at that moment. For example, if there is a desire to improve power development then all associated drills for that session can be focused on this, blasting heavy bags and pads. In partner drills this may not be possible. Solo training can be scheduled for as long, or as brief, as duration as the individual practitioner desires, again focused on their own specific goals and needs at that time.
The foundation of any high quality training programme is a volume of individual, solo training; either these are specific technical drills to better enhance specific efficiency and performance; or general strength and fitness work to develop the basic underlying physical capabilities (such as flexibility, strength, endurance, speed and agility) which are essential to successful performance.
Repetition, repetition, repetition:
In his legendary book on strategy Miyamoto Musashi is quote as saying:
“A thousand days of training to develop, ten thousand days of training to polish. You must examine all this well”
Quote from The Complete Book of Five Rings (c. 1645)
Even as far back as the 1600s, it appears that the importance of repeated practice was deeply understood. To acquire any physical skill requires repetition and practice. As Musashi alludes to, we acquire, develop and refine our technique through repeated practice. Through practice we become more natural with the feel and flow of the movement. We become more accomplished through the neurological adaptations which occur, resulting in greater efficiency and effectiveness in performance of that specific task.
Solo training in whatever format we seek to identify provides an ideal opportunity for this type of repeated practice. It is doubtless simulated practice and certainly there are aspects of timing and application which cannot be investigated through this type of training. However, in respect of an individual proficiency and capability, solo training provides the ideal conditions to acquire, develop and refine the techniques. When we consider the volume of solo drills and forms that exist within any given traditional martial arts syllabus, it is fair to suggest that there is an extensive opportunity for repeated practice of similar, if not the same, techniques. Physically the body does not make a distinction between the movement and its application, it is our interpretation which creates an application from the movement. This being the case then the more efficient we are in the creation and performance of the movement, the more likely we are to successfully apply it under stress. When we additionally add the principal of visualisation to this training we are a further step towards ensuring that it is effective in application.
Full Power Delivery of Techniques:
One key aspect of solo training, as previously discussed from a fitness and conditioning perspective, is the capability to change the intensity of the activity. Not all techniques or indeed drills need to be committed to a full power, high intensity delivery. Moreover in specific regard to technique acquisition it may be that the intensity needs to be lighter and more focused towards correct coordination and timing, before load and intensity becomes too high. Conversely however solo training also allows for the delivery of techniques at a committed, full intensity which would not be possible in a partner drill.
An odd but very real conflict exists in martial arts practice. The very practice of martial arts is at some level the one where the practitioner practices and acquires physical techniques which are intended to injure and cause harm to another person. Certainly there are more motivations, reasons and benefits for and of the practice of martial arts, but the fact remains that the intention of many of the physical techniques is indeed ‘martial’ - something that relates to fighting or war. The conflict then presents that during martial arts practice, whilst we seek to acquire, develop and refine these techniques, due to the issues of safety, morality and appropriate ethics, no one is intentionally injured or harmed. With a partner, even with the addition of protective equipment, we often either limit the potential force production, or avoid delivery of certain techniques due to the potentially injurious nature they present. When was the last time you actively participated in a session of sparring drills incorporating full power strikes to the eyes, ears, throat, groin, nerve plexuses and joint complexes? Doubtless the answer is never, as it is seemingly ridiculous to suggest that there is longevity of practice in this type of training drill. Therefore when we practice these types of potentially very harmful, even lethal type of strikes, with a partner we limit the drill in some form. They are performed slowly, limited in the amount of commitment, intention and power that is used. They are sometimes designed to miss, for example hitting the chest rather than the throat, or cheek rather than the eye or ear. They are sometimes not practiced at all, which serves to further dilute the arts to little more than sport conditioning or fitness classes. Where these techniques are practiced in a pulled or slow manner, there is an opportunity for specific technique acquisition and this is to be commended, however it is specific acquisition - it is not an acquisition which reinforces the nervous system response necessary to elicit a full power strike.
