Saturday, December 5, 2015

Enter the Sloth

Martial Artists are not, as a category, renowned for their laziness.  It takes a certain degree of gumption to show up at the dojo several nights a week when you might otherwise be watching TV or reading a book.  We spend those hours in varying degrees of exertion: punching bags, throwing opponents, and engaging in other activities that usually leave us gasping and sweating by the end of the evening.  Some superficial observers might think Tai Chi is an exception to the laziness rule, as its slow motion movements looks less engaging than a slow walk.  Those observers have probably never trained Tai Chi the traditional way, in which you're not even allowed to begin training until you’ve spent an hour standing with your knees bent and your arms held horizontally in front of you.  Five minutes of that was enough to give me a very healthy respect for anybody who can pull it off.

So yes, we Martial Arts tend to prize ourselves on being energetic.  The most active and energetic students are praised.  The lazy ones are considered the bad apples, and ordered to shape up or ship out.

Is it time for us to reconsider this situation just a little bit?

Being energetic is a fine thing, of course.  But it’s useful to reflect that it’s an attribute to be used, not a virtue to bask in.  And it’s essential to remember that the best technique is the one that the laziest person can use.

By way of example, and at risk of dating myself, a few decades ago there was a raging debate going on in the pages of Black Belt magazine about the efficacy of high kicks.  Opponents of high kicks said they simply didn’t work.  Bruce Lee famously said that kicking somebody in the head made as much sense as punching them in the foot.  Proponents of high kicks responded that the head is the most vital target, and if you can hit it hard, the fight will quickly be over.  They also noted that the leg is much stronger than the arm, as it carries so much more weight, and therefore a great tool to use for hitting the head.

A devoted practitioner of Tae Kwon Do at the time, I was in the pro-head kicking school.  My stated reasons were the ones above.  My real reason was that it just looked so cool when the hero would head-kick his opponents in the movies.  Having developed a fair degree of flexibility, I got pretty good at executing a head kick in sparring, and would use it regularly.  It was an effective tool at keeping off opponents who might shrug off attacks I made to their torsos.

I’m older now, and my flexibility isn’t quite what it once was.  I’m less enamored of head kicks than I was when I was younger.  Does this reflect an evolution of my thinking to a wiser perspective?  Or is it just sour grapes that I can no longer pull off this wicked cool move?

The biggest challenge in kicking somebody in the head is the time it takes to move your foot from the ground to the five or six feet in the air where the opponent’s head is perched. For sake of argument, let’s allow that it is possible for a martial artist to train him or herself to have sufficient speed to execute this kick faster than the average opponent is likely to be able to react.  I’m not saying this is an easy attribute to train, but let’s call it possible and leave it at that.

Now that martial artist is facing their opponent in combat, and has a choice:
  • Kick their opponent in the head with a reasonable chance of success
  • Kick their opponent in the knee with a much higher chance of success

Because remember, however fast you’ve trained yourself to kick somebody in the head, you can raise your foot to knee level if a third to a fifth of that time.  If you head kick is reliable, your knee kick will be unstoppable.

So.  Even if the ultimate plan is to kick your opponent in the head, wouldn’t it be better if they had a broken knee to start off with?  They’ll be limping around, not able to move effectively, and quite possibly their head will be much lower than it was originally as they lean down to grasp their leg in pain.

In other words, it’s not a question of whether or not a head kick is feasible.  Maybe it is, maybe it’s not, but you’ll always be that much faster when attacking a lower target.  Why choose a somewhat efficient technique when you can choose a highly efficient one?  Why be energetic when you can be lazy?

This principle extends far beyond kicking targets.  In our dojo we spend a lot of time throwing our opponents.  The hardest students to train are the ones that are naturally strong, because they find that for most of their opponents, they can simply lift them up and toss them down.  Well and good as long as you’re fresh and your opponents are not much larger than anybody in the dojo.  But what about when you’re not?  However effective you may be at throwing somebody energetically, you’ll be much better if you learn to throw them with very little energy.  If you want to then use additional energy to supplement your efficient technique, that’s fine, but don’t make it the cornerstone of what you do.

So while working out in your dojo, remember that while it’s good to emulate the strong and energetic students, it can be useful to study and emulate the weak and lazy ones as well.  Watch them especially when they spar or grapple.  If they make something work, it’s because they’ve found a very efficient way of doing it.  Something that will work well for you when you’re out of breath and can barely lift your arms or legs.

