The HOW’s, the WHY’s and the WHEN’s

Courtesy of YouTube

One thing that separates an advanced practitioner and someone going through the learning curve is the HOW’s, the WHY’s and the WHEN’s. I often tell the higher level Taekwondo students I teach that being at advanced and/or black belt levels; you’re about done learning the WHAT. You know what a sidekick is. You know what a roundhouse is. You know a jab and a cross. Now it’s time to think about HOW to throw that front kick, WHEN is a good time to throw the axe kick, WHY do I throw the jab before the cross. Overall, understanding how to put those moves together. Having a method to how you approach your art. The same is true, of course, with Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ).

Courtesy of Shintaro Higashi

But I must make this known before I get into HOW, WHY and WHEN. First, people must learn the WHAT!! You must learn what the WHAT is first. You must learn the basics of concepts before you can learn any variation. It’s like giving someone the blue prints and design to a house but they don’t know how to use hammers, don’t know how to use power tools, build frames or even lay down a foundation. It makes no difference to teach the concept of when it’s best to open your guard or close your guard if the person you’re teaching doesn’t know WHAT guard is to begin with.

There’s no point in teaching HOW to do, WHY to do, or WHEN should I do it if you don’t know what “it” is to begin with. In other words, people beginning must learn the WHAT’s first. I will die on this hill!!

With that being out of the way, people who are dealing with advanced learning in martial arts must respect that higher levels are dealing in HOW, WHY and WHEN. When you’re trying to tap someone out, your mind isn’t saying “let’s hit the bow and arrow, now let’s move the leg high, turn and go for the armbar.” Experience will teach you to recognize openings and attack or defend. A boxer is focused more on getting his fist to the opponent’s face and not WHAT punch he’s going to hit the opponent with.

Courtesy of FIGHTMAG (Martin vs Duno)

It’s literally the basis for conceptual fighting or martial arts. It’s what many styles like Jeet Kune Do and different forms of Kali preach. Circular and angular movements. Weaponize the block. Not worrying about what the attack is more than worrying about the angle of attack. I’m more worried about the HOW, the WHY and the WHEN of certain things because if I understand those things; I can use and stop almost any technique. You can use any technique and even make up effective techniques and variations if you want. In order to break the rules, you have to understand what the rules are in the first place.

The HOW’s

The HOW in your fight game will determine how far you go as a practitioner. There’s being able to throw a high kick, then there’s throwing a high kick like Mirko Cro Cop in his prime. There’s moving your head then there’s moving your head like Canelo Alvarez. Many people can throw a power punch but how many can power punch like Francis Ngannou. There’s doing an armbar, then there’s being able to do armbars like Ronda Rousey. It’s not about being able to do it, it’s about being the best or at least really, really, really, really good at it.

Courtesy of Scraper’s Digest

I can’t tell you how many times I have to annoyingly have this conversation with people I teach despite me explaining this to them before.

It’s not WHAT you do but HOW you do it. 

Like I said in a previous blog with me cooking spaghetti as opposed to a professional chef cooking spaghetti. There’s probably going to be a difference between how the professional chef does it. There’s probably small things that he or she knows to add flavor to the dish that perhaps the average person like me doesn’t. The same with martial arts technique.

If you stop and think about it, it applies across many different activities and sports. This is reflective of my favorite NFL player (I know talk about other martial arts now I’m talking about football). To be blunt, my favorite football player is the guy who used to be the number 1 wide receiver for the Texans in Deandre Hopkins. Not because of bias due to where I’m from but because he is the epitome of TECHNIQUE over TALENT in my opinion. He’s not the fastest receiver but speed is something that has an expiration date anyway. He excels in his footwork, route running, creating separation, and of course his handles when catching a ball. 

Those things seem small and mundane but it’s him mastering those little things that gives him an edge over many players. Speed doesn’t matter if he can get open so often. At one point in time, he injured another player without even touching him. Being able to keep up with him can be futile if he can catch a ball every time, reliably, it comes his way. As opposed to dropping passes, not wasting time and not wasting downs. To guarantee those basic little things will always happen is what puts him on another level. In other words, he has MASTERED those little things.

