Sunday, August 9, 2020

Q&A...not!

 Students will have questions. Of course, that is an essential part of being a student. As the matter of fact, instructors will have questions, too! One may even argue that as long as you train, you will be looking for answers to one question or another. But, not all questions or answers are created equal! 

The point here is not in the "dumb" questions people ask every once in a while, because hey don't know any better or are too lazy to just think about it it, or try it on their own. As an instructor there are two particularly challenging situations you are probable to experience sooner or alter in your work, regarding answering your trainees' requests. 

The first is when they have a questions, but you don't have an answer. In itself, that is not unusual, we all have seen experts in various fields being in a similar position here and there. However, younger and fresh instructors are often stressed by this and tempted to come up with an ad hoc solution, to save their face. Here and there, depending on the person asking and the nature of the inquiry, such approach may work, especially if the teacher is skilled with words. It is OK, if the predicament pushes you to actually look into subject afterwards to see how to deal with the same question if it pops up again. Then again, if you are lazy or don't care about students' questions (in which case you shouldn't be an instructor) it could look like an easy way out and lead to complacency...in which case you are setting yourself for the other scenario. You get the question and try to wing it, but the answer is unsatisfactory and they let you know it. Now, this IS embarrassing, especially if you don't know how to handle it.

 My experience though, as a long time martial arts instructor and school teacher, says it is far better to be honest about it. Say you don't know the answer, but promise to have it by the next training session. Moreover, make it a challenge for everybody in the class, and then spend the portion of the next meet in offering/comparing the solutions. BUT - make sure to do your homework! Others may or may not accept the challenge and seek the answers, but you have to. It will show those training with you that you are an honest and thoughtful instructor who really cares about their needs and do everything you do in their best interest. 

The second situation is probably even more delicate, and something that grand majority of instructors, unfortunately, had to deal with somewhere along their path. There is this kind of student, usually the one who ask most questions anyway, while also being the biggest slacker when actually training. Typically, he or she will approach you with a question, maybe even a good and important one, and when you gladly answer it - it is not the answer they were hoping for. All your great arguments, brilliant reasoning, host of evidence and concrete hands-on demonstration will be futile. Such people have predetermined outcomes in their minds, and as far as they are concerned - you are wrong! By the way, this occurrence is more typical of seminars than regular classes. 

Well, what do you do then? I am afraid the answer is - it depends. You maybe dealing with an otherwise nice and pleasant person who doesn't present any harm to the atmosphere in the group or detriment to the quality of the overall training. If so, ask to hear their opinion (and reasoning, if available), kindly nod your head and say you'll give it some thought. Usually that dissolves the situation and everybody can proceed with their work. 

On the other hand, should you have on your hands a person who keeps pestering you with incessant questions and disputing everything you say or do, there is no choice but to drop them from the group. Again, depending on the context, it can be done politely or harshly. If it is a group situation at all, I would suggest that the person at hand cannot be best served in such environment and offer to give them private lessons. And if it is a private client in the first place...well, maybe the money is good enough to put up with their act, but I would probably say it is evident I wasn't the best instructor for their needs, probably just holding their progress back, and strongly suggest they look for training elsewhere. 

Oh, and if you are a student!? Please, please, please!!! Be mindful of what are you asking and why, i.e. what are you trying to gain from the answer. If looking for a sincere response from the instructor, then take it and give it at least some thought and/or practice with the advice, before asking for clarification or voicing your dissatisfaction with it, should that be the case. Sure, if you are paying for the instruction, you deserve the best effort from the instructor. He or she may or may not be what you are looking for, and that's fine, but it doesn't give you the right to harass them. They may not be aware of their shortcomings, maybe being erroneous in the best of intentions, so it would be better to present your concerns in a one-on-one conversation first. And if it just doesn't work...walk away, don't waste your time and money in a place that makes you frustrated while failing to offer anything worthwhile in return. In any case, the conflict shouldn't be about who is right, but rather about what it the right thing to do. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Prepping properly

On the coattails of my last post, and a couple other ones, how do you prepare beforehand, in order to maximize the benefits from online lessons? Having given it some thought, I decided to take a two-pronged approach: from student's and instructor's perspective. Clearly, though, the two really go hand-in-hand and are complementary. 

