Video Review – Die Less Often

I love watching martial arts instructional videos.  I used to collect them, but these days I spend 5-6 days per week training trying to just master the material I already have to work on.  Given that fact, it’s hard to justify spending a lot of money on videos that will just add to the backlog of stuff I need to practice.

This means that I was delighted when a friend recently gave me permission to borrow whatever I wanted from his extensive library of instructional DVDs.  I plan to spend a lot of my free time over the next few weeks indulging myself with video instruction.  To pass along the benefits, I figure I will write up reviews of the more interesting DVDs for anyone who may be considering purchasing them.

The very first DVD I inserted into my player was Die Less Often (vol. 1), with instruction by Marc “Crafty Dog” Denny and Gabe Suarez.  I’ve been interested in this one for a while, but the high price tag had discouraged me from picking up my own copy.

Marc Denny is the chief instructor for the Dog Brothers – a group known for full-contact stickfighting and their eclectic approach to thhe Filipino martial arts.  Gabe Suarez is a martial artist, former police officer, and a firearms instructor.

Die Less Often is compiled from video shot at a seminar the two men taught together.  Material covered includes recognizing potential assailants, controlling distance, close-range counters for common armed and unarmed attacks, weapon retention and deployment, and mindset.

Much of the instruction assumes that the student is likely to be carrying a weapon of some sort and time is spent on developing an approach that will allow the defender to protect himself and deploy his own weapon without getting stabbed or knocked out in the process. The title reflects awareness that there is no guarantee method for surviving a sudden close-range knife attack – the best you can do is maximize your odds and “die less often.”

Although the techniques that Denny demonstrates are relatively simple and straightforward, I would not categorize this as a video for beginners.  The emphasis is on concepts and principles rather than on exact sequences of moves.  This approach should make sense to an experienced martial artist, but may be confusing for some novices. The instruction also takes as given that students understand the difference between violence initiated by a predator versus fights that begin with the “monkey dance” for hiearchical dominance – a concept that some beginners may not be familiar with.

I would recommend this video for anyone who carries a weapon for self-defense and who has sufficent martial arts background to be comfortable with a conceptual approach.  Much of the material is also useful for those of us who are not habitually armed.  At $80, the price tag is rather steep compared to most videos out there, but if you can afford it this DVD will make a valuable addition to your video library.

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Interview with Mike O’Donnell – Part 2

Part 2 of the interview with my BJJ coach, Mike O’Donnell. Part 1 can be found here.

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Interview with Mike ODonnell

This is an interview with my BJJ coach, Mike ODonnell. Mike is the head instructor at Four Seasons Martial Arts in Lexington, Kentucky. It’s interesting to hear how training has changed over the years.

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Look at the website for just about any martial arts school.  Read interviews with senior martial artists.  The same idea comes up over and over again. “Martial arts aren’t just about fighting.  Martial arts training is about self-improvement.  Martial arts build character. Martial arts builds discipline.  Martial arts teach humility.  Martial arts teach respect.  Martial arts build confidence.  Martial arts are about making the world a better place.”

A lot of this is just boilerplate marketing, designed to lure parents into signing up their kids at the local dojo.  But it’s not just ad copy.  Top instructors have sincerely advocated this viewpoint for a long time.  The third item in Gichin Funakoshi’s 20 principles is “Karate fosters righteousness.” The tenets of Tae Kwon Do are “Courtesy, Integrity, Preserverance, Self-Control, and Indomitable Spirit.”  One of the primary ideals of judo is “Mutual Welfare and Benefit.”  The concept isn’t completely universal, but it’s pretty darn widespread.

At this point I need to interject a splash of cold water.  Martial arts training will not make you a better person.  It will not automatically make you humble, courteous, and disciplined.  It will not develop your character or integrity.  It will not make the world a better place.  You don’t have to look all that hard to find skilled martial artists who are serious assholes or who have made a complete mess of their lives off the mats.

