Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone.  During such a crazy time of year, I hope you've all found a few wonderful moments.

And as always, thanks to all who comment, follow, or just pop by from time to time for a read.

My best to you and your loved ones,


Thursday, December 22, 2011


Things have been pretty crazy for me lately and I've found it challenging to post regularly.  I just wanted to say thanks for your patience and I'll be posting more again soon.  And I also wanted to say thanks to all of you for posting quality material.  I may not always have a chance to comment, but I'm always reading and there's been a lot of great stuff lately.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Getting a bit punchy

The punch.  I can't think of any martial art that doesn't work on punching.  Many martial artists practice it for a lifetime, perfecting it's every nuance.

A punch is an interesting thing.  It's kind of instinctual.  Balling up your fists and hitting someone emerges as a natural consequence of anger and frustration in the early years of life.  Now, very young children seem to keep an open hand and have full arm swing movement when they "attack".  Smart for power generation and protecting the hands, but pretty easy to see coming.  After that, it's 'fists-a-flying'.

Some will argue and say that a proper punch is anything but easy.  In some ways, I agree, in others I don't.  Take a person who has never taken a martial art.  Ask them to do a four corner throw, or an arm bar, or a joint lock.  They will struggle and have to be shown.  Ask for a punch, chances are they'll be able to do a half decent one right off the bat.

I've been questioning the effectiveness of the punch.  Scratch that, I've been questioning how much time I should be spent practicing the punch.

I've been working out with a boxer off and on over the last several months.  He is a tried and true striker.  Well that's not entirely accurate either, since he's now expanding his study into Jiu Jitsu.

At first, I was a little bit intimidated by his punching ability.  They were crisp, fast, and usually part of a flurry of strikes.  Over time, though, I've found ways to work around his fists of fury.  First off, I don't box with a boxer.  Once I got over trying to go toe to toe with him, I could move back into my comfort zone, and started finding openings.  The punches that I throw are rarely meant on their own to be knock out blows.  I use them to distract and 'get in' on my opponent.  What I learned with the boxer was that the actual quality of my punch didn't matter nearly as much as how I was using it.  Used properly, a poor punch still created an opening for me to move in and go to work.

This got me looking at the punch more closely.  In a real confrontation, how many punches actually land, and of those, how many land where they were intended?  And for those that did land as intended, how many were fight enders?  We're conditioned watching sport fighting to expect the punch to be the tool that ends most matches.  Highlight reels are full of spectacular knock outs.  Yes, they can happen, but they're much more likely to occur in a ring than in a dark alley or parking lot.

What's also likely to happen is that you're going to break your hands in a bare knuckle fight.  Even professional boxers break their hands in fights when the gloves come off.  The hands contain too many breakable parts.  Small errors on angles, arm position and striking surface can cause injury.  What happens then if a weapon comes into play?  Can you still use your hands?  Did you de-fang your own snake?

My point is not to abandon striking and the punch.  I'm just questioning how much time I should spend practicing something that I can do fairly well with little or no practice, and something that is as rife with danger to the delicate structure of my hands.  And on top of that, are they really all that effective in the first place?  In my line of work, I've rarely come across situations where a punch or two ended things.  Quite frankly, most are fairly easy to get out of the way of unless you're standing face to face in a 'punch off'.

I know I'll never stop using or practicing punching.  What I may do is spend more time working on what comes next.  For me, a punch is a tool that leads to something else.  This stays in line with my belief that the first, second, and sometimes even third technique you try in a real fight probably won't work out as planned anyway, so I'm not going to put all my eggs in one, um...punch basket.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Taking a Stance. Or not.

“Sink down”
“Knees over toes”
“One strike, one kill”

These are only a few of the things that have been drilled into me over the years when it comes to stances and stance work. 

I’ve been told stances should be the core of your martial repertoire, that it is the source of all your power.  It’s the foundation the house is built upon, that sort of thing.

Eventually, I programmed myself to always use deep, powerful stances.  This led to me having powerful technique.  There was no denying that.

Over time, I realized that while my technique was powerful, I only really got one shot at it.  I was sacrificing a great deal of mobility in the process.  If my first technique missed or didn’t work out as planned, I was very limited in my follow up.  I was essentially stuck in the deep stance and didn’t have a lot of options left. 

One of my theories on combat is that your first attempt at a technique probably isn’t going to work out as planned in a real confrontation (and sometimes your second, or even you third…). 

You must adapt, adjust and go with the flow.  For me, deep stances were hampering my ability to do so.  I had to ‘come back up’ to move on to my next technique.  Equally challenging was getting out of the way of incoming attacks with a moving opponent. 

I study an in close combat style of Jiu Jitsu, and most fights occur in this range.  Deep stances were creating distance between my body and my attackers.  This had the effect of actually hampering my ability to apply many non-striking techniques (joint locks, breaks, take downs, etc.).  They were also negating the advantage that my height gave me in certain situations.

In my opinion, the measure of how effective a martial art will be for real world application and survival is in its ability to create options.  The more you have, the higher the likelihood of emerging victorious, or at least in one piece.  I am willing to sacrifice a bit of power for a few more options and/or escape routes.

I have not abandoned stance work, of course.  Having a balanced stance is necessary for leverage, generating explosive force and for simply moving around and getting out of the way.  After all, Kuzushi (balance breaking), is a central component in most martial arts.  It most certainly is in Jiu Jitsu.

I now believe high stances are the most effective for most situations in real combat.  A proper high stance gives you decent power, good balance, speed, and high mobility.  It makes you more adaptable and gives you more options. 

