Monday, March 16, 2015

Year of the Kick: Front Kicks

In my last post, I declared 2015 the Year of the Kick. Each week, I've focused on one kick, or one aspect of a kick with a simple goal:

Make Kicks Suck Less.

First kick up was Front Kick.

I love front kick. It is a simple kick that everyone can easily do, and it can be used as a theory workhorse, carrying all kinds of great lessons that can be applied to our training. At a class for senior instructors, I was asked to lead kick drill. At a time when many people in the group didn't know who I was or what I was all about, I chose to do an entire drill of front kick and it's many variations. As many people who have quit my class due to sheer boredom can attest, I am a fan of the basics. Regular front kick, front snap kick, front leg front kick, push kick, heel kick, toe kick, jumping front kick, double jump front kick, triple front kick and various combinations of the above. A great way to fill a class, if you ask me.

Four count kicks were the first concept I wanted to review. Have you ever tried to make kids do four count kicks? I mean slow kicks where you focus on the chamber, hold the extension, retract and set down? It's an excruciating drill and the kids hate it as much as the adults. The only difference is in how much the two groups audibly complain. But since their kicks sucked, something had to be done. So I gave it my best effort to make it fun, and that usually means one thing: Letting the kids try to hurt my assistants.

4 count kicks, I explained, were super important because all 4 parts make the kick better, but all 4 kicks also have individual functions. When you practice kicking a bad guy (at this point, I call for a helper, who inwardly shudders at what they know is coming) we aren't just kicking them (bam!) but also kneeing them in the groin (bam) ribs (bam) or inner thigh (bam!) THEN we kick them (bam!) hook their leg with the retraction to bring them down (bam!) and just in case, we stomp on their bellies (bam! bam! bam!)

This blog brought to you with promotional consideration from 2005!

Now that the kids were excited, it was time to bust out the targets. Work the target with knee strikes and stomps and finally the kick itself. End goal of kicks sucking less accomplished, and at the same time, was able to add some practical understanding of the mechanics (and still save some more for next time!)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Year of the Kick

Testing your students is an interesting exercise.  Yes, they are the ones working for a new rank, but at the end of the day, the focus falls more on you and your teaching ability.  What have we done well?  What needs special attention? So many things to cover, so little time.

Well, at our last test, I came away feeling that our kicks were leaving much to be desired.  Being a Korean art, this can be seen as a major problem.  So, in response, 2015 was dubbed the year of the kick.

I'm, at best, an OK kicker. I can't do this:

But, I can keep up with the little kids...

And every once in awhile, I surprise myself...

But lately, my focus has been elsewhere and I've had other things I've been trying to fix in class, so kicking, and especially fancy, spinny, super-high korean-style kicking just hasn't been a huge priority for me. As a result, we've had a top-down problem that needed to be fixed.

So since January, every class has featured lots of kicks. Sometimes at the expense of other concepts, but it has been time well spent. We started from scratch, focusing on one kick every week and building up through the essential kicks. On the ground, in the air, against targets, against partners, laying on the ground, you name it, I had a single goal: make kicks suck less. So, I went about fixing this the best way I know how: completely geek out on all aspects of kicking, and make kicking exciting for me again.

Admittedly, I was growing bored with teaching kicking. One of things they don't tell you about running a karate school is that you spend an INCREDIBLE amount of time working on basic techniques at a very basic level. There's always a new white belt who needs to start from scratch. The "good stuff" doesn't get to come out very often, or so it can feel.

The problem, not surprisingly, was entirely in my head. Kicks were unexciting, because I failed to make them exciting. I'd gotten slightly above average in one very small aspect of kicking, and I had become content. Besides, I read an article written by a self-defense "expert" who said kicks were bad, and I'm pretty sure Bruce Lee had something about high kicks being bad... (note: it's 2015 and we still don't have an official internet sarcasm font!)

Then, I saw something that really stopped me in my tracks and made me shut up and listen. It was a video featuring Dan Inosanto. If you know who Dan Inosanto is, then you also know that when Guro Dan talks, you shut up and listen.

(if the embed code doesn't work anymore, go to 15:14 in the clip.)

If you're like me, you watched that, and said "holy crap, that's awesome! how do I do that?!"

And that's the feeling I wanted to reproduce in my students. That's the "white belt" mindset that is so open to learning and trying new things. The mindset that understands that there is so much out there still to be processed and done. It's an amazing feeling. And watching that video made me want to have feet that were as fluid as my hands.

