“Soon, Sooner, Soonest” is a concept I first heard about from Bill Hayes Sensei. I would like to elaborate upon it here, using a specific example.
In the kata Pinan Shodan, there is an opening technique wherein the practitioner does a high block and a mid-level block simultaneously. It looks like this:
I’ve included a few different styles here because, when analyzing bunkai, it’s good to get a broad spectrum of how the technique is executed. Plus, I find subtle stylistic quirks really fascinating – so indulge me ; – )
You’ll notice that there are small differences in each picture above when it comes to hand position, weight distribution, and levels of blocking. Despite that, each practitioner could go through the same mental steps to analyze their bunkai. When contemplating application for techniques in kata, one needs to consider speed, timing, and intent – in other words, how soon they want to control or damage their opponent.
Let’s start with the most basic level of interpretation:
When blocking an attack, you want to do it as soon as possible. At a base level, this means waiting until the strike has been launched, and blocking it as it comes in. Like so:
In Pinan Shodan, after the initial block (shown above), the hands generally drop down, strike the attacker’s arm, and then punch to the face. This is a very accepted bunkai for beginners as it takes the core principals of stance shifting and blocking and applies them to a live target.
Even though the blue defender successfully avoided getting hit, he did it in a relatively slow way. He waited until the attack was already at full strength and on its intended trajectory. By waiting this long, the defender ran the risk of being out done in strength, speed, and skill. Furthermore, his right hand was floating up in the air for no apparent reason. Why not put it to use?
To use this Pinan Shodan technique in a “sooner” fashion, we are going to change the kind of attack being presented. Instead of a single punch, we are now going to use a choke or push that involves both of the attacker’s hands. Furthermore, instead of waiting until the attacker has built up a head of steam, the defender is going to intercept the technique early, when it is still weak. Like so:
In this instance, as soon as the aggressive push begins, the blue defender shoots his hands up and gains control of centerline. Then, as the attacker begins to gain momentum, the defender casts his hands outward and gains control of the attacker’s arms while unbalancing him by shifting into a back/cat stance. After that, the defender would proceed to force the attacker’s arms downward and follow up with a punch to the face.
This is superior to the first bunkai in the sense that the timing has been improved. Rather than waiting for the attack, the defender is meeting it before it gains strength, and dissipating it as it extends.
As useful as this bunkai is, we can do even better.
One problem that the first two bunkai share is a lack of immediacy in counter-attack. In both cases, it takes 3-4 steps before a strike is actually thrown that might stop the attacker. Instead of dawdling, the “soonest” bunkai shows us how we can quickly end a combative engagement using the Pinan Shodan technique. For the sake of this demonstration, let’s revert back to the original straight punch:
You’ll notice here that the counterattack happens immediately. In order to make this work, the block has to meet the attacking hand as it begins its trajectory and the counterattack needs to be made as the original attack nears completion. This will prevent the attacker from having a chance to formulate a second attack.
For kata purposes, after the initial counterattack shown here, the hands dropping down would be used to unbalance the opponent and the final punch would be used as a strike leading into a takedown.
I have two important conclusions I would like to make.
First – it’s important for beginners to learn ‘soon’ before ‘sooner’ and ‘soonest’. Some people may wonder why we don’t just skip to the end – the reason is because situations will not always be optimal and you might not always get the perfect ‘soonest’ technique in real life. By learning ‘soon’ first, you have a solid, simple technique to fall back on.
Furthermore, training in karate (and most other martial arts for that matter) is a progressive challenge. Instead of diving right into the deep end, it’s wise to slowly build up reaction time and confidence in technique. As time goes on, bunkai can be whittled down and technique refined until it achieves its core intended effectiveness.
Second – You might be thinking to yourself, “The bunkai I learned from my Sensei is different than what you described above.” That is quite all right! Bunkai is an extremely vast sea of possibilities and what you learned can coexist with what I’ve shown here. What really matters is how we go about analyzing our kata and how we can make ourselves more effective.
All too often we wait for someone to come with magical instructions on how to be as good as the old masters, but the truth is we need to dig for ourselves just as much as we rely on our teachers.
