Sunday, December 29, 2013

Happy Holidays

I just wanted to say Happy Holidays to all of you out there.  An awful lot of stuff has been going on in my life (hence the lack of posts) but here's wishing you all a wonderful and healthy 2014!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Teaching Styles - Which is Best? Part II

In Part I, I talked about an experience I had with a 'sub-par' instructor.  I was reflecting on different teaching styles.  Here's a few styles I've encountered over the years.

So, first broad teaching style could be called:



-        Student interaction minimal
-        Instructor lead/driven
-        Strict rules
-        Highly regulated
-        Punitive for rules/etiquette violation
-        Variation/discussion limited
-        Reflection on learning minimal

Different stokes for different folks, of course.  The training partner who made the observation later mentioned that if that was what he experienced years ago, he would have quickly quit the martial arts.  His opinion was that he didn’t sign up for people to yell at him and for nothing to every be good enough.
On the other end of the spectrum is the:

Totally relaxed/ Laisser-faire


-        Student interaction high
-        Student driven
-        Few of no rules
-        Unstructured
-        Non-punitive
-        Lots of discussion and reflection

Some people are drawn to this type of atmosphere as well.  Very relaxed and non-threatening.  Sessions tend to have little structure, and tend to drift topics and techniques at random, driven largely by the attendees.  Kind of like a bunch of people hanging out to do martial arts.  Often there is a lot of “what do you want to do” type stuff.  The role of the teacher is much less in this type of environment.  They’re just ‘one of the boys’ (or girls).

And in the middle, you find:



-        Student interaction present to a degree
-        Instructor lead/Student influenced
-        Rules adopted by students
-        Occasionally punitive measures for rules/etiquette errors
-        Reflection and discussion instructor initiated and lead

There are varying degrees  of the Blended category, some closer to one end than the other.

Just as there are different people and learning styles, there should be different styles of teaching.  It’s a constant progress of adjustment and adaptation, just like the arts themselves.

I won’t necessarily berate any one style but the overly hard, militaristic style can tend to automatically discourage a large amount of people from continuing or signing up.  I know more than one person who tried martial arts when they were younger and quit due to this style of instruction, often leaving a negative view of the martial arts for life.

Having said that, many people respond to this type of environment.   I believe they’ll come out fit, sharp, one dimensional martial artists. Very good at one way of doing things. 

On the overly relaxed side, I’ve training with some clubs like this.  More accurately, the head instructor ran and great class, but his senior black belts lead classes a couple of times a week.  When this happened, there was a lot of standing around, kind of working on this or that and the time dragged.  Friends clumped together and worked in their own little groups.  I don’t respond to this extreme either.

For some, however, it is a completely non-threatening environment.  And some might never experience the arts without it.  If it’s a positive introduction, perhaps they will continue.  We’re all wired differently.

Somewhere in the middle is where most long term martial artists end up. 
Productive training should be student influenced, but instructor lead and driven.  The degree will be influenced by the number, age, maturity and level of the students, and by the beliefs and style of the teacher.  This is the balancing act needed to be a good teacher.

There must be some reflection on learning and students must be able to ask some questions.  That doesn’t mean constant ‘what-ifs” but consistently unanswered questions result in lack of understanding.  And if you don’t understand techniques and the ‘why’ behind them, it’s unlikely you will be able to apply and rely on them in a real situation.  How these Q and A portions are set up is also up to the teacher.  Are questions welcomed any time, part way through a lesson, at the end, etc?  This is also up to the teacher, influenced by the needs of the students.

There must also be some rules and etiquette present.  Ideally, these should be set out early and adopted by the students without much prompting from the teacher.  This way, when there are violations, they are usually minor, and the ‘violators’ often know they’re in trouble.  The punishment is enough to acknowledge the breach but aren’t doled out with any malice or ill will.  Crack a joke and laugh, do some push-ups, that sort of thing… 

A good teacher is able to give his/her students what they want and what they need.  These aren’t always the same thing, and that is where a talented teacher comes in.  As with everything, it’s about balance.

As a student, you deserve to find an environment and a teacher that you respond to.  If your primary goal is self defense, make sure you’re getting that.  If it’s camaraderie and fitness, get that.  You’ll get a bit of all of it regardless. 

Enter your training demanding some things from it and your teacher, but being aware you may not have a view of the bigger picture, and many things become clear over time.  Bottom line, do you end most classes feeling you’ve learned or improved somewhat?  Do you leave feeling happy that you went?  Do you want to go back?  If you answer yes most of the time, whatever teaching style must be working for you.

Train well, with balance… 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Teaching Styles - Which is Best? Part I

Teaching Styles – Which is Best?

