Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Secret to Superior Martial Arts

"First, do no harm."  Ever since the time of Hippocrates, Doctors have made a promise to this effect before engaging in a career in medicine.  This is so deeply ingrained, it is taught in countries all over the world.  Society goes into conniptions when we consider if maybe there should be exceptions, such as euthanasia for the terminally ill.  Pretty much everyone agrees that the Hippocratic Oath is a good idea.

Why don't we have a similar oath for Martial Artists?

People who have never trained in the Martial Arts will likely scoff at the very notion.  Aren't the martial arts expressly designed to hurt, maim or kill?  People who have trained usually (I hope!) know that this is a gross over-simplification.  Martial Arts help you avoid fights, and only if all other options are exhausted, to prevail.  Some styles, such as Aikido, don't even stop there, and attempt to find ways to neutralize an attack without harming the assailant.

Leaving your assailant's well being out of the picture, I hope its relatively non-controversial that the first and foremost goal of a martial arts school is to avoid injuries to the students.  Why?  You could argue it's good business, as injured students are less likely to return, and might even bring costly lawsuits.  This is true, but it's not the real reason.

Safe training makes better martial artists.

This isn't always a popular thing to say.  No pain, no gain.  Get in there and take it.  This is a karate dojo, not a knitting class.

There's a grain of truth to this, but a small one.  You need to understand what it feels like to get hit.  You need to be able to continue fighting in the face of adversity.  But if you're building your whole fighting strategy around being able to take whatever punishment is dished out, you're going to be in for a rude awakening the first time you discover there are people out there who are a lot bigger and stronger than anybody in your dojo.  Or even a lot smaller but carrying a baseball bat.

The first reason why safe training makes you a better martial artist is because it allows you to train.  Nobody gets better while they're out due to injury.  The more time you spend on the mat, the better you get.

The second reason is that the more realistically you can practice techniques, the better you'll be at them.  Some years ago, a particularly nasty neck breaking technique was removed from the syllabus at our school. 

It was a good technique.  An effective technique.

And there was no way to practice it safely to get really good at it.

We try to remember that it exists.  You need to know what's out there.  But I'm much deadlier with "safer" techniques that I've executed hundreds or thousands of times.  I know how to enter them, and how to tweak them.  Because I can safely stop before the point of injury, I've been able to practice with fast moving, resisting opponents, and learn when they really work, and when they do not.

So make sure that any school you train at puts safety first.  You should learn to fall before you learn to throw.  You should never practice a technique if you can't control the results.

Your progress as a martial artist depends on it.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Getting Older in the Martial Arts

It's been interesting to watch my perceptions of martial arts change over the years.  I used to read Gichin Funakoshi's autobiography with fascination, awed by somebody who would stand on the roof of his hut in a typhoon to strengthen his legs.  I loved watching demonstrations of huge, muscular guys smashing a pile of concrete bricks.  And I never tired of watching Master Killer (the very poor English renaming of the movie "The Thirty-Sixth Chamber") as the hero lifted a five pound weight at the end of a ten foot poll to strike a gong, using this unorthodox technique to develop invincible wrists.  Come to think of it, I still don't tire of watching it!

But then, something happened that would change my outlook forever.  Something I didn't expect, and could never have foreseen.

I turned thirty.

If you're under thirty, here's a secret that perhaps nobody has ever told you.  Your body starts needing maintenance after thirty.  All of a sudden, you can't eat whatever you want, whenever you want, with no consequences.  A workout you wouldn't have even thought about before suddenly makes its mark in ways you never expected.  And despite your best efforts, some of your physical abilities start to plateau.  Oh, sure, you can still exercise and get stronger.  You might even be able to stretch and increase your flexibility.  But it's much harder than before.  And it gets a little harder every year.

So I started to notice that my progress in sparring was slowing down.  For every two steps forward I made in skill, I took a step back in diminished abilities.  I wasn't getting worse.  I just wasn't getting better the way I wanted to.  I began to suspect that I'd never be the guy striking the gong with the ten foot hammer.  I was frustrated.

But if there's one thing I learned in the martial arts, it's to be fluid in my approach.  If one technique doesn't work on an opponent, try something different.  So I changed things up, focused on different areas.  Fewer hard blocks and high kicks, more blends and joint locks.  Less focus on movements that depend on power enhanced by technique, and more focus on those that depend on technique enhanced by power.

I still engage in intense workouts, and sometimes come home bruised and sore.  There's things I know now that I'll never be able to do, and I have limits I need to acknowledge and respect.  But I find there's a lot of flexibility within my style to find my own specialty, and adjust it to my own capabilities.  Which is a good thing, because I fully intend to still be practicing when I'm 80.  I may no longer be taking the same falls I'm taking now, but I'll be on the mat, refining my skills, and passing on what I know.

And probably still enjoying watching Master Killer, too.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Why Martial Arts?

"Haven't modern weapons made martial arts obsolete?I hear this question occasionally from people who don't practice and usually have only the vaguest understanding of what the martial arts are all about.  Before I address this question, let me first acknowledge its validity.

