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.