Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tool Wrangler

I was partnered with a guy at the gym the other day who was having a hell of a time working out how to hit a tire with a sledgehammer. He had no point of reference as to how to even start, and obviously no previous experience with tools or how to wield heavy objects without getting himself in trouble.

I tried to give him a visual mirror to copy, breaking down the move, but the 45 second time interval was too short and he couldn't get the hang of it, so the coach took him aside to practice by himself.

Now I understand how hard it is to learn a new physical skill, it's taken me quite a bit of practice as an adult to be able to throw a ball well (yes, I throw like a girl. OK threw like a girl, through lack of experience doing it as a kid), but there's another problem, some of the folks at the gym who can do the movement pretty accurately (and by that I mean that their body mechanics are good and they are not hurting themselves) would be useless on a construction site because they are purely doing the move, not using the tool for what it's FOR - i.e breaking things.

Their motion is contained, gentle, and balanced, in the same way that you see most Tai Ji practitioners do the strikes and kicks in their form, no force potential whatsoever, and what I mean by that is that if they actually made hard contact with something, it would be them that would fall over, with no effect on the thing they struck.

So I propose that a great addition to a martial arts curriculum or to a 'functional' gym workout would be to do some demolition. Not mindless thrashing, but the way the construction industry does it when they want to take out certain elements of a structure, save some of what they take out, and leave other parts intact.

Demolition with hand tools would be a wonderful way to learn the about the mechanical advantage of levers, heavy weights and gravity, alongside accuracy, physiology, efficiency and safety.

You would also get to break things using your own power - which is enormously satisfying - and as an added bonus, the accuracy part and the safety part would demand intent, calibration to the task, and the ability to adjust and adapt in a dangerous environment.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Close But No Cigar

Had my friend T staying with me recently. He teaches in a different field than I do, but there are many cross overs in that his material includes physical skills, problem solving, controlling mental state, and using tools amongst other things.
Watching him teach, hanging out, talking, made me realize how much we take for granted, and by that I mean that we assume that we 'know' certain things when really we know only an approximation.
This approximation is usually good enough for day to day life, but falls short when skills become important or crucial, especially to one's survival. So why not be accurate all the time? Why be content with the approximation as a standard? Is it lack of incentive?

For instance, I paint for a living and can cut very straight lines with a paint brush without the use of tape. This requires knowing how much paint to hold in the tips of the brush - not too much, not too little - and how to place the brush on the surface without dripping or getting too close to the edge, it also requires a certain confidence and commitment that makes pulling the brush in a straight line in one pass possible - hesitate, twitch, or have your eyes wander off the line, and every uncertainty and correction will show.

Now most of the time there really is no need to be super accurate, if you get a little paint on the window glass you can clean it off, or fix a wavy line later with a bit of touch up, but there are certain times, where there is no margin for error, and you only have one chance at it. Perhaps you are painting up to some precious surface you cannot get any paint on, and now it really really matters whether or not you can make an accurate, straight line. You have one chance and a mistake may be too expensive an option to contemplate.

If you don't practice a high level of accuracy often, this added stress makes it twice as hard because now not only are you less practiced, you also know it, which adds to the possibility that you will screw up through hesitation or lack of smooth control by being too tense.

So I always cut straight lines, as smooth and as accurately as possible. I practice when it does not matter, when there is no performance anxiety, each and every time, and try to ingrain the mental focus, the relaxed state, the hand eye coordination needed to do the thing I need to do. Then when it really does matter .... I can access the focus and the state as familiar, without wigging out on the fact that this time it's 'for real' and now the stakes are much higher.

It's amazing how your mind effects your movement, especially the fine motor skills, (not exactly news to fencers or gun folks), but I wonder if every time you did anything - catching, throwing, aiming, cutting, parking - you did them as precisely, smoothly, and accurately as possible, whether the efficiency would cross over to all motor skills, and make doing things that required accuracy under stress that much easier?

It's the state you have to access, the process, what it feels like to do do the thing right that seems to be the key. If you can do that, doing the thing itself becomes easy, regardless of external or internal interference.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


Those who train but do so with the goal purely of validation tend not to appreciate the gift of losing ...
I mean no-one really likes losing, but some people see losing as a learning opportunity, as an incentive to improve, but the validators rationalize around it to avoid having to make any change whatsoever.

These people seem to fall into 4 types:

- Those that avoid losing by simply not playing.
- Those that never get past the 'But I got you too so it's OK' theory.
- The 'I'd take that shot' folks, and the
- 'I'm only taking hits because I wasn't really trying anyway so it doesn't count' folks.

Now maybe it is OK to take that shot because 'I got you too' ... or that 'taking that shot' was 'worth it', but if the goal of training is to improve skills, these are dead ends and imply there is no higher level to rise to.

Training is not about winning, training is about upping skills, and being content with getting 'maimed' or 'killed' as the price of that win implies a lack of imagination about how to get better.

It's so, so, common when we start to lose to get trapped in a looping behavior, trying the same thing over and over again, usually harder and faster, thinking that the flaw is fixable with power and speed. And the real kicker is that sometimes it will work, and all the times that you lost will be forgotten, like a gambler putting money in a slot machine all night and only remembering that $5 win.

Just adding power and speed to your same old pattern rarely helps, which you will know for sure if you keep losing .... But the alternatives are highly counter intuitive, risky, and demand a level of focus and accuracy that most are not willing to learn. They can also require moving outside your own identity and comfort zone ..... and hence I guess the resistance ...?

But a way does exist, and if the stakes are high enough (and surely not losing to someone with a sword qualifies?) these higher risk options are better than no options at all.

Losing just indicates that it's time to go find them, but you gotta accept that it is happening to have any chance at all of fixing anything. Don't be happy with mediocrity - winning occasionally, or even more than half of the time means there is still room for improvement.

If you are losing, you are playing at your limit. Change or die.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Time Spent

You have to put the time in to really 'own' skills, but as many have pointed out, you can practice the wrong thing, or the right thing with no 'feeling' for years, and still have nothing.

Don't practice at all ... and you probably have nothing too ..... well, you probably have some stuff - can't turn your nose up at instinct ... but all the efficiency, the affordances, the seeing, and the counter intuitive stuff, yeah, that needs time.

So, you put the time in, but how do you put the time in?

Like with all things it is a balance. A balance of relaxed 'no thought', mindful action, and critical thinking .... and above all else, the motivation to actually keep practicing.

They say a student takes 3 years to find a good teacher, but 10 years for a teacher to find a good student, and the longer I teach, the more I come to understand the old stories of the teacher turning the student away many times before accepting them, or giving them boring and ridiculous tasks to try to get rid of them until they really, really show willing .....

I am not advocating this approach you understand, but I do see why these stories came about. There is stuff you just cannot get 'like that', and even the swiftest, brightest, most physically adept students must still really put the time in to see the true potential of what they initially just get a glimpse of.

So .... does that mean that there really is only a certain small percentage of students actually cut out to 'really get it'? To actually stay engaged enough to practice and engage their brains over months and years ...?

To put in the time?

And what part does the teacher/coach play in all this? Hopefully the coach motivates and creates a program worth following, or is an example worth becoming ... And here you start to see the potential pitfalls - of creating a mythic or mystical path up the mountain, or a feeling that the student is not worthy to gain the secrets that lie ahead ... at least not just yet ......

The teacher gains huge amounts of power over the student which almost seems bound to becoming corrupt.

The alternative? Honesty, and leaving the motivation in the hands of the student? Should they alone be responsible for their own progress? Is the teacher's role to just give as freely and openly as possible, show the possibilities as well as they can, encourage and ...... And, what ....?

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Here is a video I've posted before of Jay, a fellow student of Sonny's practicing footwork on a hanging pendulum made from a piece of string and a tennis ball.
Jay has great 'Body English' or 'Expression' and much of it comes from his footwork.

There is nothing magical about 'footwork', we do it all the time, pretty much every time we are not sitting or lying down. We can wend our way through crowds, avoid sudden obstacles, reach out and push a door open, all in motion.

