Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Training Hard And Training Well Are Not The Same Thing



We want to get the most out of our training.  We look up to people who train hard and constantly push themselves.  It seems obvious that the harder you train the better you will be.  In judo we respect the people who train harder, with more intensity than anyone else.  All that sweat dripping on the mat has to mean something, doesn’t it?

I was practicing piano and one of my weaknesses there struck me as identical to problems most of us have in the dojo practicing budo. All practice is not equal.  Some kinds of practice give far superior returns on the time and effort invested than other types of training.  Poor training habits and techniques waste time.  Worse, they can lead to ingraining bad habits and techniques which actually make us worse at what we are studying than we were before the training

I was practicing some etudes (French for, get this, kata) that are fundamental exercises for training the fingers on the piano.  These are the boring exercises everyone rushes through so they can get to the good stuff, the real music, the real budo.  Music etudes are like kihon waza practice in budo.  These are the fundamental movements that you have to practice beyond the ability to do them properly, beyond the ability to do them properly without thinking about them, to the point where you can’t do them incorrectly.

The tricky part is practicing them correctly in the first place so you don’t develop bad habits that slow you down later.  The first, most common, and biggest mistake with etudes and kihon waza is to treat them as mindless, boring exercises.  These exercises teach your body and mind the most critical foundations of everything else you will do.  If you try to rush them, or try to avoid thinking about them by thinking about your laundry or your job or your friends while doing them, you will likely be doing them wrong, and drilling this wrongness into your bones.

To do basics correctly as a beginner, you have to think about how you are doing them.  When you have stopped being a beginner, you probably don’t have to think about the basics when you are doing more advanced things, but when you are practicing the basics you still need to think about them.  If you don’t, you risk letting mistakes and poor technique slip in.  You also miss all the benefits that come from mindful practice. Be aware of what you’re doing.  As you are practicing basic techniques, look for things that can be improved.  In 100 repetitions you’ll be lucky if you have 10 that you love.  You’ll also be lucky if you only have 10 that you hate.  The rest will be somewhere in between.  The goal is to be aware of every repetition and to try and drag your worst reps up to the quality of your mediocre ones, and the mediocre reps up to the level of the best.  Like all of budo, this is a never ending activity, since as soon as you improve, you’ll start trying to reach a higher level.

Another pitfall on the practice path is rushing. If you’ve ever heard a young (or in my case not so young) musician rush through a section of piece, you’ve heard how wrong rushing can be.   Don’t rush your practice, even if you don’t have much time. Rushing through things is worse than not practicing. If you don’t practice, you don’t improve, but you also don’t pick up bad habits. If you rush something you are doing it at the wrong speed, which is just wrong. If you don’t have a lot of time, just do what you have time to do properly. When you rush, correct form is only the first thing that is lost. You also sacrifice the rhythm and feel of proper technique, and you lose the awareness of what you are doing. In this sort of situation, you’re training can only move backward as you reinforce bad form, bad timing and poor thought.

One of the most popular parts of Judo practice is also one of Judo practice’s biggest weaknesses. Randori, or Judo style sparring, is fun, so much fun that often students would rather do this than work on their basics. There are lot of things that can go wrong with randori though.  The first problem is all that fun. We are all susceptible to this one. It’s easy to spend all our time doing the fun parts of training, whatever it is, and neglect the parts that don’t grab our attention and gratify our hearts. This is true in all arts, even in koryu budo where there is very little sparring type practice. There are some kata that are just more interesting, and others that frustrate me until I am ready to scream because I just never seem to get them right.  

One particular form this trap takes is practicing what we are good at. We enjoy practicing things we are good at much more than the parts that we haven’t mastered yet. I love doing harai goshi  and tai otoshi  in judo because I do them better than anything else. That’s exactly why should limit my practice of them though. The fact that I can do them better than anything else should tell me how much more I need to be practicing everything else. Spend most of your time practicing what you aren’t good at. That’s where you’ll improve the most.

