Kobo Drills for Jissen

In Japan, Kobo is not a practice method – they are a testing requirement. Nobody here practices kobo with the intention of improving their skills or building their technical base for jissen. Instead, most students spend a portion of the two or three practices preceding their exam to memorize the required kobo and perform it well enough to pass. What a waste.

Kobo means “offense and defense,” and it can be a good way to train attacking and defending in jissen. It can also be used as a kind of mental conditioning to rewire a few of the less productive habits some students tend to develop in jissen.

The posts linked below do not constitute a course in jissen. They are presented as tools for troubleshooting and improving various aspects of your jissen game. None of them are necessary, but all of them are useful.

The Drill Articles

So… Um, those are the drills

Well, not all of them, of course, but these are some of the more versatile ones. Even if you totally disagree with my logic (or my humor), please try these drills out and take from them what you can.

I would also love to hear about any drills you create or ideas you have. So please, enjoy and feel free to comment below.

The Bottom Line

Practice is specific, but life is unpredictable. Working a variety of drills with a variety of partners is the best way to adequately prepare yourself for the challenges you may face.

A Working Definition of Kobo

how not to think of kobo

First, I want to write a few words about what kobo are not. Kobo are not answers to various techniques. The way I see most people practicing kobo is based on this idea that they are algorithms for defeating various high-percentage techniques. Thinking of kobo in this way will make your jissen mechanical, and skilled opponents will always be able to fake you out. Taido techniques are made to adapt, so if your reactions to those techniques are predictable, you will be easy to hit.

If kobo aren’t answers, let’s discuss what they actually are. Simply: they are examples designed to build good habits.

A Working Definition

To help put you in the proper frame of mind for using kobo drills as a framework for building jissen skill, I want to provide a working definition of kobo. In Japan, this kind of practice is sometimes called “yakusoku sotai,” which could mean “combative-engagement under agreement.” Yakusoku literally means a promise, and the promise is that both partners are working together to help each other improve. When you practice kobo (which translates as “offense/defense”), you must make a new promise at each working of a particular drill to keep your partner’s best interests in mind. If your partner is injured, or even if he just doesn’t improve, you are both responsible.

This promise is real, and it’s one of the things that allows us to keep the emotional stress levels very low. Knowing that our partners are working with us and keeping our interests in mind allows us to relax into the process of developing our skills. Make sure that your partner knows that the promise is real to you. Keeping the mood of kobo practice supportive and friendly will allow you both to get the most out of each practice, even though this is not easily quantifiable.

Discomfort Forces Adaptation

Another important point in kobo practice is the level of speed, power, complexity, etc. that you challenge your partner with. Keep in mind that you are practicing for his benefit, and then let him worry about your improvement – mutuality makes for much more effective practice. This requires a very subtle mind-shift for most people. Don’t try to win – try to teach and learn.

And please, if your partner does not move, hit him. You do no favors to your partner if you only allow him to practice defending against half-assed attacks. I’m not saying “don’t be careful.” I’m saying “don’t be a pushover.” You have to challenge your partner in order for him to progress. You want to make sure that you press toward your partner’s limits, but not beyond.

Your partner will not learn unless he is uncomfortable. Comfort precludes adaptation; discomfort necessitates adjustment. You must make your partner a little uncomfortable in the drill, but at ease in the training environment. The key is to work to your partner’s level of discomfort. Push your partner to the point of slight discomfort, as measured by their feedback to you. Communication is vital to safe and effective kobo practice.

Using Incremental Progression

The Problem with Traditional Kobo

The usual style of training kobo is based on the idea that “if he does that, you respond by doing this.” It ingrains patterns that may not always be to best response to a particular situation. The first thing we need to do to make kobo a useful method of training is to scrap the idea that we are training patterns to use in jissen.

The actual combinations of techniques in kobo have little value in themselves. The reason for this is pretty straightforward – there are an infinite number of possible attack permutations in jissen, because Taido techniques are made to be adaptable. This makes it impossible to learn defensive patterns for each possible attack. Sure, there are a few “high-percentage” moves, but they are still virtually unlimited in their execution because of the use of unsoku/unshin and rengi.

Again, patterns are of very limited utility. If defensive patterns worked, nobody would ever score with manjigeri.

