Friday, August 24, 2007

One step sparring drills followup

This is my group as I'm teaching it. I wanted to protect everyone's identity, as well as show you a cool shot our Region's drum. I'm one of the weirdo's in pajamas in the background.

I had fleshed out a pretty good plan, well worthy of some advanced black belts who were chomping on the bit to improve their one-steps. I was ready to wow and dazzle my team with my copious knowledge of the inner workings of our one-step techniques. Did I mention I try to employ some sarcasm in my lessons?

So what happened? I was told to completely change my lesson. Our directive was now to work on more "basic" concepts. We were given a few examples, and were given an hour or so to work on them.

One of the suggestions was to talk about what I call "unenthusiastic blocking" where the defender sort of just walks through the technique and doesn't really block with any sort of power or finesse. No problem, as that's a pet peeve of mine as well.

So I decided to get really basic.

In my opinion, techniques are a secondary benefit of one step training, and I eagerly told my students this. I was met with a mix of blank stares and people looking wild eyes as if, at that moment, lobsters had began crawling out of my ears.

I believe that statement, 100%. One-step sparring is a good method of teaching footwork, distancing, timing and creating tools to use in sparring and self-defense. But it's not the most important to me. What could possibly be more important than that? Now everyone wanted to know what was the secret that I could possibly have that they were missing??????

One steps, I explained, are vital for the development of proper martial spirit.

I could feel the disappointment flush over the group. "Oh," they probably thought "here comes some lecture on how we're being too soft or easy. I know this song and dance."

Truth is, without the proper spirit, what's the point? Part of the training should be to face an unsympathetic partner who only has the goal of improving the speed and power of their center punch. To know that not responding in a determined manner could mean a broken nose. To feel what it feels like to FAIL at a technique and work to refine it over and over again until you succeed.

Yet, complacency is one of the biggest problem facing black belts. And we're all guilty of it from time to time. No one wants to hurt their partner (usually) so when your partner has low energy, we're usually just nice and bring it down a notch. Truth is, when your partner is tired or down, they need you more than any other time.

Sometimes the best way to work on fixing an "unenthusiastic defense" is to instead work on the attacker's enthusiasm. When a center punch is whistling towards your face or chest and seems hell-bent on hitting you into next week, your defense becomes a little more enthusiastic. Especially the second time!

I'm not completely sure if my message sank in completely. But, I'm glad I had the opportunity to deliver the message. I didn't see any visible objection from my assigned mentor, so I can only assume that I wasn't controversial in my thinking. :)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Originally uploaded by tommrkr
Over the weekend, I was officially promoted to 3rd Dan by the World Tang Soo Do Association. While I received my certificate and notification in the mail a few weeks ago, it wasn't until our Regional Director tied on the belt that it was official. It was a nice feeling to receive my promotion at "Black belt camp" amongst my peers and a few of my advanced students.

It's amazing the difference a little stripe can make in the perception of others. I don't really feel any different about my own abilities. My right spinning hook kick, for example, didn't seem to notice that I had one extra stripe and suddenly improved.

The Dan system has been an interesting experience for me thus far. While on one hand, it's just another step in the process, it's amazing to see the differences between one rank and another. It might be easy for someone to look at a 3rd and 4th dan and say "wow, they are pretty darn close to each other."

You couldn't be further from the truth. The difference between a 3rd and 4th dan, especially a junior of the former and senior of the latter can be 10-15 years of training. As it turns out, that's probably about how long the new 3rd dan has been training. (please do not email me haughtily and tell me how it takes 40 years of training to get a 3rd dan in your vastly superior organization: I honestly don't care.) My instructor, a 4th dan, has been training for over 25 years. Just because "one piece of tape" separates us in rank, doesn't mean we are contemporaries.

I once heard someone ask a colleague if they were a black belt. My friend wanted to explain that he was, in fact, a 2nd degree black belt. He was obviously proud of this distinction and wanted to make sure that it was understood: he was no ordinary black belt. For a brief moment he had succeeded until the follow up question:

"Oh, how many degrees are there?"
"Ah, well, 9."
"oh, so you're pretty low then?"

