The funny thing about technique is that it can be very alluring. Martial arts inspire great leaps of imagination and originality. So much so that people (including myself) are often tempted to examine all the various possibilities of technique. This can range from exploration of bunkai, self defense, takedowns, chokes, grappling methods, vital point striking, etc etc etc.
So what’s wrong with imagination and exploration? Nothing – I wholeheartedly encourage it. What I do want to warn you about though is technique overload.
The Age Old Battle: Quality vs Quantity
How many prearranged self defense techniques do you really need to learn? 20? 100? 200? Certainly having some available is desirable because it helps program the body during times of stress (much in the same way kata can). Unfortunately it can be extremely easy to go off the deep end and over plan. If 5 prearranged knife self defense techniques are good, certainly 50 would be better right?
In my experience (both personally and having interacted with people of other styles and arts), an abundance of prearranged techniques or series of techniques can actually hinder a person’s real ability to defend themselves. This occurs for two main reasons:
#1 Tons of techniques are learned in a shallow fashion. This is the same problem with too many kata. There is no time to acquire muscle memory through rote repetition. As fancy as some prearranged tactics can seem, they are useless if the body can’t conjure them up when it counts.
#2 Too many options create a mental roadblock. Take for example a punch to the face. If the mind must choose between 60 techniques regarding how to handle that punch, it wastes valuable milliseconds processing that decision. If, on the other hand, you’ve trained yourself to naturally shift out of the way using 1 out of 5-6 mastered block/strikes, your body can simply proceed naturally and move on to dispatching the opponent.
Fear and adrenaline should never be underestimated when it comes to compromising the wonderful things we are able to do in the dojo. A beautiful 4 point kyusho knockout technique that looks astounding on a compliant opponent becomes a jumbled mess when your heart rate is jumping and your hands are shaking.
If you study your art for long enough, you’ll begin to understand the core concepts that make so many different techniques work. Things like timing, distance, weight distribution, balance, and generation of power. It is then that a scant few techniques can take on a wide variety of personas.
Keep Exploring…Just Be Warned!
Explore your style with my blessing and encouragement. Just be sure to give as much attention to naturalness. Let yourself be attacked in unexpected ways. Give yourself opportunities to fail and find out where your weaknesses are. Don’t be too quick to cast aside basic, simple techniques (those are the very techniques that could save your life).
Most of all, whether we are talking about technique, or rank, or titles, or whatever, remember – quality outweighs quantity!
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Hey all! I hope everyone had a great Halloween (or baring that, just a great weekend). I’ve always found this holiday intriguing, both from its unusual roots and how my appreciation for it has changed over the years. The past few Halloweens I only put a passing effort into dressing up, but this year I decided it was time to try a little harder.
My inspiration, oddly enough, came from a random viewing of Kill Bill Vol. II on TV. When I tuned in it was at the part where Beatrix Kiddo was getting dropped off to study with the notorious Pei Mei. For those who might not be familiar the movies, Pei Mei is one of Bill’s primary martial arts instructors, and is renowned for being both cruel and unusual in his training methods. Despite the virtually guaranteed unpleasantness, Kiddo decides to train under him anyway in hopes of achieving some of the same skills Bill possesses.
I’ve always loved this part of the movie, and was inspired to do my best to dress up as Pei Mei this year!
Do I strike fear in your heart? Does your blood run cold at the thought of crossing me? There’s no shame in it.
Also, yes – that IS the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique I am about to perform. shortly after this photo was taken I laid waste to all in attendance.
Getting the wig and facial hair on was pretty annoying…but well worth it. This costume also gave me a great excuse to buy kung fu shoes; something I’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t find a proper excuse. They are terribly comfortable!
For your continued amusement (and mine), here is a clip of the real Pei Mei being awesome:
Happy Halloween and feel free to include links to your costume in the comments below!
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Martial arts are a lifelong endeavor, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve how well or how quickly you learn things. I always preach patience when trying to develop techniques or kata, but I’ve noticed that there are a handful of tactics that you can use to improve your retention and learning.
The tips below are not all inclusive, and I’m sure you could come up with some advice of your own (use the comments section to shout it out!). My hope here is to give you some ideas to take with you as you continue to train.
The tricky thing about kata and other forms is how long they can be. It’s no mean feat memorizing 40-50 movements in a row, especially to the degree of accuracy that is required of martial artists. here are some ideas that might help:
* Decide how you like to learn. I wrote a more extension examination on learning kata here, so take a look at that if kata is a priority in your training. For our purposes in this post, learning can be summarized in one of two ways: all-together, or bits at a time. Some people learn kata best by doing the whole routine over and over again, slowly integrating parts into their memory in no particular order. Other people need to learn pieces at a time in proper order, so that their mind can construct the kata ‘chronologically’, if you will. You need to mentally decide which way works for you (or if you’re not sure, try both and find out).
* Avoid leader dependence. When an instructor is narrating a kata and keeping a watchful eye on things, you can improve your technique and pay attention to detail. Unfortunately, it can also develop a dependency on being led. On many occasions I’ve talked to students about their kata, and they’ve seemed quite confident in their knowledge and reps. However as soon as it was their turn to get up and try it on their own, the tension of the spotlight combined with a lack of immediate guidance caused them to freeze up and ‘draw a blank’.
