Wednesday, June 30, 2010

One of my kung fu teachers is nine feet tall

I refer, of course, to my dragon pole, pictured below.

Father, daughter, and dragon pole (circa 2007)

In principle, a weapon is simply an extension of the body.  In practice, it takes a lot of intelligent  and diligent practice to attain that kind of mastery.  [I'm working on it...]  In the meantime, training with a weapon, especially a large weapon, is a valuable source of feedback for developing efficient body movement.  Weapons are great teachers.

There is also a conditioning effect.  Look at the picture: talk about torque!  Repeatedly working through the hung kuen dragon pole set, or even individual movements as a drill, soon becomes a demanding workout.

I like to practice the dragon pole movements not only with the big stick, but to a lesser extent with a 6 foot bo, and also with no stick at all.  After training with the dragon pole switching down to a bo feels like a toothpick!

Nowadays we don't travel around armed with our preferred weapon, so ideally you want to be able to improvise by picking up whatever comes to hand.  While giant sticks are hard to come by -- and don't make great indoor weapons, anyway -- bo-like brooms and mops are relatively common, so practicing with shorter sticks makes practical sense.

Dispensing with the weapon altogether leads into an exploration of the relationship between weapon techniques and empty-handed body movements.  This is valuable.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Don't do this in a judo competition

Kani basami is judo's flying scissors throw, and was banned from competition because of the risk of breaking one or both of uke's legs.

It's a fun throw, and requires a strong breakfall from uke.  In learning this throw it is helpful to put one hand on the floor, but it's much more satisfying to do it in mid-air.

In wrestling you'll sometimes see the even more spectacular and dangerous flying head scissors variation, performed here (at 1:20) by Scarlett Johansson's character in Iron Man 2.

That's not allowed in competition, either!

Friday, June 11, 2010


For a bit of a change I taught a class built out of variations. Starting with our first leg throw (o soto gari) and the related ninth (o soto otoshi) I led the class through about 8 variations. We repeated the dose with around a dozen related hip throws and variations, all emerging from our nfirst hip throw (uki goshi).

Because we practice osoto gari and uki goshi so much, even for the beginners this was viable. The related principles form a bridge to the variations. It is not a case of learning something completely unrelated, but rather building on what you already have. At the same time, learning a new variation is not just accumulation; there are distinctive points and refinements to be learned and most everyone runs into a particular variation that poses problems that need to be worked through.

After this tour, we went back to some rapid-fire throw-for-throw practice on the first leg and hip throws with a variety of partners, which were -- gasp! -- now a bit better and more robust thanks to the exploration through the wider world of variations.

It's a bit like a chef experimenting with all sorts of flavors, but then going back to his speciality and making small adjustments, leading to significant improvements.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A few reliable techniques, or a smorgasbord?

I say both.  Despite our large syllabus, we spend most of our time practicing the fundamentals, both techniques and drills.  The higher techniques are practiced less often, but build on and compliment the principles instilled in the fundamentals.  This maintains interest, adds scope, and reinforces the fundamentals (example).

At first only the basic techniques will be sufficiently internalized to pull off under pressure, but over time one's applicable repertoire becomes richer.

An analogy is learning another language.  Maybe you only learn a handful of words and phrases by rote at first -- traveller's French (or whatever) -- but if you are serious, in time you will want to develop a richer vocabulary, a sense of the grammar, idiom, etc.  Even learning those first few phrases may be really difficult (at first), but it is not clear that restricting yourself to a small set that intensive practice of a small subset will lead to better results than a serious, broader study.

Of course, if you don't have the time/dedication to pursue a broad and deep study of a language (or a martial art) attempting to do so will lead to shallow and disappointing results.

How do we defend against kick-boxers and armed attackers?

Our self-defence requirements include scenario training against differently trained attackers, and armed assailants.  That said, I think that intensive training in weapons and in a fist-and-foot style helps a lot in comfort and expertise in those kind of scenarios.  And that takes training time, whether in one art or many. 

I have trained in ken-jitsu a little bit, and I like it.  In people who have done a lot of sword-work you can see it reflected (positively!) in their jiu-jitsu.  Similarly, as I make progress in chinese boxing, I am finding all sorts of cross-connections with jiu-jitsu.

Real combat, especially when weapons are involved, is of course extremely dangerous.  Personally, I'd rather face a kick-boxer than an attacker with a sword.

Is there such a thing as a complete martial art?

Kano's early Judo included distinctive striking techniques (atemi waza), and training in many weapons, as well as throws, groundwork, and revival techniques, all distilled from multiple jiu-jitsu ryu.  When Funakoshi brought Karate to Japan from Okinawa there was cross-fertilization with Judo, similarly with Ueshiba's aikido (Tomiki, I believe, was ranked 9th dan in both arts).

