Monday, August 13, 2012

Training to train

The differences between training in/for the sportive events of martial arts and for the self-defense applications are many, some real, some perceived. The opinions on the (dis)advantages of each are many and diverse, but there is one domain which could and should be much clearer and not all that much influenced by the personal attitudes.

At issue is the fitness aspect of training for combat. In sports, this one is pretty much no-brainer; at least the importance of including a proper physical preparation regimen into one’s training. That is, if the practitioner is aiming to accomplish any tangible result. Of course, what exactly is the proper way of doing it for each and every individual athlete is another matter, but nobody argues the significance of doing it. Be as it may, the main framework of that approach is rather clear – train for the demands of the competition!

Roadwork for boxing

But, how about those who train, at least decoratively, for self-defense (or for the street…whatever term you choose to use)? There seem to be two general camps here:
  1. Fitness training is very important, but used first and foremost as the mental-conditioning tool;
  2. Fitness is irrelevant, because street fights last anywhere from a couple of seconds to half a minute at most.

I have to be brutally honest here – no matter which stance you take, you are missing the point! OK, if I had to take one of those two, I’d go with the former…but let me explain my point of view.

Let’s start with the second group. Even if their view of the typical street fight was exact in this regard (of which I am not all that sure either), there are still a few fallacies that should be removed from the training process. First, you may think that the training time is better used to drill the techniques and scenarios, but the simple fact is that power, speed and agility are also inextricable elements of a technique, and those elements can definitely be improved through good fitness regimen. Second, if your training is supposed to mimic the actual event, then how long should a training session be?

The problem with the first group lies mostly with their choice of conditioning tools and exercises. If one’s main guideline is testing the mental toughness, the exercises used to achieve may not really have much carryover with the technical training. Also, the selection will be either random, or maybe depend on the personal likes and dislikes of the instructor (read – favoring the ones he can do and look good at it).

So, in preparing for street combat (here, I am talking strictly about civilian aspect. The professional field, i.e. army, is another story), what will demand most time and energy from you? Well, the simple answer is – training! You may never in you life time need to put your fighting skills to use in a real altercation, but if you are serious about it, then you will spend hundreds of hours in training anyway.

Not a bad choice - if you know how, why, when...

I first thought about it all a long ago, when someone first noted that “you won’t have the time to warm up before the street fight”. While that sounded right for the first few seconds, it very quickly occurred to me that the street confrontation (or at least it’s physical “resolution”) would not take 90 minutes, while my training session normally do. Hm…clearly I was warming up to prevent the injuries and optimize performance in training, not in the potential event. And that applies to all other segments of physical preparation as well.

Obviously, in order to make training productive, one needs to do certain things over and over again, which requires energy. If those things happen to require some level of speed and power in execution, then you also need some endurance to prevent the technical deterioration as the session goes on. Lo and behold – you need the full scale of well developed physical attributes to make your training count and to benefit most from each and every session you attend.

Good footwork - everybody needs it

Therefore, you would be well advised to undertake some fitness training as well, to accompany the skill work. Aiming to make that fitness component pertinent, start from looking at what are the physical demands of you training sessions. What is the work to rest ratio? Does it include a lot of short and powerful bursts, or more of a steady, moderate effort?

You get the picture. If you do not, there are some established routs you could take to progress, and most basic physical training manuals cover those. The bottom line is, be aware that to make your training as fruitful as possible, it will also require training. Of course, the fitness level demanded from a practitioner of self defense will not be the same as from an Olympic level athlete, but you should not allow yourself to be a rotting couch potato either. After all, all the “deadly, battle proven, street forged” techniques are not going to help you, if you do not have the fuel to run you engine. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Knowing where you're going

Don’t know about you, but the facet of martial art training that has always raised most questions with me, and to this day many are not fully satisfactorily answered, is how to make the transition from learning the technical material to applying it in real time?

Obviously, this is only pertinent to those who are actually looking to have a functional grasp of their training, i.e. seeing it as something that should provide a set of tools that enable one to attain a certain goal. I know, I know, many will say “it about the journey, not the destination”… To a degree, it makes sense to me, otherwise I would not have been doing this for 25 years already. Still, I also believe it is essential that the journey should produce some “residual effect” along the way, or maybe useful “side effect”.

