Saturday, 30 April 2011

Time to move on (to a new blog).

The Systema Sweden blog has more or less been a way for me to document and communicate the results of my  exploration of martial art (both teaching and practice) and my geeky obsession with subjects such as sports science, bio-mechanics for sports, teaching motor skills, and the Alexander Technique, during the period 2008-2010.  The fruit of my exploration and studies led me to gradually distance my self from representing a specific brand of Russian martial art activity and to the founding of the Göteborg Dynamo Club, which is nothing more than a vessel that will facilitate the research of combat and combat training in an open-ended and non culturally biased manner.
I find the activity of writing rather enjoyable but extremely rewarding, since it helps me put my thoughts into order, so all-in-all, the Systema Sweden blog was both interesting and fun for me. I hope that reading it was productive and insightful for you.
I am going to continue my writing in the Dynamo Club blog, so feel free to visit - I will be more than happy to exchange ideas!
Spyridon V. Katsigiannis

Sunday, 28 November 2010

How to become a martial arts master!

OK, let me start this blog post by telling you something you might not know: if you're into martial arts and you're following a specific training program for more than few months [1], what you're after is a form of expertise. Even if you have never dreamed of becoming the king of the ring, the mat or the octagon, even if you only want to learn how to protect yourself, or aspire to gain better control and awareness of your body, your goal is, in a way or another, superior performance, so... expertise it is! People are somewhat afraid to use this word in connection to their personal goals, because they seem to think that expertise is the realm of the naturally talented, a do-not-enter zone reserved exclusively for the Michael Jordans, the Mohamed Alis, the Bobby Fischers and the Tiger Woods’ of this world, the ones also known as the “naturally gifted”.

Well, I personally find the idea of any type of expertise quite fascinating and for the past year I’ve read a few books on the subject, most of them easy-to-read popularized science best sellers plus one quite stiff university textbook. From the stuff I’ve read, one thing you might find interesting is that scientists a) considerably disagree on a technical definition of what giftedness is (except for physical characteristics, such as height, body type or muscle composition) and on the methods by which it can be measured and b) have, after considerable research, all but abandoned the idea that innate giftedness and talent can fully account for expert performance. The two prominent scientific views on the subject of expertise today are the “nurturist” perspective (claiming that expertise is obtainable by virtually anyone, and expert performance, irrespective of innate ‘talent’ will inevitably emerge through an extended period of ‘deliberate practice’, typically either 10 years or 10.000 hours) and the “interactionist” approach that attributes expertise to a combination of environmental factors AND an extended period of deliberate practice. In a few words, the Michael Jordans, Mohamed Alis etc of this world became the greatest either because they simply practiced too much or because they had some talent and realized its potential by, once again, practicing too much [2].

We cannot of course rule out the possibility that scientists might someday get to prove that innate giftedness can exclusively account for expert performance, but for now, I’d rather bet my money on the 10.000 hours of deliberate practice. Now, I hope you noticed, both now and earlier, the adjective “deliberate” before the noun “practice”. Yes, I am sorry to say, it is quite true that not all practice makes perfect, or as psychologist K. Anders Ericsson puts it, living in a cave does not make you a geologist. You need much more than just going through the movements for ten years in order to play with the big boys, whatever your choice of field (music, dance, sports, sciences etc). So, what is deliberate practice? Once again according to Ericsson, “it entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do, that you turn into the expert you want to become” [3]. Doesn’t sound like much fun, huh?

In order to give an example of what deliberate practice is people who write on the subject of expertise – scientists and journalists alike – very often use the example of Benjamin Franklin and how he became the extraordinary writer he was. That is exactly what I will do right now – the following excerpt comes from the book Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, a well-respected American journalist. I guess the European readers of this blog will not know much about Benjamin Franklin, just like I did before I read the afore-mentioned book, and I hope they will find the story as fascinating as I did. My American readers most probably have studied the work of “America’s first great man of letters” in school, so I’ll just ask them to bear with me, because after the excerpt I’d like to make a few comments on how we can benefit from Franklin’s example to make our training in martial arts more substantial. Anyway, here’s the excerpt: “As a teenager, Franklin seemed to think he wrote well enough, but then one day his father found an exchange of letters between Ben and a friend, John Collins, arguing a point back and forth. […] Ben’s father first told his son what was good about his letters; they were better than Collins’s in spelling and punctuation. Then he told him and showed him specifically how they were inferior: ‘in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances’, as Franklin recalled. […] Ben responded to his father’s observations in many ways. First he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would ever have thought of. It began with his reading a Spectator article and making brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, ‘discovered some of my faults and corrected them’.One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required and extensive ‘stock of words’ because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. Then, after he had forgotten them, he would take his versified essays, and rewrite them in prose, again comparing his efforts with the original. Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original. Again, he ‘discovered many faults and amended them’” [4].