Does that mean that martial arts are only good for fighting after all?  Nope.  Martial arts training offers lessons and tools that can be applied to life in general.  The catch is two-fold.  First you have to decide which lessons and tools you want to use in your life outside the gym.  Next you have to actually do the hard work of applying those lessons and tools.

Deciding what lessons to learn: This is crucial.  You can learn negative lessons as well as positive ones.  Some years ago I was talking to a friend who was in my ninjutsu class.  She mentioned that in an argument with her boyfriend she had reflexively said some hurtful things “going for his vulnerable spots, just like we learned in ninjutsu.” Ouch.  From my standpoint, that wasn’t the best sort of lesson to apply from class. Other folks make a big deal about learning “respect” in the martial arts.  Unfortunately, they often use the term to refer to a strict hierarchical structure where “respect” is only owed from juniors to seniors. Once again, not what I would call a great life lesson.

Applying the lessons to life in general: This isn’t easy and it doesn’t come automatically.  The good thing about lessons learned in the martial arts is that they aren’t just abstract philosophical ideas.  They come down to actual physical experiences that you can feel in your body.  Perhaps in BJJ training you learn that when you are caught in a bad position the best thing is to not panic, breathe, relax, protect yourself, and slowly work to improve your situation.  You can apply the same principles when you are facing a crisis at work or in a relationship.  Panic is a bodily sensation.  If you learn to use the tools  you’ve developed on the mat to control that sensation and stay calm, you may find yourself dealing with the crisis in a more helpful manner.

I’ll give a more personal example from my own experience. This one started about 26 years ago, while I was training in Bujinkan taijutsu (or Togakure Ryu ninjutsu, as it was marketed in those days).

To set the stage, you have to understand that Stephen Hayes and some of his black belts who were running the Dayton dojo at the time tended to use the physical aspects of the art as metaphors for philosophical life lessons and I enthusiastically embraced this approach, regularly trying to find the relevant personal lesson in whatever I was practicing.

The start of the lesson came when a friend from the dojo and I were showing off techniques for a woman we were both interested in and going a bit rough. How rough, I found out a few days later when my friend informed me that I had broken his hand, necessitating doctor’s bills that he could ill afford.

Naturally, I felt terrible about this. It got worse, though. I was talking to another friend about the incident and she told me “Well, you can’t be surprised. You know you have a problem with your control. After all, you injured soandso a couple of months ago and they had to take time off from training.” This was news to me. Soandso had never told me they were injured, either at the time or afterwards, and neither had anyone else. Now I really felt like a jerk. Not only had I injured someone that I liked, but I hadn’t even known about it to apologize.

So after I sought out soandso to deliver my belated apology, I tried to find a useful life lesson from the experience. Perhaps, I theorized, the physical could be a metaphor for the social. Just as my lack of physical awareness allowed me to hurt my training partners without realizing it, perhaps I could also be inadvertently hurting feelings or offending people in social interactions without realizing it.

I doubted this was actually the case, but I ran the theory past some of my friends. It actually felt like I was fishing for compliments. Surely they would say “Oh no, Tony. Everybody knows you’re a nice guy.” The actual reaction I got – awkward silences.  As it turned out, people were too polite to say it to my face, but I was just as oblivious socially as I was physically. I really was just as likely to offend someone with a clueless comment as I was to apply a wristlock too quickly on my training partner.

This started me on parallel quests to learn awareness and control in conversation and in the dojo. This was a long and emotionally painful process that took several years before I got to the point where I was consistently happy with myself on either front. As it turned out, the physical really was a good metaphor for the non-physical in this case. In both situations, my problem was lack of awareness. In the dojo, the problem wasn’t that I was necessarily going too hard in general. It was that I couldn’t tell how hard to go with a given individual on a given technique on a given day. In conversation, it wasn’t that I was saying mean things. It was that I was unaware of the signals people were sending me.

