Breaking Boards and Bricks in Martial Arts
I have seen it a lot. I am sure you have too. Martial artists wanting to showcase their ability will use one of their developing skills to make toothpicks out of a board. Maybe even destroy some bricks or concrete blocks. In this kind of a presentation you, the audience, get a real visual about what kinds of things are being learned by that martial arts student. From a teaching perspective breaking is a very useful metric for the developing student to get instant feedback. If their accuracy, movement mechanics, or speed are not up to par the boards will not break. In my opinion the purest form of a breaking exhibition should give the audience a visceral feel for the strength and power that is possible for a human being to attain through disciplined training. In truth a better descriptor would be applied force (for the physics fans) because the striking or kicking technique is supposed to accelerate through whatever medium has been chosen for the demonstration. It is not just a push and it should not be only about the body strength or weight of the person doing the break. Precision targeting and exact vector direction are a must – in other words – great technique! And so, while breaking exhibitions are sometimes overdone, they are a great ingredient for martial arts training.
There are many different kinds of breaks. Most commonly we will see a static hold break where boards are put into position by other students or possibly a contraption designed to securely hold the boards. Of all breaking exhibitions this is the least difficult. The demonstrator will execute a kick or strike against basically a non-moving target with the idea being to be motivated enough to pass mere flesh and bone through a “more solid” material. The more skill and force the martial artist possesses the more boards are attempted and, hopefully, broken successfully. Another type of break is the suspended break or “speed break” where no fulcrum or resistance is placed against the opposite side of the strike. Speed break targets are either stood upright, held lightly by a single hand, or suspended in mid-air after a little toss. Speed breaking, by the very definition, has to be accomplished with even more acceleration than a static hold and there is absolutely no margin for error in terms of accuracy. No matter what type of break or what technique used a breaking exhibition is always fun to watch and sometimes even awe-inspiring.
What breaking definitely IS is a situation where the martial artist must overcome their fear and lack of confidence. They have to believe in themselves and their training enough to do something that doesn’t really make common sense. They have to believe that, with proper technique, their hand or foot or elbow can pass through a solid object. If you have ever tried it you can remember how, right before the breaking moment, you had second thoughts. For a successful break the martial artist has to train themselves to not have those second thoughts. Instead, they focus on how confident and purposed they feel. That same conviction of spirit is necessary in other facets of martial art training which is why breaking is useful and absolutely fits the learning pattern. Further, to prepare for breaking correctly, the student must practice that confident feeling alongside each technique and movement. That confidence and force of conviction must become inseparable from the training session. Essentially, every class or practice becomes a “breaking rehearsal” without ever pulling any boards or bricks out. Interestingly, actually practicing with boards without a live audience leads to a tendency for students to become less successful. The “no-stress” associated with the “practice break” is unlike a real live demo event. The “no-stress” is also unlike any other real life self-defense event that may occur. Quite probably, by uncoupling the stress from the breaking practice, that extra adrenaline will not rise to help when actually needed. In all my years instructing I have seen a very high correlation between those who practice their breaks in private with the same students failing to break under the pressure of a demonstration or a Black Belt exam. Which is why, therefore, I try to have students only do breaking in live demonstrations or in exams…never in class.
What breaking is NOT? It is not at all the entire story about whether or not a martial arts student could defend themselves. It is not the sole indicator of skill or knowledge. It is not the most important part of an exam. But it is useful. And fun!