But as the saying goes (or doesn't go as I'm probably butchering it) "before you can run, you have to walk." So we're working on the basics of kicking: chambering, extending, retracting, putting it back down. All the good stuff. 

I am pleased to say that kicks have improved, with plenty of room for growth. Kicks are more powerful. Kickers have better balance and control. Targets are getting smooshed. It's pretty wonderful.

And there's still so much more to cover.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Staff" Versus "Stick"

Important: I apologize in advance, because this is going to be one of those topics that you will feel very strongly about in one direction or another. My intent is not to offend, but to generate thought. Please read the entire rant before judging one way or another.

Staff, bong, bo... whatever you wish to call it (unless you insist on calling it a "bo staff" in which case I send you to the corner to think about what you just said 1) is my favorite weapon. It is known in Kung Fu as the great teacher, and I stand firmly behind that. Bong teaches you lanes of motion and how to connect those lanes. It exaggerates your empty handed errors. It allows you to learn from your mistakes in a semi-safe manner while giving an instructor the opportunity to test their students. I have taken a staff away from a student who uses it recklessly or obliviously. If a student can't twirl a staff without hurting someone, they aren't getting near a sword or knife anytime soon.

Having said this, I have a beef with what passes for a staff these days. At the risk of sounding like Mick Dundee:

That's not a staff. This is a staff. The former is better referred to as a stick. I don't care how much it costs; I don't care if it has fancy reflective decoration. It is a stick, albeit, a very expensive stick. I'm sorry, but you have a $100 piece of kindling in your hands.

All staves are sticks, but not all sticks are staves. To me, a staff is a weapon. A staff is designed to make contact and receive contact. True, a stick will do this as well, but here is the main difference: a staff will do it more than once. I have taught staff contact drills before and people have brought a stick to my class and insisted on using it. They are often a sad panda when their pretty stick is dinged up, cracked, splintered, broken.

There is one other subset of bong that I should address: the stick in staff clothing. It looks like a hardcore, old school staff, but a lack of quality resources and pressure to shave pennies off the bottom line mean that a lot of "traditional-looking" bong aren't worth a lick either. I have stopped purchasing "red oak" bong altogether because the quality has dropped far too much in recent years. Rattan, waxwood, or getting a custom hickory bo for a few extra bucks from a quality supplier is worth it in the long run.

I once used a slightly more crass description to describe one of these sticks. "It looks like a unicorn farted rainbow glitter all over your stick." One of my younger students heard this, laughed, and then at the next tournament proceeded to scold another child in his ring for his "unicorn fart stick." We then had to explain the concept of "inside joke." Kids say the funniest things!

Yes, they are light and fast. Yes, they are shiny, eye-catching and make a very neat whoosh as they cut through the air. These are shortcuts to the true goal of mastering the staff. It will fool you into thinking you've absorbed all you can from the bong, and then you will rush to a shinier, lighter fake sword that is even whoosh-ier and even more useless as an actual weapon. But, that's a rant for a different time.

I'm not saying this to tear down your ability or skill level, nor am I attempting to proclaim my superiority with the staff. Humor is being used to make a point in this case.

The Chinese arts have a saying: Hua quan xiu tui (花拳,繡腿). Flowery Hands, Silken Legs. Here in 'Merica, we've got another way to say it: "all flash, no substance."

Think about it. Would you rather have mastery of the weapon or settle for looking like you know what you're doing? Yes, you may be able to fool any non practicing martial artist, and maybe even a lot of martial artists but is that why you're training? To fool people, while knowing deep down that you don't know the first thing about how you'd use this thing in a fight? Of course not! There are entire schools of bojutsu which study the subtle and intricate art of the staff. Most of us only scratch the surface of what is being taught. To illustrate this point, let me compare what most of us do with the bong to something we study a little more in-depth: empty handed arts.

I teach dexterity. I like to twirl the staff, take it behind my back, under my legs, around my neck, throw it in the air and catch it. It's martial juggling, and it's a lot of fun and a great stress relief. It is also educational and builds confidence in using the weapon and maintaining focus while flying sticks whizz by your head. I also think of this as parallel to warming up a regular empty hand class. We would never give someone a black belt based on their ability to do warmups, right?

From there, we have kicho sul. Basic techniques. Low block, block, thrust, strike, etc. Just like block, punch kick. Usually striking the air vigorously. OK, this is helpful for isolating technical points and improving the foundation, but are we ready to fight yet?

