How to Be a Great Training Partner (with John Schmalbach)

This article is an exchange between Gerry Seymour and John Schmalbach (see below for information about Mr. Schmalbach). The initial discussion was around dealing with training partners who refuse to cooperate for a training drill.

John Schmalbach’s Take:

This actually reminds me of a seminar we ran on Saturday. The seminar was focused on ground fighting with edged weapons (“traditional” knives and karambits) and “combat” grappling/take downs. I put combat in quotes because it was based on the idea that unlike say LE or Security in self defense you want to break joints and tear muscles so you can escape. It was an amalgam of Chin Na, Kali and Silat techniques.

I actually got a tad frustrated at one point. I was partnered with a person when it came time to perform a technique that controlling the arm, hyperextensions the shoulder while using head control to take the person down. My partner insisted on keeping their feet planted until I had hyper extended their shoulder to the point they were literally shouting…”ow ow ow my shoulder, my shoulder, my shoulder.”

Eventually, politely but firmly (to hide my frustration) I said, “In a real fight I wouldn’t have stopped when you cried out. I had control, you didn’t and so you would have had only two choices. 1. Go with the flow and to the ground where yes I will have even greater control. 2. Have me dislocate your shoulder, and still end up on the ground and now I DEFINITELY have greater control. We aren’t simply learning today how to perform the takedown. We are also learning how to properly go with the flow so that if someone does it to you, you still have a chance of defending yourself.”

Now with that particular technique if I apply the correct leverage I can, if I wish to be brutal, virtually dislocate the shoulder at will. The simple fact it was almost happening because of a rigid uke makes that almost a certainty. I get that the Sifu put me with them because he knew I had the control not to hurt them (they had apparently been doing that all day in one shape or another) but it was still frustrating as hell because when I train I like to train hard.

Gerry Seymour’s reply:

This is something that some students take a while to learn. Sometimes we need to be compliant (as uke) to protect ourselves. I sometimes get new students who think they should provide rigid resistance (not actually realistic resistance, just a general tensing of muscles) at all times. I have to explain to them the principles of ukemi:

  • Protect yourself. For most throws, the more relaxed you are, the easier the fall is. For most locks, the more you resist, the more likely you are to get injured.
  • Simulate the situation being practiced. It does nobody any good if you push when the attack being simulated is grabbing by the lapel and pulling in for a punch. If we are practicing responses to a specific situation, do that.
  • When providing resistance, provide realistic resistance. Someone pulling you in will rarely lock their arm rigidly at 90 degrees. Someone punching will rarely lean in and use a stiffened arm to try to push a block slowly down with strength. Someone shoving will rarely hold their weight back over center.
  • Don’t invent resistance. When we are practicing a technique that we would only do once we’ve destroyed structure, we don’t do that technique if any resistance is present (we use a different technique), so don’t invent resistance to “test” the technique. If you do that, the appropriate response for your partner is to change techniques, probably by using a strike to “soften” you.

These are fairly common problems in training when someone doesn’t actually commit to the practice (simulated) attack.


John Schmalbach is a law enforcement officer, and studies Traditional Wing Chun and Inosanto Kali at the Kuntao Martial Arts Club in Phoenixville, PA under Dale Yeager. 

Dealing with difficult opponents (with Tony Dismukes)

This article features another great post by Tony Dismukes (again, a post from! This time Tony talks about dealing with a training partner who easily dominates you in resistive training. Resistive training is any training where your partner is supposed to resist your techniques (and usually, to attempt their own techniques). This is an important part of developing skill in martial arts, but it can be frustrating when your partner is bigger, stronger, or significantly more skilled, and can easily defeat your techniques – they easily “win”.

Tony DISMUKEs’ Post:

Here’s the advice I give to students who are frustrated because they are consistently getting dominated in rolling by someone for whatever reason (physical attributes, experience level, whatever):

The trick to progressing quickly and not being discouraged by your lack of “success” in rolling is to change the game. More specifically, change the “victory conditions” of your game.