It is only through the provision of a balanced training matrix that these types of techniques can be practiced fully and appropriately at full intention, speed and power. Therefore some form of solo training, whether it be in versus a striking target (pad, bag etc.) and/or through the delivery of forms (or similar solo drills) at full speed and intention, is essential. Equally essential when considering solo training in this way is the need for correct visualisation during practice.
Focus, Concentration and Mindfulness:
It is of no doubt that meditation and mindfulness are important for the creation and maintenance of good mental health. Meditation, or rather an opportunity to order thoughts free from judgement, culture and other interferences, is a much needed and often overlooked opportunity for all regardless of its context in this discussion. When considering meditation however most attribute it to some esoteric practice connected to buddhism. Picturing the stereotypical image of the month in robes, sitting crossed legged with their eyes closed and hands on prayer remains to be as close as many people will get to an actual meditative state. Fundamentally there is often a disconnect between what people perceive to be meditation and mindfulness, and what it in reality is and involves. Meditation is no more complex than taking the opportunity to experience the world free of internal and external judgements and influences. It doesn’t require being still, complex dogmatic or flowery ritual. It can very much be a mental and cognitive activity which is incorporated into a physical process. Meditation in movement is indeed one aspect of the practice of Zen. Being fundamentally focused on the activity, whatever this may be, allows the mind to relax and not fixate; being totally present in the moment, not focused on outcome or previous performance allows us to become truly mindful.
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
Solo training, free and away from the interference and influence of other practitioners, provides an ideal activity for meditation in movement. Once learnt, the nature of the routine(s) practiced can provide an ideal stimulus for the mind to focus on. How often do we hear this word ‘focus’ in the context of martial arts, without truly stopping to consider what it actually means or involves?
For our purpose here, solo training provides a mental stimulus for concentration, a focus for the mind. In the first instance we concern ourselves with getting the thing (routine) correct. Remembering which step comes first, and what which follows. Pretty soon through repeated practice we begin to generate a conscious competence, we know what to do and how to do it. Further practice allows for this to become more of an unconscious practice, we don’t struggle to remember the steps and as a consequence we begin to move freely between the techniques and positions provided. It is at this stage of cultivation that we can begin to relax into the process. This isn’t to suggest we become detached from the process, in fact it relies on us becoming ‘focused’ on being present and allowing the body to move freely, unimpeded by the presence of any judgement or influence, either internal or external. Once we begin to achieve this level of physical performance, we equally enable opportunity to allow ourselves to be wholly involved in the performance of the routine, there is no mid given to what is outside of the movement being performed, there is no thought of before or what will be, there is whole focus on that movement and therefore complete mindfulness of ourselves in that moment. We achieve a flow state where physical and mental functioning are almost perfectly aligned and synchronised.
Solo forms are too often disregarded as being throwbacks to antiquity. They are completely assumed to be only present in the arts because that was the only way that techniques could be passed on for the future. There was no internet or social media to influence and take care of this. Consequently the view is such that now we have the later, we don't need the former. However this insular view missed the point massively. It assumes that martial is all. It misses the holistic necessity that traditional martial arts have at their very core. The arts were for self protection, definitely. We can’t disassociate the martial aspect of the training we do and it would be wrong to suggest we can or indeed should. However, the arts were also created for self-investigation and self development. Whilst there are many routes to the achievement of deeper self knowledge, development and awareness, martial arts practice provides all these things. Solo drills allow the practitioner the opportunity to individually experience and express their martial art; using the physical techniques as a conduit it allows them to investigate and gain a much deeper, holistic understanding of themselves.
Visualisation in Solo Drills
Without question one of the key differential aspects between solo and partner based drills, is the need to visualise. In a partner drill the environment and experience is such that it is easily identifiable what, where and how techniques are being applied. In solo drills this can be less available, in fact it is reasonable to suggest that it is only through appropriate and focused visualisation that these drills can provide optimal benefit (in respect of technique application).
