Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Decade of babbling!

 Whoa, it just appeared to me that a month ago it was the 10th anniversary of this blog! Man...who would have thought. Back then, even with the first actual post, my sole intention was to share some personal views and insights into this beautiful, funny, frustrating and consuming world of martial art training. Maybe I was hoping to somehow contribute to improving that very training process a tiny bit. Well, while there is no way to say if the later hopes have been achieved, I sure did keep on sharing those views, thoughts and rants. And got more in return than ever having dreamt of!

Just like it is the case with training itself, the main benefit of writing this blog turned out to be getting to know some really great people and learning infinitely more along the way than possible being able to teach in any way, shape or form. As the matter of fact some true greats found it worthwhile to get in touch and grace me with their time in conversation. Others provided me with the opportunity of actually learning under their guidance on a regular basis. What more could a guy, who happens to be a lifer in the martial arts, ask for?

However, as a complete coincidence, probably the biggest honor that aligned with this anniversary was the invitation to teach along with guro Roger Agbulos during one of his incredibly popular Zoom sessions. As a token of appreciation for all those readers who made running the blog worthy, here is my segment of that session, in all its (in)glorious detail:

The things that I would particularly like you to notice are the interpretation of what good technique actually means in combative arts (at the very beginning of the video), as well as a helpful way to improve one's solo practice and make it more effective. If you get more out of it - take it as bonus! 

In conclusion, it has been an awesome ride... Let's see if we can go for another round! 

Monday, August 23, 2021

Modern classic

 Let's straight it out from the very beginning - what makes a book a classic? Well, in short, it has to be an excellent presentation on the given subject, holding its value over time, serve as a go-to source of information, and ideally reveal new insights with every reading/consultation even years later. In addition to all that, the work presented today was published in the 21st century, hence the term "modern". And the author of the subject of this review is master Reynaldo Galang.

Rey Galang doing what he loves most

Master Rey is a fairly well known name in the world of Filipino martial arts (FMA for short) and held in high regard, both for his teaching ability and penmanship. On the one hand, he is a co-founder and a driving force behind one of the most prestigious organizations in this sphere - Bakbakan. On the other hand, he wrote and edited four phenomenal books on various aspects of FMA, as well as numerous articles over the past couple of decades. Having had the good fortune to attend some of master Rey's online classes, I can confidently say that his dedication to the arts and commitment to students is absolutely of the highest order. This is probably the exact foundation that the success of Bakbakan was built on. 


Among the four books mentioned, I would like to point to the one titled Masters Of the Blade. Now, the books that seek to portray several, or many, representatives of any martial art (maybe even comprehensive overview of various styles within the art) are not exactly a new idea. In the realm of FMA itself there have been several, including one also written by master Galang (Warrior Arts Of the Philippines). However, there a few features that make the MOB book stand out.

the book

Firstly, instead of opting to cast a wide net of entire art (say, FMA) or geographical region (e.g. Philippines), the author chose to focus on a single aspect of the art, specifically the knife, and then bring in the views and thought from a large number of contributors. To be honest, all of the featured exponents in this tome had been more or less influenced by the FMA approach to handling the knife and dealing with it, but some of them (Tom Sotis of Amok!, Michael Janich, James Keating and Hock Hochheim come to mind) have moved to one degree or the other away from the typical Filipino treatment of the tool. 

Secondly, the contributors are not grouped according to their stylistic affiliations, but rather presented in the alphabetical order. Why is that important? To start with, nobody can accuse the author or favoring his own "tribe" and pushing their agenda to the detriment of another one. Also, it makes for a more interesting read, because the expressions of the topics vary from one chapter to the next, so you will keep focus better. Finally, the absence of style/system chapters eliminates the proclivity for skipping some chapters, and in turn made me discover new people and learn about their insights with a more open mind. 