Video: I believe we can all agree that this person here must have practiced his juggling in general and this routine specifically for a significant amount of time. It seems to me that learning how to manipulate a human body that - unlike those three little balls - is resisting, might requite even more training,. What do you think?

So, here’s the outline of a deliberate practice program for you, and I believe there is no doubt that the program was successful. But how does Ben Franklin’s method relate to martial arts training? As I was reading the above text, some thoughts came to my mind, and I would like to share them, so here they are:

  1. Franklin taught himself to become a great writer, which basically means he assumed the full responsibility for his practice. He did not search for the ultimate method or some master teacher who possessed ancient secret knowledge on writing, and demanded eternal devotion from his disciples in order to share it. It is my belief that it is the same with martial art: all we need to know is either inside us or out there, hidden in plain sight. All we need to do is work hard enough to bring it to surface and eventually master it. The people whose help we need in order to make our struggle more focused are mentors and coaches, but certainly not “Masters”.
  2. In order to become a great writer, Franklin had already learned the basics of writing in school: the alphabet, a limited vocabulary, the rules of grammar and syntax. Unfortunately, nowadays schools, society and the modern way of life do not provide students with the basics of movement, in order for them to learn how to perform the actions found in martial art. But if your quality of movement is not good, then your actions will always be lacking (speed, power, coordination etc), so, if you are a martial artist, unless you’re very athletic, you are starting your study with a disadvantage. Train generic movement first, until it becomes fluent and effortless. After achieving a good grasp of basics, you need to continuously search for what good movement (martial or other) looks and feels like. Following one system religiously doesn’t quite cut it – it leads to a cultish mentality (the way “we” do it versus the way “they” do it) which makes you blind to a wealth of information that your art or system may not provide but you could absorb otherwise. It doesn’t really matter if you just want to become a Specnaz killing machine – you might find treasures of information on good footwork or power generation (and why yours isn’t so good) by studying the movement of Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, masters of Aikido, MMA or boxing champions, salsa dancers and contact improvisers.
  3. With the Spectator essays as a measuring stick, Franklin had a pretty good idea of what good writing was, i.e. he had a rough template of his goal, in order to compare his work to a standard and assess his weaknesses. How will you get to know what your weaknesses are? As a martial artist who is training in a specific style, first make sure that you understand the dogma, strategies and tactics of your art (the big picture, that is) [5] and then, for each and every drill you practice find out how it is serving the greater scheme of things. Do you drill in pushing people with your fists? Are you performing rolls on a hard floor? Make sure you know the reason why! Only then you will understand if you are practicing the drills correctly and you will be able to assess and coach yourself. Your instructor must provide this information in specific, easy-to-understand terms – if he does not, it means that either he does not know or he does not want to disclose this information to you. In both cases, a mentor who does not help you learn how to coach yourself is not a good mentor.
  4. Franklin did not progress from a mediocre to an exceptional writer overnight. He took the time he needed. It is obvious that becoming an expert takes time and it is not something for the faint-of-heart. 10.000 hours of training is a prerequisite if you aspire to become a world-level martial artist. You can probably become a good instructor at somewhere around 5.000-6.000 hours of training and a decent practitioner at about 3.000 hours. If you are looking for additional short-cuts, there aren’t any. What I would suggest is that you start keeping a training log –today - so that you know where you are at every moment in relation to your goals. You might complain that you are way too busy to practice for so many hours. Well… tough luck. Ben Franklin managed his personal project while having a job that left him little free time – he practiced in the morning before work, at night after work, and during the weekends. But here’s some good news for you: you don’t always have to train with a partner or at a martial arts club, so you can fit part of your training to what your otherwise busy schedule allows you. Solo training can be very productive, as has been proven by Jerry Rice, probably the greatest American football player and definitely the hardest worker in the history of the sport. Rice’s legendary practice sessions included very little actual football playing and tons of strength, speed, and agility work that gave him a distinct advantage over his opponents [6].

Video: There he is - the coolest guy in the world! Does he look like he learned his moves from some "grand master"? Yeah, especially the one he's doing at 1:40:-) And FYI, this guy has got a day job. Check his Youtube channel for the video where he explains that. Where does he find the time to practice?

Well, now you have a rough picture of what it takes. If you have any thoughts to share on the idea of acquiring expertise through deliberate practice, I would be happy to hear them. Otherwise, go make a Ben Franklin out of yourself…

Notes and references:

[1] There is also the category of people who take up martial arts in order to learn “a few easy-to-learn, effective” techniques in order to defend themselves. I believe the military paradigm has shown that this is indeed possible and can be achieved in about 50 hours of training. After that, all the students need to do is occasionally refresh the basic tactics they’ve learned, in order to retain most of the skills acquired. This type of training is primarily tailored to the needs for efficiency of the army as an organism and not to the learning capacity of the students – a great number of recruits have to go through basic training in as short an amount of time as possible, so the idea of them becoming experts is in this case inapplicable. In this sense, the idea of civilians training in “military combat systems” for year after year (and getting graded with belts or levels) seems rather absurd.

