Wednesday, November 25, 2015

SoMiCo Knives

I've been rather lax on posting lately. I have to admit that my creative attention has been turned elsewhere for the last few months.
Earlier this year, my good friend Toby Cowern at came up with a design project, a collaboration between me, Rory Miller , and himself to design a knife.

As it turned out, we decided the best way to do this was to each take a lead on a blade, with the others adding comment/critique as necessary.

And finally our first creation is finished and it ended up being my lead.

Despite being incredibly opinionated about blades, something for which I blame fully on having handled Sonny's designs and modifications, I did not realize how immersed I would get into designing something myself.

I realized I wanted something that would feel in the hand like it wanted to move and work, in the same way that anything Sonny made moved and worked.

I wanted the balance to be right, and because of the importance of feel, we decided to work with Will Capron, a fabricator of hand made knives in Minnesota. You can find him on Facebook at

Will was willing to work with me to get the balance and feel exactly how I wanted, and we ended up spending some days together refining, grinding, troubleshooting, and working on the handle and sheath designs.

As an artisan myself, I am a huge supporter of high quality, hand made, products, and will do anything I can to support those who care about their work and make cool stuff.

And this is 'cool stuff'.

Here's our website:

Check it out if you would be so kind. You will see this first knife 'in action', with all the inspiration and design elements that form this blade explained.

I can't wait to do the next one ... :-) 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Long is Short

A few thoughts came up for me teaching Xing-Yi this week -

I wanted to correct a student who has a tendency to extend their arms out too far, so, I gave them a long staff to practice with. Long weapons are heavy and difficult to balance if held away from the body. Feeling this, the student started quite naturally to keep the hands in better positions, and also use their back hand as the 'power' hand more than they had been.


Empty hand, Xing-Yi is known for it's short power generation, which perhaps seems weird for a system trying to extend it's power through a spear or similar, but it makes complete sense. Long and heavy weapons dictate the hands and elbows do not extend too much, and that it's the body that follows that creates the power. The hands and arms are just the delivery device. You have to use the body (and movement), not the arms, to strike with.

So with short, as with long.

The weapon dictates the movement, dictates the power, dictates the usage.

Interestingly enough, I was also trying to correct a student who has a tendency to step too narrow, almost crossing their feet as they move. Xing-Yi, demands a stance that is a little wider to accommodate the weight and length of pole arms from which it was developed, so again I tried adding the weapon to see if the footwork would appear.

No change in footwork. Hunh.

So I added me, as the opponent, holding the center line. To move, the student had to take my weapon off the line so that they could create an opening and strike. (They can do this using timing and evasion of course, but best not to rely on always having this.)

Bingo! You can't use a narrow stance against the pressure of an opponent holding the center with a pole arm, you have no stability .. feeling this, the footwork shown in the form appeared with no correction.

I talk about it all the time in Eskrima. Each sword or weapon has a characteristic way it moves and needs to be wielded. Put that weapon in the hands of the student, and give them a 'problem' to solve,  and all the reasons for why the footwork, the hand positions, and the body alignment have to be as they are, become instantly much clearer. Take the context away however, and now you are fixing things in foot placement and alignment that are abstract and imaginary.

Of course you can do this empty hand through applying pressure that the student must move around or deal with, but I have to say, using a weapon seems more immediate and efficient.  Everything is more obvious and harder to fake when a long weapon is in play. Using structure with alignment is the only way.

It's funny that we teach unarmed before weapons in so many systems. If we did it the other way around, perhaps people would learn much faster ....?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Throws, Bullets, and Swords

Had a fascinating weekend cross training with some very high level folks from different genres and backgrounds.

Ostensibly I was in town to work on a design project with a custom knife maker (more info to follow), and whilst there, took the opportunity to get some training time in with some hugely talented people. Kasey Keckeisen ( and Dillon Beyer both come from a perspective of the traditional Japanese Arts, Kasey is also a veteran police officer and SWAT sniper and trainer. And if this was not enough, I also got to get a day in training tactical shooting with one of the best firearms teachers in the area, Cabot Welchlin. Cabot taught Kasey and still trains the SWAT guys in the area.

