Thursday, June 22, 2017

Culture Vs. Technique: Dojo Qualities

I was listening to a podcast (Iron Radio) recently and the hosts were discussing the Westside Barbell Club.

Westside Barbell is a fascinating place because the people who train there have set an astounding number of powerlifting world records in the last couple of decades. And it's not as if they're recruiting top talent and paying them, either - there has been almost no money in powerlifting, basically ever, and none of these guys have gotten rich off of their ability to bench, squat, or deadlift.

Westside Barbell is famous for its head coach, Louie Simmons, and the method he uses to train the athletes there, which is usually just called the Westside Method. He teaches technique (a particular way to squat, bench, and deadlift), and prescribes a fairly specific method of training. The lifters at Westside tend to do similar exercises, periodized similar ways, with similar accessory lifts. And since there are so many strong, strong people training there, the atmosphere is supposed to be amazing. For competitive people, training alongside the strongest people in the world is quite stimulating. And they all get phenomenally strong.

The discussion on this particular episode centered on the reason why Westside lifters are so strong. And the question boils down this: is the success of the lifters at Westside due to Louie's system, to the culture or training atmosphere, or both?

There is never going to be a clear cut answer, of course - nobody is going to do a study and prove that the success of Louie's lifters is 62% the system and 38% the culture. Nevertheless, it's a really interesting thing to think about.

Westside lifters are the most successful powerlifters in the world. Does that prove that their system is the best? Well, I think it's strong evidence that the system is at least very good. But there might be some guy in some garage somewhere who offers better training and technical programs than you can get at Westside, but maybe in a laid back atmospher. And maybe that imaginary coach just doesn't inspire his athletes to work hard the way they are inspired at Westside, which is why his guys aren't setting world records right and left.

Dojos are the same.

I think of every dojo (or dojang or gym or whatever) as having 2 different qualities: competence of technical instruction and culture.

Technical instruction is how good the teachers (and sometimes the other students) are at giving the right coaching cues at the right time to improve your technique the most. This is somewhat complex, and sometimes it depends on the student - I've had instructors who were great at teaching beginners, and other who were not as good with beginners but were really good at making the small corrections that would help very advanced students make progress (there are also instructors who can do both of those things!)

Culture is a little harder to define, but it's basically a description of the atmosphere in the school. It's a combination of the sort of things the instructor says and does to motivate you, how physically demanding the classes are, and the way the other students respond to those cues.

Culture is not simply better or worse. Some people respond to certain kinds of dojo cultures better than others. I've seen schools that are hyper competitive and aggressive. They engage in a lot of belitting speech (insulting anyone who lags behind or quits), usually do a lot of hard, violent sparring, and generally show disdain for those who are less physically competent. I'm not saying that culture is inherently bad, in fact for some people that is highly motivating. Some people will do best in those surroundings. Others, however, will be deflated, and respond better to a less antagonistic culture.

As a student, you need to figure out two things: how much technical support you need and what culture suits you best. If you're a beginner, you definitely need a lot of technical help. If you've been training for 20 years, you probably need less. Depending on how extroverted or introverted you are you'll probably benefit more or less from a really enthusiastic culture.

Keep in mind that a good, motivating culture (whatever that means to you) does not mean that the instructor is technically good, and a bad culture does not mean that the technical instruction is bad. These are really separate things, and some groups have one or the other or both (or neither).

The bottom line is this: as a martial arts student you need to figure out what your needs are, and make sure your class is filling those needs. If you're highly self motivated, you might not care so much about the culture. If you're struggling to get through workouts, you might need more of a 'rah-rah' atmosphere.

If you're very lucky, you'll find a technically great group that also has a strong, spirited culture that motivates you and keeps you excited to train. That's the dream! Enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Endurance made simple: High/Low Training

I've been very focused lately on endurance training (especially power-endurance and speed-endurance) for several reasons.

First, I've been extra focused on losing bodyfat, and the greater your endurance the greater a workload you can handle, and the greater workload you can handle the more calories you can burn.

Second, I find that, at least for me, one of the biggest impediments to sparring has been my fitness. When I'm tired, I get slow, and when I'm slow I'm not very good at fighting.

