Keep Going

Our friends over at the Valhalla Academy have a tradition known as “birthday rounds.” On their birthday, a student gets to spend the entire class grappling non-stop with fresh partners rotated in regularly to keep the pressure on.

Even though we don’t follow this tradition at 4 Seasons, I always thought this sounded like a fun concept. Therefore I decided to steal the idea for the celebration of my 50th birthday. I put the word out: come on, come all for the opportunity to beat up on the old man.

So it was that at 7:00 last night I took the center of the mat and the 60-minute round began. The first 30 minutes wasn’t too bad. At 45 minutes in, I was watching myself for signs of dehydration and thinking “that’s got to be an hour, right?” At 55 minutes, my last grappling partner jumped in fast and aggressive, trying to take advantage of my weakened state. At 60 minutes I would have leaped up in celebration, but that would have required movement and I was done with such frivolities for the moment.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad way to celebrate turning 50.

I did pull out a few lessons for anyone who wants to try this exercise.

Hydrate early and often. I started guzzling water and gatorade several hours before arriving at the gym. If I hadn’t done this there is a decent chance I would have passed out from dehydration.

Relax. I got tapped out a few times during the hour. I tapped out my partners a few times during the hour. That wasn’t the point of the exercise. If I had gone balls to the wall trying to win every time, then I wouldn’t have made it halfway through.

Keep moving. I’m not in great shape. I’m 50 years old. I’m not a natural athlete. I don’t like doing cardio exercises and I tend towards laziness. There were a lot of moments during the hour where I just didn’t have the strength and energy I needed to pull off the movement I wanted to do. That said, I was always able to make myself do something. Sometimes my movements were small, sometimes they were slow, but I made myself keep moving for the entire hour.

This last point is where the life lesson comes in for those who want to look beyond the dojo. Life is a marathon. Sometimes we know what we think we should be doing to accomplish our goals, but we are just too exhausted and worn down to get up and do it all. But no matter how tired we are, it is always possible to do something to improve our position. It may be a miniscule bit of movement and not the dramatic action that we were hoping for, but those tiny, incremental steps can eventually get us out of some bad places


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Understanding context

Discussions on martial arts forums frequently turn into arguments about the nature of “real fights” or “real violence”, as if that nature could be summed up in a sound bite supporting the speaker’s preferred approach to training. Realistically, the topic of violence and how to survive it is a massive area of study – in fact so huge that no one on this planet is expert in all of it. Consider the following examples:

Two school children tackling each other on the playground while the kids around shout “fight! fight! fight!”
A battered wife trying to fend off an abusive husband
A SWAT team raiding the house of a suspected drug dealer
Two drunk idiots slugging it out on a bar room floor
A team of bouncers working together to eject said drunks from the premises
A squad of infantry advancing under fire
A teenage girl trying to dissuade a date rapist
Two professional MMA fighters facing off for a championship
Two samurai of the Edo period facing off in a duel of honor
A street gang putting a beat down on a couple of strangers for wandering into the wrong neighborhood
An unstable individual who feels alienated from society running amok in an attempt to kill as many people as possible
Two friends coming to blows over hurt feelings
A mugger brandishing a knife in order to get money for drugs

These are just a very few of the forms physical violence can take. Some involve weapons, some do not. Some are one-on-one encounters, some involve groups. Some are life and death, some are not. Some involve professionals who are prepared for the encounter, some involve untrained individuals who are taken by surprise, some involve both. There are certain commonalities between many of these situations. There are also many important differences – the techniques, tactics, and preparation that are appropriate for one may be totally wrong for another.

Martial arts are just as varied. They were developed in different times and places by different individuals facing different needs and challenges. Much of the argument about whether a certain martial art or a certain technique “works” could be resolved by understanding the context that art or technique was developed for. More importantly, if we as martial artists don’t understand the context our art was developed for then we are likely to get in trouble applying it inappropriately in the wrong situation.

Understanding the context of a martial art can be tricky. The “history” passed down by many martial arts instructors is wildly inaccurate. Myths are built up around speculation, hero-worship, and wishful thinking. It is necessary to gather information from as many first hand sources as possible and then apply critical thinking.

(For my Tae Kwon Do friends, I’m sorry, but flying kicks were never used to knock cavalry soldiers off their horses.)

For an example of understanding context, let’s look at a particular class of technique – standing wristlocks. Wristlocks are common in jujutsu, aikido, hapkido, chin na, and a variety of other arts. In recent years, there has been some criticism of their validity as a realistic tactic, because we have never seen them used successfully in MMA. In decades of competition with thousands of fights between skilled martial artists no one has ever pulled one off. If you try the experiment of applying any standing wristlock in a hard-contact sparring session, you will find it exceedingly difficult.