Funny how someone completely uninvolved with the martial arts can take the air out of the balloon like that. The more I think about it, 2nd dan meant diddly-squat in the big picture, so 3rd is only slightly more valuable.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

One step sparring drills

For our upcoming black belt camp, I am slated to lead a small group in a one-step sparring seminar. The session is entitled "Teaching and Understanding One-Steps." As I read that, I think more about helping students understand their one-steps on a conceptual level, and give them some thoughts on how to teach. In other words, it's not a time to learn new techniques or review old ones.

The biggest problem: many students cannot remember all of their one-steps. In order to perform #23, they first have to walk through 19, 20, 21, and 22. These bits of knowledge aren't mature enough to stand on their own.

Jump Spinning Crescent Kick
Originally uploaded by tommrkr

The first set of drills I intend to cover will be primarily for encouraging memory and retention of one-steps. After all, a class runs much smoother when everyone has done their homework and come prepared. Much easier to get to the meat of the lesson instead of spending 3/4ths of the time demonstrating what people can't remember.

The easiest thing to do: shake up the numbers. There are many easy ways to do this.
    Start with #30 and work your way down.
  • Work odd numbers and even numbers, up and down. Twist: one person does odd, one does even (no copying that way.)
  • Attacker calls the defense when they step back to attack.

Other possibilities:

  • Shadowboxing:working without a partner, student tries to crank 1 defense after another against an imaginary partner. Eventually, the student smoothly transitions from one to the other without needing to pause and think.
  • Line Drill: Students start at one end of the floor, and walk up doing a different defense everytime. Emphasis leans more towards eliminating pauses between techniques rather than form.
  • Circle Drill: Student is surrounded by students who count off. When instructor calls their number randomly, they attack the student in the middle who must use the "called" technique.
  • 2 attacker one-steps. Defender is in the middle, attacks first partner with hand technique. Turns to attack the 2nd with a kick technique of the same number. For extra pressure, 2nd attacker begins attack as soon as 1st defense ends (instead of waiting for the turn.)
  • 2 attacker one-steps. Building from the previous drill, now the defender turns 90 degrees and moves into the next set of hand/foot techniques. Pressure is now a little higher to be able to recall the next technique. Also makes for some interesting footwork.

I think that is a good start. I'll discuss the 2nd problem in another post.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Summer Reading: Angry White Pyjamas

Perhaps you'd like to read a little more about the martial arts, but don't necessarily have the disposable free time to read All Men are Brothers or to invest time in studying the I Ching.

As it turns out, there are several small, contemporary books that provide an interesting look into martial arts training that don't get too preachy, and don't involve any zen koans to decipher.

Angry White Pyjamas
is such a book. An autobiographical book by Robert Twigger, it tells his tale of training in Japan. Not just any training, mind you, but a year long course geared towards teaching Yoshinkan Aikido to the Japanese Riot Police. Those of you imagining flowing black hakama and tiny little men using their ki to throw someone away in a graceful spiral can just stop. This is the nastier cousin with broken bones, dislocations, heads slamming off the floor, and more.

Twigger begins his book as a self-described "scrawny Oxford poet" with very little to show for his life thus far. Lamenting that he has never been either tough nor brave, he decides that budo is the way for him. In many ways, his choice of actions is akin to someone who makes a New Year's resolution to shed a few pounds, and does so by enlisting in the Marines: it is the most extreme route available.

As a memoir of his training, we are treated to stories of classes that are sometimes brutal, run by seemingly cold and indifferent instructors. Far from being stoic, Twigger is more than willing to describe his agony and hardships in humiliating detail. For this reason, many martial artists dislike this book. In their opinion, his "whiny" attitude does not reflect well upon him or his time spent training.

To me, his frankness and ability to share his humilation is what makes this book so truly unique. I mean, a largely sedentary grad student immerses himself in the world's toughest Aikido training course, consisting of getting tossed around and beaten everyday for a year; what else could possibly happen? Even if he walks out of the course hard as a rock, it still would take a great deal of training to reach that point. At one point, he freely admits to being pleased at the death of a sensei since it assures him a week off from training! It's pretty impressive to share so candidly what is obviously a horrible, selfish (and probably true) thought so honestly with the world.

