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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Book Review: ConCom: Conflict Communication A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication

I’m starting to think that everything Rory Miller has ever written should be required reading for all martial artists, regardless of their style.

Miller is an experienced martial artist and corrections officer. He came to the attention of the larger martial arts community in 2008 with his publication of Meditations on Violence, a book which conceptualized the dynamics of real-world violence and explained how it differed from what most martial artists train to deal with in the dojo. Any serious martial artist should read that book, if only for his explanation of the difference between the “monkey dance” of ritualized social violence and the actions of predators who will stack the odds in their favor to ensure that the violence they instigate is entirely one-sided.

Miller’s latest book is ConCom: Conflict Communication A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication. (Unfortunately currently available only as an e-book, otherwise I’d be buying copies as gifts for several friends.) This book originated as a course taught by Miller and Marc MacYoung for teaching law enforcement officers the communication skills to deal with potentially violent criminals. Based on feedback from their students they realized that the principles of the course applied not only to calming down an aggressive suspect but also to handling interpersonal conflict elsewhere, whether in the workplace or in a relationship.

The genius of Miller’s work lies not in any uniquely original insights. Rather it rests within his ability to explain concepts in a way which is simple enough to be understood easily, yet accurate enough to be genuinely helpful. (In a refreshing contrast to most writers of self-help books, Miller does not insist that his theoretical constructs for explaining his ideas are literally true – just that they map the territory well enough to be useful.)

Miller’s model for understanding conflict rests upon the idea of the triune brain, although he has put his own spin on the concept. Most of the book is spent teaching the reader how to understand conflicts arising from the “monkey brain” which governs much of our social interaction. By recognizing how the scripts played out by this “monkey brain” can create or escalate conflict, the reader can learn how to either break out of those scripts or use them to create a better outcome.

The book also examines the mindset of a predator using those social scripts to enable violence and explains how tactics designed to defuse social violence may play into the hands of such predators.

Many martial arts instructors give lip service to the idea of only fighting after all other options (such as avoidance or verbal de-escalation) have been exhausted. The problem is, unless you understand the dynamics which give rise to violence in the first place your attempts to avoid or de-escalate that violence will be so much thrashing around in the dark. This book will help you shed light on that darkness.

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Steal My Technique

Being a great martial artist or a great fighter doesn’t make you a great teacher or a great coach, and vice-versa. The ability to demonstrate flawless skills in a fight is different from the ability to communicate those skills to another. Some martial artists have one ability, some have the other. A very few have both.

I’m at the point in my life where I’m well aware I’m never going to be a great fighter. I’m still holding onto the goal of becoming a really good coach/instructor. I prepare lesson plans for every class I teach. I pay attention to how other instructors teach to see what seems to work and what doesn’t. I’m constantly trying to figure out better ways to explain movements and principles, to arrange a curriculum so one lesson supports the next, to inspire students, to understand what each student needs and to communicate that information to them.

Maybe one day this effort will pay off and I will become that mythical perfect guru who knows exactly what every student needs at each moment in their development and exactly how to communicate it so that they can reach their full potential just by following my instructions. Probably not, though. I used the term “mythical” for a reason. Anyone who tells you they always know exactly what is best for each student is either self-deluded or running a cult. No one is perfect for everyone. Even if I get to be a really, really good martial arts instructor, there will always be some students who would learn better from someone else. The best I can hope for is to be as helpful as possible for as many of my students as possible.

In a perfect world, we would all have instructors and coaches who are really skilled at the art of teaching and coaching. Furthermore, we’d find the coach or instructor who really spoke our personal language so that we’d understand exactly what they were trying to communicate.

In the real world, most of us aren’t so lucky. Some instructors have never made an effort to learn the art of teaching. Some teach exactly the way they were taught, even if that system of pedagogy is less than effective. Some teach in a way that would work well for themselves and can’t adjust for a student who learns differently. Some are naturally talented at movement and can’t teach the fine details of how they move because they aren’t consciously aware of those details. Some aren’t verbally or socially skilled. Some are not very fluent in the language that their students speak. Some are spread too thin and don’t have the time or energy to pay full attention to each student. Some just don’t care about being good teachers. Some teach at a school with a bunch of other instructors, each of whom teaches a little differently.