Why Manjigeri Still Scores Points

Manjigeri is a very common attack in jissen. So what’s the most common practice seen for jissen all over the world? Hienzuki over manjigeri. This is universal at every club I’ve ever visited. The logic appears to be that since manji is so common, everyone will be better off if they know how to deal with it.

The problem is that people still manage to score with manjigeri all the time in jissen. Only relatively low-skilled players will ever throw the kind of manji that invites their target to jump over their heads and safely strike. There are fairly obvious ways to thwart this defense and score anyway. Yet, we continue to teach students that they should jump instinctively when they see manji.

Apparently, there is more to manji than is accounted for by the jump-algorithm. This is equally true for every other set of attack/defense kobo techniques I have ever seen practiced in Taido. For that matter, it’s just as true for all the one-and two-step sparring drills I’ve seen in karate, all the pattern drills in judo, and every single application in every self-defense book or course on the planet. Algorithms only work sometimes, and that makes them pedagogically insufficient.

A better concept

Jumping toward the head when someone attacks by manji is only one example of not being where the kick is headed. You can accomplish the same goal by several other methods without removing yourself from counter-range. Each one should be explored in an organic progression, but not memorized or drilled to the point of reflex-development.

The existing kobo routines in Taido do have some value to them. They show us that every attack has inherent weaknesses. They also teach us that it’s better to avoid by moving the body than it is to retreat. These are important things for students to grasp, and I think kobo are wonderful training tools for these two reasons.

But there is a third reason for practicing kobo that takes them beyond “wonderful training tool” and straight into “incredibly powerful practice method” territory.

How to make great-tasting jissen

The most important thing to get out of kobo is the process. Kobo is a process of gradually building up to jissen, or combat. This buildup has to be incremental. Why? Because your emotional arousal will scald your performance if you don’t increase your tolerance to stress by adding heat and pressure slowly.

Learning to fight is stressful. Most people don’t have a natural knack for dealing with conflict. Building this knack slowly and surely is the best way to learn jissen.

When most people start learning jissen, they are told to just dive in and try. This isn’t all that bad, since they are typically diving in against an understanding and friendly partner who will go easy on them. However, we all have anxiety about the possibility of getting hit. We also have anxiety about doing new things when we are unsure of our skills. Unless addressed, this anxiety stays with us.

Even after we have “gotten used to” the idea of sparring, our accumulated anxiety interferes with our abilities to respond appropriately to our opponents’ moves. Even before we have been moving long enough to be “winded,” we find that our hearts are pumping like crazy, and we are taking giant gulps of air. This is stress arousal caused by anxiety, and unless we deal with it intelligently in practice, we condition ourselves to trigger this response every time we do jissen.

Using Baby Steps

This is the reason to build gradually from kobo to jissen. If we start out knowing what to expect and how to respond, we don’t feel any anxiety. As we gain proficiency, we can slowly begin to add variables such as speed and power, different unsoku patterns, possible counter attacks, et cetera. The important thing to remember is to add only one variable at a time. This keeps the change manageable and prevents the anxious feeling of not knowing what’s coming.

Of course, most of us didn’t learn this way. And how many of us are great at jissen? It’s possible to learn in the traditional manner and get good at jissen. But it’s far more common to get mediocre and stay that way. Better training methods lead to better results. Incremental progression is a better way to learn jissen.

When we keep making things just a little harder each time, we eventually get to the point that we are improvising responses to complex signals at high speeds. If we have built up in an incremental fashion, this will not cause significantly more anxiety than moving slowly through a predetermined routine. Your muscles don’t tense, your teeth don’t clinch, and your breathing remains even. Your low level of emotional arousal allows you to observe and respond to things as they happen, and time appears to slow.

That’s magic. Imagine walking on to the court for a jissen match knowing that, whatever surprises your opponent has in store for you, you can remain calm and handle them. This is the edge that guys like Kaneko have on the rest of us. This is also why most of us can do so much better in practice than we can in competition. Less anxiety.

By practicing kobo as a method of incremental increase of combat variables, we can program ourselves to respond to jissen with a much lower level of emotional arousal, which gives us the ability to use the skills we have practiced in the most efficient manner possible.

Take a look at your own kobo/jissen practice and see if you can find some of your anxiety triggers – the things that make you “lose it” and make your performance go down the drain. Then you can step back to a similar drill that allows you to remain at a comfortable level of arousal. By designing intelligent drill progressions, you can deprogram years of built-up anxiety triggers in a few hours. Really. It just takes stepping back and rebuilding gradually.