These guys are all gentlemen and scholars alongside being highly efficient and effective fighters, and it was a true pleasure to get taken out of my comfort zone into some new worlds.

What was most fascinating to me, and the huge benefit of spending time with smart people, is seeing the connections and principles consistent between skill sets … and also how transferring them does not necessarily come naturally!! An enormous amount of the stuff I know about alignment and movement principles with sword can transfer directly to moving and shooting, as was pointed out to me by my betters as I apparently forgot all I knew on the range.

The center line/aiming connection is there, as are the 'cusps' of movement in the pendulum, when moving in and out of cover.

Switching the weapon from right to left hand, grip, and positive feel - same ideas.

Draw and aim, and most of all the idea that movement and cadence are the keys to 'Don't get hit'.

Movement really is the key. To everything. Movement means change, and all power, positioning, opportunity, evasion, alongside areas of danger and safety depend on the relative movement between you and your opponent. This is of course why the pendulum is such a powerful training tool as it sets up all the options of closing, opening, turning, stepping, and weight shift..

This whole experience has made me want to set up a 'Skills through Movement' clinic …. Shooting, Swordplay, Striking, Throwing, to see how they combine ...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Timing and Distance

Here's a great clip breaking down how great boxers use space and time to their advantage.
The parallels to the ideas within the pendulum step paradigm are easy to see.

Apologies to those trying to find this clip earlier, I thought I had already posted it.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Decisions Decisions ...

A friend (thanks D!) was contemplating drills and said:

"I kinda think that the success of drills isn't really in "muscle memory" (or whatever you'd like to call it) but in the idea that remembering the drill gives the mind something to do to get it out of the way while the body learns how it feels when effective and efficient principles are manifested."

He also said:
"... I just wonder if the process is working for the reasons we assume it is working. Not remembering the drill happens after a fair bit of proficiency in the drill, and I'm wondering where that proficiency is coming from. And what part of you is doing the "remembering." I've been doing a lot of play with learning drills and copying movement while attempting to engage the parts of my brain that think in words as little as possible, and it has been interesting."


I love it when people engage in training whilst playing with different aspects of mind, thought, etc. Actively engaging in your training can only help you to get better, faster, especially when there's a spirit of exploration and adventure into the 'unknown'. 

I also think that a smart student can pretty much 'get anywhere from here'*, for however circuitous the road, they will get where they need to go.

But ... and you knew there was going to be one - Though repetitive drills may be well and good for training smooth techniques, working on alignment, and transitions in space, the piece that never gets trained in these type of drills is the decision whether to do it or not in the first place. 

And it's this decision - whether it's the good one to make in that moment - that really requires the 'timelessness' training that 'remembering' never gives you. 

Sorry, that probably made no sense .... try again..

If all the decisions are removed from a drill, you are never practicing seeing the action for what it is, and what might make sense to do in the geometry of the moment. You do the drill, you do the drill, you do the drill amazingly well ... but WHEN do you do it? If you can never find that moment, it will never happen.

This is why uncertainty HAS to be included as an element, especially for that non linear, thoughtless, stuff that is so important in owning a skill. 

Free sparring does this, but often it's hard to find moments, or pull anything off when the field is so open. Therefore I like to start off with only 2 options, I've talked about it before. Left or right is an easy one, so is high or low? A bit harder is, now or not now? Create a situation where both are on the table, and take it from there. 

Have your partner set the scene by moving in such a way as to create one or other option. If they do A, do X. if the do B, do Y. They don't tell you which one will happen, or when, but that's the game - to see the correct precursor to the smart idea. (From there you can get sneakier, lie, bait, set up and reverse ... but first make it a simple either/or).

I'll add a caveat. This is all a little easier from contact as most of the decisions happen because of tactile feedback from the opponent, though in general, the higher their skill level, the further ahead you have to play in the game of chess. But from a distance, like with swords, and before contact .... where possibly the MOST important decision needs to be made, you just can't trust to luck, you have to read or create the situation by your positioning and your body language.