We step off curbs, round corners, and though we may not do so any more, we at least have a childhood memory of skipping and hopping, jumping and sneaking about, perhaps of sprinting, catching, running and throwing, hitting a ball with a racket, juking, spinning, and tackling.

And there are only a few basic elements that form the foundation for them all -

Finding Balance
Losing of balance
Catching balance
Weight shift

Sounds straightforward, but like the ability to throw a ball hard, there are many ways to be inefficient or just plain bad at it, so how to learn?

Well, you can break stuff down and create drills to teach different parts that then get recombined to create the final picture, but the problem with the drills is that you can start to take away the natural quality of the movement and replace it with a more wooden/rigid and tense alternative. So how do you practice drills so that they improve the quality of the movement not stilt it?

Feedback, that's the key, and in my mind, the best feedback is video.

If you can't feel what you are doing, or think you are doing one thing when actually doing something else, you will not benefit from a hundred repetitions of any drill, and in fact are probably ingraining more bad habits even deeper than before.

Watching video of yourself moving negates any delusions you might have, and really seeing the difference between what you are doing and what you THINK you are doing is invaluable.

The footwork section of the drills book I'm working on is all pretty basic stuff - 100% weight shift, balancing on one leg, moving the upper body in balance on one leg, pivoting, switching feet, sliding, stutter stepping, falling and catching, but it's fascinating to me that though most understand the words and think it's all very obvious, yet most cannot do any of it.

Video yourself and compare it to Jay's video, you'll see what I mean ... And yes, I sucked too, and could barely stand to watch myself for a long, long time, but it does get better. Might as well understand what needs fixing right?

Get the camera rolling .....

Monday, November 18, 2013

Keith Johnstone - Impro

Friend Scott Phillips studied with this guy, and brought up his work quite a while back as having many parallels with great martial arts training. It's taken me this long to post a few thoughts.

I have not read his book - 'Impro', though intend to. Here is part of an interview talking about his work and the book:

In the first 30 seconds of this interview you pretty much get the core of the method by which Sonny taught Eskrima -
Keith Johnstone says "Get rid of the fear"..... Sonny would say "Get rid of the freezing points"
"Make the right answers obvious" - This is what 'seeing' is.

"You have to fail" ..... There really is no learning without failing. Rote learning is not the same. You have to find the 'edges' of what you know to truly own it.

Don't be angry when you make a mistake, be happy .... Not Ha!Ha! happy, understand that mistakes may be gifts, so learn to surf them and use them to your advantage. Do not deny them.

"Learning to accept ideas is not good enough" .... Learn what your partner wants and give it to them. If it seems a little bit of a stretch to give your dueling opponent what they want .... think of giving them 'enough rope' instead ... But the key here is communication, not just playing by yourself.

Take risks ... "It's the goals you don't get that make it worthwhile ..." This is what training is for - it's a place to experiment, try, fail .... and gain skills.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


All the small things matter, for though they may be inconsequential when taken individually, together they can create big effects.

The most obvious one is power generation - If I can get all the elements that create power - gravity, turning and twisting and whipping to work as one, then I can generate more power than if I just control one of them.

Other less obvious chains include the same power generators, but this time used to accelerate evasive movements, or changing the start angle of the blade edge to change the arc of the cut (basically connecting the blade to the twisting capability of the arm .. and torso ... and leg ... and step).

The so called Internal Arts talk about the 'chain of pearls' and 'if one part moves all parts move' to describe this concept, and the big thing to note is that it's the connections between the increments that create the chain, not just the pieces themselves ... and a chain is only as strong as the weakest link.

Connecting pieces efficiently involves relaxing, because it's the previous increment that pulls or pushes the next piece into action, and timing the connections so they all work in concert is what makes the chain possible.

The timing is related to physiology and distance ... all colliding at the point of impact, or out of the line of fire in direct relationship to the arc of the target to hit, or the incoming threat to evade.

Add a fake or a bait to the chain of motion and there will be at least 2 possible chains that need to be accessible - the direct line, or with a bounce/cusp, a curve or a slingshot used as the change in direction.

Again. Relaxation is the key to preserving or amplifying the power/torque, and timing is the key to achieving precision at the point of (no) contact.

For practice, it's worth remembering that it's much easier to make big and long into small and short than the other way around.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Been slacking on the blog recently. My creative allotment has been twirling trying to get this book that's still partly lodged in my head, down onto paper.
Showing how deception works is hard enough .... talking about it is easier, but probably not to the point of actually conveying all that is necessary ... and writing - no body language, no gestures, no questions to answer ... Sheesh!
The sounds of my own voice reading different versions of the same thing is making me crazy. How do I know which version is best? They all makes sense to me :-)
Some days it seems simple, clear, short ... barely anything worth talking about ... On others there is SO much to explain it's hard to know where to start, which parts are most important and what goes before what .....
This would be much easier as a conversation.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Teaching vs Fighting

Many fighters do not make good teachers … and vice versa. Some can do neither.

Sonny was, in my opinion, someone that could do both, and not only that, considered them the same thing in a sense - Making a stranger do what you want them to do - Physically, emotionally, and mentally.

His famous line : 'If I know what you are going to do next I can beat you,' plays right into this - Remembering that one does not need to wait to find out what they are going to do, just make them an offer they can't refuse.

In a fighting context, it's a case of manipulating circumstances to one's benefit, making the opponent predictable and in the dark about one's true motivations.

In a teaching context, it's a case of manipulating the circumstances to lead the student to making the correct choices at each challenge.

The process is the same - The motivation and outcome are different: Fighting, the opponent needs to lose; Teaching, the student needs to learn how not to lose …. by understanding what losing looks and feels like

Fighting, you do not advertise the impending loss; Teaching, you show them what it looks like, and have them avoid it.

The only difference is the coaching you give to the student, so they can learn to see what they need to avoid …..  At first you have to make the experience of impending loss visible, and this will have to be done bigger  - longer strikes, bigger angles, more telegraphing. Later, it becomes as subtle as it needs to be to replicate an opponent trying not to be seen.

What makes this good practice for the teacher is that to improve the student's fighting skill, one gets to know what the student can see and what they cannot comprehend, and learning this will facilitate the teacher's ability to work inside, or outside, visible parameters …. whatever is necessary at the time.

This ability to read an opponent, and calibrate one's actions to fit the situation is a hugely important skill set. The reason why, is that you need to be able to work both sides of the 'event horizon'. Most people understand the necessity to be able to act without telegraphing intent - This is hard enough to perfect, yet many perhaps many do not understand the equally important skill of setting an opponent up. This skill REQUIRES that one is seen, and is vital to the ability to fake and bait.

If you do not know what your opponent can and cannot see, this line is arbitrary and subject to error. This is a big problem.

In hand to hand arts, the visual signals are replaced by the tactile, and the sells, the tells, the fakes and the baits, are all communicated through touch. Striking arts use visual clues, Bagua has a host of tactical stratagems used before contact, boxing does it too. It is most important in the weapon arts however, where tactile clues have their value, but where the most dangerous distance to close through is (at least partly) in visual range.

If one can lead a student to start understanding what is going on, how they are undefended, why they get hit etc, one can also learn how to make others a.k.a opponents 'do things' without words.

As a simple example, I say to myself - 'I will make my training partner block high right', and I see what it takes to make them do this. For them to succeed in the block (and remember I want them to see the strike and be able to block it) I need to express a strike to the right side of their head in an arc, and at a speed that they are certain that this is the problem they need to solve. I strike too fast and they cannot block. I sell a weak strike angle, and they cannot see it and so ignore it ….. From this I learn to understand what they can see, and what they cannot, i.e. which action results in which reaction. If they counter attack by striking to my arm I learn that the timing was not correct and that the target was not open, and thus pointless to aim for.

I don't know what will work, so I need to experiment, and Random Flow Training is the format in which to work on this. I cannot keep throwing the same strike over and over …. then there is no natural reaction possible, just a preset one … so we must move, and engage, pendulum in and out, and I must throw the strike to get the react I am looking for, within this random interaction. When I have a good idea what will work, I mix it up in between other things and see if I can get it again.