Your next encounter may well depend upon it.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Remove What is Not Essential

To the beginning student of the martial arts, it seems like there's so much to learn.  Technique, posture, footwork, breathing, timing... the list seems endless.  Students look at me like I'm crazy when I say "Keep it simple!"

They have a point - its hard to keep things simple when there's so much going on.  But I have a point too.  At the end of the day, succeeding in the martial arts is only to a certain degree about what you do.  So much of it is what you don't do.  We train in footwork not because there's only one way to use your feet, but because the average student uses their feet so inefficiently.  Too many steps, big steps which are too slow, and so on.  We teach posture not because there's a "perfect" posture, but because you can attack and defend much more effectively when your body is balanced.

So yes, there's a lot to learn.  But at a certain point, its less about what you add in, and more about looking at your base and seeing what you can take out.  We take out the wasted motions, the extra steps, the tensing of the muscles that don't add to power.  Michelangelo said something similar about sculpture: "When I look at a block of marble, I see the sculpture inside it.  All I have to do is remove what doesn't belong."

Like most good ideas about martial arts, this extends far beyond what you do when you walk into the dojo.  It applies to your entire life.

There are far more people with an interest in the martial arts than those who actually practice them.  The reason they don't practice is that their lives are filled with too many other things.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  You have to make choices, and maybe your interest in the martial arts is exceeded by your interest in running, or playing the guitar, or watching TV.  If that's the case, then good for you!  Keep at what holds your interest!

But every so often, we get stuck in routines.  We sit down and watch TV, or read articles on the internet that we're not really interested in, because we've forgotten that there's a good alternative, and that we're not really doing what we want to do.

So it's a good idea to periodically throw out everything that's not essential.  Toss out all the old magazines and books that you're never going to read again.  Donate all the clothes that you're never going to wear again.  Remove all the favorites from your browser menu that are no longer really a favorite, and simply serve as a distraction when you're tired or bored.  Create empty spaces in your life, and figure out what you really want to be doing with the space you've created.

Life isn't simple.  But it can be simpler if you make it so.  Focus on what is essential.

Discard everything else.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Fight today's fight

It's been said many times, in many different ways.  Warren Buffett noted that you have to drive by looking through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror.  Ram Dass was more succinct: "Be Here Now".  Nobody really disagrees with this in principle.  But do we live it in fact?

As I come to terms with running a dojo, I find myself busy with a lot of organizational activities that I may not be comfortable doing.  Recently, I bit the bullet, and charged into one of these activities.  I got a lot of important things done, pushing myself and growing in the process.  It felt great, and I had a glowing sense of achievement.  My immediate reaction was that I wanted to go back and do keep doing more of this important and difficult activity.

Which, when you think about it, is not a good reaction.

It's understandable, to be sure.  My reptilian brain was saying "Hey, that resulted in a pleasurable emotion.  Let's do it again!"  But the fact is, the job was done.  And while it was an operational activity that will never completely go away, there was no real reason to keep working on it at that point in time.

I was stuck in the past, driving while looking in the rear-view mirror, rather than the windshield.

Even worse, I kept congratulating myself on challenging myself and doing what needed to be done.  Which was distracting me from what I should really be focusing on in the present moment.

Sigh.  Back to the drawing board.  Breathe in, breathe out.

What does this have to do with the martial arts?  Everything.

I see it so often in sparring, including with myself.  I score a hit on an opponent using some particular technique.  It feels good.  It's tempting to do it again.  That technique clearly works, and I want the emotional buzz that comes from success.

But that's the exact wrong way to succeed in sparring, or in life.

Sun Tzu probably said it best: "When I have won a victory, I do not repeat my tactics but respond to circumstances in an infinite variety of ways.”  Even if the circumstances don't change and that technique might work again, repeating it will only train my opponent what to watch out for.  I might deliberately choose to do this if I'm training a student how to read a situation, but if I'm actually sparring to win, then I never want to use a pattern that might be predictable.  I want to be fluid.  Unexpected.  In the moment.

So easy to say.

So difficult to do.

But worth constantly pursuing.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

An Unexpected Journey

I didn't really expect this promotion.  I didn't even know a promotion like this was possible.

I've been through belt promotions before.  I thought about them, trained for them, expected them at periodic intervals.  They consume much less of my attention now than they once did, though I can't say they consume none of it.  But the point is, they're a familiar part of the landscape.  I know what to expect.