There are still times where a deep powerful stance is beneficial, and some situations and techniques warrant their use, but in general, I opt for the flexibility of the higher stance. 

The mobility that a higher stance gives you reduces your need to meet force with force, something that has become more important the longer I have studied martial arts.  It is easier and safer to use your opponents speed and momentum against them, which is a central concept in the so called “gentle” arts.

Along this line of thought, it’s better to be like water than to meet force with force.  Water moves around, under or even over an obstacle, instead of meeting it head on.

The same applies to the example of the willow tree and the mighty oak.  In a violent storm, the rigid limbs of the mighty oak are often snapped and broken, unwilling to yield to the power of the elements.  The willow, however, yields, adjusts and moves, and by doing so, remains unscathed.

There are trade offs and advantages to both high and low stances.  It is about finding the balance of what works best for you and what provides the greatest chance of success in surviving a violent encounter.

Food for thought.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Random Thought - Buyer Beware

“I’ve been stabbed several times”

This was the opening line given by an instructor delivering a knife and edged weapons seminar I attended not too long ago.

From that moment on, the crowd pretty much accepted, without question, everything he had to say about knife defence.

I found myself wondering how that statement somehow qualified him as an expert.  After all, isn’t getting stabbed what we’re trying to avoid?  What made him more of an authority on the topic than someone else who’s managed not to get stabbed several times?

In pretty much every other area in life, this would disqualify someone as an expert. 

Would you take swimming lessons from someone that proudly asserted that they’d nearly drowned pretty much every time they got in the water?  Would you take driving lessons from someone that had been in a bunch of car accidents?

The other thing that occurred to me was how many similar assertions I had heard in the past.  It seems pretty much every instructor putting on a new flashy course has been mauled, bitten, shot and stabbed repeatedly.  Amazingly, most of them seemed unfazed by the experience.  Now I’m not suggesting anyone is making anything up in order to sell their particular brand or product or anything, but…

Caveat emptor in all things, I guess.

Note:  I should mention that the instructor in this case had actually been stabbed, and the experience had been the catalyst for him to question everything he thought he knew about knife and edged weapons training.  As such, the seminar was great and I learned a lot.  Unfortunately, this seems to the the exception, and not the rule at most of these events.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Knife Fight - A worthwhile read

I haven't posted on knife survival or knife fighting in a while, but that doesn't mean I'm not actively working on techniques and material.

Wim has a video on his blog and some interesting observations.  If anything, it illustrates how different an actual knife encounter can look from what we practice or see in the movies. I recommend taking a look at the video and reading the article.

See his post entitled Knife fight in Beijing.

I've chosen not to comment on how poor I felt the law enforcement response was.

This is the video posted on Wim Demeeres Blog:

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Mental Game - hard lessons

This article is partially in response to a post made by jc over at Bujutsu: The Path.  In it, jc tells of a friend that gave up his study of martial arts after he and another friend were jumped and beaten up quite badly.

From his post:

"Since that night, about three years ago, my friend has completely stopped training as he felt his skills didn't 'kick in' when needed. He has become disillusioned and cynical when it comes to the art form he used to love"

The part that really caught my eye was about the skills not kicking in.  Now, I go on and on about realistic training and training with a serious mind, but that statement has provided me with a opportunity to (hopefully) articulate a very important point.  I feel that this may be one of the more important posts on this blog.

You need to be ready to respond to violence, not your chosen martial art.  It doesn't matter what you study or what techniques you've learned.  If you are not mentally and emotionally prepared to fight, to commit serious violence to protect yourself or someone else, it doesn't matter what rank you hold.  And you better be able to throw the 'switch' really fast.

This point is often lost on martial artists, people who work out in friendly dojos, in a controlled environment, safe from real violence.  This isn't meant to be critical of martial arts instruction, per se, but it is something people need to understand.  This part of the mental game is up to you, the individual.  You need to really look inward, to see if you are truly prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect yourself or someone that can't.  This is assuming you cannot get away safely, of course.  

Are you capable of real violence?  If you are serious about your study, you need to figure this one out.  I can't give you the answer, and neither can anyone else.  It's not an easy question, by the way.

One of my issues in the world of martial arts is how they can give students a sense of false confidence.  It would often be better to not know any martial arts than it would be to assume your techniques will kick in when needed.  In addition, very few martial arts enter any sort of confrontation with the view that their first technique or two probably won't work as planned. The static or singular nature of traditional martial arts practice can be a serious detriment. Assume what you do won't work and keep fighting until the threat has been negated.  And fight with all you've got.  Don't throw one technique and step back to assess what you assume will follow.  Fight, fight fight, and then get away.  

Once you know you are going to fight with everything you've got, martial arts techniques can kick in and help.  They are tools which make your response to an attack easier, more efficient, and which reduce the chance of serious injury, first for you, and if you're good enough, also for your attacker.  They do not take the place of dark and serious intent.  

If it helps, think of it this way - I would rather fight a black belt in any style than a mother who was protecting her child.  The mom is willing to do whatever it takes, without hesitation, the black belt may or may not be ready for combat.

I know of a guy who was in a true life or death struggle.  He was losing and in a last ditch effort to survive, he actually sucked the eyeball out of the socket of the guy who was trying to kill him.  Gross,  yes, but could you do it if you had to?  Food for thought.

jc's post goes on to say:

"I just think about why he feels the way he does and how I would feel if that happened to me. Are we allowed to 'lose'? Are we allowed to have 'doubts' and weaknesses'?"

