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“Slow Is Smooth, Smooth Is Fast”

A singularly misunderstood element of TFT is the fact that we preach slow practice.

It’s easy to dismiss what we’re doing at a glance since everyone knows that violence happens at full speed, right?

And, unfortunately for us, it requires several layers of explanation and then a fair amount of hands-on experience to get what we’re up to.

The two things you need to make injury the most likely outcome are accuracy and correctness. You need to strike a part of the body that can actually be broken (and gives good results when that happens) — but you also need to strike it hard enough and with enough follow-through to actually break it.

If you miss, nothing happens. If you hit it but not hard enough to break it, nothing happens. The problem is that accuracy and correctness cannot be learned with speed in the mix.

Trying to learn accuracy and correctness at speed in hands-on violence is as effective as learning to shoot by working on your speed draw and then emptying the magazine as fast as you can at the target. The results will be terrible. And those terrible results will convince you that you need more practice — at speed. This is not a sustainable path to mastery.

It would be far better to start slow, get used to pointing the thing downrange, firing a single shot and making adjustments based on where that shot went. In essence, being aware of your mistakes so you can fix them.

And so it is with hands-on violence.

Go fast and you make so many mistakes you can’t possibly be aware of them all. Most of the time you’ll miss. The rest of the time you won’t be striking hard enough — not enough of your mass crashing through — to cause that injury you absolutely need. Train fast and you’re training for haphazard chaos.

What you really want is to go slow enough to get everything exactly right. One square inch of you through one square inch of him. Your mass driving it three feet through him, trying to make the tool come out the other side. Displacing him and ending up standing where he was. You want to be acutely, embarrassingly aware of every mistake you make — missing the target, using an improperly configured tool (like a loose fist), losing your balance. You want these errors to pop up one at a time so you can register the error and adjust to correct it, training your brain to do exactly what you want, the way you want it, when you need to do it at speed later.

For training purposes, there are three limiting factors on how fast you can go:

  1. You get everything you want exactly right

    If you miss, slow down. If your mass wasn’t involved, slow down. If the joint break, throw, etc., didn’t work the way you intended, slow down. Adjust the rate to make your practice perfect.

  2. You are always in balance

    When you’re in balance you control where your mass goes — you can swing it like a sledgehammer. When you’re off balance, it’s no longer in your fists. Work at the rate where your balance is constant and absolute.

  3. Your partner can give you clean, clear reactions

    You want to train with useful sight pictures for success — every injury changes the shape of the human machine into a new configuration of targets and balance. Learning these shapes (reactions) allows you to use injury tactically, as well as increasing your rhythm and timing by learning to predict when and where different targets will appear. If you go faster than your partner’s ability to give clean reactions — if you make them afraid of what you’re doing — they’ll ball up and/or put a lot of useless noise into your learning. On the street, people have perfect reactions. On the mats, uninjured, it’s less so. Work at the rate where your partner can execute perfect reactions for you.

As long as all three of these remain true, you can work however fast you want. But if one or more are violated the answer is “slow down”.

Even with perfect targeting/movement and the balance of an Olympic gymnast your rate will be governed by how good your reaction partner is. An expert working with a beginner can only go as fast as the beginner’s reactions allow. A beginner working with an expert will be limited by their lack of skill and balance challenges.

The goal in training is to work slowly to increase both partners’ abilities in these three areas, gradually adding in speed as the skill-sets allow. Working at speed — successfully — can be achieved faster than most people would believe, but only if you take the slow road to mastery.

Real violence is indeed done at full speed — you need to do it as hard and as fast as you can — but your success will depend on how you trained for that moment. And for our purposes slow is perfect…

…and perfect is nonfunctional.

–Chris Ranck-Buhr
   TFT Master Instructor

PS: Our year-end half-off live training class special ends tomorrow. These classes are where you quickly (in just 2 days) and easily learn to apply the principles of “Slow Is Smooth, Smooth Is Fast”. But you must act now.

Here’s where you can find all the details about these one-of-a-kind sessions.

14 comments… add one

  • Ymarsakar December 30, 2011, 12:41 pm

    A lot of people on the internet are ignorant about martial arts as well as a lot of other stuff. People new to TFT years ago, like me, did try to perhaps reexplain things, but I saw that those efforts didn’t go anywhere fast. People on the net mostly don’t train, and when they don’t train, explanations are worthless. Even with training, the wrong training also makes explanations worthless because most people’s training are external: muscle based rather than principle based.

