Friday, August 30, 2013

In Search of the Perfect Technique

"Tom swung his leg backward, and in an improbable, ungainly arc.  It was a downright ugly maneuver.  Graceless.  Something that would have had him laughed out of his dojo in Stanton Oklahoma.  But it worked.  Father Thomass boot crashed into the shades stomach."
Seventh Son: Descent, by By J.C. Hutchins

Some of my favorite moments in the martial arts have been learning what a huge difference the exact right technique can make.  More times than I can remember, I've struggled to apply a wrist-lock, escape a grab, throw a person, finding myself straining my muscles against a larger and heavier opponent, only to find that a small correction in my technique makes all the difference in the world.  Getting just a little lower makes my opponent hurl easily to the ground.  Sliding my wrist just a bit inwards lets me easily escape a crushing hold.  Knocking my assailant just an inch off balance makes them unable to resist my attack.

This is reflected in the way I teach.  I hassle the details, make my students practice the same thing over and over until they get it just right.  I have to make allowances for the different lengths of people's attention spans, but left to my own devices, we'd work just two or three techniques over the course of a full class.  On a few occasions I've done this with a particularly dedicated student, and they've always been pleased with the results.

This becomes even more critical when dealing with somebody who has limited flexibility, or limited strength, or an injury that prevents their full range motion.  Sometimes a certain technique will simply be infeasible for a given person, but sometimes I find it will still work, and work well, but only if they master the detail with far greater precision than the average student.  Most people can make a sloppy technique work if they muscle it.  When that isn't an option, it has to be perfect, or nothing.

So I'm definitely a fan of getting the details of a technique exactly right, and I spend a lot of time and attention on that point.

And yet...

The world is a strange and complex place.  Sometimes things go awry in the oddest ways.  People move the way you'd least expect them to, or you fall to the ground despite your best efforts to stay stable.  A solid punch bounces off your assailant harmlessly, or an insubstantial tap knocks them off their feet.

The important thing is to not stand their like an idiot, wondering "What just happened?"  Keep moving.  If it was bad, recover.  If it was good, keep going.  If you're finished, don't stop, scan your environment, be ready for the next attacker, or somebody on the ground who maybe isn't quite ready to stop moving.

Expect the unexpected.

I love great technique.  But the perfect technique?  It's whatever works.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Work with what you have

"Why?  My fat friend asks me why?  He sits there on his world-class ass and has the nerve to ask me why?  Yeste.  Come to me sometime with a challenge.  Once, just once, ride up and say 'Domingo, I need a sword for an eighty-year old man to fight a duel,' and I would embrace you and cry 'Yes!'  Because to make a sword for an eighty-year old man to survive a duel, that would be something.  Because the sword would have to be strong enough to win, yet light enough not to tire his weary arm.  I would have to use my all to perhaps find an unknown metal, strong but very light, or devise a different formula for a known one, mix some bronze with some iron and some air in a way ignored for a thousand years.  I would kiss your smelly feet for an opportunity like that, fat Yeste."
-The Princess Bride

Are you fit enough to learn martial arts?  I've talked to many people who have an interest, but something is holding them back.  They're concerned that they're too out of shape, or not flexible enough, or have an old injury that prevents them from moving the way they think they should be able to.  Maybe they think they're too old.  Maybe they think that they'll be able to start in a few months, when they've solved their problems and everything has magically come together.  In my experience, that day almost never comes around.

Sometimes, a new student will come into our school who has everything going for them.  This person will be strong, limber, and have a good visual, audio and kinesthetic memory.  It's fun to teach these people.  But it's the former group that really gets me engaged, not the latter.

Because the martial arts are not about mastering the platonic ideal of the perfect technique.  They're about learning to use what you have, in the best way that you possibly can.  Maybe a knee injury prevents you from kicking well with one leg.  Great, lets spend our time focusing on your other leg.  (Bill Wallace did fairly well with this strategy).  Or maybe you're too short to effectively kick your longer-limbed opponents.  Let's focus on bridging the gap and fighting in close where your opponent can't kick at all.  Or you have a shoulder injury that prevents your arm from having a full range of motion.  OK, lets not try to force your arm past that limit and risk exacerbating your injury.  Instead, lets see what you can do with that arm inside your comfortable range of motion.

We have a lot of different techniques at our school, and while we want everybody to learn all of them, we are mindful that not every one will work well for every student.  We ask students to learn each technique well enough to demonstrate it (and eventually teach it), but then to figure out which of those techniques really work for them, and focus on maximizing their effectiveness with those techniques.

Not everybody has it in them to be a championship MMA fighter.  You need a unique combination of physique, talent and drive to achieve that goal.  But anybody can learn to maximize their own resources and talents, both on and off the mat.  In my mind, that's what the martial arts are really all about.

(Btw - you can stop wracking your brains now.  You're not recognizing the quote above because its from the book, not the movie.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What are you doing here?

A few years ago, a friend went to a ground fighting tournament, and told me about the challenge he had with one particular opponent.  This person started the match sitting down, legs spread apart, and waiting for an incoming attack.  It was effective strategy at this tournament.  My friend was unable to engage without getting entirely wrapped up.  Hearing about this left me feeling disgusted, but it took me a while to figure out why.