These are hard lessons.  As warriors, we don't lose as long as we learn from an experience. If you survive and learn from something, you have not truly lost.  We should always question ourselves, and our chosen martial arts.

One of the single most effective tools is to visualize.  Imagine yourself responding to violence and being successful.  The human brain has trouble differentiating between imagined stimuli and actual experience.  And that's fantastic.  That's one of the reasons you should always ask yourself what you would do it that random person in front of you attacked.  Think with the 'when/then' model.  When that person attacks, then I'll do this, and I'll win.  Do this enough, and when the world finally does go mad around you, while other people are falling apart, you mind will be saying "No problem, I've been here before".

I want to add that I don't mean to be critical of the person mentioned in jc's post.  I don't know him nor do I know the circumstances of his attack, or his martial art style or teacher. It saddens me that he has abandoned his study, whatever that was, but I also understand. To be beaten up is a rotten experience.  It has long term effects on people.  It's a hard lesson to learn.  It can shake their confidence for years to come.  For those who've been there, you understand what I'm saying.  For those who haven't, I hope you never have to find out.  

I hope jc's friend recovers and can learn from his experience and I hope he finds something in the world of the martial arts that he can use and ultimately enjoy again.

I hope I've done this topic justice.  I also hope everyone takes a moment to really look within themselves to figure out what they're capable of.  It's a valuable exercise. 

And if jc's friend ever happens across this post, I am sorry you had to go through what you did.  Whether you know it or not, you are stronger for it and with time, it will get better.

Train well.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bruce Lee - Big Business. Too big?

Call off the hounds, I'm not bashing Bruce.  He was an incredible martial artist, a visionary thinker and influenced martial arts during his brief life and for decades after his passing, to this day.

I was glancing over the magazine rack the other day and saw yet another special Bruce Lee collectors issue.  I realized that I probably owned a half dozen super special 'all Bruce, all the time' editions of various martial arts magazines, several from the same magazine.   For whatever reason, the thought crossed my mind that "Oh great, here's another one...".  The strange part, of course, is that I'm a big fan.  I mean, I'm always saying you should constantly examine your technique, adjust it to your own unique makeup, discard what you don't need or can't use (once you've truly explored it) etc.

I've read some of the articles written by Shannon Lee, and she seems to know her stuff. Her material seems to be trying to honour her father with class and humility.  I have no problem with preserving a legacy or building on the foundation of the giants that we follow. After all, Bruce Lee was never static in his training, so Jeet Kune Do should continue to evolve with the times.  I'm o.k. with all that.

But is it too much?  Have all the books, the re-prints, the posters, the never before seen or read passages, the magazines, the figurines, the comics and all the swag become too much?

Does the big business of Bruce take away from the man and his message?

I don't know.


Friday, October 28, 2011

"Gimme that kime" - Overcoming common training mistakes

I’ve been thinking a lot about timing, focus and energy work lately.  A few weekends ago, I attended a great martial arts seminar.  There were 5 Sensei in attendance, one of them being mine.  Each did an hour or so session on the mats.  Anyone who gets this type of exposure is lucky.  Each Sensei and style was different, so lots of new ideas and different techniques were explored.  It was a great experience. 

I had the opportunity to work with a bunch of people, many of which I had just met that day.  I worked with guys and gals, big people, small, short people, tall, young and old and even some with physical limitations.  They came from different clubs and styles.

I got to train in Jiu Jitsu, Karate, Aikido and a bit of Kung Fu and some Tai Chi thrown in for good measure.

I was honoured to be uke for my Sensei.  While I’ve gone to some seminars to be my Sensei’s uke in the past, usually I know the type of material he is going to demonstrate.  This time I did not.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but he beat the Sh_ _! out of me.  Actually, he didn't injure me, but for the first time in a long time, he demonstrated at much closer to full speed.  Not knowing what was coming, I realized just how vulnerable I was in the hands of my teacher.

Normally in training, he is far easier on me, no doubt to keep me injury free.  It was amazing to experience the technique fast.  I barely had time to break fall when I was taken down.  I didn’t feel any danger, but it was a real demonstration of the speed and effectiveness of the technique.  It was also a way to show the smaller and more timid attendees that Jiu Jitsu is the great equalizer when it comes to size and strength.  I am much bigger than my Sensei, but you’d never know it by the way he tossed me around.  I saw some light bulbs come on with some of the smaller and/or newer students.

Some of the general observations I made from watching a few dozen students of varying rank were:

  1. Most martial artists aren’t accustomed to pain or contact  

There were audible gasps in the audience when my Sensei connected with me, usually as a set up or softening technique.  We practice extensively on the importance of the disruption techniques.  If someone attacks you, simply blocking or evading may not be enough to allow you to really 'sink a technique'.  You must change your opponent's thought pattern and focus so that you can move on to your next technique.  They can’t be thinking about what you’re about to do next, or what they're about to do next.  The best way is to overload their senses with blinding pain.

We also make sure that techniques are applied effectively and to the maximum level without causing injury.  As I was up on my toes, or racing to tap since the pain was exquisite, you could see some startled eyes.  You have to know that any technique you apply really has the ability to disable, control or stop your opponent.  Going through the motions without discomfort will not give you the confidence to know that your stuff will work in a real encounter.

