Saturday, 23 May 2009

The irresistible charm of dexterity

Unlike today's fitness industry that places extreme emphasis on either physical attributes (strength, power, speed etc) or physical appearance, folk wisdom values dexterity (the ability of an "intelligent body" to spontaneously solve problems that arise out of the interaction with one's environment) very highly. The epics, fairy tales and proverbs of cultures from all around the world praise dexterity consistently - the famous Bible legend of yound David who beat the giant Goliath using his wits and skill is one of the first to pop in mind. Russian - Jewish neurophysiologist and pioneer of the science of biomechanics N.A. Bernstein included the following fable (presumably of Russian origin) in his classic text On Dexterity and Its Development. I find it very inspiring so I thought I should share it:
"The father sent his three sons to travel around the world and to learn wisdom. In three years, the sons were back and told the father that one of them had learned the skills of the barber, the second one had learned the profession of the blacksmith, and the third one had become a fencer.
The father asked them all to sit in front of the house and to wait for a chance to demonstrate their skills. The one who bested the brothers would inherit the house and all the valuables.
They sat for a short while and saw a large hare hopping across the field.
'This one is just for me', said the barber. He took his instruments, ran after the hare, put foam on its muzzle, and shaved it clean without cutting the skin.
'Yes', said the father, "You are certainly a great master. If your brothers do not do something amazing, the house will be yours'.
'Wait a minute, daddy', said the second son, the blacksmith.
And exactly at that time, a carriage appeared on the road pulled by a pair of trotters. The blacksmith grabbed his tools, ran after the carriage, tore off all eight horseshoes and replaced them with new oneswithout stopping the carriage.
'Wow', said the father, 'I can see that you also did not waste your time. I don't know who is more dexterous of you too. Your brother will have a hard time catching his elder brothers'.
He had just spoken these words, when it started to rain. The father and the two elder sons crawled under the bench while the third son, the fencer, remained outside. He drew out his sword and sterted to swing it over his head hitting away each drop of water. The rain grew harder and harder and eventually it started to pour. But the younger son just swung his sword quicker and quicker and managed to deflect every drop according to the perfect rules of fencing, so that he remained as dry as if he were sitting under an umbrella.
The father could not make a choice and divided his estate between all three sons. That was the only smart thing to do".
I really don't know what made things change so much since the times when people recounted fables as cool as this, but it seems to me that nowadays dexterity is underrated or rather, ignored, especially in the world of martial arts and combat training, in favour of crude physical attributes, such as strength, speed and endurance. If you just perform a search on the internet, you will mostly find people obsessed with numbers: it's always about how much weight one can move, how many reps of a given exercise
one can perform in a given amount of time or for how long can one continously perform one exercise before exhausting himself. And then there are the people obsessed with appearance - the "six-pack, the "big guns" (biceps, that is), and the shoulders that look as if you can rest the world on top of them. Especially in North America this "notion" of cosmetic muscle building is so pervasive that some people believe Fedor Emelianenko can't really fight, since he looks like a fat guy!

Now, please don't misunderstand me, I'm not claiming that strength, speed and endurance are not important physical attributes, and of course, if you're interested in improving your chances of getting laid, a six-pack might come handy:-) But, just take a moment to think about this: why does one want to train in martial arts? Is it because he wishes to overcome an opponent who is weaker, slower and less enduring? Of course not! And what other than dexterity is it that gives an average David a chance at victory over Goliath?
Unlike strength, speed or endurance, dexterity is a versatile capacity, it applies in many fields - in everyday life, in sports, or in war. It is accesible to everyone and it is exercisable, it can be developed. And, according to N.A. Bernstein, "it builds a bridge to the area of genuine intellect. It is an accumulation of life experiences in the field of movements and actions. For this reason, dexterity frequently increases with age and is preserved until later years more than other psychophysical capacities" [my bold].
Do you want to be a great martial artist? Just build a good base in physical conditioning and then move on to dexterity - it is not muscular adaptation you're after in the long run, it is neuro-muscular adaptation. Train movements, not muscles, and make sure you analyze the physiological aspects and biomechanics of each movement (or if you can't do that just ask help from someone who can).
In order to get inspired, just check out the following video I found on YouTube, of people swinging heavy objects around. Then compare the stuff these guys are doing with what the "monster lifters" of the two videos above are doing. Honestly now - which ones impress you the most???

