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.