  1. In the beginning, you end up in positions where you just don’t know what to do. Literally, you’re not sure what you should even be attempting to execute. At this stage, your victory condition is to make a note of the details of where you found yourself, consult with your teacher (after the roll) as to what your best tactic should be, then come back next time and the next time you end up in that position actually remember what it is you should be trying to do.
  2. Now you end up in the position, you remember what you were supposed to try, but by the time your remember the technique and how to do it, the moment has already passed. (“Darn it. I had the chance for that double ankle sweep, but I didn’t react in time.”) Now your victory condition is to be alert and recognize the opportunity for the technique while it still exists next time.
  3. Now you know what to do, you see the opportunity in time, you go for it – and it doesn’t work, and you don’t know what you did wrong. Now your victory condition is to go back and review the details of the technique (consult with your instructor as necessary), so you can identify what you did incorrectly next time you attempt the move and it fails.
  4. Now you know the details of how the technique should work, you recognize the opportunity when it arises, you go for it – and it still fails. You realize that in the heat of the moment you only nailed about 2 of the 10 most important details for making the technique work. Now your victory condition is to get more of the details right next time you try the move. If there’s one specific detail you always miss, focus on that. Otherwise just try to get more of the details right – go from 2 to 3, 3 to 4, 4 to 5, and so on.
  5. Now you’re making improvement in your timing and technical execution. Once you’re consistently nailing 50-60% of the important details then you’ll be having some success against partners of your own size and skill level, but not so much against those who are bigger or more experienced. Now your victory condition is to roll as much as possible with those tougher opponents to expose your remaining technical mistakes and start identifying and eliminating them.
  6. Now you’re rolling, you see an opportunity, you go for it, you get the technical details right (as far as you can tell) – and it still doesn’t work. Maybe there are some details you’re still missing – in that case go back to step 5. Otherwise there a couple of possibilities. A) You executed the right technique at the right moment correctly – but your opponent performed a counter you didn’t know how to deal with. In this case your victory condition is to learn your best follow-ups to counter that counter, then go back to step 1 to start developing and polishing those moves. B) You executed the technique correctly – but it wasn’t actually the right movement for that moment. Something about your opponent’s position or momentum or his relation to your body made it so you actually needed to do use a different variation. In this case your victory condition is not just to learn the new variation, but learn to recognize the difference in the situation which requires one or the other. Now go back to step 1 again to start developing this movement.

At a certain point, after you’ve been through steps 1-6 with countless moves, your focus shifts from individual techniques to the bigger picture. You understand that your sweeps only work when you’ve disrupted your opponent’s balance. You understand that your submissions only work when you’ve disrupted your opponent’s structure. You understand that it’s easier to control your opponent’s balance and structure when you have superior grips and angles. Your rolling sessions become primarily about fighting for grips, angles, structure, and balance. You know that if you win those battles, then the “techniques” will happen. You go back to step 1 to start polishing your methods for controlling grips, angles, structure, and balance.

You’ll notice that at no point in this process is there a requirement for being able to “beat” anybody in particular. You’re focused on incremental gains which should be manageable for anyone with good coaching. If you’re on step 4 and you manage to improve your triangle choke from 30% correct to 40% correct, then you can walk off the mat with your head held high and go home feeling good, even if you didn’t tap anybody out. In fact, this approach will significantly speed up your progress in “winning” matches, but you don’t have to focus on that to get the benefit.

Gerry seymour’s follow-up:

If you are succeeding 100% of the time, you are either from another planet (compared to the people you are training with), or your partners aren’t actually trying to stop you. Nothing should work 100% of the time, no matter how much we wish it would.

I’m not talking about drilling technique – that usually is cooperative, rather than resistive. I’m talking about sparring, randori, or rolling. And you’ll have some partners who are simply much better than you, or maybe they’re just stronger or faster, and you don’t have enough technical advantage to overcome that. Make those experiences into learning experiences – “win” on your own terms so you gain from that partner.

Tony Dismukes has been training in various forms of martial arts for over 35 years. He holds a black belt in BJJ as well as a black belt in Bujinkan taijutsu and an instructor’s license in Muay Thai. His focus is on jiu-jitsu as a practical means for self-defense and as a life-long tool for self-improvement. His thoughts on training can be found at He trains and teaches under Mike ODonnell at 4 Seasons Martial Arts in Lexington, Kentucky.

Strength doesn’t matter – or does it? (with Tony Dismukes)

I often hear martial artists and instructors say something like, “With [insert name of art here], strength doesn’t matter. If you do it right, it won’t matter how strong they are.”

There’s a kernel of truth in there, but it’s really overstated. I’ve talked about this before with groups – both my students and other groups – but I’m going to let someone else explain this. The following was posted to by Tony Dismukes (see information about Tony at the end of this article) in September 2017. Tony is referring to Brazilian Jiu Jutsu (BJJ) here, but the principle is the same for all grappling.