So judo was an evolving composite, from which specialist streams have emerged.  You can see echoes of some of this stuff in the higher judo katas, but overall there seems to have been a loss of heritage, at least in mainstream Olympic Judo, due to multiple factors, including: optimization for a particular rule-set, with victory in competition as the main goal; popularization as a national physical exercise regime suitable for dissemination through high schools; and the banning of most martial arts practice in Japan following its defeat in WWII.

Similarly, chinese boxing (kung fu) styles have evolved, combined and recombined over the centuries.

There are broader and narrower martial arts.  Training in a broader martial art as a base has much to recommend it, if you're in it for the long term.

Cross-training in multiple martial arts?

In response to one of my posts from 2007, Jiu-jitsu is Adaptable, an Anonymous commenter posted a couple of interesting and essay-length comments meditating on the merits and practicalities of many techniques vs few, and of different systems of martial arts, contrasting and comparing his experience of Jiu-jitsu with various other styles, including Krav Maga, Kali and Kick-boxing, and finishing up with the question:
What do you think about cross-training and how do you train defenses against kickboxers and armed attackers?
A few comments, broken across a few posts

Can be good, can be bad.  I appreciate that the hope is that by training in multiple arts you will be able to compensate for weaknesses in one art with the strength of the others, but I think that it is more complex than that.  Do you have time to train sufficiently in both arts to really get them? Do they blend harmoniously, or do they contain opposing principles and strategies?

I have students with a background in other martial arts come and train with me.  Inevitably they have a lot of patterns of movement drilled in that are difficult to modify; the level of difficulty varies with the individual and the kind of training that they have done.  Put their body in a particular position or situation and the drilled responses come out.  With those who empty their cups, and persist until they reach higher grades, there seems to be a process of unlearning, and then eventual re-integration, but it takes dedication and time.

Our organization primarily teaches Jiu-jitsu, classical judo and chinese boxing, with secondary arts including (but not limited to) ken-jitsu, aiki-jiu-jitsu, judo-do, and sambo.  So you could say we have built-in cross-training.

The head of our organization replaced his late master's preferred striking art -- shotokan karate -- with hung kuen chinese boxing, because he found that it made for a more consistent mix.  Even masters disagree on these things.

My rough advice to people who are aiming to be in martial arts for the long term is:
  1. Seek the best instruction you can find that seems like a good fit for you.
  2. If this includes integrated cross-training, great.
  3. If not, defer cross-training until you have reached a significant level of expertise in a base art, and then seek cross-training in consultation with your instructor.
I just don't see people without expertise being able to mix and match disparate martial arts training particularly effectively.

Another point of caution is that standards of safety in training vary widely.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Coach Wooden: Definitions of Success

I have just finished reading the fabulous Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections on and Off the Court by the all-time greatest ever college basketball coach, John Wooden with Steve Jamison.  Apparently still alive, but gravely ill at 99, Coach Wooden was profiled in Carol Dweck's fantastic book, Mindset, which I reviewed previously, and I am now reading some of the books recommended therein.

Wooden's approach to teaching, coaching, and life, which led him to an unrivalled record as coach of the  UCLA Bruins, including 10 national championships, including a streak of 7 (the previous record was 2 in a row), was built on an unconventional but efficacious definition of success.  He disagrees with the dictionary definition:
I knew how Mr. Webster defined it: "as the accumulation of material possessions or the attainment of a position of power or prestige, or something of that sort." Worthy accomplishments perhaps, but in my opinion not necessarily indicative of success. So I wanted to come up with something of my own. ...

From those things, and one other perhaps, I coined my own definition of success. Which is: Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you're capable. I believe that's true. If you make the effort to to the best of which you're capable, try and improve the situation that exists for you, I think that's success.

The catch in this is that it leads to highly refined, systematic, and committed approach to training and learned.  It's not easy, it's not about talent, but consistent and intelligent practice and teamwork.

The ultimate accolade that Wooden received was that his past players routinely said that more than teaching them how to play basketball, he showed them how to succeed in life.  It took fifteen years for Wooden to win his first national championship, but well before then, by his own lights he was already successful.

His book is great, and you should read it.  Here's a sample of some more of his pithy wisdom:
The four laws of learning are explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition. The goal is to create a correct habit that can be produced instinctively under great pressure. To make sure this goal was achieved, I created eight laws of learning: namely, explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition and repetition.
Needless to say, everything in the book is applicable to almost any area of endeavour.