I’ve learned other life lessons from the martial arts, but that was probably the most important.

If you’ve used martial arts training as a vehicle for self-improvement, please leave a comment to detail your experience.

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High-Percentage vs Low-Percentage

No technique works every time.  Every technique works some of the time.

When you gather a sufficient number of martial artists online, you will inevitably generate arguments over which techniques really work or do not work.  Frequently this gets framed in terms of which techniques work “in a real fight.”  This then evolves into a discussion of what constitutes a “real fight.”  (According to many, it appears that a typical real fight consists of being assaulted out of the blue by a gang of armed murderous sociopaths on a crowded bar-room floor covered with broken glass.  Only the most bad-ass of techniques will suffice for this eventuality.)

No technique works every time.  Every technique works some of the time.

It seems obvious that some techniques are just completely unrealistic and would never work.  Back when I was training in the Bujinkan, there was a technique called Kuki Nage (air throw) that Hatsumi-sensei (grandmaster of the Bujinkan) would sometimes demonstrate.  With this technique the attacker would throw a punch and Hatsumi would move out of the way at the last second, causing the attacker to over-extend and fall without being touched. Supposedly this was an demonstration of Hatsumi’s immaculate timing and ability to blend with the attacker’s energy.  A number of us spent time trying to emulate this feat.  At least one instructor that I knew gave demonstrations of the technique and explained that it represented esoteric methods for manipulating an attacker’s metaphysical energy. In reality, the ability to reliably demonstrate the technique depended on having a compliant uke who would overcommit to an attack and had been mentally conditioned to going along with his instructor’s techniques to the point where, given the right cues, he would throw himself without being touched.

Is this an example of a technique that would never work in real life?  Not quite.  Years previously, as a total beginner in the martial arts, I was sparring with a friend who practiced karate.  He got frustrated because I was repeatedly nailing him with side kicks from a distance.  He lost his temper and charged me with a flurry of punches.  I stepped out of the way just in time.  He lost his balance, tripped and went flying, connecting with a wall head first.  It was a perfect kuki nage – I didn’t touch him and he went airborne. Of course, it was pure luck, but it did happen that one time.

No technique works every time.  Every technique works some of the time.

It also might seem obvious that some techniques are super-reliable.  No-one can just shrug off a hard shot to the groin or a poke in the eye, right?  Not necessarily.

I witnessed a fight many years ago when I was stationed at Fort Sam Houston for National Guard training.  One rowdy drunk came into the barracks late after a night of partying, loud and obnoxious and  cursing out anyone who asked him to be quiet so they could get  some sleep.  Another soldier, also drunk but wanting some rest, took exception and grabbed the loudmouth in a headlock.  Rowdy drunk then proceeded to hit sleepy drunk with a series of about ten hard uppercuts directly in the balls.  Sleepy drunk responded by slamming rowdy drunk head-first into the lockers until the loudmouth was unconscious and could be tied down into his bunk.  Later on, once the alcohol and adrenaline wore off, sleepy drunk was in a lot of pain,  During the fight, those groin shots did nothing but make him mad.

How about eye pokes?  During my years of sparring, I’ve been accidentally poked hard in the eye three times.  One time dropped me immediately with agonizing pain.  One time made my eyes water in the moment and gave me weird visual after-effects for six months.  The third time my eyes watered up so I could barely see – but I managed to get hold of my sparring partner anyway and operating purely on feel was able to take him down and finish him with an armbar.  The eye poke was effective, but it didn’t guarantee victory.

No technique works every time.  Every technique works some of the time.

None of this is to say that all techniques are equal.  The best framework to use in comparing them is not “works/doesn’t work” but “high-percentage/low-percentage.” If a technique frequently works in a wide variety of situations, against a wide variety of opponents, without relying on superior attributes or luck, then you can consider it “high-percentage.”  If the move depends on superior strength or speed or an incompetent opponent, then it is better classed as “low-percentage.”