If you want to get the most out of your training, then you have to be actively engaged in the learning process rather than waiting for your instructor to spoon-feed you everything. Is your instructor skilled in his art but unable or unwilling to explain things in a way that makes sense to you? Steal his art! Watch him move and see if you can figure out the subtle details that make his movements different from those of someone less skilled. See if you can absorb and imitate the overall flavor of his movement. See if you can figure out the reason why he sometimes does a technique one way and sometimes another. Read or listen to discussions of the art by other senior practitioners and see if you can glean insights into how and why your instructor does what he does.

If you have multiple instructors and each teaches the same technique differently, that is a wonderful learning opportunity. Try to figure out the common principles that underlie all the variations. Try to figure out the reason for the differences. Is one variation better suited for a certain individuals body type? Is another better suited for a certain style of movement? Are there certain trade-offs that would dictate using one or another in a certain situation? By the same token, sometimes it can be useful to look at how an equivalent situation or technique might be handled in a different martial art. If you can understand why things would be done differently in that other art, you are a step closer to understanding why it is done a particular way in your own art.

If your instructor is open to answering questions, then use that opportunity to learn. That doesn’t mean interrupting class with a continuous series of “what-ifs.” Figure out the time and place and type of question that get you the most useful results. I find that concrete questions about specific problems you are having tend to be most useful. “I’ve been trying that side-mount escape you showed last week, but every time I go for it in sparring my opponent does this and shuts me down. What should I do in that situation?”

Be a scientist. Experiment with everything you learn and find out what works for you. Keep an open mind and be willing to reconsider your conclusions as you gain more experience. Take as much as you can from your instructor, but understand that no matter how good he is, he is not infallible. The best martial artists tend to be those who know how to teach themselves.


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What makes a style?

The following post is adapted from a comment I made in a discussion over at MartialTalk.

Some folks were having some argument over the definition and the boundaries of a martial arts style. One perspective which came up is that a martial arts style is a discrete, static thing in itself – an integrated collection of principles, tactics, techniques, and training methods formed for a specific purpose in a specific historical context. From this perspective, new material brought in by an individual instructor which isn’t tied to that original context isn’t actually part of the system. From this perspective, making any significant changes to the principles or tactics of the style means that you’ve basically made a new style and abandoned the old one.

This is a valid perspective and useful for many purposes. It helps to understand why things are done a certain way in a particular art. It explains why many new arts created by wannabee grandmasters fail to amount to much. Often these would-be Bruce Lees throw together techniques and drills derived from arts with very different foundations of movement principles and tactical doctrine resulting in pieces that fail to add up into a coherent whole.

A different but still valid perspective is that this Platonic ideal of a martial art doesn’t actually exist anywhere in reality. There are only individual human beings doing whatever it is they do at different points in their lives and choosing to call it by various names. Without those individuals, there is nothing in the real world that you can point to and say “this is Goju Ryu, this is Tai Chi.”

From this perspective, you start to realize that a “style” can evolve in its techniques, principles, tactics, and training methods while still retaining the same name. It can evolve in the practice of a single practitioner over years of study. It can evolve as a series of teachers and students adapt the art to their individual needs and sensibilities. This evolution doesn’t have to be linear, it can be branching in different directions – within a community of practitioners of a given “style” there may be individuals applying different principles to the “same” art. Conversely, there may be individuals who are training in essentially the same way as each other but calling their system by a different name because of political splits between teachers.

Realizing that humans are often inconsistent helps to understand why some styles are not truly integrated in their principles, tactics, techniques, and training methods. I’ve seen schools where the kata used one set of movement principles, sparring used a different set, and the “self-defense” techniques used still another. Being descriptive rather than prescriptive, I’m not going to claim that these people aren’t practicing a real style (or that they’re practicing 3 styles under one name). People do what they do and they can call it what they like.