I didn't expect a conversation late one December evening, when the owner of my school said "I've thought long and hard about this, and I think I'm done running the school.  Would you like to take over?"

I'm sure I said something respectful, something suave, something that indicated I was surprised and honored and of course would be up to the task.  My memories of my brain seizing up and just babbling incoherently for a few minutes are probably just the same type of false memories that lead Brian Williams to believe he had been shot at while riding in a helicopter.

Run the school?  Me?  Ridiculous.  Sure, I've advanced tremendously from when I was a skinny white belt pushover.  But I know what school teachers look like, and I'm not that.  They look like John Kreese, the Sensei at Cobra Kai from the original Karate Kid movie.  Or Master Ken from the more recent (and hysterically funny) Enter the Dojo web series.  Or even Mr. Miagi.  The point is, these people have something in common.  A sense of absolute assurance and self-confidence.  They radiate power and knowledge (even if they're sometimes wrong), and are ready to dispense unlimited wisdom (or at least ideas) to those around them.

Whatever qualities I may have, that's not one of them.

I teach, sure.  I've been teaching for years.  But mostly, because that's the best way for me to continue practicing and learning.  A means to an end.  And its not new for me to run a class.  Or introduce a new student to the art.  Or develop a new approach to instruction.  Or maintain the school website.  Or contact people about advertising opportunities.

But, but...

But what exactly?

I guess when it comes down to it, its that I have a preconceived notion of what the owner of a school looks like, acts like, and does.  And is.  And I don't fit that preconceived notion.  Never mind that I'm already doing many of the activities involved with running a school.  I'm simply not a match for my mental image of the job.

Which embarrasses me profoundly to admit.  Isn't this a point I constantly stress to my students?  Don't react to what you believe your opponent will do, or should do.  Be in the moment.  Observe what they actually do, and move accordingly.  Don't get hung up because the big guy is unexpectedly nimble, or the small guy is unexpectedly strong.  Live in the moment.

So then who am I really?  And what does it mean to teach martial arts?

At the end of the day, I'm a student of the martial arts.  I come to class, and I teach, because I want to learn more.  I like working with different body types because it teaches me something about these techniques.  I like having people with different backgrounds, because it challenges what I know, or think I know.

So maybe I can't be the macho instructor who could take on a class of 30 students and knock them all on their backs without breaking a sweat.  I can teach what I've learned about being skinnier than most people I face, and how to use technique to make it easier to face a larger opponent.  And I can teach something about not teaching because you're filled with what you know, but because you want to learn.  And if that's not what somebody is looking for, then they can always go elsewhere.

It's not perfect.  It's not ideal.  But its what I've got, and who I am.

If it works for you, then I'll see you in class, and teach you everything I can.  And maybe you can teach me something too.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Managing Your Willpower

One of the greatest paradoxes of human nature is how much attention and effort people spend on goals that they are capable of achieving, but never do.  I'm not talking really hard achievements like becoming a billionaire, or an Olympic caliber athlete.  I believe achieving goals like that require a special blend of talent, persistence, opportunity and luck, and are simply not possible for the majority of the population, no matter what.  What I'm referring to are the perennial New Years resolutions, always made, rarely fulfilled, and yet eagerly attempted again when the next year rolls around.  Lose weight.  Quit smoking.  Get to the gym every day.  Stop drinking.  Stop overspending and pay down your debts.  These goals are within the reach of almost every person who attempts them.  But they are achieved by only a small percentage.  Multi-billion dollar industries have been created towards helping people achieve these goals which, on the surface, don't seem to be that hard.  What's going on here?

The most common problem is a failure of willpower.  Willpower is a subject of deep concern to any student of the martial arts.  It's needed to get to class each night, when it would be so much easier just to sit in front of the TV with a cold beer.  It's needed to persist in training in the long term, when you're feeling discouraged and frustrated that you're not improving as fast as you think you should.  It's needed to keep punching the target with everything you've got, even when you're really tired.  It's needed to keep fighting, even though you're sure you're outclassed and it feels like it will just hurt too much to go on.  Willpower should be studied more thoroughly than any technique or kata.

And yet, for all the importance of willpower, people know remarkably little about it.  Or at least, our knowledge of it doesn't impact the way we treat it.  Willpower is often seen as similar to muscular strength, which is a pretty good analogy.  And yet, a failure of willpower is often seen as some kind of character flaw.  We don't think a person has a character flaw if they are unable to bench press several times their weight, or if they get tired after a long workout.  Why do we think it's different if a person can't muster the mental energy to do something really difficult, or can't stay focused after a day full of distractions?