Angry White Pyjamas is fascinating, because we've all been there to some degree. We've all reached a point where we've been physically and mentally depleted by our training, where we've wanted to throw in the towel. This book tells us that we're not completely crazy, and that it could also be just a little worse. The course, as explained in the linked video above, is about hardship, and not running away from it. That is the spirit which martial art training fosters, and this book tells that story.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bag Work

Originally uploaded by sponng

Yesterday, I was elated to learn that our host has purchased a variety of heavybags. Last I had heard, they were extremely reluctant to do so, as previous bags had been abused and even stolen. You'd think their staff could notice a dude walking out with a 100 pound back slung over his shoulder, but that's what happens when you get to into FaceBook. Maybe I should offer to teach an awareness class?

Anyhoo, upon hearing this news, I took the black belts on a field trip upstairs to check them out. the bags are high quality, soft leather, and a variety of sizes and weights. After a few words of encouragement, each Yu Dan Ja took a turn on a bag and gave a few hits. What happened next was very revealing:

Most of them just didn't know what to do. Many that thought they knew what to do were misinformed. I suppose its not completely surprising. Our club has been devoid of a heavy bag for well over 3 years (I broke the old one, oops) and I'm fairly certain I'm the only one who even owns a bag. It looks like I'll have to take some time to talk about what a bag is and isn't for.

Biggest problem: You see that bag hanging there, taunting you, and you feel the need to hit it as hard as you can! This is pretty much the best way to injure yourself. It makes sense on the surface, if you think of the bag as the equivalent of an opponent. You'd want to try and transfer as much power into that bag as you can. Right?

Well, let's step back a bit first.

A heavy bag is, first and foremost, a big league feedback tool. You might be hitting that foam hand target pretty hard, but its pretty forgiving. Hit the heavy bag with bad alignment or poor form, and at best you'll bounce off it in the opposite direction. At worse, you're going to be done for the week, clutching an ice pack. If you're young and tough - and I am neither -- you might push through it, but it will catch up to you as fatigue kicks in and your technique gets sloppier.

Use the bag for developing technique. Punch slowly at first, focusing on wrist alignment and hitting with the proper part of the fist. Generate force from the hip, not all shoulder. Push off that back leg. Over time, you'll build the muscles needed to keep your punch strong. Only then is it safe to start adding force. Skip this critical step, and you're in for pain.

The bag will teach you the difference between striking and pushing. It will tell you when you're hitting the side kick with the wrong part of the foot, and it will tell you when you're off balance. That is, if you listen to the bag. If you just want to clobber it (and I'll admit, that is very fun) then you won't get anything of benefit out of the session.

Once your technique is good, then you can start to rock the bag, like the fella pictured above.

Heavy Bag Training Injuries
Heavy Bag Fun

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Don't neglect the basics.

Dave Lowry tells a story about his early judo days where a few students were promoted to first dan at a tournament. As the head instructors gave their words of encouragement to the participants, one particular judge had the following to say:

"Today, you've all taken a large step forward. Now, I hope you'll take a large step back."

While I think that Lowry was making a larger point about self-examination, there are times when all of us must take a step back from what we are working on and return to our basic techniques. As we progress in rank over the years, new challenges are placed in front of us. Other challenges we may seek out. In all of these cases, we will eventually reach a point where we feel "stuck." A place where we feel we've reached an limit on our improvement. We may even see someone who has developed beyond our ability and lament that we will never reach their level of proficiency.

At these times, I think it is most prudent to return to the basics. After all, that is what got us to where we are in the first place. It is a lot like losing your keys and re-tracing your steps.

Originally uploaded by tommrkr

I know: how on Earth will practicing front kick help with a completely unrelated skill such as nunchaku, teaching one-steps, achieving the splits, etc? Very little if you only focus on cranking out a hundred kicks.

You have to truly examine your basics. Feel yourself go from stillness to motion, empty to full, um to yang. Be aware of your body mechanics, strive to refine the motion. Move only that which is necessary.

Perhaps after a long time of practicing nunchaku, you will be very sensitive to your shoulders and upper body. Previous flaws in your basic technique are now revealed to you for improvement.

While reviewing Tan Tui 2 weekends ago, our guest Sifu mentioned the concept of the "stealing step." He talked about the deception of closing the distance, keeping the opponent focused on the still upper body while moving forward. Here within this new technique was a return to basics: avoiding telegraphic movement. Something to re-apply to other techniques.

As a result, my sensitivity to this problem been renewed.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Guess who's coming to Dan Camp?