  1. Most martial artists do not understand movement and the body’s reaction to pain

This is a biggie.  I’ve written previously about being a good uke and how important it is to understand the body’s reaction to pain.  It’s equally important to understand that attacks are not static.  Attackers are moving when they are attacking.  They are also moving when you are defending, in response to what you are doing or to get away or to continue to attack.  You cannot just stand there assuming a single static attack is coming.  You must train to adjust to, or anticipate movement.  Your technique must be flexible.  What if your attacker doesn’t react as planned?  You can’t just stand doing nothing, especially if your intended defense didn’t work.  Remember, they’re still attacking.  They are still focused on hurting you.  When you train, understand that your technique may or may not work, and it will likely have to be adjusted as you go.  Decent training gives you options. 

As the attacker, make sure you attack realistically as well.  I’ve written about this previously, read here for one of the posts.

One way to improve this area is to experience actual pain (see point #1).  Used safely and responsibly, pain is a great teacher.  You’ll learn how your technique will work and your uke will learn just as much.  This way the uke you used to simulate punching in the stomach might actually double over somewhat instead of standing straight while you try to get to the next part.

  1. Most martial artist lack focus, or kime

There are the mechanical aspects of technique, but there other factors which can make or break a technique.  In any throwing or take down techniques, you need to focus on where you want the body to go.  Your movements, big or small, must direct, lead or force your opponent to where you want then.  The same applies to other techniques as well.  My style is heavily influenced by the small circle theory, and quite frankly, almost all our techniques contain some sort of circle, or a circular movement. 

The difference between average technique and technique that is really effective is focus.  Focus on completing the circle.  In a z-lock wrist lock, one hand pushes while the other pulls.  A common mistake is just to push.  This results in your opponent moving straight back.  It still hurts, but he/she gets away from you.  When you focus on pushing out with one hand and pulling in with the other, you complete the circle and your opponent ends up going down instead of back.  The pain is also intensified greatly. 

And when throwing, don’t just throw your opponent, complete the circle and drive them down into the ground at your feet, right where you want them.

This concept doesn’t only apply to Jiu Jitsu technique.  It can apply to striking arts as well.  Focus on direction, power and penetration.  For circular blocks, block and continue the block around and down, taking your opponent’s balance.

Personally I’m a believer of energy work. Projecting your energy into the technique. Around and down, in the example of the z-lock, increases the effectiveness as well.  Now whether or not using energy work is actually just a method of improving my timing and focus doesn’t really matter because it works. My technique is better when I project my chi.  (I don’t care if I take an aspirin or a placebo, as long as my headache goes away)

  1. Most martial artists don't know how to put it all together 

When we learn techniques, we break them down into their separate parts.  Once you’ve been doing it for a while, you need to put it all back together.  Your stance, low or high, your grab, your distraction, or your technique itself needs to be done as one.  You can’t have someone throw a punch at you and then:

Step #1 – Block
Step #2 – Grab
Step #3 – Distraction
Step #4 - Step in, drop into stance
Step #4 – Apply technique

Sadly, this often happens.  And it doesn’t take into account #2 in my list of observations.  It ignores movement.  You’ll also eat the next punch while your trying to complete each step.

Things have to be done together.  The block and grab or block and distract need to happen at the same time.  The stance and the technique sink and go on at the same time, using the stance (even a very high one) adds to the technique.  When you focus on it as one fluid movement, your skill will increase by leaps and bounds.  Focus and flow are two essential elements of effective martial arts technique.

It is not my intention for this article to be purely negative or to criticize anyone who was at the seminar.  I had a great time, learned a lot and worked with a bunch of talented martial artists.  I am only referring to what I see as trends or widespread issues in the world of martial arts.  I have, and still do, suffer from some of these issues myself.  Most often it’s a matter of losing focus so whenever I get sloppy, I remind myself to “Gimme the kime”.

Food for thought.

Train well.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Are you looking at me? Am I looking at you? Awareness part II

In part 1 we were talking about specific things to look for as part of awareness training during the day and in high traffic areas.  So what about when the sun goes down?

Night time/low crowd:

The city is a different place at night.  Areas that were teaming with people hours ago now take on a different look.  And with that different look comes different things to look for.

You can easily apply many of the things discussed for day time awareness to night time, but several things in the environment have changed.  With fewer people around, differences from the collective behaviour are more difficult to spot.  While most people are still going somewhere or doing something, there is a much more relaxed sense of purpose, and often people can be just standing around, even trying to figure out what to do next.  It can be more difficult to identify aberrant behaviour.

Obviously, still pay attention to groups or gangs of suspicious looking people.  For individuals though, look for people that are doing one of two things.

  1. Staring intently at you, watching everything you are doing.
  2. Deliberately not staring at you.  Making a point to keep their heads down.  These people may wear hoods or other items of clothing that may obscure or hide their appearance.  They may stay just out of the reach of street lights.
If the hairs on the back of your neck go up, consider changing your direction, or making erratic walking patterns.  If someone follows or keeps pace with you generally, they could be a threat.  If they follow you after you've made an about face, the chances of them being up to no good is greatly increased.  Seek the safety of a populated area or an open business, anywhere with people.  

Be aware of sharp corners you can’t see around.  Take a wide berth around blind corners.  Watch for alleys or ditches close to where you are walking.  Watch for any area that can't easily be seen by foot or vehicle traffic.  Many attacks, mostly on women, involve being struck from behind and being dragged off the beaten path to an area that is out of the public eye. 

Keep an eye out for clothing that doesn't match the weather, typically more than is needed for the temperature.  This is easier in the warmer weather.