Notes on Working Drills for Jissen

This is just an easy list of guidelines that will help you get the most out of your kobo and jissen practice. I figured it would be good to tidy up my series on drilling methods with a concise listing of what I think are the most important points, in no particular order.

You’ll find that they aren’t all applicable to every practice, but they will all be useful at one time or another. Think of this a tip sheet, and refer back to these points periodically as you use kobo for practice.

Trust

Of the highest importance in practicing with a resistant opponent is the creation of a safe environment. This allows all partners the ability to explore within the bounds of the exercise. This is the yakusoku (promise) part of “yakusoku sotai.”

If you can’t trust your partner to do as promised, you are going to have a hard time relaxing enough to practice as needed. Cooperative resistance would be a good way to describe the proper attitude for kobo practice. Just don’t go too easy on each other. Your partner trusts you to offer realistic resistance so he can improve his skills.

Partnering

Any practice you do with a partner is very dependent on that partner. In order to fully develop your skills, you must practice with a variety of partners in terms of physical type, sparring style, skill level, etc. Failing to do so is setting yourself up for failure.

Do Many Short Sets

Don’t do kobo all night. Use it as a tool to work on a specific skill and then move on to more dynamic practices, such as free(er) sparring. Too much kobo leads to hypersuggestibility, habitualization of predictable movement patterns, and unrealistic expectations, among other things. Any kobo practice should be balanced and checked against “live” resistance.

In a perfect world, kobo practice would generally be used as a diagnostic tool for discovering and correcting weaknesses. The instructor would make note of some hitch in each student’s performance and then design the kobo progressions to use for the next practice. If the kobo practice reveals some problem that wasn’t apparent earlier, a skilled coach can spot this and make adjustments to the drill. After a few repetitions each of two or three progressively more-challenging drills, the skills would then be practiced in actual jissen (or a limited jissen game). The coach could then critique the sparring to determine the next lesson’s drill progression.

Get Down to Get Up

Just like good dance music, you must bring it down before you turn it up. In order to manage the anxiety of learning new things and facing greater challenges, it’s important to step back first. Then baby-step back up to and beyond the current level, into the next. This is sometimes counterintuitive since we feel like we aren’t making progress unless we are moving forward. However, it’s easier to move forward once we have gained a little bit of momentum first. Starting off easier than necessary gives us the momentum to work harder.

Incremental Progression

Incremental progression is the means of backing up to move forward. Each drill builds off of the previous drill and leads logically to the next. Every drill has several variables, and it works best to increase them in subtle increments, one at a time.

Examples of drill variables for incremental increase are:

  • Speed of motion
  • Power of strikes
  • Complexity of movements, number of steps
  • Drill sophistication via rule manipulation
  • Time allotment or stipulation of timing
  • Number of partners
  • Number of chickens on the court

Reality Checking

Kobo is not real (and neither is jissen). In order to keep ourselves grounded in actuality, we need to occasionally do things that may seem to run counter to the notion of kobo – such as actually hitting our partners.

For one example, if you are the defensive partner, it is good practice to sometimes simply take the hit rather than avoiding. Why? Two reasons: you need to know what it’s like to get hit, and you need to make sure your partner is offering you honest resistance. If you avoid as expected each time, there is no way to be sure that your partner isn’t cheating you and no way to prepare for the eventuality that you screw up in a live environment. So, my recommendation is to simply take the hit at least two or three times for each drill.

How do you take so many hits without injuring yourself? You learn to absorb impact. If you’re going to be fighting (and even if you’re not), this is an important ability to have. Everyone will be faced with impact during their lives. Impact from bumping into things, tripping, getting punched in the face, etc. Learning to absorb the incoming force, rather than bracing against it, will help protect you from injury when you get hit in “the real world.” If you’ve built a trusting relationship with your partners, this is the best possible time to learn how to do this.

Don’t assume, or your ass is “ume.” Ume is a sour, pickled plum that Japanese people love to think foreigners hate (but they’re actually really tasty). Remember to reality check your kobo practice, or you’ll end up ingraining assumptions in with your skills.