[2]Starkes, Janet L., Ericcson, Anders K. (Editors). Expert Performance in Sports. Human Kinetics, 2003. p. 26 – 27.

[3] Ericsson, Anders K.; Prietula, Michael J.; Cokely, Edward T. (2007). "The Making of an Expert". Harvard Business Review (July–August 2007).

[4] Colvin, G. Talent is Overrated. Portfolio, 2008. p. 105.

[5] I recently read in some online forum an instructor claiming that having a strategy and tactics goes against the principles of his art. This claim is absolutely absurd and probably the result of ignorance. The principles of any art (the “how”) are born out of the strategies, i.e. the ways this art chooses to address the problems of combat (the “because”). If there is no “because” there cannot be any type of “how”.

[6] Colvin, G. Talent is Overrated. Portfolio, 2008. p. 52 – 56.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Will the real Russian Martial Art please stand up?

Well, it’s been quite some time since I last posted something on my blog, so I thought I’d make a comeback with this Q&A-type article on the subject of my understanding and perception of Russian Martial Art, and the way we practice it at the Göteborgs Dynamo Club. Please keep in mind that the views expressed below are to a degree personal, but also the result of my research on the work of various instructors from different styles of RMA, some of whom I have had the opportunity to personally meet, train, and exchange views with.

What is Russian Martial Art?

Contemporary Russian Martial Art is the old Slavic combat skills and training methods coming from as far back as the 10th century, that were systematized during the second half of the twentieth century, through the influence of Soviet scientific research in the field of human biomechanics and the neurophysiology of learning – in a few words, it is tradition viewed and treated through the eye of cutting-edge science, and at the same time, a way to study combat within the context of the rational Western scientific tradition. In this sense, there is absolutely no place in RMA for irrelevant national folklore, false prophets, or masters demanding blind faith from their students.

Is RMA the creation of one specific person, group or family?

RMA is a body of knowledge on combat and physical culture that has evolved over the centuries through the life experiences of the Russian people. It is not a martial art that sprang fully formed out of someone’s head. Having said that, we must point that there are indeed various persons who have developed their own training approaches to contemporary RMA. Such persons are Alexey Kadochnikov (Russian Style), Alexander Retuinskih (ROSS), Mikhail Ryabko (Systema RMA) There are also a number of systems that are modern-day revivals of old Slavic fighting styles, such as Belov’s Slavyano-Goritskaya Borba, Gruntovski’s Skobar, Buza, and the Russian All-Around Fighting. These specific approaches are different styles of RMA but they share too many common elements - way more than their founders would sometimes like to admit. Alexander Retuinskih, for one thing, has been quoted as saying that “…there are no Russian martial arts; there is only Russian Martial Art” and this is the view I subscribe to.

Is RMA conceptually connected to a specific religious dogma?

Rational science cannot in any way be connected to religion. The idea that one’s religious faith affects his ability to learn a martial art is just as absurd as claiming that only a Christian can become a good doctor or that great physicists are exclusively Buddhists. Having said that, an interesting historical connection is that, in 1274 “wall-to-wall” fist fighting contests (one of the most popular cultural expressions of RMA) were banned in Russia, under threat of excommunication from Christianity for the participants, since the church considered them “barbarian ceremonies”[1].

Video: Common people having fun and honing their combat skills at the same time - it's not just the "cammo pants crowd" that needs to prepare for war. Does it looks like a pagan ceremony? Sure! Is it Russian Martial Art? You bet!

Isn’t RMA the combat system used by elite units of the Soviet and Russian military?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because during the Soviet era, the Bolsheviks attempted to wipe out any martial tradition of native origin (something similar to what happened to Chinese martial arts during the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong). During that period, Russian Martial Art remained in practice due to its lethal effectiveness, in some (not all) elite units of the Soviet Special Forces concealed under the title “Combat SAMBO Spetsnaz”[2]. No, because the roots of Russian Martial Art can be traced back in the 10th century, in an era when Russia did not have a professional army (professional military units were introduced to Russia during the 17th century, according to the Western European standards [3]). Back then, in times of war, the people who defended their country were farmers, artisans and merchants, rather than warrior knights. These simple people were forced by circumstances to develop training methods that were:

  • effective enough to keep them able-bodied and mentally tough,
  • not injurious to the body so that they could keep doing their everyday jobs,
  • playful and challenging so that training would be enjoyable rather than a burden.