You may find yourself in a situation where someone is deliberately approaching you or engaging you in dialog.  They could ask you something incongruous or they could be deliberately confrontational.  They want your attention fully on them.  If you don't know the person, try to remain aware of what is going on behind you.  Many criminals operate in pairs.  While the first one distracts you, the other sneaks up behind you.  It’s always a good idea to know what’s going on around you, even if you look a bit weird by turning around from time to time when you're walking.

If you’re in a bar, or somewhere similar, try to keep a wall to your back.  Also, keep an exit handy and in sight.  Being able to see who is coming in and out of an establishment is never a bad idea.

And remember, not everyone is out to get you.  And no one action or behaviour means someone is a criminal or has nefarious intent.  This is what awareness is all about.  It’s about being aware of your surroundings, paying attention to patterns or behaviours, being aware of what does and doesn’t fit.

At the start of this post, I mentioned that it’s more important to ‘just be looking’ than knowing what exactly to look for. 

A person in a busy area might have his hood up and be staring at people with no apparent purpose and be continually checking a bulge in his low hanging jacket pocket and be moving somewhat erratically because he is high on drugs and is about to rob someone at gunpoint, or it could be a teenager on lunch listening to music on his earphones bopping away, while checking on his newly purchased iphone or hand held video game system that’s in his pocket.

There’s no definitive list of exactly what to look for, but hopefully I’ve provided some insight into potential danger signs.  And remember, if you are in a dicey situation, watch the hands. Hands are what will attack you 9 times out of 10 and hands are what grab and use weapons.  If someone's hands are kept from view at all times, you should be wondering what they're up to.

And always, always, trust your gut.  If a situation doesn’t feel right to you, leave.  More often than not, if you’ve been paying attention, your mind has put together a whole bunch of observations that have resulted in your feeling of unease.  Quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter if you can separate each piece of the puzzle, as long as the end result is you being safe.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Are you looking at me? Am I looking at you? Awareness

Sue over at My Journey to Black Belt made an interesting comment on the state of awareness training, a component referenced in a variety of courses, seminars, martial arts and websites etc.  She said while the importance of awareness in self defense training is mentioned, what to actually look for is often absent.  Too soon do the topics shift the physical skills.   

Instead of paying lip service, she'd like to put some meat on the bones and asked what things, specifically, to look for to stay safe in daily life.  I'm paraphrasing of course, check her article out here. She is planning on putting together a guide on awareness and what of to look for in self defense.

Readers of this blog know that I believe awareness is the single most important part of self defense.  Read about that here and here.  I've also written about how to work on developing these skills. Read that here.  

I've also talked about some of the bad habits we get in training, assuming we'll always be aware of what's going on around us.  Read that article here.

The answer of what specifically to look for, what physical traits, movements, or actions should set off you alarm bells is a bit complex, I’m afraid.  I would like to provide a definitive list of dangers signs that apply universally, but no such list exists; there are just too many variables, not the least of which is who you are and where you are.

First and foremost, before trying to break it down, the number one way to use awareness to avoid danger in day to day life is just to pay attention.  Pure and simple.  Simply paying attention to your surroundings is the biggest part.     

You may not know exactly what to look for, but at least you’re looking.  Easy prey is prey that is clueless, lost in headphones, cell phones or electronic devices, looking down, unaware of the world around them.  Criminals are lazy by nature, so the easier the target is to surprise, the better.  They don’t want you looking at them.  More times than not, they’ll pass on the attentive person and target the one who they can easily approach undetected.

Most attacks involve an element of surprise, regardless of the circumstances.  Even alcohol induced displays of aggression and bravado that leads to bar fights usually include a ‘sucker punch’ or surprise attack.

So, in attempt to provide some insight into what to look for, here goes:

The time and environment play a huge role in awareness training.  Things to watch for in a busy city environment at midday differ significantly from things to look for in a park at night.

Let’s break it down a bit by time of day and location.

Day time/city environment:

Crowed urban areas present unique challenges for awareness training.  In big centers, we are forced into situations where our personal comfort zones regarding personal space are often compromised. 

In crowded situations, you need to look less for specific behaviours, and more for behaviour that is different from that of the masses.  Granted, in these situations, there can be a lot of different things going on, but by and large, most people are purpose driven.  They are going somewhere and doing something.  Anyone who is at odds with this may be worth watching.

The element of surprise is less prevalent in crowded situations.  You may be more likely to be pick pocketed or have a purse snatched, but it is less likely that you will experience violence during the act.

Watch for anyone who doesn’t seem to be doing anything or going anywhere.  Lacking a purpose could indicate trouble.  Could, of course, these are broad stroke generalizations and are meant as things to think about.

Assuming someone isn’t a street person, watch for anyone that is just standing or sitting around.  Watch for whom they are looking at, and what they are looking at.  Does the person’s gaze follow only one gender, are they just looking at people carrying electronics, phones, handbags etc? 

Also look for people exhibiting bizarre behaviour.  If someone is mentally unbalanced or high on drugs, they may be acting out.  Someone suffering a drug induced psychotic break may lash out at real or imagined people or events and you could be caught in the path.  Be especially careful around traffic or on subway platforms so that you aren’t pushed into the path of oncoming traffic.

Outside of the individuals, look for what I call ‘packs’, groups of people the same age, wearing similar styles of clothing, perhaps wearing the same coloured items of clothing.  These packs, usually made up of younger males, could be gang related or they could be using their numbers to intimidate others or hide some criminal acts, such as surrounding a lone person and taking their ipad or laptop or phone etc.  I don’t want to typecast, but we all know these packs when we see them.  They’re walking around, staring everyone down, and refusing to move out of the way on the sidewalk, pants halfway down.  They spit and litter and bother people going about their day.  Enough, I’ve made my point.