Workshop

Kobo is practice, so don’t treat it like something carved in stone. This is not the time to be concerned with form or worrying about doing it “right.” Workshop and experiment. Explore with your partners the various options that are and are not available to you. There is more than one way to eat a baby, and while I tend to prefer them in soup, I don’t just throw all my babies in the pot. Sometimes I BBQ them, and sometimes I’ll try putting one on a sandwich. I try to get together with friends often and exchange favorite baby recipes. I do the same with kobo.

Be Creative

Taido is all about creativity. Doing the same old kobo results in the same old jissen. My favorite Einstein quote is “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.” This is how most people practice kobo. Try something different. Build your own kobo routines. Adapt old routines. Be creative and get different results from what you’re used to.

Both Sides, Both Roles

You must make sure you practice on both sides and in both roles. This is self-evident, but I see people assuming that practicing one side means they can do the other by magic. I see it all the time, and I see these people losing in jissen. Granted, most people favor hidari kamae in jissen (and everything else), but that is no excuse for building weaknesses into your skills when you have the chance to practice both sides. Half-assed practice makes you a total ass in performance.

And Done!

So there you are – my list of kobo tips. Nothing new, nothing Earth-shattering. I don’t expect the Nobel Prize in Taido for writing this, but it might be helpful. Happy birthday.

Games for Jissen

Jissen is not simply a matter of one person controlling another person. Both players have the same goal: hit the other dude without letting him hit you. At lower levels, it’s often enough to simply bully your opponent, subjecting him to your will. But a strong opponent won’t allow you to do this, and you’ll find that you must respond to his actions while you pursue your agenda.

To make a long explanation of the nature of jissen very short, we need to practice responding appropriately to outside stimuli.

Though we tend to take this aspect of practice for granted, communications science has demonstrated that many of the most challenging problems in any multi-person situation arise out of the inability to read signals accurately. (Incidentally, if you don’t believe that fighting is a form of communication, you especially need to practice these next drills.) Sometimes, the problem is a lack of sensitivity; sometimes it is difficulty in distinguishing noise from information.

We will address both capacities with the following developmental drills, some of which you may recognize from childhood games.

Listening Games

Standing Push Drill

Both partners stand, facing each other and try to push the other off-balance. The only contact allowed is with the hands, and whichever partner first moves his feet or falls down is the loser.

Standing Pull Drill

You can also have the partners grasp each others’ hands and attempt to pull the opponent from his position.

Back-to-Back Push Drill

Partners stand with their shoulders and hips touching and link arms at the elbows. Pushing against each other, they attempt to force each other out of a predefined area.

Seated Back-to-Back Push

Same as above, but the drill begins with the partners sitting on the floor.

Linked Sumo Drill

In this variation the partners stand, facing and grab each others’ belts. They can push, lift, or reap their partner’s legs. This is very similar to sumo, with the exception that both partners remain linked for the duration of the drill. If either partner steps out of bounds or touches any body part other than the feet to the floor, the match is over.

Linked Tag

Partners grasp one hand and attempt to tag the other partner with their free hands. The target can be specified (knee and shoulder work very well) or free. Be sure to practice using both sides.

Linked Step Tag

Similar to the above drill, except partners attempt to step on each others’ feet. Steps and jumps can be used to avoid “attack,” and players can use their hands to help control their opponent’s balance. Make sure to practice both sides.

Linked Step Sumo

Players link hands as above and attempt to force their opponents to the floor or out of bounds. Contact is allowed with the feet, up to knee-height for tripping, and players can use their liked hands to pull.

Free Step Sumo

The object of the drill is as above, but only foot-to-leg and hip-to-hip contact is allowed.

Have Fun

Any of the above drills can also be played with more than two partners, within a wider or narrower area, using blindfolds, on uneven terrain (use kicks mitts, punch bags, crash mats, people, etc. for obstacles), with time limits, while carrying a load (such as a partner), on one leg, on both knees, wet, naked… – whatever floats your boat, paddles your canoe, or sinks your battleship (though in all seriousness, topless variations could be very beneficial for the guys).

Just remember to hold the concept that these are games being played to improve your jissen. Don’t get too excited and get injured with this kind of practice. In a safe and friendly environment, the drills listed above and their variations can be extremely fun ways to build our abilities to “communicate” with our partners in jissen.

These drills are also great for warming up to practice kobo and jissen. Since they work skills that we don’t practice in hokei or kihongi, it’s important to return to them periodically. They can’t be mastered, so if you approach them with a fun attitude, they never get stale.