Targeting. Now we're focusing the power of our strikes, improving accuracy and highlighting technical problems that are interfering with transfer of power. How often do you strike things with your staff? If you have a stick, I wager it's not that often. Heck, I have a super heavy old school staff that is dented from hundreds of repetition, but it's nothing compared to this sort of training:

Next, we have hyung. We have 3 bong hyung that are practiced. If you're like me, you probably like one, REALLY like another, and are lukewarm towards the remainder. Now we're getting closer, training our fighting spirit and combining techniques in a way that are designed for fighting. Are you working on bong applications, or are you more like this guy?

Dae Ryun. Sparring. One-Step, Three-Step, Free Sparring.

Pretty awesome stuff, amirite? I'm not even close to sharing the floor with these guys, but I strongly aspire to. And here is the problem as I see it. Many of us are content with the wrappings and presentation of staff. We are OK with the flowery hands and silken legs and perhaps we fool ourselves into thinking that this gives us competence with the staff as a fighting weapon. And maybe against a completely untrained individual it would. But against a really angry, armed indivdual determined to harm us? I feel as though I still have quite a bit of training to go and I have neglected several of these categories.

I've been spending a lot of my spare time trying to approach this problem, and my hope is that I will soon have some material worth sharing with everyone. Ways to develop these skills in a way that we will grow and strengthen not only our staff skills, but our empty handed skills and our overall knowledge of the martial arts. Please bear with me as I perform my education in public.

In closing, the staff is a bad-ass weapon. The only person to defeat Musashi did so with a staff. Let's give it the respect it deserves. (Note to self: when I officially submit my thoughts in thesis format, I need to find a classier way to end.)

So easy, even a baby can use it!

Say it with me now: awwwwwwwwwwwww!

1 Still don't get it? What does "bo" mean? Staff. You are saying "staff staff." You sound like a goober. Quit it.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Fire Good!

So, last weekend, I did this:

My wife, who is awesome, gave me a fire staff for my last birthday. Basically, the fire staff is an aluminum tube with dowel on both sides for weight, rubber wrap in the center and kevlar wick wrapped on both ends. You dip these for a few seconds in ultra-pure lamp oil, spin off the excess into a bucket, light and start going.

This was my very first time spinning a staff that was lit. The weight was a little different, and the fire garnered enough respect that I wasn't very keen on moving or being overly ambitious. I felt like I was going insanely fast as the heat whooshed past my head. The video would seem to indicate otherwise, though as I built confidence it did speed up a little.

The staff is an amazing weapon and teaching tool. Many schools of kung-fu refer to the staff as "the great teacher" and I find a fire staff to be a very strict teacher as well. You will respect the lanes of motion, you will understand how to control the movement and you will learn to be efficient in your movement. Otherwise, you will be punished.

Staff is simply circles repeated at different angles and planes, and stacked on each other.

This is around the body and behind the head and waist. Keeping the staff perpendicular to the ground is very important during this technique. Any little wiggle, and I lose hair.

I have confidence in my lanes of motion because I know where they are going to be. Long exposure photos bear this out as I keep several circles on top of each other:

By practicing the technique thousands of times (sound familiar?) I know where it will be and can rotate my body in relation to the spin and move into figure-eight movements, etc. Spinning in one direction gives me "forward movmenet" and the other direction gives me "reverse movement." The circles don't change much, but my relation to them does constantly.

This, my friends, is what I do for fun. If you're not ready for this sort of commitment, here's another fun idea. Take a pair of nunchaku, and tape a few sparklers to one end. As another July 4th has passed, you should be able to buy tons on the cheap. The downside is that sparklers burn REALLY hot, and they also don't last very long.

Don't be like me, wear eye protection. See those cool trails flying off the path? If one of those hit me in the eye, I would be a sad panda.

Also, watch your handoffs. May want to do those on another day. :)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What's in your bag?

Over the years, I've been through many bags. Some have lasted years, while others maybe lasted a month or two. I carry a lot of stuff to and from class: uniform, training knives, mouthpiece, cup, pens, notebook, nunchaku, and a few other things from time to time. The bag weighs a lot, gets tossed around, shoved into the trunk, etc.

There is one thing that has stayed in my bag since I got it: my white belt.