And remember, people who are about to commit a crime are often experiencing stress and adrenaline.  The human body gets bottled up with stress, anxiety and excess energy.  Think of it as a boiling pot with the lid down tight.  It needs to let off steam.  The way humans let this steam is through movement.  The full physiological reasons require far more explanation, but for our purposes, suffice to say we need to burn off nervous energy through movement.  Watch for those individuals that are pacing, or whose legs are tapping incessantly.  People who are working themselves up to commit a crime or attack someone will not be able to remain still.  Watch for twitchy individuals.

Also watch for anyone who continually touches one area of their clothing.  They could have a weapon and most criminals subconsciously feel a need to touch or check their weapon.  This is one of the characteristics of an armed person, this need to continually check that the weapon is still there, and accessible.  If you notice this, the area being checked will most likely be within easy reach, so think midsection.  And also look for unnatural bulges or areas that hang down.  If one pocket or a coat hangs noticeably lower than the other, they could be carrying a gun.  Of course, it could be a can or beer or soda, or a book, or any number of things.

It is normally the combination of several factors that should set you alarm bells off.  This is what awareness training is about.  Noticing odd patterns of behaviour, or in crowded situations, behaviours that are incongruous with the rest of the surroundings and the majority of people is the key.

In Part II I'll talk about night time considerations. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The myth of multiple attackers

I love watching movies where the hero fights off dozens of adversaries at a time.  It's very entertaining.  It's very unrealistic too, of course.  Beware of anyone who says you can fight multiple attackers.

The bottom line is that you can only fight or deal with one attacker at a time. Yes, you can switch back and forth between attackers, but sooner or later you'll be overwhelmed, or succumb to fatigue and be overrun.

So, armed with this knowledge, how do you deal with being surrounded or swarmed but multiple assailants?

The answer lies in the problem.  You can only deal with one attacker at a time, so only deal with one attacker at a time.  Easy right?

Well, it's not easy, but it may not be quite as hard as you think.  The secret lies in keeping your 'one' attacker between you and the rest of the bunch.  The more attackers there are, the harder it is for them to get at you when their 'buddy' is in the way.  You may find that your 'one' attacker is getting shoved out of the way by his (or her) buddies.  Sometimes they may even trip over each other.

If one of the others gets to you, that person becomes your 'one'.  The key is to keep moving, circling around your attacker keeping their body between you and the rest.  The danger lies in someone else getting behind you.  The idea is to strike or attack your 'one' and then keep moving.  Stick and move.

You don't want to be the guy on the ground
Obviously, you should be looking for an opportunity to get away.  Eventually the odds will swing in their favor, but you can use this strategy to buy yourself time and maybe even take the drive and desire out of your attackers.

Luckily, this is a skill you can practice and improve on in the dojo.  Practice keeping the center of an area and start with one attacker.  Then add in a second, and a third and see how long you can last, keeping one between the rest, switching between attackers as needed.  You will move a lot, but envision wherever you are standing as the new center.  Or don't even worry about any center, just keep one attacker between you and the rest, the idea of the center is only a good idea if it helps you visualize what's needed.

A certain amount of space is helpful in utilizing this strategy, but tight quarters can also work in your favor, as long as you have a wall to your back.  The tighter the space, the harder it is for multiple attackers to get at you.  Tight quarters force a one on one dynamic.  It's just harder to escape when you're boxed it.

Gang violence and swarming are sadly becoming more commonplace.  Gone are the days of the one on one 'put up your dukes' style of conflict resolution. Most people who attack as a group are cowards on their own.  Disable or hurt one or two, and the rest may lose their motivation, giving you a chance to get away.

There are a lot of unrealistic videos out there on multiple attackers.  I found the following clip which demonstrates some of the concepts I've been discussion quite well.  It's not in English, but it's real footage.  Enjoy.

I wholeheartedly recommend adding multiple attacker drills into your training.

Train well.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

You fight as you train. And what's with the tap?

In my last post on the dangers of point sparring,  I referenced the fact that we will fight how we train.  I’ve said this before in previous posts, but it bears repeating.

The discussion I had in the comments section inspired this post. 

First, why do we tap?

Tapping out is fairly common in the martial arts, but what are the reasons we use it?

There are two main reasons that we use the tap.

  1. It’s universal.  No language barrier exists.  Train anywhere in the world in most arts, and the tap is understood.  It’s also audible and tactile (I recommend tapping your opponent whenever possible, just in case they don't hear you tapping madly on your own body).
  2. We fight as we train. 
When you train long enough, you get certain moves or techniques burned into your head.  In fact, this is one of the purposes of continued repetitive training movements.  It’s so they become ingrained in your body and mind.  This is usually a good thing.

Since we fight as we train, we tap instead of saying Stop! or Ouch!, or yelling out.  If we trained using the word stop whenever a technique was applied, we would be subconsciously teaching ourselves to let go when someone said stop or yelled out.  In a real fight where you are forced to defend yourself, this is the last thing you’d want to do.  

This brings me to another important point.

When your opponent taps, never just let go.  It is extremely important to only ease up on whatever technique you are applying.  You need to keep the technique on.  In a real violent encounter, you need to stay in control.  If you practice by letting go when someone taps, you are conditioning yourself to do so whenever you hear or feel a tap.