Thirdly, all the contributing authors were obviously given the full freedom to state their position on the subject, even if it does not align with those of other exponents or the main author, which is a refreshing approach to doing this kind of work. That way, the book serves almost as a forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences for the mutual learning benefit of the reader, regardless of his or her previous experience. 

Lastly, the technical presentation makes for a mighty nice package. Excellent print quality on glossy pages makes the photos clear; good binding provides years of perusing pleasure without the fear your book falling apart; format is just right...and at 450+ pages this book is chock-full of great information and will offer many hours of reading pleasure. 

still going strong

Ok, but is it any practical in terms of learning  something from it?

Why, am I glad you asked! If you don't mind a personal anecdote (hey, it is MY blog after all!), pondering this very question lead me to my currently main instructor of FMA. 

Namely, when the book came out in 2005, the quality instruction in the Filipino arts was seriously scarce in my neck of woods, so I would take any opportunity (indiscriminately) to learn something from anybody who had access to real teachers. No wonder that some of those teaching would be contradictory to each other occasionally, system names were just labels to me, and it made me confused at more than one point. Upon going through the book a couple of times, there seemed to be chapters that, if taken in certain order, could constitute a solid training progression. And then, I shared my thoughts in this regard on one of the more active knife forums of the day. Here is what I wrote:

1. Start with the chapter provided by Roger Agbulos. It is dedicated to what I feel is the groundwork for any fighting endeavor, i.e. footwork and non-telegraphic movement. After you've done that on your own for a few days...
2. Find yourself a partner and get into drills nicely featured in Steve Grody's chapter. It will teach you how to stay in a long range, where your skills are most likely to give you the advantage over an untrained opponent (as they say - "proximity negates skill"), and you'll be pushed to use your footwork from the step 1 in a situational environment of sorts.
3. If you've been doing the above two steps for a few weeks, and started developing some timing and feel for keeping your distance, maybe entering and disengaging comfortably to some degree, you might be ready for basic medio and corto drills, so turn to Hospecio Balani's portion of the book. There you will also get a feel for working with a reverse grip. I'd like to add that you should not stop working on previous material, because we all need constant improvement and brushing up in those areas. The same principle applies in further steps too.
4. OK, once you have your live hand in sync with your weapon hand, you should move to more demanding tasks, such as those shown in the chapter by Dave Gould. This is where all your previous skills will be put to test, along with your mental perseverance, ability to cope with stress and failure in training and struggle with your ego.
5. At this point, which in my estimation is after few months of regular training, you should have your solid foundation in place, so you can start adding other material from the book, in accordance with your needs and interests - empty handed against blade concepts or stalemate solutions from Steve Tarani; solo training forms, techniques and drills and their applications from Rey Galang or Michael Janich; empty handed scenarios from W. Hock Hochheim and John Jacobo; multiple adversaries or VIP protection scenarios from Atienzas or Bakbakan; drills for overcoming knife defense attempts from San Miguel Eskrima and Krishna Godania; insightful and thought provoking writing from AMOK!, Ron Balicki or Jim Keating...and so on.

In essence, after you have your essential skills included in your functioning arsenal, you can go out and do research on your own, as the above is just a basic outline/framework, based only on a single book, although a great one.
Finally, The fact that I haven't mentioned some people who contributed to the book (Ray Dionaldo, Bram Frank, Felix Valencia...) is not to say that they have nothing valuable to offer. It is just that I tried to make this as simple and functional as possible. After all, refer to the section on "doing your own research"...That's why they call it a homework - you do it on your own!

As it turned out, the person who was mentioned first was also a member of the forum ad reached out to say thanks about the review. We really hit it off from there, and have become friends, to my great learning and training benefit for 15 years now. 

Also, I soon figured out that the next three instructors mentioned, just like the first one, were all practitioners of the Lameco Eskrima system of FMA, so that effectively made my decision on which path I would like to pursue in this regard. 

In conclusion, this book has stood the test of time, especially if you keep in mind that it was published in the pre-Youtube era. While several new name instructors and training approaches have emerged in the meantime, most of those featured in the Masters Of the Blade are still pretty active and further honing their material. 

