Thursday, February 26, 2015

Throwing in the Martial Arts. Are we doing it right?

To go or not to go…with the throw.  That is the question...

When you learn to do throws and break fall, you need to be pretty cautious.  You need your partner to be cooperative on both ends of the equation.  If you don’t then one of you is likely to get hurt. 

Once you get the hang of the mechanics, though, you need to start adjusting your technique.  When you are the one being thrown, it is easy to get in the habit of assisting your partner by ‘jumping’ into the throw even if it’s not being executed properly.  While a certain degree of cooperative effort is required, if you regularly leap into throws, you are doing your training partner a disservice.

A properly executed throw requires 'kuzushi', the breaking of the balance of the "throw-ee”.  When done properly, the person being thrown literally falls over you, and you just assist them in trajectory and force.  If you program yourself to assist too much, your partner will never master kuzushi.

In the real world, you either need this balance breaking or you need to ‘muscle’ the technique, which isn’t normally a good idea.  It tends to involve twisting and lifting at the same time, a nasty combination and a good recipe for injury.
Even if you do break someone’s balance, they may not react as smoothly as a trained uke.  You need to discover what it feels like if someone lilts to one side as they go over so you can learn to adapt and finish the technique effectively.

Don’t forget the fact that most throws and break falls are performed for the benefit of the one being thrown.  

When you examine most throws, the actual damaging portion usually occurs previous to the person hitting the ground.  The throw/break-fall is meant to protect the person being thrown.  

When you break down the throws, you’ll discover that there is normally a break of an arm or dislocation of a shoulder or other joint prior to the person going airborne.  

In fact, if you were to actually perform one of these techniques for real, there’s a fairly good chance that the person would appear more to crumple than to majestically fly through the air. 

When practicing throws, keep both points in mind.  As the thrower, the end goal is not always a big throw, and as a throw-ee, don’t be too quick to ‘go with it’.  
Both are problematic.

Food for thought.

Train well.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Keep Kicking Ass, Sue

I want to wish Sue at Journey to Black Belt all the best as she signs off her excellent blog.  

She has a ton of excellent posts and we’ve had several great discussions/debates over the last few years.  Maintaining a blog takes a lot of time and energy and she is pursuing some other interests and dreams.  Good for her.

If you haven’t done so already, there’s a lot of great material over there.  Take a look here.  You'll be happy you did.

Sue, thanks again for all the support and food for thought.  Hope you're back one day...


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Superficial Sensei? Don't judge a book by it's cover...

When we look for a Sensei or a teacher, we search for certain traits, personality, knowledge and characteristics.  Often times we can only get a glimpse watching or taking a trial class.  One of the best ways to judge a teacher is to observe the students, on and off the mats.  Are they friendly, welcoming, serious about their training with a sense of humour or are they arrogant, unfriendly, or aloof?  This tends to be reflective of the teacher.

But what does a good teacher actually look like?  If you had to pick based largely on physical appearance, who would you choose?  And how much are you influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by how a Sensei looks? 

At first glance (pun intended), you’ll likely want to respond that a person’s appearance has nothing to do with your selection criteria.  After all, we’re all striving for perfection of character in our studies, right?

Truth be told, we all have our biases.  This isn’t always a bad thing.  It’s part of the human condition.  Some are based on a survival instinct.  Many we have ingrained at a subconscious level.  Some of these unconscious biases are incongruous with our conscious positions or beliefs.  Our society and the media have programmed us to respond to certain physical characteristics. 

So what does this have to do with selecting a martial arts teacher?  Who do we naturally gravitate towards?

As I mentioned, our unconscious, or subconscious biases, are often at odds with our consciously held beliefs.

No?  Pop quiz:

 1.    Male, 40’s, muscular and lean, military or MMA background
     2.  Female, 40’s, short and a tiny bit plump, works as a mid level manager in a      
          large company

You’ve now got a picture in your head.

So, who’s the better pick to teach self defense?  We could all answer that it doesn’t matter as long as they had the knowledge, skills and abilities but without an extended period of time observing or being taught, we have a tendency to assign value to factors that may or may not be accurate.

If you picked number 1, are you now defending your position because of his background?  That’s fine, but if I hadn’t mentioned the military or MMA background, would your initial pick have changed from the fit male to the shorter, 'softer' female?  This isn’t an attack or criticism, simply something to think about.

Even if we’re able to logically and consciously dispense with gender and physical traits, could we still be influenced unconsciously?

The curious thing is that we often respect or seek out martial arts teachers that are, well, bad asses.  Impressive physical specimens, who look tough, even a little intimidating.  The type of guy (or gal) that looks like they could kick our butts.

There’s nothing really wrong with that.  We want to learn from people that we figure could easily ‘take us' in a fight.  You don’t seek out someone to teach you that you believe you could easily beat in a physical altercation.  You want to learn to be tough from someone who is tough, tougher than you.  You want to learn to be just as tough, tougher.

But what does that really mean?  Are we potentially ruling out people who may have more to offer than we initially think?

Who, as a teacher is really more impressive?  And what do we hope to learn?  If our true goal is to learn to deal with real violence and to survive if attacked, who should we look to?  Should we pick the big, strong, amazingly fit person, of the more average one?

