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 "...do 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/technique...as 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. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Reinventing the wheel...oh yeah!

A friend of mine from Russia has recently mentioned on Facebook that it took him quite a bit of time and effort in training to formulate his fighting algorithm (as he called it), and then a few people commented that if he had found the right teacher with the right training syllabus right away he would have found it sooner. This is not the first time I was involved, one way or another, into the debate on which school and/or instructor is better, while the participants in the debate are not clear on what they are talking about in the first place.

Do you really need your own?
 Some of the relevant elements here have been tackled sporadically in various posts on this blog, but this is a good time to systematize those issues. So, all discussion on “better” this or that is relative in direct function of reasons for training. However, there are certain foundational distinctions need to be understood (for the purpose of my exposition):
·         System is a set of principles and guidelines that all practitioners of that “lineage” need to adhere to in order to be recognized as such. This is commonly and widely meant under the terms art and style.
·         School is exactly that – a group of people training under the same instructor of a system.
·         Style is the personal expression of an individual’s understanding and command over the material taught in a school.

With that in mind I would agree that in broad strokes certain systems may be better suited for certain goals than others. Yet, particular schools within the same system can and often do differ in this regard, depending the instructor’s priorities and affinities. Also, it is in schools that training methodology comes into play.

However, even when all of the above conditions are in line, it is still the individual practitioner that will embody the principles and tenets of the system as taught by a school. And they will do it in line with their personal understanding, as well as personal mental and physical attributes. Essentially, it means that although possibly understood intellectually, a lot of those principles will have to be “(re)discovered” through hands on training if they are to truly become an integral part of one’s genuine style of work when put before pertinent demands.

Why is it important? Well, if nothing else, my experience shows that the principles you have been shown by someone else take some time and plenty of work in order to become ingrained to the degree necessary for acting in the dynamics of combat. On the other hand, those that came from within, as a result of self-discovery, have the tendency to merge faster and require less maintenance. Of course, the downside with the latter is that sometimes you can wander around for a long time before making such a discovery, especially if there is no proper training method and progression in place.

Jerome Bruner's depiction 
 So then, what could be the solution to the above conundrum? The question lies in the didactic approach called guided discovery. Without delving too deep into the rationale behind it, this teaching angle puts the trainees in the situations (scenarios, drills, games etc.) that make them experience and understand the problem, and then presents the series of steps to expose the practitioners to the tools and tactics in solving it. Such a line of work can prove to be confusing and taxing on the students, as they are asked questions by the instructor much more than the other way around. For this reason, it is of paramount importance that the instructor be a good communicator and able to provide the guidance part on the trainee’s path to discovery.

With all those ingredients in place, the personal algorithm should be solid and functional, enabling the stylist to do what needs to be done the way it should be done. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Bottom line

This was a very good year for me on a personal plane. Training-wise, I had to take a step back from the teaching post in the second half of 2017, but I was able to get back more to the student role...and it was good!

A few days back I was asked what was the key factor to becoming good in martial/combative field. It would be too easy to start pondering on the key technical, tactical or physical attribute and then have a debate on the topic. However, there seems to be a common thread - perseverance.

Basically, it is fundamental in any learning endeavor, and essentially boils down to keep on keeping on. In face of all challenges and difficulties, distractions and temptations, keep coming back. Take a step away from your training occasionally, if necessary, just make sure to get back to it as soon as possible.

I am not a fan of New Year resolutions or similar things, so, to end this post and this year - I'll keep writing and you keep reading!