I attended a 4-day training event this summer.  I had the opportunity to train under a variety of Sensei from a variety of styles.  People come from all over to train.  It’s always fantastic to have the opportunity to be exposed to such a high level of skill and differing styles, in the arts, teaching styles, methodologies and attitudes.

The teachers were as varied as the arts, in execution and in their own style of direction/instruction.

In a training environment like this, I do my best to “empty my cup” and absorb all I can.  There will be plenty of time later to dissect, weigh, criticize and examine.  With this type of mindset, you can open yourself to new or different ways of doing or looking at things.  This is always a good thing. 

I was struck by just how different the teaching styles were.  I was also struck by how some people with an extraordinary level of technical skill have absolutely no teaching ability. 

You don’t have to be the best teacher in the world, but in one session I took part in, the ‘teacher’ was being such a jackass that I ended up tuning out.  I went through the motions of the session as it would have been rude to walk away.  In fact, I ended up having so little respect for this ‘teacher’ that if the class had only been people I knew, I might have walked away, albeit with a bow.  I stayed so as not to embarrass my Sensei or my dojo, or set a poor example for the other participants, many of whom I didn’t know.

This particular person is quite skilled, so I was saddened not to be able to take anything away, other than a lesson in how not to teach, of course.

My main issues were that he was:

1. Arrogant

2. Demeaning

He reminded me of a peacock strutting around, impossibly impressed with himself (no offence to peacocks by the way).  Everything about him was condescending and demeaning.  He was also unclear.  He would say something that made very little sense, and then when people faltered, trying to figure out what was wanted, he would demean everyone.  He acted shocked that we couldn’t even figure out where to stand, what to do, etc.  And he would make sarcastic statements as well.  Then he decided that no one was allowed to talk during the training. 

This meant that we couldn’t speak to our training partners or ask questions of the teacher and yet he would still flit around criticizing and insulting the participants.

For me, it hit a point when I couldn’t care less about his experience in the arts.  A wasted session, sadly.

I noticed though, that other participants were becoming extremely frustrated with themselves.  The clearly thought that they were doing something wrong.  They were mentally beating themselves up for not ‘getting it’ under the tutelage of such a ‘master’.

It saddened me a bit, but eventually the session ended and we all moved on.
This experience got me thinking about different teaching styles.  I was reminded of a conversation I had with a training partner who commented how another session was run in a militaristic fashion.  Warm up, strikes, kicks, blocks, right in to drills were all carried out with the teachers and assistants yelling and barking orders.  Now I’ve seen this style and don’t have a problem with it per say, but I don’t find it overly conducive to learning.  The students from the style represented were fit and their movements were sharp.  Working with them on technique, however, revealed that they struggled to adapt to any variation that occurred.   If it was ‘off-script’ in any way, there was hesitation or confusion. 

Clearly, not a lot of question-asking goes on in that school.  

In Part II, I'll discuss a few more common teaching styles.  Until then, train well.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Injuries in the Martial Arts


The bane of the martial artist. 

Most people who stay in the martial arts for any period of time get injured.  Look around any dojo or martial arts school and invariably, you’ll see the long term students taped, bandaged, bruised, with ankle or knee or wrist or elbow wraps.  It’s a sad reality.  Smart and responsible training goes a long way in preventing injuries, as does proper warm up drills and stretching (within reason).  Self-control during application of techniques helps too.  Proper diet and nutrition and lifestyle also play a huge role.

Beyond all that, sometimes shi_!!! happens and your find yourself hurt.  It could be martial arts related, or it could have happened in some other area of your life.  It sucks. 

And it happened to me.  I’m (fingers crossed) getting better, but I’d been dealing with pain for months on end, had trouble sleeping because of it and generally was feeling miserable.  The nature of the injury has prevented me from training for several months, the longest I’ve not been able to in many years.  A side effect of getting older, as I’m learning, is that you heal more slowly as the years go on.  This adds to the frustration of it all.

Life goes on, of course, but I was so pissed off (I know, not very Zen…) that I just sort of checked out of the martial arts world for a bit, even neglecting this blog. 

Now that my head is getting back in the game, I’d like to share some lessons learned by dealing with an injury.

    1.  If it hurts to train, don’t train. 

It may sound trite, but it’s true.  I trained once or twice while injured, and, careful as I was, made it worse.  There are times you can train with injuries, and times you can’t.  Figure out the difference.

2.  Take the time you’re injured to pursue something else that interests you that you normally don’t have time for.  Do something different.  I’m convinced it’s good for the soul, can open up new doors, expand your horizons, that sort of thing.

