Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hammers, Screwdrivers and Pliers

This morning I was teaching a lesson that focused on empty hands, my goal being to show applications based on Serrada’s weapon techniques. Midway through the class the student expressed frustration at learning a lot of things, saying he preferred to get just one. Now I don’t disagree with this, since one good move is better than a lot of poorly executed ones, but the guy was confusing himself by trying to make everything a memorized pattern to fit specific situations, which is rather contrary to how I see the art or teach it.

This fellow is an old-school karate guy in the true sense of the meaning. He’s about a dozen years older than me and was probably churning out kicks and punches when I was still a toddler. On the other hand he probably hasn’t trained since about the time I began getting serious about this stuff, which would be, oh, around 35 years ago (yikes!) On the one hand I give him credit for knowing a fair amount, but then I see his sticking points, where half-remembered techniques of yesteryear freeze him up in the moment. He’s a physically powerful guy; the challenge is to keep him focused in the moment.

Anyway, we were analyzing the cross block, which is where we deflect an attack to our left side, right side forward, with our weapon or lead hand angled downward and the check hand crossed underneath. From there, as the check hand controls the opponent’s arm we were doing a raking downward backfist (or chop) to the bicep (as opposed to the neck) and then a short straight punch to the solar plexus. One variation of a finish from there was to close in and trap the head with the left while delivering a smash with the right elbow. It’s a nice, short explosive combination but he was over-thinking it and freezing up. I was trying to get him to relax and see how the moves flow from one position to the next logical available target.

It was at this point that I came up with a new analogy. I asked if the guy did home repair and if he had a toolbox, to both of which he answered affirmatively, so I surmised that he probably knows the difference between a hammer, screwdriver and pliers. Again hearing confirmation, I then said that he probably would not be confused as to which he’d need for any particular task, to which he also agreed. Here I drew the analogy, calling the bicep strike a hammer, the short punch a screwdriver, and the head smash pliers. He immediately got the message.

I then asked if philips head screwdrivers were better than slot head screwdrivers, making the point that neither is better, but each is the proper tool for a particular job. So it is with punches. A twist punch is neither better nor worse than a straight punch; each has suitable applications though there can be overlap in choice.

Since he got this too, I then described the technique as a work project, where different tools might be needed along various stages of the process. Rather than pre-determining what tools he might need at any moment, I suggested that he dip into the toolbox at any point to get the one needed right then.

Sometimes martial arts seem such a mysterious and confusing whirlwind. Usually that’s because the vision is too tightly focused and cannot see the forest for the trees. I had already described applications of several punches, each of which basically used the elbow to create a defense against a counter while attacking. You may recognize this as the JKD principle of an intercepting fist. By seeing them as similar, not unlike a slot or philips screwdriver, it becomes easier to focus on the main idea of hitting the target while simply integrating the angle of the arm for protection.

In this case using the toolbox analogy brought some clarity to seeing options. With the three basic tools of hammer, screwdriver and pliers we are either smashing, drilling or squishing a target. The most important thing is to see the “what” while being flexible and adaptive about the “how.” I constantly reinforce the mindset of being “target oriented” - see the target, hit the target. How you do it is a variable, and training should teach us how to use our tools and why they fit certain situations. Correctly understood, this should lead to efficiency because one learns to strike quickly with any opportunity rather than wasting time and motion trying to find some position that might distant or unavailable. Again using JKD philosophy, it’s using the most direct weapon to the closest target.

It is said that speed cannot be coached. However there is raw linear speed and then there is adaptive speed, which includes the mental triggers that initiate timing and control motion. Watch a world-class sprinter sometime. Everything propels him forward towards his goal. The arms pump straight ahead and back; rocking them side-to-side is less efficient and unbalanced and will cost the runner time in races that are measured to 1/1000 of a second.

It is the same with fighters. A good fighter may see someone draw back an elbow to throw a haymaker, and respond by shooting a jab straight forward. It isn’t necessary that the fighter be faster than his opponent, though it may appear that way to onlookers. Simply by being more efficient at identifying the threat and responding, he is quicker to the target though not necessarily moving at greater physical speed. When we know how to use our tools, we don’t spend as much time thinking about those choices. When we know how to use a greater variety of tools, that opens our creativity.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Knowledge, Skill and Ability

Today I began thinking of various elements of training and these three words – knowledge, skill and ability – stayed with me. This is another use of the triangle as a concept, keeping in mind that it is still a single integrated structure and why it is commonly shown within the circle to denote wholeness. So why did I choose these three words? They are a reflection of certain memories that surfaced, and so are representative of key concepts.

It is said that knowledge is power, but I think it would be more correct to say that knowledge is a key to power. One can know something without grasping its value or understanding the implications. It takes action to apply knowledge for effect. Nevertheless, knowledge is the foundation, the means from which understanding can grow. Great thinkers like Archimedes and Descartes understood that having a single certain truth enabled them to establish valid and logical principles.

Serrada founder Angel Cabales understood the value of knowing the principle of one. He taught to hold the ground on which you stand because we already know how to move; being immovable is much harder. By not moving, we are the leverage with which to move others. This doesn’t mean we lack mobility, but that we can ground ourselves where and when we need, and this is a great generator of power. Similarly, our defenses use a single point of contact to create a powerful fulcrum. Two points are inherently unstable because balance tends to shift back and forth, but one point simply controls the balance, as it has nowhere else to go.