You up your odds by controlling your opponent's options with footwork, and unpredictability (the ability to avoid being 'read'), but still, it is the moments when opportunity manifests that need to be seen and acted upon WITHOUT the conscious mind intervening, because by the time you have said "Oh, look, there's an opening"! It's already past. THIS is the moment that needs practicing, so the pattern slots neatly into the subconscious for use at a later time.

Train techniques repetitively by all means, get good at them, but if you are training ma-ai, insert the need for a decision to be made. You'll get to understand it all the more that way.

*From a funny story about asking for directions in rural Ireland, and the local saying "Oh, so your trying to get to Galway? Well you wouldn't want to be starting from here".

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Rob asked -

1)As someone with what seems to be a very good 'student' mindset and experience teaching, do you prefer (as either student or teacher) the direct approach of taking a specific problem and 'solving' it? Or do you like to "go down the back alleys".? Does this 'faith' based approach have more potential to ingrain concepts that can be applied to a range of situations?

First off, I don't really think of the long game, as I call it, as 'faith based', though I guess on some level the student has to have 'faith' that the path is actually going somewhere useful for them.

I do think that some problems need to be faced, looked in the eye and taken on. Seeing one's own faults in an example. You have to admit to yourself that you have a gap in your practice, or something that does not work, and only then can you work on getting rid of it. Where this approach falls down is when you really don't believe you need to change. And remember, belief is an emotional response and not a rational one, however much we try to rationalize it into being logical. Examples of this would be "Well I hit you too (even though I am dead)", or, "I expect to be cut (but I got you too)", or, "Why would I need to practice this dance-y stuff (just because I got cut)"?

"Well I hit you too" really means - I do not need to change.
"I expect to be cut" really means - I'm good enough as I am.
"Why would I need to practice this dance-y stuff"? really means - My imagination is too small.

So how do you show someone a reason to change? How do you create the space in their brains to entertain the idea of change? And how do you get them to actually change?

My thought is that the body knows if something is useful or if it is not, to a much greater degree than the brain. So you have to bypass the resistance by speaking to the body directly, and somehow keeping the brain distracted or busy so it cannot resist.

None of this stuff is instantaneous, so you need to entertain/keep busy the resisting part of the brain for enough time for the material to sink into the body and become useful. The body can then tell the mind to switch tracks.

As everyone is different, this involves some experimentation and calibration by the teacher, and must engage the student to inspire them to continue.

The alternative approach is to say - Do as I say. No questions. No thinking. Absolute obedience. This can work, but it shuts down the brain in a way that I don't think is optimal. The way I learned, and try to teach may be more difficult, and more subtle, but the engagement of the mind in confusion and uncertainty is in itself a far more useful state in which to learn to adapt, because if you think about it, you are actually learning about engaging in a chaotic environment which is what dueling, or fighting, is! It's inbuilt, unlike the rigid way, which is absolutely controlled and thus non transferable.

So yes to the last part of your question too. If training this way can show you chaos, uncertainty, and how to keep a calm focus and less ego ... it absolutely spills over into all areas of human interaction and life in general.

2)As someone that has been training and playing for quite a while, had meaningful teaching relationships with at least two different people and has a wide/eclectic experience within martial arts, how exactly have/do you identify people you want to learn from? How do you analyse and judge what they do? After all there are plenty of people that can move in ways that you can't but I'm guessing you don't necessarily want to be able to move like all of them. On a practical level are there any games or exercises you use for baseline testing when exchanging with someone?

'Identifying teachers' happens differently depending on your skill level.

In the beginning you don't know what you are looking for, or at. There's no real way to gauge what is 'good' or appropriate for you until you try. For me it was a case of seeing stuff and thinking 'that looks cool. I want to do that'. So, I started fencing because I watched Errol Flynn movies.

It can also happen because someone you know says 'you should try this'. So, I started doing Tai Ji because the guy I worked out with at the gym said it improved his lifting form (and I had watched Kung Fu the TV series when I was a kid).

Conversely, I never took up Judo because my first class gave me such a headache from learning how to fall and roll, I never went back.

Later when you start to see levels of skill you had not seen before, you might feel something is missing from what you are doing and start to experiment with going to workshops and seminars and dabbling in stuff that comes your way. Perhaps you read more, or watch videos or other stuff. I started watching Samurai movies and took a year of 6am classes in Aikido Jo because you got to wear a Hakama and I'd always wanted to wear one.