None of this should be based on theory or tradition.  Looking back on my time in the Bujinkan, the biggest weakness of the training was that it was based almost exclusively with compliant partners feeding highly stylized attacks.  As a result, there was very little awareness of which techniques were high-percentage and which were low-percentage. Practitioners spent a lot of time drilling moves that they would almost certainly never get to work even in a lifetime of real fights at the expense of techniques that would be much more reliable.

BJJ practitioners tend to be more aware of which techniques are high-percentage, due to the competitive nature of the art.  When you can reliably execute a technique against a skilled opponent who knows the technique is coming and is doing his best to stop you from getting it, you know the technique is high-percentage. Even so, practitioners who only train for one context can have gaps in their understanding.  A technique which is high-percentage for countering a skilled grappler in an IBJJF tournament may not be so useful for stopping a 250-pound biker who wants to smash your face in a street fight – and vice versa.  Some techniques are actually useful in both contexts – those would be truly high-percentage.

Just because a technique is low-percentage does not necessarily mean you should never study it.  Sometimes a technique is low-percentage not because it’s no good, but because it’s only useful for specific circumstances – perhaps a certain environment or an opponent who has a certain style of punching.  If you happen to encounter those specific circumstances, then the “low-percentage” move might be a life-saver.  What I do advocate is training your high-percentage moves first and foremost. 

An analogy might help.  Suppose you decide to carpet your entire apartment on a budget.  An idiosyncratic friend of your owns a carpet remnant warehouse with pieces ranging from room-size down to a few inches across.  He offers you all the carpet you need at an unbeatable price – but he charges a flat rate per piece rather than by the square foot. What do you do? Well, obviously, you start out with the big pieces that will cover an entire room with only a minimum of cutting.  Later on you can pick up some smaller scraps to take care of that oddly shaped bend on the second floor hallway.  You wouldn’t buy five thousand 6-inch scraps and try to cover the entire apartment.  By the same token, your martial arts training is best served by focusing on the high-percentage techniques that will cover most of the situations you might ever be in.  Once you have those down solidly, you can start looking at the more unlikely what-ifs.

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Why train?

In the martial arts, we have a tendency to valorize long-term dedication to training.  It is true that getting really good at the martial arts (or anything else) takes a lot of time and hard work.  I’ve been studying the martial arts for over 30 years and at a very rough estimate have put somewhere around 7000 hours of actual training into the process.  For all that, I view myself as only semi-competent and feel like I still have several lifetimes worth of potential study ahead of me.

Given all that, it’s reasonable to ask: why?

If you view time and effort as a fungible resource, my time spent training in the martial arts represents 7000+ hours (and many 1000’s of dollars) that I could have spent practicing my guitar or earning money or volunteering to help the homeless or any number of other worthwhile pursuits.  I have a limited lifetime and limited energy.  What makes the martial arts so important that I should have spent and should continue to spend so much time and energy on their study?

Once upon a time, I might have said that the answer was self-defense. I was the sort of scrawny, unathletic, socially-unaware kid that is an easy mark for bullies.  Honestly, that answer doesn’t hold up so much anymore.  For the record, here is most of what you will ever need to know for self-defense if you are an adult:

  •  Be aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t abuse intoxicants (of whatever sort) especially in public.
  • Don’t hang out with people who are abusing intoxicants, especially in public.
  • Don’t hang out with violent people or in places where violence is common.*
  • Don’t date people who are prone to violence.*
  • Keep firm control of your ego.
  • Keep firm control of your temper.
  • Don’t be an asshole
  • Don’t be an idiot.
  • Be in good enough shape that you can sprint a few blocks if necessary.
  • *(Being able to identify those people and places is an important skill.)

Unless you have to confront violence as part of your profession (police, bouncer, prison guard, etc), that’s 95% of the self-defense you will ever need. I’ve long since learned enough martial skill to be able to handle most of the remaining 5%.  It really doesn’t make sense to continue spending thousands of hours of hard work preparing for the minuscule chance of an unavoidable confrontation which could be handled by a greater degree of martial ability than I already possess.