Since Russian Martial Art consists to a large degree of those training methods that have survived until today, it is a combat system tailored to the needs of common people, that one day might be called upon to defend their land of family, rather than those of elite soldiers that make a living out of fighting.

Video: Military hand-to-hand combat training of a GRU special forces unit: a few things look like Russian Martial Art, but most don't...

How is RMA different from other styles of martial arts?

In terms of the result we seek to achieve, it is not different. Just like most martial arts, RMA includes strikes, kicks, takedowns, joint manipulations, control and restraint techniques, defense on the ground, plus fighting with and against weapons. What differs though is the overall approach to learning, and the specific training methods that derive from it. The specific ways in which RMA differs from other combat systems can be summed up as follows:

  • Health comes first, effectiveness follows. In RMA, training is supposed to make one healthy for life, not able to fight for just a decade or so. We emphasize correct biomechanics that allow for maximum performance with minimum stress to the body. Other than contact injuries (that we seek to minimize using protective equipment or controlled force application) and accidents, all other injuries that happen as a result of the training are not considered “part of the job” and are dealt with through a diligent health-first approach. Now, can someone become a good fighter without good biomechanics? Possibly, but the price to pay in injuries will be steep when his fighting days are over.
  • Training is non technique-based. Instead of practicing specific techniques until they become “second nature”, the RMA practitioner’s goal is to first understand a series of fundamental concepts and cultivate a number of basic principles that when applied, will allow him to improvise spontaneous solutions to a great variety of combat problems, i.e. “create techniques” under pressure. Take fist fighting as an example: instead of practicing the six standard punches of boxing, in RMA we first learn how to generate maximum full-body power, and then how to apply force with the fist from any position and at any direction. This way, someone who practices Russian fist fighting, can rather easily limit his options to those allowed by the sport of boxing, while a boxer cannot easily expand his options to movements he has not trained at. In this sense, RMA becomes a set of concepts and principles that enhance performance whatever the strategies and tactics used by the fighter or the context of combat (un-armed combat, weapons fighting, sport fighting, self-defense etc), rather than a specific method of conducting combat.
  • All-around dexterity is valued more than specific skills or aggression. In RMA, we do not only train combat-specific exercises and drills. We also practice a great variety of exercises/games (balancing, rolling and tumbling, twirling with the staff, sticks and rope, etc) that result in the development of all-around dexterity - the cultivation of “intelligence” in one’s body, so that it has the potential to perform ANY movement fluently and effortlessly. All-around dexterity is often mistakenly referred to as an “innate talent”, but the truth is that it can be cultivated. A body which is dexterous can learn surprisingly fast how to perform any task (martial or other) much more efficiently. This is why dexterity training is a valuable tool to improve performance not only in the field of combat, but also in all kinds of sports and of course, the physical activities of everyday life. Besides the facilitation of the learning process, there is one more reason that makes dexterity very important: in the chaos of combat, it is not aggression and blind fury that will save one’s life, but rather morale, adaptability and improvisation. Dexterity training is the key to all three.

Video: Arkadiy Kadochnikov, Alexey Kadochnikov's son, demonstrating a biomechanical exercise with incredible flow! If there is no sophistication of movement, it's not Russian Martial Art...

Does training in RMA include physical conditioning?

Practitioners of RMA are taught to use as little force as possible when fighting, but occasionally that might still be a significant amount of force, so conditioning is necessary. At the beginning stages of training our conditioning mainly consists of joint mobility work and stability work, but down the road Russian kettlebells and skipping ropes become our favorite (though not the only) tools.

Is there any full-contact fighting involved in RMA?

Historically, full-contact fighting of various forms (one-on-one and “wall-on-wall” [4] fist fighting, belt wrestling, one-handed wrestling, stick fighting) has been an important aspect of RMA. At the Dynamo Club, in order to ensure the effectiveness of the skills that are developed through practice, we need to test them under pressure, so we do a number of drills against resisting partners and occasionally we fist-fight, wrestle or stick-fight using full force. Of course, we use the appropriate protective equipment to minimize injuries. Having said that, we believe that full-contact sparring is just a part and not the be-all and end-all of martial arts training.

Video: Some single-hand wrestling demonstrated by practitioners of Russian All-Around Fighting. A force-against-force drill that may not be "realistic combat" but builds skills useful in real combat.

Is RMA easy to learn?

To make it simple, RMA is a training method that helps one to master his own body, in order to learn how to manipulate other people’s bodies in the context combat. It is a process that might be described as challenging, occasionally frustrating, extremely rewarding and definitely fascinating, but easy… no, not really. To put it differently, how easy is it to become a good (let alone elite) tennis player, pianist or dancer?

Who can train in RMA?