As the student gets more wily, I will have to try harder and harder to get the reaction I am trying to create, therefore both of us are improving our skills.

This then means that over time, the teacher can train the student to see faster and less obvious strikes .. and once they have those down, one can start to fake them with more and more subtle movement that they have to deal with. The teacher, in turn, learn what they can see, how to fake them, and how to fake them better and better.

We both have a question to answer - Their question is - How do I block a strike coming in? My question is - What makes them see the angle that I am striking?

But this is the key - Name the thing you want to happen, and make it happen:

I want them to back up. I want them to cut to my sword hand. I want them to block low left. Whatever you want, but keep it simple. This is why sticking to even 4 basic strikes invokes such a wide field of play. Especially when the student gets better … certain things become harder and harder to get. This is the goal. Quite naturally this becomes closer and closer to a meaningful interaction bearing resemblance to one on one combat …. remembering that the student does not need to wait, or stay defensive ….. they can attack and evade, counter and press, as is their want. This more active role in itself then leads to the problems inbuilt into any movement, and the problems to solve can be thrown back at the student.

"If I know what they are going to do next I can beat them" ….. This is how you practice knowing. You MAKE things happen, and understand what you need to do to create that reaction in your opponent. I decide to create a reaction, then I do what needs to be done to have it come to pass.

It's a simple and elegant solution that engages all the aspects of sword play, the most important parts of which I consider to be not being seen, and being seen, and all the parts that go into achieving both.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Sword is an Extension of the Feet

The sword is the primary weapon of my system.

My teacher thought that the sword required the greatest accuracy and finesse to use, that the margins of error were the slimmest, and that the price of failure the greatest. Hence to get the most efficient learning curve, it was taught first, not last as in many styles and systems.

His method was - Accuracy first, then power, then speed, believing that if you could learn to understand range to such a degree of accuracy that you could differentiate a graze from a hit you would be far ahead of the game when playing with impact weapons or empty hand. Same with identifying angles, and thus lines of threat and safety - much more immediately obvious with swords than any other weapon.
Lastly, he wanted us to understand the use of evasion in gaining superior position, and there is nothing like an edged weapon to give the incentive to move out of the way.

He was a small man, and skinny - not of the body type to be able to take damage, and this was honestly one of the reasons I wanted to train with him. He understood the importance of protecting himself from damage way more than perhaps some larger, heavier practitioners who are able to absorb more impact.

He had to be certain, accurate, and have a means of entering and exiting range safely, or risk taking potentially fight ending damage in the process, and unless he had the advantage of surprise, the first hit was rarely the finisher because he did not like to commit all his power without having options if 'Plan A' was not enough to end the fight or give him the opportunity to get away.

His way was - Gain advantage/time, then drop them .... whether with edged weapon, impact weapon, or empty hand. To be clear, if he had the advantage of surprise, the first strike was often all that was needed, but the dueling paradigm assumes they see you coming ... or are coming for you ... and thus that you are behind the curve from the get go.

Once the accuracy was there, he worked on combining movement with torque and other methods of power acceleration .. so that the first hit would produce an advantage through either destroying the opponent's balance/structure or getting behind them, so that the NEXT strike would be possible, and that would be the one to finish or incapacitate to the extent that an exit was possible ..... Because as he always pointed out - it is easier to get in than to get out, easier to hit than to avoid being hit.

Gaining advantage could come in the form of shocks to the nervous system, perhaps hand hits with their potential to disarm, hits/kicks to the knees and feet to unbalance, perhaps showing flashes of movement in the peripheral vision to unsettle, other threatening moves/jukes etc, or even something subtler like a sleight of hand or some other way to steal range without the opponent noticing. All the time looking for the opening to 'take out the computer' .... that would be the head and brain stem.

But it was always movement that was the key. Movement gave you position. Movement gave you evasion. Movement gave you power. Movement gave you cuts. Movement gave you an exit.

They say the sword is an extension of the arm and thus of the whole body, but it is the feet that really give the opportunity for the sword to do it's work .... or the stick, or the cane, or the hands.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


"Accuracy first" Sonny would say .... "I don't care how big your gun or how powerful your bullet, if you can't hit me it means nothing".

Same could be said for opinions, critiques and commentary.

We all have opinions about subjects we care about, and some about things we find less engaging, but they are only opinions ... they are not 'true' or 'false' or 'the one and true way' .... they are just opinions.

I personally think it is important to have a point of view about things as it gives me a place to speak from. It also gives me a place to move away from if convinced to do so, because right alongside my opinion should lie the space where the opinion can change. This can happen from internalizing new information, or from a change of viewpoint created by time/age/circumstance/whatever.

Most importantly, this open mindedness should in no way dilute my opinion. I like to be clear and reasoned, and if there is no reason, admit that it is a gut feeling, or simply a personal preference with no more reason than 'I just like it', or 'I find it beautiful/compelling/fascinating' whatever.

Also, I want my opinions to be as precise as possible. I like to know exactly what I have problems with, and what I do not, what I like about something, and where that 'like' ends, because it is far easier to debate a point when both parties know which particular element forms the disagreement.

I say all this as a plea to those who throw out blanket statements, ill thought out critiques or avoid having opinions at all.

Most will be familiar with the lowest form of critique - the point and laugh approach, or the erroneous extrapolation from "If A is no good, then everything that sounds like A is also bunk".

However, almost as bad (though perhaps one step up from the screaming monkey mob) is 'Politically Correct Land' where everything is valued and praised, and though this may encourage, 'An open and positive environment of acceptance' .... really it is almost as useless as the cheap laugh in moving understanding forward.

Please, instead of choosing 'being nice' over 'being an ass', how about pointing out, PRECISELY, what you find worthy and what is bunk .... in your opinion .... You really are allowed to have one, like I am, and just for the record, you are also allowed to be wrong, ignorant and naive - all totally acceptable, just don't be malicious, bigoted or close minded - These are not.

And remember, my personal opinions come from my personal experience and my skillset, so they only have worth as far as that reaches ... they need not effect anyone else unless they resonate or annoy enough to open a new point of view to look out of.

And lastly, please have a sense of humor and let your opinions have enough thought behind them to be robust. I can give you reasons why I believe as I do and how far I've thought things through (or not) .... and if you care to listen, feel free to agree, or point out to me why you disagree with me ....

It's called a conversation, perhaps a debate or an argument. It's all good. Perhaps we'll both even learn something ...

Saturday, September 28, 2013


This post could be a part 2 to the previous post on coaching, injury and 'negative' experiences.

Lately I have become fascinated by the idea of the edges of things - the edges of truth, the edges of experience, the edges of actions.

It could be argued that many ideas are true, just that their truth is very very limited. What can be true once, for one person, at one time, may never be 'true' in a broader sense. What is true on a small scale, may not be true on a larger one ... Even the idea of a flat earth is 'true' on an experiential level for someone that never leaves their village .... So the idea I am playing with is how the edges of things can define truths, and that finding the edges, where things start to fall apart, is a far more useful endeavor than staying within their boundaries.

For instance in real life, near misses are fabulous learning opportunities because they are by their nature 'on the edge' of things. The lessons learned here are powerful and generally hold us in good stead throughout our lives.

I think the concept also transfers to teachable subjects like martial arts and even to the gym, and perhaps creates a faster path to competence than working in 'center field'.

Here's what I'm thinking, and I'm not done with thinking it all through yet, so apologies in advance if it is all a bit scattered ....

There is a 'best' way to do something - from flipping a tractor tire, to swinging a sledgehammer, to striking or parrying with a sword, to applying a joint lock - You + an object + a goal.

The reason to learn how to perform these actions is that you want a skill that is repeatable, and useful for you in the real world.

In other words (when done right) a skill that  -

1) Achieves the goal
2) Is efficient
3) Does the least amount of damage to you (so you can do it over and over again)

Once you have this part, this optimum solution, you can repeat and practice to your hearts content .... But there seems to be something missing, something much more compelling to explore, perhaps something much more useful than just repeating the correct form ....?