All the best in your kata exploration!
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The Travel Channel recently released a new show called “Dhani Tackles the Globe“. In the show, Dhani Jones (NFL Star) travels around the world and experiences exotic culture and sports.
After seeing the teaser commercials, I realized pretty quickly that some of the sports Jones was going to try were martial in nature, and the premier episode was slated to be Muay Thai Kickboxing in Thailand. I figured what the heck – let’s give it a shot.
For those readers who aren’t football fans, Dhani Jones is a well known linebacker who has played for teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinatti Bengals. Jones is known for his off-the-field personality as well, often used for football commentary. Jones is a bit of a fashion fan, sporting his trademark bowtie wherever he goes.
Dhani’s mix of physicality and personality make him an intriguing choice for host. Certainly this first episode in Thailand would test his mettle because Muay Thai kickboxing is one of the most explosive sports on the planet. At the very least, I figured, I would get a chance to see some cool Thailand scenery. Since the show was slated to film in Bangkok, it seemed like a can’t miss for wild and unusual Thai culture.
It turns out that “Dhani Tackles the Globe” is set up similarly to Human Weapon or Fight Quest. Dhani hooks up with a local guide that helps him navigate the intricacies of the city and helps him train for a week. At the end of the week, Dhani fights a local Muay Thai kickboxer.
Here is a little peek:
The training was pretty standard and kept in line with what we’ve come to expect from shows like this. Dhani worked the knees, elbows, punches, and kicks trademarked by Muay Thai fighters.
Every day after kickboxing Dhani ventured out and sampled the city. You could tell quickly that Thailand was an unusual scene for Jones, who was clearly not accustom to eating bugs and riding around on motorscooters so small that they could barely support his weight. In fact, one of the most memorable scenes of the whole show is when Jones tells a Tuk Tuk driver to take him to a ‘happening’ night spot in town. The driver proceeds to take him to a red light district.
You haven’t seen red light until you’ve seen Bangkok red light.
Jones is latched onto by a myriad of “escorts” trying to pull him into street-side brothels. One escort seemed suspiciously strong and bulky to be a woman…
Besides that, Jones visited the amazing Ayutthaya Kingdom in order to absorb some of the ancient culture and get his fortune read by a Thai numerologist. All in all, his crazy findings cast a pretty entertaining light on the diversity of Bangkok.
Back to the Muay Thai Fighting
In order to step into the ring, Jones had to learn the basics of Muay Thai kickboxing. In addition to traditional techniques, he also had to master the Wai Kru Dance performed at the beginning of each match and the cultural importance of the movements.
By the time his final fight roled around, Dhani was competent enough to step into the ring and make a good show.
SPOILER ALERT – DON’T READ IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING RUINED
This poor fellow didn’t know what he was in for. And I’m not referring to Jones.
What we had with this match was a couple of bad assumptions. The Muay Thai people assumed that Dhani would need to be eased into his fight. As an unskilled foreigner, they thought that putting Jones up against a real gunner would be ‘impolite’.
On the other side of things, Jones’s handlers most likely wanted to keep Jones out of the E.R. They therefore pushed for someone who wasn’t a real gunner.
The result was this slightly pudgy, slightly afraid fighter who had to take a beating from a large and extremely powerful Dhani Jones. Ouch.
“Dhani Tackles the Globe” is an interesting show. For martial artists, it doesn’t compete with Human Weapon or Fight Quest. In those series, the hosts were put through some hellish, rigorous training experiences. Dhani doesn’t seem to be slated for that kind of punishment. However, it’s useful to see what a guy of his size, strength, and natural talent can do. Anyone with the impression that size and strength don’t matter could benefit from watching Dhani in action.
On the production side of things, Jones needs to work out the kinks in his voiceovers. It still feels a little forced. I would advise him to watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations because Bourdain is a master of interesting and quick-witted commentary.
As I understand it, there will be more wrestling and combat in Dhani’s future. From what I saw of this first episode, I would probably tune back in.
Click here if you want to check out more. If you saw the show too, let me know what you thought!