To put all this in concrete terms, I’ll look at my current primary art, BJJ. Putting aside Gracie family spin as much as possible, here’s my current understanding of BJJ history:

BJJ started in the 1920’s with Carlos Gracie, who had a foundation of only around 3 years of judo training. In the ensuing decades, the Gracie family (especially Carlos’s brother Helio) and their students developed the art into something uniquely their own. The primary crucible for this development was fighting. Specifically, it was fighting (for the most part) unarmed, one-on-one challenge matches in a culture heavily influenced by concepts of honor and machismo. In this context, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu practitioners fought thousands of fights in the ring, in the streets, in dojos, and on beaches. Most of these fights were against non-jiu jitsu practitioners (either street fighters or exponents of other martial arts). A large part of these would fall into the category of “social” violence for status and dominance. Rules were largely informal and socially enforced. (If we’re fighting and your friends jump in to help you, then my brothers will jump in on my side. If you bite or eye-gouge me, then I’ll get a dominant position and bite and eye-gouge you back.)

From this experience, the Gracie family developed an art with a coherent set of principles (relaxation, leverage, patience), tactics (control the distance, clinch, takedown, finish with ne-waza, staying safe from strikes all the time), techniques (originally from judo, but refined from experience, with more techniques added over time from other sources), and training methods (heavy on the sparring) for a specific context (challenge fighting in the macho Brazilian culture).

Even at this time, however, there was more to the art. The Gracie curriculum included a number of self-defense* techniques for dealing with unarmed and armed assaults in a non-challenge setting. Though not as well documented as the challenge matches, we have anecdotal testimony that these techniques were used successfully on a number of occasions. These used the same physical principles as the rest of the curriculum, but did not necessarily rely on the same tactical doctrines as were used for challenge matches. Strikes were part of the art. (Helio Gracie won one match by knocking out his opponent with a side kick.) In addition, over time a number of high-level practitioners started viewing jiu-jitsu as a vehicle for developing moral character.

*(By self-defense in this context I mean just the physical methods for dealing with an assault, not the larger study of avoiding the assault in the first place.)

In 1967, sport BJJ competition was introduced with rules and a point system. Originally the points were intended to reward actions that would be effective in a real fight. Over time, competitors began focusing on tactics that were effective within the confines of the rules without regard to combat effectiveness. As more and more practitioners began preparing for competition, many of them began neglecting major aspects of the art such as throws, striking, and striking defense. Instead they devoted that time and energy into perfecting increasingly sophisticated grappling maneuvers which are effective under the rules of the sport, but questionable for real fighting.

At the start of the modern MMA era, BJJ practitioners were able to win fights by using the classic Gracie jiu-jitsu tactical doctrine – control the distance and then get the clinch and takedown without ever having to engage in the striking range. Over time opponents learned and grew adept at distance management, takedown defense, and regaining the feet after a takedown. Nowadays that doctrine has been largely abandoned in high-level competition. MMA fighters train to handle all ranges and regard BJJ as something to use only while on the ground. (This approach is not limited to MMA competitors. I’ve had at least one high-level BJJ black belt tell me that he would never choose to go to the ground in a real fight – but that if someone takes him down they have a surprise waiting for them. Mind you, that individual is highly skilled at stand-up methods.)

In the interest of brevity I’ll omit details about methods from other arts which have migrated into BJJ and the adaption of BJJ methods for law-enforcement.

So all that said, what is BJJ? What is its purpose and context? What are its tactical doctrines?

Is it a complete method for fighting challenge bouts?
Is it a method for physical self-defense?
Is it a sport with a specific rule-set?
Is it a component in a larger set of skills for MMA or self-defense?
Is it a fun way to exercise?
Is it a vehicle for personal self-improvement?

My answer is that it can be any and all of these, depending on who is practicing it. I teach my beginners class largely from a self-defense standpoint (including some basics of avoidance and escape), but I try to lay the foundation for students who want to explore the rest of the art. I practice myself primarily for enjoyment and self-improvement, but I’m exploring the sport aspect for the sake of grasping the art as a whole.

I suspect that you could examine a lot of arts meaningfully from this sort of perspective.

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One of the toughest things for most of us to face up to seems to be the uncertainties in our knowledge.

I’m not talking about the obvious gaps in our knowledge. I’ve never studied organic chemistry and I have no problem with admitting my ignorance of the subject. I’ve never practiced Praying Mantis Kung Fu and I would never think of claiming expertise in that art. Most people are the same. (We’ll ignore the occasional blowhard who read a magazine article once and is now prepared to lecture you at length about what he thinks he knows.)