If you get a chance to get this book - don't waste it! It will be a staple of your martial art library. That said, while eagerly awaiting for master Rey's next book, I'm off to check a couple of things in my copy...

Friday, July 16, 2021

Challenges in training... Courage!

 Yes, courage. And it can mean a lot of things, but today I have a specific one in mind. While it applies to everyone involved in training the martial arts or other combative methods, it is particularly pertinent to those actually teaching and coaching. In the former case, this primarily entails having the fortitude to always keep taking a sincere look at your driving force in training, and being strict in deciding if what you do in training is in line with it, or you are just enjoying the workout (better case), or maybe even enjoying the illusion (worse case).

For the instructors, school owners, system founders/heads etc, there is an even more important and deeper component to it. Namely, besides the sincerity in saying what your system or school are all about, so that the potential students are not misguided, one must be absolutely honest and ready to change the material in the face of new findings. Here is what I mean...

Let's say you are dedicated to training your clients for the functional combative skill, in the real time and against resisting opponents (either in a sports arena or street self-protection), and you have developed a well-rounded curriculum and fairly good training methodology to achieve this goal. Owing to that,  you attract a fair number of trainees, maybe even open a couple of branches in other places. And then...one way or another you discover a new set of methods or training protocols that you know for sure will improve the whole process. That, however, requires investing time and effort to rewriting your curriculum and training programs, educating assistant instructors (some of which may be unwilling), and finally saying to your clients "sorry, forget what you have been paying for so far, there is a better way". Hmmm... Do you actually go for it in spite of all those challenges, or do you hide behind the good old "if it ain't broken, don't fix it"?

By the way, it applies just as much to the schools/instructors whose mission is the preservation of intact tradition and the original teachings of whatever master/system. What happens if you stumble upon an older proponent of the same lineage, who proves to be legit and then says that a portion of what you have been doing for the last 20 years is wrong and ought to be done differently? Damn, you already have a dozen or more black belts under you, who have been teaching the same "mistakes" to their own students, not to mention your peers who had graduated under the same tutelage fraught by the same mistakes! Where do you go from there? Keep on doing the same thing, finding an excuse of the "it's a different lineage" sort, or do you go back and start correcting everything, thus possibly losing students and associates? 

There are some people I admire greatly in this regard, who had the courage and integrity to change their teaching and training despite any and all inconveniences it may have caused. Alex Kostic has already been a subject of a couple different articles in this blog. He had both the sincerity to acknowledge the shifting focus in this work and change the training methods to suit it, while openly announcing the changes to his students (and losing quite a few in the process), but also alienating himself from a wider community of his "home style" and withstanding their mud slinging. The late Mario Topolsek did the same in a traditional art of Uechi Ryu (like in the above example), and with similar consequences. And an excellent example of the functional paradigm is Tom Sotis, whose entire career in the realm of fighting arts has been a constant strife to outdo himself and update his achievements. 

Interestingly enough, during a chat we had, Sotis pointed to a very interesting "matrix" of options that people have in their training if driven by honesty, depending on their underlying motivation. Let's show it like this:







In the above table T stands for traditionalist, R stands for recreationalist, while F is for functionalist. Note that under the two opposing poles there is the same indicator NC, while for the middle way it is MC. It denotes that both the traditional and functional proponents have no choice in how they will train - they always have to be congruent to the latest discoveries of what constitutes the truth in their chosen endeavor. The recreational practitioner (some may call them enthusiasts; I agree with such term in the early stages of one's training, when they are still trying to figure out what is their guiding principle), on the other had, has many choices because his or her participation in the given activity is predicated on the goal of enjoying the activity on its own, regardless of its authenticity. 

In this regard, I'd say courage is a coin which on one side is made of asking difficult questions, and on the other side of embracing honest answers. Simple...but not always easy. 

