Thursday, May 29, 2008

Posting Videos on YouTube.

I love YouTube.

I hate YouTube.

The gold prospectors of the 19th century, sifting through silt, mud and rocks in search for the littlest bits of gold and nugget would be very comfortable with YouTube. Just as blogs are replete with navel-gazing tripe, so too is YouTube. Only with sound and shoddy cell phone camera video.

In all seriousness, Youtube is great for martial artists. There is some great footage online these days ranging from historical to educational to "wow, I can't believe she did that!"

Over the years, I've found great drills, new ways of thinking, inspiration, connections with others, and several of my WTSDA friends online.

Of course, we can't have good unless there is also bad. The bad videos are easy enough to avoid, but the flow of comments on YouTube is the absolute dredge of humanity. Comments range from rude to uninformed to a wild combination of both. Factor in our younger generation's inability to fully spell any word longer than three letters, and you find yourself worrying for the future. Truly.

I have no doubt that there are extremely knowledgeable and gifted people on YouTube. The problem is, they are the quiet observers. They have little reason to either participate in fruitless flame wars or expose their own work to the "hayterz." Can you imagine a high ranking Master putting a video of themselves performing a hyung and seeing:

OMFG, dat wuz teh ghey. U shuld fugin kil yurself. i train in BJJ and culd fuk u up.

(The fact that I could craft that sentence with little effort makes me want to see a psychotherapist.)

I have wrestled with the idea of integrating more streaming video into our club's website, using it either for promotional or educational purposes, and I'm really torn on the issue. Firstly, I'm afraid I'm scared of watching this video 5 years later and wondering what I was thinking. I don't need permanent proof that I fail to grasp even the most basic tenets of what I'm purporting to teach.

Secondly, I'm not sure I want to deal with the masses of idiots online. Trust me, I know I'm not that great. Your opinion indicating the same is redundant. I know I can disable comments, but that seems like I'm trying to hide from people exposing my flaws. I'd love to be part of the wave of using YouTube in a positive and productive manner, but I'm not sure I have the energy for it.

So, maybe over the next few weeks, I'll put up some video, even if it does stink. :)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What's in your engine?

Engine Room, By Joep Roosen
Andre Bertel, a student of the late Asai sensei, wrote a blistering article on the state of Shotokan in New Zealand.

I am not a student of Shotokan, and profess to know little of the politics of his organization. His article, however, gave me much to think about as I nodded my head in agreement with his views.

When the fundamental 'engines' of Shotokan karate are not included, or seriously flawed, one merely has a thin shell.

This quote, along with one more:

Shotokan karate is such narrow and deep river, so without depth, it really has nothing. It reminds me of a saying I’ve heard several times here in Japan; “there is no worse karate than bad Shotokan”. Clearly this is because of Shotokan’s simplicity, and therefore, requirement of extreme technical exactness.

gave me a great deal of thought as I related it back to my own training. Specifically, it brought 2 questions to mind:

1. In many ways, this premise rings true for Tang Soo Do. There is a great deal of variance between schools, across all organizations, which call themselves Tang Soo Do. Some are very rigid and move almost like their Shotokan counterparts, while others have taken the Chinese influence very much to heart and have a very "longfist" type feel to their motions. In an art that is based largely upon creatively modifying concepts from other arts, when does someone truly need to stop and say "I'm not really doing Tang Soo Do anymore!"? If the "engine" as Mr. Bertel calls it remains the same, is that enough?

2. What is the "engine" of Tang Soo Do? What drives all of our techniques. Certainly we can all agree on the concept of Hu Ri, Ho Hup and Shin Chook. Are there other ideals which, when combined, create this truly unique art?

After reading this article about a month ago, and finding it in line with my other thoughts on Ryu Pa, I've been spending a great deal of time in class talking about what I feel are the engine components of the art. In most ways, class is no different than usual, but I'm working very hard to make sure the basics are thoroughly applied to all techniques. The last thing I want is a "thin shell."

