Friday, January 07, 2005

Rainy day thoughts

Rainy days are good for working at the computer. I think I get as much material to write about through email correspondence as I do working out these days. Someone responded to my earlier blog about simplicity, so here's a brief reprise on that subject.

I really don't think its as important to learn new techniques as it is to master what you've got. It's like having one car that you keep clean and running really great, versus having a driveway full of junkers you don't have time or money to maintain. We had WAY more material and techniques in Kenpo, but most of us couldn't use them worth a #$%! There was so much, we never had the time to practice everything, and so whatever we did, we had to recall from memory as opposed to it flowing naturally.

Almost as soon as I began training in Serrada, within a couple of months, I began holding my own against the top fighters in the dojo, guys who'd been kicking my butt for years. They were shocked and wanted to know what I was doing. Simple repetition of basic techniques with a live partner dialed in timing and range, and my growing confidence in using the live hand allowed me to stay in closer to smother my opponents' techniques. I preferred that range because it took away some of the explosiveness of the great long range fighters around me.

Ever hear of I Chuan? All those guys seem to do is standing post meditation. People used to make fun of them, but top fighters from other schools said "No, they're for real. Don't mess with them!" There's a great book about Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, called "Invincible Warrior". He used to say that anyone in reasonable health could learn to wave their hands around as techniques, but the real ability to perform them came from within. He was a deeply spiritual man, and this is why Aikido spends so much time doing meditation.

Think of it this way. If you drive your car on the freeway, you don't see many details of the landscape as you pass by. When you slow down and walk, you notice much more. Fighting is a bit like that too. It isn't a race. Try to do too much, you get so caught up in your own stuff you don't notice as clearly what the other guy is about to do to you.

One of the best beat-downs I ever saw was when my Kenpo teacher was sparring a visiting young TKD brown belt. The guy charged in and Al simply pulled back into a crane stance (front knee lifted to block) with his hands out in front. The kid ran into Al like a wave crashing against rocks on the shore. As his groin ran aground on Al's knee, his upper body pitched forward, impaling his throat and eyes on Al's fingertips. Al never moved, just stood there, while the kid bounced back, hit the floor, and proceeded to roll around groaning for minutes. He was done.

It was about a year later that I picked myself up off the mat after yet another thrashing by Al, and I said "Someday I'll be as fast as you." His answer is something I'll never forget. "You're already faster than me. That's your problem!" His thing was timing, and it was impeccable. Similarly, a Silat teacher whom I greatly respect used to say "a martial artist should neither be too early or too late, but always on time."

When Ed Parker talked about how Kenpo moves were developed, he'd point out that you had to account for your opponent's reaction to being hit. If you strike the groin, the head moves forward. The problem many people had, as he saw it, was that by trying to go fast all the time, they'd miss the opening created because their opponent wouldn't be in position as fast as they threw the follow-up strike.

This is part of the key to "monitoring," a key phrase in Serrada. We're supposed to watch the opponent to see what attacks may be imminent. Sometimes we have to slow down to do this, and to be able to respond if necessary. If we're going full blast it's difficult to change direction in response to a new threat or targeting opportunity. There's a moment I have on video of Angel demonstrating a technique with Marc Sabin, back at the White Tiger seminar in early 1986. Angel is doing the Inside Block with abanicos to the head. As he comes back down to strike underneath Marc's weapon arm, you can clearly see Angel slow down to look at Marc's other hand. It wasn't accidental; it's clearly a trained reaction. Watching the tape in slow motion, it almost looks like a pause, but in real time, it's so brief as to be barely perceptible.

Here we have one of the keys for speed. It isn't trying to go fast; sometimes being relaxed accomplishes that better than pushing hard. Genetically we're hardwired with certain potential, and that's that. What we can gain is efficiency, so by training the same movement over and over - polishing, as they say in Tai Chi - we become more efficient. We go from target to target with less wasted effort to overcome. When we pause or change direction, we do it with minimum disruption to our flow, as opposed to beginners who come to a complete stop, think a moment about what to do next, and then have to initiate their momentum all over again.

About 4 years ago I was into autocross racing, which is running a car against the clock around a course laid out with orange cones. I was one of three guys (out of maybe 300) driving a street Maxima, the biggest sedan on the course. These are cool cars, typically running in the middle of the pack overall, but very competitive in sedan class. I did well enough to take second in rookie class and spent half the season co-driving in the #1 sponsored Maxima in the country. One day the national autocross champion showed up at our event. A friend of my driving partner, he borrowed the Maxima to race that day. In an event where shaving hundredths of a second is a competitive breakthrough, he knocked four full seconds off our best times. In fact, he ran the fastest laps of the day, beating Corvettes, Porsches, stripped-down trailered-in autocross race cars, everything! To say it was mind-blowing is putting it mildly - a medium powered street sedan blowing away high-performance race cars, some driven by highly experienced competitors. How did he do it? Sloooowly. He didn't try to extract every inch of each straightaway, he let the cars ease into the turns, made his moves smoothly, then got the best acceleration possible into the next straight.

About 14 years ago I tested for the Berkeley Police department. They had an agility course set up in a gym and we did four laps for time, one person at a time against the clock, just like autocross. I was already 36, probably the oldest person of the 120 applicants. As I watched those in front of me take their turns, I could see the glitches in their movement. They'd run up to a barrier, stop, clamber over, then pause on the other side to see where to go next. They did not use forward vision. Now I ran cross-country competitively for 5 years when I was younger and I'd done a little competitive skiing, so I knew how to run a course. As I ran to the barrier, I was timing my jump. Before I got to each corner I adjusted my footwork so I could plant my outside foot and push into the turn. I did this for the entire course. When I finished, the testing officers looked at me funny, then one came over to show me his stopwatch. I had the third fastest time of the day, though most of the young guys were in better physical shape.

Like the old saying goes, "Work smarter, not harder."


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