Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sparring Styles: a Training Paradigm

Have an idea I wanted to share about teaching beginners how to spar.

I've seen a few cases of younger students learning how to spar, and most of the time I see students paired up with someone of similar skill level, fully covered in foam and hard plastic shells, and told to spar. Some kids are naturally aggressive, and they tend to do better, until they use too much force, where someone will usually tell them to control themselves. Some kids never seem to really get the hang of what they should be doing (I was one of those for a long time), and I imagine many become discouraged and quit because of it.

So I have an idea of a systematic way to train students to free spar, based on a very simple notion of the different styles that someone can use in sparring.

There are a lot of different ways to categorize fighting styles. Boxing has several - the outfighter, the boxer puncher, the swarmer - and you can read a lot of analysis of fighting careers, arguing about which fighters use which styles predominantly (almost no really good fighters are all one thing, but most also tend to fall into one category or another).

Styles are often defined by a few things:

  • Preferred range. Does the fighter 'want' to, or try to, or work to, be far away from their opponent, close in, or at a middle distance?
  • Initiative. Does the fighter try to initiate exchanges, applying pressure by continuously attacking, or do they prefer to wait for their opponent to make a move, revealing openings that can be exploited?
  • Orientation. Does the fighter fight orthodox (left hand forward) or unorthodox (right hand forward)?
  • Psychological tendencies. Is the fighter a front runner? A front runner performs very well as long as he/she seems to be winning, but quickly falls apart if the fight starts to go bad. Some fighters are the opposite, and can't seem to really 'get going' until they've been hit, preferably hit hard and hurt.
  • Risk aversion. How willing is the fighter to take a chance in order to create an opportunity?

I"m sure there are other dimensions that I've missed, but I hope I've given a rough idea of how we can determine someone's style. It's a fun exercise to identify the styles of your favorite fighters, identify the styles you like most (if you follow fight sports), identify your own style, and establish the weaknesses and strengths of each style and each matchup (some styles are stronger than others in certain matchups, like rock paper scissors).

Here I want to focus solely on Initiative.

Every sparring exchange starts from a pretty much identical place. Two people are facing each other, in some kind of ready stance, at some distance where they aren't touching. Sometimes they're bouncing in place, or circling slowly, or standing relatively still, but they're at some distance and not exchanging.

Then someone moves. Sometimes this takes a while, other times it's quick. One person attacks/ moves in/ initiates an exchange, and the other person responds.

Stylistically, some people are more likely to move/attack first, and some are more likely to wait for their opponent. I'm sure there are some people who are exactly as likely to do either. For the sake of this post I'm going to make some quick definitions.

The pressure fighter is the person who wants to move first, to initiate an attack.
The counter fighter is the person who wants to wait, to let the other 'guy' move first, and act in response to that attack (i.e. to counter).

There are some gray areas here. Does a feint count as initiating an attack? I don't want to get too bogged down, so let's agree that these distinctions are not absolute, but more like guidelines to help us make order out of the chaos of free sparring.

Sometimes two pressure fighters meet each other. This tends to look like a brawl, as you have two fighters both trying to move forward and attack at the same time. Sometimes you have two counter fighters meet, and this can be tedious and slow, as each patiently waits for the other one to lead and make a crucial mistake.

Ideally, a pressure fighter fights a counter fighter. In that situation pressure fighter has to learn to attack responsibly, knowing that the counter fighter is ready to exploit any openings in his defense, while the counter fighter has lots of attacks on which they can practice their skills - the timing and techniques of countering an attack.

So what is my system of teaching?

First, I believe nobody should free fight until they have a decent handle on the basic techniques of their style. You don't want to still be concentrating on how to throw a punch while you're trying to throw it at a live opponent who is also trying to hit you back. How long should that take? I don't have an exact number, but I'd say between six months and two years, and I'm willing to make allowances for gifted or slow students. I'm not a fan of throwing white belts into free sparring.

While the students are learning the basic techniques (how to stand, how to kick, how to punch, how to move, how to block), they should be taught a basic understanding of these styles. They should have an idea of how the pressure fighter has to move so they aren't just charging in like wild boars, flailing their arms at the opponent.

When they start to spar, beginners should NEVER fight beginners. Instead, beginners should ALWAYS fight intermediate students. BUT the beginners should be taught to ONLY fight as pressure fighters. They should always lead, always move first, and try really hard to attack without getting hit hard in return. They will learn to recognize attacks, judge distance, and move within striking distance, all the skills that they'll need as a counter fighter.

