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 .....