Secrets of Effective Offense — A Book Review
Secrets of Effective Offense: Survival Strategies for Self-Defense, Martial Arts, and Law Enforcement, by Marc MacYoung, The Lyons Press, 2005.
After scanning the martial arts section of our local library, my gaze slipping over the usual well-worn volumes on karate, jiu jitsu and taekwondo, I was surprised to find this fairly new hardback book by Marc MacYoung.
I was only very slightly familiar with MacYoung, recalling some street-fighting related books of his I’d once seen from Paladin Press, that survivalist, military and police tactics, firearms and shooting, or “action library” publisher (as they like to put it).
He calls himself now an ex-streetfighter (he used to have “The Animal” in the middle of his name) and a martial analyst rather than a martial artist. He espouses no particular style or school, although he seems to have trained with a variety of fighters and masters. I was surprised to find how much of what he describes relates to my own experience of western fencing, aikido and t’ai chi ch’uan.
That’s right, western fencing… One of his key concepts is that of fence: an effective defense which automatically means effective offense. You are in position to take action without being exposed yourself. Let me use an example from modern fencing, the envelopment, since that’s what I’m familiar with, although MacYoung is looking more at the life-and-death use of the sword from before modern sport fencing.
The opponent threatens with his blade. Its point is directed at your chest. You engage your blade with his, and maintaining continuous contact, rotate your wrist, turning both blades, until you arrive at almost the original engagement position. Except your point is now in a dominating position at his chest and his blade in contact with yours is, perhaps ever so slightly, deflected harmlessly away from you.
MacYoung isn’t talking about making this an unarmed self-defense technique, but about the principle of responding to an attack in such a way that you are free to take action without being exposed to the attacker’s retaliation.
He ties the importance of fence to the different levels of aggression where you might have to defend yourself or others. Most of us, unless we’ve grown up and developed our skills in more deadly streetfighting circumstances, have an unconscious assumption of a limited offense with its own standards. MacYoung makes the point that this is the level of all sports martial arts.
In real life, a physical altercation can begin with a limited offense and escalate into an unlimited offense, where there are no rules, and serious harm or even survival is at stake. Or, the passing meth addict or career criminal can go all unlimited on you immediately…
MacYoung’s criticism of “reality-based” fighting systems is that by adopting the unlimited offense mindset we set ourselves up for unpleasant legal and moral consequences.
At the unlimited offense level, fence is crucial. You have to be “concerned less with what you are going to do than with what he can do to you.” MacYoung says he likes to deal with people who rely on the axiom, “the best defense is a good offense.” They are always so focused on what they are doing, they leave themselves open.
He likens fence to a base for action that you have to develop in your opponent’s position.
MacYoung says fence can only come out of the three components of effective power delivery: range, structure and body movement.
In fencing, of course, this is crucial, and the distance between the combatants is called the measure. One’s sense of this distance becomes increasingly refined as experience develops. But in general for self defense and other martial arts situations, any technique has an optimum distance where it is most effective. A skillful fighter understands the effective range of any technique he might use and won’t attempt it if he’s not in that range.
Often in sports martial arts, the techniques become distorted because of the competitive rewards, where an out-of-range strike, for instance, may land sufficiently to score, but lacks power and takes the sports martial artist out of his body alignment. Correct range is determined by the vertical axis of your opponent. Manipulation of the vertical axis is the goal.
MacYoung says, “What few people realize is that moving into range is also body movement. In fact, it is the main source of your power.” (His italics.)
I’m thinking of the relevance to t’ai chi push hands here. Take this early video of Cheng Man-ch’ing, part of a TV show where Robert W. Smith is interviewed. At the push hands demonstration, and along at just under two minutes where the same is slowed down for us, watch Cheng’s feet where he adjusts his distance to his partner for the right range, and that adjustment becomes part of the power of his push.
You can see the same, if subtle, distance adjustments for correct range in this video (which I like a lot for his infectious laugh) of Master Wang Chieh. Not so much in the beginning sequence with a Chinese partner but when he begins to push with westerner Mike Martello.
MacYoung points out, “If you are in the wrong range for a technique, any attempt to either compensate for it by adjusting your arms or deliver more force by using more muscle will almost inevitably destroy your structure. (His italics).
Structure here means correct alignment of the body to deliver power. MacYoung does not spend much time on body details but I think we can see how body alignment in both t’ai chi and aikido, where there is emphasis upon a straight carriage and an internal sense of the vertical axis, might serve us well here.
MacYoung states that with the right structure both the generation and reception of force seem relatively effortless.
“Amazingly enough, this is often misinterpreted by people who don’t think they did anything because it didn’t feel like hard work. People often will train themselves to hit incorrectly because it feels as if they are hitting harder when they don’t have structure. (His italics.)
My aikido sensei always tells us when practicing, especially when first learning a technique, to not apply intentional power. “Just practice correctly and diligently, and the power will develop itself.” This helps to escape this kind of problem. Focussing on the end result too much distorts the process. People will still be thrown hard without much effort as practice develops and you maintain the correct structure.
MacYoung goes on to reiterate: “My point is that the old masters move into range and their structure then allows that body movement to be turned into force that is delivered to their opponent. It also allows them to handle incoming force from their opponent without being knocked over, which is another wonderful benefit of structure.”
3) Body movement
MacYoung says there are five components to effective body movement: 1) moving into range, 2) weight transference, 3) eliminating unproductive movement, 4) coherent movement or right timing, and finally only if these conditions are met, 5) acceleration.
Just the simple matter of weight transfer is not so straight forward if you haven’t focussed on it. Fortunately, if you practice t’ai chi or aikido, you will have brought some attention to this.
Correct movement brings you momentum. I think of the Cheng Man-ch’ing form I practice, which sometimes feels like one pulse of momentum carried from one end of the form to the other.
“What many people fail to realize is that the simple act of stepping into range is your freight train,” MacYoung reminds us. In effective offense you enter into range and continue to press attacks without stifling your momentum. This is also part of finding the positions to use your opponent’s momentum against him.
This is important on the defensive side as well: it is important to practice destroying an attacker’s effectiveness through movement. Many people, including martial artists, fail to move when an attack is incoming. They might block, but they won’t move immediately. This can’t lead to fence.
In aikido, we are taught that the first requisite of meeting any attack is to get off the line of the attack. Immediately improve your chances of surviving that first assault and begin to find the fence position where your counter cannot be met. (This video offers excellent examples of aikido movement, structure and range.)
There is more in MacYoung’s book, much more, with simple exercises, photos to illustrate many of his points, and chapters on blocking and deflecting, parrying and countering, and reconsidering what you already know.
But I think this gives you a sense of his approach, which I found refreshing. I’m not very interested in fighting as such but I’ve always felt that defending yourself and those around you is a basic right and obligation. In that context, I found it a valuable read.
Notes on images:
The fencing image comes from http://www.thearma.org/Youth/rapieroutline.htm .
The push hands photo can be found at http://www.metal-tiger.com/Wu_Tang_PCA/NorthernWu.html .
That wonderfully photographed aikido image is from http://martial-arts-pictures.blogspot.com/2008/01/power-of-female-aikido.html .