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Angular Attack Theory: An Aikido Perspective

by Todd Jones

Published Online

Todd Jones in action

Angular attack theory is a conceptual framework that is taught in many martial traditions in one form or another. A fundamental comprehension of attack theory is essential to successfully effectuating defensive strategy and tactics. Ignorance of the construction, tactics, and strategy of attacking guarantees defeat. That said it is a difficult task to convey these concepts in writing, but here goes…

This treatise provides a glimpse into our approach to its study but is by no means a comprehensive treatment of the topic. Angular attack theory serves as a bridge to understanding and communicating strategic and tactical concepts in various martial traditions. An understanding of angular attack theory will help to ensure that applied aikido techniques possess martial integrity and are truly effective.

Before we delve into the intricacies and details of angular attack theory, it is imperative that certain contextual and definitional issues be addressed first: please bear with…

Perception colors perspective. Perspective affects philosophy. What a person believes is a function of their intelligence, experience, education, and circumstance. Disagreement is usually a matter of insufficient commonality. When one or more parties to a disagreement are sufficiently lacking in experience (i.e. maturity and/or patience), we frequently observe physical altercations.

Physical altercation, controlled or uncontrolled, is nonetheless a form of communication that reveals much about an individual’s psychological makeup. As such, karate kumite, aikido randori, and kendo or judo shiai, represent nothing more than physical “conversations.” If you watch closely, regardless of the art being practiced, you will learn much about any participant’s personal style of, or approach to conflict resolution. This ability to observe a personal style of interaction is not limited to activities in the dojo; the way a person walks, the way a person holds posture, the way they speak, are all telltale signs to be observed and chronicled.

In modern budo, we train for many reasons, but all martial arts eventually require some degree of physical interaction. Whether you train for self-defense, general health and conditioning, sportive competition, artistic pursuit, or some combination of the aforementioned; intimate contact with another human will become necessary at some point. And despite that every human body is essentially constrained to a limited set of biomechanical capabilities and therefore limitations; depending on your chosen martial path that contact will be more or less damaging to your body. Every endeavor has a learning curve and every person learns at a slightly different pace. So, no two experiences are, or can ever be the same. Therefore, how we come together is the essential distillate on many different levels.

Human beings are competitive by nature. And although “winning and losing” is a topic worthy of an article, or book, of its own, it is not the central theme of this article. From a competitive perspective, winning or losing is merely the outcome of a game. From the standpoint of discussing self-defense, it is a matter of life or death. Individuals practicing an artistic pursuit may not even recognize the concept as having any validity whatsoever. Perspective can dictate philosophy. Part of learning to be successful and happy in life is learning to understand the perspectives, and agendas, of others whom we encounter and have to deal with. Knowing where they are coming from and what they really want are critical to finding commonality and seeking agreement… ending conflict. Aikido.

The cornerstones of physical interactive success are skill, conditioning, and experience. All things being equal, a shortcoming in any of these three categories virtually insures defeat. A budoka with superior skill, who is in top shape, and is experienced at physical interaction, should never fail. A budoka with superior skill, who is in top shape but lacking interactive experience may fail, but may get lucky if the conversation drags out long enough. Likewise, a budoka with superior skill and experience, who is not in top shape, will prevail over another who is in top shape but lacking in experience. Thus explains the old adage, “youth and exuberance are no match for age and experience!” Of course, even a skilled budoka who is out of shape and lacking interactive experience is doomed to fail.

Before this discussion can go much further it is imperative that certain concepts and terms are clearly understood. Most disagreements stem from misunderstandings…

The Line is simply understood as a ray extending through each partner’s center, regardless of where they move. Angular attack theory advocates that although the shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, it is not necessarily the path of least grief.

The Gap is the space between the two partners. “Bridging the Gap” is a dangerous exercise worthy of much study, and angular attack theory is central to success. Boxing, judo, karate, kendo, and most other competitive arts focus in this area. It is arguably the Achilles heel of most aikido practitioners and the reason many other martial artists criticize aikido training methods.