When weighing our options, we need to make sure we balance all the factors.  What’s actually more impressive, someone more physically fit that you are doing a technique on you effectively, or someone less imposing doing the same?

In styles such as Jiu Jitsu, you use your opponent’s energy and force against them.  It is an effective martial art for learning how to defeat a bigger, more powerful attacker.  Sometimes referred to as the “gentle art” – ha!

How, then, you answer the question of who’s more impressive?

The vast majority of time, the smaller, less powerful individual will have a higher level of skill in their technique.  They won’t have the luxury of being able to ‘power through’ a poor application of technique to compensate.  They will often be superior in the way they teach as they had to learn it properly right from the start.  There are no cutting corners; you have to learn to do it right or you’re in trouble.

Back to the pop quiz.

Obviously, there was not nearly enough information to make a proper assessment, and gender was thrown in as a means for a little introspection, but the fact remains -  It may be better to seek out someone of lesser physical stature who has learned his or her art to such a level that they can effectively defend themselves and teach others, as opposed to a genetically gifted athlete.  

Those that have had to work harder for their accomplishments are often better teachers and more skilled than the ‘naturals’.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Picture Morihei Ueshiba, especially later in his life.  You could argue he didn’t look very intimidating physically.  Imagine you passed on training with him due to his somewhat diminutive status as compared to many other ‘tough guys’.

It may be better to seek out someone who can effectively defend themselves when they’re at their worst, as opposed to someone at their best and at their peak. 

A short, heavy, injured person who can take defend themselves may have more to teach you than an elite athlete in their prime that can do 10 minute rounds without breaking a sweat.  

Obviously, physical fitness is an important component of martial arts training, and it can only make things easier for you.  For pure quality of technique and teaching effectiveness, however, it may not be the only pre-requisite.

Keep an open mind.  

An important lesson in the martial arts.  And in life...

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


noun: perseverance
1  steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.  

The journey on the path of Budo can be trying at times. 

When your training plans get derailed, be it from injuries, family issues, scheduling, monetary constraints, time, distance, work etc., it can be challenging to get back on track.  Obviously, I haven’t posted in some time.  I was shocked to see how long it had been.  The last (nearly) a year has been a struggle for me.

I’ve suffered several injuries, some new and some nagging ones that refuse to go away.  Couple this with work issues, illness, geographic issues (my Sensei is further away now), and competitions for my time and energy and I’ve found myself in a state of…not quite depression, but at the least, severe frustration with my training and my long term martial goals. 

It has seemed as if each time I take one step forward, I’m forced to take two steps back. 

The logical part of my brain tells me this is all part of the journey, which takes time and patience and perseverance to succeed.  That it’s a lifelong pursuit and there will be bumps along the way.  That I need to adapt my training style to manage my injuries and that I need to concentrate on time-management, on eating well, sleeping more, meditating.  The list goes on and on.  Exactly the advice I’d give to someone else who was going through a tough time with their training.

The not-so-logical part of brain has not been particularly good at listening to the logical side, however.  Each time I aggravated an old injury, or pulled my back, or got sick, or had to choose between my other priorities in life or had to cancel class as I couldn’t get away from work, I got more and more down about things.  All the positive self-talk in the world didn’t pull me out of my dark mood. 

It became so bad that I realized that training, or thinking about training, was turning into a negative thing in my head.  This journey of so many years, this labour of love, was akin to a virus running in the background, eating away at my positivity.  Training was becoming a bad thing. 

The logical side, or course, knew that all the issues I was going through were contributing to my general malaise over the martial arts, but that doesn’t always help.  My journey has given me so many positive experiences; it has truly enriched my life, giving me friends and memories I will always cherish.

I did what I had to.  I quit for a bit.  Well, let’s call it a hiatus.  I know I can never quit, but I had to ‘unplug’ for a bit as my lack of training was starting to consume my waking, and non-waking, thoughts.  I was mad when I couldn’t go, and when I could, I was exhausted and had to manage injuries and just didn’t feel like it.

So, I’ve been on hiatus.  There was a certain sense of relief that washed over me when I actually ‘went on record’ about taking a break.  My Sensei and main training partner were understanding and supportive.  Sensei’s response?  Simply, “We’ll be here”.  Meaning he’s always there when I’m ready, no pressure.  Comfort in that. 

I’m not back yet but I’m almost there, mentally.  I’m still dealing with injuries and other issues, but lately, after putting Jiu Jitsu out of my mind for a few months, my thoughts have been drifting back.  I miss it again, not pressured by any sense of obligation, but because something positive is missing from my life.  I’m noticing a fight scene in a show or movie that I rewind and break down, I’ve started visiting some blogs again, and I’ve been consulting on defensive tactics training again.  My next step is adjusting my training to compensate for my injuries. 

Take note:  Train safely now.  Crazy training in your youth takes its toll down the road…trust me…

I’m learning an important lesson about perseverance, I think.  As it pertains to training, perseverance doesn’t translate into constant training.  It means not giving up completely or losing site of the big picture.  If you need to press ‘pause’ from time to time in order to keep going, do it.  The path is long and winding and there’ll always be a few bumps along the way.

I know many of you out there have had low points/struggles on your journeys in the martial arts.  I’d love to hear some of the strategies you used to get back in the game, both mentally and physically. 

Please feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.
Train well.  Be safe,