Theoretically, any person who is physically and mentally healthy can take up RMA. On a more practical level, it helps a lot if you commit to training because you enjoy learning new physical skills for the sheer challenge of it and not because you’re expecting short-term returns (like being able to disarm knives, AK-47s, bazookas, etc, especially if you have not spent a day of your life in the army). In a few words, if it is a few “simple, effective, and easy-to-use techniques” you are after, in order to become a “spetsnaz killing machine” within a few months, RMA is not for you.

Last but not least: the Göteborgs Dynamo Club is not your run-of-the-mill franchise gym, where you swipe your membership card at the reception desk and train while avoiding interaction with all other human beings under the same roof. In alignment to the centuries-old tradition of Russian Martial Art, we first and foremost are a community of people exploring movement as related to hand-to-hand combat. We train as a community and we grow as a community. In this sense, it is more important for one to become a good training partner than a good practitioner. If your personal agenda is the only thing you consider important and you cannot be a team player, there are other gyms out there that can help you more than we can.



[2] Retuinskih, Alexander. Russian Style of Hand-to-Hand Combat. 1st Books, 2001. p. xxv


[4] Wall-on-wall fist fights were usually held during religious celebrations in Russia. Men and youngsters of neighboring towns and villages met on fields or frozen rivers, formed lines or “walls” and fought with fists, under very strict rules. The wall that managed to break through the opponents’ wall was the winner. Although the wall-on-wall fights were held for entertainment, they were actually a type of informal military training. What was tested in these “competitions” was not the technical competence of the fighters, but their mental toughness and their willingness to fight shoulder to shoulder with their comrades when duty called. A famous Russian phrase, “Do not hit a man when he’s down”, is said to have its roots in the rules of wall-on-wall fighting.

Friday, 21 May 2010

You say you know what you want, but are you sure you know what you need?

One of the things that I find increasingly cool about having trained at a number of martial arts over the years is that, at any given moment, I can revisit a style I used to train at in the past and reach new conclusions, since I am now approaching it from a different point of view. Breaking down the mechanics of the Muay Thai clinch with help from the concepts and principles of Russian Martial Art, or finding a non-classical way to train Silat throws are not only examples of mind-stimulating exercises, but also proof that the common elements between different martial art styles are many more than their proponents often care to admit.

This period, I am revisiting my Filipino stick-fighting with the help of a good training part
ner and not only am I having a great time, but I am very content to notice my stick skills have improved, although I haven't trained at them for about three years! The whys and the hows of such a paradox might be the subject of a future blog post. What I wanted to share with you now is, well, a joke. I was going through my series of Dog Brothers Martial Arts DVDs the other day in order to remember some stick-fighting drills, and was reminded of the joke about the old lady and the Filipino Hilot healer, that Guro Marc "Crafty Dog" Denny uses to introduce the material taught in the Combining Stick and Footwork DVD, so here it is: an old lady goes to the village healer and says to him, "It is very hard to admit, but I have a terrible flatulence problem, I am passing a lot of gas all the time. You may not notice it because they don't make any noise and they don't smell". The healer thinks for a minute and he goes, "Hmmm, I see. Take these herbs and visit me again in a week". The old lady goes off, she takes the herbs, comes back in a week and says to him, "Listen, I know you are a good healer, but I am sorry to say that things haven't got any better, they're actually a little worse, not only am I still having a problem with flatulence, but now they smell! They're still not making any noise, but now they smell". And the healer replies, "Good, now that we managed to clear your sinuses, let's see what we can do about your hearing".

The point of this joke/story, in the words of Marc Denny, is that "...people usually have an idea of what it is that they need, but very often the person who is giving the help has a different perspective". He goes ahead to point out that people often come to him and ask help with their stick-fighting, in the form of various "effective techniques that will win matches", but more often than not, the point they miss is much simpler and at the same time more profound: that the tip of their stick and their feet do not move together in a coordinated way! There are hardcore ways to train, for when you have to fight a death match the next month, concludes Denny, and then there are ways that you train in order to build yourself in the long haul.

Well, what never ceases to surprise me is how many practitioners of martial arts approach their training as if they have to fight a death match in a few days! A few months ago I attended a two-day seminar with Alex Costic. For the best part of ten hours, Alex tried to present his personal training approach to Russian Martial Art (one that he has painstakingly developed over a number of years), which includes a series of biomechanical exercises in order for one to achieve freedom of movement, breaking down techniques through static drills, integrating techniques through fluid and dynamic drills and finally testing them under pressure. After nine hours of explaining and demonstrating, Alex was rather surprised to find out that the majority of the participants had only one question: "Can you show us some gun disarms?" In order to keep things into perspective, I have to add here that only one out of thirty or so participants was a law enforcement officer, and the laws of the country where the seminar was held do not allow its citizens to bear arms...