Though it's absolutely reasonable to practice something correctly, absolute perfection is rarely attainable, and even more rarely repeatable in real life.

More likely changing conditions will alter the outcome - Perhaps environmental conditions, personal health and capacity, or mental focus/distractedness, etc - So would it not also be worthwhile to spend some time practicing at the edges of things? To understand the point at which things go squirly, and if they do, how to best to deal with them?

After all, there is nothing more potentially chaotic than a fight, and all the perfection and precision achieved in training gets thrown into the blender when stuff starts flying back at you (What's that famous Mike Tyson quote? "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth").

So how about spending more time looking at when things start to fall apart? How to mitigate errors, save bad situations, turn bad into good, and default strategies to resort to when things go severely south?

That's where I personally need a coach. Of course to tell me how to do things right, but absolutely to give me ways to deal with things when they go wrong.

Even in a controlled environment like a gym where I can practice flipping my tractor tire or lifting my kettlebell, I still have a limit, an edge, to my ability, and a coach that can show me how to fail safely as well as show me how to succeed I reckon will have me progressing far faster than one who only focuses on performing the action for the proscribed amount of repetitions.

If I feel confident in what to do if I slip, get unbalanced, start to fail, and that I can avoid hitting myself on the head with a 35lb weight, or avoid a sledgehammer landing on my toe, or tweaking my back when I fail at a tire flip ... the less likely I am to 1) Injure myself, and 2) To be afraid of failing and finding the edges of my capabilities .... And thus how to expand them ...

And definitely in sword play - The moments when all is in your power, where chaos is contained and a smooth series of perfect moves is all that stands between you and victory are few and far between, and if as Sonny said "It's the one you don't see that hits you", then practicing playing at the edge between success and failure surely gives you far greater aptitude in recognizing how to save yourself, and thus is a faster path to functional competence than purely practicing winning.

It gives you control of so much more of the game if you are comfortable with the unexpected as well as the expected ... And in the end it's all about having the option to continue .... For the fight not to be lost, for the limit not to be reached .... yet ..... Right?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


The gym where I work out has been hiring new coaches and they've been trying out some prospective candidates to see who fits in. Obviously they have their own ideas about what kind of person they are looking for, but it's made me think about my personal preferences regarding coaches and teachers.

I've written many times before about Sonny, his diminutive size, and his physical 'unfitness', and also mentioned some of his stories regarding fights he got into in his younger days, and others that he was witness to.

Much of the advice that still resonates with me, regarding how to read people and prevail in an encounter, came from these stories, and more specifically from the stories about when things went wrong -

"If you see a finger on the ground, do not look at your hands. If you know it is yours you will freak out. Pretend it is your opponent's, much better that way."

Yeah .... Anyway, the point is it's the negative stuff that seems to stick better in the memory. Pain and loss can be great teachers, as in - Don't do that again!

But back to the gym.

If have realized that in general the enthusiastic 20 somethings do nothing for me, and the reason is not their perky exuberance, which can be somewhat grating before the sun is up, but their complete lack of any injury. Now, this may seem a little counter intuitive, but the logic is this - My favorite coach has had to deal with many injuries from well over a decade of playing competitive team sports. He KNOWS what screwing something up looks like. He can FEEL it when he watches someone else move. He understands HOW injuries happen, and remembers all the things he did wrong to 1) Get the Injury in the first place, and 2) What he had to do to have it heal properly .... or not ...

Experience, especially of the debilitating, less glorious, type is enormously helpful when teaching others how to avoid having it happen to them. Whether it's a body mechanics issue, over training, or understanding what it is like to be smaller and weaker than pretty much anyone you might have to cross swords/hands with, I'd vote for it every time.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Spaghetti Western Lesson

See the gift. Control the range. Control the timing. Control the OODA. Understand human nature.

And here's another clip with the same idea. Note the fact that he never repeats anything 3 times. For some reason 3 things repeated in the same rhythm is catchable .... 2 is not, and 3 of the same thing but with a break in timing also works .....

Thursday, September 12, 2013

'Words Cannot Cook Rice'

I don't speak Chinese and Laoshi speaks heavily accented English which is possible to understand when combined with gesticulations and alongside years of deciphering meaning from attending his seminars ... but still not 100% clear.

His body language is very expressive as are his facial expressions which really helps, yet still sometimes certain questions and ideas are hard to get across, and the answers often don't seem to directly match up with the question ... which is always disconcerting because one wonders ... Is this the real answer underneath what I was asking? Perhaps I am just being a little stupid in not getting it? Or is this the answer to a different question? How did he hear what I asked?

Of course, all he has to do is SHOW what he means, physically - "Not like this, like THIS!!" and the meaning, the point, the purpose, become much clearer.

One of the things Luo mentioned this year is that he has been writing a book about all the years of research that he has done into Martial Arts. This is very cool news and I look forward to reading what is sure to be a fascinating work. He said that one of his wishes is to demystify the classic terminology of the so called 'Internal Arts' into something more modern and pragmatic, alongside sharing his personal journey to discover what he knows and to become who he is.

I asked him how he had decided to convey these ideas - because truth be told, I do not think there are enough words in the universe to guarantee understanding ...... though I did not exactly say that.

His answer was this -

He said he wanted to translate his work into English, and he figured it would be no problem as he has many friends and students who speak both excellent English and Chinese AND train martial arts, yet he said he still found many errors of understanding despite his best efforts to be clear.
He said he believes these misunderstandings can only be fixed through sitting down, talking through, and physically demonstrating the concepts with the translator, in the same room, to get the actual meaning connected to the right words. That this is the only way to understand what THEY do not understand, and work until he knows they do.
Once he knows they understand, he knows the translation will be what he means, and not what they think he means. Using a different language means that errors in understanding are more obvious and show faster.

Humans have been preserving knowledge through writing and reading for a while now, though certainly not for as long as they have apprenticed, tagged along with their elders, and sat around camp fires listening and watching ... So how big an issue is this whole misunderstanding business (And I'm talking about physical arts here, not intellectual or philosophical arts)?

If words are so prone to misunderstanding why write anything down at all, especially in this day and age of video?

So far the best reason I can come up with is that writing and reading serve to inspire practice, and perhaps more importantly to provide a confirmation for results experienced by the student. They can really do no more - Inspire and Confirm. That's it. Oh, and expand the imagination, that's very important too.
Words go to the mind, not the body, so to have worth in the physical realm, they need to effect behavior, and perhaps this is why great books can be felt on a gut level and resonate for a long time.

Have to say though, the more I personally attempt to convey the concepts inside of me in words, the more the earlier methods seem far more reliable .....

Sunday, September 8, 2013

This is for You

There is an inordinate amount of video footage on Youtube demonstrating what to do when momentum and angle are put into a framework ....

This force vector comes ... I can do this, or this, or that or this. If they step in with their right I go here, if left, then here, here, here, etc etc etc.
All the smooth techniques come out, breaking down the opponent's structure and transitioning into the finishing moves ..... Lovely.

But how did this wonderful straight right, say, get thrown? ..... With you knowing it was coming .... In fact not only that but WHEN it was coming too?

It's like someone walking up to you and extending their hand with a gift in it, a flower perhaps, and you taking it. They even smiles as they walk up and present it. You saw them coming, you saw the flower, you saw the smile ... they owe you, you know what will happen next.

So where's the back story? Who is this person and why did they bring a flower and why did they decide to give to you?

Did you ask for it or did you make them hand it over? Did you hint that you loved flowers or was it just your birthday?

Those are the videos I want to see, along with the ones where they poke you in the eye with it, or they pretend to give it to you but don't, or when they merely use the flower as a distraction to pick your pocket.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

3 Teachers

I have studied with quite a few martial 'arts' teachers over the years, some for just a single seminar, others privately once or twice, and some in classes over time, but out of all of them, there are 3 whose ideas and methods have held my attention.

Each of the 3 who I consider to be my primary influences, grew up in completely different countries and cultures, came from varied socio-economic backgrounds, and followed pretty different career paths. They had different life experiences, moved in different circles (on both sides of the law), and learned their skills in different settings, through different methods, and though each practiced some kind of traditional martial arts, none of these arts are shared between them.