The INTERMEDIATE students that are fighting the beginners should ALWAYS fight in a counter fighter style. Counter fighting is harder - you have to recognize the attacks coming and respond, which by nature takes extra cognitive processing over just attacking with what you want to attack with. But the intermediate students already have a better sense of timing, distance, and fight awareness, because they're not new anymore - they've been learning that stuff as a pressure fighter this whole time.

So an intermediate student has a block of time to learn basics without using them, along with learning the theory of combat as a theory. Then they have a block of time to learn to be a pressure fighter responsibly - to lead and attack without getting clobbered. Then they have a block of time to learn to be a counter fighter, to react to an opponent's mistakes. Once three blocks of time have gone by the student is advanced. And just to give some perspective, I'm imagining that these blocks are somewhere between six months and a year and a half - I'm not saying anyone should be stuck in one category for a decade. And if you think the blocks should be unequal in length I have no problem with that.

An ADVANCED student should be pretty competent at everything. The ADVANCED student can fill in as a pressure fighter if some intermediate student needs a partner or as a counter fighter if a beginner needs a partner. And the ADVANCED student is ready to face other advanced students, and in those situations they can use whatever style they're comfortable with.

I also think it would be useful if two advanced students spar, and both are definitive counter fighters, they should probably agree to take turns going against type. Two really disciplined counter fighters just watching each other is a waste of training time.

A few additional points:

  • Being a pressure fighter is not an excuse to brawl or fight without control. Even if you're attacking first you should use the appropriate amount of contact and defend yourself (keep your head moving, move laterally to avoid strikes, keep your hands in responsible positions for defense, etc.)
  • I am NOT saying that either style is inherently superior. I am saying that everyone should be reasonably good at both styles, even given that everyone will probably have a preference for one over the other.
  • In every free' sparring sessions where one partner is less than advanced both partners should recognize that they have a role to play. The beginner student should never spend an entire round backing up. The intermediate student should rarely jump in on the attack (exceptions can be made). In short, everyone should have a clear notion of what, generally speaking, they're supposed to be doing.
Whether you use the notion of styles to teach sparring or not, it is a useful system for analyzing your own sparring ability and planning strategies for use in your own free sparring practice.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Kata for Athletic Development

I was reading comments on an online martial arts forum the other day, and some people were discussing the usefulness of kata. One person remarked something like, "if your kata wouldn't work on the street then they're worthless."

This is an incorrect way of looking at kata, or at training in general. It's just as wrong headed as if someone said, "if your pushups wouldn't work in a street fight then they're not worth doing."

Of course nobody is going to drop down and start doing pushups during a fight (or at least, I can't think of any possible situation where that would be smart). But we don't do pushups to practice for a fight - we do pushups to develop attributes that would help in a fight.

Kata, in my opinion, can be seen in the same light. While some kata or some parts of kata might contain movements that are useful in a fight exactly the way they are in the kata, that isn't the only criterion we should use to judge the effectiveness of kata.

I've said this before, but I think it bears repeating: when correctly done, kata practice is very useful for athletic development.

What I mean by 'athletic development' is the development of athletic qualities like strength, endurance, proper movement (using the scapula properly, hip mobility, thoractic mobility, breathing coordination, that sort of thing).

There is a lot of focus paid to kata by bloggers and guys working the seminar circuit to discuss the bunkai in kata. Bunkai are basically self defense applications for the movements in a kata - if you've ever trained traditional kata, you know that there are a LOT of movements that seem impractical or weird or useless, and there's a large group of very knowledgeable practitioners who try to unpack the practical uses for those movements - finding a way that those seemingly silly movements can be used in real combat situations.

Now I don't have anything negative to say about anybody who explores the practical applications of kata movements - that's fantastic work, even though I personally don't invest a lot of energy thinking about that.

But what I find interesting in kata is not the applications of certain movements to combat or self defense, but the application of those movements as exercises that develop athletic ability.

For examples:
  • Moving forward and turning in zenkutsu dachi (front stance), especially with turns of various degrees, is a lot like the lunge matrix exercises that athletes will use. You can look at taekyoku kata as a long sequence of modified lunges in varied directions.
  • Large circular overhead movements (think shuto mawashi uke) are great for mobilizing the thoracic spine, which will make all upper body movement more efficient and improve shoulder health.
  • The opening 9 moves of Seienchin, or moves 5-6 of Gekisai Sho, are great for posture and scapular control.
  • All kata, if paced properly and done vigorously, provide a form of High Intensity Interval Training.
I'm sure there are many other examples.