It is not for me to try and explain the complex psychological processes through which each person's perceptions about martial arts are formed. Still, in the media-driven society we live in, I suspect the imagery used by the mainstream and other media channels to promote combat sports and martial arts play a major role in these processes. For example, in the increasingly popular MMA TV shows, magazines, podcasts, blogs and what have you, fighters are very often referred to as "gladiators" (very inconsistent with the attempt to present MMA as a sport and not a spectacle, if you ask me), they give interviews promising to "get in the cage, mess him up and knock him out" or something similar, and most often, after winning a match, they jump on the cage fence, scream, and beat their chests - all that with a musical background of heavy metal music and a visual background of gothic monsters or patterns, printed on t-shirts and hoodies of dubious taste. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the "reality fighting" systems: in the city I live in, I see pretty often various fliers or posters urging potential practitioners to start training so that they "Take No S**t from Anybody!" or asking them "What will you do if the stuff you learn in the dojo does not work in the streets?". And I guess you already know that, but Youtube is packed with videos of tough guys wearing camo pants, stripping opponents off their knives, AK-74s, bazoukas and ballistic missiles. I can't be really sure of that, but it seems to me that after young men - who are naturally prone to participate in what Marc Denny calls "young male ritual hierarchical combat" - are exposed to these media images, when they enter a martial arts school, they're more prone to fight and win now rather than patiently train and learn in the long haul...

So, some of you might ask, why is that bad? Well, first of all, there's the ethical/sociological question regarding the benefits of having a great number of young men out there training to become angry pit bulls, but I won't really bother you with that, since the subject of this blog is not society or ethics, but human movement as related to combat and training for fighting. Let's get to more practical considerations, then. I believe it was more than ten years ago when Matt Thornton, head of the Straight Blast Gym worldwide martial arts organization, introduced his concept of "aliveness in training". In a few words, this concept states that, in order for any combat training method to be valid, it must include the components of energy (i.e. real force being applied), timing and motion - without these it is nothing more than "dead patterns ". In the Straight Blast Instructional DVDs, I remember Thornton stating that he wants his students to start sparring from the first day they enter his gym. In this sense, a student who just begins his training in stand-up fighting will spend a few minutes learning the mechanics of the jab, throw a few jabs on the focus mitts and then start sparring using only the jab, on the first day of his training. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the jab is nothing else but a way of applying the mechanics of power generation, which include weight transferring, dropping and rotating the pelvis/torso/shoulders. But if one has no experience in these mechanics, if there is a problem or plain inefficient movement that is, how can learning be achieved by adding to the problem the tactical parameter of having to hit an opponent that hits back? Please do not misunderstand me - I do believe that training against resisting partners is a neccessary tool if one is to acquire functional combat skills, but it is not the only tool.

Training against resisting opponents builds mental tenacity, which is a neccessary attribute if one aspires to become a fighter. Still, obsessing with "alive training" and focusing exclussively on the application of skills, usually happens to the detriment of movement efficiency and produces tough fighters with inferior skills - the ones usually referred to as "also runs". Exceptional fighters make difficult things look easy, because they take the time to master the movement first and then the various applications. In my view, martial arts training has two components: number one consists of doing the strategically, tactically and technically correct thing while interacting with an opponent, number two consists of using your own body in the most efficient way while performing number one. For good or bad, number two is achieved through a number of not-so-cool exercises and drills, a lot of them performed solo.

Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to train with a fair amount of people in the Göteborgs Systema-RMA club and based on my experience I believe there are lots of people out there with less than optimal motor control, due to simple and profound problems such as mobility or stability deficits, lack of balance, coordination or rhythm in their movement and trust me, these problems simply cannot be addressed by focusing on sparring against resisting opponents or disarming AK-74s from less-than-resisting opponents. Should you to ingnore the simple and profound stuff and focus on the "exciting" stuff, you run the danger of sparring yourself into an also-run tough guy or the danger of disarming your way into becoming a self-deluded "Specnaz killing machine". In both cases mastery - of both your art and your self - will be way beyond your grasp. And you will end up believing that flatulence is the worst of your problems. So, once again, you say you know what you want but are you sure you know what you need?

The YouTube video above includes highlights from a number of fights of Guro "Crafty Dog" Denny in Dog Brothers gatherings. He is usually the one fighting with no t-shirt on. You can learn more about the Dog Brothers

To learn more about Matt Thornton (whom I deeply respect although I partially disagree with) and the Straight Blast Gym click here.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Which way to mastery?

