The Power of the Thumb

One of my favorite movies in the “find on cable at 11:00pm” category is The Presidio. Why is this a favorite? Because there is a classic scene in which the two main characters, Lt. Col. Caldwell and Jay Austin (played by Sean Connery and Mark Harmon, respectively), are getting hassled by two guys in a bar. After a few minutes, Caldwell turns to one of the bullies and says:

Now, are you sure you want to have a fight? Because I’m only going to use my thumb.

The bully in question, of course, finds this hard to believe. So, in true Sean-Connery-coolness style, Caldwell proceeds to pummel the guy using, just his thumb.

It’s a great scene, and it came to mind the other day when we were in class working on several techinque fundamentals: tsuki kotegaeshi and katate-tori shihonage in particular. One of the points we discussed in class was how both techniques rely on just the thumb to make the them effective. For example, tsuki kotegaeshi, is a defense against a punch in which the basic idea is to step off the line of attack, turn, and–using your forearm, wrist, and hand–hook the attackers punch. One of the keys to making this technique effective is in how much focus, how much strength, is channelled through your thumb. Basically, the premise is simple: if you apply the right amount of pressure with your thumb, you’re far more likely to get the control you need to make the technique work. If your thumb is weak, then it’s likely your grip will break and your opponent can counter your movement.

The same principle holds true with shihonage. In this classic technique, the attacker is attempting to grab your wrist in order to keep you from attacking with it. As they grab, you counter hold with your opposite hand, swinging and turning your opponent, which leads to their complete loss of balance. Again, the focus on the thumb is essential. Without it, the counter hold is not only weak, it is ineffective in leading your opponent out of their center.

In way, these technique all come down to the thumb.

The ramifications of this are very interesting to think about. The muscles in the hand are supposively some of the hardest muscles to strengthen; however, once they are strengthened, they retain their strength far longer than other parts of your body, such as your arms. Think of the older martial arts instructors that you’ve met. I know that one of the things that always caught my attention was not only their sense of timing, but how strong they were. When I thought about, though, I realized that their strength did not come from their arms or chest, but came from their grip. Once they got a hold of you, it was over.

We spent the rest of class looking at other techniques, exploring how the thumb and the grip were essential in ensuring the technique worked effectively. It’s funny how something as simple as your thumb can level the playing field–no matter how much faster, stronger, or younger your opponent may be.

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