Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Student Handbook?

I remember hearing a story on the radio about how they have started teaching children at low performing schools how to behave in class, what is expected of them, what is appropriate, how to ask questions, when to talk, explaining about what school is, and making them pledge to abide by the rules.

I don't remember ever having been told any of this stuff back when I was at school, it was just assumed that you knew. But I know that certain stuff that seems absolutely obvious might not be if you have never had to contemplate it.
A while back, a teacher friend of mine taught 10/11 year olds in an under-funded school (they did not have enough paper or chairs to go around) in a low income neighborhood. There were many kids in her class that had no idea about punctuality, and though she originally dismissing it as just disrespectful, she came to realize that the kids that were perennially late lived on streets and in families where pretty much everyone was unemployed. She realized that none of these kids understood about 'being on time', why it would be important, or even necessary, because they'd rarely, if ever, seen anyone else have to do so.

It seems that there has been various discussions going on recently regarding the teacher's role in martial arts, alongside what is expected of a student.
Training environments have evolved, at least in certain areas ... moving away from the 'teacher as supreme being' model, a.k.a 'do as I say and shut up', to taking more responsibility for oneself, asking questions and class becoming more interactive.
This is a great step I feel, but one not without it's own difficulties.

I personally thrived most when given independence, and this started with my Eskrima teacher, who's style was to give every student as much rope as they needed to hang themselves if they decided to! He had a small eraser board leaned on a shelf that outlined the behavior he was looking for if anyone cared to look, so really there was no excuse to 'fail'.
Even if a student screwed up, he was patient to an extent, but if the behavior carried on, he asked them to train elsewhere for a while. Interestingly enough, the student asked to leave would often have no idea as to what they had done, and it would take other students to explain later what had gone on.
(I have heard that other South East Asian arts have a similar concept, one that does not explain explicitly about manners and behavior, and this is used as a filter to screen out unsuitable students - those that behave themselves appropriately get to stay, those that screw up get asked to leave.)

This overtly free approach makes sense to me, and though it tends to be a great way to find out about the character of a student, it can be hard from the teaching side. The attrition rate is high ... which may be as it should be when connected to play with edged weapons .... and it can be quite irritating ..... but could that be improved?

It got me thinking .... If I was to write a handbook for those not given the tools as kids to 'play well with others' and how to not piss off the teacher, alongside a few signs about when it's time to exit stage left .... what would I put in it ...?

A few thoughts to start things off -

Chapter one would be on general manners:

- When you go to an Eskrimador's house, DO NOT TOUCH THE WEAPONS. In fact, don't even ask to, not for a few visits at least. Admire, but keep your hands to yourself.

- If a sheathed weapon gets handed to you to touch, ASK if it's OK before drawing it. Don't touch the blade, and if you do, wipe it off.

- If you get permission to draw a live weapon in company, don't wave it around in a hazardous manner. Do not cut yourself with it.

- Don't ask your teacher if he has killed anybody. 

- Be on time, in fact, be early.

- Pay attention. Listen.

- Don't talk when your teacher is talking.

- Do what you are told. If you don't understand, attempt to do what you think is correct and ask if it is.

- Do not expect to be fed information without showing what you can do.

- Don't argue with your teacher. Ask questions and be curious, but be respectful.

- Don't believe everything that you hear, but keep an open mind and reserve judgement until you know enough to make an educated evaluation. (Note: 'Educated evaluation' can mean 'Gut Feeling' also. Trust your gut)

- Don't just stand there waiting for something to happen.

- Do not assume your teacher is your friend. They are your teacher, it is not the same thing.

- Do not fawn or flatter to gain favor, words are cheap. It is easy to tell authentic behavior from that which has no substance.

- Think. Engage in your training. Try.

- If you do not know how to behave, or are unsure as to the etiquette of a situation, watch those that seem to be doing well, and are familiar with the environment. Copy them.


Then there would be another chapter about partner practice with some particular advice for women:

- Work with everybody in the class at least once.

- Have the attitude that you can learn something from everyone, and that your partner is there to help you to learn, not to look good. Note - people have a tendency to pick partners that will make them look good in front of the teacher. This is especially true with guys. As a woman, please note, that they may not want to work with you because there is a deep unconscious understanding that there is no status to be gained from it. Also note that this is often not a gender based issue - big guys look for big guys and ignore small guys just like they ignore you. It is your job to corner them into working with you. It is good for both parties.

