Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tactical not Technical

I was asked a question about how to transfer good footwork to sparring.

Most people have had the experience of learning stepping patterns in class, in solo forms, or as part of applications, but when things heat up ... It's all but lost. Start sparring, and all technique wooshes out of peoples brains as fast as you can say 'Monkey Dance'. 

But how to fix it?

The classic sparring scenario, which I have written about more than once, is two people facing off in protective gear. They might twirl their weapons, bounce up and down a bit, shuffle in and out on a line, get nervous - And then, one makes a break for it, entering with a quick strike, thus creating an opening which their opponent goes for, and both die either in a clash or on the retraction in a scrum.

There's plenty of examples of this dynamic on line, and as I only like posting good stuff from other people, I will leave you to find them for yourself.

Here however is a clip I do like, and for a very specific reason - It shows something important that needs to be noticed when considering the meaning of 'training for dueling'. And addresses what sparring should be more like.


This is what I see.

I know the guy in the suit is at the top of his system, and though I don't know the reasons for why these two guys are playing, I can tell that black-shirt guy is good too, but perhaps slightly lower skill level. There is of course the possibility that he does not want to embarrass suit guy by showing him up and winning, but let's assume that is not the case.

Suit guy is comfortable and confident, and though black-shirt guy obviously knows the style quite well, and is trying all kinds of stuff, he is not getting many hits (I think he tags an arm twice). Thing is, he's avoiding plenty too. There are very very few double deaths or examples of him entering recklessly to his doom. Each takes their time to assess openings and really spends time watching and looking for gaps.

Black-shirt guy tries to keep range and he plays as though he has an enormous respect for the lethality of the weapon in play. At this point suit guy changes things up by taking his jacket off to change the dynamic.

What I find interesting is that many people find this clip less satisfying than the clashing and the pokey stabby double death interactions you generally see. They say ... It's so slow. Nothing is happening. Boring. Why isn't there more attacking? It's not how it would be if it was real ....

So, sure, that's debatable, and obviously ... if you are outmatched and going to die anyway, then yes, take them with you. But what are you training for if all your test sparring is ending here?  We should not be training to die just to take someone out, and we should not be training to pick fights with the highly skilled.

You know what would have been a win here? Not picking the fight in the first place. That would have been the 'real' smart move. But not dying was smart too. Both were going to 'die' in this encounter, both knew it, and neither was willing to do so. That right there is what good training should give you.

But, but, but, you say, you should fight better people than you, to learn stuff. You have to put yourself in danger. Try things. Push yourself.

Yup you do.

And black shirt guy in this clip learned a bunch of stuff he can work on - He knows that his ability to create openings with suit guy is lacking, so he can work on ways to do that. He has to learn to move in different rhythms and with many qualities of movement. About being even more accurate about the edge of range .. and also that maybe he should wear a jacket too ...

Compare this to the double death brigade. Generally their whole game plan revolves around trusting to luck and speed, so what do they learn in comparison?

In all honesty? That they were not fast enough or lucky enough to win.

Add the weirdness of always sparring with apparent psychos with no concern for their own mortality, and the whole point of the training is ... what? Psychos may be 'real' in a self defense scenario, but in my experience, people that handle knives, and who face them, tend to be far more leery about getting cut than most students of the bladed arts I see on youtube.

It may seem more exciting to don the mask and throw yourself into the fray. More intense feels more real, right? But if you think about what you are learning from the experience, perhaps the 'less satisfying', slower, more mannered, clip, is in fact a far more useful training tool for upping skills?

Maybe you should stop looking for technical solutions to fix your problem, perhaps thinking tactically is better?

It will also help your footwork :-)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ukes and Intel

You have to present the right question to understand what a good answer is.

The tennis coach feeds the student shots that they have to return. They vary the shots to train different aspects of the game, and as the student gets better, these problems, or 'questions' that need answering get chained together to become more and more complex and thus create the whole. Each of the questions requires different body mechanics, movement options, balance requirements, alongside power and accuracy. Full body/sense training, and very straightforward - get the ball back over the net in the marked area, and prevent your opponent from returning it.

