Control, Not Aggression

I can’t count the number of times I have heard someone told; “You need to be more aggressive.” The result of this advice is that the fighter starts to close distance with other fighters and swing more.

On the surface, that doesn’t seem too bad; the fighter is getting into range and throwing shots. Those seem like much better options than not being in range and not throwing shots. The problem is that “be more aggressive” does not fully define the problems that need to be addressed, what is causing that problem, nor does it offer the optimal solution to those problems.

There are two specific problems that tend to be defined as “not being aggressive enough.” The first problem is range control. The subject fighter is not controlling range and is ending up at the worst possible range. The second is fight control. The subject fighter is ceding control of the fight to the opposing fighter and allowing that person to set the timing and pace of the fight.

Range Control

When the subject fighter fails at range control, he or she is getting trapped at a non-optimal range, usually within the reach of the opposing fighter and outside his or her own reach. This can be due either to the superior range control abilities of the opposing fighter, or, more commonly, due to both of them being bad at range control and the subject fighter not making any effort to alter the default range the encounter happens at. In the second case, this can be due to ignorance of the correct range, or a disinclination to get any closer to the person swinging sticks at them.

Telling the subject fighter to be more aggressive results, at best, in him or her charging closer, where “closer” is a nebulous undefined thing that is simply “nearer than he or she was fighting at.” Identifying the actual problem and the cause allows the fighter to be educated and understand what they need to do to improve. Failure to do so results in a fighter who charges recklessly forward to “be more aggressive.”

The correct answer in this case is to discuss ranges and range control. Explain the concepts of “out of range”, “in range of one fighter but not the other”, and “in range.” The second choice is usually the one the subject fighter is making; they need to be taught that this is the range you never want to be hanging around at*. This discussion usually brings to light why the subject fighter is unwilling to close to “in range.” This reason could be fear of getting hit, fear of running into the other person, simple ignorance that they should be closing that far, or some other reason. This reason can then be discussed and resolved.

For example, a fighter I worked with recently was hanging out in my ideal range and allowing me to hit him at will. This happened even when we started out of range and I allowed him to close and set the range. I stopped our sparring, demonstrated that he was unable to hit me even if I stood completely still, and that I could still hit him. I then stepped back to where I could not hit him, and indicated that this was his “out of reach” range. Then I stepped forward until I was just in range of him. Comparing these three ranges allowed him to see where he should and should not be fighting. He had been unwilling to get closer because he was concerned he would get hit. Illustrating that he was already close enough to get hit from where he had been stopping, and that stopping there just meant he couldn’t hit me back, encouraged him to choose his ranges more carefully.

Fight Control

The second problem that gets hidden under the bushel basket of “be more aggressive” is ceding control of the fight to the opposing fighter. The subject fighter allows the opponent to choose when to attack or throw shots. The subject fighter is then told “be more aggressive”, which is translated as “throw more shots.”

The issue with this solution is that “throw more shots” is not the same thing as “control the fight.” Throwing shots, simply for the sake of being “more aggressive”, does not mean the fighter is taking control of the fight. It means the fighter is acting, but does not specify the reasons for the action, different choices for taking action, or how to choose specific actions. In the very worst case, the now “aggressive” fighter falls for the baits of the opposing fighter and is “aggressively” ceding control of the fight by doing exactly as his or her opponent wishes.

This highlights the difference between “fight control” and “aggression.” Controlling a fight means that the fighter determines not only his or her own action, but also provides the stimulus that the opposing fighter reacts to. Ideally, this gives the subject fighter control not only of how he or she acts, but also how the opposing fighter acts. This control is not as simple as “throw a shot”, nor does it often take the form of throwing a shot; a fighter could bait a shot from the opposing fighter, controlling the fight by controlling the shot the opponent throws. This would then be used as a setup for a block and a specific riposte that the opposing fighter’s attack opened up. Given that it is all too often fighters with less range who are being told to be more aggressive, and that drawing a specific shot is an excellent way to close range safely, telling these fighters to “be aggressive” can actively hurt their success rate.

The correct course of action is to tell the subject fighter to take control of the fight. If the opposing fighter acts in a way he or she is not ready for and has not chosen to invite, the subject fighter should disengage so the fight can proceed on his or her own terms. When the subject fighter is ready to engage, he or she should engage with purpose and with a specific intent. That plan may not work out; no one wins every fight. Taking control of the fight is what is important and what will lead to long-term success.

Failure to differentiate between “be aggressive” and “control the fight” will also often mask the underlying reason that the fighter is not taking control of the fight. Often the reason is either an ignorance of how to proceed, specifically not having any idea of what shot to throw, or an unwillingness to proceed. “Nothing is open” is the most common phrase I hear when discussing why a fighter is not taking control of the fight. This opens the door for teaching the fighter something they can do, which will often begin to resolve the lack of fight control.

An unwillingness to proceed is often accompanied with the explanation, “If I do X, I will get killed by Y” , and expands into an endless loop of option and how that option could fail. This indicates that the fighter has begun to think about fighting in greater depth, but has gotten locked in an endless cycle of move and countermove. This provides an opportunity to teach the fighter more about controlling the fight. “If X will get you Y, then why not fake X to draw Y, block Y, and do Z? Controlling the fight is not about hitting the other fighter first, it is about making the other fighter play along with your plan.” It may also be a chance to remind the fighter that every move has a counter, and that getting stuck in the endless cycle is a good way to do nothing and cede control of the fight. I’ve sometimes had to tell fighters, “If you get locked in the cycle, force yourself to execute your third plan, even if it seems likely to get you killed. Sometimes breaking your mental lock is more important than finding the perfect plan, especially since there is no perfect plan.”

Be in Control

Fighting well does not require aggression. Fighting well requires control. A fighter who charges in instead of controlling range, or who just throws whatever shot looks inviting, will definitely find some success if previously all he or she was doing was just standing at the worst possible range or soaking shots without ever throwing any of his or her own. However, this is a limited success that will ultimately stunt his or her growth as a fighter. Control, choosing to always be at the best range and choosing to control the fight rather than react to it, is the ultimate path to success as a fighter.

*I make the assumption that the person being told to “be more aggressive” in the range-control scenario has less reach than his or her opponent. Since that is what always happens, I find this to be a reasonable assumption. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to deduce how to teach range control to the fighter with greater reach.