- There is no need to impress your partner - who the hell cares if they think you have skills. Don't cheat or sucker punch your partner. Don't lose your temper and hurt someone just to prove a point. If you are a woman, you don't need to prove yourself by hitting harder than your partner.

- Know that some people are just too difficult to learn from, but do not discount those that are tricky, big, or unorthodox. However, do not work with people that have no control or when your safety is at risk.

- If your partner is a dick, ask the teacher how to handle a situation where what you are doing is not working. If your teacher is good .... they will have a solution for you. If your teacher is not good, they may not. (This is a good moment to assess your teacher and their relevance to your training.)

- Communicate with your partner. Part of martial arts is psychology, and partner practice is your place to start practicing making your partner work with you in a way that is constructive. This may involve asking if the level you are working at is cool. This may also involve you flattering them, making them feel comfortable, putting them in their place, asserting authority, or whatever you need to do. Some stuff you do and say may work, some stuff will not, but it is all useful feedback.

- Understand that it is a common human failing to escalate. This can apply to speed and force. It is especially true if egos become involved and one partner feels as though they are 'losing'. You can control this using words, taking a break or slowing things down. But again ... if your partner has no control, or your safety is at risk, stop.

- Try to do what your teacher is telling you to do as well as you can. If it's boring, add accuracy, timing, speed, power, movement or whatever, so you can explore, but ask your partner first if it's OK with them. Do not surprise them, unless that's part of the game, otherwise, you are a dick.

- It's OK to suck. If you could already do everything you would not need to be learning it.

- It's OK to fail.

- No one cares what you look like, only you. Get over it.


Lastly, probably something about the teacher student relationship:

- When you start something new, you have no reference from which to judge whether a teacher is good or not, so it is worth setting a period of time to finding out. You can be respectful and keep your skepticism at the same time, be polite, yet watchful.

- Notice the group dynamic and the injuries present when you join a new school. I would personally avoid a school full of injured students.

- Notice who gets attention, and what kind of attention. Especially notice how skilled the senior students are. Also notice their attitudes, how they treat the teacher, each other, and how they treat you. If they are obnoxious and treat you like an idiot, especially if they hurt you. Leave.

- Above all else, think of your teacher as an honorable enemy. Enemies can be highly skilled and as their student, you are in the enviable position of being able to steal their skills. However, do not mistake them for your friend, or that you will gain any skills by being 'liked'. You will also get no skills by having your picture taken, or by standing next to, skilled people.

- If the information you are getting seems small in comparison to the time spent watching the teacher look good, or other wasted time, leave.


Anyone else want to add ...?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Flow vs Random Flow

Discussing with folks recently about 'Flow Training'.
Many people have stuff they call flow training in their system, and I guess the general understanding of it is - any partner practice drill that moves smoothly between the players.

When I talk about flow training, however, I am thinking of something different, and it is all to do with the implication that the word 'Random' adds to the game.
Random implies that I do not know what is going to happen next, in fact neither party should be sure of what is going to happen next, even if a certain reaction is expected.
That is what makes it valuable, and not the same thing as merely moving in concert with another human being.

And this is also where the subtlety lies .... you are moving with them, because everything you do should be because of who is in front of you, how they move and what you are working on. It can be about accuracy, timing, range, openings, blade manipulation, whatever you like, but the part that makes it important, is that you are there to notice what people will do next ..... not know what people will do next.

Random flow does not need to be totally random like free sparring, or even broadly random, it can be limited with the addition of whatever parameters you choose, but even if the ONLY randomness is not knowing if the next strike will come left or right, if your opponent will react to your fake, or when the cut will come .... it is enough to change the experience, and what you learn from it.

It's uncertainty which is key, this is where the learning is. You can only learn how to 'see' if you learn to watch ... and there's no need to pay attention if it's everything is already known.

Friday, January 18, 2013

80 %

The following link to a TED talk contains a fascinating concept regarding what the brain is for, and how it is linked to movement. It perhaps explains why training in uncertainty, like Random Flow, is so powerful.
Flow training, or other training that is random and unpredictable, gives a wide range of input to add to our memory bank, so that new stimulus inputs can be guaged more efficiently.
Of course this does mean that getting RELEVANT and CONTEXTUAL input during the flow is important, and why true flow training is a skill set that becomes pointless if it strays too far from reality or gives no useful feedback.

