Movement Training for Humans
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3 Keys for Maximizing the Benefits of Roughhousing

There are three keys to a successful roughhousing practice: safety, rapport, and the opportunity for success.

People often say they are not competitive or don’t like competition. I’m sure for some people that’s true, but what we have found is that many people who have expressed hesitation to compete at our events actually end up really enjoying engaging in a good competitive game, so long as they feel safe doing it

When they feel a strong sense of trust with their facilitators and their training partners, and when they feel like they have a decent chance to win the game, the fear and hesitation seems to vanish.

When looking at rats, Jaak Panksepp found that as long as the weaker player is able to win at least 30 percent of the time they continue to enjoy roughhousing. Research on play in animals and children demonstrates that stronger players tend to self-handicap to allow play to be enjoyable for all. 

When you are playing with small child or watching two children play you might hear them say “you can’t hit” or “you can’t do this or that”. What they are doing is opening negotiations, because they want to keep playing but they don’t feel safe enough or like the have a chance to win.

We believe the inability to construct effective parameters for establishing safety, building rapport, and ensuring that everyone has a chance for success, is the biggest problem holding most people back from experiencing the benefits of martial arts or other forms of body to body training.

Safety First

Play fighting can easily turn into real fighting and dominance battles if there is not a strong relationship between the players and if people don’t feel safe. This is why we focus on rapport and safety first.

If you have ever observed dogs you might notice when they first meet they are often stiff, and play is more likely to turn into growling and teeth snapping. As they get to know each other, they become more relaxed in their approach and can become more intense with their play without triggering an incident.

You’ll find the same thing in well-developed martial arts schools. The guys who have known each other and trained together for a long time can practice very intensely without it turning into a real fight because of the trust that has been built.

So our first focus is on building safety and rapport, and we highly recommend you focus on the same.

Here is our basic rapport building game:


Introducing Competition

Once we have developed good movement sensitivity and connection with our training partners, we can start introducing competition. 

As we do this we need to focus our emotional management. Players need to learn to recognize their emotional response and have the permission to step back and reset. 

Are you getting angry, upset, frustrated, or overly competitive? Then take a moment, realize the game is for getting better at movement and having fun with your training partners. Don’t be afraid to negotiate with your partner like the child example earlier; they are the experts in play! 

Machismo or pride only gets in the way of a successful practice.

Scaling Chaos

There are lots of ways to roughhouse that are not directly related to fighting. Think of a parent throwing a small child up in the air for instance.

However,  the central games of rough & tumble play are related to fighting. These are central games in human play because we evolved as hunters and warriors. It is important to remember in these games that we are playing with fighting.

Real fighting is chaotic, overwhelming, and scary, and usually leaves one or both fighters injured. In order to play with it you have create limits.

My self defense teacher Rory Miller calls these safety flaws. The best games to start with are games with strong safety limits as these limits allow us to start playing intensely right away. As we progress in control of our bodies, in our trust with our training partners, and progress in specific martial arts techniques we can play increasingly free games. For now we are going to start with very safe games.

Introducing Grappling

Wrestling is the most universal form of rough & tumble play, and one of the most developmental of all body cultivation practices. All play fighting games need limits to keep the players safe, so we start with limited and controlled forms of grappling to start with.

The game we introduce below works well as a start to competition and grappling because it is limited enough for almost everyone to feel safe playing.

Torso Tag and Striking

After introducing and playing with grappling, we can begin playing with striking. As with grappling, limiting the game so we can play intensely but safely is the ideal way to start our practice.

This game allows us to begin to explore the dynamics of striking, the rhythm of timing, misdirection, feinting, and understanding how to create lines of attack that are fundamental to all striking in a game that is still quite safe.

The Takeaway

These games are just a first introduction to roughhousing. There are many more variations you can develop, just remember the key ideas of safety, rapport, and opportunity for success, while slowing increasing the freedom of the games.

As your practice develops you will be able to unlock games like those featured here.

To learn more about our roughhousing approach join us for an upcoming seminar, or look out for our upcoming online course on roughhousing.

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