Yet on the other hand, I’ve heard testimony from police officers, bouncers, and correctional officers that they have successfully used wristlocks in real-life confrontations. What’s going on? The standard response from the anti-MMA crowd – that MMA is just a “sport” with rules – doesn’t seem relevant. Wristlocks have always been perfectly legal in MMA.

The answer comes when you realize that standing wristlocks are a grappling equivalent of a sucker punch – something that you hit the other guy with before he realizes the fight has started. Many fights are preceded by a period of trash-talking, posturing, and shoving while the participants build up a full head of steam. A skilled practitioner can use that opportunity to slip on a wristlock and gain control of a subject before the punches start flying. On the other hand, if you try to apply a standing wristlock to a competent fighter who has already begun fighting your odds are not good. That is not the context these techniques were developed for.

If you understand the context that your art was developed for and you understand the rules that apply to different forms of violence, then you have a good chance of knowing how and when to use your training appropriately. I strongly recommend that any serious martial artist go beyond the practice of physical techniques to study this in depth.

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Rey Diogo seminar review

Way back before I moved to Lexington, I started my BJJ training under Mike Patt, head instructor at the Dayton MMA Academy. It’s always fun to stop by and see how the school has grown over the years.

The reason for the visit this weekend was a seminar with Rey Diogo. Ricardo “Rey” Diogo is a 4th degree black belt under Carlson Gracie Senior with an impressive list of tournament championships. He’s also an excellent instructor and a generally nice guy. I had attended a couple of his seminars previously and was looking forward to this one.

The class was devoted exclusively to the sportive aspect of BJJ, primarily competition with the gi. The theme for the day was passing the closed guard and the half-guard. Rey didn’t show anything wild or esoteric. All the moves were either high-percentage fundamentals or else variations built on those fundamentals. I learned several new variations on old techniques and picked up some subtle details on the standard variations that I was already familiar with.

Rey is an exceptionally engaged instructor. As we drilled the techniques, he would continually move around the mat, watching every student, giving feedback as necessary and making himself available for questions. Several times after answering a question for one student he would gather the group together to share the point that had been raised.

At the end of the class, Rey made himself available for a Q&A session covering any topic that students cared to bring up. At every point in the day he was friendly, encouraging, and enthusiastic.

I’d like to thank Mike Patt and Dayton MMA for hosting the seminar, Professor Diogo for teaching a great class, my friend Oscar Kallet for paying my way, and both Oscar and Mike Cox for helping me fix the flat tire I discovered at the end of the seminar.

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An interesting experience

The other week I was contacted by a gentleman who had read this blog and asked if I was interested in a paid gig writing short self-defense related articles “aimed at beginners interested in protecting themselves against random attacks” for another website. From the vagueness about the website in question I figured it was probably a content farm, but I went ahead and submitted a proposal with my qualifications and the rates I would charge. Shortly thereafter I received an enthusiastic e-mail from the owner of the website, stating that he was interested in a long-term collaboration and providing me with links to his website.

I was wrong. It wasn’t a content farm. It was, to be blunt, a scam. The front page of the website was nothing but a video with a sales pitch. The speaker opened with an account of being woken up in the middle of the night by home invaders with a gun pointed to his head and how those invaders proceeded to brutalize his family while he watched helplessly. (Really, the whole thing could have been lifted from a movie script.) He then went on to explain how this event motivated him to create a remarkable self-defense system which would allow anyone, regardless of age or fitness, to effortlessly defeat anyone from armed gangs to trained MMA fighters. Since he was now too busy training celebrity bodyguards to teach everyone who needed this information, he was offering an instructional video which would confer invulnerability for the following, low, low price …

I used occasionally to see these sorts of spiels in the martial arts magazines ads. I wonder if you can still find them there or if the search for suckers has entirely moved to the internet.

The owner of the site had thoughtfully provided me with a link to the actual video being sold. This was possibly even worse. A guy who had obviously never practiced any form of martial arts in his life appeared to read from an off-screen prompt while demonstrating moves that he might have found in a basic self-defense book but didn’t understand how to peform correctly. Judging from his thick accent, he was not the same person who had delivered the sales pitch.

I wrote back to the owner asking why he thought any legitimate martial artist would want to be associated with such a scam. We ended up talking for a bit. He swore that he had just bought the site from someone else and was looking to “improve the product.” I made it clear that the “product” was beyond improvement and that he would have to start over from scratch if he wanted to offer something legitimate. I declined the opportunity to record a new video for him, but said I would be willing to write some articles if he started a new website that wasn’t built on blatant lies.

Amusement factor aside, I thought I’d highlight some tidbits from this bit of silliness that are worth pointing out to the unaware.