It was a few weeks ago on a Sunday morning when I found myself in an airport, ready to board an airplane, with nothing to read during the flight. My only option was the airport newsstand and, without giving it too much thought, I picked something from the non-fiction shelves - a book titled Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink. The book is about human motivation, the things that make us tick, and what scientific research has discovered on the subject. I found it a pretty insightful read, although the author tries to reach conclusions mostly on the gap between what science knows and what is commonly practiced in the field of business management (which I do not care much about). What impressed me the most from Daniel Pink's argument for the need of a new approach in order for people to get motivated, creative and productive, is the importance of the element of mastery, i.e. the urge most of us have to become better and better at something that matters. Here's some advice the author gives, which I believe will be helpful and inspirational to martial arts practitioners:

"One key to mastery is what Florida State University psychology professor Anders Ericsson calls 'deliberate practice' - a 'lifelong period of... effort to improve performance in a specific domain[. Deliberate practice isn't running a few miles each day or banging on the piano for twenty minutes each morning. It's much more purposeful, focused, and, yes, painful. Follow these steps - over and over again for a decade - and you just might become a master.
  • Remember that deliberate practice has one objective: to improve performance. 'People who play tennis once a week for years don't get any better if they do the same thing each time', Ericsson has said. 'Deliberate practice is about changing your perfromance, setting new goals and straining yourself to reach a bit higher each time'.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition matters. Basketball greats don't shoot ten free throws at the end of team practice; they shoot five hundred.
  • Seek constant,critical feedback. If you don't know how you're doing, you won't know what to improve.
  • Focus ruthlessly on where you need help. While many of us work on what we're already good at, say Ericsson, 'those who get better work on their weaknesses'.
  • Prepare for the process to be mentally and physically exhausting. That's why so few people commit to it, but that's why it works".
If you are interested in the idea of mastery you will probably find this previous post on the Systema Sweden blog interesting.

You can buy Daniel H. Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates us, here (Amazon UK).

Sunday, 14 March 2010

How can you learn how to fight when you can barely stand???

Although I own quite a few of them, I don't find martial arts textbooks especially useful. If one does not know how to read between the lines (and pictures), they seem to promote an inefficient way of teaching the arts, by focusing on directions on how to execute specific techniques: "1) Grab your opponent from the neck and biceps, 2) Push the neck diagonally to the back while at the same time pulling the arm in a 45 degree angle towards the opponent's front right corner", etc. Whether we like it or not, combat techniques are not like IKEA furniture, where if one blindly follows the instructions, the end result will inevitably be a couch or an armchair. The subtleties of manipulating an alive and resisting human body are infinite, so sensitivity and adaptive measures are needed every moment of the interaction, and no martial arts textbook can convey that.

Nevertheless, every now and then one can stumble upon valuable pieces of insight in books about martial arts and from my experience, these are usually located in the first, introductory chapters, where the basic principles of the art analyzed in the book are explained. For example, the other day I was browsing Total Aikido: The Master Course by master Gozo Shioda. On page 14 of the book, Shioda explains the first basic principle of aikido, namely Chusin-Ryoku, or "the power of the center line": "One of the basics of aikido is the principle of maintaining a straight center line in the body. For most people, even if they try to stand straight, their center line is not really straight. Even when we do stand straight and focus on keeping our center line fixed, we lose it again as soon as we move. If this happens, then the purpose of aikido, the development of breath power, becomes impossible. If we are able to maintain a strong centerline whatever direction we move in, we have focused power. By forging this focused power, we are also promoting strong posture, concentration and breath power [1]".

Now, Shioda, at a height of 1,57m and barely 50 kilos of weight, was by any measure a very small man. Still, if one watches his aikido demonstrations, it is obvious that this man, unimpressive in terms of stature, possessed extraordinary power and impressive skills, so we must assume that his writings must have some importance, right? The problem is that his descriptions seem to me pretty vague and open to interpretation (as is very common with most Asian martial arts, in my opinion). This should not be surprising: when Shioda was studying aikido under the founder of the art, Morihei Ueshiba, scientific research into the field of human movement was nonexistent, so the terms one could use to describe what happens into a moving human body had to be intuitive, which means that they lacked objectivity.

I don't even want to think about what on earth "breath power" might mean, but how about the term "center line"? Some difficulty might be also present here, in order to explain it. For example, some Wing Chun people describe the center line as an imaginary line drawn along the centre of the human body that joins the eyes, nose, throat, navel, knees, and groin as a central focus of attack. Some JKD people might add that the centerline should always be directed towards the opponent, so that all our weapons are available to use to the maximum of their capabilities. The way I understand these explanations, it seems that the center line is some sort of a topographical feature that lies on the front part of the body. In Shioda's description, I suspect that, much more than a topographical feature, the center line is a biomechanical feature of a body in motion.

Maybe then, if we turned to biomechanics and sports science, we'd get some additional insight. According to Joanne Elphinston, performance consultant to elite athletes, "...all sports require control of a central longitudinal axis (CLA) to achieve their most efficient movement. In practice this central axis is not a rigid position: it is the sense of a firm but flexible central reference point, which supports movement of the torso and limbs. Imagine a firm, thick metal cable passing vertically through the top of your head and down through the middle of your body. This cable would form an axis for your shoulders, thorax and pelvis to smoothly rotate around, but still enable you to move easily in all directions. [...] If the central axis collapses, rotational movement will be restricted due to joint compression on the concave side of the collapse, and soft tissue tension on the convex side" [2].