I first noticed this when training for my nidan promotion - I was doing a lot of kata practice (kata performance is a significant portion of our promotions), and I found that my movement during sparring was much better than it had been, and the only footwork/speed drills I was really doing was kata.

I'm not trying to claim that any kata were developed or modified specifically to improve athletic ability - I honestly have no idea if any historical figures had this in mind.

But, when you are thinking about your kata practice, and wondering why certain moves are present or what benefits you can gain from that training, it might be worth thinking at least a little bit about things like how performing those movements can improve your physical qualities, indirectly making you a better fighter, and not just how those movements are directly applicable to combat.

Dumbass Martial Arts? Maybe...

There's a facebook group called Dumbass Martial Arts (I won't link to it, though I'm sure you can find it if so inclined) that shares videos of martial arts things that are, to varying degrees, ridiculous.

Just to be clear, I have nothing against this in principle. Many martial artists deserve to be ridiculed - especially the ones who make unjustified claims about the self defense applications of their bullshit arts (you know who you are). And I understand the urge to laugh at the expense of those less knowledgeable than you are. It's fun to be in a club (traditional martial artists! Real martial artists!) that other people either don't know about or think they're in but aren't..

And you can imagine the kind of  videos they share - if you can't, go to Jack Slack's pages in Fightland and watch everything titled Wushu Watch. Fake techniques, partners that throw themselves around the room, all kinds of bullshit and craziness.

The other day there was a post in this group of a woman doing a kata in some kind of competition, with a #bullshit tag on the post.

I won't link to the video here, but the woman in question was doing a traditional kata but with a kind of XMA presentation. If you're not sure what that means, do some youtube searches around xma kata competition and see what you find. Her ibuki was a long, drawn out scream, many seconds in length. Her stances were so deep that they were obviously completely ineffective. When she kiai'ed it took minutes to end. Every kick was at least head high. It looked like kata designed to look cool to people who know nothing about martial arts.

In short, to a traditional stylist, it was somewhat painful to watch.

The comments were pretty much what you'd think - people were brutal. They said how awful she was, how she was disrespecting the art of karate, how the judges should have walked out, and so on and so on.

And, to be honest, I'm not a fan of the presentation either. It's not the way I practice karate, it's not how I want to practice karate. If I had to choose between watching that sort of kata and kata as practiced by an old school karate practitioner, with short, effective movements, realistic stances, and functional breathing, I'd prefer the latter.

However, I really dislike the level of disdain people showed this young lady.

There are two levels on which I'd defend her:
  1. She might not know better - she might have a teacher who has convinced her that what she is doing is either good traditional martial arts or effective martial arts in a self defense context, and she believed that instructor, in which case the fault is her instructor's, not hers; or
  2. She likes what she does, and while she knows that it  is neither traditional nor effective for self defense, it brings her joy.
I don't know the woman from the video, or what she thinks of her own performance. But when I watch it, I see something that isn't traditional karate, and doesn't seem very practical for self defense, but which:
  • clearly demonstrates a high level of athleticism;
  • clearly demonstrates a high degree of commitment - she clearly practiced that kata for many hours, with great focus and determination;
  • clearly contributes to her fitness and health - nobody can do kata in an XMA style and not be reasonably strong, flexible, and fit;
This reminds me of my thoughts when I first read a few articles about tricking. If you're not familiar, tricking is a practice where people work on high difficulty martial arts techniques, like jumping spinning kicks, cartwheel kicks, etc. - the kinds of pseudo-gymnastics moves that look cool but that represent only a tiny portion of traditional karate (largely because they're mostly useless in 'actual' fighting). At first I scoffed, but most guys who practice tricking don't think they're learning to defend themselves, nor do they think they're really learning traditional martial arts. They are fully aware that they're just mastering a set of skills that they think are cool, and who are we to argue with that?

