Friday, July 27, 2018

With violence in mind

I will take a wild guess here and say that most of my readers have a least a small library of books in the field of martial arts and related subjects. As a kid I particularly liked those that featured many techniques and forms in detailed pictures, as well as those with cool pseudo-historical anecdotes about the origins of the styles presented. Later, as I was growing up and (hopefully) maturing on my path, my focus shifted to training methods and principles behind training systems.

Today’s post is review of a superb work that highlights the foundational meta-principles behind any combative training approach aimed at developing the real world civilian fighting prowess. And what a piece of work it is! I had stumbled into the name of author Varg Freeborn quite recently, through the Conflict Research Group’s page, and one of his interviews hit a chord with me, so I then took a closer look at his own website, and finally ordered the book.

The author...
Well, the book “Violence of Mind” belongs to the category of paradigm shifting, game changing pieces (or packages) of information you occasionally run into. The author has a rather unique biography that provides him with some “privileged” insights, and I am certainly glad he chose to share those with the general public. Freeborn’s intimate knowledge of violence lead him to formulating a robust method of preparation for those life events we all (well, the sane ones) hope to never have to deal with.

From the very start it is clear that the book fills some of the large gaps that most other instructors either neglect or are even ignorant about. I got my money’s worth just from either of the chapters on Mission, Orientation or Conditioning, and there are still few others that will make you take a deep and honest look at your training and reassess how it is conducted. For example, how often and how in depth do you consider legalities of the possible application of the material you work on during your training sessions? Or, how about the standards and validation of what is done in those sessions?

...and his legacy.
Although his writing comes predominantly from the perspective of firearms training and use, the principles are readily applied to any other domain of practical preparation for self-preservation. Another aspect that I liked immensely is that although the goal of the book is to be critical of the current widespread self-preservation training practices, the author manages at the same time to clearly exude the good-meaning attitude behind it, i.e. it is obvious that his intent is to help the readers adjust their training to the demands of reality, and not self-aggrandizing through mockery of others.

In conclusion, if your involvement in martial arts and general fighting stuff is in any way inclined towards the real world management, beyond recreational practice and sportive applications, you owe it to yourself to get this book and read it…repeatedly!

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Fit for seminar frenzy, part 2

In the previous post we touched upon some of the broad categories of martial art seminars you may consider attending during the summer. Regardless of which of those types you may end up partaking in, ultimately the value of the event will heavily hinge on one fundamental factor – the instructor(s) conducting it. Sometimes, of course, you will know much, if anything, about the person in charge of your training there; sometimes you will be more or less familiar with their background and qualification/biography, but without any real insight into how they teach; and there are also those you feel very familiar with, due to having “tasted” their approach through videos, books etc. As you may have concluded by now, we are talking about seeing someone for the first time, and the impressions there will decide whether a trainee will repeatedly attend seminars by the same instructor.

There are many qualities a good instructors should have, some more important than others, depending on the circumstances. Since we’re talking seminars here, not regular classes, I will focus on some of the factors I look for. Obviously, but should not be taken for granted, the instructor ought to be highly skilled, with thorough understanding of what makes his or her skill good, and how to develop it; next, there should be some sort of teaching curriculum in place, so that the material would be presented in a logical and understandable manner; then, the teacher should be able to effectively communicate with the trainees; and finally, there is the need for a keen eye to notice the possible difficulties among the students, especially if there are common ones.

Philippe Choisy
Personally, what I expect from a good seminar is to get at least a glimpse of the teaching/training methodology, and hopefully even a solid insight, should the instructor be so inclined to discuss it. Namely, if I like the material enough there is the natural tendency to include some or all of it in my own training and teaching, in which case it is good to know what is the most efficient sequence and progression in doing it.

Now, depending of your interest and priorities in training, there may be some people out there whose programs are especially attractive and enticing. It is therefore normal that they would be heading your list of people to check out this summer, if possible…just make sure that your curiosity is not entirely based on Youtube demo highlights or similar sources, but rather that there is some specific reason behind it. My list of Top-something instructors to learn from has emerged spontaneously over the years, and might be, conditionally, split in two categories: armed and unarmed. So, just for fun, here are some of them, listed in alphabetical order:

Unarmed:        Philippe Choisy                       Armed:            Scott Babb
Rich Dimitri                                                    Craig Douglas
                        Antonio Faeda                                                 Nigel February
                        Chris Haueter                                                  Varg Freeborn
                        Rodney King                                                   Maija Soderholm
                        Rory Miller                                                     Tom Sotis

Varg Freeborn
Evidently, some of them have already been mentioned on this blog, some not (yet). Now, this list may also seem a bit all over the place, but in my mind there is a common thread that makes them all pieces that could fit the same puzzle, but to which degree…it remains to be seen. Naturally, this list is fluctuating, the names are changing occasionally (after all, a dozen was a random number in the first place…I would need to add Hock Hochheim, Mikhail Ryazanov, Robert Paturel and many others), and it also does not mean I won’t attend any other seminars that pop up until these are “ticked” as done.