Zones: there are several types to discuss. Spatial Zones vary, based on person-specific physical and psychological factors. Spatially, the outermost is the Zone of Influence; this is the point at which an advancing individual causes a physical reaction in their opponent. For example, a step backwards, or a raising of the hands, is an indication that the aggressor has entered their opponent’s Zone of Influence, because they have influenced that person’s behavior.

The next closest zone is referred to as the Effective Striking Range; it is the area between the maximum range of a person’s back leg kick, and the maximum range of a lead hand strike in karate. Many aikido and kendo techniques are executed in this range, because it is the range that karate and kendo practitioners are most comfortable at. Finally, the Throwing Zone is the area inside the Effective Striking Range; this is the zone that judo and jujutsu practitioners prefer, for obvious reasons.

Physical Zones include High, Middle, and Low body areas. Most agree that the High zone is above the nipple line, the Middle zone is between the nipples and the groin, and the Low zone extends from the groin to the feet.

Maai is the Japanese term that refers to space-time/rhythm and distance relationships related to “Bridging the Gap.” How one gets from here to there is the real problem in effectively addressing conflict, physical or otherwise. Functions of maai that must be intimately understood include distance, angle (X, Y, and Z axis), rhythm, and speed.

The Compass and the Clockface are virtually identical concepts that relate the two-dimensional spatial relationship between the two opponents or partners. You should imagine that you stand in the center of a giant compass or clockface; your partner is standing at north or twelve o’clock. These concepts are especially useful in multiple-attacker training.

Defensive Footwork delineates three categories of responsive movement and each reflects a particular psychological persuasion. Jamming is any responsive footwork that moves you toward the attacker between the NE and NW compass points. Jamming is irimi. Jamming is endemic to bold, self-assured, or impatient individuals. Blocking is any responsive footwork that tends to hold ground including movement between the NE and SE or NW and SW compass points. Humans are territorial by nature; otherwise we would need national boundaries. Eighty percent of karate practitioners fall into the blocker category of defensive footwork. Running, or Moving, is any responsive footwork that moves you away from the attacker between the SE and SW compass points. Runners are typically high-strung, frail, and cautious people. Responsive footwork is more important to note than attack style; it is the clue to understanding your opponent or partner. Knowing how they are likely to react is key to successfully bridging the gap.

Initial orientation and stance considerations have four components:

1. Posture, attitude, kokoro. In Japanese, the word kokoro translates as both physical and psychological attitude; how adept! What is the initial placement/orientation of the hands (e.g. boxer’s guard)? Is there torso inclination? What is the stance width and depth? Does the particular stance favor power generation or mobility?

2. The initial angle of the feet. Is the person in riding, triangular, or natural stance?

3. Orientation: The relationship of one partner’s feet to the other person’s. Are you in an open-open (gyaku hanmi) or open-closed (ai hanmi) orientation?

4. Vector: What initial stepping movement occurs and at what clockface angle? Essentially, there are only a few different steps to learn. The pivot step is referred to as tenkai in aikido terminology. An avoidance step is called tenkan. The J step is tenshin-ashi, and shuffle stepping (tsugi-ashi) can be done several ways: lunging, shuffling, slide up, or skipping. Alternating or running step (e.g. normal walking or sprinting) is another, sometimes called ayumi-ashi. Spinning step is sometimes called furi-ashi, and also there is circle stepping where one moves along a perimeter.

5. Consideration must also be given to the vertical or Z axis. In aikido we practice hanmi handachi, in judo it’s a little different, in karate and kendo we target high, middle, and lower body targets. A spinning sickle sweep requires a different defense than a flying, spinning horse kick.

Observation: After years of teaching, it has become apparent that it is just as important to teach proper observation of the demonstration because it facilitates rapid understanding. Students should first observe the demonstrators’ initial orientation (i.e. open-open or open-closed relationship). The next point to note should be the stepping employed by each partner. After understanding those elements, the initiator’s (e.g. aite or uke) first action (e.g. grab or strike) should be observed. Finally, the respondent’s (e.g. shite or nage) redress should be noted.

The Risk-Benefit Ratio is a measure of an attack’s relative risk/benefit. A boxer’s jab, for instance, is a low risk, low benefit technique if executed by itself. You will not incapacitate your opponent with a jab, but you will not be very exposed to counterattack either. On the other hand, a jumping, spinning hook kick has a high risk, high benefit ratio. If the kick lands, such a technique can easily disable an opponent; but usually it doesn’t land. A flying, spinning backhand strike, is a good example of a high risk, low benefit technique. Chancing such a feeble attack puts one more at risk than anything else.