The arts each of them studied (and each studied more than one) do not overlap ..... at all .... at least in name or culture of origin, yet there is really nothing to separate these teachers in their understanding of strategy and tactics. The terminology might be different, but each found the layer below (above?) the material itself, in the principles and patterns behind the 'stuff', and each learned to see these principles as dynamic expressions of the human condition without the 'story' of the art clouding the picture.

This is really not that strange ..... After all, Martial Arts are about human beings (minds and bodies) their capabilities and their hang ups, but what is more remarkable is the effect that discovering these principles and these patterns has on the one who sees them. It's like the urge to codify and to gain certainties goes away and the urge to force particular answers into equations becomes unnecessary.

And these guys all got to this place and see the world from there, regardless of system or style, language, personality, body type, or technique.

I suspect the commonalities stem from a shared pragmatism, of wanting to understand, and experimenting until a logic was found.

All share a great understanding of human psychology, anatomy, and geometry, of the opportunities in every moment, and how to manipulate the game in their favor whatever cards end up on the table.

Whether they call these cards - gifts, set ups, or never running out of angle, whether they call a superior position - holding neutral, having a good situation, or the golden move . Whether they 'eat the whole chicken', 'take something home', 'fight emptiness', think 'human beings very funny', or that smiling is a great tactic .... it's all the same ......

But I guess a more interesting question than contemplating why these guys got here, is why so many do not?

Monday, September 2, 2013


This would totally set me off to find a fencing class if I did not already practice. Nicely done :-)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Again ....?

Luo DeXiu seminars start Friday. He comes to visit once a year and stays about a week or so. It's an intense time, tiring and fun.

I've been attending his seminars since 1997 .. or was it 1998 ...?
Anyway I asked one of my students whether they were going to attend anything this year.
... "Maybe the Push Hands"
"Ah, you came to that last year too right?"
"Oh, well, I guess I won't do that again then ....."

I have to say I was taken aback, and it actually took me a few hours to nail down why I thought it was so weird.

The best I came up with was accepting that there are people who 'collect' forms and techniques, and that perhaps some think that they have everything they need from one visit, and need not attend again ..... ?
Or ... Perhaps they see a seminar as a chance to GET stuff to take home, something akin to going shopping, or perhaps it's to get an experience, like watching a movie or riding a rollercoaster.....?

I realized that I think of seminars as something completely different - As the opportunity to play with new people, and be in the same room as a highly skilled teacher, do your thing in front of them, and get corrections. Of course there is stuff to 'take home' too, but it's the personal attention, the trouble shooting, the "is this OK?", "Do I understand this". "I can't make this work. Why"?.... that makes it valuable to me.

Of course this demands a teacher that actually gives corrections and wants you to understand ... but that's why I choose to train with the people that I do ....

So - First free piece of advice
- Do stuff in front of them, right in front of them ... most teachers cannot bear to see things done wrong so will be compelled to correct you.

Second free piece of advice
- Just because you paid money, don't just demand answers and wait to be spoon fed without putting anything into the system.

As Luo laoshi said one year -

"I spent a lifetime researching and practicing to understand as I do. Why should I just give it to you? Show me what you have and we can work from there".

Friday, August 23, 2013

Kasushi Sakuraba

I don't have TV of any sort, and have not done so for many years. Any fights I watch are all on the internet after the fact. Consequently my knowledge of who is who is pretty weak .... I have my favorites, but am no expert, and certainly not up with the times.

Just thought I'd post this clip a friend of a friend posted from a documentary on Kasushi Sakuraba. I thought it was great. I remember seeing rise of the Gracies in the early early UFCs, and how they took out so many fighters of different sizes and types. Here, Kasushi owns them.

His switch from backpeddling from an aggressive forward blast into a take down at the 2 min mark is awesome, as is his calm use of range and game to conserve energy against Royce Gracie, and his deft use of slight changes in curvature during a grapple to gain the advantages in the finishing locks.

Truly a fighter that can see the gaps and the gifts.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Hsing-ing some Yi

Luo De Xiu is coming to town again, August 30th through September 9th.

He's very good ... though of course I would say so as he is my teacher :-)

Looks like the menu for this year is heavy on the Hsing-Yi again. I'm guessing he really wants to pass that forward to keep it alive as part of the total Yizong School curriculum.

I'm definitely liking the Hsing-Yi .... can't say it surpasses the Bagua yet, but the subtlety of the shear angles and power lines is really quite interesting, and I've been experimenting with using the Pangamot (Eskrima hand work) pendulum flow as an entry system to try out the inserts and positionings ...

I will probably burn in TMA hell for mixing systems ... but the 'touching points' exercise (Hand, elbow, shoulder, hip, knee, foot, alongside the off line footwork which can be seen the vid in the previous post behind the sickle flow) works great as a way to understand the inserts in a dynamic partner interaction.

As an aside, last class, we worked an entry and throw from the 'Snake' form and had fun looking at the possible reversals, and points of no return ..... It's awesome to have a very high level Jiu Jutsu and Aikido practitioner in class to brainstorm with ....

Oh no .... more cross pollination ... I'm done for .....

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Play Date

An old time student of Sonny's was back in the country for a short stay, so we got together a flow night with some of the crew.

It's hard to just 'flow' with familiar people, especially if they have a high level game. After all we all learned our skills from the same teacher and spent quite some time flowing together, so can read each other pretty well. This means that when we play together we need to come up with new ways to pinpoint areas that need improvement, and so play at different flows with different weapons to bring these aspects out.

For instance, G and I played fighting from the draw, keeping the blade 'sheathed', and drawing and cutting from the hip in one motion only when an opening had been created, with no blocking, and only footwork and body angle to evade. We also played holding the sheath in the left hand and using it to block, but then drawing and cutting only using the right hand. Very fun, and brought out some interesting stuff.

Then J and I playing sickle.

The key attribute of sickle, or Sangot, is that you can't pull back/retract if you are hooked (the sharp edge is along the inside), so it is the king of disengagement and moving around, not out.
It's ability to change the cut angle by 90 degrees just by changing the grip is also an added hazard, as is it's ability to snake a climb up from arm to body or leg.
The flow involves the idea that you have to give to get, so putting yourself in danger, basically using your arm as bait, is a key part of the play. It's all about learning the importance of still points and exits - where they are and how to move to safety whilst maintaining or improving one's position.

Here's some of the flow itself:
Please note that this is a random flow drill, it is not sparring. From about halfway through the clip you can also see R and G behind us doing an empty hand flow 'touching points' - practicing accuracy on the insert, looking for advantage and finding exits.

All the ideas found in this training then get inserted into a more tactically 'smart' format (non compliant, more real speed) to see what could be useful and what makes no sense, and so on. The ideas can also be transferred to different weapons to see what happens, say, when curved blade ideas are used with a straight weapon.

The point is that none of us know the answers, so we experiment, and use the times when we lose, or fail, or get stuck/backed into a corner as inspiration ... Even in this flow, we get stuck, a few times we break, but the moments created problems that was worth looking at, so we took it from just before the point of impasse to see what options might exist and worked from there. Perhaps if we can feel the set up next time, because we have felt it before, we can avoid getting stuck in that particular corner again .... I hope so .... that would mean we'd learned something smart :-)

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Came across the following article which might explain why movement is so connected to our self image, and perhaps why it is so hard to move/dance differently from what feels 'natural' to us. 

I don't think there is any debate that our emotional state changes how we move ... at least for the vast majority of people - it's pretty obvious when someone is sad, angry, frightened or happy .... but if motion and emotion are connected, perhaps how we present ourselves to the outside world, as in our self image, is also connected to how we move? And perhaps why it's hard to 'act' in a way that is separate from what one thinks of as self.

Changing how we move - both rhythm and manner - is a great way to change the game in sword play, and a great way to avoid being predictable. And if, as the study suggests, music is deeply ingrained at that same emotional level where personal movement resides ... perhaps music is a also a way (along with mirroring others) to expand one's repertoire ..... ?