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I don’t know anyone (including myself) who is totally immune to the “should I train today?” self argument. Training can be a physically and mentally draining experience, so our bodies and subconscious find all kinds of excuses to do something less strenuous. Among the classic cop-outs are:
“I had a tough day at work today.”
“I’m not feeling very good.”
“The kids/spouse/pet/house plants are being a real pain, I should pay attention to them.”
“Ohh my ______ is feeling weird and sore, I should rest it.”
“But American Idol is on tonight!”
Let’s be honest – we’ve all made these excuses. It happens. The trick is recognizing when we are setting up artificial barriers in order to allow ourselves to stay away from exertion without any sort of guilt.
A personal experience helped me put this into perspective a few years ago.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve hated flossing. Unfortunately, I also have soft teeth which are prone to cavities. This combination resulted in many unpleasant trips to the dentist. Every time I went I was reminded that I needed to floss more, but I knew better. Instead I doubled my brushing time, integrated mouthwash, and cut down on soda and high sugar juices…everything I could do except flossing.
My brilliant plan failed and I kept getting cavities. One day my dentist explained that the cavities were occurring in between my teeth because I wasn’t doing anything to clean those areas out. Being extremely frustrated with the situation, I decided it was finally time to bite the bullet and floss.
I knew if I just told myself to floss (in the same way people make New Years Resolutions) it was never gonna happen. So instead I went out and spent some money on these devices:
I left them out on my countertop and told myself that I would create a routine of flossing two times a week. My initial instinct was to shoot for every day but I knew I would abandon that venture quickly, so I set a more reasonable goal. When it came to this routine there was no negotiation. It didn’t matter what I had done that day or what I was doing that night, the flossing was going to happen.
Since then I’ve managed to maintain my system and occasionally increase it when I’m feeling motivated. You natural flossers out there might think this is all very quaint and silly, but for me it was real progress.
The trick to winning the training self argument is exactly the same – no negotiations.
Make it a Routine
There are certain things in our day-to-day lives that are simply routine: going to work, brushing our teeth, packing the kids lunches, etc etc. Training can be the same way. The key is to recognize when you are negotiating with yourself.
There are times when you have legitimate reasons not to practice. Things like serious injury, jury duty, Ebola, and getting caught by Cuban Militaristas are all valid excuses. But beyond that, most of the time we are just trying to convince ourselves we have an excuse.
Learn your own tendencies and recognize when you are trying to negotiate.
There are also active decisions you can make that will help establish martial arts as a resilient habit. The strongest of which is teaching.
Teaching – Full Instructor and Sempai
Teaching is a great way to establish a rhythm in your training. When you’re the teacher, there is no option – If you don’t show up there will be no class and you’ll likely get a raised eyebrow from the dojo head about your absence. Furthermore, you gain a sense of what students need to work on – so you already have a mental commitment for future classes.
In case you’re not at a rank yet where you can take a class by yourself, you have the option of exercising your status as a Sempai. Sempai means elder student to Kohai, or newer students. As a Sempai, it is your duty to set a good example for the Kohai of the dojo; but, should you be motivated, you can also take an interest in their development.
As you get to know younger students better, there may be instances where you can arrange little workouts before or after class to help them out. This can be as short as 15 minutes, but it is still a commitment made by you. This obligation makes your arrival in the dojo not just important to you, but also to the students you are assisting.
External and Internal Goals
Although I’m a big pusher of the internal benefits of martial arts training, external goals can be helpful when motivation starts to wane. Things like rank tests, tournaments, and other achievements can place a tangible deadline or horizon on your training which can help structure your day-to-day workouts.
Ranking and tournaments are a very slippery slope as they can easily become a sole source of motivation; but when kept in perspective, that drive can be the kind of pick-me-up you might need.
Pace Yourself – Consistently
When I started flossing I only did it two times a week because I knew being more gung-ho than that would lead me to long term failure. The same can be true of training. Don’t let yourself get burned out by over-training or commiting yourself too emotionally to an external goal. Pace yourself, set realistic goals, and don’t let yourself off the hook when you begin to negotiate your training for other tasks.
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