Some folks train martial arts for the thrill of sports competition.  I’ve dabbled in competition, but it doesn’t motivate me enough to put in this kind of long term work.  Even among those who do love competition, most won’t retain motivation to keep training as they get older and their physical attributes fade.

Some folks claim that the value of martial arts training lies in the character attributes that it help develop – discipline, humility, determination, calmness, and so on.  I plan to write a more in-depth post on this soon, but suffice it to say that martial arts training does not necessarily do anything positive for a student’s personal character.  It’s not hard to find skilled martial arts practitioners who are terrible people or who have completely messed up lives outside the training hall. What martial arts training can do is give us tools and lessons which we can choose to apply to the rest of our lives to help us become the sort of person we would like to be. It doesn’t happen automatically.  We have to choose which lessons and tools we would like to apply.  We have to choose what sort of person we are trying to be.  We have to do the hard work of actually applying those tools and lessons to our lives off the mat.  I do feel that I’ve gotten a lot of value out of this aspect of the martial arts.  (More details to come in an upcoming post!)  Nevertheless, the life lessons I’ve learned from the martial arts could probably have been learned elsewhere.  This can’t be my final answer as to why I train.

The truest answer to why I train in the martial arts is probably this: I take joy in it.  Training can be frustrating, tiring, even painful – but at the end of the day I take a deep satisfaction in learning a new detail about how to throw a punch or escape a choke.  On days when it would be easier to stay home and play a video game, the mats call out to me with the promise of learning something new.

This suggests that after all, time and effort are not fungible.  If I didn’t have the martial arts to train in, I wouldn’t necessarily have the motivation to spend all that same amount of work learning to paint with watercolors or run a marathon.  Maybe I might find a substitute activity that would evoke the same passion – or maybe I would spend all those extra hours killing time by surfing the internet.

This also suggests that those of us who train seriously should let go of any snobbishness we harbor towards those who train more casually.  If I train longer and harder than the next guy, it’s not necessarily because I am more disciplined and hardcore.  It might be just that I am naturally wired to get more satisfaction out of the activity.  Maybe the guy who trains casually devotes that same time and energy into taking care of his kids or tending his garden.  It’s a short life we’re given – let’s all find the joy we can that’s right for each of us.

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Sparring options

Sparring, rolling, randori – whatever you want to call it, it’s a lynchpin of BJJ training. No matter how many repetitions you perform of a technique, you haven’t mastered it until you can execute it in a free-form setting against a resisting opponent.

Unfortunately, one of the most common forms of rolling in many BJJ schools is the old “start from your knees, shake hands, and grapple” approach.  This is common because BJJ is an art that specializes in the ground game. By starting from the knees, practitioners can get right to the ground without doing all the hard work or risking the injuries that can come with the takedown game.

I have three primary objections to this approach to rolling:

Specific: having both combatants starting from the knees is a completely unrealistic scenario for either competition or self-defense.  In real life, if you were to somehow find both yourself and your opponent on your knees – stand up! Don’t waste time working for a takedown from the knees.

Stategic: Leaving aside the question of whether you start from your knees or not, this approach to sparring encourages a “dueling” mentality.  A duel is a situation where two individuals agree to test their skills against each other in a fair fight under agreed rules. This is totally appropriate for competition training, but not so good as preparation for self-defense.  In self-defense the fight is not fair and the objectives of the individuals involved are likely to be asymmetric.

Pedagogical: Typically we start out a class learning or rehearsing specific techniques for a specific position.  When we jump from that into a totally open-ended free-form rolling session it’s very common that we never end up in position for the techniques we just learned.  By the time we do encounter the opportunity to apply one of those techniques, it’s two weeks later and we’ve forgotten half the details.