Here's some of the study:

Why Music Moves Us
Tia Ghose, LiveScience Staff Writer

'Universal emotions like anger, sadness and happiness are expressed nearly the same in both music and movement across cultures, according to new research.

The researchers found that when Dartmouth undergraduates and members of a remote Cambodian hill tribe were asked to use sliding bars to adjust traits such as the speed, pitch, or regularity of music, they used the same types of characteristics to express primal emotions. What's more, the same types of patterns were used to express the same emotions in animations of movement in both cultures.

"The kinds of dynamics you find in movement, you find also in music and they're used in the same way to provide the same kind of meaning," said study co-author Thalia Wheatley, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth University.

The findings suggest music's intense power may lie in the fact it is processed by ancient brain circuitry used to read emotion in our movement.

"The study suggests why music is so fundamental and engaging for us," said Jonathan Schooler, a professor of brain and psychological sciences at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who was not involved in the study. "It takes advantage of some very, very basic and, in some sense, primitive systems that understand how motion relates to emotion."

Universal emotions

Why people love music has been an enduring mystery. Scientists have found that animals like different music than humans and that brain regions stimulated by food, sex and love also light up when we listen to music. Musicians even read emotions better than nonmusicians.

Past studies showed that the same brain areas were activated when people read emotion in both music and movement. That made Wheatley wonder how the two were connected.

To find out, Wheatley and her colleagues asked 50 Dartmouth undergraduates to manipulate five slider bars to change characteristics of an animated bouncy ball to make it look happy, sad, angry, peaceful or scared.

"We just say 'Make Mr. Ball look angry or make Mr. Ball look happy,'" she told LiveScience. [See Videos of the Sad and Happy Bouncy Ball]

To create different emotions in "Mr. Ball," the students could use the slider bars to affect how often the ball bounced, how often it made big bounces, whether it went up or down more often and how smoothly it moved.

Another 50 students could use similar slider bars to adjust the pitch trajectory, tempo, consonance (repetition), musical jumps and jitteriness of music to capture those same emotions.

The students tended to put the slider bars in roughly the same positions whether they were creating angry music or angry moving balls.

To see if these trends held across cultures, Wheatley's team traveled to the remote highlands of Cambodia and asked about 85 members of the Kreung tribe to perform the same task. Kreung music sounds radically different from Western music, with gongs and an instrument called a mem that sounds a bit like an insect buzzing, Wheatley said. None of the tribes' people had any exposure to Western music or media, she added.

Interestingly, the Kreung tended to put the slider bars in roughly the same positions as Americans did to capture different emotions, and the position of the sliders was very similar for both music and emotions.

The findings suggest that music taps into the brain networks and regions that we use to understand emotion in people's movements. That may explain why music has such power to move us — it's activating deep-seated brain regions that are used to process emotion, Wheatley said.

"Emotion is the same thing no matter whether it's coming in through our eyes or ears," she said.'

The study is detailed today (Dec. 17) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Eyes Outside

Had the opportunity the other day to hang out with one of the coaches from the gym where I work out, who also happens to be an international basketball coach and player.
We got to talking about the use of video to teach rhythm and patterns of movement and he told me about his training arc. Apparently his coach also used video to train his students, and after a few years put together a montage of clips of him playing as his training progressed. He said his first games showed he was doing pretty much one move, over and over - it was a move that worked, but obviously showed limited repertoire. A bit later, he could see maybe 3 or 4 moves more, and by the last game in the series of video clips, he did not repeat a move once during a whole game.

He said a big part of him expanding his 'toolbox' came from watching himself as part of his training, and recognizing how repetitive he was .... This then gave him the incentive to learn to move differently.

Same with training with Sonny - I only saw how predictable I was from watching video of myself - and similarly, comparing videos from early on compared with my later training sessions, I can say I had the same arc of development - much more varied movement and rhythm later on.

All in all, a fascinating discussion, especially with someone so talented and observant of body mechanics (an interest which apparently started from having to deal with his own sports related injuries), and we parted with him asking me why I was limping! And I truthfully said I did not know I was.

Spent the rest of the day trying to catch myself doing so when I wasn't paying attention, and walking super evenly when I was ......

Sometimes it takes an external eye to see things you can't - whether it is a great coach or a video - but both are hugely valuable and highly recommended.

As an aside: Having played dodgeball against him, I can say that his faking skills are the best I've ever come across outside of high level sword play. His throwing accuracy and power coupled with his ability to always throw at targets he is NOT looking at is phenomenal. That was a valuable lesson from the receiving end ..... As a potential target, there really is nothing to be gained from standing still.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Thing before the Thing ... And Other Things

This was on NPR this evening. if you can't afford the 45 minutes, just listen to the first past about baseball hitters.

I've talked before about how important it is to understand the moments before something happens so you can anticipate what's going to happen next, in other words be ahead in the loop ..... This is why random flow training, or training in uncertainty, is better than technique based training where you only get to practice the thing that's actually happening,  but never get to see 'the moment before' that made the thing possible.

Other good stuff too about training and aptitude.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Letting Go

Playing double weapons is a tricky business, and a well played single weapon is better than 2 poorly played. This is because it is much easier to get trapped or tied up with 2 weapons - You have to pay attention to which is over and which is under when you strike, and which options are better and worse from each position (some responses are very difficult to do if the side that needs to react is blocked by the other weapon).

Also, it is far easier to injure yourself with 2 weapons than one, it is harder to keep track of 2 edges, and the pretzeling problem makes the possibility of cutting yourself much greater.

That said, 2 weapons wielded well are easily superior to one. However .... to be superior they need to work in concert ... not doing the same thing, but doing complimentary things - For instance one opening a line and the other striking in the same moment, one faking whilst the other cuts, or one recycling/blocking whilst the other strikes.

These different 'jobs' that occur at the same time, turn out to be difficult to pull off due to our in-built physiology which leads to a tendency to keep a grip with the dominant hand even when the non dominant is being used as the primary. When one gets excited, it turns out that relaxing the grip on only one hand is very hard to do, especially if one gets caught off guard in some way, or if the 'emotional content' ramps up.

Most commonly if this happens, both weapons start to do exactly the same, rigid, thing, or the non dominant hand becomes completely inactive, usually gripped close to the body, or held in a single position, whilst the other moves as though the second does not exist.

This is particularly a problem with 2 handed weapons like the staff or cane, where the hands need to switch, and move along the length of the weapon, shortening and lengthening range, utilizing both ends for hitting, switching the power vector from down to up, inserting pokes between the strikes etc.

I know I learned to paint with my left hand by engaging the right hand in the same movement as the left, which seemed to make it easier as now the non dominant was following the dominant ... but I never thought about the reverse - NOT doing the same thing but learning how to do different things with both hand at the same time. 

Consciously alternating relaxing the hands, keeping both in my mind at the same time, was one of the most challenging parts of 2 handed weapons practice, and is still hard to maintain when things get exciting. 

Here is an article about unintended discharges from firearms which is related.

PS: I would add that in single handed sword use, the 'live' hand, or hand not holding the weapon, has a tendency to suffer from inaction, so double weapon is the place to learn how to resurrect the live hand and it's tendency to forget it has a life of it's own.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

12 Tones

Music, math, randomness, humanness and the corralling of the infinite

It's a bit of an undertaking to watch through ... well, not really, but for those with limited attention spans, at least check out minutes 8, 15, and 17.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Nodes and Arcs

There are these things called Affordances ...

Affordances are relational, a connection between you and the object you are interacting with - the more you see of them, the more ways you have to interact with it.

In the case of single combat with blades, there is a purpose to the interaction - prevailing against your opponent - so the affordances in this case relate to achieving that end. And the object that you are interacting with is your opponent ... and the weapon they are wielding.

There are many different ways of reaching the goal (i.e. stopping the opponent), a little like paths through the forest. Each has a start point that connects to the next, and so to the goal.

The more paths you see and the more affordances you can grasp, the more ways there are through the forest.

Each path demands certain skills, many overlap, yet each path is slightly different, and along that path, the possible branches depend on your ability to see them.