What I’m talking about is accepting that some of what we think we know may not be correct and we may not even be able to know for sure. For some reason, people seem to have a hard time with uncertainty. You see this in politics. You see this in religion. You see it in martial arts.

Those of us who study the martial arts seriously have a lot invested in our practice – time, money, hard work. It’s understandable that we would want to know for sure that our training “works.” Unfortunately, that may not be possible.

It’s not a problem if we’re just training for sportive contest. Does a triangle choke work in BJJ competition? The results of thousands of matches say “yes.” Have I learned the triangle choke well enough to successfully apply it myself in competition? All I have to do is step onto the mat to find out.

When it comes to real world violence, things get more complicated. Some topics we can be relatively confident of. In other areas we may at best be just making an educated guess.

Let’s take something easy – how to land a hard right cross. For the general theory of this subject a knowledgeable instructor can draw upon observations of thousands of punches thrown in boxing and kickboxing matches, in MMA bouts, in bar brawls and street fights. That includes punches that have missed, punches that have landed, punches that have knocked out the opponent, and punches which have been laughed off. The instructor can also draw upon the accumulated wisdom of previous coaches and fighters who have witnessed and/or thrown tens of thousands of punches over the years. That’s a lot of data about what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, an individual student who has been the recipient of this accumulated knowledge has the opportunity to test his or her skills – in the gym, in the ring, or even on the street. (I don’t recommend seeking out street fights to test your skills. I do my best to avoid real world violence. Still, I have knocked someone down with a punch in a real fight.)

At the other end of the spectrum, let’s talk about unarmed defenses against a knife attack. I’ve learned knife disarms from a few arts. I’ve even occasionally been able to pull off a disarm in sparring with a training knife. But…
I’ve never defended against a real knife attack.
To the best of my knowledge, the people who taught me the knife defenses had never used them against a real attack.
I’ve never seen anyone successfully defend unarmed against a real knife attack.
The people I’ve talked to who had successfully taken on a knife-wielding assailant did it by picking up a weapon of their own.
Many of the defenses I’ve been taught are based on styles of knife attack which do not match the most common attacks I’ve seen video of or read police accounts of.
Even if the techniques I’ve learned have been used successfully by someone at some point in time, I would have no idea of knowing how often they succeeded, how often they had failed, and what made the difference.
Probably no one else really knows that either. The data just isn’t available. Even if you find someone who has successfully defended himself unarmed against a real knife attack, he may have done it once, or twice, maybe even a few times. That just isn’t enough data to form much in the way of reliable conclusions. It’s not like our example of the right cross where we’ve seen thousands of punches succeed and thousands of punches fail and we can carefully analyze what works and what doesn’t.

None of this means the knife disarms I learned wouldn’t work. It means I don’t know – and I have no way of knowing.

The uncertainty goes beyond individual techniques. Real world violence comes in many forms and the tactics which work best for one circumstance may not be so useful for another. Consider the following situations:
1) a pair of drunks squaring off in a monkey dance outside a bar
2) a gang member shanking a victim in a prison yard
3) a bouncer ejecting an unruly patron
4) a trio of police officers taking down a potentially armed suspect
5) a teenage girl fending off a date rapist
6) a political demonstration that devolves into a riot
7) a group of toughs putting a beatdown on a stranger for being in the wrong neighborhood
These are just a sample of the possible ways that violence can occur. You can find some commonalities in these situations, but there are a lot of differences as well. No one is expert in all of them.

In fact, some of these situations no one is really expert in. There are professionals who deal with violence on a regular basis – some police officers, bouncers, leg-breakers for the mob. They may deal with hundreds of violent encounters in the course of their jobs and become very knowledgeable in what works – for their particular job. There are also people who engage in violence recreationally – challenge matches or bar brawls. Some of these people also become very aware of what works for their particular situations. In contrast, consider the classic “self-defense” situation that many people imagine when they begin studying a martial art – being cornered by predators with no chance to walk away and no choice but to lay the evil-doers low with righteous fists of fury. You aren’t going to find folks with the expertise that would come from surviving this sort of encounter hundreds of times. For one thing, getting caught in this situation on a regular basis would mean that you are completely failing in the fundamentals of awareness that make up 95% of real self-defense. For another, actual predators (the sort who don’t give you a chance to walk away) aren’t really looking for a fight. They prefer to overwhelm their victims with surprise, superior numbers, and superior weaponry. If you allow that sort of attack to occur too many times, you aren’t going to survive long enough to become an expert.

