Previously I wrote about structure and spacing. Closely related and entwined with spacing is timing. Timing is the subtle ingredient that makes spacing and structure appear to work like magic. If you have great structure and good control of the spacing, you’re doing well and you can be quite effective. To be great though, you need to master timing..
Timing is what makes that incredible technique from Shinkage Ryu and other styles where the tachi cuts through the cutting sword of her opponent and into the opponent’s head while driving the opponent’s sword off the target into ineffective space. Too early and the opponent simply evades and counterattacks. Too late and the opponent’s sword will slice right through you. There is a fraction of a second window in which to make this work. The same is true of the stop strike in Shinto Muso Ryu. Too early and the opponent easily evades. Too late and the cut will take off your arm before your attack can have any effect.
The stop strike is at 0:16
An entire class of techniques that requires perfect timing is Judo foot sweeps like de ashi harai. When done correctly, uke doesn’t even notice the technique. They just notice the floor disappears from under their feet and then reappears between their shoulder blades.
This technique, like the sword techniques, is deceptively simple. You merely sweep uke’s foot to the side while they are walking. The trick lies in the fact that the foot has to be swept after uke has transferred weight onto the foot but before the foot touches the ground. Timing here is everything. Too soon and there is no weight on the foot so sweeping has little effect. Too late and the foot is on the ground and solid, making the sweep impossible.
Timing is so important we don’t often talk about it. We just practice things that require it without really focusing on how to see it. Good timing is something I’m still developing in my practice, so this is definitely a work in progress. For me, the first step in learning to understand and apply timing is recognizing that there are common elements that make certain moments optimal for action, and these common elements hold true whether it is an armed or unarmed art, whether you are at grappling distance, empty hand striking distance, lond weapons distance or even tangled with your opponent rolling on the floor.
A moment is optimal when an opponent is committed but not fully supported. In swordwork, this would be the moment when your partner has begun to execute a cut and is so far into it that they can’t pull it back. They have committed the sword and their body to the attack. If you merely evade, they will finish and their body will return to a stable condition as both feet settle back on the ground and the sword stops moving. In grappling an example happens every time someone takes a step. Every step involves transferring your weight forward onto a foot that then touches the ground. You have to transfer the weight before the foot is on the ground though. This creates an instant when your weight is committed but not supported. If something happens in that instant, you can’t pull it back or move it further forward easily or smoothly.
It is this instant when you’re vulnerable. Understanding and recognizing this moment in your partner makes good timing possible. If you don’t understand this, good timing is just good luck. Learning to recognize and exploit moments when you partner or opponent is vulnerable takes practice. There are least two ways to recognize when that moment exists.
The first way is to learn to see it. Watch people move. Start by watching their feet, and then see if you can understand what their feet are doing from watching their hips, and then try to understand where their feet are while only watching their chests, then their shoulders, then their heads. Eventually you’ll be able to see the subtle shift in the body that occurs as the feet are moving and the weight is transferred to the unstable, moving foot. That’s the moment to do something.
The other way to learn to recognize that movement is through touch. To quote the great Judo coach Obi Wan Kenobi, “your eyes can deceive you.” Just as bad, your eyes are also slow. If you are at touching distance, you need to sense what is happening faster than your eyes can tell you. You need to be able to feel it. I have spent, and continue to spend, a great deal of time walking around the dojo with my eyes closed and lightly touching my partner’s arm or shoulder or lapel. We walk around and I practice maintaining the connection and moving with my partner while tracking exactly where their feet are. Occasionally I reach out with my foot and lightly push my partner’s foot while it’s in the air. That’s if I sense things correctly. If I don’t I’m pushing on foot that’s on the ground and stable, or I’m pushing on a foot that isn’t committed yet and floats away from me (often into a smooth counterattack). We walk around with me refining my ability to sense my partners movement and occasionally pushing on her feet while she makes sure I don’t walk into anything. Then we trade roles and I walk around with my eyes open while she practices catching my feet at just the right moment.
It amazes new students that I can walk around with my eyes close and slide their feet out from under them. No peeking and no secret powers. From my hand on their sleeve or collar I can feel where their feet are. It’s not a secret power though. It’s nothing more than learning to use your sense of touch more fully. Students learn the basics of this skill remarkably quickly. Within 10 minutes most students start to sense the foot movements, and to their surprise they can feel their partner’s moving foot even with their eyes closed. Feeling the right moment to catch the moving foot though, that takes a lot more practice. I’ll let you know how much when I can do it every time.
Lately, I’ve started trying to understand my partner’s movement when my ability to touch is extended through a weapon. I’m sure it is possible, and I can feel some of it, but I’m right back at the beginning of the learning curve with this. Our weapons are crossed and I can feel the strength and energy my partner puts into the sword or the staff. Just like when I was a beginning Judo student though, I still can’t interpret what I’m feeling. I want to fall back on my eyes. So here I am, once again a beginner slowly trying to figure things out, and probably overthinking things to a remarkable degree.
Timing is simple. Attack when your opponent isn’t stable or can’t move to defend themselves. At striking and weapons ranges, this might include stealing a few inches of ma’ai so that you can attack faster than they can respond. When grappling it can be feeling that moment when their movement is committed but not yet supported. Rolling on the ground requires at least as acute a sense of balance and commitment as standing.
Simple doesn’t mean easy though. Simple means “not complicated.” Easy is something I’ve never encountered in the dojo. I keep working at the timing. I’m collecting bruises right now as I work on training myself to not move too soon when someone attacks with a weapon. I stand there watching the sword come up and down and at me and wait and wait and move at the last possible moment when they can’t change the direction of the attack and can’t even stop it. That’s the goal anyway. Often what happens is my lizard brain shrieks and I move too soon. Or the lizard brain forgets to say anything and I get clocked in the head while watching the sword come in.
If I manage the timing properly, my movements can look almost lazy because my partner can’t do anything about it. I can move slow and smooth like I should. Good timing means never having to rush because there is nothing your partner can do about it at that moment. Timing lets you make the very most of your structural strength and flexibility and to use that spacing you control to the greatest advantage.
It’s simple, but not easy. The right time is when your partner is committed to one direction and unable to stop. Add some energy at that moment. Move their foot a few inches. Add a little energy in the direction they are already going. Done at the right time, this is devastating even as it looks like you haven’t done anything. Great timing is not the art of doing something at the right moment. Great timing is the art of already being there.