One path may be - Cut weapon hand, opponent drops weapon, finish.

Another - Threaten opponent's head, bridge created through weapon contact, close, shunt opponent away, cut to finish as they fall back.

Perhaps another - Feign an opening to cause the opponent to rush in, step off line, drop weapon and cut under opponent's strike whilst stepping past and away.

So many ways, so many potential solutions .... and so many moments where the situation can change.

If each moment contains an affordance, each part needs practice both to see it, and to be able to do something useful with it, whether it succeeds or not.

For instance, hand targeting requires accuracy and speed, and the follow up requires the ability to recycle efficiently, bringing the weapon up on target as fast as possible. It also requires a knowledge of range and evasion.

However, should circumstances shift during the hand strike, one might fail to hit the hand, and perhaps connect with the weapon instead. This gives a bridge, and thus the possibility of the shunt back and cut ..... Or if the opponent retracts the hand, now perhaps one can close using only the live hand to control the opponents weapon, and you can just cut on the run by ....

Start from another place and more affordances occur, but appear and connect to each other in different ways. Each part needs skills, and the ability to change paths in mid stride if something does not go as planned.

If the path begins by drawing the opponent to block and creating a bridge, it require the ability to express a strike, in other words to make it look as threatening as possible to elicit a reaction. It also requires good weight shift and footwork to drop into the bridge directly behind the block, and the follow up requires a knowledge of anatomy and structurally strong and weak lines, and the ability to cut a falling target.

If the block you need your opponent to do does not manifest, what of this moment? Can you just follow through with the strike and hit them? Do they back up? Perhaps this affords the opportunity to close anyway? And if they strike at you ... and you block ... is that not the same position that you were looking for originally ... as long as you can gain the initiative?

Feigning an opening requires acting ability, though just missing by accident works well too .... but both require evasion which requires footwork and a knowledge of cut angles, where is dangerous, where is not, and an appreciation for the importance of the exit.

All require a knowledge of range and timing, how a sword works (and all the affordances it gives), how people move, and most importantly, how to not get hit yourself as you pull off the win.

One of the great things about flow training is that you can work on each, separate, piece within the flow - hand tagging, evasion, bridging, whatever, OR you can chain the whole series together to the end game.

The ability to break down the whole into bite sized pieces means that more paths through the forest can be uncovered, and the more often the affordances, or 'nodes of opportunity' if you like, will 'appear' to ultimately join up into a map, all leading to the same destination.

Well .... Such is the plan at least ....

Monday, July 8, 2013

Anderson Silva - Troll King

Anderson Silva is a great fighter, and I appreciate his movement from a sword perspective as he plays more like a sword player than most MMA guys do (Lyoto Machida is perhaps an exception).

His use of 'physical psychology' is great, tiring his opponents out, making them make mistakes, or avoid certain games, both through creating fear (of pain) and anger (at his antics).

Of course, playing the margins comes with it's dangers - feinting and especially baiting work because the opponent believes either in the threat, or that hitting the target you are presenting them with is possible.

Obviously this also means that you are essentially in range, but using your weight shift or angle to evade at the last minute. Get too cocky and things can go horribly wrong.

Here is an awesome piece about Anderson Silva's recent miscalculation by Tim Marchman.

(I like how Tim Marchman writes - he makes me laugh. Here is another piece, this time about Chael Sonnen, which is great AND shows a great gif of Anderson Silva and his tactical prowess - causing the mistake, nice evasion, taking advantage)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tactical Hustle

There are many errors I see in peoples' movement during flow -

1) They do not move at all - Sitting target

2) They move in a predictable rhythm - Predictable target

3) They only move in response to the opponent - Behind the timing

4) They move as though the opponent is not there - Dancing their own dance/Easy to hit

Not moving is only be a good idea if you can catch your opponent off their guard RIGHT at the beginning of an encounter, before they are ready .. or then momentarily within a movement flow. After that, movement gives you SO many advantages to exploit over standing still, and keeps you SO much safer, that it's a no-brainer to keep moving. Thing is, there is a way to move that makes sense, and many many ways to move that do not. Everything you do has to have something to do with what your opponent is doing, yet in cannot be as a reaction to what they are doing. It has to be unpredictable to them, yet connected to their movement. It has to make tactical sense, keep you safe, worsen their position, and limit their options whilst keeping yours as open as possible.

It's like dancing ..... yet with a somewhat different goal ... the demise of your dance partner.

It's a skill. It's important, and though it may become intuitive, it takes practice.

Tactical Hustle anyone?

Friday, June 28, 2013


Humans are adaptable creatures. We are constantly changing how and what we do, dependent on changing circumstances. But the circumstances need to be changing for any adaptability to be necessary ....

This is what Random Flow training is for ... Though perhaps it should be renamed Constant Adaptability Training seeing as 'Flow' is so open to misinterpretation? (Not really sure about the re-naming yet ... CAT brings to mind images of ferociously pouncing black Panther emblems with 'Eye of the Tiger' playing in the background .... so perhaps this needs a bit of work ..)

Anyway, the point is, that both parties in the interaction are actively trying to find things to adapt TO ... and what better than moments when they are stuck, or when it's too late to escape?

Here, finally are questions worthy of answers - How to either avoid being there in the first place, or for changing the stuck place into an opportunity to prevail.

So .... first you have to get stuck, which means that you have to be in a vulnerable position, or open to attack. It also means that your opponent will have seen the opportunity and taken advantage of it.

Once you are stuck, it may already be too late, so you can rewind a little and play from there, or better, move around again and notice when the same set up happens again ... only notice it sooner (This is where an experienced player can help, and create the same combination of elements again).

Whatever you choose to do to negate the possibility of getting stuck again will now have created a new place to play from - are you now controlling the situation? Yes? No? Now what?

If you countered, your opponent will be dealing with your attack .... They will now have to adapt to this new piece in the game, which again will give you something to work with ... and so it goes.

You will either adapt successfully, or not. And I bet if it was unsuccessful, next time you will try something else.

And there you have it Random Flow a.k.a. Constant Adaptability Training ....

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I Say Potato .....

I admit it, I talk too much. The pictures and concepts I see in my head want a way out. They want describing, refining, sharing and altering, and words seem to be one of the most accessible ways to do this with others ..... But really, how useful are they when teaching a physical skill set?

Language can explain and inspire, yet it can also confuse and misdirect, it is a true double edged sword - our savior and our downfall

Precision can be hard to convey, especially when personal experience differs to the extent that words mean different things to the speaker and the listener .... and this is assuming that the speaker is explaining clearly, and that the listener is even listening!

Say the word 'threat' for instance, and some will not even have a concept of what that might be, let alone have a reference for what a threat from a sword might feel like past some abstract notion.

Some will feel a threat from merely holding a sword in their own hands, some will feel uncomfortable in the same room as a sword, others only accept something as threat when it is within striking range and they have made a defensive error.
Yet others will not acknowledge threat unless the steel is sharp, and even have an issue with accepting trainers as threatening substitutes.

Also, words have different meanings, and sometimes more than one meaning will make sense in a  context, and both parties will think they understand what the other means when really they are talking about different things.

Flow is one of these words. Many think of it as meaning moving smoothly and without stopping - (be water my friend ;-) ), or perhaps a choreographed set piece between 2 people that seamlessly chains a series of counters together.

When I say 'Hey, let's flow', what I mean is 'Let's do some Random Flow Training', a method that is more akin to a conversation, that has nothing preset about it, yet is not sparring. My definition of 'Flow' comes from the ideas of Sonny Umpad and it has a very specific meaning - It is about expression, and about learning to 'see', and though there is continuous movement, it is a learned skill that is much more than the word implies

But wait a minute ...What does 'seeing' mean?

Hmmm ... 'Seeing' - an 'experience of understanding', a real time view of the geometry and the interplay between players, of time and space and possibility .....

Getting into dodgier ground now .... and we haven't even gotten into describing movement, sensations, or the qualities of things.

Like Sonny's descriptor - 'Repelling' - The feeling of two magnets when you try to put two, like, poles together. He used this to describe what it was like to expect contact, but to slip around at the last moment ......