Courtesy of USA Today

Just because you know how to do something doesn’t mean you can execute it well. Thus, making the HOW so much more important.

I’ve personally thrown vertical jabs and utilized a shoulder roll like Floyd Mayweather but I’m certain that he does it a little different …..and better. I can throw a kick to the leg but I can’t kick to the leg the same that Edson Barboza does. There’s something a little different that the experts do as opposed to everyone else which makes them experts. Whether it’s a tweak here, an extra turn of the foot there, how you turn your hand on a punch, a specific forearm placement on a choke, how to hug the ankle on a kneebar. Even changing levels on a simple jab-cross-hook combination can change the dynamic of an attack. Sometimes it’s just plain ole time spent on the mat or getting to know a technique.

The WHY’s 

Too often in striking do I see people just spam techniques without any methodology behind HOW and WHEN to use techniques. There’s a reason why boxing coaches emphasize so much on using jabs before throwing other punches. There’s a reason why the phrase “position over submission exists.” Those specific tactics have a purpose. Jabs are to start offense and create defense. In order to get most submissions you must secure your position. There’s a reason WHY you engage an opponent or a tactic a certain way. The same principle applies to even individual techniques.

Courtesy of Jiu Jitsu Legacy

For instance, you generally (or at least I’ve been taught) don’t want to cross your feet as you’re applying an armbar.


Because crossing feet will usually cause your knees to open and not create leverage around the elbow. I mean there’s a reason WHY I annoy the students I help and constantly tell them to rotate their feet when you throw a kick. 

Learning the WHY can even help you understand the context of a technique. 

For a long time, I didn’t know what this one technique I would do in patterns(katas) where you would move your hands past each other like repelling magnets. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was intended for clinch positions and hyperextending joints. For years I would have no idea what was the point of doing those moves in patterns other than for balance and overall coordination. What’s simple coordination for some is difficult for others. I didn’t realize how important those small things were…until I started teaching a lot. It’s paramount to get used to doing the small movements… WELL.

Courtesy of Sword Scolar

It’s about having exercises and movements that people don’t think about but makes a difference when someone is resisting or those half-seconds that matter in striking. Teaching movements that will matter in later techniques but we have to make time to drill them quickly. Keeping up with techniques by making a routine to drill them. Having a drill or routine to do for warming up or cooling down. A lot of movements aren’t made for hand-to-hand fighting; practitioners of old kept weapons and blunt objects in mind when making these routines. Making sure you have a base while standing to make optimal power or not be a literal push over with someone trying to take you down. It’s not equivalent to wrestling takedown defense but at least you won’t get shoved out of stance. Being able to do the same motion with my right as I can my left and not look like a right-handed person writing left-handed.

And of course in stand-up fighting, FOOTWORK is key. Having coordinated feet matters. Especially in striking and in takedowns. Having feet in the right place to move and make balance is imperative. A part of what forms/katas do. As of the date of this writing, knee injuries have taught me a lot about why old guys emphasize a lot on forms/katas. Strengthening those small muscles and joints makes a huge difference. There’s different ways and methods of drilling things and that can vary from style to style or teacher to teacher.

Not everyone has to have the exact same method but at least have A METHOD. 

There’s a reason WHY TKD sparring is the way it is (trust me, they don’t think that’s how real fights are). There’s a reason WHY Olympic Judo matches don’t want competitors spending lots of time on the ground. Although it’s to a detriment, there’s a reason why Aikido people practice the way they practice. Although it’s to a detriment, there’s a reason why some BJJ academies don’t work stand up as much as maybe they should. BJJ focuses heavily on ground work and takedowns run the risk of injury depending on who’s practicing. Aikido puts a heavy focus on technique. Judo wants to put emphasis on throws and certain takedowns. TKD wanted a style of competitive sparring in which you can practice fighting and combative aspects like footwork and distance without sustaining a lot of damage and make a mode for people who aren’t the “fighters” to be able to practice. And I won’t lie, perhaps a means of doing more business on the Olympic front for TKD may have had something to do with it. That’s important too.

Courtesy of Olympics

The business of martial arts matters. The logistics of martial arts matters. The mannerisms of martial artists matters.