Don’t fall into that trap – take time to practice your form on your own.
* Change directions. It’s common to always start your form facing the same direction (which is something people don’t consciously decide to do, they just always face the ‘front’). By doing this you give yourself the same visual landscape and cues every time you do the kata. For example, if you always turn left and face the door of your dojo, your brain will start to associate the door with that aspect of the kata. To break out of this habit, start your kata in different directions. In fact, don’t always start it directly facing a wall. Use weird off-angles. If you find yourself having to really think about where to turn next, you know your brain was starting to attach to visual cues.
* Utilize the same night / next day approach. There’s a lot of activity that goes on in a normal martial arts class. That being the case, the brain has a lot of gears to switch and a lot to think about. If you were to practice a kata at the beginning of the evening, by the time your training is through your kata could be nothing but a distant memory. That is why I recommend practicing the form while it is still fresh – either directly after class while the instructor is still hanging around to answer questions, or that same night after you get home. Don’t stop there though. Try it again the next day after you’ve had a night to let it sit. These reps can often turn something that is on the outer edges of your understanding into something that has really found a home in your memory.
Self Defense Techniques
Self defense is a critically important part of any martial arts regiment. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of practitioners get bogged down in how many techniques they can learn, or how elaborate they can design fight skits. I personally find some inherent risk in that mindset, and am much more keen to develop naturalness over impressiveness. These tips are designed to lead to retention of ability, rather than specific technique.
* Start off slow, then gain speed. Sometimes ego can grab ahold of you and make you think “well I should practice at full speed all the time because the street happens at full speed!”. That’s true, but it’s extremely difficult to develop good technique and control of balance without taking time to analyze all the little bits and pieces of yourself and your art. When first learning self defense techniques, keep your practice safe and slow. Analyze the right way to do it without relying purely on force and luck. As you gain confidence build the speed of the routine until you are doing it at full clip.
* Break out of the box. Once you are comfortable with your techniques, be sure to break out of the repetition habit. As valuable as drills like ippon/sanbon kumite are, they are too restrictive and predictable to properly represent full self defense training.
I’m a big fan of these drills, and I included this video because I think it is really well done (and happens to features Hirokazu Kanazawa Sensei!). But as impressive as it is, it still relies on a long series of cues and expanded distances that are only good as basic training. In order to break out of this habit, you must allow attacks to come randomly and without exaggeration. The attacker must be in a natural position rather than the formal stepping back/block down setup (or something equivalent). Control is still vital of course, as we don’t want to knock each other out…good training partners are not something to be wasted.
Traditional training almost always involves boxes because they help beginners learn and program our bodies with muscle memory. Boxes are good and valuable. It’s just important to remember that they aren’t the only thing worth doing. (Aikido Box, Judo Box, Kung Fu Box, etc).
* Let it be ugly and chaotic. Martial arts provide a great sensation of bringing order to chaos. With good technique we can seemingly take something fearsome like physical combat and put it under glass for our examination and control. Unfortunately, this tends to be an illusion of the dojo. When practicing self defense, it is important to give yourself the opportunity to fail. Allow you and your partner to move around, to grip at each other, and to resist technique. However, it is also important to know the limits of resistance so that we don’t actually have to hurt each other in order to get the technique to work. It’s a fine balance.
* Don’t ignore things you don’t practice. Aikidoka should not ignore the value of punching someone in the face. Karateka should not ignore the opportunity to clinch and sweep an opponent. Judoka should not underestimate the efficacy of vital point compressions. Be sure not to ignore things you don’t work on frequently.
Concepts and Ideas
Your understanding of the arts will not come cleanly or neatly. Sure, it would be nice if brilliant bunkai ideas flooded into your brain the moment you need them in the dojo. Sadly, it probably won’t happen that way. As you’re driving home, however, something awesome might occur to you. Too little too late.
Ah ha! moments are few and far between and should never be wasted.
Great concepts and ideas will occur to you at inopportune times, and it is your responsibility to remember them and practice them asap. I recommend getting into the habit of jotting down anything you think might be worthwhile. Make a note of applications, self defense techniques, or sparring strategies that might hold water. That way, the next time you get to the dojo, you’ll remember to actually put those ideas into practice.
There are a few different ways to keep track of your ideas. The first is a voice recorder. They make small, digital ones these days that are very convenient. The second is your cell phone. leave yourself text messages or voice messages with the general gist of your concept. The third is the most primitive…but also the one I love to use. Cut up slips of paper and try to have them nearby when you need them.
The benefit of the slips of paper is that I can sort through them if I am feeling at a loss for ideas. I can use them for inspiration, or to get me thinking in a different direction. I never know what i’ll feel like writing about (or training on) from one day to the next, so having these physically on hand is valuable to me.
No matter how you decide to do it, make sure you follow up an idea with real practice. A lot of techniques will wind up being duds, and that will make you sad. But a few of them are going to be great and you’ll be glad you integrated them into your art.
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This post was supposed to be short…don’t know what happened. Ohh well, hopefully something in there will be useful for you!
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