In conclusion, stay hungry for new knowledge, go learn new stuff from interesting people, but try to make informed choices and decisions in order to make the experience as fulfilling as possible. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Fit for seminar frenzy, part 1

As usually is the case with approaching summer, many practitioners from martial art circles are planning for some of the seminars they are going to attend during the season. Are you properly prepared for the events you are aiming at? And by being properly prepared I don not mean physical fitness (not for the purposes of this post, anyway), but rather in terms of making sure you get the most benefit from the experience.

In broadest strokes, there are two wide categories of seminars you may want to attend, depending on what you seek to find there: 1. trying a new/different art or system for the first time; or 2. trying a new instructor or new material in the system you are already training in. Whichever of these two cases may be at hand, you will be exposed to one of the two possible approaches to what is being presented, and these could have great impact on whether you will be happy about the experience afterward.

Learning new techniques and tactics is one of the two avenues. As it seems to me, this is also the prevailing approach, for several reasons. For example, it is suitable for catering to all levels of practitioners, both beginners and advanced. To the former it gives a view of bigger picture, thus possibly helping them better understand the journey they have undertaken; to the latter it can offer some "refreshment" and boost some new enthusiasm into their training. The techniques/tactics approach also suits the people from other arts well, as it can provide (depending on the instructor) relevant insight into the nature and dynamics of the system displayed at the seminar.

Learning about the different methodology of training is the other way. Seminars of this sort are probably more appropriate for experienced trainees, as they have the necessary background to understand and appreciate the information. Also, this approach is better suited for the practitioners from the same or related/similar systems, who would like to see how other instructors treat same subjects. You can profit from them even if you are from an unrelated system, nevertheless, if you are able to analyze the material in terms of principles and concepts, not necessarily taking it at the face value.

Both approaches are good and valuable if you know how to appreciate them. I remember, back in my taekwondo days, as a red/brown belt, attending the seminar conducted by a top-caliber competitor, multiple European champion, world and Olympic medalist, and failing to fully recognize the worth of what was shown. Namely, prior to the event I had expected to learn the new techniques, combos, tactics...while he actually spent the weekend detailing his method of training for the best results. It only dawned on me a couple years later, as I started coaching competitors myself. Therefore, it would be ideal if you knew upfront what you are looking for, as it would help you make the right choice of the seminars you wish to join.

In either case, you would be well advised to take ample notes both during and after the event. What I like to do is write a short title and description for every activity taught, and then fill in with additional, more detailed description at the end of the day (ideally within an hour after the end of the session). My experience is that this greatly help the retention of the information. By all means, ask questions, but make sure they are relevant to the teachings of the day, in order for everyone involved to gain some benefits from the answers. Please, refrain form asking for instructor's opinions of other styles and/or instructors, as well as from offering your own unsolicited opinions and views, particularly if they are argumentative in nature. These are better left for later, if there is the opportunity to hang out with the instructor in an informal environment.

How about filming the seminar? I am not against it, but it seems that the written notes yield better results. This may be due to the inclination to rely on the footage as the means of memorization and recall, consequently paying less attention to the instruction at the very moment it is being offered. Besides, having to come up with more details and clarifications following the training forces you to go through the exercises and rills at least once more in your mind, while it is still fresh, hence further reinforcing the process of memorization. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Running in circles, and getting somewhere

There are varying, and sometimes colliding, attitudes towards the role of cyclical, give-and-take drills done in martial arts. A typical example of those would be the familiar approach to them in Filipino martial arts, commonly known as hubud drills. Some proponents believe these are essential for the development of certain attributes, others that they are complete waste of time. Admittedly, I have been on both sides of the rift at some point, so now I hope to provide some insight into how to do such drills in order to bridge the gap in perceptions on their value.

For starters, let's take a look at a typical example of the kind of drills we are talking about.

The supporters of such training will claim that its main goals are line familiarization, developing the flow, learning about proper mechanical structure of the techniques etc. On the other hand, the
skeptics about the value of circular drills, mostly coming from the MMA or BJJ (sports) background, underline that they are static and lack energy/resistance, thus failing to prepare the practitioners for any realistic application whatsoever.

Now, there are certain shortsighted misconceptions in both camps. In so many instances, when the students lose sight of the end goal and keep doing the drill for the sake of just doing it, i.e. when the means is mistaken for the goal, they stay at this beginning stage and then all those objections from the critics then apply in full.