Interesting observations about escalation also ....

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Same Same, Part 3: The Retraction

To reiterate, edged weapons, like swords, have ...... edges, and they also have points. These features drive how they are used, as does the context in which the weapon was made and the opposition it was designed to be used against.

The time taken on a committed line of attack is dangerous, whether you succeed or whether you miss, because the sword is busy cutting, and not able to protect you. You must rely on footwork, body angle and timing to stay safe.

Pulling the blade, retracting it, or recycling the cut to something else, is a very important part of the game.

Getting stuck through inaccurate targeting or technique is bad, as is getting trapped or disarmed.

Committing without a plan for a fail is bad.

Throwing strikes that will not connect is often a dangerous waste of time and energy  (unless you baiting).

One can hack and chop, stab or slice, but it is important to combine the entry with thoughts of the exit - Slices and power swings need to be recycled, pokes may need to contain twists to enables the blade to be pulled out easier. Some systems have weapon forms that include kicks, some of these are for push kicking away the opponent to extract the sword.
Whichever way you do it, getting the blade back into play after a hit - to make the next strike, to move to the next assailant, or to defend yourself - is key.

It should be noted that many people like to follow a retraction back towards their opponent to create safe passage for an attack of their own. .... Which means, of course, that a retraction can work as a bait also .... to pull your opponent closer .... if you know how to play it.

So the question becomes .... If the retraction is a key part of the cut, if the retraction itself can be used as a bait, and an insert should only attempted if there is safety .... where does defense end and offense begin?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Same Same, Part 2: The Target

In this day and age of practice weapons we forget that one of the hazards of inaccurate sword technique is getting stuck during the cut ..... Anyone who has split wood with an axe can probably imagine the consequences of getting the axe head jammed had they been on a battlefield and the log had been an adversary holding a blade ..... and it had friends .....

So when you are using a sword, you must have to have an awareness of anatomy - where the bony bits are and where they are not, also of what your opponent would have been wearing in the context you are playing, and importantly what kind of sword you are using - Single or double handed? Strong or weak materials? How sharp? Thin or wide? Primarily for cutting or poking? Curved, straight or combo .....? 

Sword designs have all evolved from the type of fighting they were expected to do and the environment* they were used in - town, open field, jungle, cold climate, hot climate, at sea, etc.
The environment dictated clothing and movement too ... and clothing and movement, and sword design dictated how to cut, and at what targets.

In the end, whatever the strike, and whatever the target, the blade must travel through it, or into it and back out again. Basically, the strike must have a possible exit in mind as it enters and the parameters of the sword will dictate what is possible.

For example, a thin, long, stabbing, blade can exit fairly easily along the same path as it went in, but the longer the blade and the further it goes in, the more this becomes the only option. Conversely, the shorter it is especially if it has sharp edges, the easier it is to pull out on a different line.
Power cutting blades must cut through the target using a single blade angle - change the blade angle in the target (twist, lift or drop), and the blade starts to bog down, and may have to be pried out. The wider and longer the blade, the more important this is.

None of this is an issue with short pokes, slashes and gouges, but is a very important piece of the puzzle for the play to bear any resemblance to it's origins.

Make sure your 'in' is sensible, accurate, and in context, and most importantly, that is has an 'out' ....The 'out' is really important and often forgotten.

* - Thanks to Mac for getting me to think on this.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Same Same, Part 1: The Joke

One of the jokes of physics is that every time you are using your sword to cut, slice or poke your opponent, it cannot protect you - at least not much of you, because it is doing something else - attacking a target.

Wherever your blade is not, you are open, and when you are in the midst of a cut, that means everywhere where the trajectory of the cut is not.

It turns out that one of the most dangerous time intervals in dueling is the time it takes to attack, and that means right from the moment your blade and/or arm become too busy attacking to defend. Your sword is doing one, single thing once committed, and thus has lost it's ability to adjust to changing circumstances.