You never know, someone on the street might tap in a real situation.  I might, only because I am so conditioned to tap when a technique is about to injure me. 

In the discussion over my last post, I told the story of a police officer who practiced a specific gun disarming technique repeatedly.  After each successful disarm, he handed the gun back to his training partner and repeated the drill.

This officer later had an encounter on the road where a suspect pointed a gun at him.  The officer, from his extensive practice, was successful in using the gun disarming technique that he had drilled over and over.  The only problem was that he started to hand the gun back to the bad guy. 

He caught himself in time, but it was a valuable lesson.  He fought as he had trained. 

As a result, the training program was re-vamped.  This disarming technique remained but officers were trained to take control of the person after they had disarmed them or to create time and distance or obtain cover etc.  It never ended with handing the weapon back.

We will fight as we train, so we need to think about how we are training.  The tap, while a great tool, does not mean let go, it just means ease off but stay in control.  Your mind under stress we revert to your training.

Training can, and should, be an enjoyable experience.  While practicing, however, you need to keep a serious mindset and understand what bad habits you may be burning into your psyche.

Train well. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The dangers of point sparring

While valuable, point sparring has some limitations, and if overdone, can have serious consequences when it comes to real self defense.

Point based sparring can be a great workout.  You can improve your timing and experiment with angles and distance.  It can also improve your ability to identify your opponent’s ‘tells’.  That’s all great.

Overuse, however, can ingrain dangerous habits.  For one, point sparring has a set of rules for what you can and can’t do.  In the real world, excluding certain targets is dangerous.  You’ve got to use whatever is available at the time.  Even more serious is the very nature of point sparring.  You train yourself to stop when you land a point.  You fight as you train.  The last thing you want in a real violence situation is to strike and then stop, waiting for a ref to restart the match.

Point based sparring doesn’t allow more than the strikes or kicks.  Grabbing your opponent is not allowed.  For Jiu Jitsu and other similar styles, this is counter intuitive as they are typically hands on, in-close fighting styles.  While there are strikes and kicks, they are often used in order to close the gap and then apply the more intrinsic elements, such as balance breaking, throws, joint locks, chokes etc.

Most real fights do not stay in the fighting range of point based sparring.  The back and forth just doesn’t happen very much.  Most combatants ending up in close range, whether it goes to the ground or not.

You’ll also find most people who point spar hold their hands in a position that may not be optimal for street defense.  Most people I’ve seen keep their hands fairly low, as they are trying to cover the most ‘real estate’ that they can that is considered a ‘legal’ target in point sparring.

I am of the opinion that in a real violent encounter, holding your hands higher is a better idea.  While I know body shots can be debilitating, I’m more concerned about being knocked unconscious on the street, and the knock out button resides on our chins/jaws.  In a real violent encounter, you’d be better to take a body shot when you are moving in than to take a head shot. 

And since you aren’t bobbing back and forth, you are unlikely to receive multiple blows to the body.

Point sparring has a bunch of positive elements, but should be used judiciously.  Sadly, in some martial arts schools, this is the closest thing that students get to dynamic training.  An expert in point sparring may be unpleasantly surprised in a real attack. 

The message to take away is to know the strengths and weaknesses of any form of training.  Point based sparring needs to be balanced against more realistic forms of training, including continuous type sparring which starts at a range, but continues to a conclusion, such as moving in, a throw or take down, and a finish.  Dynamic randori with multiple opponents is also a valuable training tool.  There are other methods as well, stress induced training, the ‘red-man’ suit and such.  Each method has its good and its bad points.  Just make sure that you’re not fooled into thinking that, on its own, point based sparring is an effective method of learning true self defense. 

Food for thought.

Train well. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Karate Kid (remake) and Ip Man movie

I finally had an opportunity to watch the remake of the Karate Kid.  A long time ago I took issue to the title saying Karate when the preview had Jackie Chan talking about Kung Fu.  I also thought Jaden Smith was a little young to portray the main character.

Well, the film never tries to say it's about Karate, and it knows the difference. The title is just that, a title, and an homage to the original story.

I still think Jaden Smith was a bit too young to play the lead character, but all in all, he did pretty well.  That's a pretty talented kid.  It's eerie how much he looks like his dad at times.

The Good?

- The film stayed fairly true to the general story line of the original without being a copycat.
- Jackie Chan is a very talented martial artist and it shows, although the fights were a lot more 'Hollywood' than in the original.
- Jaden Smith was likable and clearly worked hard for the role.

The Not-so-Good?

- The story did not seem as deep.  I felt less connection to the characters than in the original.
- The bad guys were bad, but I never bought the whole 'redemption' or the 'realizing you were wrong' scenes.
- Everyone was too young for the type of fighting/violence that was offered. There is a scene where Jackie Chan is fighting the bad guys, and they're just a bunch of kids.  It just didn't look right.

I fully realize that I'm a little biased towards the original.  That film was a fairly important film of my youth.  To be fair, I'm not sure the youth of today would even enjoy the original.  The thing about the original though, is that it was very real, including the fight scenes, albeit they were mainly point sparring based Karate.

Overall, I didn't mind the film.  It had it's moments.  Mainly I felt it lacked a bit in the character department.  I know it did fairly well in theaters, so it's always possible I'm just getting old...

Now, on to Ip Man.  I watched this movie on a free channel one night.  I didn't expect very much, especially since it's subtitled.  I usually don't enjoy sub titles, with a few notable exceptions.

Anyway, I loved the movie.  Partly because it's great and partly because I expected nothing.