Interestingly, though, the sport crowd fails to see that there are training methods of that ilk are widespread in their domain as well. One such example would be the following positional drill in BJJ:

As it seems, the aim of this exercise is the familiarization with typical positions of the discipline (line familiarization?) and getting used to go from one to another seamlessly (developing flow?). Take notice of how the training partner is utterly static and not providing any resistance. Naturally, the response is that at issue is just the beginning phase of training and that at some point the person on the bottom will start offering resistance and actively attempting to hinder the top person's movements.

Another point might be that it is not even the cyclical drill of the give-and-take type as utilized in the FMA circles. OK, then how about the next one:

In this pummeling drill we clearly see the static phase and predetermined moves, along with little to no resistance. However, the training does not end there! Towards the end of the video, the trainees start adding footwork and moving with energy. And this is where those more "traditional" schools of Asian martial arts should look for some effective tweaks to their own training.

Still, in all fairness, some of those schools have been doing it fine all along. From a personal experience, after having learned some basic hubud drills I did them for a short while simply because they were fun and flashy when dome at speed (great for demos). But then, I completely abandoned them because they did not transfer well into sparring. Later, nevertheless, under the tutelage of guro Roger Agbulos, it became clear that when trained properly, these drills can offer some tangible value in terms of transfer to other, more alive and energetic modes of training. Here is an example of him coaching some intricacies of this work.

From here on, it is easy to also introduce timing variations, feints etc, ultimately using the basic drill as a springboard for further exploration and growth. Personally, my take is that all drills, being what they are - drills, are the means to isolate and better understand particular segments of the whole picture that is combat. Consequently, they should be treated as such - use them for what they're for and either move on or expand/adapt once they have served their purpose. Still, let's not not throw the baby out with the bathwater and miss on worth aspects of any training method because it is useless or harmful when implemented improperly. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Too much of...too much

We live in an era when everything is quantified and the only thing considered good enough is constant growth, because somehow it has become taken for granted that more is necessarily better. Obviously there is a threshold of effort invested below which one cannot accomplish much or anything, in training as in other domains of life. I have said it myself, there has to be some challenge and frustration in training, if you are looking to improve. However, we have to be smart about it, too.

Naturally, certain things only fall into place at certain times. I remember first reading Burton Richardson's book Jeet Kune Do Unlimited almost 20 years ago, and there was one thing in specific that stood out as unexpected. Namely, in his discussion on the desired attributes for a good fighter, his first one was health. As obvious as it may seem, at certain age we all take that one for granted, and so I only got to fully understand it once it became painfully obvious that nowadays it takes much longer to heal injuries, recover from a tough workout and get rid of soreness. Of course, there are some advantages of being in one's mid-40's over early 20's, but being able to train hard all the time is not one of them.

It seems to me that the chief enemy of the more mature (I cringe at the word "older", although it may be the exact one) practitioners is the memory of themselves training 20 or 30 years ago. It is easy to succumb to the emotions, especially if challenged by the young bucks, and go at it "like in the good ole days", but at the risk of having quite a few bad new days afterwards...or worse. The ego is rarely the best adviser and/or training partner, because it can hamper your progress in so many ways. Without even going into the whole mental and spiritual field, suffice it to say that training in ego-driven circumstances can lead to almost crippling results.

And being crippled tends to have adverse effect on everybody's training capacity and combative effectiveness. Just ask yourself: "Is it worth doing this at all cost today, and then having to skip training for the next several weeks?"

OK, that's all nice and clever, but how do we know where is the borderline between training hard and smart one the one hand, and being reckless and foolish on the other? Well, sorry to disappoint, but there is no ready made answer to that. You will need to learn how to listen and understand what is your body telling you, and the sooner you develop that ability, the better. In order to see if we are just feeling like slacking or being actually fatigued, I usually recommend to do the warm up portion of the session in earnest, and then take an honest look at how it feels afterwards - if you are all of a sudden all cheered up and stoked about the activity, you are ready to go; however, if you still feel slow and heavy, it might be better to take it easy for the rest of the day, or skip the workout altogether.

By now it is the common knowledge in martial arts that it is about the journey not the destination, or that showing up is the secret to success. As corny and cliched as it sounds, it is largely true, but in order to show up you need to be able to. There are times when one needs to go all int, balls to the wall, but such events are few and far between, and almost never in training. That sort of attitude is better left for the actual performance, whether it be in the ring or the battlefield. In training, it is better to err on the side of cautiousness. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Training yardstick

This week I have had to act as a gym coach of sorts for a bunch of kids, and that experience brought up an issue that is rather spread out throughout the martial art world. Now, I like to to implement experiences and methods of other training disciplines and modalities in my combat-related training, including those from weightlifting and other athletic fields, but some of those, in my view, are doing more harm than benefits when  plugged into fighting domain.