Note that I still did not KNOW what I was looking for, but just by doing, I found (in my opinion), better and better teachers - for me. Or at least I found stuff to do that I thought was totally fun and kept leading me onwards.

I knew I wanted to train with Sonny when I saw him video footage of him. I probably would not have understood his movement had I not already played with both western and eastern sword styles and studied Bagua footwork. However, I saw it and knew. I mean I KNEW that is what I needed to do next. The fact that he was difficult to find and he did not take on many students made it extra fun and exciting to try.

So what guiding forces do we have so far?  
Following someone I thought was cool.  
Elitism coupled with super badass coolness.

Not exactly a role model of rational sense and virtue am I?

So ARE there any guidelines? No, not really. It's a very organic process which will probably have a fair few dead ends as part of the path. But that's OK, and as it should be. Often we need negatives to point out the positives and I really don't think they are anything to avoid or worry about.
If anything, the only red flags to watch out for are systems that are rigidly closed, secret, and obsessively cultish, and ones that do not 'allow' you train elsewhere. Also best to avoid teachers that are self titled, or who abuse their status, and especially ones who you never get to actually touch or move with.  Another good tell is if the senior students are assholes. If they are, all you will learn there is how to be one too.

In a nutshell, if you let go of the idea that there is only one 'best and only truth' you'll never make a 'wrong' choice.  Just keep an open mind but believe nothing. Do, but do not take too seriously.

Be an explorer not a consumer. But whatever you do keep going. It's all intel the system can use to improve if you engage with it that way. The only certainty is that if you do not practice, you will never get anything.

As to the very last part of your question. Can you give me some more detail about what you mean by 'baseline' and what you are trying to find?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Snickets, Ginnels, and Wynds

I can tell you in words why something is useful, or good, or is worth doing, but your resistance to doing it will be in direct proportion to your resistance to the idea that you have a gap that needs fixing.

If there is no space for something to change, you won't change, however much I try to convince you it's a good idea.

Sometimes pointing out the problem to you physically helps. For instance, if I can make you notice that you can't find a clean exit after your entry, it will hopefully become obvious that you do indeed have a gap in your strategy, and thus opens your mind to the idea of change.

Thing is, sometimes taking a problem head on makes it worse. The mind gets in the way. It comes up with reasons and rationales to stay as it is, or stay within the bounds of it's imagination.
Sometimes problems need to be sidled up to, casual like, and worked on, without looking them directly in the eye.
Not for everything. Not all the time. But sometimes, especially when the existing program is hard wired, you need to take the more circuitous route to avoid heavy resistance.

But the circuitous route, almost ignoring the original problem, can bring up resistance too. For instance, I might know that doing seemingly unrelated X is the best way to help with problem Y. X might seem counter intuitive to your brain and it will start wondering why you are doing it, but remember, I'm teaching your body, not your mind.

I know that if you keep at it, your body will find a use for X without you thinking about it.  It's like an after market part that bolts right into the system and improves the running profile. The body is smart. It learns stuff and stashes it away. Then it reappears all over the place as the connections in the brain rewire, and if I'm right, suddenly your gap that needs fixing, will start to go away.

But you have to put the work in. And that's the hard part. Do you trust that this material really is good, even though it seems unrelated? Do you try it? How long for? Does the teacher know something you don't? Or do you know more than them? Are they selling you snake oil? Or might it actually be gold?

Everyone has to take responsibility for their own decisions. The way I do it is to ask myself if I want what they have, and by 'have', I mean how they move? If I can't do what they do, I want to learn how.

That's all. I'm happy to follow instruction until I find a dead end.

I will add one thing more.

Sonny asked me a long time ago if I was a 'good student' or a 'bad student'? What he meant I think was if I was capable of putting the work in, but also of thinking critically about everything that he taught me to do. He wanted us all to test the ideas. Are you better? Did it help?

Do the work, but obviously be careful who you follow down the back alleys. They are often the fastest route even though you can't see where they are going, but still, you need a guide who knows where they are going.