Blog Article: Playtime!

Playtime! - 09/03/2013

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in one year of conversation.”
Greek Philosopher
427–347 BC

In the Filipino Martial Art of Kali many of the concepts and techniques are based around a triangle or the number 3. There are three major religions in the Philippines; Christianity, Islam and, for want of a better word, Pagan. It is from these "Pagan" practices that Kali developed the concept of 3. Remember the old song, " a magic number".

One of these triangles is known as the 'Triangle of Development'. Divided into three parts or points (strange that!), it forms a structure with which to develop your skills safely, quickly and more importantly in a fun way. Even though I am describing this concept through the art of Kali, it is important to understand it is a universal concept and can be, and is, applied to other arts.

These points are: 1. Technical skills
2. Play
3. Fighting skills

I will briefly discuss each point in turn.

1. Technical skills

These are the techniques you learn in class, whether striking, grappling or weaponry. These skills are internalised using another triangle, the 'Triangle of Experience'.

These points are: 1. Observe
2. Receive
3. Deliver 

Basically you watch a technique being performed by others, you have the technique applied on yourself and finally you apply the technique. Points 2 and 3 are often trained together in the form of repetitive drills where you drill your offence and defence simultaneously. I will discuss this triangle in greater depth in another article and explain how we can use it to get better, even while not being able to train e.g. due to injury. 

I am now going to bypass point 2 and go directly to point 3. This is something that the majority of martial athletes probably do. They learn their techniques and immediately try to fight them. Bad move.

3. Fighting skills

These are the techniques that you steer towards in a combat situation against a fully resisting opponent whether in competition or, let’s hope not, a self defence situation. These techniques are often dictated by your body type; big, small, athletic, slender etc, though personality also plays a role here.

For example, Bruce Lee’s art of Jeet Kune Do translates as ‘the way of the intercepting fist’. The principle being when attacked the defender will intercept the opponents strike on an alternate line while evading the oncoming attack. This is great in principle, though how many of us are that aggressive? Some of us have a slightly defensive quality to us, even to the point of flinching, which makes this strategy hard to apply. Remember, personality can dictate your fighting style.

To develop fighting skills, it would seem that one has to fight. I believe this to be a fallacy. A fight is where you test your found fighting skills but it is not where they are born or where you hone and develop them. Your fighting skills are founded in play.


“It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

D.W. Winnicott
British Paediatrician

2. Play

To me this is the most misunderstood part of training in martial arts though I believe it to be the most important. Play is where you will take the techniques you have learned and practice them in some sort of sparring environment, safely. Semantics is the problem here. Most describe sparring as gloving up and going for it or submission wrestling with the goal to dominate your partner. I do not. Sparring is not fighting.

If you look at animals in the wild, they learn the skills to survive play fighting. Take a look at dogs. When they play they snap at each other, paw each other and roll around while wagging their tails. They are developing survival skills through the medium of play. If the parent dog bites the young pup and injures it (or kills it) then that pup has learned nothing but neither has the parent. However, if they play fight with a long term goal of survival then they grow both physically and socially which benefits the pack as a whole. 

When I train Jiu-jitsu with my daughters we have a relationship. We are players not fighters. I give them just enough resistance to move and perform the techniques. While they escape a position, say side control, I can move to the next position they give me so I am therefore learning to master the counter to their escape. If I just lay on top of them showing them how better than them I was then neither of us would grow. The same applies to when I train with any lighter or less skilled player. Our eldest player is 74 years old and I love rolling with him as we explore the art of jiu-jitsu greater while not injuring each other, constantly smiling, laughing and talking. With this type of training you can improve no matter who the partner, if they are willing to play that is. 

Picture the scenario. One guy comes to training and dominates everyone, every time. He is young, athletic and very competitive. He uses his superior attributes to always be in the winning position and hates losing. Throughout his martial arts career he has always been the dominator, but now 10 years later he has lost a lot of his attributes and the repeated injuries are playing up. Younger, fitter and stronger guys like he once was are now turning up to train. The older guy now ends up being dominated. Unfortunately he did not spend enough time playing around in inferior positions to develop his defensive skills and is now at a loss. If only he had chilled and played, he would have had a more complete game and probably less injuries, increasing his longevity in the sport. He now has to go back and develop a defensive game which has been missing for 10 years. With the ingrained competitive mindset that he has, this will be a challenge.

It is through play that you can practice the techniques you have learned in a safe environment. When you play with your new move, you need not fear having your neck cranked or arm popped. In boxing, you need not fear a broken nose, cut or brain damage while you play. This way you develop the timing required to apply your new move without getting injured. If you fight all the time, i.e. spar hard, roll hard etc, with the mindset of trying to win; the ‘me, me, me’ attitude, you will only do what you are already good at and not get to practice (play), what you are not so good at. 

Sparring hard tends to involve less action therefore less repetition of technique. Often you will not want to engage in sparring if every time you move you get punched hard on the nose. You will try less offensive techniques therefore get less repetition. Ironically, the person dominating is not getting techniques fired back, so they are not getting the defensive repetitions! The dominator will not grow in skill and this will become evident when stronger, bigger or more skilled players partner up with them. This scenario often leads to both losing interest in training and end up quitting. I have seen this countless times over the years and is such a shame as neither athlete has grown just because of an issue with ego. Unfortunately, both the parties are victims.


“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.”

Abraham Maslow
American Psychologist


When the ego is involved to such a degree that you have to win all the time you are residing predominately in your left brain. Art and self expression exist in the right brain and this is where you want to be while training. When you are fearful of the outcome you are in the left brain. Chill out, smile and have fun. As a coach I want to see athletes working together, having fun while knowing they are getting better. I want to feel a friendly vibe in the air as we practice the art of killing each other!

If you catch everyone in a particular submission hold, try allowing them to work their escape and move to your next position. If it fails, great! It has identified a weakness to work on. Similarly, if your left hook is unstoppable, try playing with your rear hand. The gym is like a laboratory where we should be able to experiment (play) with techniques without the fear of injury. We have training partners, not training opponents. Obviously the level of play changes from partner to partner and those who have been in the game longer will be able to up the level of play and still keep a good level of control. 

I have had students go to Thailand to stay in fight camps to train and compete professionally in Muay Thai. Often they are shocked by how light the Thai Boxers spar (play). Not only is it light but invariably slow. How can they be such formidable fighters when the sparring is so light? Simple. They understand the principle of play. They understand it is about developing timing. They can do it hour after hour thus getting plenty of repetition. Try doing that hard. No chance! They also cannot afford to be injured as they compete almost every week for their income. Their hard sparring is the competition itself.


“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.”

Carl Jung
Swiss psychoanalyst

It is through play that you will discover the techniques you will use in fighting. It is through play that you will get the proper timing to apply these techniques. It is through play that all things evolve and it is through play that we learn to relate to our fellow men and women. 

All the best, Neil.