Third, I've been extra focused on my karate practice, and improving skills takes lots of repetitions done while fresh (practicing karate while fatigued is somewhere between less productive and outright counterproductive). If you want to get better at a movement, you have to practice it while fresh, and the better your endurance the more fresh repetitions you can get, and the better you'll be.

Anyway, just like strength training, endurance training is complicated and very individual. If you can afford to hire a really good conditioning coach, that would be better and more efficient than what you can implement yourself. However, even if you can't get expert help, there might be room to improve your system. A lot of training programs are less effective than they could be. People often think that any hard workout that causes suffering will improve endurance. I'm not going to pretend that you can get fit with NO suffering, but results aren't simply proportional to how hard you work.

I plan to write more in depth about energy systems and the best general kind of plans for gaining karate in ways that correlate to traditional martial arts practice, but there is a simplistic overview that I think will be helpful for most people: High/Low.

Let me explain.

Suppose you can do a certain activity for 30 minutes - sparring, kata practice, whatever. After 30 minutes, more or less, you get noticeably fatigued and can't perform well (or maybe you just collapse). And suppose that you'd like to be able to go for longer, or at least last longer while feeling fresh and energetic.

One way people will try to improve endurance for this activity is to just do more of it. So, if you can do 30 minutes of sparring, force yourself to go for 35 minutes, or do it several times a week, and hope to get better at it. Or, similarly, they will engage in a different activity that is just about as difficult (say, jogging at a pace that they can keep up for 30 minutes), and push that as hard as they can. And, often,

Now, don't get me wrong, this approach will work. It just won't work very well.

Why not? Well, a few reasons. Primarily, if you're already doing 30 minute sparring sessions, then adding another similar intensity workout to your week isn't really giving your body a new stimulus. And just extending the workout by 5 more minutes is all too likely to just get your body used to adding sloppy minutes to the end of your workout.

Instead, it's more efficient to force an adaption by adding two kinds of workouts:

1.  Do workouts that are harder and shorter (greater intensity, less duration) than the work you are training for. For example, add some High Intensity Interval Training (quick example: do 3 burpees every 30 seconds for 20 minutes). Make sure the work periods are much, much harder (more intense) than the activity you're training for, but much shorter.

2. Do workouts that are easier and longer (lower intensity, greater duration) than the work you are training for. For example, do 60 minutes of continuous aerobic exercise that keeps your heartrate under 140 beats per minute.

In my experience, you should do each of these workouts at least once a week, and maybe do your target activity once a week (more is ok; much less is probably not ok).

By presenting your body with different stresses (harder, longer) than what your'e already doing, you'll force new adaptations from your system. And those adaptations will help you with your target activity - there is no such thing as mitochondria that only work at specific intensities, you either have more or you don't. So those adaptations will carry over to your target activity.

Give it a try for 3-4 weeks and see how much it helps!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Karate and Community (what your style is for, part 3)

I have two parallel thoughts that converge into one idea.

The first thought: if you read a lot of the modern discussion around 'diet' and health, most responsible advocates (doctors, bloggers, science journalists, trainers, fitness coaches, etc.) are promoting a multi-tiered approach to health. You should eat a good diet (I know, there's disagreement on what that means, but almost everyone agrees at least you should focus on not eating too much, eating fruits and vegetables,and limiting processed foods), sure, but also you should get plenty of sleep at the right times, get plenty of physical activity, and plenty of social interaction. ALL of these are important.

The second thought: in online forums I see a lot of discussion about choosing a martial arts style (or school), and which styles are best, and so on.

If you've been following this blog, you know there is one primary indicator for a 'good' martial art school - whether or not the teaching is going to hurt you. If the school teaches bad biomechanics (meaning, they have you execute techniques in such a way that they are likely to injure you) or emphasizes head contact or training methods that are very high risk, then it's a BAD school. Don't train there, especially if this is your hobby and not, say, a job requirement, or your profession (head contact is probably needed if you're training to be a professional fighter - but in that case you're not doing this for your health).