Here are some alternatives that I think are preferable to the standard “start from the knees” approach to rolling.

Pattern recognition/reflex development drills: I use these frequently with my beginning students, but I think they have value for intermediate students as well.  Let’s say we’ve been exploring a specific position and have been practicing a certain number of “what-ifs.”  For example, we’re looking at how to maintain the mounted position and have looked at how to counter four different kinds of escapes and how to recognize two different openings for a submission that the person on the bottom might offer.  For the pattern-recognition drill, we’ll start one person already in the mount.  The person on the bottom will “try” to escape, but they are only allowed to use the movements that we have been learning to counter.  The person on top has to recognize the trigger being offered and respond with the appropriate technique that we have been practicing.  If the person on top fails to respond promptly with the appropriate technique, then the person on bottom gets to escape.  This drill can be practiced at various levels of intensity.  If the person on top is a brand new student, then the person on bottom might make each escape attempt slowly and in isolation. If the person on top is more experiences, then the person on bottom might make the escape attempts  quickly and in combination.  Obviously, this isn’t full fledged sparring.  It’s more akin to what a boxing coach does while holding the focus mitts – giving the other person something to respond to and develop good reflexes.

Positional drills:  These are simple – just start in a specific position and have each training partner work to improve their position.  If that happens, restart in the same position.  Examples: starting in side mount with one partner trying to escape, start in guard working for a pass or sweep, etc.  If you have a particular position you hate to get stuck in, then you will get benefit from drilling that position in isolation this way.

Starting from the takedown: Most of us BJJers, unless we come from a strong judo or wrestling background, could stand to spend more time practicing our takedowns.  Still, sometimes there isn’t room on the mat for everybody to do standup randori at once.  Other times we just want to focus on our groundwork.  Even so, you can still start from a takedown.  The trick is to make the takedown cooperative.  Decide which partner will be uke and which will be tori.  Allow tori to execute the takedown without resistance.  The actual match begins the instant uke hits the ground.  This approach has several advantages.  It connects the standup to domain to the groundwork domain. It emphasizes the importance for tori to transition to control immediately upon executing a takedown.  It emphasizes the importance for uke to start defending immediately before being controlled.  It allows the groundwork to begin in the most realistic starting positions.  The person who gets to start with the takedown has a starting advantage, making this form of training less of a “fair fight.”  I consider that a feature not a bug.

Scenario training with asymmetric goals: One partner puts on boxing gloves and gets to strike, the other person only gets to grapple.  One partner starts on top and tries to hold his partner down while his partner tries to get back to the feet.  One partner starts in a dominant position but must be ready to bail out and run when his opponent’s “friends” arrive to kick his head in.  The partners start in a grappling position, but one of them secretly has a hidden rubber training knife that he will pull out if he starts losing.  The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.  This form of training will help break the students out of the “fair fight” mentality which could get them killed in a real self-defense scenario.

These are just a few of the possible alternatives to the old “start grappling from the knees” approach.  Do you have more suggestions?  Leave them in the comments.

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The Importance of Failure

I was having a conversation with an online acquaintance of mine, Lynn, about the application of lessons learned in the martial arts to other areas of life.  He offered the following anecdote, which I thought was highly relevant:

“Something I think about with regard to practice…. In one of my past lives, I was involved in performance car rallying, where beefed-up cars race over logging roads in the forests. (I was never a hot-shot driver, but I was a pretty good rally navigator.) In the ’70s, there was a driver named John Buffum. By day, he was a car dealer from Vermont, but he was also the top rally driver in the U.S., and he had factory support from British Leyland, who supplied him with Triumph TR-7s. He was *very* fast, but he crashed a lot, so much so that the other drivers nicknamed him “Stuffum Buffum”, since he was always stuffing his cars into the ditch. Each time, British Leyland would ship him another TR-7. The thing was, though, that as time went on, he crashed less and less, but was still very fast. And since he had crashed so many times, he knew exactly what the car felt like when it was right on the edge, so he knew when to back off. Other drivers, who did not have the luxury of getting a new car every race, didn’t have this experience, so they had to be more cautious and slower. I see something similar at my job. We are always under the gun, trying to develop software to meet some too-early deadline and, as a result, we do not have time to fail. And because of that, we usually stick to what worked in the past, rather than trying something new that might make us much more efficient.”

