Withdrawing and Distancing in Fighting

Withdrawing from the opponent's applied force can let you seize an advantage of position.

Withdrawing when the opponent applies force can let you seize an advantageous position.

All of my posts here so far have been pretty general, stretching well beyond the confines of the Yin Style Bagua niche. Here, I want to address something more specific: some of my thoughts on the withdrawing attack method in the YSB Bear System.

I have been working on the Bear System this year almost exclusively, dragging the Knoxville Yin Style study group with me, and that system’s withdrawing attack method probably attracted the most active thought and discussion in the group of anything we’ve studied so far (though the rather high-tech soft and following methods aren’t lagging behind on that front…).

Withdrawing, a beginner’s overview

To preface this “beginner’s overview,” let me start by saying that I am the beginner in question, though I have at least walked a little along this path.

Withdrawing is a curious attacking method for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is concerned almost entirely with footwork, the hands being largely supplementary to what the feet are doing. Outside of the YSB Monkey System, this is a unique trait to withdrawing attacks.

Secondly, withdrawing isn’t quite how it sounds, at least not to most ears, as withdrawing and retreating are certainly not the same thing. Retreating is getting away as a last act of preservation. Withdrawing is pulling away in order to effect a change so that one can enter with advantage or remove the opponent’s advantages. The difference is crucial. Retreating is a method of getting out of a fight; withdrawing is a method of manipulating position to one’s advantage while staying engaged in the fight.

The Bear System’s canon indicates three foundational techniques to practice to develop skill with withdrawing. Those not familiar with these techniques should take a few moments to watch the video in the link, or the ensuing discussion might be pretty confusing. Now, though I don’t disagree with these three as withdrawing foundations, I consider withdrawing to be one of those attacking methods with “three plus one” foundational attacks, so I add a fourth for my own training. A quick overview:

  • The removing step withdrawing attack uses both a hand and a foot that pulls back with force and then returns back where it came from, and it is particularly useful for removing the opponent’s force when he is resisting or stealing his capacity to defend if paired with a feint.
  • The entering step withdrawing attack uses a quick 180-degree withdrawal and return, as though the body rotates about an axis through the back shoulder and heel, and is used to deflect an incoming attack to create space to enter viciously.
  • The back step withdrawing attack uses a 90-degree back step to quickly change position and angle relative to the opponent and to take away his force. It’s often used to set up throws.
  • The “plus one” for the withdrawing attacks is the advancing withdrawing attack, which utilizes a quick reversal of the feet, allowing a change in the direction of an attack from front to back, or vice versa, or side to side, very quickly. It is not one of the foundational three, but I don’t think that fact diminishes its importance to the method. I train it as a foundational attack when I train withdrawing, in fact. (A common mistake with this technique, for what it’s worth, is forgetting that the name of the technique follows a categorizing format and isn’t a set of exact instructions. That is, to do this footwork correctly, one should withdraw first and then advance. The phrasing means that one is using a withdrawing method in order to advance on the opponent.)

Withdrawing, then, uses footwork, waist, and body movement to remove the opponent’s ability to apply force and to create a kind of vacuum into which he can be misdirected, drawn, or overextended–or perhaps via which you can just protect yourself–and the result is then exploited to win.

Repositioning goals with withdrawing

The general goals of the withdrawing attack method are as were just stated together with the very important idea of repositioning yourself against the opponent.

Back stepping withdrawing and advancing withdrawing, particularly, are useful for repositioning or changing the angle on the opponent, often while taking away his ability to apply force. They’re best used in situations in which the opponent is strong in the direction you’d like to attack and is weaker (or can be made weaker) in directions that you can change to easily (with good footwork).

For example, perhaps you attack the opponent from the outside but cannot enter. Back stepping to change the angle (often for a throw) can be used to evade this resistance and still win. Or perhaps you enter in upon the opponent but get resisted. Advancing withdrawing can allow you to follow the opponent’s resistance (following being another characteristic Bear method) and suddenly reverse the angle of your attack, using his force against him. These are important functional uses of these two kinds of footwork. Those familiar with the YSB Bear System may have the penetrating attacks leaping to mind in both of these cases, in fact.

Removing withdrawing and entering withdrawing are different as both seem to have an element of directly removing the opponent’s force, though their goals aren’t quite the same and their methods are very different from one another. These are particularly appropriate when put under direct resistance that’s easier to remove than to transform or when attempting to set the opponent up to lose.

These two, and especially the entering withdrawing attack, have another thing in common: they’re more concerned with distancing oneself against the opponent than with repositioning oneself. This topic, using withdrawing to distance oneself well for fighting goals, was one of the primary discussion topics we had while working on it in our study group meetings.

Managing distance in fighting

When I used to be a sport fighter, managing distance with the opponent was considered almost everything. Both fighters were likely to be fast, both were tricky, and both were likely to be accurate with their best techniques, so it often came down to who managed the distance better because whichever did had the better opportunity to launch his attacks. The name of the game was simple: create the space in which your best attacks will fly or his will fail, and then, when the right moment arrives, get him. This fact is true in all fighting (at least while standing up), from close in wrestling to flinging kicks at range and even, really, shooting arrows or bullets across a field (ask the US Navy about this, if you doubt it). Getting your distancing right may not be everything, but it’s really important.