For me, you can't call it Tang Soo Do unless:
1. Motion originates in the waist. (Hu Ri!)
2. The back leg drives the body forward into a technique, as opposed to just stepping forward. This is a bit of simplification as the front leg is somewhat involved, but I don't just step into a technique.
3. The opposite hand acts counter to the technique, enhancing the rotation of the hip as well as the opening and closing of the chest.

For those of you reading, I'd like to hear from you. What are 3 things you think Tang Soo Do must have in order to remain "Tang Soo Do" in name?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What does your demo say about your school?

Over the weekend, I managed to take a break from yardwork to briefly attend the Columbus Asian Festival. I had 2 simple goals for the afternoon:

1. Watch a few martial arts demos and get at least 1 good photo.
2. Drink a delicious Thai Iced Tea.

I managed to meet both goals, make a few networking contacts, and remind myself that I should learn to play sepak takraw.

I had the opportunity to watch 2 very different demonstrations. Both were Tae Kwon Do schools, but one was all TKD while the other was a mix of TKD, Haidong Gumdo and Hapkido.

The first demo, sorry to say, was an amalgamation of every TKD demo cliche in existence. There were the multiple breaks, flying kick breaks over people, kicking the apple off the sword, the backflip kick break. In other words, if you've seen the Korean Tigers demo team, you've seen this demo. Except the Korean Tigers are awesome, and these students were not.

The Tigers, they ain't.

I don't say that as an insult to the students, as I'm sure they worked very hard on the demo, and I've been in more than my fair share of stinker demos. The problem for me was that the demo evoked strong memories of a very good demonstration, and practically begged me to make the inevitable comparison. Of course, the demo was geared more to a general audience, as I am probably not in their recruitment demographic.

I couldn't help but think what sort of image this demo presented to the prospective student. What happens when the customer, wowed by the amazing - to them -- demo shows up for their trial class and learns how to perform a bow, ready stance and front stance, and maybe a block and punch thrown in for good measure. What happens when they get tired of waiting for the day when they start learning to kick the apple off a sword?

The second demo was very enjoyable, showing a good blend of basic skills, followed by some forms, breaking by several different ranks, followed by a demonstration of sword work by a student, a yudanja, and by the head master instructor.

This demo gave me a feeling of what training in their school was like, and the expectations I could have as a beginner.

When our school does a demonstration, we take a very similar approach. I stress 2 things at each demo:

1. Our students train for individual progress, but are committed to the improvement of all students. Senior rank works to inspire junior rank to improve and knows their progress relies on the progress of junior rank. Junior rank trains hard in an effort to catch up to senior rank and keep them training hard as well.

2. As the demo progresses, you can watch students who have been training anywhere from 1 month to 10 years performing similar skills, and see the improvement that happens over time.

If I spent the whole demo doing things, the Tom Marker Show if you will, it would tell you a lot about my ability and passion for the martial arts. But how much of that have I managed to pass on to my students? Can any of my black belts perform the same techniques? If not, perhaps I'm just a really lousy teacher, and you should take your money elsewhere.

I work hard to stress that my school is run on the concept of building a strong team, or an army if you prefer. When my students take the stage, I'm not sweating about missing a break or someone hurting themselves during a backflip. I'm watching them to see if they move in time, look organized and show strong spirit.

What does your demo say about your school?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Flow and Play

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A selection from the The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Samurai that reflects some of my recent training thoughts, especially in terms of staff and nunchaku work:

“What are we doing in the dojo? We might have first come to aikido for self-defense or fitness or balance. But after a few months these considerations fade away. We are doing it, with all that it entails – strenuous exertion, pain, close calls, occasional injury, along with years and years of what you might call “hard work” – for the sheer delight of it.

We are playing.

Other things can be explained in terms of play, but play, being primordial, can’t be explained in terms of other things. Play precedes culture. It extends beyond the rational, beyond abstraction, beyond matter. Play in short, is irreducible. Let’s simply say that play is whatever absorbs us fully, whatever creates purpose and order, whatever involves us in as much meaningful interaction as possible.


