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Doubles: Fighting as a Team

The sport of  tennis can be played in two ways: singles, where you play against one other person, and doubles, where you and a partner play against two other people. While both singles and doubles rely upon your individual tennis skills, such as serving or volleying, doubles adds an element of teamwork that can be more important for success than your individual abilities.

If you watch a really good doubles team, like the Williams sisters (U.S. Open and Wimbledon doubles champions), you'll notice that while they're each tremendously powerful on their own, when they're on the court together for doubles they work as a team. Each covers her half of the court. When the ball goes to Venus, Serena knows to move to a certain area of the court to cover their opponents' likely return. All this is done without verbal communication and in the heat of a fast-paced match. 

Often, two tennis players who are just in town to play singles will decide to play doubles together as a team--even if they've never played together as a team before, and only see each other once a year. That's another reason why the Williams sisters do so well in doubles--they train together as a team so when they're playing their on-court communication, strategy, and tactics are superior to their competition.

So what does this have to do with the martial arts?

Most folks think of the martial arts as largely an individual practice--it's you against one or more adversaries. Most kata (forms) are designed this way: you punch one opponent in front of you, then the guy to the right, then you take a few steps forward and kick another. But often there's no practice in fighting as a team.

Police officers, especially Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) personnel, and soldiers train to fight as teams. They'll use hand signals and code words to communicate actions and directives so that only their fellow fighters know what they're going to do. Sometimes they'll move together, with one person keeping a hand on the other's shoulder so that even in the dark they'll know where their partner is. Each fighter has a defined Area of Responsibility, and takes appropriate action to neutralize any threat in that area--and trusts their partner to clear their area of threats.

If you train in the martial arts with a friend or a spouse, include some team training into your workouts. This can be as simple as deciding on a few code words; one would mean "Run!," another would mean "Fight!" and so on. (It's a good idea to decide on family code words in the case of trouble; particularly if you have kids--we'll discuss this in another article).

Or, it can be as complex as deciding how you would fight against multiple opponents and sparring in multiple attacker scenarios. Perhaps you're small and fast, and prefer kicking, while your fighting partner is a strong grappler. Maybe you plan that your partner moves in first to immobilize the stronger of the opponents while you dart around, preventing the two of you from being flanked. Or perhaps one of you is armed with pepper spray--you need to plan that she'll hit the lead opponent with the spray before you close the distance--you don't want to be hit with the spray either.

Sometimes your tactics can just be positional. If one person carries a lawfully concealed weapon on his right hip, the other person should remember to stay on the left side, so as to not get in the way. Like the FBI saying "Don't carry your coffee in your gun hand," don't walk down the dark alley holding your sweetie's hand with the one you'll need to grab the pepper spray or tactical folder, should those drunken toughs turn unruly.

A lot of doubles strategy in tennis revolves around moving together as a team--if one player backpedals to the baseline, the other player should move back as well. If a player advances toward the net, the other player should move up too. The same movement principles are important in fighting as a team as well. The adage "divide and conquer" works well here; make it hard for your opponents to fight as a team. Maneuver so that you take on one opponent at a time, if possible. Then it's two-on-one, and you should be able to dispatch the single opponent and move on to his friends forthwith.

When I started training under my current instructor, Master David Burt, we would have impromptu workouts in the back parking lot of our office building, usually with my officemate and close friend Todd. Todd and I worked together, trained together, and, as these were our freewheeling bachelor days, went out to the local watering holes together after work. Although we never got into any altercations, it was very comforting knowing that if any trouble started, we would be able to fight as a team, trusting each other's fighting styles and abilities. At many workouts, we sparred together against our fellow classmates; testing our tactics against padded opponents. We learned a lot about fighting together--mostly about staying out of each other's way--but also the best ways to move as a team.

Training to fight as a team gives you yet another dimension to your martial arts abilities. If you spend a lot of time with someone, especially in potentially dangerous areas, it makes sense to train together to fight, or at least react to combative situations, as a team. Some say that "two heads are better than one," well, if you learn to fight as a team with a partner, you have four punching arms and four kicking legs in your arsenal. That's pretty good firepower.

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