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A Basic Overview of Telegraphing As It Applies To the Martial Arts

The telegraphing aspect of martial arts has become quite popular in the past few decades. Telegraphing has always been important in the martial arts, but the nature of how we think about it has become much more complex as of late.

Telegraphing is the ‘signals’ that we display in our movements giving ‘tells’ about what our current goals are. Learning to read someone else’s telegraphs is crucial for reacting to their offense and defense, as it is also crucial to limit the telegraphing that one does so as to keep the opponent ‘in the dark’. When speaking about telegraphing in martial arts we are concerned with these two areas – how can I read and interpret what my opponent is going to do, preferably before they do it, and how can I limit what I am conveying to my opponent as related to my goals and methods.

Learning to read another’s telegraphs is accomplished through a few different methods. One, utilizing a general understanding of physics, can help determine what a body can and cannot do. It may seem obvious to state but, for a body to make an attack it must move to attack. Certain areas of the body are prone to moving more than others, such as the shoulders / chest and the hips. It is generally a good idea to keep some attention on these areas as their large size makes them easy targets to read, and they are going to move most of the time. In most cases, the body will rotate toward the side that an attack is coming from.

For example: in most forms of Karate, the powerful front punch is most often thrown from the rear hand from the hip. The hand and arm are quite small in comparison to the chest, and so reading their movement is difficult. This difficulty to read is also compounded by the way they move - forward. Forward / backward movements are much more difficult to read than lateral movements because of the amount of spatial difference the movement makes in our eye. There is not much perceivable change. To see this, perform a front punch, as described, in a mirror and observe the amount of visual difference that the hand and arm seem to undergo. It is easy to see when you are looking for it, so the experiment will seem to show a counter-intuitive point because you are focusing on it. Try the experiment by imagining that the strike is coming without your knowledge – do not focus on the arm. Also, try the experiment by having a friend throw a variety of strikes at random times. See if you can spot when they do the front punch. It is more difficult to perceive the strike when you are not really expecting it. Now compare the difference you see in the arm and fist to the difference you see when focusing on the chest. For the front punch to execute the chest must rotate the striking side toward you. This rotation is very easily recognized by the eyes as there is a plethora of telling movement over a wide area.

When you are reading an opponent, you generally cannot focus on one area of the body – if you were to focus on the one arm, your focus on the other arm will be poor making it easy to strike you with it (not to mention the legs, etc.) – so a ‘blurred’ focus on the body as a whole is normally a better strategy. By letting your senses pick up on the movement of the body as a whole and utilizing the most telling signs, it becomes easier to react to an attack, at which time you can divert your attention slightly to the attacking appendage for better accuracy.

Understanding the methodology that your opponent is going to utilize is another way to read their telegraphs – it works best in conjunction with the basic understanding of physics. Different styles prioritize different methods for attacking / defending. Taekwondo for instance is very well known for using kicks more often than other techniques. Favoring reading the hips is not a bad approach when confronting a practitioner of Taekwondo – as a note, those who use Taekwondo are not limited to using their feet, and only in general is the foot prioritized. Different styles prioritize different methods of attacks and different strategies, and knowing what your opponent is most likely to use will help eliminate clutter in your mind

There are other ways to improve your reading such as improving sight coordination, distance understanding, etc. Understanding and applying all of these is crucial for reading an opponent well.

There are also many ways to reduce how well an opponent can read you. As with the karate example above: many Karateka learn to add latency in their shoulder / chest movement to push the movement to the end of the attack, both improving power and reducing telegraphy. Other mechanical means of reducing telegraphy deal with reducing the visible area of the body – an example is fencing in which this is taken to an extreme by turning the body almost completely sideways. This reduces the visible field, having the same effect as the arm in the above example. Mechanics that make the opponent have to utilize depth are more difficult for the opponent to read – humans have a more difficult time discerning depth motion rather than lateral movement.

Another way of reducing telegraphy comes from arts such as some of the constituents of Kung Fu. Some styles of Kung Fu utilize flashy movements about the lateral view of the opponent, making their intention more difficult to read. An example would be an arm moving about, drawing the opponents gaze so that a kick would be difficult to see coming. This is also demonstrated by weapon adornments. Spears would often have tassels placed by their tips so that the opponent would pay more focus to the lateral movement of the spear than the depth and the coming stab. Drawing of the attention in any fashion – movement, noise, pain - will, in most cases, reduce your telegraphing.

Speed is a very popular way to reduce telegraphing. The basic idea being that the quicker you move, the less time the opponent has to read you. This is a simple idea that requires only training and repetition.

Another popular method, common throughout many arts, is whole spectrum chambering. This involves all (or in most cases quite a few) techniques coming from the same position. This is seen usually in stance, but can be seen in secondary stasis holds. For instance, you can throw a front kick by first raising the knee, then thrusting the foot outwards. You can also throw a hook kick by first raising the knee, then pivoting the body around and extending the leg to kick. Both of these kicks use a chambered raised knee before the final execution of the attack thereby reducing the amount of time the opponent has to decide which kick is being thrown. This is a very popular way to reduce telegraphing, but by far not the only. There are also other ways, besides those listed above such as:

  • Reducing / removing purposeless movement in your techniques and approach.
  • Ridding yourself of ‘tells’ such as looking at where you are going to strike, always making a hunch with your shoulders before striking, etc.
  • Varying your techniques so as to not be predictable.

These are just a few of the myriad of ways to reduce telegraphing – all of which I do not intend to go over in this simple introductory blog as it would require many thousands of words to produce and really deserves better attention.

Telegraphing is usually only thought of and spoken of about the mechanical means – increase your speed, reduce purposeless movement, etc. – but truly encompasses a great deal of the martial arts. What you do to change / limit your telegraphing will have a great deal of effect on your art and will certainly help you become a better martial artist.

I have only touched on some of the concepts involved with telegraphing and have only written in abstract generalities about certain martial arts. This does not provide an in depth coverage of telegraphing or of any martial art style and should only be viewed as an introduction to what telegraphing can be viewed as. I only desired this blog post to be a way to introduce the subject, and give some examples to make it understood. I intend to go into greater depths about telegraphing in general, along with the methodologies to increase awareness and decrease telegraphing.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or general comments please feel free to leave a comment. I will do my best to answer any questions or respond to any criticisms, etc. Thank you for reading.

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