    3.  Booze and anti-inflammatories are great for pain, but will give you acid reflux if you use them for too long.  Oh yeah, and neither is good for you if used long term or in large amounts…

4.  Try not to dwell on your injury too much.  Don’t obsess (like I did) over not being able to train.

    5.  Supplementation with quality fish/omega oils really helps the joints.  Do your research.  Go for the liquid.  Pills and capsules are largely a waste of time.  And you get what you pay for, within reason.  There’s a whole host of other benefits too.

6.  This stuff about mobility exercises and functional movements and core stability?  It works.  You’ll be better off for incorporating some into your routine, in the dojo, gym or home.  Take care of your joints and they’ll take care of you.  In my case, more mobility work in advance might have reduced the severity of my injury or prevented it altogether.  

We live in a world of increasing inactivity and repeated unnatural movement patterns (sitting at work, in the car, hunching over cell phones, tables, laptops etc).  It’s important to do what you can to reset your body’s natural alignment.  

About a third of my workouts now (outside of martial arts) are mobility movements and stability movements.  I wish I had bought into this stuff a decade ago.  Maybe I wouldn’t grunt each time I get up…

Those are a few of the things I’ve learned from this process. 
How about you?  Any other tips for dealing with injuries?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Titles in the Martial Arts - Good or Bad?

There are a plethora of titles given to various degrees of experience and skills in the martial arts.  There are strict and not so strict rules associated to each title.  Many require a certain age combined with a set number of years at a black belt dan, or rank.  Some refer specifically to a dan ranking, and some are used as an indication of a person’s impact on the martial arts as a whole.

I have nothing against titles.  Using certain titles can be a way to show a deep amount of respect for someone’s skill level, their teaching ability and dedication to their students and their art.

I find it curious then, when certain high ranking black belts insist on being called by certain titles.  They are offended by anything other than being referred to as 'grandmaster' this or 'high commander' that.   It strikes me as an indicator of either arrogance or insecurity.

I believe there should be a degree of proper etiquette in a dojo or training facility.  Titles are part of this, and should be used appropriately, but in my opinion, no one should be offended if they are referred to simply as ‘Sensei’.  

Translated, ‘Sensei’ most closely means ‘one who has come before’, and usually refers to the status of teacher.  In my mind, this is a both a compliment and an indicator of respect.  You have, in many ways, given yourself up to them, trusting in them to provide proper instruction and lifesaving knowledge.  

There are times I refer to my Sensei by another title, but this is most often done in times of introduction or ceremony.  And typically, use of these titles is initiated by the students, or by other instructors, not at the insistence of the 'title-holder'.

Again, there are times when certain titles should be used, but I would have to question anyone who was offended if I referred to them as ‘Sensei’ during training.  

Sadly, I have seen one such “grandmaster” refuse to acknowledge a very new student during his visit to another dojo because the young lad didn’t know his 'exalted' status and referred to him as Sensei on the mats.  What was sad is that he completely ignored the young man who was (innocently) asking a question.  

Looking back, it is more comical really, conjuring up an image of a “master” covering their ears and saying “I can’t hear you, na na na na na” with a bewildered young many having no idea what was going on.  That would make a cute cartoon…

There are ways to correct a misstep of protocol or etiquette, but you can’t force respect on someone.  If you need to be called a certain title in order to feel validation, perhaps you need more work in the area of ego.  

For me, calling someone Sensei will always be a sign of true respect.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Warrior Mindset - Part II

In the last part, Warrior Mindset, I discussed one of two strategies for preparing to hurt someone, or to be hurt in a violent encounter.  The first was training with contact.  The next is:

  • Visualization/mental rehearsal and drawing on past tactile experiences

Most importantly, you need to visualize actually committing violence and causing injury to another person.  Most people can do this to some degree, but most do not really think it through.  They envision movie violence as opposed to real violence.  Often this is the only kind of violence people have seen, so it’s not surprising that real violence is often shocking to them.  

How would it feel to break someone’s limb?  What would it sound like?  What would they do?  Scream, fight back?  How would it make you feel?  What if you had to smash their face into the concrete?

Remember, real violence is disgusting, even for the victor (unless you’ve got problems...).  

So, if we only visualize the upsetting nature of violence, this could potentially work against us.  You need to balance this by finding out why (or if) you are prepared to commit violence in the first place.  To do this, you need to be confident up front that:

  • You did not want to be part of this encounter
  • You did whatever you could to avoid it

If you know these two things, then you can know you didn’t have a choice.  You have been forced into the situation, against your will.  You will be filled with self-doubt if you could have easily walked away, and you may have to consider legal repercussions of the situation.