I've carried it with me all these years for many reasons; some of which have changed over the years. At first, it was largely a pragmatic reason. It was always handy to have an extra belt, and I could bail out a new student who lost or misplaced theirs. Sometimes, new students who hadn't yet invested in a uniform needed a belt for the drills.

It has been a makeshift staff for flow training. Figure eights with a completely flexible object is a challenge.

It's been used for Shuai Chiao style "cracking" training.

It's been used for slip rope training drills.

It will one day be used this way when I get a chance to try:

I could do most of these with my own belt, or heck, even a long stretch of rope. The main reason I keep the belt now is to remind me of where I came from and where I've been. It reminds me of how far I've come and how far I still have to go. It reminds me of our first classes in a dingy racquetball court and the lessons my instructor instilled in me. It reminds me that I have that same obligation to my own students.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

True Martial Spirit

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an amazing martial arts movie.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi has exactly 00:00:00.00 of martial arts.

I will let you contemplate how those two sentences can both be true. Here's the preview:

For the martial artist, how many of these concepts sound familiar? Here is a man at the top of his field, seeking perfection in simplicity, yet feels he is not yet there. Through constant practice, he strives to achieve better results. There is no flash or pizazz. Yet, people make reservations months in advance and spend hundreds of dollars on a meal that may last 10 minutes.

Watch how he treats his apprentice chefs. Hard training, simple tasks repeated over and over again to earn trust and sound fundamentals in the basics.

I don't want to give much more away that this, for the surprise ending should inspire all instructors. If you have Netflix, it is on instant view. Go watch it.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Youtube Dojang

"When you learn new techniques, learn thoroughly the theory and philosophy as well."

-Attitude requirement number 12.

Just to make a tongue-in-cheek point...

Green Belts: Don't look or read any of this. Scroll down until you see the part where I say it's OK to start reading again.

I learn a lot from watching Youtube videos.

There are a lot of excellent instructors and practitioners who are sharing their theories and ideas with the entire world. For free, no obligations. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of material out there that is just terrible. Not just terribly done, but unsafe and dangerous as well. I am a little concerned that my students will try to search for something on Youtube and end up not being able to tell the difference between the good and the bad.

As a student of hyung, I greatly enjoy using Youtube to watch countless variations of hyung that I know. One of thing I like to do is search for "WTSDA hyungName." and see what comes back. Even within our own Association, there are subtle variations and trends in hyung performance that vary from dojang to dojang and Region to Region. As a student, I greatly appreciate seeing how different students and schools emphasize different portions of the form. I love it when I see someone doing the same things I do, and when I see something different, I try really hard to understand where they are coming from. They have to do it for a reason. Or, at least, their instructor teaches it that way for a reason. Or - and we're talking worst case scenario -- someone along the line changed it for a good reason!

After seeing what's out there I then check out how other Tang Soo Do groups approach the hyung, [sarcasm]and then I look down on them with contempt, for my way is obviously the best.[/sarcasm] (On a related note, the W3C really needs to settle on a sarcasm tag for HTML.)

From there, it is very fun to go further down the rabbit hole. Does Shotokan have a version of this hyung? Shito-ryu? Shorin-ryu? Isshin-ryu? Holy moly, how many different Seisan variations can there possibly be? The answer: a lot.

The challenge is trying to see the differences between styles, and not immediately dismissing them as being silly or inferior. Others may always be attracted to things that are different, and they need to be reminded that just because it is different, or from an "older" style does not make it automagically better, either.

One of my favorite jokes:

How many black belts does it take to change a light bulb?

15. One to change the bulb, and 14 more to tuck their thumbs into their belt and mutter "That's not how my instructor does it.

I am a strong proponent of the idea that once you know a hyung, you should strive to make it your own. To only stop with what you were taught is a terrible disservice to those who came before you. You can bet your butt they made changes, whether they are aware of it or not, everyone makes subtle changes. The best analogy anyone ever shared with me was that of a suit. Would you wear your instructor's suit? Chances are, it doesn't fit. Different heights, body types, etc. I'm guessing the hyung is performed with these same constraints in mind, so why would you strive to carbon copy your instructor. Yes, do it like your instructor for awhile. Make their version the goal, but from there, look to add your own emphasis to the hyung, and perhaps you will one day be fortunate enough to contribute to the greater knowledge of Tang Soo Do.

Green Belts: Feel free to continue reading from this point forward.

So remember, kids, YouTube is the devil. It will corrupt what your instructors are trying to teach you and fill your heads with rot. Stick to what your being taught and train hard.