I’d love the security of knowing I was an invincible badass who could handle any sort of violent situation. Even more, I’d love the satisfaction of knowing I could teach my students what they needed to safely survive any sort of violent encounter. Since neither of those is possible, the best I can do is to be realistic about the limits of my knowledge and ability.

For the record:

I know that I can verbally defuse a bad situation before it turns violent, because I’ve done it on several occasions. I don’t know the best way to do it with different types of individuals or social situations or how to recognize when de-escalation isn’t going to work.

I know I can control my ego enough to not respond to provocation, walk away from a fight, or even run if need be. I’ve been able to do all of these successfully.

I know that during violent encounters I’ve been able to maintain situational awareness of my surroundings and disengage when necessary. I don’t know what my limits are on this ability. Perhaps if the encounter had been more intense then tunnel vision would have set in and I would have been vulnerable to being blindsided.

I’ve learned to recognize and avoid certain vulnerable situations. I don’t know how well I would do at recognizing the clues and reacting appropriately in time if a really skilled predator was stalking me.

I don’t know if would recognize in time if I was in a situation where a pre-emptive attack was my best option. I’ve done some scenario training, but never been there in real life.

I know I’m physically and mentally capable of hitting hard enough to knock some opponents out. I know other opponents are tough enough to walk through my best shots. I don’t know what percentage of potential real-world attackers fall into each category.

I know I can take some hard shots and maintain enough composure to keep fighting with some semblance of technique. I don’t know what my limits are on this.

I know that if a fight goes to the ground against a single unarmed opponent that I can protect myself and be dangerous even against a bigger, stronger attacker. I don’t know how likely this situation is to arise in an encounter that I couldn’t avoid in the first place.

I know that if a fight goes to the ground against multiple opponents that I am better prepared than most people to disengage and get back to my feet.

I know a number of weapon defenses. I don’t know how likely any of them are to work in a real fight.

I know a number of unarmed techniques and tactics that have been effective in a real fight for others and that I think would be effective for me, but I don’t have the experience to know for sure.

I know other techniques that have been effective in real situations for others and that might possibly be effective for me, but I don’t know whether I would even take the chance on them in a real fight.

It’s kind of humbling to admit all these areas of uncertainty, especially after 30+ years of martial arts training. Fortunately I do feel pretty confident that I’m pretty good at one essential self-defense skill – living my life in such a way that no one is really interested in hurting me.

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Matt Smith seminar

There’s almost nothing I enjoy doing on a weekend more than attending martial arts
seminars. So it was that yesterday I braved blowing snow and treacherous roads driving to
Valhalla Academy for a 4-hour BJJ seminar with guest instructor Matt Smith. Matt is a
black belt under Jason Keaton. I hadn’t encountered him before, but the price was
reasonable and I trusted the recommendation of Valhalla chief instructor Brian Jones.

Over the last 30 years I’ve attended somewhere around 50-60 seminars in various martial
arts as a supplement to my regular training. In that time, my objectives for attending
have changed. I used to go with the intention of learning new techniques. That aspect is
still fun, but at this point I’ve seen more techniques than I could hope to master in my
lifetime. These days I would rather learn ten new details on one old technique than ten
new techniques. Since most seminar instructors are focusing on showing new techniques, I
just try to pay close attention in the hopes of catching some new detail on the moves I am
already familiar with.

Matt Smith’s teaching was very different from the typical seminar mold. He showed very
few actual techniques – about as many as some instructors go over in a normal 1-hour
class. What he filled the time with was lots and lots of drills and fine details to make
those techniques actually work.

This instructional style could be tailor made for the way I prefer to learn these days. I
can spend all day working on a technique if I can keep learning new nuances about how to
make it work the whole time. The only other seminar instructor I can recall with a
similar attention to detail is Roy Harris.