It doesn’t matter how good of a fighter or how technical of a martial artist you are; if you can’t handle business and respect people you will never fight for any promotion or stay at a gym or keep your place of practice afloat. Running the business of having a gym can overwhelm people and it can be hard to balance paying bills with making sure people receive the help that you want to give. Practitioners get a rude awakening when they realize that teaching or being a coach is an entirely different animal from being a practitioner or a coach. And yes, I know practitioners who aren’t where they are in their training because they don’t quite grasp or understand how to get along with training partners. 

I mean, as much as coaches and teachers love working with the athletes and the fighters of the fight world, the problem is that they often conduct themselves like athletes. And what I mean by conduct themselves like athletes is having an ego. There’s other small things but it mainly leads to ego. Egotistical habits like believing that being more athletic makes you the best. Being the best fighter gets you the most sway in the gym. Thinking that you should get promoted because you can out-spar whoever or because you can tap out whoever. In hanging around more boxing and MMA gyms in the past few years, I’ve seen all kinds of altercations and unnecessary drama. Full-on fist fights between training partners and all. 

Half of the time, it’s stuff that some of my first and second grade students could’ve resolved themselves…. or better yet not let the problem fester in the first place. 

It’s the reason WHY a lot of traditional martial arts have strict rules of etiquette. No asking higher belts to spar, bowing while stepping on the mat, referring to people as “sir” or “ma’am,” making sure the teacher doesn’t need to clean the mat and etc. Having some of those rules to keep order and keep egos in check. Sometimes rules are about setting the tone as well. If I make people do push-ups for being late, do you think I put up with people being rude to others on the mat? Almost having those forms of etiquette get in the way of training. When Taekwondo was first introduced to the Korean Roc army, you don’t think there were a few 18-20 something year old’s that thought they were a gift to the fight world? Keeping egos in check is the reason WHY BJJ academies have mat enforcers. If those egos go unchecked, then that’s how you get these toxic gym environments.

Courtesy of Pro Taekwondo School

 That’s how you get the extra drama. That’s how you get the bad sparring partners that hurt each other. That’s how you have people disrespect the coaches in the gym. That’s how people think it’s acceptable to be selfish and not consider others on the mat. That’s how a culture of “I can kick this person off the equipment just because I want to use it” builds… because we don’t check egos. And this will keep people out of the gym and to the point where you don’t have training partners or people paying memberships. By the way, a gym without an atmosphere that can attract and have people paying membership fees can’t stay afloat; those things are important. 

Knowing how to deal with things like gym drama, gym politics, martial arts business and fight bureaucracy is just as important as knowing and practicing martial arts technique. There’s no way around it. If you can’t create an environment for martial arts practice or competition, martial arts itself can never happen. No one wants to practice if you can’t guarantee some semblance of safety. Nothing can happen if you can’t create finances or a means of obtaining the bare essentials. Of course, people train in garages and work with what they can (which is the beauty of martial arts to begin with) but that requires knowledge of HOW to do things from established practitioners. That includes how to conduct training and WHY we conduct training in a certain way. 

Once again, if you understand the WHY’s, it’s a lot easier to understand HOW to use techniques and WHEN to use technique.

Courtesy of BJJ Fanatics

The WHEN’s 

Timing is everything. And it especially applies in hand-to-hand combat. There’s a time to be aggressive and a time to be patient. There’s a good time to pull guard and a good time to prefer top control. There’s a good time to use a technique and there’s a bad time to use a technique. Trust me; as a TKD practitioner who’s well versed in throwing spinning stuff there can be a horrible time to use certain techniques. That’s the importance of the WHEN.

People in the exquisite art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu say it very well; position over submission.

Shohei Ono (in white gi)

If you’re not in position or have a secured position, you’re probably not getting the submission. You’re not getting a sweep on the bottom of someone’s side control. You’re probably not choking anybody while stuck in someone’s closed guard (although people try all the time). You’re not getting any kind of choke if stuck in the bottom of someone’s mount. You’re definitely not doing anything while being flattened out belly-down. Perhaps there’s some trick to doing many of these things but only people who pull that off are black belts that know the HOW’s and WHY’s really, really well. For those ordinary practitioners, minding positions is key to not getting caught up in something stupid. 

