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.