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.

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)”

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”

Who’s the Best? – Comparing Styles

“What’s the best martial art?”

This is a question most of us in the martial arts community have heard, in some form or another. And it’s one that most of us groan inwardly at hearing. There is a real problem with trying to establish a “best” martial art. Or even in trying to say that one art is “better” than another.

For me, I think Nihon Goshin Aikido is the best. For me. With my personality. With the instructors     [Read more…] “Who’s the Best? – Comparing Styles”

Assembling a Defense

As we learn the techniques and applications of Nihon Goshin Aikido or any other art, we begin by breaking them into parts. While this teaching technique (known as “chunking”) facilitates learning for both adults and children, it also causes students to develop hesitations in their movements. At first, students pause at the end of each “chunk” (in both application and technique) to allow their brains to catch up and tell them what comes next. After some time practicing, they simply have the ingrained habit of stopping at that point in the movement, and find that they have a very difficult time moving smoothly past these transition points.

While I don’t know of a way to avoid     [Read more…] “Assembling a Defense”