And lastly, here's one last video for all of you who favour David in a match-up against Goliath. Fedor may look like just a fat guy, but man, can he fight!!!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

What does it take to become a master?

"Bird began developing his basketball practice at age four, and never stopped practicing. After the Celtics
[Bird's team] won the NBA championship in 1986, reporters asked Bird what he planned to do next. 'I've still got some things I want to work on', he was quoted as saying. 'I'll start my off-season training next week. Two hours a day with at least a hundred free throws'. Many professionals take some of the summer off, but not Larry Bird. He runs for conditioning, up and down the steepest hills he can find. On the blacktop court with glass backboard at home in French Lick, Indiana, he practices.
During his years with the Celtics, Bird was known for getting on the court an hour or two before everyone else to practice his shots - foul shots, fall-away shots, three-pointers, shots from all sorts of angles. Sometimes, just for fun, he would sit on the sideline and pop them in, or find a seat in the first row and float them in.
No question, Bird likes to win. Still, according to his agent Bob Woolf, that's not the main reason he practices so diligently and playes so whole-heartedly. 'He does it just to enjoy himself. Not to make money, to get acclaim, to gain stature. He just loves to play basketball' ".
[my bold]

Excerpt from the book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, by George Leonard (Penguin Books, 1992).

Friday, 8 May 2009

Is physical effort enough?

Here's some valuable training advice by Matt Thornton, Brazilian JuJitsu and MMA coach and head of the Straight Blast Gym worldwide matial arts organization. I found it in an interview of his, included in the Functional JKD instructional DVD series. Check it out and see if it applies to you (the stranscription was done by me so there might be a few small errors, but the general content is there):

"I hear that sometimes, my students will complain that some people are natural athletes. It is true, there are definitely people that pick up things quicker, they do BJJ for a year or two and they're really good. But alot of it also has to do with the way you think: a lot of the people that complain about learning slowly are just lazy. They may work hard physically, but they lack the most important element you must have in order to learn anything, which is imagination. When they see me learning something new and a day later they see me doing it in sparring, what they don't realize is that between the moment I learned the technique and the moment I came out and used, I have been thinking about it. I go to bed at night thinking about it, I visualize it, I wonder where it would fit in the context of the whole game, how it could be used from different positions, so I can see it in my mind and then I can use it. It's not just the physical training, there's also the mental part and I think a lot of people are just lazy, they just don't do it. 'Oh, that's the move? OK, show where else you can use it', they say, instead of 'Hmmm, I wonder where else you can use that move, let me think about it for a minute and let me use my powers of deduction'. You can't possibly learn this way. It's too complicated, so you really need that imagination. The people I'm talking about usually don't listen to music and they don't read a lot. If they exercised their brain muscle, they'd learn a lot faster too'.

Here's something for you to keep in mind: if you thought that training in martial arts is something that happens exclussively in the gym, and after you exit the door it is all over, you're going to have a hard time to get really good at your game. Visualization and mental rehersal can give you a serious edge: according to football coach Andrew Caruso, "virtually all recent research has shown that five hours of physical practice and one hour of visualization is consistently better than six hours of physical practice!" [1] All you have to do, is use your imagination. Elite professional athletes all over the world reap great benefits for this. Why wouldn't you?

[1] Caruso, A. Sports Psychology Basics. Reedswain, 2004.

You can find out more about Matt Thornton and the Straight Blast Gym here. You can also find some very interesting articles about training on his "Aliveness 101 blog":