We also consider it perfectly reasonable to exercise to improve our strength.  For some reason, we don't necessarily treat willpower the same way.  There seems to be a disconnect here.

Increasing amounts of research point to willpower as having all the properties mentioned above.  Using it all day leaves you with very little by the evening.  Exercising it can make it stronger.  Saving it for when you really need it can make a world of difference when it comes to succeeding at key tasks.

When you plan how you are going to improve at the martial arts, managing your willpower should be a key element in your plan.  How will you conserve it during the day?  Remember that decisions require less willpower when it's easy to make them.  If your bag is right by the door, it's easier to grab it and get to the dojo than if you have to go hunting for it in the basement.  If you're going to really push yourself for a hard exercise in class, do it early in the evening when you still have the mental energy.  Peer pressure is a powerful motivator.  Do you have a martial arts buddy to inspire you to go even when you don't feel like it?

How are you working to improve your willpower?  Working out is a start.  Is it enough?  Do you need to supplement it with meditation, or some other discipline of willful focus?

Willpower is not an accident.  It is an attribute you develop over time.  Make sure you make an effort to cultivate and manage it, and you will be more effective, not just in the martial arts, but in all aspects of your life.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cultivating Student Spirit

I love practicing martial arts.  I've been at it for a couple decades, a constant in a life in which almost every other detail of location, vocation, diet and philosophy has changed.  There's always something new to explore, something new to learn.

And yet, every once in a while, I feel like I'm getting just a little bit burnt out.  I'm in a rut, not progressing, and not enjoying the process.  It usually creeps up on me quietly, so that I don't notice until I suddenly realize that I'm looking for excuses not to go to class, or practice, or whatever.

Whenever this happens, I usually discover that I've lost my student spirit.  Student spirit is a magical and fascinating thing.  It's the bright eagerness to learn and to make progress in an activity.  It's what you felt before school started when you had all your new supplies laid out and they just made you want to do something with them.  It's what you feel when you get a new gym membership and you're just itching to swipe that punch card and hit the stair-master, knowing that it will make your body hurt and you're looking forward to it.

Student spirit comes naturally.  It usually doesn't last- witness the difference in how many people are exercising at the gym in January, versus how many are still at it in May.  But the great thing about student spirit is that it can be cultivated, and regenerated.  I've found a couple of techniques that work for me.  They may work for you, or spark additional ideas for how to recharge your enthusiasm for being an eager student again.

Keep a Journal
If you're going to be a student, then really be a student.  Buy a journal, and don't use it for anything but your martial arts practice.  (Depending on your life, you might have multiple journals to track different activities and projects.)  At the end of class, write down what you've learned.  It doesn't have to be a fantastic insight, it might be finding a new combination that is effective against a single person in sparring, or a slight variation on a technique that is worth exploring later on.  Make a note of things you don't understand or want to get better at, and make a plan for how you will address these items.  Rate your skill in various areas, and track it over time.  You may prefer to keep things chronological, or you may prefer to organize it by topic.  Make it your own.

Empty Your Cup
Stop focusing on what you already know, and try to find something to learn from every situation.  Maybe somebody is demonstrating a technique you already know.  Is it EXACTLY the one you know, or is it a slight variation?  What are the pros and cons of that variation?  Watch the people around you - what are their strengths and weaknesses?  Even if you can out-fight somebody every time, is there some small aspect of their sparring that you could learn from?  Take the attitude that every moment has an opportunity to learn something, if only you have the eyes to see it.

Stop Judging Yourself
Stop getting down on yourself because you're not as good as you want to be.  Stop congratulating yourself because you've achieved so many of your goals, or are better than some of the other students at your school.  Lose yourself in the moment, keeping your focus only on what you are doing and what you are learning.

Aim Your Compass
Stop every once in a while and take a realistic assessment of where you are and where you want to go.  Are you learning the right things?  Are you progressing the way you want to?  Is this still the right school for you?  I'm not suggesting you constantly jump from one style to another, but you should definitely make sure you know what your goals are, and that you are headed towards them.  Set your goals, and then make a plan to get there.  And then execute.

Ask For Help
If you have questions or concerns about how you are progressing, or need guidance on your path, ask your instructor or one of the senior students at your school.  Chances are, they'll be eager to help out, give you an outside perspective, and share what they have learned.

I wish you the best of luck, and hope to see you on the mat soon!