Monday, May 31, 2021

Lonely path

 ...can be, and often is hard. But if it is what makes you who you are, you have to follow it. The pandemic situation is unfortunately still a relevant factor in our training, after more than a year, which means that solo training is still a VERY important aspect. Although, it always is, anyway. As guro Roger Agbulos pointed out during one of his Zoom training sessions, even before the lockdowns and other hindrances, 80% of his training was done solo, anyway. I have already written about it, so today I'd like to offer a couple of ways to maybe freshen it up by introducing new ways of working on your own.

To begin with, you may consider taking certain exercising ideas and applying them in different planes. For example, most BJJ solo drills are done on the floor, but what if you tried to work on chaining various movements in different positions? Possibly, something of this could come up...

OK, once you are comfortable with that, or simply wishing to add more ingredients to the mix, it could be a simple piece of training gear such as a ball. Following is a clip of my friend Vasilis from Athens, Greece, showing some interesting ways of expanding your training. 

Finally, should you be looking for a way to make the training more reactive and spontaneous, using a pendulum could be the answer. In the following example guro Jay Pugao of Visayan Corto Cadena system of arnis/eskrima is demonstrating it with empty handed applications, i.e. punching, but this type of training can be done just as well with various impact or bladed weapons. 

As always, what you get out of these modes of training depends on what you put in. Granted, there is no way to adequately replace partner training, but it should not be the excuse for failing to train at all. With a little imagination and a lot of drive, you can end up attaining good results, especially with proper mindset

Monday, April 26, 2021

Strained training

 A couple of months ago I posted a short video clip on the Astig Lameco group on Facebook, showing one of the possible solutions for a common problem of many novice practitioners, i.e. losing the integrity of the combat stance after a few seconds of dynamic footwork. It showed me doing liner shuffling footwork in a skateboarding park, with one of those low, straight rails between my feet, on a mid-calf level. It caused some great reactions and comments, saying what a great way it is to address the issue.

However, it is nothing new or spectacular. In the coaching practice this approach to training is known as the method of constraints and affordances, and in a nutshell it entails the creation of such training environment that would either prevent the practitioner from making a mistake, or facilitate his achieving the desired outcome, respectively. In this post I will illustrate the former approach. 

We have all been in a situation, either as an instructor or the student, to keep pointing to the same mistake, but to no avail, since it keeps rearing its ugly head time and again. Instead of giving up on the issue or continuing with more of the same in terms of trying to fix it, there is a different, wordless way of dealing with it. How about putting the trainee in a situation where he has no choice but do what you ask of him?

Let's take a very widespread boxing mistake - flaring elbow when executing a jab. In other words, instead of firing the punch down the straight line, there is power leaking because of the crooked trajectory of the elbow during the execution. Here is the visual depiction:

the guard position

mid-phase with elbow sticking out

final phase

The problem with this technique is that if the distance is suddenly shortened in the middle phase of the punch, it will lose so much power that the effect will be negligible. So, the coach has been harping about it constantly, even tried showing the trainee some video footage of his faulty mechanics, but it has all been futile. Well, if we constrain the spatial options that allow for the mistake to be made, it should elicit proper execution from the practitioner. 

In this case, it is done as simply as putting the trainee next to a wall, his lead shoulder almost touching it. And then have him or her doing the technique, first slowly and then faster. 

the guard position

mid-phase, this time without wandering elbow

final phase

That is it! It will take a bit of perseverance, but lot less frustration to get where you want to go. 

The nice thing is that constraints are not limited to technical training. You can develop tactical solutions this way (eg. by limiting the available technical options during sparring; always starting the drill or sparring round from a position that you want to emphasize; taking a limb out of the equation by tying it etc.), as well as many other aspects of combative training. Basically, you start with the problem and reverse-engineer the solution by seeking to see how to disable the undesirable occurrence. 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Shoot Straight And Speak the Truth

 It’s been a year since the pandemic forced most of us to seriously look into different ways of doing things, training included. The silver lining, however, is that it also made numerous instructors around the world see the possibilities of using technology to reach potential students in remote places, thus creating great opportunity for both instructors and students.