Withdrawing as a distancing tool

Withdrawing offers one clean, no-nonsense way to manage distance that can be added to a fighter’s repertoire. Much of what came by experience for me as a sport fighter (often the experience of a fist or foot to the head for getting it wrong) is covered explicitly and in a well thought-out manner in withdrawing. In fact, much of what I did well as a sport fighter could be classified as a coarse use of the removing withdrawing method, though it’s much more powerful and effective with the finesse that comes with real removing. We found a similar theme when it came to using withdrawing footwork to set up throws in our study group meetings recently–many really great stand-up wrestling techniques make use of what might broadly be considered withdrawing footwork (and a good bit of following).

We found that the removing withdrawing attack probably gets the most bang for its buck when used in situations where the opponent is applying a pressure onto you that you can then draw him into emptiness with. It’s also very effective for creating the kind of space needed to pull off sudden feint-low, strike-high combinations–the kinds of things I really wish I knew back when I was sport fighting. In this mode of usage, you can attack, almost like probing the situation, suddenly withdraw yourself from the situation when the opponent reacts, letting him get overextended, and then hit him before he can recover. This technique is very much like a wave at the beach: the water slips out from underneath you and then the wave comes back and crashes on top of you.

The entering withdrawing attack is a different kind of wave, sloshing more side-to-side than up and down, even though the strike tends to feature downward uses of the hands and the body raises and lowers with it.

It also proved a strange one for us to apply. Typically, we used it to deal with an incoming punch, especially a jab. No matter how we used it, though, we weren’t able to beat the jab unless we used it as a trap. Let the opponent test us and withdraw back. Let the opponent test again and withdraw back. Then you have a sense of his timing, and so when the next punch goes, the entering withdrawing attack can be perfectly timed. The opponent feels like he’s got you on the run and so commits to a forward attack, and suddenly, you’re entering back on him, hitting him in the face and trapping his feet as you go. This seemed to work very well and consistently in a mock sparring situation.

The entering withdrawing technique can be used as a masterful game of manipulating distance by withdrawing specifically for the purpose of coming back in to enter. The technique is perfect for this too because it creates the illusion of a big retreat while actually coiling the leg and body like a spring (a firmly rooted spring, at that) that launches a powerful and unexpected attack just when the opponent thinks he has you where he wants you.

The best part about the entering withdrawing attack is that it seems to open the door wide to continuing to enter upon the opponent. It’s one thing to enter on a fighter and score a hit, it seems. It’s another thing entirely, though, to bust in on him when he least expects it, putting him into a frantic scrabbling defensive position. It opens the door perfectly for catching him in what Jinbao referred to as “the coffee grinder,” where one (circularly shaped) strike after another after another flies aggressively until eventually at least one connects.

Have you tried withdrawing techniques, especially as a method of manipulating distance or position with the opponent? As always, your experience, thoughts, and commentary are warmly welcomed in the space below!


2 thoughts on “Withdrawing and Distancing in Fighting

  1. Jim

    Thanks for the great new blog. The previous one provided a wealth of inspiration and I’m really enjoying the direction this one is taking. I am newly working with bear therefore I cannot, as yet, provide further expansion on withdrawing as like removing in Phoenix it is a valuable yet difficult concept to apply. It seems at this early stage that the ability to create space where there is none is defence without commitment or attack without the usage of movement via active defence (blocking etc) so that the attack is simply a withdrawing of a purpose which is redirected. A continuous usage of the same force. Coming to my question(!) which is general, is the time for training. It seems to me that any working family person has either early morning or late evening to train, how do you ( and others who train ysb) balance their training in the short time that our lives allow? This was brought home to me whilst on holiday when I essentially had 8-10 hours of unalloted time which enabled me to train as I wanted.


    • I usually try to train once or twice a day, usually in the evening and sometimes rather late in the evening (I just finished today’s session at a bit after 10:30 at night and am cooling down with a beer now!). Luckily, we’ve worked pretty hard to arrange our working and family lives to be pretty good on work-life balance, though, so finding time for me is only sometimes hard.

      When I find myself seriously short on time, though, I try to make up for it with a couple of things. First, I try to focus my training sessions to really hit something that I think is of great benefit to me. Maybe I don’t have time to train like I should or want, but I can still get a lot out of a little time. Try a packed-hard, focused half an hour sometime. It can really count, even in that short time!

      Second, and I’ll be writing on this more soon, I really try to up the mental aspect of my training. I go to sleep at night mentally going through applications, for instance, or steal a minute here or there to daydream through some, really trying to imagine and feel the thing. There have been periods in my life where I’ve really been short on training time but made huge progress by dedicating what time I could to that activity alone, so I really recommend it.


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