Helpful, or no? I can say that once I felt it, it actually describes the sensation quite accurately when the timing is perfect ... but this is naming something after the fact. Knowing the word did not help me get the feeling, just recognize it afterwards. (As an aside - some people misunderstood his accent and thought he was saying 'rappelling' ... and who knows how they rationalized that with what he was doing .... )

Concepts can also be hard. If I told you - "You have to learn to sell the truth before you can sell a lie", you would probably agree .... but what would that be in terms of sword play? Would knowing this help find the physical manifestation of the idea?

I suspect that words, and thus descriptions and meaning exist to be found after the physical experience, and cannot be used necessarily to create understanding before they are felt. Physical, or movement learning, seems centered in a different place in the body than where words are deciphered.

What words might be useful for, are as motivational stories to lead the student on their path. Also to refine concepts, tweak movement and expand the imagination. Though one has to be careful ...too far into fiction and stories, and the human tendency to rationalize things to fit preconceptions can lead many astray ...

But what's the alternative? No words ..... ? That seems highly inefficient. I think we are far too conversant a species to get away from words, so perhaps then it becomes a game, a long con if you like, using words to sustain the practice, until the student has put in the time to find them to be true.

There is nothing like actual experience, and having experience match the description, especially when the experience comes from the student, and it matches the words of the teacher, is the best way to know that what you do is what you say, and that what you say is real .... well ... real-ish .....

Monday, June 17, 2013

Stochastic Resonance

Intriguing idea that adding the equivalent of white noise ... or randomness of some kind, will accentuate the hidden signal that is being searched for, and make it easier to find.

What might that hidden signal be? The patterns and parameters of human behavior in sword play perhaps ....

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Material for June 16th Workshop

These are some of the things we will work on tomorrow:

- Intro to random Flow concept, what it is, and how it is different from sparring.

Then on to some physical skills ....

- 4 basic strike angles

- Understanding the difference in weapon manipulation and physical range when slicing, hacking and chopping.

- Practicing making the cut angle and blade angle the same, and checking accuracy all the way through the target.

- Discussion of the center line, weapon type, and targeting.

- Differentiating which directions are open to move, dependent on strike angle.

- Defensive blocks, in front of the force, and behind the force for each strike angle. Body angulation and weapon positioning.

- Hand targeting

- Use of front and back of blade, flicking, slicing and chopping cuts.

- Hand movement and hand evasion.

- Baiting with the hand.

- Pendulum

- Basic stepping concept with a partner.

- Range, calibration, hip and shoulder movement.

- Weight shift vs stepping

- Largo Mano Flow

- Empty space

- Movement

- Striking from tip down

- Pendulum timing

- 'Gypsy Knife Drill'

- Movement

- Pendulum timing

- Holding the box

- Cut/block pendulum

- Retraction flow 

- Connect & enter drill

- The exit

I think we'll certainly get this far, and perhaps in some 2nd flow, which we did last time, but these are the basics for some play time.

I'm hoping that we will spend the last couple hours just flowing. There will be ample opportunity to play with all the guys from the system who are coming, and with each other.

I'll also rope some guys in for some demo time. There is a great deal to learn by watching, and part of the day will be learning to see from the outside what we have been learning to do ourselves. It is a great way to understand what is going on tactically, and also see tendencies and glitches and how we can take advantage of them.

Hopefully a good time will be had by all :-)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

New to Me

A friend who used to train with Sonny has moved on to other things, and just gave me the training blade that he got from him.
I have one like it, but because each one was designed and fabricated separately, each is unique in it's own way. (Here is a pic)
The blade shapes of all his Short Pinuti are very similar, but this one has a hooked handle. It also has a wooden end piece, where mine is just reinforced leather.
The hooked shape and the wooden pommel serve a particular function, the grip on the weapon can be completely lost, yet opening the hand assures that the sword stays in the holder's possession.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Zone

You read about 'The Zone' when sports people talk about superlative performance - Everything flowing supremely smoothly, nothing is done in error, effortless and efficient. Total focus, total integration of parts ..... poetry in motion.

This is not the zone I am talking about. There is another zone - another perfect zone, but this one for learning.

It feels very, very, different from poetry .... more like falling, or sliding. definitely out of control.

It sits right there, bounded by the joy and the excitement of discovery on one side, and a complete failure to comprehend what the hell is going on, on the other.

It's an odd place to work, because one part of your mind has to have enough confidence in it's own abilities to think it will comprehend what IS going on at some point, and the other must be happy with it's current inability to do so.

A little inner voice must be there to remind you - "Just keep going .... It will come" ...... Or ... "You learn the most when you suck".

This zone is a potent area of 'unknowing', and good teachers will keep you there for as long as you can stand, and not let you waiver too far to either side ... Either into the smugness of attainment, or the complete depression of failure ..... Too much one way and you can become complacent ... or worse, an asshole. At the other end, you may just stop coming altogether.

If you stick with it, beware the plateaus when you think you 'have it' .... ideally they should just be way stations, or momentary places of rest for your sense of worth.

In between these plateaus lie the stretches where you are really learning. And hopefully, here, it will be exhilarating and confusing yet not suck-y enough to give up.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Mandatory Failure

My Japanese sword teacher put it most succinctly (though I'm probably paraphrasing) -

"Techniques only happen because your primary attack failed"

 ..... After all, decapitate them, or run them through on the first cut .... and there is very little else left to do ... Perhaps extract yourself and avoid the blood. That's all.

Of course there is a whole game played before contact, which is much more important with edged weapons - sizing up your opponent, creating your moment etc ... but once it gets to the physical skills themselves, either your first move is decisive ..... or, you screwed up, and all the other stuff, the technical stuff, happens so you can prevail, AND extricate yourself from the contact.

Bagua organizes part of it's system (It's straight line forms) around this idea.

1) Engage - either as a committed attack ... but more often, as a test, to tie up the primary weapons - empty hand this would be the arms - legs would be taken care of by positioning achieved through the entry.

2) Put power into the system. This either finishes it .... or it does not work.

3) If it does not work - you change something - dependent on how your opponent reacted to the original engagement (grabbed you/stepped out/turned/countered/blocked/etc)

4) The reaction gives you the momentum to finish it, but now from closer range ... remembering our system is fond making people fall over. Bagua thinking works fine for weapons and striking, but is possibly happiest tripping, sweeping, and face planting people into the ground.

The whole sequence should be seamless, and the solo forms are there to assist in practicing this ability to able to flow from anyplace, to anyplace else, without thought. It matters not what your opponent does - every possible reaction has a finish that you control. They choose - And you use what ever they choose, to beat them.

They shift their weight back? Follow the weight and trip them on a weak angle. They block? You now control both hands. They resist? You follow the power in the same direction and add to it, or use them as an anchor to sling shot power around.

Your job, is to keep good, dynamic, alignment, be able to move each and every direction as needed, understand the weak angles in each position, and be sensitive to the opponent's choice to be able to use what they give you .... oh, and keep yourself safe in the process.

These are the skills that the system should give you.

So, from an engagement (One of the 8 big openings for instance), the opponent negates the initial attack, either by blocking the strike, stepping, or countering, and this then is the gateway to the actual finishing move -
They block your strike? Good! They flinch back? Excellent!! They resist from the first point of contact? Yippee!! ... this is where the stuff happens ... BECAUSE of the resistance .... not because there was none.

Everyone has seen countless techniques, taught as a 1,2,3,4 (sometimes 5,6,7) series of moves, whilst the other stands there like an automaton ..... Some of them are nice flows of ideas but lack one BIG element ... the natural reaction of the opponent to each part.

The ideas aren't all bad ... they have just lost their reason 'why'. Add the natural reactions that doing part 1) instill ... and often these are a path to parts 3) and 4).

If you want to understand what the designers of the system thought was important, put the reactive flow back into the techniques - Only 3 or 4 beats are needed - And troubleshoot possible exits (For ideas, look to the form work) ..... just make sure that part 3 exists because of an opponent induced failure of the initial attack ....

No failure .... no necessity for anything more.