I didn’t think twice about jumping on such opportunity to join the 4-week course conducted by Celestino “Tinni” Macachor, the founder of the Filipino stick fighting system called Estokada De Campo. I first became aware of him back in 2007 when he co-authored the book titles Cebuano Eskrima: Beyond the Myth, which caused considerable turmoil with the FMA community for its factual approach to dispelling many of the myths and tall tales that were being perpetuated almost as sacred texts over decades.

I am not going to review the book here (although, if you are an adept of arnis or eskrima, this should be on your list of mandatory literature), but his writing style appealed to me, and it is also reflected in his conversational style – open, honest, and straightforward to the point of bluntness; great sense of humor and a healthy dose of humility…the exact right recipe to my liking.

Interestingly enough, mang Tinni’s original martial discipline was (and still is) practical pistol-craft of the IPSC orientation, but he took eskrima in the late 1980’s, studying in the Eskrima De Campo school under revered professor Ireneo Olavides, the heir to legendary grandmaster Jose Caballero, and currently the head of his own organization EDC JDC-IO. Although having been in the council of elders within that organization, mang Tinni (the way he prefers to be addressed) decided to step away so that the dislike and venomous comments that he attracted following the publishing of the aforementioned book wouldn’t affect the circle of brethren in JDC-IO.

Instead, he went into recluse for a decade, teaching only selected private students, and then in 2018 launched  his own interpretation of combative stick training methodology, which he named Estokada De Campo (EDC for short).

Macachor’s training and teaching philosophy based on the functional athletic approach, meant to develop skills that work under the pressure of sparring against resisting opponents. If you are acquainted with my earlier blog materials, it won’t come as a surprise that I like it.

For the purposes of the online course (with limited attendance of 10 students from Europe, USA and the Philippines) mang Tinni put together a streamlined curriculum, very well thought out – in a logical, sequential manner, so that each block of instruction leads students smoothly to the next. This provides for the better understanding and faster assimilation of the material, i.e. its functional application.

Mang Tinni in action

Specifically, the first week covered the fundamentals of mechanical efficiency regarding the grip on the stick and execution of basic strikes, which were then put together into several combos (called BOSS – basic offensive strike series) done from the closed and open guard positions; the second block of instruction was dedicated to a different tactical application of striking angles (cirkulo); the third segment focused on one of the hallmarks of the system – kadlit; while the final session presented further methods of doble golpes and Caballero enganyo.

The format of instruction was such that man Tinni taught during weekly Zoom sessions, and over the following week the participants would film themselves performing the material, to be analyzed and corrected within a private discussion group on Facebook. I liked this setting for several reasons: it gave enough time to the instructor to really explain and demonstrate in detail the material planned for the given lesson, as well as to answer any potential questions in real time, while he was able to subsequently pay close attention to each individual student for coaching tips and correction. Also, it means all the participants were able to learn from each other’s examples, as it would be the case in a live setting.

Photo: courtesy of Celestino Macachor

The instructional sessions were conducted with attention to detail and ample examples and parallels with other  types of activities, in order to better depict the desired effect. In line with his honest nature, mang Tinni never missed the chance to give credit where it is due, i.e. mentioning the people who taught him what he knew or had contributed to his understanding of the art. On top of that, since none of the students in this particular batch were beginners, he also repeatedly praised our previous instructors for having instilled certain good habits and attitude. As a side note, it was fairly impressive to see a gentleman of his age perform the way he did.

Finally, the mark of a true teacher, Macachor repeatedly noted that the point of training is not to mimic his exact way of movement, but rather to make the material your own by refining it through training and testing, so that it would be effective for the end user. This focus on prioritizing individual students over general curriculum is what will lead to favorable outcome.