I think we should ridicule or scoff at martial artists who do these XMA style or alternative (any style that doesn't seem effective) performances in two situations:
  1. If they themselves claim that what they're doing is highly effective for self defense (this puts their students in actual danger, which isn't cool);
  2. If what they're doing is orthopedically dangerous - explosive movements are inherently higher in risk, but there are correct and incorrect ways to do them, and if a particular practitioner is moving in a way that is exceptionally dangerous to practice then we should scorn them.
So for the folks over at Dumbass Martial Arts, in my humble opinion, you should lay off anyone doing kata in some crazy over the top style, UNLESS they're claiming that such a performance is better for self defense OR they're doing things that will obviously hurt them to practice. Otherwise, acknowledge that they're doing something they think is cool, even if you disagree, and either ignore them or try to enjoy their performance for what it is.

My two cents.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Movie Recommendation - Eddie Strongman

If you have Netflix, I highly recommend Eddie Strongman, currently available on Netflix in the US. It follows a professional Strongman competitor, Eddie Hall, for a couple of years, covering his training, eating, home life, some contest results, injuries, and more about his general life and attitude.

Eddie is one of the top Strongman competitors in the world, which means he is probably one of the strongest human beings on the planet. He's also a very charismatic and lovely fellow, although his language is probably more NSFW than not.

Overall, the documentary is really engaging.

A few really interesting take home points:

  • Being an elite athlete is not about being healthy. Elite athleticism is generally speaking not good for you. The things you have to do to be the best in the world are not compatible with being a normal healthy human being. And Strongman competitors, for the most part, seem to understand that and be okay with it. They're all sacrificing their future health and fitness for a chance at glory, and there's nothing wrong with that in my opinion (although it's not a choice I would make).
  • If you want to be big and strong, eat a lot and lift heavy.
  • To achieve lofty goals you have to make sacrifices.
  • To achieve lofty goals you often have to orient every aspect of your life to achieving them.
I personally have no desire (or probably the ability) to be elite the way Eddie Hall is, but I find his lifestyle, attitude, and story kind of inspiring. I'm also a fan of strength sports.

Another interesting documentary on Netflix (you can tell I had a few spare hours this past weekend) was "The Hurt Business," which covered a year or so out of a the life of a few MMA fighters (Rashad Evans, Holly Holm, some less well known people). Also interesting, but not as compelling as Eddie Hall's story.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Why Correct Technique is Important (or is it?)

I've been involved in a couple of small debates about punching mechanics in karate - debating what the right way is to execute a punch. There are nuances to punching technique - do you move the hand or hip first, do you tense the body at impact or think of the fist/forearm as something you've thrown at the target, do you rotate at the waist or stiffen. Interestingly, people can hit very hard using many different combinations of these methods, though logically one of them must be best, at least for any given person and situation.

So here I am, self proclaimed internet guru (that title is meant to be tongue in cheek, and it means that I have no legitimate special expertise or knowledge in this area, yet I blog about it anyway), arguing with highly respected karateka from around the world about the best way to throw a punch. Why do I do this? What's at stake here?

I like to break these discussions down into two levels, in the sense that techniques can be bad in two importantly different ways:

1. A technique can be 'wrong' in the sense that executing it that way puts orthopedic or biomechanical stress on the body in a way that is likely to be injurious to a typical practitioner. These techniques may or may not 'work' on an opponent, but I don't care.

2. A technique can be 'wrong' in the sense that it is less effective than another method (slower, less powerful, less likely to prevent you from getting hit/ hurt) but doesn't meet the standards of #1.

For my favorite (and simultaneously most horrifying) example of #1, I once trained with a guy who got 'snap' into his punches and kicks by forcibly locking out at the end of the motion as hard as he could. In other words, the 'snap' was the thud of his own joints locking into full extension. That is bad. I don't care how hard he was hitting things (I have no idea if he was), that kind of technique will break your body down in undesirable ways, given enough time.

For examples of the second kind of 'worse', we have to hurt somebody's feelings. But you don't have to agree with me on particulars to agree with me on the general idea - take the sine wave body movement from tae kwon do. I think that's bad movement - slower and less powerful and less defensible than linear mechanics. But if you're a tkd practitioner and you think I'm wrong, then of course you think that linear (or maybe we should say planar) mechanics are 'worse' - either way, one of these systems of movement is worse than the other, but neither is particularly hard on your joints or connective tissue. One of them is definitely 'worse' in that second sense.

When someone is using techniques that are bad in the first sense, that is they are likely to hurt you if you perform them, then there is no argument that there's a lot at stake in figuring out that the technique is bad, fixing the problem, and perhaps even leaving your instructor over it. If you're being taught to do things that are going to break down your body you need to find a new teacher. End of story. There is nothing good about being injured regularly.