    TFT is one of the few hybrid internal/external systems that combines physical training with mental training. Things like what Chris mentioned, the attacker working at the pace of the defender in the reactions, is the same as ukemi in aikido or judo. It’s a cooperative venture. If the person doesn’t know how to fall, one cannot use throwing techniques that send them flying, since they can impact the ground with their neck. But I think TFT has found an excellence balance between training the mind to accept new ideas and training the body to make use of such ideas.

    Tai Chi Chuan also has a bad reputation for being too slow for external martial artist’s preference. But what I like to tell people is that Tai Chi Chuan is designed to output so much power (using body momentum), that if improperly done at speed it will drill out the user’s joints. Same as an improperly aligned fist will collapse into a sprained wrist when the full momentum of a body is behind it.

    Well this just means that even if you give people information for free, they won’t value it or know its use. Which just means some people will know knowledge and others will have fool’s gold. And that was the choice they made, not because of anything I did to them.

    A lot of people ask me “isn’t it dangerous to teach lethal applications, since the criminals can pick it up or foolish youths can use it in ignorance”. My obvious response is that if criminals could figure out a goal and put work into achieving it with a plan for the long term, they wouldn’t be criminals. They’d have a job. Then there are the stories of teenagers playing pranks on each other like grabbing a guy’s legs while he tries to high jump from a plank into a pool, causing him to land in the water head first and die. Those are incidents of “true ignorance”. I know one guy whose nephew died because of that. And the kids had no knowledge of such “lethal applications” many folks find “dangerous to teach”.

  • Jim December 30, 2011, 2:15 pm

    The last sentence may be a little confusing to some (okay, perhaps just to me). The body of the article, which I agree with wholeheartedly, makes the point that slow practice is the only way to truly know (not just memorize) the technique. But then the last sentence says that while slow is perfect, perfect is nonfunctional (which would lead some to connect the two as “slow is nonfunctional”). Did you mean that slow is nonfunctional in a real violence situation?

    • Brian December 30, 2011, 2:46 pm

      Jim he most likely meant that in a real fight, the violence you inflict will be perfect (because you practiced slow and made your technique perfect), thus you will render the individual nonfunctional.

    • Ymarsakar December 30, 2011, 2:52 pm

      He means the perfect goal in TFT training is to render the enemy non-functional. That is the result desired. For clarification, he should probably edit in “non-functional enemies” or something.

      A lot of martial artists and fighters can do their favorite moves quickly. But when you tell them to do it slow, they start having some problems. Only people who really know the order the muscles move in, mentally not just physically, can do it slowly as well as quickly. Because slower is actually more difficult than faster. The mind has to grasp the movement order completely in order to do it slowly. Whereas often times natural coordination and athleticism can allow someone to reproduce a move at speed.

      Slow movements train intent and concentration. Mental elements focused amongst internal arts, such as Tai Chi Chuan.

      There was a story in Japan about two lovers. One day a man eating tiger caught the woman and killed her. The man then vowed that he would have revenge, no matter what. He went around hunting with a bow and arrow for that tiger, and when he finally saw one in the field, he focused everything he had into making the arrow hit. This is the “zone” or complete focus that long range snipers or what not, speak of. The arrow went straight through the tiger and when the man came up to check to make the kill certain, he realized that the target he had struck was a stone that only looked like tiger stripes far away. Yet the arrow had penetrated into the stone itself. The rest of the villagers kept asking him to demonstrate his ability to punch an arrow through rock, but he never could afterwards.

      It’s a story of how the Japanese value “will power” or “killing saki” in blows. Normally the human mind has limiters on muscle power, allowing no more than 80% output. Any higher would cause destruction of muscle cells. But that’s how people with adrenaline who want to save their child, are able to output so much power. They released the limiters, mentally, on their body and put everything into what they thought would save their child. Women that could lift cars, could only do it once, because afterwards their spine and tendons and muscles were destroyed. But they did it. The human mind also has unconscious hesitations about hitting or hurting other humans. Training that out, is very difficult.

      This is why TFT values focusing in on targets and generating intent so highly. Combine this with body weight momentum and there is a huge untapped reservoir of power that Westerners are just beginning to understand. Currently, still a lot of ignorance around.

      • Tim Larkin January 1, 2012, 10:39 pm


        I understand your thinking and most people do describe violence in terms of good guy/bad guy , attacker/defender, white hat/black hat. We prefer to use the terms winner/loser when it comes to violence.