This brings up a point which I consider vital in both martial arts practice and in the rest of life: the importance of failure.

On the mats we have the opportunity to fail over and over and over again.  This is the only way to learn the limits of our techniques and of ourselves. As Rener and Ryron Gracie are fond of saying: every technique can work some of the time, no technique works all the time. Only by testing our techniques to failure can we learn exactly when and how much we can rely on each one. Only by testing them to failure can we truly understand which details are crucial for success and why.  Only by testing ourselves to failure can we understand exactly where our personal limitations are and begin to learn how to improve upon them.

Part of the beauty of jiu-jitsu practice is that we can fail over and over again safely, without death or permanent injury.  (Remember that ego is the enemy of safety.  If I tap out a thousand times, I can learn from my “failure” each time.  If my ego refuses to allow me to tap and I fight out of 10 submissions only to get my arm broken on the 11th, it becomes a much more expensive lesson.)

Being human, most of us have a natural aversion to failure.  The temptation to avoid failure on the mat can present itself in a myriad of ways.  Perhaps we can avoid positions that we know we are weak in.  Perhaps we can avoid sparring partners who are more skilled or more athletic or who just have a game well-suited for giving us a hard time. Perhaps we can avoid stand-up practice when we are good on the ground or vice-versa.  Perhaps we can avoid sparring when we are feeling tired or rusty.  All those temptations will limit our progress.  Trust me, there is nothing more liberating than realizing that it’s perfectly okay to get tapped out by a lower belt or to try a technique and blow it completely or to just look stupid or klutzy.  When you don’t mind failing, practice becomes more fun and progress becomes much faster.

All this, as Lynn most astutely realized, applies equally to the rest of life.  Do your best to make sure that the chances you take don’t cause harm to others or permanent damage to yourself, but beyond that: fail early, fail often, and try to have fun doing so.  The rewards are worth it.

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Regressing, Stagnating, or Progressing?

I came across an interesting blog post the other day where the author talks about the risk of regressing in one’s jiu-jitsu skills despite regular practice.

Probably lots of us have felt at one time or another like we are moving backwards in our BJJ skills. Realistically though, if you are training consistently this is unlikely to actually be the case. The feeling that you are regressing generally comes from one of two sources:

1) Your training partners are progressing faster than you. If you are improving by x units per month and your sparring partners are improving by 2x units, then you’ll find yourself being dominated and tapped out by folks you used to spar evenly with. This can certainly feel like you are regressing.
2) Your perception and understanding of how you should execute your technique is improving faster than your physical technique. This you leads you to see more of the flaws in how you execute your movements. This is a common problem across many fields. I’ve frequently encountered it in my own music practice. Fortunately, if this is the case, you can just keep practicing and your body will eventually start to catch up with your brain.

It is possible to stagnate in your development – to make very slow practice despite attending class regularly. This will usually result in the experience referenced in scenario #1 above. I’d like to describe an approach to training that will help avoid stagnation and also give a more useful standard to measure your own progression than just the percentage of submissions you get against the guys you train with all the time.

Step 1: Identify a weak point in your game. Right now, one of my weaker areas is my open guard against a standing opponent. I have a lazy old-man jiu-jitsu game and I’ve gotten comfortable with using closed guard to slow a match down to my level. Open guard with a standing opponent is a much faster, more complex, dynamic, and athletic game.