1) “…protecting themselves against random attacks” – Violent attacks are generally not random. They have reasons, they have patterns, they have rules. If you don’t understand them, then they may seem random. If you do understand them, then you are on track for learning how to defend yourself before the violence even starts.

2) Focus on the most likely situations, not the scariest. The scamster’s story starts with home invaders who had silently gotten past locked doors and an expensive security system in order to wake up his family with guns to their heads. Later on he mentions that his system would enable the buyer to protect his family after the government fails, society collapses, and armed gangs openly roam the streets. These scenarios make for exciting movies, but they aren’t anywhere near the top of the list of things to worry about in real life for most people.

3) There are no secrets. If there really were some simple technique that you could easily learn from a video that would enable you to instantly destroy an armed attacker, then who do you think would be the first to learn it? That’s right – the same people who you would want to defend yourself from. In real life there are no magic tricks to fighting. If you want to defeat someone who has the advantage in size, weaponry, numbers, or surprise, then you better be willing to put in a lot of hours of hard, hard work. This leads us to …

4) There are no guarantees. You might be the best martial artist on the face of the planet, but if you are taken by surprise by a gang of bloodthirsty, well-armed attackers then your odds are not good. Dedicated practice with a good instructor may give you a chance to defeat an attacker who is bigger and stronger, or who has a weapon, or who has a couple of buddies, or who catches you by surprise. It does not make you invincible.

Ultimately, scams like this one are aimed at people who find the world scary and want something magical to eliminate that uncertainty. Because this particular example is so overblown, it’s easy to point and say that only the most gullible would fall for it. It’s good to bear in mind that there are more subtle ways that we can all fall into the same trap of wanting some perfect guarantee of safety and success. Life is inherently uncertain. It’s best to accept that and move on.

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An Experiment in Progress

Periodically I get jealous of the guys who are really, really good at jiu-jitsu and I vow to try to catch up somehow. Perhaps I can take my lunch break to attend the noon classes or start being more consistent about making it to all the weekend classes.

The problem is that my almost 50-year old body has only so much capacity for healing and recovery. I average 12 hours per week on the mats doing jiu-jitsu. Occasionally I do more, but I can maintain higher levels of training only so long before I become one big walking mass of pain and injuries. What I need is some sort of training supplement that doesn’t break me down. Yoga is helpful for recovery, but doesn’t do much to help my technique. Conditioning exercises are boring. Instructional videos are fun, but they just add to the backlog of techniques I need to spend time drilling with a partner.

A possible solution came to me the other week. I was preparing for a recent Neil Adams seminar by reading his 1986 book A Life In Judo. Adams mentions that he always kept up a daily training diary. He recorded not only the techniques and training methods that he was learning, but also the details of each randori or shiai session, his observations of other competitors, and how he felt physically and mentally each day. He claims that maintaining this training diary helped his development enormously.

This seemed like something I could do to accelerate my growth without overloading my body. I have tried to take notes on my training before, but have been sabotaged by my illegible handwriting. This time I decided to use technology and to be more disciplined with my approach. Each evening before bed I type up a detailed account of the days training. I review each technique and training drill that I practiced along with any details I’ve learned. I review each class I taught, with observations of how well the students are absorbing the material. I review each sparring session, with as much as I can remember about what was working for me and for my sparring partner. I record my physical and mental state for the day. Once I’ve typed everything up, I save copies on my computer, in the cloud, and I print out a hard copy for my training notebook.

Already I’m noticing a few things. Spending the time to mentally review and visualize the details of the days training is helping me to remember things much better even without going back to read my notes. Doing it shortly before bedtime helps my brain to fix those details in long-term memory. I’m realizing how much I was forgetting before starting the diary – and I probably have a better natural memory than most people for the nuances of training.

It does take a certain amount of willpower to make myself spend 30 minutes typing up my notes after I get back from a 3 hour training session. It helps my motivation to think of this as actual training time and not just a writing exercise.

This is an experiment in progress. I’ll report back in 6 months with an evaluation of what impact the journal-keeping has on my actual progress in jiu-jitsu.

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Neil Adams Seminar Review

If you know anything about judo, you know who Neil Adams is: World champion. Two-time Olympic medalist. Five-time European champion. 8th dan. Author of numerous books and videos. Adams is one of the foremost judo instructors in the world.

Being familiar with Adams’ name and accomplishments, I was thrilled to learn that he would be coming to my town for a seminar, sponsored by the University of Kentucky Judo Club and by the Valhalla Academy. I was even more thrilled when the decision was made to hold the seminar at my home gym – Four Seasons Martial Arts. (At a ridiculously low price as well. Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful – but I would have been willing to pay significantly more.)