As a student, if you do not have prior knowledge of the instructor's teaching style or his material, try to find some info, maybe even address him or her directly with any meaningful questions, if you believe the answers might help you come to the event with improved attitude. If the host allows for the recording of the event for later viewing, go for it! However, regardless of whether they do or don't allow it, have a notebook and pencil(s) within reach, I cannot stress this enough! Having it within easy reach enables you to jot down any instructions or comments that seem particularly significant and/or interesting, since written notes are easier to revisit and reference than video. Possibly even more important is that you can write down any questions that pop to your mind during the class, so you can ask them later, without interrupting the flow of the lesson. 

Mandatory!


Next, typically you will find yourself in one of two situations for the duration of the class - either watching or partaking in the activity. I have done both, and here is some advice... If you are "just" watching (for whatever reason - family issues, time of the day, space etc.) make sure to pay attention to how the participating members are doing. As you listen and look at the instruction, try to see who does a good job of it and who doesn't...and then try to analyze and figure out what the differences are and why, maybe also how the performance should be improved. Essentially, you are trying to think from the instructor's perspective here, thus reinforcing the information you are seeking to retain. Trying to explain something to someone else necessarily strengthens your own understanding of the topic as well. 

If you are the instructor conducting the session, there are some steps that should be taken in order to ensure the class flows more easily and enhance students' understanding of the concepts and principles taught. First and foremost, picking the right subject to work on can make a big difference. Namely, some things are much easier to cover and explain without a partner than some others. For example, developing physical attributes or polishing one's jab or hook in boxing makes more sense when done solo, than working on clinch techniques and tactics. In BJJ, work from the bottom may suffer less in similar circumstances than top game of takedowns. In armed combatives, such as arnis and eskrima, footwork and striking mechanics will suffer much less from solo presentation than disarming or counter for counter drills. So, with presence/absence of partners in mind, think about whether you will need any additional equipment to aid the teaching. If you believe there are some items that would prove helpful, be sure to notify the students about having it ready as well. 



Following that, write down at least a rough outline of the presentation. Even more so than in the real world, fumbling around while trying to think what to do next is plain bad in an online presentation. Besides, when you have a plan, you can spend the first 3-5 minutes of the class giving the overview to the participants, so they may have some context in which to fit your instruction, and it will also lead to more useful and specific questions from them. It is always a very nice touch if the said overview can be sent to the participants either before or during/after the session. 

Finally, if in anyway possible, strive to earmark the final 10 or so minutes of the session as the Q&A portion. The kind of questions you get will tell you a lot about the degree of success with your teaching and student's understanding of it. Some of those questions and suggestions might even provide inspiration for future classes, be it in terms of content of manner of presentation. After all, if you care at all about the students taking your lessons, feedback is a must have aspect. 

I truly hope this gives some useful insights into the issue of online teaching and learning, so that everybody involved may enjoy the process more. Also, if you have any other advice, I would love to hear it! 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Study merger

With the pandemic, social distancing and lockdown still ongoing, it has become pretty much normal to study fighting methods via Zoom and/or similar online avenues. Naturally, it will never be the same as training in person, but there are some advantages - such as actually getting to learn from instructors that had previously been simply unavailable due to geographic constraints etc. 

Now, there are some ways to maximize the learning experience. Of course, the optimal version is to have had personal, hands on, training with the instructor doing the online teaching, as in my situation is the case with Roger Agbulos. In those circumstances, I know exactly what he means when saying or showing something (be it a technique or principle), so the retention is higher. Especially so with his able coaching, even via online video platforms. 

Short of that, it helps to have access to different formats of someone's instruction. In my case, this is intertwined with the aforementioned opportunity to try instruction from someone who had been out of reach before. For quite a few years I have been aware of the FMA instructor Abundio (Abon) Baet, especially having read a couple of his books. The material in the books is nicely presented, with interesting info about his family lineage and several methods/styles that comprise his system, called Garimot Arnis. I was particularly intrigued by his book on Cinco Teros style, as it seemed to portray that specific style in most detail and with some logical learning progression. 