Many fighting systems and/or sports, over the course of their development (evolution?), have come up with more or less firm definition of what they are trying to accomplish, i.e. what is the end-goal of the training, performance wise. Specifically, what they want their practitioners to be able of doing. Of course, when these goals are set, it is somewhat simpler to develop the training progression and methodology for achieving it. Please note that I said simpler, which is not necessarily easy.

It seems that the common thread with all those schools and systems is having in place some sort of test to filter the effects of the training through. After all, how else could one say if the current teaching and training methods are appropriate for reaching the desired goal. 

Easier to hit the target when there is one

Unfortunately, some of the systems that seemed to have a lot of potential and be very promising, fail to form a clear definition of what it is they are working on, and as a consequence – they stray away from their “original”, declarative aim. I have been seeing it happen to the world of Systema (not the only one out there, but it is the one I am very much involved with), which saddens me, because not so long ago, it seemed to have been going in the right direction. IMHO, anyway… On the other hand, it may be just a temporary occurrence, because depending on whatever ends up being the definition, the general emphasis in work might be spot on.

The good thing about Systema is that there is always some pluralism understood, so the definition may differ from one camp to another, so the modus operandi will be in accordance to it. For the “uninitiated” it may present another problem, because they will tend to generalize the whole shebang, based on assumptions acquired from seeing/trying one school. Anyways…

The point is, when you do have a solid, well put definition (“wanna be awesome at kickin’ butt” is not a well developed definition, btw, not even by a long shot), you can start experimenting with the specific kinds of drills and exercises that will lead you towards the goal. So far, one thing that I have found out, and many people are somehow managing to miss it, is that not only does each drill have to develop some kind of required ability, but it will inadvertently develop some bad habits. If there is an exercise and training method that is 100% “surefire”, I have not seen it yet.

As a result, you will need other training segments to mend that problems developed or address the things neglected in the previous methods etc.

Just as an example (common in Systema), training the responses to close-quarter knife threats, or holdups in other words, is necessary, but the bad habit developed in the high-repetitions training of this sort is allowing the attacker to enter the distance that permits them to deploy that tactics they are using. The same thing goes for many courses that work on the releases from grabs and holds.

Another common problem, often seen in other martial arts, is working against the attacker that runs and initiates the assault from a distance of almost 10 feet, or along those lines. Yes, that will happen, but you also have to treat the confined space situations, too.

OK, by now you should understand the problem. In some schools, they will try to alleviate it by having a big “toolbox”, i.e. the whole gamut of drills and scenarios, and while it is a part of the answer, there are some criteria to be observed when choosing the exercises, and even more so when deciding on how to order them in training.

Keep in mind that essentially, all our work in combative training revolves around two desired adaptations – increasing responsiveness to some stimuli and diminishing responsiveness (increasing resistance if you like) to other stimuli. The examples of the above may include an increased sensitivity to opponent’s shifting his balance center and taking advantage of it; or learning to cope with (receiving) strikes without yielding our structure. So, we need at least two general pathways in training, to elicit adequate responses.

While not claiming to have a foolproof answer, I honestly think there are some pretty good guidelines I can offer. Having had the opportunity to teach many kinds of subjects (languages in a school setting, bass guitar in 1 on 1 setting, martial arts in groups or individually etc.), some common threads have emerged. First, we need to decide on the importance of the desired abilities and then prioritize. In other words, work on them chronologically – first things first. Of course, sometimes there will be mechanical priorities, which means some things will need to be “under the belt” as they form the physical prowess to then work on other skills.

Common sense, right?

However, as soon as the practitioner starts developing some level of command, we need to add the exercises and/or circumstances to (preferably) prevent the development of accompanying problems or at least make them glaringly obvious, so they do not slip by unnoticed and be left untreated. We then move on to the next segment and recycle the process. While this may sound simplistic, in my view it is the foundation that has to be laid, or else, the training will be jumping all over the place and end up achieving nothing.

Also, the above approach will still require a lot of hard work on the instructor’s part, as one will have to constantly be watching out for the potential potentials and their remedies, ideally with each individual trainee. It will in turn demand a built in “tools” for reappraisal and “re-tuning” of the training process, and it is again instructors duty to either adopt some or develop his/her own means of doing it.

In the end…there is no end! Even the best schools and teachers will always be changing and evolving their curricula and teaching progressions. That is what makes them good. But, only when they have their sights firmly on the defined goal, because only then will the changes be meaningful and progressive.