In the case of EDC, after this module of instruction, in mang Tinni’s words: “It will not make you unbeatable, but you will be able to competently hold your own in a stick fight”. And let me tell you - you can take his word for it!

On a side note, I would like to extend my gratitude to Mr. Steve Del Castillo of the Bunal Brand, who ably provided the logistics for the whole program, and whom you may contact to join the next batch of students, starting on April 9.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Go with the...flow!

 Asked what are the characteristics of a high-level martial art exponent, several typical responses come to mind - ease of movement, grace of execution, thinking ahead of the opponent etc. - but when they are all integrated it would be fair to say that when they are at their top game, such expert practitioners all seem to possess and exhibit flow in performance. However, this very notion may prove to be rather tricky in its meaning. Also, there is no consensus regarding if it is possible to be trained. 

Interestingly enough, some martial systems emphasize flow as their prime goal and desired result of training but may have very different ways in seeking to achieve it. Let's take the example of grappling arts such as aikido and BJJ: the former strives to develop flow as a component of its technical base and seeks to train it through relaxed and soft execution of specific techniques through high repetitions; the latter perceives flow as the result of having all other technical components in order, and tends to come at it through sparring, i.e. free rolling. 

If you have had the opportunity to try or at least see both approaches in action, you may have noticed that their understanding of what, or better yet - how, flow is is not exactly the same. In aikido it is seen as good if the whole sequence of moves and techniques runs seamlessly as one long, uninterrupted statement, even speech. But, when reading a well written article/book, or listening to an engaging speaker, you have certainly noticed full stops at the end of sentences and heard pauses at varying times in the speech. In a conversation, this is even more obvious. This is why BJJ sparring seems more natural, with its transitions, isolations, positional escapes and finally submissions - this is how a natural conversation may be represented visually. 

But, what with the striking arts? Obviously, there is high value placed on the flow in those as well, but again, the approaches frequently differ. Filipino martial arts are known for professing their preference for the flow as a supremely important aspect, but quite often it is attempted in practice in a manner similar to aikido...artificially, devoid of context, via so-called flow drills. Here is an example...

What technical attributes do you see being drilled properly here? Stance, biomechanical structure, distance, footwork..? Not exactly the most brilliant display. That said, the drill itself isn't necessarily faulty, be it sumbrada, hubad or whatever. With proper energy and intent, all those other things would fall into place. As an example, seek instruction from Roger Agbulos, either seminar or classes, to see how hubad, when well done, tend to resemble wrestling's pummeling drills. 

Over the years of my training with Alex Kostic, we came at a notion of "punctuated flow", as a term that may better represent a genuine state of performance in actual fights. To most of us, seeing a good boxer doing his craft would be a great visual representation. The following clip shows some of those, but I especially like the portion starting at 1:38, because it is a great parallel to giving a good speech, as mentioned earlier, with its pauses between well connected phrases and sentences. 

See what I mean? Now, some people may argue that flow is a mental state that cannot really be trained. I will readily agree that with some practitioners it is more innate and easier to attain, but it can be trained for sure. There are many factors involved in an adequate training methodology, but let me point to an important one to begin with. First, the trainees should be working on longer series of technical maneuvers and looking for fluid performance, but the thing is they should be aware of the purpose of each individual component, while facing progressive resistance and increasing demands in doing, so. Why? Well, once you know what are you doing and why, it is much easier to have proper intent behind your actions. Whoever has seen a Thai boxing fight knows that most exchanges are short and crisp, done explosively, and yet, in most schools you will find many strings of long combos, such as this one:

The point there is that the person practicing the drill knows the purpose and function of their individual techniques and their possible combinations, which enables practitioners to take them apart and reassemble them in different ways, according to the context and circumstances of the fight. Like learning foreign languages - you may and should learn entire phrases and expressions, but also need to know meaning of individual words and rules of linking them when expressing new meaning. Here, meaning is intent...without you can throw together any words you like in any order you want, but they might end up sounding like gibberish. 

And we all like being well understood, right?