A much more interesting question, however, is what you should do about the second type of 'worse.' What do you do if you think you're being taught a less - than - best (but still not injurious to you) way of doing something?

Here, again, I'm going to divide martial arts students into two groups. The first group is people who really need to use their skills in violent situations regularly. This might include prison guards, doormen, bodyguards, people whose jobs put them into fistfight situations at least some of the time. For this group, they need pretty effective techniques. In other words, even if they don't need the absolute best technique, they certainly can't afford to experiment too much or give too much away by trying things that might not work. For them it could literally be a matter of life or death (or at least injury vs. not injury).

But for the vast majority of martial arts practitioners, our art is purely impractical. Most of us will never get into a 'real' fistfight, ever. And most of us don't even spar in such a way that having less than optimal technique is likely to get us badly hurt. For most of us, doing technique the 'best' way is completely irrelevant in any practical sense. In fact, many of us train in such a way that we could easily go our whole lives doing something 'wrong' (in the second sense of wrong, as in less-than-most-effective) and never even know it.

I, personally, definitely fall into that last group. The debates I've been having are not between 'ways that will hurt you' and 'ways that are mechanically safe' - these debates are about which of 2 (or more) methods of executing a technique are best, while they're all 'good' enough to not cause the puncher injuries. So why do I bother, given that even if I train in a less - than - best way to punch or kick, it's almost definitely never going to affect my quality of life?

The simple answer is that I enjoy thinking about these things. I personally like to study different techniques, analyze their pros and cons, and engage in debate about which way of punching (or blocking or kicking or standing) is best. It's fun for me. I love to see a UFC fighter use a weird stance or show a weird way of punching, then analyze the advantages and disadvantages of that style. And I practice this - I'm currently obsessed with the notion of holding my lead hand low, near my waist, when sparring (someday I'll write an article about why I do this and what I like about it, but I'm still working on the details).

People train for different reasons. There are lots of people who like to train but have no real interest in thinking about training. Lots of people intensively study the history and background of their art; others simply don't. Lots of people care about self defense applications, others don't.

I'm not one to claim that EVERY practitioner of martial arts should spend time thinking about the best way to punch. If you're happy learning good punching technique from your instructor, and then diligently practicing that, that's great! Maybe your instructor is teaching the 'best' way. Even if she isn't, as long as the way you're learning isn't 'wrong' in the first sense (bad for the integrity of your bodily tissues), then have at it.

But if you're interested in discussing and debating best technique, if you get excited by the idea of doing mathematical analysis of how center of mass is affected by hand position in fighting stances, if you're that kind of student of the art, then by all means, participate! Challenge the conventional wisdom (respectfully and quietly, I mean - don't interrupt your teacher in the middle of class and suggest a better way to do something. That's just rude). Practice new things and see how they work out. Maybe you'll develop something great! And maybe you won't, but that's fine too. The joy is often in the journey.


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Ronda Rousey: Lessons in Loyalty

As I write this we're a few weeks away from Ronda Rousey's 48 second destruction at the hands of Amanda Nunes in her attempt to regain the UFC bantamweight title, a little over a year after losing that title to Holly Holm.

A few things are interesting about this sequence of events:
  • Rousey was an extremely dominant champion for quite a long time, to the point where most people watched her fights to see how quickly she'd finish her opponents, not whether or not she'd win.
  • Rousey trained under the same coach for the entirety of her MMA career.
  • Rousey, despite being a very good athlete and having years to do so, never really learned how to box (or at least never, either in open workouts or in actual matches, demonstrated that she had). She could punch well, but never seemed to learn to move her head, move laterally, or defend herself from strikes in any way.
  • It was well known that Rousey couldn't box - she got hit fairly often in the fights she had before Holm, and many analysts were pointing out her boxing deficiencies long before Holm exposed them.
  • Rousey's coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, is objectively awful. We can see this in a few ways: his corner advice during fights is meaningless and detrimental, in stark contrast to the corner advice we hear from more respected MMA coaches. None of the fighters working in his gym, and there are a few, have been successful other than Rousey, and Rousey's success was primarily due to her Judo skills, which she had developed elsewhere. We can also put at least some of the blame on Tarverdyan for Ronda's lack of progress in striking skills (again, she can punch well, it's the other skills involved that she still isn't executing at even an amateur boxer level).
So, a quick recap: Rousey is a former Olympic level judoka who started her MMA. Her judo skills were so good she became a dominant champion without ever developing a well rounded striking game. Even after being exposed for her lack of striking skills, she stayed with the same coach, not seeking out training elsewhere, a coach who not only couldn't develop her striking skills but was completely unable to advance the careers of the many talented athletes who had joined his gym.