Mugendo Budogu: Quality Martial Arts Equipment from martial artists for martial artists


The second problem with randori and other sparring practices is the tendency for people to go faster and faster as the randori session continues. Randori is a form of practice, not a competition to see who is better. People usually forget this point within 10 seconds of the start of a session. As soon as you stop thinking about randori or sparring as practice and start treating it as another sort of competition, it’s practice value plummets. You stop trying your weaker techniques that you should be polishing, and switch to your favorite techniques. People also start getting defensive because they don’t want to lose. In judo this means all sorts of bad postures and muscling to prevent throws. Instead they should be working on ingraining good posture and movement which will allow them to execute good, effective technique.  

The third problem I see is that people don’t go into randori with a plan to use it to get better. Go into a randori session with a plan for what you want to practice and improve. Don’t worry about winning and losing. It’s practice, so you getting better is what constitutes winning, not beating the other guy. If all you do is worry about winning, you’ve already lost the chance to improve, and worse, you’re likely to pick up bad habits in the effort to win. PIck a technique you need to work on and focus on finding where that technique fits in the movement. Or just work on how you move and sense your partner.  Take the time to develop an understanding how people move and react. These sorts of practices will make your budo much better, polish your skills and improve your fundamentals.  

PIck a speed and intensity for your practice that suits the points you want to work on. Slow is great for some things. Fast and light might work better for polishing something like foot sweeps.  Think about what you want to get out of a randori or sparring session, and how you will have to train to get that. Don’t just rush in and throw everything you are working on to the floor.

When you go all out to win during practice, the best you can hope for is that you win without developing any bad habits.  You don’t get any better. The worst that can happen is that you develop and ingrain bad habits from trying to win and not lose, while developing a counterproductive attitude about winning and losing.

Training at less than 100% intensity is tough, because we associate training hard with effective training.  This is true when you are working on cardio or strength development.  You only improve your physical condition when you push the limits of what you can do.  The more you sweat, the harder you work, the stronger you get and the more your stamina increases.

When you are working on technique however, hard training gets in the way of good training and can turn into bad training. Adding muscle, as I keep rediscovering, does not improve technique. Oddly though, adding technical skill does make muscle more effective.  Interesting how that works. In order to make your physical strength as useful and effective as possible, you have to work at practicing without it. Once the technique is smooth and fluid, then you can try adding a little speed and strength at the proper moment for those to be useful. Strength and speed are not always benefits.  Using them at the wrong time is a waste of energy and can destroy the effectiveness of a technique.  I have lots experience at finding ways to blow a perfectly good technique, and adding strength or speed at the wrong moment is one of the best.

There’s one other area where the temptation to practice too hard is too frequently succumbed to.  That’s when practicing “real” techniques, like self-defense techniques.  The allure of doing the technique as hard and as fast as we can because this is for self-defense and we want to be sure it will work is a powerful one.  It’s even more irresistible than my wife’s cookies fresh out of the oven on the cooling rack when she’s left the room.  The problem with this is the same as in randori and sparring.  We can start relying on bad techniques and too much muscle and speed to get by.  This is fine until you run into someone with good technique, or even just someone faster or stronger.

A better method is to practice the technique at a very low intensity. As you get more comfortable at it, have your partner increase the intensity slightly.  When you can do the technique calmly and smoothly at the new intensity, have your partner step it up again.  Eventually you’ll be able to do the technique calmly and smoothly with your partner attacking as intensely as they can.  You’ll have good technique, and you’ll be accustomed to maintaining calm and relaxed, effective technique even under intense, strong attacks.  If you jump straight into working at high intensity levels it will take much longer to master the technique, if you ever do.  More likely you will develop bad habits to compensate for the skill you don’t have yet, which will just make developing the skill that much more difficult.

