People often use the word pressure when talking about martial arts. It is quite a useful word, and it can be used to mean many different things. However, that also means that it can sometimes confuse matters slightly, when the instructor uses the word pressure to mean one thing and students then understand something a little different.
I like to use a few separate words in order to disambiguate. By using these terms consistently and discretely, I can ensure that I communicate my thoughts and coaching effectively, and I also ensure the clarity of my own thoughts about any particular matter.
In this article today, I would like to share some of my recent thinking about these terms.
Why not just use the word pressure?
The word pressure can mean lots of different things. You might feel pressure against your sword or arm, you might try to pressure your opponent into making a bad decision, you might apply psychological pressure to make them move away, you might even suffer from the pressure of a tournament situation and forget many of your techniques.
I have had experiences in tournaments, for example, where I returned to my corner after an exchange, and my ring coach tried to be helpful and told me that I need to use more pressure. Great. But what does that actually mean? What was I actually supposed to do? Which of the various possible pieces of advice did the coach actually intend?
Similarly, when trying to teach classes, I have found myself struggling to explain situations where you apply this pressure upon your opponent’s sword if you feel pressured by their attack… And then my students looked at me somewhat blankly until I managed to use better words to explain what I meant.
Disambiguating a term that has too many possible meanings allows me to communicate what I mean very precisely.
I tend to use the word pressure to refer to the physical pressure that one person exerts upon another person’s body, limb, or weapon. If the attacker makes a cut or throws a punch, and the defender intercepts it and pushes it to the side, that is the application of lateral pressure to keep the body safe.
We can then talk quite confidently about options when your opponent applies physical pressure onto your attack to the side, or pushing up, or pushing down, or simply resisting and pushing straight back against.
When your sense of touch perceives this pressure or that pressure, or a change of physical pressure, then you can perform your next action safe in the knowledge that you made a good choice because you perceived the physical pressure correctly.
I use the word threat to refer to the psychological pressure that can come about when one person uses body language or structure or positioning or movement to tell their opponent that some kind of attack is ready to launch.
If you consider a simple situation where one person simply pushes the other, there is certainly physical pressure (because of the push), but is there psychological pressure? There might be if these are two strangers in a bar, but it might also be two friends just pushing each other around a little for the fun of it. Both situations have physical pressure, but the amount of threat in each situation might be quite different.
If the person doing the pushing performed the push with one hand while raising the other hand in a fist, that definitely starts to look like a threat! The push remains a physical pressure, but the balling up and raising of the fist is threatening that a punch is ready to be thrown. The punch doesn’t actually have to be thrown; the mere act of raising the fist might be enough to convey sufficient threat for the other party to back down when they realise that the situation is about to escalate.
Sometimes the application of threat can de-escalate a situation. Sometimes, perhaps more often, it escalates the situation and the amount of danger for each party.
When I am fencing, I like to use threat to give myself some time to breathe. If I threaten a strong action straight down the middle then my opponent has to treat that seriously – if they don’t I hit them! And so it gives me a moment to catch my breath while my opponent decides that they need to change their plan, maybe stop attacking me so much, and do something else in order to deal with the point that I hold threateningly in their face.
I use the word stress to refer to the psychological pressure that comes about when the situation is one that the individual is not used to handling or that makes them uncomfortable.
Almost everyone will have had the experience of feeling stressed by a looming deadline, or feeling stressed by the fact that exams or competitions demand your very best skills right here and now, or feeling stressed that an important conversation is not going the way you intended or hoped it would.
In such situations, stress seems to reduce your ability to think clearly. It seems to make you forget skills or techniques or information that in any other situation would be easily accessible to you. It seems to make you make bad decisions when you get flustered. This is absolutely another kind of pressure, but it is something else that martial artists have to learn to deal with.
I am not a very competitive person. I usually have a high standard of practice with my martial arts, but when I enter myself into a competition, the stress begins to eat away at me. I don’t thrive in such situations; they make my life more difficult. This is one of the reasons that I do participate in tournaments every so often: to ensure that I can still work well outside my comfort zone, and that I can still call upon my skills and techniques even while under considerable stress.
Putting it all together
Thinking about these three terms separately, it is quite clear that they are each quite different, but that they all have a role to play in how we improve at our martial arts. Learning how to handle each of these things will improve your ability to perform, to spar, to play, or even just to participate in training sessions.
Since it can be entirely possible that your opponent applies physical pressure upon your weapon or limb as a direct result of the threat you have given, in such a way that you feel stressed by how the bout is going, it is useful to be able to talk about it using discrete and specific terminology.
I see it often that one person might be good at handling stress and understands physical pressure, but doesn’t really understand the application or receipt of threat; while another person might be great at perceiving and applying both pressure and threat, but then falls apart as soon as they become stressed. Being able to diagnose problems like this so that a solution can become apparently makes coaching so much easier and more effective.
My suggestion for readers is to think a bit more precisely about what you actually mean when you next talk about “pressure” in relation to the martial arts that you practise. Which flavour of pressure is this, and might that be better expressed using a different word in order to convey information more clearly and usefully?
And finally, a question for you. Does thinking about these separate terms help you to understand something better about your own practice, or about the practice of your regular training partners?
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.