Some of you might note that from the vague terminology used in some Asian martial arts we have moved into geek language territory, so we'd better try and make it simple: if you have seen the movie Karate Kid 2, you probably remember that little spinning drum Mr Miyagi used as an analogy to help Daniel understand the "secret technique" that was to save him during the final fight (if you haven't seen the movie, you haven't missed much, but you can check the final fight scene and the drum I'm talking about here and before you ask, yes I too believe that Ralph Macchio's central longitudinal axis is kinda crooked). OK, now try to think what would happen if the stick which runs through the middle of the drum, was made from soft rubber instead of wood - most probably, it would collapse under the weight of the drum, so rotation would be hard to achieve, if at all possible. Well, that's what happens if one lacks control of the CLA or, as Gozo Shioda might say, is unable to maintain a "strong centerline". And, obviously this does not only happen in martial arts practice - whether you play golf, tennis, or ice hockey, or you want to pack some serious power in your punches and make your throwing techniques more efficient, you must rotate your torso, and rotation will be strongest when it is performed around a strong, clearly defined axis.

So, how does one establish this central longitudinal axis? Well, it is mostly about maintaining a neutral position of the spine (keeping those gentle curves at the cervical and lumbar regions intact) with the least effort possible. In other words, you need to have an ideal posture, described once again by Joanne Elphinston as "simply and buoyantly supporting yourself against gravity, and allowing your body structures to move and interact in their least stressful, most effective relationships. An ideal dynamic posture should make movement easier, helping you to establish a central axis for balanced motion and allowing you to breathe freely" [3]. Unfortunately, nowadays this is easier said than done in our urbanised society, with most people spending many hours a day hunched in front of a computer, squeezed in a car seat, or collapsed on the couch in front of a television set.

It always strikes me as a paradox when I see Systema RMA practitioners in seminars trying to perform what is taught by instructors with perfect posture, using a less than ideal posture themselves. The problem is two-fold, in my opinion. On one side we have the students that focus on the end goal of each movement they try to perform, ignoring the process through which the goal can be achieved, what F.M Alexander, founder of the Alexander Technique, called the "means whereby": if one only cares about delivering a mighty Systema punch, he tends to "think with his fists", which makes focusing on the ideal posture impossible. On the other side, although all the Systema RMA instructors I have trained with (including Mikhail Ryabko and Vladimir Vasiliev) have an ideal posture, they never actually refer to it as an essential ingredient of their skills. What they do is repeatedly urge the practitioners to relax - the problem is that bad posture, by its mechanical structure generates tension in order to be maintained, which means that relaxation is by definition unattainable...

A protracted and backwardly rotated head, lack of mobility in the thoracic spine, abducted or winged shoulder blades, externally rotated hips, are all factors that contribute to a bad posture and will make your progress in martial arts (or any other type of) training arduous and, most probably, laden with injuries. If you want to check whether your posture is good, the mirror won't help you much - having a partner video your training sessions will. After you see yourself training, go check out videos of top practitioners of martial arts and top athletes and make a comparison (you can check once again the demonstration by Gozo Shioda above, perhaps a DVD with work by Mikhail Ryabko, but also videos of Mohammed Ali, Michael Jordan and even some accomplished dancers or gymnasts - ideal posture is not exclusively found in one martial art, sport or discipline). If you discover that you don't fare that well, you've got work to do, but please stay away from the "military approach" to posture: the advice to "stand up straight, head up, shoulders back, stomach in", will lead you away from your goal, by causing increased effort and muscular tension in your body. The basic Systema exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, flat-foot squats) can help you a lot, as long as you focus on executing them with a "long spine", imagining (not actively trying) that your head is moving away from your pelvis. Some stability training for your core, pelvis and shoulder girdle will also work miracles. Still, the best methods to improve your posture utilize subtle cues in order to activate neurological reflexes that stimulate your posture quickly and easily (the Alexander Technique is one of the most sophisticated I know off). You might want to try some lessons in one of those. And most importantly, when you're training, try not to think with your fists and feet. Before you try to perform any movement, even you warm-up exercises, just perform a mental check of your posture, until the neutral position of the spine becomes a habit for you (the slow training methods utilized in Russian Martial Art make this awareness possible). Because, just being able to stand does not in any way mean you're in a position to fight.

[1] Shioda, Gozo. Total Aikido: The Master Course. Kodansha, 1996. p. 14
[2] Elphinston, J. Stability, Sport and Performance Movement. Lotus Publishing, 2008. p.17
[3] Ibid. p. 61