Despite my excitement, a part of me was wondering how much I would be prepared to actually learn from a judo legend. My judo skills are … rudimentary at best. Obviously Adams would have a lot to offer the advanced competitor, but would he be showing much that was relevant for someone who still struggles with the basics?

I needn’t have worried. Adams is a world-class teacher as well as judoka. Participants at the seminar ranged from white belt up to at least 6th dan*, and I suspect that everyone was able to take away something of value.

*(6th dan Eberhard Kieslich was on hand to act as an uke and I saw many other senior instructors from the Kentucky judo community. Miscellaneous note – at BJJ seminars I’m used to being the oldest person present. That was far from the case for this class.)

For warmups, instead of the standard calisthenics, Adams had us playing judo-relevant movement games. We started out moving around the mat in fighting stance, trying not to run into anyone else in the crowd. Then we had to try touching other participants on the left shoulder without being touched ourselves (no blocking allowed, only movement). Then we tried touching the right shoulder, then the back. Then we tried to grab sleeve grips, then lapel grips without being grabbed ourselves. No blocking, only constant movement.

Once we were warmed up, we got down to serious instruction. Adams covered a variety of techniques, primarily tai otoshi, uchimata, some gripping tactics, and some entries into juji gatame. Besides the specific techniques being demonstrated, he focused quite a bit on the underlying principles that apply to all the tachi waza. He came back repeatedly to emphasizing proper head position and the coordination between feet and hands.

I came to realize that I have been fundamentally misunderstanding tai otoshi and uchimata for as long as I have been practicing them. I have some work ahead of me to reprogram old habits.

One thing that was different about Adams’ teaching approach: all the throws and entries were applied off of movement with our partners. There were no static uchikomis. Adams actually refused to dictate any specific footwork for an entry. He pointed out that the standard stepping patterns we all normally learn in our initial judo classes don’t really work that way once both parties are moving around. Instead, he wanted to make sure we understood exactly the position we should be in relative to uke at the moment of the throw and then find our own footwork to arrive there in the moment.

After the seminar Adams took questions and offered insights into a number of topics, from the process that led to the recent changes in the rules of judo to effective ways of coaching and practicing.

I’d like to thank Robert Burge of the UK Judo Club and Brian Jones of the Valhalla Academy for arranging this amazing training opportunity.
Neil Adams seminar group picture

Update: Brian has posted a short interview with Neil Adams that took place immediately after the seminar. Neil Adams interview

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Carlson Gracie Jr Seminar Review

Sometimes it just takes a while before I’m ready for certain lessons.

I’ve mentioned before that I love attending weekend training seminars. Over the years I’ve attended dozens of seminars taught by a wide range of instructors covering a variety of arts. Besides the fun of learning new material and meeting new training partners, it’s always interesting to see how different teachers approach the same art.

My BJJ instructor is a second-degree black belt under Carlson Gracie Jr., so we get Carlson out to our gym about twice a year for seminars. I’ll be honest. When I first started showing up for those seminars (as a blue belt) Carlson was my least favorite of all the BJJ instructors I had seen. He didn’t have the fluid agility I’d encountered in practitioners like Renzo Gracie. Despite being 5 years younger than I am, Carlson moved like an old man with bad knees. Of the material he showed, half I thought I’d seen before and the other half I didn’t see the point of.

Times change. As a brown belt, I’m much more appreciative of what Carlson has to show. He does have bad knees and probably some other old injuries as well. He’s no longer particularly athletic or flexible. As a result, his style of movement is very economical – what I like to refer to as “old man jiu-jitsu.” Seeing that I am rapidly approaching my 50th birthday, this is a style of movement I am trying to emulate. It seems more sustainable in the long term than a more athletic approach.

I’ve also come to realize that I was mistaken about the material I thought I already knew. Carlson often shows moves which superficially resemble standard basics but which actually work very differently. It took time and experience to recognize what he was actually showing instead of shoehorning the moves into a pigeonhole of my own preconceptions.

The moves I didn’t see the point of are now recognizable as part of a deeper, more sophisticated game than I was familiar with as a blue belt. Carlson doesn’t usually explain so much about the larger context of the moves in the seminar – that I had to pick up from my regular instructor.

All this goes to explain why I thoroughly enjoyed the seminar that Carlson taught last weekend at Four Seasons Martial Arts. According to my notes he taught a total of 9 different techniques, mostly sweeps and guard passes. Of those moves, I had done only one before – and he gave me some refinements on that one. The rest introduced me to some new ideas about movement that I will be exploring in the upcoming months.

Carlson himself is very friendly and personable. He makes a point to walk around the room to watch every participant do the techniques and he is always available for questions. I’m looking forward to the next time he comes to town.


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