Monday, August 31, 2015

How Good Is Good Enough?

I often hear people ask the question, "how long does it take to get good at martial arts?" It seems like a fairly straight forward question but more information is necessary to answer it.  Usually, people have some mental image, implicit or explicit, of what they think being "good" at martial arts looks like.  It goes back to what your goals are

Do you want to be the best fighter in the world?  Well, that'll likely take a lifetime of training and you might not even achieve it.

Do you want to be able to win competitions on an international scale?  It'll take several years of dedicated work.

Do you just want to be able to handle the average angry drunk at a night club?  That'll take a lot less work than the scenarios above.

I like to think of it in terms of the entire population of the world.  If I were in a fight with another person selected at random, what's the percentage chance that I have the skill, ability, and luck combination to beat that person?  For me, if I can have a better than 80-90% chance of winning (and I think I do), then I consider myself "good".  Maybe 90% isn't acceptable to you.  Everyone has to make that decision for themselves.

All this being said, individual talent and athleticism is certainly a factor in how long it takes to achieve proficiency in martial arts.  So, take an honest assessment of yourself, make your goals explicit, and then decide whether or not you have the requisite patience to achieve your goal.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Scientific Training

Everyone knows that getting better at a skill requires practice, but what people may not know is that not all practice is equal.  Sure, in martial arts, some drills are just more useful than others (I'd love to read about what people's favorite drills are...just as a side note), but what I'm talking about is what happens in your mind.

Let's suppose that you practice a good drill for years and years.  You will get better.  You will improve.  The question that you should ask though is, "could I have gotten to this skill level faster?". For the majority of people, I would say that the answer is "yes", and I can say that because I know that most people aren't taking a hardcore analytical approach to their training.  And yes, I'm talking about forming a hypothesis, TESTING it, analyzing the results, and then adjusting your hypothesis until you get the desired outcome. 

That's right...the scientific method applies to martial arts training.  (by the way, this really works for any skill, not just martial arts.)

As in any good experiment, you want to control for as many variables as possible, keeping all but one (ideally) the same so you can see the different outcomes and attribute those differences to the thing you changed.  When learning a new throw, perhaps you want to test how much you should bend your knees, how straight to keep your back, when the ideal time to execute the move is, etc.  Change each of those things up, one at a time, so you can see the results.  Also, repeat the test with a different training partner to make sure your conclusions will generalize to opponents of different shapes and sizes.  Running this kind of test is easy when you practice one move for many repetitions (you are getting your reps in...right?).

At the beginning, the changes will be dramatic until you get the fundamentals of the move down.  As you increase your mastery of a technique, the changes will be much finer and probably take longer to realize as you squeeze the remaining bit of effectiveness-juice out of the technique.

This approach applies to both offense AND defense.  When sparring, I recommend trying to remember what move worked best for you offensively and defensively.  Also, track what moves your opponents did to you that worked well both offensively and defensively.  Heck, keep a journal with this information so you can track it over time and help others later who find themselves on the same path.

Keep in mind, this approach requires that you have a degree of self awareness (how your body is positioned, how much strength you put into moving, balance, etc.), which is something that any martial art should cultivate in you anyway.  However, having a beginner do this might be a bit overwhelming for them.  It all depends on the individual.  But this level of critical analysis is something that all martial artists with a strong desire to improve should do at some point.

Taking a scientific approach to training will enable you to make intelligent decisions towards improving rather than just waiting until you "get it".

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What does a stance reveal?

In an earlier post, I talked about using fakes to gauge the experience level of an unfamiliar opponent.  To augment that, I want to talk briefly about what your opponent's stance reveals.

To discern anything from someone's stance, you have to have some experience (whether through observation or participation) in a variety of fighting styles.  Most people without fight experience probably won't know the difference between a boxer's stance and a kick boxer's stance.  So, step 1 is to broaden your fighting art familiarity.  Know what fighters look like.

Step 2 just takes that knowledge deeper.  Don't just correlate a stance with a fighting art.  You need to know what types of techniques are characteristic of the art.   Know how practitioners in that art tend to move.  For example, even though Taekwondo and Karate are very similar arts, after spending 5 years in TKD and almost as much time studying Japanese arts, I can tell the difference between a TKD guy and a Karate guy just by the way they bounce around the ring.  How is that helpful?  Well, I know that both arts involve both hand and foot techniques (hence the name TKD...look it up), but my experience tells me that TKD people are MUCH more likely to throw kicks than hand techniques.  In a fight, that would affect where I focus my attention, how I distance myself, and what I perceive as a telegraph of a technique.