Skill is application of knowledge. How many of us have trained with people who can explain the how and why of techniques in intricate detail but cannot demonstrate them well enough make the application work? I specifically remember one guy back in my Kenpo days who was an orange belt (the first promotion) back when I was a white belt. By the time he got his next promotion I was already several belts past him, and over a decade that was it for him. Now this guy was a walking encyclopedia of details from the day I met him, a veritable engineering whiz at blueprinting every move in our system. He was also built like a warrior dwarf from “Lord of the Rings” and was one tough punching bag, emulating his hero boxer Tex Cobb, who was known for relying on an iron head to survive his fights. Unfortunately Kenpo is designed for speed, accuracy and mobility, all of which my friend was lacking. Perhaps it was a bad match of body type and the art (he’d have made a good MMA guy) but all his knowledge of this system seemed of little practical value.

The third level is ability, a term I’m using as a catchall to describe a level encompassing and surpassing the previous two. It is how well we exhibit our knowledge and skill, as having those things does not intrinsically qualify our performance. On the one hand we each have natural potential, greater for some than others, but which can be enhanced for any through proper physical conditioning. On the other hand, ability goes beyond the physical to include our willpower. Training can build physical and emotional toughness, but then sometimes athletes leave their game in the locker room. Certain things cannot be coached beyond narrow limits, such as size, speed and desire. Heart is something that is revealed only when it is tested, though it can be nurtured through the learning process as steps are mastered.

Physical strength is always an asset, though perhaps not as vital in weaponry as in other arts such as grappling. Still, one needs to be strong enough to handle pressure and have the endurance to finish a fight. A problem I have in teaching is that I see most students only once a week for a couple of hours. Escrima can be very technical and requires focused attention. When training time is constrained, it is imperative to work on skill, leaving conditioning for the student to pursue elsewhere. Leaving conditioning to chance is a mistake, because hard, grueling practice can reveal character. To excel takes hard work, and as they say in motorsports, the last 10% of performance is 90% of the expense. The mountain is always steepest at the top.

I miss the old days at the Kenpo school because we had access 24/7, and classes ran several hours every day. With that much time, conditioning was well-integrated into training, as opposed to haphazardly hoping students will take it on themselves to get sufficient work in on their own. We had a basic conditioning cycle we used to do, consisting of 100 jumping jacks, 25 pushups, 50 situps (or crunches, done in pairs with our feet interlocked and slapping hands with each other when we came up to add torsion), and then 25 more pushups. We would typically open class with 2-5 cycles, done quickly to get warmed up before bagwork, kick trading or sparring; we always worked up a good sweat quickly.

Another component is stretching, which again is less significant in Escrima than in an art that emphasizes kicking. Current recommendations are to stretch when fully warmed up, better at the end of a vigorous workout because muscles are more pliable when hot. Not only do we not spend time on this in short classes, we rarely get that hot in Escrima, even when sparring hard. Back in the 70’s when I did a little Tai Chi with Master Chiang at the Wen Wu School, I was taught that flexible legs were a key to longevity. In my 20’s this was a distant concern, but now I can feel what a difference it makes. In the last 8 years I’ve gone through graduate school and endured a period of difficult health. During those times my conditioning was neglected, and I can attest that it doesn’t come back as easily as when I was younger.

Many of us take up martial arts to defend ourselves or for sport, health being the third reason people often give. As we get older and our skills become honed, we come to rely on efficiency rather than strength. This is all well and good, but to maintain our health we need to still make room for the less glamorous side of training. As the saying goes, what we do now will show up in our health in 10 years. The work we do today pays off in the future.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

New webpage on making training blades

Once again my blogging has been on a backburner because of other projects. I'm now filming classes so I can provide DVD's to my students so they can review what we covered. I find it useful as a teacher, enabling me to monitor their progress and also evaluate my own teaching methodology. New technology isn't always simpler than the old. Whereas before one would make a videotape and then copy it, now I have to transcode the file through two different processes to finally get it on disk. It's awkward, and it requires a lot of computer resources for hours. Each transcoding takes about as long as the actual running time of the viewing material.

Additionally I've been focused on making my training blades. At this stage I've probably worked as hard getting my shop set up for this as actually making blades. I've had to integrate new equipment, which includes a dust collection system along with the tools, so I've reorganized my small space a couple of times to get everything to fit together as comfortably as possible.

I've also updated my website, as I posted previously, and yesterday I added a new page describing the process of making my training blades. I'll add photos at some point, when I have someone available to take pictures while I'm working in the shop.

Friday, September 14, 2007

New training weapons production

I'll keep this brief, since I don't want to rewrite what I've put on my website.

Due to the closure of many machine shops and the exporting of so much production overseas, it was not longer economical to get training knives made here, as costs are now as much as I've been selling them at retail.

The upside is that I've invested in equipment to make my own blades, which opens up a whole new world of possibilities since I'm no longer locked into single designs for production runs, and no longer at the mercy of programmers and machine codes reinterpreting my designs.

I've added a section on my custom training blades, which, like my sticks, are designed to handle contact sparring. There are samples of work I've done on there, and more designs are already on the way by request, most notably barongs and kerambits. Check it out!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Native Filipino Bikers!

These guys are from a mountain tribe called the Ifugaos. Aside from the incongruity of native dress and ersatz "motorcycles", the ingenuity and craftsmanship of their bikes is as cool as their clothing is colorful. Photos courtesy of guro Peter Freedman.