You are then left with an unavoidable situation where you didn’t have a choice.  The only thing you control is your decision to fight back or not.

You now need to ask yourself what, or who, is at risk?  

Let me ask you this?  Who would you be prepared to fight for?  Your spouse/partner, parent, child or other loved one?  Would you be prepared to commit violence to protect them?  

Most people have someone they would be willing to do this for.  So let me ask you this.  If you are someone’s spouse/partner, or someone’s parent or even someone’s child, what impact would you not coming home have on them?  If you are faced by unavoidable, unwanted violence, it’s not just you that is at risk.  The attacker is threatening those closest to you as well.  

This is one way to prepare you to commit violence on others.  Understand that your loved ones may as well be standing there, as they are equally at risk, albeit not from the physical act itself.

To sum up, the two things you need to know:

  • That you did everything to not be involved in the attack.
  • That you are protecting more than just you and your body.

This can go a long way to prepare you to commit violence on another.  Visualizing the actual event then becomes slightly less unsettling and can serve more to anticipate or prepare for what might logically follow.  After all, if someone yells “STOP!”  when you are forced to hurt them, are you going to let them go as a reflex or have you resigned yourself to continuing until you know you can get away safely/get help?  You also need to know that what you are doing is not about punishing your attacker, or trying to hurt them.  It is about doing what you have to in order to survive and get away. 

This is all about mindset and the will to win. 

The military has a relatively short time to train their soldiers and yet they become extremely effective warriors.  Do you think they are taught secret techniques never seen by anyone else?  No.  It’s all about mindset, knowing that they have to win and knowing what, and who, they’re fighting for.  And training to keep fighting, no matter what.  To never give up.  Ever.

Never give up.  Ever.  Even if you’re hurt or injured (see last article).  Keep fighting until you can get away safely and get help.

Developing this mindset outweighs any physical training by a long shot. 

Now, I did mention drawing on past tactile experiences.  This sort of fits into both categories of physical and mental training.

Have you ever been punched in the face?  Not a sparring error, but actually hit hard, punched or kicked in the head or face by someone trying to hurt you?  

Most people haven’t.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, I have.  I know what it feels like.  It sucks.  And it hurts.  And it’s shocking.  I say unfortunately because it happened and I didn’t prevent it.  I say fortunately because I used it as a learning opportunity.  I know how it feels.  I mentioned it hurts.  It does, but for me the worst pain didn’t come until later when it really set in.  What it did do was make me disoriented, it caused a ringing in my ears and distorted sounds and caused a slightly ‘out of it’ sensation.  The world wasn’t quite right for a bit. 

I had the peculiar experience of recognising I’d been hurt and that it wasn’t minor, but I was not quite able to determine to what degree.  It took a while to sort out what had happened, making me slower to react.  We’re only talking seconds, or milliseconds here, but as we all know, that can make all the difference.

So, the first time it happened, I was slow to re-orient myself and respond.  I now use those sensations as a ‘trigger point’ for a ramped-up response.  Those sensations only occur when I’m in considerable danger, so I am now prepared to respond rapidly with a serious response.  

This serves well professionally for many (law enforcement, security, military etc), but can just as easily be applied to ‘normal’ life as well.

You don’t necessarily need to have been attacked to rely on previous tactile experiences.  As you know, your grey matter is flexible and you can be too.

Many years ago, I was getting out of my car in a parking lot on a windy day.  A strong gust of wind caught my car door as by head was turned away.  I turned my head just in time to be struck by the door full force on the side of the head and face.  After having experienced violence later in life, I am struck (no pun intended) by the similarities of the experiences.  Those same shock, disorientation, ringing and ‘out of it’ sensations were present then.  At the time, I was violence free, so to speak, so I didn’t realize that I could have used that experience to develop a ‘trigger’ to fight back.  The only real difference was the source of the attack, door vs. person.

Many of you will be able to remember, likely in considerable detail, a time in your life where you got hurt.  Maybe you hit a tree tobogganing, maybe you got hit by a car, fell off a bike etc.  These traumatic events tend to remain in memory for most of your life.  

Find one of these experiences, re-live it your mind, including the sensations, and then move it into the self-defense/preservation section of your brain.  Any time you experience similar sensations, you are ready to fight for your life.

This stuff works.  So the next time a car door hits you in the face and your hands come up as you get ready to strike out, be proud of yourself.  Caught unaware, it’s just as likely that the car door is an attacker who blindsided you.  The only difference is you’re ready for it.

I’ve covered off two broad categories and strategies for preparing yourself to be hurt and to hurt others.  I hope you can utilize some of my recommendations to better prepare yourself if you are forced to commit violence for self preservation. 

Train well,