But after that - assuming your style or school is not BAD in the way I outlined above - what's important? The training should be fun and seem effective to you or your goals, otherwise you're not likely to stick with it. But, and I think we talk about this less than we should, the school is a social construct.

Your senpai (and kohai) are people you're going to spend a LOT of time with over the years. Training together, talking in the locker room, very probably socializing before/ after class, especially around special events like promotions and tournaments. Your fellow students become your family. IF you train regularly, you're probably spending more time with them than with your own cousins.

So, how friendly are they? Do you LIKE spending time with the people from your school?

I've been involved with Seido Karate, on and off (I've taken long breaks from training, nobody's fault but my own), for over 28 years. I've spent weekends with these people, traveled with them, sweated alongside them. Because of Seido I have friends everywhere I go, and many of those friendships are incredibly meaningful to me. I literally can count on one hand (and have 3 or 4 fingers left over) the number of times I've met someone through my style, out of hundreds or thousands of people, and thought, "this person's a jerk. I'd rather not spend more time with them."

If you ask me "is Seido karate a good style?" I honestly can't answer fully, because it depends what you mean by 'good style'. If you mean, "Is training in Seido the best way to learn self defense?" then I don't know - maybe it is, but I honestly have never trained any other system. Maybe there's a better way to learn self defense, I can't say. If you mean, "Is training in Seido the best way to prepare for a professional MMA career?" then the answer is probably no, at least not by itself. If you mean, "Is training in Seido a mechanically sound way to get fit?" then the answer is yes, our training is not going to put you at an unnecessarily high risk of injury. But if you mean, "are the people in Seido karate the kind of people I'll want to be friends with for the rest of my life?" then I can answer without reservation that you couldn't do any better (not to say that other styles aren't also friendly and lovely).

The convergence: When you think of your martial arts practice as not just your physical fitness training but also as a substantial portion of your community, of your social environment, then you'll better understand its true value.

  • Not feeling motivated to train? Remember that you're not just getting in a workout, you're seeing your friends. 
  • Balking at the money spent to go to a training camp? Remember that it's not just about what technical knowledge you'll acquire, but how much fun you'll have... with your friends.
  • Considering quitting your school and training in your garage? Don't forget, it's not just about what progress you will or won't make, but whether you'll be doing it with your friends.
  • Finding yourself in a school that gives excellent instruction but where your peers are, let's just say, not to your taste? Maybe it's time to switch schools.
Summary: appreciate the friendships and community you develop through your martial arts practice, and don't train with assholes even if they know what they're doing.

Osu.




Friday, April 28, 2017

External Vs. Internal Cuing for Martial Arts

[Note: This post is not about internal and external martial arts, it's about two types of cuing during martial arts instruction.]

There are ideas and trends that make there way through the physical performance industry every so often, and what starts in either research laboratories or in high level training environments eventually trickles down to the general fitness population. Some turn out to be fads but some persist. At its core, the entire purpose of this blog is to report on those innovations as they might apply to traditional martial arts practice.

One popular 'innovation' that's been working its way around the performance training circuit lately is internal vs. external cuing. (I put innovation in scare quotes because nobody is claiming that these scientists have invented external cuing - the innovation is the careful distinction between the two types and the deliberate emphasis on one type over another.)

Cuing is just a general term for the kind of instructions you give someone to change their movement. Telling someone to keep their shoulder low when punching, reminding someone to straighten their back leg while in front leaning stance, even reminding someone to breathe.

None of this is new - I'm sure cuing is as old as training. Some recent research in neuroscience has focused on different types of cuing to try to determine which types, if any, are most effective. Step #1 is grouping cues into categories.

Internal cues are those that are directed towards the body. For example, suppose you want to get someone to jump higher. An internal cue might be, "forcefully extend your hips, knees, and ankles at the same time." Basically, any cue that references the parts of the body is internal.

External cues are those that are directed towards things outside the body. For the jumping example, "push the floor away" or "jump and reach towards this spot up on the wall."