This is how technique based martial arts training is meant to work too - I throw a #1 strike, or a right cross, or whatever, and you respond. The difference, however, is that in martial arts the answer is given to you ahead of time, and it's your training partner's job to throw out the right question for this particular answer.

Perhaps you can see the potential problem here?

If your training partner gets sucked into the Monkey Dance game, whether they want to dominate you, or feel uncomfortable doing anything other than submitting, the question is in danger of turning into the wrong one. And keep on answering silly questions with inappropriate answers, and what are you really learning in the end?

What most don't understand is that this is as a 'wrong question' problem, not just an asshole/ineptitude problem. So you either try to force techniques or speed up to make them work. Or conversely do something totally half-assed and have your partner cave anyways. Basically you do something that teaches you nothing about the thing you are meant to be learning, just puts you smack into the middle of a fantasy monkey dance.

So how do you create the RIGHT questions?

Uke training.

People think it's easy to be the uke (the 'bad guy'), also known as the 'loser'. But losing by it's very nature is hard to do, especially when your have to calibrate the ease with which you lose to the skill level of your partner.

It demands an understanding of what is happening, what off balance means, what the strong and weak lines of structure are, timing, time, natural reactions to threat, range, targeting, and I'll say it again because it's so important - time.

I've started a conversation with some folks in other arts about coming up with a set of 'warm up' partner exercises to practice learning these things. How to calibrate to your partner. How to be appropriately difficult, yet not too difficult to move. How to listen to your partner. How to communicate with them.

Many grappling/throwing arts have these already, though some have been lost over the years ... but how about weapon and striking arts? How do you teach people who don't understand what they are really doing to throw out appropriate questions?

I think there's a way, and that way is to start learning how to listen, observe, and notice.

I think of it as 'gaining intel'. When you gain intel you let the other person speak ... in fact you let them ramble on to their heart's content. Your job is to stay present, connected, and throw out enough questions and interest to keep them talking whilst keeping yourself safe.

That's really what a good training partner does. And in the end, being able to gain intel is awesome for fighting too. I'm betting that 'asking questions' will up your skills faster than just learning to 'answer' them all the time ... And the beauty of thinking of it this way is that it should keep you out of your monkey brain, and that right there would be a massive leap in the right direction.

What do you think? Possible? Ideas?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Non Binary

I lost another teacher a couple days ago. He will be mourned and missed in the same way that Sonny was and is.

These two guys were very different from each other in character and life experience, but what they did share was a certain fearlessness alongside a willingness to risk loss and failure to learn to understand the universe in which we live.

They both seemed happiest discovering new things, being surprised, and most of all being able to pass on that wonder to the next generation. They also both hated hero worship or being put on a pedestal by their students.

There really is only relationship that defines us as human beings, between each other, and with that which surrounds us. Students may be less far along the path, but the teacher does not sit above. They are not there to merely 'feed' the student, the student brings food too, for both to eat.

The circle of giving and taking goes both ways - We 'do' because we understand. We understand because we 'do'. And 'doing' takes many forms. It makes mistakes, it misjudges, it can be crazy lucky, and very occasionally it can be true and good and perfect.

I have written before about Sonny, about his darkness, his temper, his mistrust. About how I believe it is because of these elements of his personality that are considered 'negatives' by many, that he was the truly remarkable man that he was. How these struggles made him more insightful, about people, and about himself. Not in an angst-y adolescent way, or with any great fanfare of overcoming trial and tribulation to a final happy ending, but as an adult. Accepting one's limitations and the consequences of one's choices is the best way to truly have compassion for others.

Liu Ming was far from perfect. He had within him a power and temper that belied his humble and cultured nature. He was indeed generous, funny, kind, and giving, alongside being considered what I would call 'enlightened' (you can tell people that are because of the mirth they radiate). He was precise, an aesthete, and learned in the arts and wisdom sciences of ancient history. He was also willing to voice his anger, piss people off, put himself in danger, get thrown out of school, and even get officially cursed (at least that's how the story goes).

So make no mistake, the earth from which the 'good' qualities grew had some dark depths. The pendulum does not only swing one way, and neither should it do so.

I hope all the hagiographers out there are taking note.