        This is describing the results of acts of violence and not the legal or moral standing of the act. Some think this is merely a game of semantics but it truly does cause hesitation if you put ideas like good and bad into the mix.

        Predators don’t think like that and when it comes to asocial violence you want to insure you train your mind and body to respond to the triggers without having any social filters that cause hesitation.

        This often can be misconstrued as being overly aggressive or promoting illegal acts of violence but we have clearly mapped out the narrow window where this training would ever be used.

        Most critics haven’t taken the time to actually review our program and make gratuitous assumptions.

  • Robert December 30, 2011, 3:56 pm

    Another excellent article; thank you, Chris! It did, however, bring up a question: Since going slow also prevents injury to reaction partners, when you Master Instructors train at speed it must require “pulling punches” to preclude injuries. How do you “pull punches” without training in a bad habit that could be a disaster on the street? Thank you! Robert

    • Tim Larkin January 1, 2012, 7:54 pm

      Robert –

      We don’t pull punches, we give full speed reactions.

      It’s understood at that level of training if you don’t get out of the way of the strike it is your fault as a reaction partner.

      This skill set is only developed using the training methods Chris describes in this article.

      • Robert January 2, 2012, 6:44 am

        Thank you very very much for your answer! Obviously, I had no idea of this alternative. Robert

    • Ymarsakar January 3, 2012, 1:36 pm

      An individual that knows how to react safely, also known as ukemi skills, will be able to be thrown, locked, or hit and move their body so that they don’t take the brunt of the force. They instead absorb the force or dissipate it by prolonging the contact duration while decreasing the total kinetic force.

      This is at near full speed, but requires equal skill levels between two people. One of the benefits of such ukemi training is defense, balance, and being able to anticipate and move away from force before it is too late. This is not mentioned by the TFT system because it’s an additional complicating factor that is categorized as “defense” and TFT prefers to focus on offense. Because there is such a significant difference between a general traumatic hit and damage to organs and joints, it allows a person with a high level of ukemi training to protect their vital points or turn a hit that would generate injury into a general contact hit instead. But it’s not something people can learn in two day seminars, so it is not mentioned as being a component the system can teach. It’s more of a skill people gain with dedicated years of training. Although TFT, because it does so much of this type of training, will educate students far more quickly than judo or aikido in ukemi.

  • Jim December 31, 2011, 12:36 pm

    I conceptually understood the slow practice from watching the DVDs and other experience, but I did not viscerally understand it until after taking the weekend course. In some ways, it’s easier done than said. It definitely increases your focus and magnifies your mistakes. Put another way,it slowly polishes your skill.

  • Lonnie January 1, 2012, 9:11 am

    “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” was also taught to me when I started shooting practical rifle. Accurate fire and movement with an AR is best achieved in this manner. I then realized it was also a non-spoken method taught by my martial arts instructor; one of those things that sometimes is picked up intuitively through teaching of concepts rather than kata (not to take away from kata practice, of course!). I started practicing ‘at the speed of Tai Chi’ and found I was getting smoother, more focused striking and kicking.

    Great stuff!

  • Charles Staley January 3, 2012, 12:31 pm

    In my former life as a martial arts instructor, I would often ask a student to throw a jab as fast as possible, and then the same jab very slowly. Afterward, I’d ask them to notice how, during the fast punch, awareness is focused on the start and the finish only, as opposed to the slow punch, where awareness is evenly distributed along the punch’s entire path. If you can’t do it well slowly, you certainly can’t to it well quickly…

    • mike January 7, 2012, 10:39 pm

      Charles, how true.

      The aikido terminology(ukemi) and the mimicing of injury via reactions from properly applied kenetic energy to a target are not the really the same thing. I suppose the movement might be considered similar but the reason for the reaction is for the training of a skill not for developing the ability to avoid injury. It is not a ki thing or conditioning thing. The intention is to train a person to understand what injury will look like when they do it to someone. I have not seen anyone do a forward roll from a proper injury. Having said that it does help to know how to hit the mat from a height…say after a good hip throw.

      • Ymarsakar January 17, 2012, 8:56 pm

        Training methodologies are training methodologies. There’s no relevance to comparing two training methodologies if one is not seeking unification or union of two disparate issues.

        Differences are a dime a dozen. Knowing them is not important. Good training comes from combining what is useful for one’s goals. I never mentioned Ki. That is something people raise because they want to pick at some internet debate argument as if it has relevance and substance. It’s not part of the goal, and if that is so, it is not part of the methods in vogue.


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