The strange thing is that when we approach an activity in the spirit of play – fully, joyfully, and primarily for its own sake – we are likely to achieve not only the greatest happiness, but also the best results, the most enduring success.

I'll leave this to stand on its own, lest I dilute the message with my own writing.

Friday, May 16, 2008

contemplating the possibilities

For Acrobats only

The other day, I joked that I was considering joining the circus. Unless my phone interview goes poorly, that's probably not in the cards, but doing so would probably vastly improve my martial arts skills.

You read that correctly.

My training as of late has largely revolved around the staff. Over the years, I've developed a method of training the staff and I've been studying and practicing the best ways to transmit that knowledge. For many students, the staff just isn't that interesting in contrast to a sword, nunchaku, chain whip or any other flashy weapon. Heck, just putting a spear head on the end makes it considerably more interesting.

The problem with this, I feel, is that a lot of good lessons are being overlooked and the staff is one of the safest training weapons for developing a variety of attributes which will help you learn to manipulate that broadsword, 3 section staff, rope dart, whatever. These students never learn to connect the dots between moving the weapon and moving their body, and the result is an awkward, disconnected mess. They may be able to drop into a REALLY low stance and kihap until they start coughing blood, but these are just poses. When I judge weapon forms, I pretty much ignore the poses because I want to see how the person got from point A to point B.

How does the circus come into play? My key study of the staff is exploring the lanes of motion around the body and how to interact with the staff to keep it in constant motion. I require my black belts to be comfortable with approximately 10 different skills. In addition to these skills, they need to be able to smoothly transition from one to another. Now go to the circus and watch the jugglers. They have always been in touch with these lanes, and by not having to worry about the constraints of tradition and practicality, they have opened in these lanes in ways that would make a "pretty good" student of the staff drop their jaw.

Lately, I've felt my staff techniques, while solid, were getting a little stale. Then I saw this:

This method of staff manipulation is referred to as "contact staff." A lot of it is basically tricks and juggling and has hardly any martial value on the surface. It would be extremely popular in a circus, especially if you lit the ends on fire.

Some of these tricks have worked their way into the open tournament scene. Jennifer Espina pops up in my head immediately.

Here's another inspirational clip:

I've been watching the playpoi clips for the last few years and have gained a lot from his method of explanation. Watching this clip was rather eerie for me for many reasons:

1. Our school has always emphasized using a long rope to develop staff skills. Learning to smoothly play the rope really improves your understanding of patterns and lanes.

2. Nick uses a lot of the same language and examples that I use when I teach.

3. Nick is much, much better with the meteor than I am. :)

So for all of your serious martial artists out there, go to the circus and watch the jugglers. After you're done puffing out your chest and talking about how they are just playing, reflect on how they've probably practiced more in the last week than you have all year. That should release the air quite nicely.

You might find that we have more in common with the "trickers" than you think: a dedication to hard work, practice, perfection and sharing our art with others.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Re-Reading your Journal

In a previous post, I was asked how often I go back and reflect on what I've written in the past. To be honest, I don't re-examine my writing very much upon completion. When I do, sometimes the process can be very humbling.

Think about how much you've grown as a person since High School. For me, it's been a little over 13 years, and when I stop to consider how my thoughts, opinions and emotions have changed over those years, I can't help but wonder how irritated I would be with the writing I produced then. Luckily, not much of it exists, but I'm sure it's all very embarrassing.

I didn't take many notes as a Gup student, but I can imagine that reading them would make me realize how big of a pretentious, annoying doofus zealot I was (was?) at the time. I'm not sure how my instructor tolerated my perceived level of knowledge!