Here's just a tiny hint as to our special guest at this year's Region Five Black belt camp. :)

More on blogging and martial arts.

Following up on my previous articles on blogging, I wanted to talk a little more about blogging and specifically how blogging can be a training tool for the martial artist.

For the student, a martial arts blog can be an archive of thoughts and feelings over the years. It is a sounding board for new ideas and learning how to express your understanding of techniques and philosophy. Years later, it can be both fascinating and humbling to look back on postings to see how you've progressed over the years. BigKiai is a good example of a student blog.

Others may find some unique uses for their blog. Master Larry Dercole of the World Tang Soo Do Association uses his blog to keep folks abreast of the goings on in his dojang. Much like the old newsletter of old, the blog can be used to keep students, parents and alumni informed of what the school is up to. Unlike a newsletter, you don't have to wait for enough stories to publish online. A post here and there, with regular frequency, keeps the readers returning (or subscribing to your RSS feed, bonus!)

Instructors may even want to use their blog as instructional resource. They may use the blog to reinforce a point from the previous night's class, supplementing their advice with an article or a movie from Dailymotion. Many students retain information they have read far better than when listening. From my own experience, I certainly fall in that category, as do many of the students I attract. Posting a technical article (such as the toe kick article) allows you to touch on a few fine points that you didn't have time for in class. Taking the time to create such an article may even inspire an instructor to take their research further, maybe even writing an entire book on the subject. Other articles may be just one-time pieces, but still give the instructor experience in discussing their chosen subject matter in an eloquent manner.

Just some more reasons to encourage instructors and students to start blogging!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The dreaded toe kick

gosh, that looks painful!

Kim used to tell the story about a famous public demonstration of karate given by (Chojun) Miyagi in 1924 (another source gives the date of 1927). Miyagi performed several superhuman feats, such as thrusting his hands into a bunch bamboo and pulling one out of the center, and jumping up and kicking the ceiling of the demonstration hall. To many, however, it was Miyagi’s toe kick that was most impressive. Kicking with his big toe, he punctured holes in a kerosene can.

During our Tan Tui review class on Sunday, there was much interest in the delivery of kicks in the form. Much like in Tang Soo Do, various parts of the foot - ball, heel, instep, outer edge -- are used during kicks. The one that really caught a few people's attention was that of the toe kick. More than a few people winced at the thought of the pain caused by a toe kick. Although, I'd reckon more people cringed how much the kicker's toes would hurt rather than the person receiving the kick.

The more I think about it, the more a toe kick makes sense. When you look at the culture surrounding martial arts, it would be very likely that you would perform a kick barefoot if caught indoors, etc. Anyone who has ever sparred knows the pain of getting a toe jammed by a block, pulled back, caught on a mat, etc. Imagine if a little conditioning could go towards preventing such problems.

In modern times, we mostly wear shoes. I have a pair of wingtip dress shoes that are quite pointy at the top. Now my toe kick is reinforced by leather and rubber sole. Imagine that pointy shoe driving up into your juevos or perenium. Thoughts like that keep me warm at night!

I remember playing soccer in little leagues. It was a very common thing for new kids to use the infamous "toe ball" kick. It was extremely powerful, and usually a lot easier than the instep kick. The only problem, it was very unpredictable because of the spin. Also unless you hit the ball dead center, who knows exactly where it was going to go! From that experience I know that I can kick something with my toe and get a fair amount of power behind it. Of course, that was a leather padded air bladder, and not something extremely hard. Very much unlike THIS guy:

(check it our especially at :30 and 1:20 for the relevant bits)

I've never attempted the conditioning needed for a strong toe kick. I have, on occasion tried a type of reinforced toe kick which I found in Nagamine's book on Okinawan karate. Take your 2nd toe, and cross it over the top of your big toe and squeeze the two together. Jam that into your opponent, especially into a floating rib point, and they will be unhappy. I've yet to try this again since breaking my toe on a mat this spring.

This sort of thing interests me on many levels. Above all is the dedication it must take to hone such a sensitive part of the body into a powerful weapon. This isn't something you can do in one class and add to your toolbox. Once you acquire the skill, you then have to continually polish it or your toes will return to being floppy little pain receptors that find furniture in the middle of the night.

For more info on toe kicks, I encourage you to check out this 3 part article by Christopher Caile. Here are Parts 2 and 3.