This one

However, as good as the presentation is, still photos and written descriptions obviously cannot carry over all the details and intricacies of a martial activity. Fortunately, it turns out that Gat Puno Baet (as happens to be his title within the art), offers a Facebook group in which all the drills from the book are shown in video (done solo), and then supported with periodical Zoom session, during which he demonstrates and explains in detail the previously selected and assigned drills from those shown. His explanations are then followed by critical, yet encouraging coaching and evaluation of other participants' performance in the live session. 

As it turns out, Gat Puno Baet is at the same time demanding instructor with a keen eye for detail, but also cordial and easy going in communication. He talks openly about his attitude and expectations from the students, with no hidden agendas or ulterior motives.  Oh, and he was highly approving of guro Agbulos, too 😊  For anyone interested, I would recommend contacting him on Facebook to ask about training in this or any other subsystems of his art.

The combined approach of studying material in the book (most helpful with terminology, if you are interested in the cultural aspect of training), recorded videos and live sessions makes the whole learning experience as enjoyable as can be. All that remains is to then put it to practice between those sessions as well. 

In conclusion, the pandemic and isolation certainly do have negative effect on everybody's training, but there is still silver lining to be found. My experience with Garimot Cinco Teros and Abon Baet is great proof in the case. So, not only are there no excuses for slacking, but you could even enrich your training in some domains, if only you chose to do so. 

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Straight to the point

I gotta say, although the spread of the Internet did not turn out to be exactly as I had hoped it would, 25 years ago, there are some aspects to it that I can't help loving. One of those is the democratization of instructional value. Do you remember, back in the 80's and early 90's, when martial art instructional videos were always beautifully produced, often overpriced and not-so-rarely worthless? Did it happen that you had to save some hard earned money to order a title based on an ad in a glossy mag, claiming it to be some sort of "super advanced, top-secret, elite level, ultimate system of..." just to find it to be a repackaged bunch of the same old stuff (or sometimes same old shit)? It sure happened to me more times than I care to remember.

Well, although there are still products of that nature lurking around, it is great to see that the availability of recording technology has lead to the proliferation of excellent instructional content, even if with less than stellar production. And I am thrilled to direct your attention to one such offering!

Marko Novakovic is a man from Split in Croatia, and he somehow caught my attention on Facebook for his no-nonsense approach to training, incessant quest to learn more, and unfaltering resolve to sweat and withstand pain and bruises in search of better methods. His training group bears the moniker Ronin, and it suits his inventive DIY mentality well - have no brand or style as master, seek the truth for yourself.

He's actually an upbeat guy with good sense of humor

Well, he has recently put out a course on combative knife handling, titled Basic Knifework - Sabre Grip, and it's a treat. To begin with, we are talking an actual course here: set of lessons that follow a logical path of instruction, aimed at developing solid skill with the knife. Novakovic briefly discusses the preliminary considerations (training gear and safety precautions), and then proceeds to take us through the works on grip, stance, main lines of attack, footwork, targets and ranges. Finally he brings it all together in a series of drills in long, medium and short ranges, shown as solo work and with a partner (with a help from his superbly supportive wife).

What really stood out for me in this package is Marko's awareness of an often overlooked gap in martial art training - going for artistic level too soon. Namely, he understands that a knife is a tool used to cut and stab, and as any other tool it takes effort to become good in its fundamental craft. And those fundamentals are rather universal, hence his emphasis on good mechanics of motion and athletic attributes. As such, the material taught is excellent for anybody wishing to introduce this portion to their training, regardless of previous background in combative disciplines (or lack thereof).