Step 2: Identify just one important thing you should be doing differently in this position. In the case of my open guard against standing opponents, I have been neglecting the option of transitioning to the sit-up guard and threatening a single-leg. Once you identify the change you need to make, start trying it in sparring. At this point it doesn’t matter so much whether you suceed in the technique or not. What’s important is that you remember to try. Over the next few weeks, I plan to transition to the sit-up guard every chance I get, win or lose, just so that it can become a new habit. The measurement of your improvement at this stage is how often you remember to try to execute your new movement.

Step 3: Assuming the new movement doesn’t succeed every time (it won’t), identify just a few (no more than 3 at a time) technical details that you need to improve in order to help the new movement work. One of my teachers has already helped me find a few improvements I needed to make to my sit-up guard/single-leg attack. Once I’ve built the habit of trying to execute the attack at every opportunity, I plan on spending the next few weeks making sure that every time I try sitting up and taking the single-leg that I apply those specific details correctly. Once again, the measure of improvement at this stage is not how often you suceed in beating your opponent – it’s how consistently you remember to apply these specific details under stress.

Once you’ve gotten through stage 3, you can go back and repeat it with some additional details, or you can move on to step 4.

Step 4: If your new movement is feeling fairly solid, examine the most likely “what-ifs.” Once my sit-up guard to single-leg has become both reflexive and technically sound, I’ll look at the counter that my sparring partners most often use to stop the single-leg and identify the highest-percentage sweep to counter their counter. Once I’ve done that, it’s back to step 2 and step 3, first getting into the habit of trying the new movement and then making it technically sound. Once I’ve done that, I’ll repeat the process for the new most common counter, until I’ve built a short sequence of reliable moves to try. At this step, the measure of progress is having an actual combination of moves built into a consistent habit.

Note – it’s possible that while I am doing all this, some of my sparring partners will be doing the same thing with their top game vs the open guard and at the end my winning percentage against them won’t have improved at all. That’s okay. Even if I’m losing a match, I can still tell when I am playing a better technical game.

One final note – keep training. As long as you are focused on learning more than on winning, you will get better. Some of the talented prodigies who are blowing past you now will end quitting after a year or two or three. Jiu-jitsu is a lifetime of learning. If you train smart and can avoid career-ending injuries you can keep learning until the day you die.

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BJJ and Dirty Fighting

I had a fun session with my instructor a few days ago working on techniques that sometimes get neglected in BJJ training – eye gouges, head butts, and groin slaps.

These techniques have no place in sport competition, but are undeniably relevant to street self-defense. Even if you have no desire to use such techniques in a fight, it is important to be aware of how they could be used against you and have appropriate defensive reflexes developed.

In the never-ending battle of words that has been sparked by the development of modern MMA, these sorts of “dirty fighting” techniques are frequently used as ammunition by proponents of arts that have not proven themselves in the MMA arena. “MMA/BJJ/boxing/wrestling/muay thai are sports,” they declare, “our art is for life-or-death self-defense – we use techniques which are illegal under UFC rules: eye gouges, groin attacks, etc, etc!”

It is true that “dirty fighting” techniques of this kind can be effective or even
fight-ending. Here’s the rub, though. They’re only as reliable as your delivery mechanism.
A real opponent is unlikely to stand still and cooperatively let you poke him in the eye,
kick him in the groin, or break his nose with a head butt. On the other hand, if you can
control your opponents body to connect with your techniques at will, then you have some dangerous tools at hand.

In our workout, my teacher showed how to use the standard tools of standup grappling – head control, pummeling, arm drags, russians, 2-on-1 arm control – both to set up my eye gouges, head butts and groin slaps and to defend against them. I had previously explored some elements of this sort of application, but he showed me that I still have plenty left to

I’m not an advocate of doing this sort of training all the time. The real skills that take
time to develop are the fundamentals of grappling. Once you have those, it’s relatively
easy to add on the dirty fighting applications. Still, it’s a good idea to try them once in
a while. If you only ever train sport application, then you run the risk of being taken by
surprise when a real-life opponent does something against the rules.

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