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. What we have found is that everybody loves a good competitive game when they feel safe doing it, when they feel a strong sense of trust with their training partners and when they feel like they have chance to win.

Jaak Panksepp found in rats 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 self-handicap to allow play to be enjoyable for all. When  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 need to feel safe enough and feel like they have a chance to win.

We believe the inability to build in effective parameters for establishing safety, build rapport, and ensuring everyone has a chance for success is the biggest problem holding most people back from experiencing the benefits of martial arts training and body-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.

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 set back and reset. Are you getting angry, upset, frustrated, or overly competitive? Then take a step back, 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’re 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 are for instance. However, some the central games of rough & tumble play are related to fighting that are also central to our evolution as a species of hunters and warriors. 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, progress in trust of our training partners, and progress in specific martial arts techniques we can play more and more 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 powerful 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 and loosening the limits 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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