Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Principles vs. specific techniques

There are many stages of study in the martial arts.  We learn the basics and we learn basic defenses from straight forward attacks.  We start feeling pretty good at how fast we get at defending until your opponent alters their attack.  Maybe they throw a hook instead of a straight punch, or gasp! a left instead of a right.

The basics give way to having some flexibility.  We add movement, a little Randori, multiple attacks or attackers,  and we see ourselves continue to improve.

We feel pretty good about ourselves and our technique and then Sensei shows us a counter to each one.  Now our minds are struggling again.  The tables have been turned.

We get pretty good at some counters, then Sensei tells us that there are approximately 5 counters to each technique he's taught us.  Now the curriculum, which was robust to start with, has increased 5 fold. Oh yeah, and there are multiple variations of every technique too.

Yikes!  How are we ever going to learn all that?  There's hundreds of techniques, often there's kata as well.  Is it even possible?  After all, didn't we read an article that said that the best martial artists only use a handful of techniques?

We continue to train and then we see some similarities.  Didn't we just use that same motion on that joint from an entirely different attack?  From the ground?  Yup.

As we continue to gain a deeper understanding of our art, we start to concentrate on principles versus specific technique.  Instead of trying to figure out what attack is coming and what response we are going to have to it, we react to what is available or what presents itself to us.  After all, a wrist can only go in certain directions, a shoulder can only travel across a certain plane of movement.

Assuming you've received the attack without serious injury, be it from evasion, a block, or even being hit, what have you got?  Did your opponent grab?  Did they leave their arm out?  Did they pull it back? Did they crash into you? Are you on the ground?  Against the wall? Instead of trying to plan what to do, you do what's available to you.

This is similar to the concept of Mushin, or no mind, in the arts.  It is what most of us strive for.  While this is sort of an ultimate goal for me, at this stage of my journey I take a slightly more pragmatic approach.

If I know I'm about to engage in combat, I usually have a pretty good idea of what attack is coming.  Body language, target fixation, twitches and 'tells' usually give away the intentions.  I can often (not always) respond well if I see it coming.

In the more likely event that someone tries a surprise attack of some sort, I train to be aware of my surroundings so I'm aware that there's a threat of some sort.  Assuming I'm unable to extricate myself from the situation, the attack is more likely to come in an unpredictable manner.  After all, real fights rarely start with two people squared off with lots of room to move.

It is in this type of unpredictable attack scenario that understanding principles trumps specific techniques.  I don't flatter myself to think that I can block or evade every attack with ease.  I'm more likely to minimize the damage caused.  My instinctive reactions are more likely to kick in over my martial arts training as an initial response to an unprovoked or unexpected attack.

The question ends up "So now what"  The attack came, you're still conscious, what have you got?  If you have a wrist, you turn it, an outstretched arm, you extend it, maybe striking the elbow.  If the neck's there, you squeeze it etc.

Understanding the principles allows you to manipulate your opponent from whatever position you and your attacker are in.

A deeper understanding the principles can even allow you to effectively defend yourself if you can't see.  You can feel where your opponent is and use his/her body against them because you understand the principles of your art, the body and the techniques.

One day I hope to train to a point where my instinctive 'flinch' type reaction is overcome completely and I achieve a state of Mushin. Until then, I'll continue to work at gaining a deeper understanding of the principles.

Food for thought.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A couple of interesting topics and posts

As the sport of MMA keeps growing, more and more people are training 'UFC' style.  You are now far more likely to face a person on the street who wants to shoot in and take you down for some ground and pound.  This was extremely rare in the past but is becoming much more common.

Mixed martial artists are talented athletes and plenty of them are tough as nails.  Without getting into the debate of mixed martial arts vs. traditional vs. reality based systems, the main limitation of MMA for street fighting is the rules.

MMA athletes train with rules.  You fight as you train.

Knowing this, to prepare myself for the increased likelihood of facing an MMA trained individual in the real world, I have a couple of options.  I could cross train for several years in MMA, learning to fight within a ruleset, or, I can train in all the things that are against the rules.

This is not a discussion on being able to adapt MMA to the street, but it is food for thought on an approach to training that deals with the realities around us.

J.C. has an interesting related post on this topic.  Check it out at Bujutsu: The Path.

On an unrelated topic, my last post discussed some lessons learned or re-affirmed when some new students visited our dojo.  My original post is here.

Sue C over at My Journey to Black Belt left a comment on my blog.  I discovered a post of hers entitled Honouring technique.  It touched on several of the areas I discussed in my last post and some I discussed in an earlier post here.

You can find Sue's post here.  A worthwhile read.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Advanced basics?

'Advanced techniques are the basics done better'.  I've quoted these words before and I'll likely quote them again.