Hopefully, during this interval, your opponent will be so worried about getting hit that they will not be attacking you, but if they are good, they will use body angle and footwork to evade, and not waste their weapon on such dreary things, instead, use it to take advantage of the opening you created, and try for a counter hit as soon as a target presents itself.
Even if they do use their weapon to block or parry your attack, their riposte may be faster than your ability to retract, and until you have returned to a defensive line, you are open.
(The other thing that happens sometimes is that the weapon gets trapped by your opponent, but that branch of inquiry leads in another direction so I will pass over it for now.)

This leaves 2 main options to increase your safety during an attack -

1) Be sure the opponent has no way of countering - say, their blade is still in mid strike and cannot be redirected.
2) Attack them as they are attacking you, using evasive techniques of body and feet

Basically use the fact that they are committed to your own ends.

It should be noted, however, that either way, you must still be able to return to a defensive line as soon as possible, because there is an 'after' to every attack .... there is always an 'after'.

If you miss .... then in all probability they are going to attack, either during or after your attempt, and if you hit them .... they are not 'dead yet' and can counter at least once, either with precision or with any number of flailing strikes as they 'fall'.

Getting the hell out of range would certainly seem like a good idea for these moments, but you need to cover this escape or risk getting hit, and remember .... the closer you got to them to get your hit in .... the further you have to move to escape their reach.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Theory of Relativity

2 objects moving at the same speed in the same direction are, for all intents and purposes, standing still relative to each other.

It thus follows that if something is coming towards you, say a ball in flight, you can create more time to catch it accurately by moving in the same direction in which it is flying as you set up the catch.
Same with merging into traffic - get up to the same speed as the traffic and you have much more time to choose where to merge, and less adjustment you need to make to blend in.

Moving at the same speed as someone makes amazing things possible, especially if you also have the ability to modulate your own speed, in other words accelerate and decelerate so precisely that your changes in speed are close to imperceptible.

Other benefits -
- Our prey reflex is triggered by fast and jerky movements .. which is why predators move so smoothly and stealthily until they are in range to pounce. Move smoothly and you will be less visible, especially if you blend with your opponent's speed.
- Fast acceleration ans deceleration are more volatile to control, think catching a fast ball, or aiming to shoot.
- The smaller the differential, the more control is possible.

Friday, January 4, 2013


Cliches, truisms and other sayings resonate for a reason ... they have a basis in truth. Their downfall is that they only really make the sense they are meant to, once the truth and the reality are actually experienced, and the subtleties involved understood. Up until that point, the words can mean whatever we decide they do. Same for all written and spoken knowledge.

We can only see and understand out of our own eyes after all, and we all possess the human trait of trying to make sense out of the input that we get by comparing it to what we already believe ... hence the tendency we all have to see patterns and recognize points of reference, even when they do not exist.

Here are some famous sayings from Sun Tze's Art of War:

"To know your enemy, you must become your enemy"

"Opportunities multiply as they are seized"

"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win"

"Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across"

"All warfare is based on deception"

These all make sense to me in the context that I have experienced them, and they all seem to me to be very important keys to understanding tactics. But who knows, in the future my 'truth' could morph into something else, and I will look back and realize how limited it was before ....

We must be careful to not get too fixed in our understandings .....

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


The Japanese are particularly good at creating simple words that encompass big ideas - Ma-ai comes to mind, as does this fabulous one  - Kazushi.

It means 'To Disturb' - a fabulous martial tactic ... And can refer to a disturbance in mind, body or spirit (seeing as they are not truly separate).

From sword training, it is obvious that there are 2 key elements to being able to disturb - being seen ... and not being seen.
Both create a situation where the opponent is chasing something that you will deny to them - either their center of balance, contact with the sword or a perceived target, but 'being seen' and 'not being seen' each has a different feeling, and perhaps deserve separate attention.

 - Being seen means I physically manipulate or interact with you to cause a reaction - I take your balance, and you naturally try to regain it. Whether or not you try, I can make you fall.
Another way would be to yell at you and call you names - make you angry, or provoke you in some other way to make an error.

- Not being seen means not being where, or what, you think I am ..... reacting in an unpredictable manner, physically. mentally or emotionally. Being a 'ghost' or a threat in the darkness ....

Most people think of the first way ... but the second is also useful. It's weirder and more disconcerting, perhaps more difficult to learn and pull off, but certainly worth looking at.

I recently found out it is pronounced with the last 'i' silent, which makes it even more fun ........ KAZOOSH!