That’s part of the reason striking coaches make such a huge deal about footwork. Your feet and movement will put you in those positions to deliver strikes… or perhaps avoid taking strikes. If your footwork is bad, it’ll keep you out of position, off balance, feeling awkward, or just stuck and not able to stay moving well. That’ll also throw your rhythm off. Hence throwing off your timing. 

That timing is your WHEN.  

Furthermore, things like footwork help you create those WHEN’s. As I just mentioned, they can create positions. In other words, create set-ups. My long range attacks set-up for my short range attacks. And my short range attacks set-up for my long range attacks. Sometimespeople put themselves into the line of attack and someone who is aware of their WHEN’s will capitalize on those opportunities. 

One huge example is a standing hook kick or a front leg hook kick…. a lot of people don’t know how to use it. And what I mean by that is when people try to use that kick for defensive purposes. It DOESN’T work that way. That’s a bad time to throw it. I’ll see people in karate or taekwondo or even some kickboxers try to use it in a defensive manner but get jammed up or thrown out of position and get hit themselves.

WHY you may ask… the kick is ultra precise and does not have any stopping power. If you throw a front leg hook kick in response to someone charging forward (and doesn’t give a crap about something barely touching them), more than likely your foot or heel will miss the target or not have enough power to do anything and their body will knock your leg (and body) out of position to take 2 or 3 hits you can’t see nor do anything about it. 

What’s a better way to use that kick you may ask…well doing the opposite and using it offensively(now I’m talking about the HOW). Throwing a front-leg hook kick in the middle of a combination or closing in the distance with it to follow up is a much more effective way of using it. If you use a front-leg hook kick defensively, you’ll only get yourself in trouble. And it’s like that with maneuvers all over martial arts. There’s a good time to do something and there’s an awful time to do something.

Think of someone giving up their neck while giving back control. Think of an MMA fighter going for a jab, cross and the other fighter changing levels for a takedown at the same time.

As an instructor I know puts so simply, “distance dictates weapon.” I’m not going to throw an elbow at someone standing 10 yards away from me. Just like I’m not going to try to do some 720 spinning kick while someone is within clinching distance of me. (A 720 whatever kick may not work either way)

Courtesy of How They Play

It’s the same principle as trying to choke someone with no lapels while you’re on the bottom side of full mount… especially if you are in an MMA fight.

Understanding WHEN to use your tools and techniques plays a major role in mastery. Many times, it takes critical thinking to realize the WHEN of your martial arts skills. 


What separates BJJ from other styles is that as you’re drilling technique, you’re usually covering the HOW’s, the Why’s and the WHEN’s. Since position is so imperative in grappling arts, it’s hard to go over technique without going over the specifics. Most times it’s just more efficient. If we’re going to go over uchi mata, we minus well go over the tie up and foot positions. If we’re going to go for an under-over armbar from guard, we minus well go over retaining guard and transitions from that armbar.

Understanding the HOW’s, WHEN’s and WHY’s in grappling doesn’t have as big a gap to cover like it does in striking arts. But at the same time, it can feel like that learning curve is huge since so many things can be done from so many positions and what might seem like a position of safety can turn into danger very quickly. And vice versa. But in order to recognize that danger or lack of danger, you have to understand those HOW’s, WHY’s and WHEN’s.

Eddie Bravo- Courtesy of Wikipedia

You have to understand those structures of method or else you’re just doing whatever for no rhyme or reason and the day some realizes that is a sad day for you. It’s the reason why it seems like black belts do random stuff and it works to whatever plan that looks like never existed in the first place. If you understand those HOW’s, WHY’s and WHEN’s you can manipulate any method you want; and be successful. Probably do whatever stupid method of whatever you want to do… because you understand those HOW’s, WHY’s and WHEN’s and can be creative with whatever you want. 

In order to maximize any art you must balance structure with creativity.

Get involved!

Get Connected!
Come and join our community. We are a community of like-minded artists who want to train and fight. Link with people around the globe while working or on vacation. Get some of our bad ass swag and rep us. Help us grow. No BS. No politics. Just training, fights and fun.


No comments yet