This knowledge was driven home again not long ago.  We had some prospective students try out a class at our dojo.  They could best be described and huge.  I'm a fairly big guy myself and I felt small around this pair.  They had no martial arts training to speak of but they were both very strong.  Their wrists and hands made mine look dainty.

Our Sensei had us run through a bunch of basics, which served to showcase some of the concepts behind our style.  The new pair were very nice but like many new people, tensed up when we were applying technique.  They resisted the application of technique.  This is a natural reaction but it really drove home the point about how important the basics are for me.  A few things stuck out.

1.  I really had to concentrate on perfection of my technique.  I couldn't cheat a bit and power through the technique if I wasn't applying it properly.  This is a good thing, of course, because it doesn't let me get lazy with my technique.

2. I had to be careful.  The natural response to their resistance was for me to really sink in the technique when I applied it.  The danger of this is that it can very easily cause injury.  When the technique overcame the resistance, it was often near a breaking point or a point which would damage something.  This combined with fact that they haven't gotten used to 'tapping' out made it necessary for us all to keep a close eye on events.

Interestingly, at first their resistance made me briefly question the effectiveness of my technique.  Why weren't they working right away like with other students?  Over the course of the class, however, this process made me realize just how dangerous our techniques can be. The harder they resisted, the more the chance of serious injury.  The new pair initially tried to 'tough it out' with the pain, but by the end of the class, their hands were in the hovering, ready to tap position nearly from the start of the technique.  They were also shocked with how little effort is needed with our Jiu Jitsu.  If you're using muscle, you're not doing it right.

3. They also reminded me just how important the loosening up technique is.  I've mentioned softening or distraction techniques before.  We use them to disrupt our opponents thought process.  It makes them concentrate on another area of their body allowing our technique to be applied.  As much as I know how important they are, it's easy to get lazy and just go through the motion of the distraction technique, be it a kick, stomp, slap, yell etc.  When the new students resisted, it reminded me that practicing the distraction technique is just as important as the follow up technique.

This is a valuable lesson that I must not forget.      

It was a great experience to have brand new students in the class.  It was almost touching to watch them as they saw the first glimpses of what the martial arts can do.  You'd see their eyes light up as they discovered the 'magic' of how easily they could control another person.  It reminded me of what I thought and felt so many years ago when I began my own journey.

4.   You can learn from everyone.  The new students learned a whole bunch of new things in class.  You could argue, however, that I learned just as much.  I was reminded of the importance not to let any of the basics slip.  I was also reminded to remain flexible in my approach.  New people don't always move in the same way as experienced ones do.  They don't anticipate and go with a technique as easily.  This is a great thing as it makes me adjust and adapt as needed, a valuable skill.

I came away having even more respect for my chosen art.  It works. Of that I have no doubt.  If something doesn't work, chances are I've gotten lazy.  Basics serve as the foundation for all that follows. When Sensei effortlessly hurls me across the room, it's because he's mastered the basics.  The rest is easy.

Never lose sight of what got you to where you are.

Train well.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Gross Motor Skills

Read any article on reality based martial arts or street fighting or any current self defense course and you'll likely read about how people's fighting skills degrade under stress.   Stress can cause the loss of fine motor skills.  Stress and adrenaline and some other brain/body processes can also cause shaking, sweating, tunnel vision and auditory exclusion.  As a result, many instructors are spending a lot more time teaching and practicing self defense techniques utilizing gross motor skills.  They are also raising their student's stress levels through a variety of methods such as exercise, blindfolds and dynamic scenario based training.  I think this is a great thing and should be included in any serious training program.

What you'll often read in conjunction with these articles is that much of the more fine motor skill based techniques currently being taught in most dojos or schools are of limited or no value.  Some will say they are a complete waste of time.

While I plan to write more on stress and it's affects on combat, I'd like to mention the following:

It is my belief that if you train realistically and with the proper mindset for long enough, your stress response to violence can greatly reduce or even disappear.

There is much truth to the saying that "You fight like you train".  If your mind is in the right place and you train realistically and with focus, you may not lose your fine motor skills at all.  Proper training and mindset can essentially inoculate you from violence.  Not all people can reach this level, but many can.

Stressful situations can cause drastically different responses in different people, and I find this very interesting.  Some people can remain calm and some people just fall apart.

Let me ask this.  If you knew that someone posed you no real threat and that you could easily defend yourself against them with a minimum of effort, how stressed would you be if they approached you and wanted to fight?  Probably not too stressed.  Proper training can get you into this state.  After all, if you've been through the same type of incident dozens or hundreds of times in your training, the real event isn't going to rattle you very much.

You can't necessarily change how stress and adrenaline affects you, but you can reduce or eliminate the amount or the severity of the stress you experience in the first place through effective and consistent training.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Layers - One of the reasons I love Jiu Jitsu

"It'll still work, but..."  I can't tell you how many times I've heard that statement or a variation of it in my dojo.  My Sensei has said it thousands of times to me, always followed by a slight correction, whether it be my feet, my hands, the angle, my stance, my movement etc.