Angular Attack
So, finally, we are at a point where we can address the thesis of this article. There are five categories of Angular Attack for bridging the gap.

Now that we have established functional definitions for basic communication, it is possible to address more technical matters. Martial art techniques are like tools in a toolbox; the more you have, the more you can do. Depending on the tool selected, one can build or destroy. That said the process of learning angular attack theory may require a temporary abeyance of ethical considerations in training in order to permit an exploration of the available opportunities. Technical response and target selection in basic angular attack theory training may not present the highest possible ethical ideals only because the emphasis is on technical simplicity and communicating theoretical concepts. Once the concepts are understood, the user will gradually be able to adjust target and technical selection befitting their personal comfort in any given application. The higher the skill differential, the more benevolently one may respond.

Each of the five major approaches to angular attack can be executed on any of the 360 degrees available, but for simplicity’s sake, we generally restrict introduction to the commonly understood major angles of the compass and clockface. The most efficacious way to practice is via controlled one-steps (i.e. one attack, one defense (if any)). Start with attacking only and have the receiver simply maintain maai, if possible. Later, a defensive response can be introduced.

Direct Approach: This is the simplest form of a complete attack; a single strike. Examples include a boxer’s jab, a single kick, or a shomenuchi.

Regardless of the initial orientation, a single hand strike, thrusting technique, or kick can be applied quite effectively if properly executed on any angle if the opponent/partner has been properly set up. Being direct is rarely successful, but this is all most aikido practitioners are taught to defend against. The reason is that more complicated attacks present less predictability, therefore more dangerous encounters not easily controlled.

Shomenuchi or yokomenuchi, executed off the forward or back side, are classic examples of direct attacks. Tsuki, executed stepping through off the back side is suicidal; but every aikido master this author has ever seen teaches it. None teach defense against the jab, yet a host of aikido techniques are directly applicable. In the West, the jab and the haymaker (yokomenuchi) are the most common striking assaults in self-defense situations. And yet, these are the simplest assaults to defend against. While it is imperative to address theoretical concerns at the kyu level, practical applications can be relatively safely introduced to dan grade adherents.

There are any number of effective direct attacks that can be explored. Jab, various lead leg kicks, running reverse punch, and retreat side kick (none of which most readers will properly interpret) are all examples of effective direct attacks. Exploration of effective application requires the utilization of partner drills and compass angles for both open-open and open-closed orientations.

Indirect Approach: This is simply a direct attack that includes a feint. A feint is defined as anything that elicits a physical response in one’s partner; if they don’t move, it’s NOT a feint… it’s a waste of energy. Worse, it could present an opportunity for your partner. An initial feint is intended to create an opening to be exploited, that’s why boxers throw so many jabs. Jabs are typically followed up by a reverse punch or a same-side kick; react to, or focus on the jab and you will suffer from its partner. Traditional aikido ignores this approach.

Imagine if you will, two opponents of approximately the same size, both in hanmi posture, in an open-closed orientation, standing just outside one another’s effective striking range with their right legs forward. Assume one executes a right jab to the other’s face, and left reverse punch targeting the solar plexus, propelled by a sliding shuffle step in a northwest direction. The jab may be a feint, merely intended to draw the eye and create a distraction and an opening for the body punch; however if the attacker’s legwork is capable, the jab may be intended as an opening salvo… one of at least two. If well trained, in application the attacker will not have committed his attack until having tested the waters to observe the defender’s reactions first, but this is just a training drill… an exploration. In most cases, the attacker will not know with certainty if this initial bridging of the gap is successful until he is committed to the assault and actually makes contact. Then the challenge will be to prevent the defender’s reestablishment of the gap, before he can be scored upon, subdued, disabled, or killed. In application, the actual target selection and ultimate objective will of course vary depending upon the venue.