Probably the one that rubs me in the wrong way the most is the obsession with reps. Typically, the instructor will show/tell the technical exercise that is supposed to be worked on, and say something along the lines of " it for XYZ repetitions", and very often they will even proceed to count those reps out loud. This is especially widespread in traditional schools, and particularly with beginner classes. The problem with such angle in coaching is that the grand majority of trainees will be focused almost solely on numbers, while neglecting the quality of move/ if cranking those numbers is the magic formula to mastery.

Too much of enough?

Some instructors say that if they do not count the repetitions, some people will do them faster and will then be idle while the rest of the class is completing their work. Well, guess what? There is a very simple solution for that - use the timer/stopwatch! Doing your work for timed rounds instead of mere repetitions is a time honored method in rel-time fighting activities such as boxing and wrestling, and consequently in MMA, too. I have heard attempts to justify the avoidance of that tool as being more suited for individual training than groups, but it just doesn't hold up. I have run most my martial art and fitness classes using this template for years, and the results were excellent. Indeed, some people will squeeze in more repetitions than others that way, but there is much less deterioration in the technical quality of movement with everybody.

That approach is also in accord with the fact that humans live their lives in time and space, and have only become obsessed with counting over the last hundred years or so. speaking of time and space, thee is another model of training I use, but this one is definitely more suited for individual sessions. Namely, sometimes I will go for certain distance, thus completely discarding the need for any counting whatsoever, including the time. For example, instruct the students/athletes to perform a technique or a combo while moving from "here to there" (whatever your reference points are), and then stress the intensity/quality balance as you deem necessary.

...inch by inch, it's a cinch! 

All that said, there are times, of course, when you will need a more strict quantitative layout in your training, and that is absolutely fine. My aim here was simply to point out that it is easy to get lost in the magic of numbers and the quasi-scientific aura it provides for one's training, while other approaches could be more valuable in those situations.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Practice of exercising

I got a question the other day, which made me elaborate a bit on something that was clear in my head but nobody had ever asked before for an explanation. Since lately a major portion of my solo training is in the form of physical conditioning (the topic that has been addressed several times already), the discussion first touched upon the aspects of what is the contents of my sessions, but then, more importantly, on how does it affect my martial training.

Now, in the strength & conditioning circles the debate on the adequacy of the distinction between general and specific exercises and workouts is seemingly endless, but my approach is somewhat different. Namely, what I will be briefly presenting here is not aimed at the same goal as the concrete conditioning plan, but rather as something of an auxiliary-type work to be done alongside one’s main, discipline-specific training. However, it is not to say that I don’t use the same kind of exercises or methods, but their implementation might differ, depending of the desired outcome.
But potentially handy 
When including any exercise in my training, it will be treated either as developmental or preparatory. In short, the former type of exercise strives to develop certain attribute(s) that will hopefully positively affect the trainees’ performance, especially in the long-term. As such, it is done over periods of time, possibly following some sort of progression. The latter type is primarily meant to prepare a practitioner for the demands of any particular training session, or maybe the series of sessions. In consequence, they are implemented on a shorter term basis.

It also stems from the above explanation that the developmental exercises could be done both as part of regular training sessions (for example, during the warm-up section) and on their own, in separate sessions. On the other hand, the preparatory work only makes sense if done immediately prior to the main portion of the discipline-focused session. In that regard, we could say that the developmental work loosely relates to the standard idea of general conditioning, and the preparatory to the specific. Yet, there is big difference in the intensity, load and other aspects of programming. Therefore, neither side of my dichotomy is really the replacement for the proper S&C program, should you need one.

Another point to ponder is that many exercises and movements could belong to the either category, depending on how and when they are included in one’s training. Take one of the typical groin stretching exercises as an example:

In many martial disciplines it would be a good developmental exercise in an attempt to facilitate the better form when doing the horse stance.
Developmental goal

But, in BJJ/grappling it could be the main preparatory exercises when working on the so-called rubber guard technique and its aspects. 
Preparatory goal
Following the same logic, the overhead press might be perceived differently when done explosively with a light load (ballistic manner) and slowly with a heavy load (grinding manner). Which of those would be developmental or preparatory from the perspective of a striking combat system? How about a grappling method?

I hope this short article has provided some useful insights that may help you take different and applicable look at your training, but ultimately, it is simply my way of thinking about particular aspects of my training, so it is most certainly not an attempt to offer the new be all end all paradigm.