Without giving too much away, it's about Wing Chun Kung Fu, Yip Man (or Ip Man), war, pride, ego, honour, China vs. Japan, Kung Fu vs. Jiu Jitsu, and a whole lot more.  It was very entertaining.  Some of the fighting was over the top, but there was a lot of good martial arts in there too.

A surprise hit.  Donnie Yen is great in the film.  I recommend it.  I've yet to watch part 2.

So there you have it, some lighter fare amidst some heavier posts.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Blog News

Japanese Jiu Jitsu:  A Journey looks a bit different now on mobile devices. Blogger has added some features for 'on the go' folks.   I hope you like it.

I've added the Budo Blog to my links list.  Check it out.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fight or Flight Survival Response

To oversimplify, the 'fight or flight' response occurs when people undergo extreme stress, normally in the context of facing danger.  It's an evolutionary response, which, amongst other things, causes a massive adrenaline dump, which temporarily makes you stronger, and more able to fight or to run away. It also desensitizes your pain centers, making you more apt to make it through whatever you are facing.  There's a bunch of other physiological things that occur, but that's the substance of the concept.

John Coles wrote an interesting post on his blog on the fight or flight response.  Read it here.

In previous posts, I've touched on the fight or flight response, the survival mechanism and the adrenaline dump that occurs during combat or extreme stress.  It's important to incorporate some form of stress induced training to your regimen, and to understand what may or may not happen to you.

Equally important, and often overlooked, is understanding that your attacker may be experiencing all these same things, making them temporarily stronger and more resistant to pain.

So what happens when the fight or flight response doesn't kick in?  And why wouldn't it?

First off, it's a complex issue.  So many things are happening 'behind the scenes' in you brain, that it's pretty tricky to figure out all the whys and hows.

Next, it's important to note that the same person may react differently to the same stimuli on any given day.  So one day, the response might kick in at the slightest whiff of danger, and another it might wait until an attack is underway, or maybe after.  Or even not at all.

There are very real advantages and disadvantages to experiencing the adrenaline dump brought about by the 'fight or flight' response.  Following are just a few of both:


Increased strength
Increased speed
Increased tolerance to pain
Increased endurance


Loss of fine motor skills
Auditory exclusion
Tunnel vision
Distortion of time

Without the response,  you are more likely to intelligently respond and recognize threats and plan and identify options,   The irony is that, by experiencing the response, you could arguable be better equipped to carry out that plan or escape.

Brains or brawn, too bad you can't always have both.

Can you overcome or prevent the 'fight or flight' response?

Yes and no.

Training can reduce or eliminate the response.  Repeated exposure to simulated situations de-sensitizes you from the effects of the response.  This is only true of serious training.  If your mind isn't in the game, it's just playing around.

For military, law enforcement and security, training is developed to over-ride the stress response, or at least mitigate its effects.  This is where stress induced training methodologies can be useful.

More traditional martial arts training can do the same thing.  This can be a double edged sword though, especially for people who have never been exposed to real violence.  It can backfire.

Take a martial artist who has never seen or experienced any real or disturbing violence.  This person trains for a while, and feels pretty good about their skill level.

Now, this person gets attacked.  Since their minds have experience hundreds or thousands of attacks in the dojo, they don't get the immediate adrenaline 'fight or flight' dump.  Their attacker may be jacked up, but they are as cool as a cucumber. Until their response/defense doesn't work.  Wait a sec!  This has always worked in class, and it's not working now!  Oh Sh_ _!  And I'm hurt, I'm bleeding!

Now the panic sets in, the response kicks in, but it may be too late.  If it had kicked in a bit sooner, they may have been able to get away or fight back enough to gain the advantage.

Some will posit that we should never try to overcome this natural response. There's some strength to this argument for the majority of folks, but this is not always realistic or advisable, especially referring those tasked with making legal use of force response decisions.

The other reason to train for both scenarios is the variable nature of your own response.  What if you don't recognize someone as a threat, but they turn out to be?  You might not get the benefits, or the associated physiological responses until after the encounter has ended.

So you need to train for both scenarios:

1.  Instant 'fight or flight' response
2.  Delayed - begins during an encounter

It is for this very reason that I stress the importance of learning effective self defense techniques that take into account both scenarios.  In my Mind the Gap series, I discuss this in greater detail.  For true, survival self defense for the vast majority of people, the techniques must work in both cases.  There is no adjusting for adrenaline.  You can never know, with absolute surety, when or even if, the 'fight or flight' response will activate.

For military, law enforcement and security, you need to train differently for both scenarios.  Adrenaline can help or hinder.  Just think about the effect an adrenaline dump would have on trigger pull and aiming and how tunnel vision and auditory exclusion effects threat identification and communication.

This is a much broader topic, but this is where mindset training is so important.  The will to win and the never-give-up mindset needs to be in place when everything else goes down the toilet.  The 'fight or flight' response can sneak up on this group and catch them more off guard than most folks, if only for the reason that it's unexpected after all the training.  When you've survived multiple violent encounters and have remained calm and fully in control, when you do experience the dump, it can be a very unwelcome surprise.  But I'm getting off topic.

It's very important to gain an understanding of what you may experience in a violent confrontation.  Research, find instructors who've experienced violence, keep a serious mind and make sure your training offers you the highest likelihood of success no matter how your body and mind respond.

Nature has given us a survival gift in the 'fight or flight', but we need to realize that some situations in the modern world do not allow us to maximize this evolutionary advantage.  Food for thought.

Train safely.