None of the above is even remotely controversial. Literally nobody in the MMA community thinks Rousey is improving under Tarverdyan or that she has any chance to regain her title while she continues to train with him exclusively. So why does she stay with him?

There are two common narratives being offered to explain Rousey's behavior. 

The first 'explanation,' and by far the most common as far as I've seen, is that Rousey is too loyal for her own good. Tarverdyan is the coach who trained her from the time she was a nobody until she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She's embodying the virtue of 'dance with who you brought to the party.'

The other narrative, and the one I find much more believable (though I don't know Rousey personally, so this is all conjecture), I heard from Larry Pepe of Pro MMA Radio. His idea is that she's mentally fragile. We see lots of evidence for this - she's admitted to wanting to kill herself after losing a fight (!), she wasn't able to face media before the Nunes fight, she's been overly emotional and hostile towards opponents, she fights like a frontrunner (does well but only as long as she seems to be winning). She needs a coach who will coddle her emotionally, not being overly critical or harsh. Tarverdyan obviously works her hard (she was physically in shape for the Nunes fight), but they are very, very close emotionally, and he never seems to speak harshly to her. She won't leave because she can't handle the kind of criticism she'd get from a good MMA coach.

The first story, that Rousey is loyal to a fault, is obviously much more flattering. Loyalty is a virtue, after all; mental weakness is not.

But should we regard loyalty as a virtue in cases like these?

I am certain that Rousey should NOT remain loyal to her coach. His deficiencies put her in very real and serious physical danger - she was deliberately going into a cage and getting punched in the face by a very strong woman, sent in there by a coach who did not teach her to defend herself. With absolutely no hesitation I can say that her loyalty, if it was loyalty that made her stay, was misplaced. Not only that, but she HAD to have known how bad he was - there were dozens of professional combat analysts telling her that Tarverdyan is an awful coach, citing specific and numerous examples, and they were completely in consensus about it. Rousey's choice was a bad one, whether it was motivated by loyalty or by a fear of change.

But what about someone like me, and I imagine most of you readers? Those of us for whom martial arts is a hobby? for most of us, the consequences of having a less - than - great instructor are far less serious than for a professional fighter (I highly doubt I'll ever be in a 'real' fistfight ever in my life). A teacher who instructs in bad basic mechanics can put us at higher risk for orthopedic injuries, so that's an issue to think about.

Another major difference is that most of us aren't easily qualified to know if our instructors are less than great. Most of us train in a fairly narrow world - we don't test our abilities in violent conditions against the world's elite. 

If you've ever spent much time on YouTube maybe you've seen video footage of some epically bad martial artists. Do they know how bad they are? Do they realize how poor is the quality of the instruction they've received?

So here is the interesting question: suppose that you are an amateur martial artist, and you suspect that you could get better instruction from some other teacher or some other school. What's the right thing to do?

The traditional martial artist inside my heart wants to tell you to stick with your original teacher. Loyalty is important. The relationship between student and teacher is important.

But I'd hate for someone with an awful instructor to feel obligated to stay with them forever. That seems like a punishment.

Here are my thoughts:
  1. If your livelihood or personal safety depend on your martial arts skills, learn whatever you can from whoever you can. Loyalty inside the dojo doesn't matter when your life is on the line.
  2. If you and/or your classmates are getting injured at a rate you're not comfortable with (and you suspect that poor instruction is the culprit), go elsewhere. Loyalty is not as important as your orthopedic integrity.
  3. If you've been training for a short period of time, and you're making progress, stay where you are. If you're not a master after three months it isn't because your instructor is bad, it's because you've been training for just three months.
  4. If you're not making progress anymore, sit down with your instructor and see if you can work out together what's going wrong. Maybe you're not training often enough. Maybe your instructor has more to teach you but has been neglectful (it happens) and will help more now that you've made a point of it. If he/she gets angry at you and doesn't change anything, maybe it's time to move on.
  5. If you don't want to leave, but you'd like something more, learn on the side. Watch YouTube videos, go to seminars, ask questions on forums. You might even find something useful on this blog, or shared from my facebook page, every so often. Progress yourself. I pick up a good technical tip every few months from various sources outside my style (things that don't conflict with the way we do things in Seido).
  6. If you've been training for a long time, remember that your style is a social network, not just a place where you learn a set of skills. Maybe switching dojos would advance your technique slightly (and if it's more than slightly, then maybe you should switch). But it might not, and you'd be harming long lasting friendships that probably mean a lot to you.
I don't have solid, hard and fast answers to these issues. There are definitely cultural elements here that are strange and conflicting - I'm an American, with fairly typical American values and views (well, typical for an East Coast Jewish white guy) engaged in an activity bound in traditional Asian values. 