Tony Dismukes’ Post:

So here’s the deal regarding jiu-jitsu and strength:

Jiu-jitsu is absolutely about using strength. To be precise, it’s about using your available strength as efficiently and effectively as possible, When you see criticism about someone “muscling through a technique”, the problem isn’t that they’re using strength – it’s that they’re wasting strength. Either they’re trying to overpower their opponent’s strength head on (which will only work as long as the person doing the technique is the stronger one) or they’re using their strength in an inefficient fashion which involves more effort than necessary, causing them to tire out and deplete their reserves of strength prematurely.

That’s how jiu-jitsu can allow you to overcome a stronger opponent. When I outgrapple someone who is twice as strong as I am, it’s because I’m using my available strength more than twice as efficiently as he is.

The reason top jiu-jitsu competitors are all in fantastic shape is that their opponents are in great shape and also know how to use their physical attributes efficiently. The skill levels are close enough that they can’t afford to give up a huge discrepancy in strength or endurance or speed the way they could against a beginner.

Gerry Seymour’s Wrap-up

Well said, Tony! Strength matters. Good technique (being efficient and effective in your use of strength) makes strength differentials matter less. What I tell my students is that strength is a tool. You can use it, but you shouldn’t have to depend upon it, or you’ll lose against anyone stronger. If you can do a technique (whether that’s a throw, takedown, lock, escape, or whatever) without needing to use much strength, then that strength is a good reserve for when things go wrong. And in self-defense, things are going to go wrong – fights get messy, and technique doesn’t stay pretty.

Tony Dismukes has been training in various forms of martial arts for over 35 years. He holds a black belt in BJJ as well as a black belt in Bujinkan taijutsu and an instructor’s license in Muay Thai. His focus is on jiu-jitsu as a practical means for self-defense and as a life-long tool for self-improvement. His thoughts on training can be found at He trains and teaches under Mike ODonnell at 4 Seasons Martial Arts in Lexington, Kentucky.

What is the purpose of ranks and belts?

Often, prospective students ask me about the purpose of rank. It’s also a common topic of conversation between experienced martial artists in different arts. Some feel that ranks create standardization that’s important to an art, while others feel belts are a senseless conceit and distract from the purpose of training in martial arts.

I don’t agree with either view, nor do I always disagree with them. Is that all clear? Good!

Okay, I’ll expound. Grab a seat and let’s chat…

When I was developing the curriculum that came to be used at the Self-Defense Academy, one of the questions I asked myself was, “What do I want to do about ranks?” This was something I needed to be clear on before I started my own  program.

For those not familiar with how ranks are commonly used traditionally in martial arts, there are 3 basic approaches:

  • No ranks. Someone is the teacher. Everyone else is a student. Everyone knows the difference, and that’s good enough. This is common in western boxing, many Chinese arts, and Filipino arts.
  • Two ranks: white belt and black belt. In many cases, this is similar to the first approach, and students will all wear the white belts. In other cases, there will be a different method (usually stripes on the belt) to differentiate between advanced students and instructors,  since advanced students also wear black belts. This is seen in some Japanese arts, especially in some branches of Ueshiba Aikido.
  • Colored belts and black belts. In this system, students start with a white belt, and change their belt color several times before reaching black. Black belt might be reserved for instructors, or might include advanced students.

In all cases where ranks are used, someone has to decide who gets what rank. In most cases, this is done through some sort of formal testing (common in Nihon Goshin Aikido, my primary art). In a smaller number of schools and styles, there’s no testing – just a recognition of overall skill. This latter approach is common Brazilian Jiu-Jutsu (BJJ). In addition to  tww arts I mentioned, this is also common in most styles of Karate-do, as well as Judo and Taekwondo.

Which is better? 

In my opinion, they all work. I’ve listed arts and styles that use all of them. Most of my training was in schools that used the third method, with formal tests to advance to each next rank. That’s what I prefer, but I see advantages in each approach. In fact, I seriously considered each of the other two approaches when assembling the curriculum that became Shojin-ryu. I like the simplicity of no ranks (or just two).

Why did you decide to keep colored belts, student ranks, and formal tests?
I find they serve a useful role. Let me outline some of their usefulness.

Belts help students. When I go back to my instructor’s school to be a student for a day, I can step up and work with any student there, knowing approximately what their skill level is, and which techniques they have. I can tell by their belt color. That’s useful even for students within their own school, when training with someone they haven’t worked with before. This is particularly useful within an association (or even an art) that gives consistent meaning to the rank. Within the NGAA (Nihon Goshin Aikido Association) and most of the mainline of NGA, a blue belt means the student has been tested on the same first 20 classical techniques.