Research has shown that, generally speaking, external cues are more effective than internal ones - that is, they result in greater improvements in performance. If you want a sprinter to drive their knees forward forcefully as they run, you're better off holding up some kind of shield and telling them to hit it as hard as they kind (an external cue), rather than telling them to drive the knee forward (an internal cue). Same desired result, different frame for the cue.

In addition to research results, a number of highly successful coaches have been reporting for a couple of years that they see better results with their high level athletes using external cues.

I highly doubt it's possible to teach martial arts without a LOT of internal cuing. I doubt it's possible to teach any highly technical, unnatural set of movements without a lot of internal cuing. It's fine to tell someone to jump higher by reaching for a high spot on the wall - jumping is a very natural motion, one for which most of us have a strong and efficient movement pattern. It's another thing to try to get someone to, for example, execute a spinning kick correctly without a lot of internal cues about body position and so forth.

However, where possible, with a little creativity a lot of training outcomes can be achieved with external cuing when you put effort into it.

For example, if a student isn't twisting their fist at the end of the punch, have them strike a target and tell them to try to spin the target as they hit it (instead of telling them to twist the fist). If a student is dropping their leg straight down after a front kick, have them practice kicking over a low (and soft) target so they have to retract properly or they'll trip over the obstacle (but don't tell them what to do other than saying that they need to clear the obstacle).

You'll give verbal instruction along with placing the items, but your words can focus on the outside - don't say, "retract the kick before putting the foot back down," just say, "kick over the target, then come back to your stance." If a student has a weak stance (for example, maybe they are standing in sanchin dachi with knees straight), push them a little bit from the front and see if they settle in a better stance when trying to resist the force (instead of just telling them to soften the knees). I suspect that some internal cuing will need to be added to reinforce all of these examples, but I also suspect that you can get pretty far on the external cues alone, or gradually switch over to using mostly external cues with intermediate and advanced students, saving the internal cues for beginners who really don't have even the most basic idea how to move their bodies.

I strongly suspect that better athletes need less internal cuing than worse athletes. One of the things that makes a 'good' athlete is a knack for solving spatial problems with their body. Good athletes are better at moving the right way. Bad athletes need more help.

In short, when teaching, try to use as much external cuing as you can, and use internal cuing as a last resort. Keep a notebook with cues that you like to use, and over time try to replace the internal cues with external ones whenever it's possible (it won't always be, but that's okay).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Movie Review: Kickboxer: Vengeance

This 2016 action movie turned out to be more fun that I anticipated.

The plot... who am I kidding, the plot doesn't matter. The plot holes were big enough to drive a mid-sized car through, but not a tractor trailer. There were a few surprises (after one training montage the hero goes to test his new skills and gets his butt kicked) but nothing great. 1.5 out of 5.

The action sequences were good but not great. No stuntwork to speak of (Tony Jaa can rest easy as king of stunts in the post-Jackie Chan era), but the hand to hand combat was pretty okay. Semi-realistic (sometimes one guy could take out 5 attackers, but nobody was throwing energy blasts or flying, so right in the middle of the realism spectrum as far as movies go). 3 black belts out of 5.

The acting was surprisingly lovely. A lot of work done by actual fighters and WWE people. Dave Bautista made a refreshingly charismatic villain (with very few speaking lines, but I was expecting cringeworthy cartoonishness and didn't get it). Alan Moussi was just fine as the protagonist. Sara Malakul Lane was super hot as the love interest and nothing more than that (nor was anything more required). George St. Pierre was much better as an actor, and funnier, than you'd think. I really liked Cain Velasquez' turn as a nameless thug - he's very high on my list of guys not to get into a real fight against. Jean Claude Van Damme (yes!) was fabulous, with having grown into a kind of self aware self-mockery that I can't get enough of. Now he seems like a guy I'd like to have a beer with. Gina Carano was fine, but had no action sequences to speak of, and as an actress she neither detracts nor adds to the film. Overall, 3.5 Oscars out of 5.

The cheesecake factor was low to mild, but the beefcake factor was large - lots of shirtless guys with sub-10% bodyfat running around. Almost no gratuitous female nudity, another surprise for me, coming from a low budget B-grade martial arts movie (that's not a complaint, I actually prefer my B-action movies to be nudity free, but that's a discussion for another time.