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Defense within Offense: Training to not get hit

There is a lot to be said about striking defense, so please understand that all I'm going to do in this post is make a small point, it's not at all meant to be a comprehensive treatment of defense.

We're a couple of days removed from Ronda Rousey's massive loss to Amanda Nunes, who treated her like a punching bag and stopped her in 48 seconds, less than a year after Holly Holmes did something quite similar to the once-dominant champion.

For now, a great video of the fight and a lovely analysis of what happened can be found here on Dan Djurdevic's blog (I'm not confident that the video will stay up because of copyright issues, so watch it soon).

Nunes and Holm used somewhat different tactics, but what their approaches showed in common was that Rousey doesn't know how to integrate defense into her offense (or, even, show effective defense even when that's all she's trying to do).

What does that mean?

If you watch some MMA you can see a vast difference in skill levels between competitors. There are some fighters who are really good at protecting themselves while they are attacking. So while they are throwing kicks and punches they are still not completely vulnerable to counterattacks. This can be done in a few ways:

1. Keeping a good stance (weight centered, chin tucked) so any returning strikes can be absorbed efficiently.
2. Staying mobile, both keeping the feet moving (not simply planting the feet and swinging for the hills) and keeping the head moving while throwing combinations so that they are presenting a more difficult target to hit.
3. Maintaining good position with the off hands for defense - for example, while throwing a left jab, keeping the right hand near the jawline to provide some protection. The shoulder can be used in a similar way (acting as a shield for the chin).

Again, some fighters are good at this, and some (probably most) are terrible. No fighters do it perfectly all the time, but Jose Aldo is usually pretty good at it, for one example. Lots of fighters who are said to be good strikers are effective because their offense is overwhelming, but when they get into situations where their opponent isn't cowed and starts hitting back they take a lot of punishment.

Now if you get a chance to watch fighters during training sessions, often the ones who are worst defensively show that in training.

Watch a fighter when they practice their offensive techniques - striking the heavy bag or pads held by a coach. Some fighters are good at moving their head off line, slipping and weaving, while practicing their offense, but most fighters will just wing punches while their head remains in a completely static position.

The problem is that during a fight (or even a sparring session) it's really hard to develop new habits (having another person trying to hit you is distracting). If you are used to throwing kicks with your arms flailing at your sides for balance, then try to keep your hands up in protective positions while you spar, either your kicks will suffer or you'll start to forget the modifications.

To avoid this: always practice your offensive techniques the way you'd want to use them in a fight/sparring session. If you know you should keep your off hand near your chin when you punch, make sure you're doing that when hitting the heavy bag, even if the heavy bag isn't going to punch you back. If you know you should be pivoting and moving laterally while throwing long combinations in a fight, do that when you're hitting the heavy bag or the mits, even if your target isn't throwing back at you.

Maintain responsible defense even when you don't need it.

A short list of things to do (I'm sure there are more suggestions that could be added to this list):

  • Make sure your head does not stay in one place while you throw punches and kicks - keep slipping it into different positions.
  • Keep your hands in responsible defensive positions while kicking (and your off hand while punching).
  • End every attack combination by stepping back, pivoting, or moving away, not frozen in place waiting for a counter.
  • Keep a good stance - balanced, weight centered - at all times; don't 'reach' too far to land your strikes.
  • Have a coach/ training partner watch you occasionally to make sure you're not presenting yourself as a sitting duck while practicing your offense (sometiimes this is hard to notice yourself).
Overall, the idea is to maintain in your mind a strong awareness of keeping yourself hard to hit while your'e attacking, while by inclination I think most of us tend to think only of how to hit the other person when we practice hitting techniques.