It is also refreshing to see an instructor who constantly displays adherence to all of the principles he had previously espoused. That is why he is able to strike a very good balance between spoken instruction and physical demonstration, which is a great feature for today's fast-paced lives and shortened attention spans - you will spend more time moving and training, less listening to him ranting. Many instructors still have problems discerning between writing a book and shooting a videos, but that is not the case here. If on Facebook, check out the short preview https://www.facebook.com/RoninFMAblog/videos/1654450058036329/

Oh, and with regards to one of those "yesteryear" disadvantages mentioned at the beginning...at just $15 this video course really is the prime choice for any guy or girl looking to add a functional set of skills to their training or self-defense skillset.

Again, you can get it here  https://roninselfdefense.thinkific.com/courses/basic-knifework 

Friday, May 1, 2020

Makes sense?

If you only go back couple of posts, it's easy to see I have already addressed the whole training in confinement issue. However, some things have happened since that I had not predicted... the veritable avalanche of free instruction from excellent instructors offered via Zoom and similar devices.

Quite a few of them have stated that in the circumstances it is really difficult to train with full effectiveness when lacking partners, and I happen to agree. However, it is evident that some instructors have a better grip on tackling the issue.

Naturally, as you could figured by reading through my blog, I really enjoyed the training sessions run by guro Roger Agbulos. Probably the main reason is that he approached those from a coaching perspective, with a keen eye on the people who joined the classes.



The main point, and it really struck a chord with me, is that he said probably 70% of one's training should go on in the form of solo training - not because you shouldn't look for partners, but because you should train as much as you can outside the class, too. For that reason, he focused on developing specific physical attributes demanded by the trainees' chosen system (Filipino martial arts in this case), from a very functional perspective that enables practitioners to maximize their time in training, thus benefiting more from the partnered training as well. It also helped that guro Roger really looks into contemporary athletic training principles when formulating his training methods.

So, with the exception of very beginner who need to avoid forming bad habits, there is really no excuse to slack, even in the inconvenient circumstances. Keep on keeping on! 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Watch out - the book bites!


Every once in a while, in the world of martial arts and combatives training comes a set of events that leads to the general paradigm change in how things are analyzed and approached. In the modern age, the first such occurrence with some media coverage was Bruce Lee’s open advocating of cross training, which at the time was seen as blasphemous in some circles. Today, however, his Tao Of Jeet Kune Do is a classic book, while MMA is a widely accepted concept, even among the lay people.

Oddly (maybe), the evolution in technical and tactical training methods of training hasn’t really been closely followed, until very recently, by adaptation in training in line psychological research, especially in civilian circles outside professional sports. Even more rare is the appearance of literature that treats the subject in a practical, yet profound manner, without oversimplification on one side, or the indiscriminate avalanche of expert terminology, in hopes of giving credibility to the publication. There have been some authors whose insights had come from personal experience, able to put it in writing in a sensible manner with excellent insights for the readers, such as Marc MacYoung, Rory Miller and Varg Freeborn, but those are few and far between.

It is thus with exquisite pleasure that I am writing today of what should be one of those milestone works – The Maul, written by Schalk Holloway and Gavin Coleman.


Very adequate
The subtitle of the book is Preparing for the Chaos of Close Combatives, and it’s an understatement. Many other books and videos will claim similar goal or result, but keep regurgitation the same old information. Holloway and Coleman have combined personal experience in dealing with daily violence in South Africa with modern research in neuro-science, as it applies to humans in the conditions of close combat. There have been works dealing with psychology of combat before, but mostly in terms of what to achieve and how to deal with it, but not so much about optimizing your daily training in accordance with the said research. Without going into detail, this means primarily the two states in which the brain operates and how they interact, as well as how they impact our performance. The only brief reference to this, which I have seen in martial arts literature was in a book by Luis Preto, but without deeper interpretation.

This book is one of those that are so well thought out that the logic of how its subjects are presented flows seamlessly, which makes it easier for the reader to comprehend and assimilate the material. The authors start with sharp and honest analysis of the actual problem, in terms of how most combat training programs are run, in comparison to what are the demands of the potential real world situations that would entail the use of such training. It is then followed by the relevant presentation of the information that one needs to have a grasp of deal with it. And unlike many other resources, Holloway and Coleman do not stop there, but actually proceed to offer systematic solutions and how to develop them.