Yes, a trained martial artist facing a loaded gun doesn't have a favorable slot in an actuarial table.  While most styles spend some time training gun disarms and similar situations, those situations generally assume an untrained assailant using their weapon in fairly stupid ways, such as thrusting his pistol against your body or pointing it at you within arms reach.  It is also assumes that the assailant isn't interested in immediately killing his victim, perhaps because he wants to collect money, or enjoy intimidating his victim.  If any of these assumption proves false, it is unlikely that the unarmed martial artist will survive the encounter.

But it's a mistake to think that this situation is the result of "modern weapons", unless by "modern" you are referring to the last sixty-four thousand years (when we have the first evidence of bow and arrow technology).  The Boxer Rebellion at the end of the nineteenth century contained people who believed that their martial arts would provide them with immunity to foreign guns.  This assumption was rapidly disproved.  Nor would a hypothetical unarmed karate practitioner have fared particularly well against a roman legionary in the second century, armed with two javelins, a short sword and dagger.  There will always be extraordinary exceptions, such as when the swordsman Tesshu encountered an armed hunter.  The hunter noted that Tesshu's skills were useless against a gun.  Tesshu emitted a blood-curdling scream and charged straight at the hunter, who dropped his gun in fright and ran away.  I like this story, and enjoy re-telling it.  But I always remind myself that this is the exception, not the rule.

So if martial arts don't guarantee victory against the trained, armed assailant, why spend the time learning them?  The first point to make is that many, possibly most, encounters are not against trained, armed assailants.  They involve the guy in the bar who is angry at life and wants to pick a fight, the bully in high school trying to be macho, or even the drunken uncle at a wedding who acts out and needs to be subdued before he can hurt anybody, including himself.

More importantly, martial arts are about preparing for the little victories in life, that go unremarked, are never noticed by anybody else, and yet make all the difference in the world:
  A man, possibly a purse snatcher, walking down a sidewalk in New York City, collides with a woman, probably with the intent of knocking her down.  She is knocked backwards in her surprise, but automatically lowers her center of gravity and lands in a defensive karate stance.  The man hurries on his way, looking for an easier target.
  A project manager sits in a difficult business meeting.  Tempers flare, accusations are made, pushing the line that separates appropriate from inappropriate behavior.  The manager takes a deep breath, reminding himself that he spent all last evening with a group of martial artists trying to knock him to the ground, and he succeeded in staying upright only by staying calm and not wasting his energy.  He proceeds to lay out an objective case for what he thinks needs to be done, and moves the focus of the meeting in a more productive direction.
  A student, studying for an important exam, gets tired and frustrated and thinks about calling it quits.  But she remembers the discipline she learned doing kata non-stop for an entire evening, and finds the energy to stay focused for another hour.

We don't spend years studying martial arts in preparation for a brief moment that may or may not ever come.  We spend that time becoming the person we wish to be, in every moment of every day.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Persistence versus Talent

When I was starting out in the martial arts, the first thing that I noticed was that most people were better at it than I was.  This didn't bother me too much on the whole, as most of the students had much more experience than I did.  What bugged me were the other people who were just starting, who were also better than me.  Not all of them, but a persistent handful just seemed to be blessed with an innate talent for the martial arts.  They were better coordinated than I was, or perhaps stronger, or had more fighting spirit.

I was deeply disappointed to receive such tangible proof of the unfairness of the universe.  I wondered if I should just give up.  I was the proverbial 90 pound wimp.  Was I ever going to amount to anything?

I don't know if I ever made a real decision about it.  I just persisted.

A year or two later, I looked around and discovered all those people had drifted off at some point along the way.  "Bad luck," I thought.  "Imagine how good they'd be if they had stuck around".  But I didn't spend too much time thinking about it.  I was too busy worrying about how much more I had to learn.

Along the way, I started training some of the incoming white belts.  I noticed that a few of them seemed to pick up techniques effortlessly.  "Wow," I thought, "those people are going to be really good". I prided myself on my ability to pick the future champions in their formative years.

Sooner or later, they all drifted away, same as the others.

It shouldn't be too surprising that people kept drifting off.  The most basic rule of martial arts, and perhaps of all worthwhile skills, is this: most people don't stick with it.

I noticed this quickly, but being the slow person that I am, it took a while to realize what this really meant.  Persistence in the martial arts is much more important than talent.

It's the oldest story in the world, told by Aesop as the tale of the Tortoise and the Hare.  I never understood that story when I was growing up.  Sure, maybe the hare got tired quickly.  But couldn't he just take a quick breather, keeping his eye on the tortoise, and then finish his sprint to the finish line?  That would have worked.  But that's how a tortoise thinks, not how a hare thinks.

Persistence and talent are not mutually exclusive.  You sometimes (rarely!) see a person who combines unique natural talent with dogged persistence.  That's where legends come from, the Bruce Lees and Michael Jordans of the world.  For the rest of us, it's usually a question of talent or persistence.  If you have the choice, choose persistence.  It always wins out in the long run, because without persistence, there IS no long run.  And the great part is that you can always choose persistence.  Natural talent just happens.  You have it or you don't.  But anybody can choose to be persistent, if they really want to.  Most people won't want to.  And that's ok!  It doesn't matter what anybody else does.  It just matters what you do.

Whatever you do, choose to be persistent about it.