What fascinates me, and occasionally frustrates me, is how there is always more to learn.  I've mentioned it before but the simplest (yeah, right) technique seems to have endless layers.  There is always improvements to be made and new things to be learned.  Sometimes a nearly imperceptible change can yield impressive results. Sometimes these things are easily taught and shown and sometimes they are just felt.  No matter how proficient I get at a technique, there is always more for me to discover.

I've often wondered how the heck my Sensei just showed me something new with a wrist throw or other highly practiced technique from our curriculum.  It amazes me.  It is for this reason, of course, that he can toss me around more effortlessly than anyone I've ever met.  Other people work a bit harder for it.  Technically they are doing the same movement but Sensei has mastered the layers of the technique.

What has always drawn me to my chosen art is that even though there are so many layers to be discovered in a technique, the first one still works.  You will still accomplish what you set out to do.  So it starts off working right out of the gate.  After that, it becomes a journey of discovery and improvement. Each time you practice, you have an opportunity to improve.  That's why I've learned to love hearing "It'll still work, but..."  I know I am about to have a chance to discover another layer.

Layers mean that my journey is never over, there is always more to be learned.  Armed with this knowledge, I can hold on to the beginners mindset in my approach to training.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Act like a crazy person...

There are many different strategies for self defense.  Awareness, as I've discussed previously, is your best defense.  Being able to avoid conflict by being aware of your surroundings is your number one tool for defense.

So what can you do to get out of a situation that you couldn't avoid that is escalating or you fear is about to, without resorting to fighting?  If you realize you are about to be a victim or violence, you may want to think out of the box.

One idea is to act like you're nuts.  Talk to someone that isn't there. Yell or laugh.  Give yourself a violent physical tic or spasm.  Go on a diatribe about one topic or another.  Announce to no one in particular that you are really really angry.  Refer to yourself in the third person. Put random words together.  Sing loudly.

This just may be enough to make a potential thug look for easier prey.  It also draws the attention of others, something criminals don't like.

A friend of mine told me a story about a similar type of out of the box thinking.  A person was in the process of withdrawing money from a bank machine.  He realized he was in a fairly isolated area and was being approached by two guys he was pretty sure were about to rob him.  He hit cancel on his transaction and then started swearing loudly about how 'That B*#@^ had cleaned him out'.  He was ranting and raving about how she had closed his account and was a conniving vengeful so and so... He went on and on.  The she, of course, did not exist, but his angry screaming match with himself at the bank machine caused the two males to walk away.  They had lost their easy target and in their minds were now dealing with a broke guy on the edge, not an easy score.

Creativity can often win the day.  The above ideas are not guaranteed to work but are examples of how you might think on the fly to avoid a violent confrontation.  You've still got your training as a back up and you may cause your would be attacker to walk away or underestimate you if he/she continues to try to cause you harm.

{Note:  This post is in no way meant to make fun of, or cast dispersions on, any person suffering from any mental illness or physical ailment}

Stay safe.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Protect your head!

Different fighters hold their hands in different positions when they engage in combat. A post over at dojo rat got me thinking about hand position.

My Sensei holds one hand closer to his body and one hand extended out, being held higher.  This position allows for him to cover his body and parry away from the head.  He's very good at this and it's darn near impossible to 'get in' on him.  Some other fighters believe in a keeping their hands in close and held higher, more like a boxer's stance.

For true combat, from my experience in and out of the dojo, I am more likely to adopt the boxer like hand position.  I am aware there are strengths and weaknesses to each approach.

The main reasons that I lean towards the boxer type style are as follows:

1.  I am more likely to be knocked out if I'm stuck in the face than in the body.  So I protect the 'knock out' button located on my chin with my hands.  I recognize that body shots can put a person down, but I'm more concerned about ending up unconscious in a real fight.

2.  My style of Jiu Jitsu and my theories on combat are mainly based on the idea of moving into my opponent.  If I practiced moving away all the time, a more extended hand position might be more appropriate.  I feel my chances of being able to absorb an initial attack and move in are pretty high with my hands up.

I could probably make an argument for the extended position as well. It definitely has some advantages.  In fact, sparring rules or sessions would likely have me adopt the extended hand position but this is due to rules being in place and most sparring being point based with the action stopping after a hit or two.

For real combat, I want to move it, stay in close and not get knocked out.  As such, the hand up high position is superior for me for entry and balance and energy disruption.

I'd enjoy any thoughts on this topic.

Friday, November 5, 2010


I've read a few articles by John Coles over at his Kojutsukan blog lately.  His blog delves into quite a few topics tied in to modern day martial arts study.  He comes at topics from a neutral point of view and references most of his comments with solid research.

I'm adding his blog to my list of recommended links.  Most of his topics apply to a variety of different arts.