This drill can and should be modified for angle of attack (the compass and/or clock face) and selection of technique. It is important to explore each of the eight primary angles of the compass, if not all twelve of the clock face. For example, a reverse punch generally has insufficient reach if the angle of attack is east (three o’clock) or west (nine o’clock). And be especially careful never to allow your chest to become perpendicular to the line of attack inside the effective striking zone. In addition, it is just as important to explore using the feet to set up a hand assault as it is to use the hands to set up for a kicking assault. It’s no more or less embarrassing to get swept and punched on the ground, than it is to get kicked in the head. A thorough understanding of the nature and complexities of attacking will ensure a more successful defense.

So, there are two sides to these drills: the attack and the defense. When just beginning to study angular attack theory, it is imperative to focus on the attacks. Later, one can integrate defensive responses with martial integrity due to an ability to validate the response. Bear in mind that the defensive response is an attack of its own; the response can be a technique from aikido, judo, jujutsu, or karate. In reality, there is no difference between attack and defense; those terms are just a way to explain who started the conversation.

One very practical defensive response to the jab, reverse punch attack is an ikkyo applied against the initial jab assault. Applied correctly, it takes no more time than the jab and has an equivalent risk/benefit ratio.

Immobilization Approach: This category includes trapping moves and check kicks; any technique that cripples your partner’s ability to block, deflect, or strike back. Better than a feint is the ability to physically preclude an opponent’s ability to respond. Preventing a defensive kick with a check kick or trapping the forward arm while bridging the gap is superior to drawing a reaction because the opponent’s mobility is compromised. O-Sensei’s text, Budo, clearly communicates this approach in his demonstration of ikkyo. It is nage who first raises his forward hand to shomenuchi, as a means of drawing a defensive response from uke, before applying the ikkyo. This is a classic example of benevolence in action. O-Sensei had a choice to either care for his “attacker” by employing ikkyo, or he could have struck with the shomenuchi. It is the choice made in these moments that defines a warrior’s true spirit and character.

Much of traditional aikido training employs this approach to bridging the gap, but from a defensive mindset. We move at different angles on the clock face, blend with the attack, and execute a neutralizing response. Most of us do not spend nearly enough time studying this approach offensively; the techniques work just as well, and with less risk.

Broken Rhythm Approach: This category addresses timing and rhythmic delivery of an attack while bridging the gap. A metronomic attack is predictable and therefore presents opportunity for your partner to counter.

Bobbing, weaving, ducking, and dodging are not exclusively defensive tactics, nor are shuffling, bouncing, skipping, or circling stepping movements. Employing a Morse code kind of code to describe the timing of delivery is extremely effective in mastering the deceptive delivery of any attack. Broken rhythm is unarguably the most difficult of the five approaches to master, but it is likewise the most effective way to bridge the gap. Most students learning to attack develop natural rhythms; most are metronomic, very consistent tempos. Consistent tempos provide the opponent a wonderful opportunity to find the half beats; that can become extremely annoying. Once one learns to become unpredictable, all kinds of openings and opportunities present themselves. This is the equivalent to being in Aikido’s shikaku for a sport karate player. Traditional aikido ignores this approach because it is the antithesis of the connectedness sought in blending. Further discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

Combination Approach: This category is any combination of the preceding approaches.

All said and done, nothing is quite so gratifying, or effective, from an attacker’s perspective, as to overwhelm and dominate one’s opponent. That includes successfully projecting or immobilizing one’s uke; remember, there is no difference between attack and defense! Any combination of the preceding approaches, in combination, represents the pool of opportunity encompassed by the Combination Approach. Traditional aikido ignores this approach except for the “collar grab with a strike” attacks and the kumi-jo, kumi-ken, and ken-tai-jo exercises. The reason is that without close supervision, exceptional control, and exceptional ukemi, the likelihood of injury is very great. That said it is not impossible, just dangerous. It is best to start slowly, as we do with basic weapons training. Practice free form one-steps at a slow enough speed and the chance of injury decreases dramatically. Gradually, the intensity of training can be increased, but be wary of accelerating too quickly. As with weapons training, mistakes are painful.

Conclusion
This has merely been a cursory explanation of angular attack theory with some very limited suggestions regarding training methodologies. Regardless of the martial discipline being analyzed, it has been this author’s experience that the theory facilitates comprehension and accelerates learning.