There are A LOT of martial arts out there.  TKD, Karate, Jujitsu, Muay Thai, Silat, Arnis,... The list goes on and on.  The good news is you don't need to dedicate the rest of your life to familiarizing yourself with every art on the planet.  From a statistical standpoint, ibwould recommend starting with the arts that are popular in your culture.  In the USA, with the popularity of the UFC, I'd say to start with boxing, Muay Thai, and BJJ (yes, even grapplers have a stance.  Many fights go to the ground, but almost every fight starts standing up).  After that, perhaps learn about some of the more common traditional arts like TKD, Karate, and Judo.  Recognizing a wrestler is a good idea too.

In another part of the world, the list of common arts might look quite different.

You can also take a more functional approach.  Is the guy clenching his fists?  Well, then he's probably planning on doing more punching than grabbing.  Is he standing sideways ("bladed") to you rather than squared off?  Well, then he's probably planning on kicking and keeping distance rather than punching and grappling.  Is the guy standing up tall or squatting low?  If he's up tall then he's probably going to strike.  If he's down low then he might be going for a takedown.

All of these things can be discerned in a moment, and they reveal relevant information about your opponent.  This being said, the opponent might be using his stance to deceive you, but that's another post!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Why people practice martial arts

Here's an insight that I gained from running a dojo and being a martial arts enthusiast that has tried to convince and motivate many people to join a martial arts class.
There are (at least) 4 different reasons that people practice martial arts.

1. Fitness
2. Sport/competition
3. Art/Style (ie cultural aspect)
4. Self defense

Some people (myself included) can fall into multiple categories, but there's usually a primary category that motivates the training.  I had to analyze why some people, even people that are into martial arts, wouldn't come to a seminar or even try out a free class.  Aside from the "lots of people are flaky and/or lazy" (like me sometimes :-/), a martial arts event won't appeal to all martial artists because of a mismatch in these four categories between the event and the practitioner.

For example, it's hard to convince a life long Taekwondo practitioner to come to your ground fighting knife defense seminar.  Similarly, someone who does cardio kickboxing isn't likely to want to participate in a sparring tournament.  A guy who wants only the simplest self defense moves is probably not going to be interested in mastering a trapping hands drill. People have different goals.  The market is segmented, not only by art but by motivation.

Here's my motivation breakdown.  I'm about 50% self defense driven, 40% art/style driven, 9% fitness driven, and 1% competition driven...and that competition aspect is probably because of my slight interest in doing a knife fighting tournament.

So, just know that's where I'm coming from in my future posts.  I primarily want things to work...but I wouldn't mind looking awesome while doing it ;-). But I wouldn't sacrifice functionality for style.  I guess what I'm saying is "know your audience".

Saturday, August 22, 2015

How to quickly gauge the experience of an unfamiliar opponent

Knowing some moves in a fight is good, but not all moves are ideal against every opponent.  Professional fighters will spend weeks, if not months, analyzing videos of their scheduled opponents in order to learn as much as they can about they way they move.  In self defense, that option is not available.

Most physical altercations tend to happen very quickly.  Sometimes you're ambushed and none of what I'm about to say is even relevant in that situation.  However, if you've watched enough street fight videos (world star, anybody?), then you may have noticed a few seconds of posturing before the first punch is thrown.  In those few seconds, you can learn a lot.

So, how do you gauge the skill of some random opponent?  The basic answer is: you throw fakes and see how he (or she, I suppose) reacts.  Now, if your opponent is a golden gloves boxer and you throw a big ol' fake, leaving yourself open for a quick 1-2 combo, then you're probably going to get knocked out just for that.  Instead, start with the subtlest movement: a quick bend in the front knee, a jutting of the shoulder...something that an experienced fighter would recognize.  Then look for a similarly subtle (or not-so-subtle) reaction.  If you see one, then you'd better play conservatively because the opponent knows something things.  If you get no reaction, then give a slightly more overt fake (while still maintaining good defensive posture in case they try to counter-punch against your fake).  Repeat this process until you finally get a reaction.  After three or four progressively more overt fakes, you should be able to figure out how experienced the opponent is, roughly.

The whole process should only take you 3-5 seconds.  Beyond that, punches are probably going to be coming your direction anyway!

Finally, there is a bit of an art to doing believable fakes.  You have to move in such a way that the opponent believes that you're actually going to strike.  If the opponent is very experienced, they might see through your fake and not react, which might give you a false sense of superiority.  So watch out!