A few weeks ago, I looked at my journal entries from when I was a Cho Dan. I had some interesting notes and observations about what was going on around me. Some things I had completely forgotten about over the years. Other things were best forgotten. :)

So while I tend to feel that my journal output has a fairly short shelf life, there are occasional gems which I am very thankful for recording on paper. Most often, I look at the last few weeks of notes to see trends in my classes or what I've been contemplating. I try to write down a little before each class, sort of a guiding theme or set of reminders. If I forget to mention it, I circle it for the next class.

At the very least, reading my journal reminds me to occasionally write things down.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Change vs. Tradition...

...At least, that's how most people frame the debate.

Have you ever noticed that from one school to another to another, techniques are performed differently? Sometimes the difference is obvious, and other times it may be a subtle aspect of position, angle, transitional movement or anything else. If you look hard enough, you'll even see this difference within a single school. The old guard may have learned a technique one way, where the newer students have been exposed to a different line of thought or a modification in the technique. Talk about a headache for the head instructor who has to keep track of 50 ways of doing a single technique. Eventually the instructor has to make some sort of decision, and the students either adapt or leave. Even in schools with an extremely rigid curriculum, where everything is spelled out, these changes can and do occur.

How does such a thing happen? There is a term for this in the Korean arts: Ryu pa (流派). Ryu pa translates literally to "water flowing divided." Think of how a stream splits in half due to an immovable object and we now have 2 streams, moving alongside each other, sometimes spreading out even further and further away. These two are now separated, gathering their own momentum until they too eventually must split. Some streams become larger, gaining tributaries, and cut easily through the ground. Some splits are too small to flow on their own, become a trickle and dry out.
Small Stream, Small Falls
The same thing happens with changes in a martial art. Either the new stream will do well and grow, or it will die out. In an odd way, change is traditional. Change keeps the martial arts alive and moving forwards. Stagnancy in a stream results in death.

When we try to artificially interfere with ryu pa, bad things tend to happen. The green belt who decides that they have mastered everything in Tang Soo Do and wants to create their ultimate hybrid art will probably not be around in 5-10 years. The same happens if we try to stifle creativity by damming the stream. The output of the stream is lessened while a backlog of potential waits behind the dam. Too much pressure, the dam explodes and that potential is lost forever.

Quite often, change for the sake of change is unhealthy, and the best changes happen unintentionally, over time.

So how do you deal with such issues as they arise? The answer may be as simple as waiting patiently.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Regional Championships

This weekend, our studio participated in the Region 5 Championship. It is a 3 day, action packed event featuring a black belt test, tournament and clinic. Sometimes, I even find time to eat AND sleep.

2 of my students tested for Cho Dan, and I am very proud of their efforts. Both students excelled in their demonstration of what a BTSD Cho Dan should look like. They were physically well prepared, spiritually very focused, and did an excellent job on the written exam, scoring a 100 and a 98, respectively.

I had the opportunity to judge at the tournament and saw a few competitors who have made great strides in their technique and ability over the years. On Sunday, I was honored to teach staff skills at the gup clinic, and listen to Grandmaster Shin's discussion on Ki Gong. The weekend was well worth the 9 hours of driving.

However, my favorite part of the weekend wasn't on the training floor or while wearing a dobohk. It was on Sunday morning before the clinic as we ate breakfast. Eating together on trips is a long tradition in our club, and it was very nice that everyone was together (it was quite tempting to get that extra hour sleep and roll out of bed for the clinic) laughing and enjoying each others company. From there, we arrived at the clinic about an hour early (oops!) and some of us realized how very tired we were. At that point a strange thing happened.

We played baseball.

Well, kinda. After I changed, I was warming up with my staff - trying to decide what I wanted to convey -- when one of our students found a softball sized rubber ball in the bleachers. I casually joked for someone to toss it at me so I could hit it with a staff technique.

From there, everyone in our group became engrossed in this weird hybrid of baseball, cricket and Tang Soo Do. As students from other schools entered the gym, they were half-amused, half-perplexed by what greeted them.

Just a bunch of tired college kids being goofy before things got started.

Tang Soo!