Visualisation simplistically refers to the participants ability to internally create and represent, almost imagine, a setting, application and reason of and for the technique being practiced. In many cases this key aspect of solo drill practice again either is overlooked or ignored, however the benefits to including this mental discipline into the drills are extremely powerful.
Visualisation techniques are most often utilised in sports psychology and cognitive therapy type settings. On a basic simplistic level visualisation is no more complex than the creation of mental visual images. Often visualisation techniques are used to create a strong mental image of a future event, allowing the individual an opportunity to ‘practice’ in advance for the event so that they can best prepare for it mentally. Through good use of visualisation techniques it is entirely possible to create the self confidence necessary for the successful performance of a given event, activity or goal. Within the practice of certain cognitive therapies, such as neuro linguistic programming (NLP), visualisation techniques are based on the idea that the mind cannot distinguish between a vividly imagined experience and a real one. The premise here being that by consistently focusing on the visualisation of positive outcomes, individuals can program their subconscious mind and more appropriately align their thoughts, behaviours and emotions with their desired results and goals.
In sports, visualisation (sometimes referred to as mental imagery) has been shown many times to have had a positive effect on physical performance. The premise is similar to that within cognitive therapies that the more frequently and vividly the individual mentally rehearses the physical performance, the more this successful performance becomes habituated in your mind.
In both of these applications, to be successful visualisation techniques must create a vivid and detailed mental image. This essentially means the creation of a mental image using all senses, considering what you see, feel, hear, smell and taste at the time, in full colour. Visualisation is most beneficial when this detailed mental image has a positive focus and occurs in ‘real time’. Oftentimes the process of creating this image is done in a layered way, with the individual considering each sensory aspect in turn and adding to the level of detail. In this way it is considered that the subconscious mind processes the visualised image in the same manner as it would the actual real life experience. In cognitive therapies this approach has been successful in reducing the negative effects of certain phobias and related anxiety disorders. In sports, many well known elite athletes (such as Muhammad Ali, Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan and Deontay Wilder) have gained positive benefits in individual performance through the use of mental imagery and visualisation techniques.
For many combat sports athletes and coaches visualisation isn't really a new idea, but it seems to get much less attention from traditional martial artists. In combat sports, the mental rehearsal can be as simple as the athletes picturing themselves performing the perfect punches and combinations, to the more involved mental imagery of imaging themselves in the fight, investigating their emotional reactions as well as their physical performances.
In training, often visualisation is coupled with a physical drill. In shadow boxing and footwork drills, athletes can be tasked to visualise their opponent, adding additional focus to the offensive and defensive techniques being performed. Most often the focus on visualisation is skewed towards the offensive techniques, with athletes encouraged to positively frame their experience and see their attacks and responses as being effective, landing with perfect timing and efficiency. However there is an additional benefit of visualisation in defence and picturing how they will respond, move and counter where the emphasis is on defensive technique and movement. This later type of mental imagery can sometimes be more challenging for the athletes to find, as it needs a focus on a successful offensive opponent and sometimes involves quite intimate fears and emotions.
Moving the focus towards traditional martial arts, the opportunity for visualisation is just as important and beneficial. Whether in the context of pattern rehearsal, rehearsal of fundamentals,step sparring or even bag/pad work, the opportunity for positive mental imagery and focus remains. In the first instance there it is a good idea to begin with a guided type of visualisation, an informed coach/instructor providing a solid idea and application for the techniques being practiced. However, as time, repetition and practice progresses this focused mental imagery should become more ‘normal’. It therefore will become easier for the participants to give context and application to the drills being performed, without extrinsic input being fundamentally necessary. For solo training to become wholly functional and beneficial to the effective practice and application of the traditional martial arts, effective visualisation is necessary.
