Boards Don’t Hit Back

In the 1973 film Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee uttered some of his most profound and memorable quotes. Perhaps the most repeated of these quotes came during his interaction with Karate champion Bob Wall prior to a sparring match. As Lee and Wall bowed to each other before the fight, Wall held up a board in one hand and punched it with the other. The board can be heard hitting the ground off-screen in the distance, obviously broken into multiple pieces. In response to this, Bruce Lee stated his oft repeated and very true aphorism, “Boards…Don’t hit back!”

Very recently I was reminded of this quote when a middle-aged black belt (with over a decade of training in a Korean style…) visited my school to take a trial lesson. During the first lesson, I always stress to prospective trainees that effective punching requires doing so with proper targeting and at a proper distance. In my opinion, this is something that many arts and instructors fail to impart, yet they are absolutely crucial habits to develop from the very start. When one does not practice punching at a proper distance to their target, they will end up throwing thousands of punches which will always fall short of making contact. In the case of our black belt, they simply smiled and stated how many boards they could break, and assured me it would be a piece of cake.

But as they practiced with a live partner, it became increasingly clear that they were unable to make contact at a correct distance, even when they really tried. Instead each of their punches would stop at least 5 inches away from their intended target. Naturally, I explained that it wasn’t necessary to strike their classmate hard, but that being able to reach them and actually make physical contact between their fists and the partner’s body, was the goal. After a short period of time, the black belt then complained how awkward and uncomfortable the techniques felt and said it was unlike anything they were used to. By the end of the lesson, the black belt was still incapable of throwing slow, controlled punches and touching their target with a slight bend in the elbow, which would be necessary for proper follow-through in a real-world situation. They seemed quite discouraged and it didn’t surprise me when we didn’t hear back from this person following their trial lesson.

The problem experienced by this black belt could best be summed up as an inconsistent and unrealistic approach to training. This is because when they learned to break boards, they were instructed to punch “through” the target. Yet when paired with a real training partner, their previous martial art (or instructor) dictated they should do just the OPPOSITE and stop short of making contact with their partner each time.

This inconsistency in their training approach which says, “punch through boards, but if you punch a human, stop 5 inches away,” represents an unrealistic way to prepare for a real life situation. It’s exactly as Bruce Lee alluded to in his famous quote: boards don’t hit back, but people surely will, and they might even move around and try to avoid being hit in the first place.

There are many different styles of martial arts in existence, but the most effective are those which share a realistic approach to training the concepts which underlie the “techniques” and “movements,” namely distance, timing, and proper execution of force. Systems and styles may appear superficially different, but it is the concepts behind them, which make them fundamentally similar.

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