Acting on it
The seriousness of approach and scope of the book is hinted already in the glossary of terms at the beginning – Close Combative Incident, Pre-Incident Indicators, Tactic Determinants, Current Reality, Unscripted Training, etc. Just take a look at their definition of Correct Execution:

…both an accurate movement pattern as well as successful application in an Unscripted Training or Play Learning environment. Correct Execution does not mean a person can simply successfully mimic what a movement pattern looks like, it means that they can use the movement pattern effectively and also achieve its intended outcome…
And not only are the authors honest in their investigation of the subject matter, but also when it comes to not pretending to be the revolutionary thinkers whose work comes from a vacuum. Instead, they give credit where credit is due and direct the readers to further sources for enhancing their understanding of the topics presented.

In case you are wondering, yes the book does go into the HOW TO aspect of dealing with an assault, primarily through use of edge and point tools, as they describe it. Still, the methodology is robust and versatile enough to be implemented empty-handed or with smaller impact weapons.
In conclusion, it is really difficult to recommend this book strongly enough, as a simple review is painfully inadequate in attempt to do it justice. The authors are easily accessible via Facebook and happen to be really nice, down to earth guys who will gladly answer your question related to their work, even if not necessarily stemming from the book.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Being a lone rider


Training by yourself is all the rage these days, obviously, so everybody and their brother is casting their vote on what to do in isolated conditions. Now, I have already written about it (exactly five years ago!), and some of the more obvious aspects or approaches to solo training have seen their fair share of treatment here. Now, there is another way to train solo, and quite controversial one, too.

Say what!?

I’m talking about formal practice, i.e. kata, hyung, jurus, taolu…depending on the geographical origin of your chosen martial practice. The controversy arises, of course, in view of the value of such practice. Some traditionalists will swear by it and claim it the ultimate supreme training method; the modern day, sparring oriented systems, such as MMA or various (so called) reality-based defense methods will think of it as a bad joke.

Now, a lot has been written and said about the actual meaning, or original purpose of these forms, so I will not delve into it here. Suffices to say that, as some may expect from me, the point is not so much in what you do, but rather how you do it. And there are some glaringly different approaches!

First, let me stir some commotion – (kick)boxers do katas, too. In essence, whenever there is a standardized set of techniques strung together to be performed as a sequence, you get a formal exercise. In boxing, one of those might be jab-cross-front hook; in kickboxing jab-cross-roundhouse kick; in Thai boxing they can get quite elaborate; in savate there are standard combos performed when testing for grades, just like in many traditional Asian arts.

savate is French after all

However, it is immediately evident how these formal exercises are practiced in said systems. Let’s just go back to that basic boxing combo – all three punches might be done to the head…or, head-body-head…or head-body-body…or body-head-head…or you-get-the-picture. Next, add the footwork variables, as in stepping: all advancing; all retreating; advance-advance-retreat etc. All of a sudden a single formal exercise yields a mind-numbing number of possibilities in application.

In most Asian arts, as practiced today, forms tend to be some kind of pictures to be added to your album. Basically static in presentation, even with predefined rhythm in performance. Yes, even so there could be some merit in doing them, to work on your breathing, focus, stamina and so on. I mean, in the circumstances of home quarantine that may be enough… But why not take it a step further and break them apart, maybe even assembling techniques in a different order altogether? Kind of like Legos! You can follow the instructions, but you can also make your own ideas.

Lgo action!

The only traditional art (as far as I know) that nurtures this approach as an integral part of its teaching is silat with its pecahan method. Admittedly, there are schools out there who also work on bunkai, along with their kata, but those are also frequently fossilized and done by numbers. Indeed, there are always those thinking out of the box, such as Iain Abernethy or Gavin Mulholland, but everybody could, and should, try this approach, at least once in a while.

Finally, there is another very important aspect of traditional forms that I find interesting, but, alas, it is not often paid attention to. It has to do with finer mechanical points of technical development, but instead of trying to explain it in writing, take a look at this brief but good demonstration:



In conclusion, although nothing beats working with good instructors and training partners, there is still so much work to on your own that you should never be caught idle of bored!