I eventually realized that it was because my goals did not align with the goals of this other person.  I'm interested in the self defense aspect of the martial arts.  To me, sparring and tournaments are useful insofar as they develop and measure skills that can be used in a self defense situation.  While I recognize the need for rules to keep these activities safe, I worry that they might result in a blind spot that could prove fatal in a confrontation on the street.  I combat this tendency by mixing things up, moving from one type of practice to another, focusing on the attributes I'm trying to develop, and keeping a healthy distance from any technique that depends on a particular set of rules.

Of course, this is the exact opposite of what you should do if your goal is to win tournaments.  My friend's opponent was relying on the fact that he couldn't be kicked in the face, and as a result had developed a position that gave him quick control of a grappling situation.  Muhammed Ali famously leveraged the "rope-a-dope" technique to defeat George Foreman, taking advantage of the very specialized terrain of a boxing ring and the fact that kicks and strikes to the groin are not allowed.  Many Tae Kwon Do practitioners will execute a quick series of kicks and then move in for a clinch, waiting for the referee to separate them, safe in the knowledge that throws, knees and elbow strikes are out of bounds.

None of these things are "wrong", as long as your goal is truly to learn to win tournaments.  Where I get concerned is when people begin to spend their things unrelated to, or perhaps even contradictory to, their real goals.  Perhaps they saw something neat on youtube and never thought about the context and utility of that particular move.  Or, much more insidious, they might be imitating a more senior student who has a different set of goals.

This can be an even more difficult syndrome to avoid when it comes to intensity, rather than techniques.  A lot of people practice martial arts for a little exercise and the comradeship.  Going through the motions in a half-hearted way is just fine for them.  But if that's not your goal, it can be really hard to constantly push yourself to the breaking point when nobody else is doing it.  The pressure to conform can be hard to avoid, even for adults.

You don't need to have exactly identical goals to everybody else in your school.  But it helps to remind yourself periodically what your goals are, and make sure you're moving in the right direction.  As they say, if you keep traveling in your current direction, there's a terrible danger that you'll arrive at your destination.  Make sure that destination is yours, not somebody else's.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

In Search of the Ultimate Style

In the 1983 movie War Games, Mathew Broderick teaches a computer (named Joshua) the concept of futility by having it play tic-tac-toe, over and over.  Joshua quickly realized that if you avoid a few key mistakes, the game ended up with no wins for either side, and applied this concept to thermonuclear war more quickly than humans.  Global extinction was avoided, and Mathew Broderick got the girl.

Let's hear it for learning lessons from kid's games.

There's another another game that we all learned as kids, and which holds similarly applicable lessons.  However, I'm not convinced that we've really absorbed them.

That game is rock-paper-scissors.  Its a simple concept.  Rock smashes scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock.  Winning the game is largely a result of chance, or, if you're really good, knowing your opponent and predicting what he or she will do.  However, the deeper lesson of this game is inherent in its structure: there is no ultimate weapon.  In the world of martial arts, this could also be described as there is no ultimate style.

Have we really learned this lesson?

For many years, the Gracie family claimed that their style of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) was superior to all other styles.  In the 1990s, they finally decided to prove it.  Joyce Gracie entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and for four years running, he proved the superiority of BJJ by defeating opponents who were sometimes significantly larger than he was.  While Joyce Gracie finished UFC 5 in a tie, and has since been eclipsed by other fighters, BJJ remains a very strong component of every mixed martial arts fighter.

Is it the best?

While modern mixed martial arts remains a much more dynamic and less restrictive form of tournament fighting than we've had for a long time, its worth bearing in mind that it is tournament fighting.  When you see two professional fighters going at it, you can expect:
  Each of them has known the exact time and date of this fight for months in advance, and has timed their fitness and weight to be at its peak at this point in time
  The fight will be held in a ring, with no furniture or obstacles, no glass shards on the ground, no pipes or bottles that might be grabbed and used as weapons
  The ring will be well and evenly lit.  There are no shadows to hide in, no areas of the ring that are especially susceptible to glaring lights that might blind one of the fighters
  Despite allowing a wide variety of techniques, there are very strict rules.  No kicking the groin.  No biting.  No driving an elbow into your opponent's spine
  Each fight is one on one.  There's no chance of your opponent's buddy hitting you from behind while you slowly maneuver into position to apply a choke

Changing any of these conditions might yield results very different from what we see play out in an MMA bout on television.  I find the last point particularly intriguing.  Karate's reputation has suffered in recent years, as people have pointed out how ill equipped it is to deal with an attack from a ground-fighting opponent.  However, there's an interesting asymmetry that shows up when you consider non-tournament conditions.  A master Karate fighter facing two mediocre opponents will likely destroy his competition.  However, an equally skilled BJJ fighter will be in serious trouble facing two mediocre opponents.  He'll easily begin to choke one of them into submission, but will be stopped short when the other starts kicking him in the back of the head.

I had a personal experience of the rock-paper-scissors effect a few years ago while sparring with some friends.  I was easily defeated by one of them, who was then easily defeated by the third.  Logically, this third person should have been the best of any of us, but it wasn't so.  I fought him, and won.  Each of us had a skill set that could be effective on one person, but was vulnerable to the other.

There is no "ultimate" style.  There's the one that works for you.  It supports your body type, leverages your strengths, and minimizes your weaknesses.  But most importantly, its the one that gets you excited and keeps you training, day after day, year after year.   In the end, that's what it's really all about.