In addition to demonstrating a wealth of useful information, Matt also shared a cheerful
enthusiasm for jiu-jitsu and did an excellent job of providing feedback and guidance to
each student at the seminar. (Providing that personal attention was probably made easier
by the fact that the winter weather caused lower than anticipated turnout.)

Thanks to Matt Smith for teaching an excellent seminar and to Brian Jones for hosting it.


A small but dedicated group braved the winter weather for first-class training

Matt Smith seminar at Valhalla Academy

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Book review: Dueling with O-sensei

I earn a living by writing computer code.  This means that any time I watch a movie  portraying a programmer or “hacker” or “computer expert” I get to wince and bite my tongue  to avoid pointing out the sheer ridiculousness of what is presented.  This is par for the  course.  Hollywood doesn’t care about how things really work – they just want to tell an  entertaining story.  Probably most people who are really knowledgeable about a given field  tend to roll their eyes when they see that field represented on the silver screen.

I’ve found it odd, then that so many martial artists are big fans of martial arts movies  and the actors who star in them.  Let’s face it – as entertaining as these movies can be,  they have just about nothing in common with the reality of martial arts training.  Recently   I’ve developed a theory that we love these movies because they represent a fantasy about  our training that we would like to be true.  The movies tell us that we are just one  training montage away from becoming an invincible superhero or a wise warrior sage who can  kick all sorts of bad guy ass while being totally morally justified in doing so.

These movie fantasies are really just a logical extension of the myths that permeate  martial arts culture.  We have origin stories about the founding of our arts and tales of  the amazing abilities and wisdom of the founders.  We have idealistic expectations about  the role of our teachers that extend beyond the transmission of technical knowledge. We  have clear-cut explanations of the underlying principles that make our arts so effective.

Almost inevitably, the reality is much messier and more complex than the stories we are  told.

I was reminded of this theory while re-reading Ellis Amdur’s Dueling with O-sensei.  The  first edition of this book occupies a favored spot in my library and I was fortunate enough  to be granted an early look at the upcoming second edition for this review.

Dueling With O-sensei is ostensibly largely about aikido, an art that is replete with  myths.  Much of the mythology revolves around the founder, Morihei Ueshiba. “O-sensei”, as  he is known in aikido circles, was widely credited with remarkable or even superhuman  abilities.  The story goes that he was a consummate fighter in his youth, but then achieved  enlightenment and created aikido as a path for achieving harmony with the universe.  Aikido   is sometimes regarded as a “peaceful” martial art and its principles are supposedly as  effective for avoiding confrontations as for ending them.

Amdur deconstructs these myths in a volume that manages to be simultaneously  personal, historical, and philosophical.  He narrates his introduction to aikido in the  1970s, his training in both the U.S. and Japan, the continued influence of aikido in his  life after he moved on to training in the koryu arts, and the application of the principles  of aiki to his profession as a crisis intervention specialist.  He paints vivid portraits  of the teachers, friends and training partners he encountered during his aikido journey.   He examines the incidence of abusive behavior in martial arts instruction and training.  He  points out some less than savory aspects of Ueshiba’s history and character.  He wrestles  with the intersection of violence and morality in the martial arts.

He does all this and more while refusing to whitewash anyone’s flaws and limitations,  including his own.  This is done not in the spirit of “debunking” or cutting anyone down.   Rather, Amdur realizes that we can learn much more from messy, complex reality than from  sanitized, simplified, just-so stories.

Dueling with O-sensei deals primarily with aikido, with some tangents examining Daito-ryu,  hapkido, and Amdur’s current primary art, Araki-Ryu.  Despite this, I would strongly  recommend the book for practitioners of any martial art.  I recognized facets of the  stories he tells from my time in other martial arts, particularly my stint in the Bujinkan.   His thoughts on violence, morality, and conflict avoidance are relevant to any martial  artist.  Even for those who just enjoy good writing, this makes a highly entertaining read.

The first edition of Dueling with O-sensei is out of print.  The second edition (reviewed  here) has been substantially expanded and re-worked.  It will be published by Freelance  Academy Press in mid-2014.  Check for an announcement of publication, as  well as information on Amdur’s other books.

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