Lately, I’ve seen a lot of criticism over “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” I think part of it is that a lot of folks have seen, heard, or possibly even said that line without actually knowing what it meant.
While I’m not an IDPA grandmaster, ever even been in an IPSC match, or some high speed low drag firearms instructor, I am a martial arts instructor. As such, I’ve used the term, and I’ve heard many other instructor state similar.
The real message behind the that mantra is to focus on technique. When we try to go as fast as we possibly can, our technique tends to go out the window. I’ve seen folks jump straight into trying kicks or hand techniques at full speed, and their technique was generously described as “flailing.” Lots of movement that doesn’t do anything but waste energy and throws them off balance, no force actually landing on target, and, while their limbs my be going at high speed, the entire action is slow.
The solution to this is to slow down and focus on what you’re actually doing. If you’re doing something in the middle of your action that doesn’t directly help that action, why? There might be a good reason (like keeping your hands up), at which point, keep doing that. If there’s not, maybe you shouldn’t. Slowing down allows you and your instructor to make sure you’re not only moving efficiently, but that the maximum amount of the energy you’re expending ends up on target. Once a student’s technique is good, then we move to actually speeding things up.
There’s two ways to “be faster.” One is obviously to have your muscles respond faster. While you can definitely train to increase muscle speed and decrease reaction time, that’s only part of the equation. Sadly, it’s also the part that will go south as we grow older.
The other reason is to improve technique. The fastest way between two points is a straight line. The closest your technique is to that straight line, the faster it is. You will also get to point B faster if you don’t make a stop for gas or food at point C, D, and E first. Sometimes it’s necessary to hit those points (example: it’s pretty much impossible to go straight from the gun in your holster to a proper firing position), but it doesn’t mean you have to dwell at those middle points. That’s where the “smooth” part comes in. The smoother you can flow from “holstered” to “drawn by your side” to “forward and ready to fire,” the less time you will take overall.
You will see just about any traditional martial artist work on techniques slowly as they work things out. It’s common for Muay Thai practitioners to do so. BJJ folks definitely work on techniques slowly while training. I’ve seen boxers take a minute on a heavy bag to make sure their jab or their cross had exactly the right form. If you ever have a chance to play with a Tai Chi master that knows the practical application, they’re almost magical because they’ve spent years focusing single mindedly on technique and balance.
I even believe that this is what Wyatt Earp was talking about when he said that the key to winning a gun fight was to “take your time in a hurry.” Yes, speed is very much an important factor, but if that’s all you’re focusing on, you’ll end up being slower over all and have a larger chance of missing in the first place. The trick is to run the ragged edge of going as fast as you can while maintaining good form.