Three Combative Initiatives

In Japanese martial arts, there exists three possible initiatives to adopt when engaging an opponent. As I break down each concept you will see that they all have to do with the initiative to seize the advantage over the opponent. Each of these attitudes is defined by when the initiative is taken in relation to an opponent’s attack.

Go no Sen

This is the concept of delayed initiative. It is at the core of any "receive-then-counter" response. It signifies the initiation of a counter only after defending. The initiative to seize the advantage is made after the opponent has finished his attack.

This initiative is seen most often involving novice students. It is especially obvious during prescribed basic step-kumite drills. It is natural for the novice student to perform at this level of initiative in real-time against a resisting opponent. He may still only have the ability to focus on one movement at a time or he may still mentally separate offensive and defense.

It is not a very effective attitude to have in actual combat. In fact, if you are in a position where you are using delayed initiative to gain the upper hand in combat you are starting off at a disadvantage. It means that you are either doing something wrong, have missed crucial warning signs, or both. Keeping this in mind, go no sen can be helpful when used by instructors in order to slow the action down in training so that the student can see all the individual pieces and how they relate to each other. This aids the student in that he can then see all of the moving parts while only having to focus on one at a time. Eventually, he will naturally move beyond the delayed initiative.

Sen no Sen

This is the concept of simultaneous initiative. It is at the core of any "receive-and-counter" response. This signifies the initiation of a counter simultaneously with an opponent's attack. The initiative to seize the advantage is made during the opponent's attack. This is offense and defense in the same stroke. It requires coordination of movement and confidence in technique. From a technical perspective it is demonstrated by intermediate- and advanced-level students.

This isn't the highest level of initiative but can certainly be effective once engaged in combat. In essence, it is the interception of an opponent's attack.

Sen Sen no Sen

This is the concept of advanced initiative. It signifies the initiation of a response upon recognition of the opponent's aggression. At the heart of sen sen no sen is the recognition and subversion of the opponent's aggressive intent. The initiative to seize the advantage is made before the opponent's physical attack ever begins. It requires a keen sense of situational awareness of both the physical and psychological landscape of one's surroundings. It relies heavily on one's ability to accurately interpret social patterns and perceive the possible dangers of one's environment. It is more mental than physical.

Of the three initiatives, sen sen no sen is the most controversial in regard to ethics. For some people this initiative is a hard pill to swallow because, in their view, it only implies a preemptive strike. However, if those same people took a deeper look at the initiative they would see that this is not necessarily the case. Although a preemptive strike could very well be an effective application in some cases, sen sen no sen can also be applied subtly and without the use of force to defuse potentially violent situations.

This is the highest level of initiative because it allows you exert control over a given situation before it fully develops.

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Luke Pecor