Belts help instructors. If I were to go teach at my instructor’s school, I could choose material just by quickly looking at what colors of belts were in the room. I can choose someone to work with a student on a new technique, being sure the partner I choose has already passed a test on that technique. This is less important in a smaller school or program.

Tests help students. Tests are generally more stressful than a standard class. They give students something specific to prepare for, and something to overcome. That last point is important. I want my students to get more than just defensive fighting ability, and tests help them develop in some important areas.

Tests help instructors. When I test students, I already know their general skill level. I should – I taught them. But the test gives me a chance to see every technique in a single sitting. It lets me look for errors that occur across techniques, specific attacks students have trouble with, and other issues that might not be as easily seen in a standard class. I use that to help the student move on to the next level in their development.

Okay, so why didn’t you use the same ranks as the mainline of the art?

Most importantly, I wanted to remove some of the focus on ranks and tests. By reducing the basic student ranks from 6 (white, yellow, blue, green, purple, brown) to 4 (white, yellow, orange, brown), I allow students to stay more focused on their physical ability than on their list of techniques. Some students will learn more techniques quickly, then need time to build competence in them. Others will progress slowly through the list, developing competency as they go. Neither is a better approach.

I also wanted to allow advanced students to choose whether to be instructors or not. In the NGAA, all students must train as instructors to get their black belt. Not everyone wants to go that route, and I saw some excellent students stuck at brown belt. So, I separated instructor certification from black belt ranking.

I also didn’t see much advantage in having a deep hierarchy among instructors. To me, there are two levels (not ranks, though the concept is similar) of instructors: those who can teach and promote students, and those who can teach and promote both students and instructors. In Shojin-ryu, there are only two instructor levels . After reaching black belt, a student can train for, test to, and be certified as an Instructor. After teaching for some time and developing new instructor candidates, an Instructor can request evaluation and certification for Senior Instructor. Teaching instructors is a different skill set from teaching students, so those should have different certifications. I don’t see much need for gradations between or beyond those two.

Gerry Seymour is the chief instructor for the Self-Defense Academy of Western North Carolina.

Integrating Multiple Martial Arts

Another instructor (from another art) brought up a discussion recently about integrating multiple martial arts to create a “personal hybrid”. That discussion brought out a lot of good points, so I want to share some of what I think are the key points. This is a good topic for anyone who wants to     [Read more…] “Integrating Multiple Martial Arts”

You Suck at Martial Arts (by Bill Mattocks)

This article originated as a post by Bill Mattocks on an online forum, and is used here with Bill’s consent. See the end of the article for more information about Bill.

I sometimes speak with discouraged newer students. They believe they lack natural talent, or that they are not coming along fast enough, or that they are just not ‘getting it’. They feel that they are not progressing     [Read more…] “You Suck at Martial Arts (by Bill Mattocks)”

The concept of “self-defense”

In some recent discussions, the topic of defining “self-defense” has come up. Different people define it differently, so I want to wrap some concepts within comfortable terminology.

I use a definition of self-defense that is similar to the legal definition. It’s the physical action taken to defend against an imminent physical threat. This is usually     [Read more…] “The concept of “self-defense””

Forbidden Techniques (with Bill Mattocks)

This articles is an exchange between Gerry Seymour and Bill Mattocks (see below for information about Mr. Mattocks).

Bill Mattocks’ take:

I was recently asked by a fellow student, a young man who has just started his martial arts journey, if there were any techniques that he should avoid using in the case of having to employ self defense techniques.

I suspect he was thinking about certain techniques known to cause     [Read more…] “Forbidden Techniques (with Bill Mattocks)”

Your Enemies When Fighting (with Bill Mattocks)

This articles is an exchange between Gerry Seymour and Bill Mattocks (see below for information about Mr. Mattocks).

Bill Mattocks’ take:

When you engage in a ‘real’ fight, whether it is voluntary, such as a so-called ‘street fight’, or an actual case of self-defense, you have more enemies than you may realize. Here are some. Feel free to add your own.

1) Your opponent. Obviously.     [Read more…] “Your Enemies When Fighting (with Bill Mattocks)”

Creativity in Martial Arts

As with many martial arts, Nihon Goshin Aikido is taught in a structured atmosphere, with specific constraints regarding usage, movement, and application. The beginning student is told precisely how to perform the techniques and stances at every step of the way. Yet, when an advanced martial artist demonstrates even a minimal level of mastery, it becomes obvious that there is a great deal of creativity involved in his defense.

How, then, does a student progress     [Read more…] “Creativity in Martial Arts”