Overall, this movie wasn't good, but it was a lot better than I thought it would be. Overall rating: 3.5 Bud Light Limes out of 5.


Friday, April 7, 2017

How to Treat Yourself

I don't really believe that treats or cheat meals or other breaks in a healthy diet plan are actually necessary - in fact, I think that most people do better sticking to a plan 100% than they do, say, indulging in less healthy choices on occasion. In other words, I don't think that the desire for treats or cheats is something that builds up, like pressure over boiling water. I think that the more treats and cheats you have, the more you'll want them, not less.

I suspect that if your primary goal is weight loss or improving your health, you're better off just sticking to a healthy eating plan all of the time and NOT giving yourself planned occasions to, say, eat a cheesecake, or whatever.

But if your primary goal is a happy life, then maybe some indulging is worth it. Again, it depends on a few things - how healthy are you? If you're very sick or very obese, the tradeoff of the occasional piece of cheesecake might not be worth it. If you're fairly lean and healthy, it's a lot harder to argue that any food should be absolutely forbidden, especially if you're personally capable of indulging in moderation.

So let's assume that you are either one of those people who can't bear the thought of never having a treat again OR you're close enough to your health and body composition goals that the occasional treat is worth it (just on a cost-benefit analysis).

The way to think about cheating, or treating, is to maximize the value to cost ratio of what you indulge in.

Let me give you an example.

My kids come home from Halloween trick or treating every year with a sack full of cheap candy - things like Milky Way bars, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Hersheys chocolate - that sort of thing. Nothing wrong with any of it, and I'm okay with my kids indulging. However, they rarely want even half of their candy, so I'm left with a vast quantity of low cost chocolate that is mine for the taking. But I don't really like milk chocolate all that much - I mean it's fine, but it's not the sort of thing I personally crave when it's not in front of me. So I sometimes end up eating thousands of calories worth of crap that I didn't really want, except it was in front of me and available. I never really enjoy it all that much, and I feel like shit for days afterwards.

Compare that to another situation. I went to a wine bar with my lovely fiancee. She was hungry so we got a cured meat plate. It came with small pieces of mini toasted french bread. I made little stacks of cured meats and bread, which I ate with a flight of bold reds assembled by the wine store.

Guess which 'treat' I enjoyed more? And guess which one probably did more damage to my health?

That's the secret: Maximize how much your cheat or treat contributes to your happiness and minimize how much damage it does.

Here are some simple guidelines:

  1. Social over Non-Social. You will enjoy your indulgence more if it's shared - and you'll get the added benefit of being in a social situation and not having to say no to the treats being shared. 
  2. Quality over Quantity. Many people find that a really high quality food item is more satisfying. People don't usually binge eat on great chocolate - they eat entire bowls of M&M's. So when you can, treat yourself to the highest quality item you can afford, not the one that provides the most calories per dollar spent.
  3. Starches over Sugar. If you have a serious sweet tooth, eat sweets. But if you just need a treat and you are flexible, steer yourself towards, say, a tray of roasted sweet potatoes (crazy delicious) or even french fries over, for example, ice cream or a cheesecake. There is just nothing good about sugar.
  4. Nutrients over non-Nutrients. Pick the food items that have some nutritional value over those that don't. A ribeye is better than a bowl of Gummi Bears. 
A couple of more supporting ideas:
  1. If you KNOW you're going to indulge, do a hard hypertrophy workout beforehand. You might as well use those calories to heal up from a muscle fiber destroying, high volume, bodybuilding style workout. I can't promise that all the excess will go into your biceps, but some will.
  2. Once you decide to cheat or treat, DO NOT let yourself feel guilty about it. Savor it, then get back on the bandwagon of healthy eating.
Some people should stick to a healthy eating plan 100% of the time - those who are ill, athletes near their competition seasons, the very obese. Look, if you have to lose hundreds of lbs., just go without the crappy food for a while! But if you're closer to your targets, you might be happier indulging once in a while. Just make it count, savor it, and then get back to a sustainable, sensible diet.

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.