The Need for a Balance in Training - Enter the Training Matrix
Every traditional martial art has its limitations and its benefits. Within this every training drill equally has its own specific benefits and limitations.
If we take the ‘gold standard’ approach which dwells in perceived ‘realism’, we may have a live fully intended attack and non-compliant partner. We can be as close to the ‘real’ emotional, psychological and physical conditions as possible and yet the drill (due to purposes of appropriate ethics, legalities and safety) still has to be performed in a way that does not produce the real and potentially injurious effects.
Every art has its own techniques, equipment and training methods. Through combining these elements we result in the training curriculum and training drills for that art. The true picture is that there is no one singular drill that encompasses all the aspects of that particular art. By the nature of being a ‘training drill’ the routine being practiced will compromise in a certain area, which removes it from a ‘real’ applied practice. Whether this be a compromise in regards of power, speed, target or even level contact (including here use of safety equipment), for the ‘true’ application to be practiced there must be a diversity to the training methods used. Each method intrinsically has its limitations, through the identification of these we are enabled the opportunity to put into play others which will hopefully address this imbalance.
Simplistically as an example we could look at an isolated technique rehearsal for a roundhouse kick. Initially we need to look at acquisition of the fundamental body mechanics and fluidity in performance of this skill. This may involve unrestricted, slow performance versus a target or even in open space. The next phase may be in power development, for which we are using a kick shield, bag or similar piece of training equipment. At the same time we may be looking at the application of the technique, referencing where and how this may be landed on a ‘live’ opponent. The first phase clearly misses any relevance in performance of the full power technique, but allows for unimpeded technique acquisition. The next phase allows us to generate power but is limited by the fact that it is to a static target (punch bag) or striking target which may affect the true distance, or even applied targeting of the technique. The third phase here allows us to appropriately reference the technique, providing development of accuracy and timing, but may involve a limitation in regards to full power generation. Each phase development is important and it is only through observation and completion of all phases that we afford ourselves to investigate and develop the technique holistically.
The role of solo drills is an essential part of this training matrix. The training drills allow us to develop in fluidity and technical proficiency. They are not, nor were they ever intended to be, the complete and ultimate training drills. What solo drills give us is an accessible opportunity to practice and develop technique within the framework of the art. We could consider patterns as a codex or encyclopaedia of the arts. We could consider them to be laying blueprints for techniques and combinations. We could practice them in the context of the pattern and use them to develop greater confidence and technical ability in respect of those techniques and combinations. Through use of appropriate visualisation we may be able further use these to reference and rehearse techniques to potentially vulnerable targets which other training drills will not allow us. However we also need to then take these techniques and put them into the marix of practice versus a compliant partner (maybe referencing amended targets in regards to more vulnerable body parts for example striking the cheek rather than eyes, or chest rather than throat); against a striking target which allows for full opportunity of individual power generation; and against a non compliant partner (maybe with reduced power generation and again to an amended target as appropriate). All aspects of this approach are key to the overall development of the technical application. No one drill holds sway over the other as by definition each provides for the development of different capabilities associated to the technique/combination as a whole.
As a final word here it is worth taking an opportunity to consider our own personal motivations for training in the traditional martial arts. The needs and motivations of individual practitioners are as varied and as diverse as the individuals themselves. One of the most beautiful things within traditional martial arts is that they truly do hold the capacity to meet most, if not all of these varied and diverse motivations and needs. Solo training drills are a cornerstone of the traditional arts and in my view should remain as such. They meet many more functions than merely the practical acquisition of personal defence techniques. To simply assume that solo drills are throwbacks to antiquity, with no additional benefit other than a competitive performance art, focused on body control, precision and posture is equally flawed. Each solo drill fulfils some purpose within a balanced training matrix. They provide opportunities for individual expression and investigation. They provide opportunities for technique acquisition, development and conditioning. They are not a ‘one stop shop’ training drill that fulfils all purposes on their own, rather an intrinsic and essential part of a larger whole.