Train slow and work up to it.  It’s easy to practice things wrong.  The temptation is always there to start practicing harder, faster and more intensely than your technique is ready for.  Don’t give in.  Practice right so you truly learn how to do the techniques and master you art.

P.S.
This site had a very nice article about practicing from a musical perspective.
http://www.musicforbrass.com/articles/art-of-practicing.html

Monday, July 14, 2014

Budo and Responsibility

Budo is about a lot of things, but one of the least discussed is responsibility.  The longer we practice the more important it is that we consider this.  At a very fundamental level, in it’s rawest form, budo is about power.  We who have that power are necessarily required to use it wisely.  As Stan Lee said so very eloquently through the lips of Peter Parker “With great power comes great responsibility.”  

This isn’t just about superheroes.  As we practice budo we really do become more powerful.  Under normal circumstances very few people would consider a 5’6” (168 cm), 135 lbs (61 kg) woman a significant physical power.  Ronda Rousey has been practicing budo for 15 years though and is an amazingly powerful individual.  Her skills give her power.  It’s a very simple equation.  Although many of our social rules and customs exist to keep individual power in check and prevent its abuse, there are plenty of people out there who abuse physical, social and economic power.  There is the office manager who uses his position to bully and take advantage of those under him.  There is the rich business owner who uses the power of her wealth to bully people who do business with her.  And we all know the physically strong guys who use their power to physically intimidate and hurt people around them.  

One of the great things about the power of martial arts skills is how equalling and equal opportunity they are.  Martial arts skills make the difference in power between a 135 lb women and 235 man disappear very quickly.  I have many vivid memories of small women reducing large guys to lumps on the floor of the judo dojo where I practiced in college.  Quite often, I was one of the lumps, whether it was from a powerful throw, a choke or an armbar, those ladies impressed their power upon me.

Skill doesn’t belong to those who are born faster or stronger or more talented.  Skill belongs to anyone who puts forth the dedicated effort necessary to develop it.  Once you make that effort though, you get not just that power, but responsibility as well.  At the most basic level once you have power you have to decide what to do with it.  I’ve seen people become skilled and then become bullies in the dojo. I’ve seen them subtly bully people outside the dojo as well. They learned only that they have power.  They haven’t learned anything about using it responsibly.  The difference between just learning a skill, and studying a way, a michi, a do, 道, is learning the proper, responsible use and application of that power.

This may be the biggest lesson of budo, larger than than all the lessons about technique and ma’ai and timing together.  Sadly, it’s also the most commonly missed lesson.  How do we use the power we have?  As a martial artist we can easily intimidate and hurt others.  After all, inflicting pain and damage is what we are practicing on each other in the dojo.

In the dojo we spend a lot of time learning when it is appropriate to use and practice what we know and when it isn’t.  Japanese martial arts are loaded with ritual that regulate practice so you know when it is ok to try to toss your friend across the room or for her to work on choking you unconscious or for the new kid to try the cool armbar she saw Ronda Rousey do in one of her fights.  All that meaningless etiquette and ritual turns out to have some very practical reasons for being there.  During practice there are times when it is ok to work on a technique and times when it’s not.  There are times when it’s dangerous to step on the mat and others when it is safe.  There are also considerations of how we treat each other when we are practicing.  We learn to treat each other with respect and honor and dignity regardless of how skilled someone is.  We are all on the same path, so there is no reason to look down upon someone because they haven’t taken as many steps along the path as we have.  As we gain skill our power to hurt and damage increases.  That means we are more responsible for not abusing that power by abusing others.

There are other kinds of responsibility in the dojo as well.  I am not one of those who believe that everyone who advances in rank has a responsibility to teach.  There is plenty to do around a dojo besides teaching.  Everyone can look at their personal capabilities, their powers, and figure out what they should be responsible for.

Responsibility changes as we grow.  Once we have the violent power that martial arts training bestows and we recognize the responsibility to act wisely and responsibly, then we become responsible for mastering something else.  We are responsible for learning the real consequences of using our skills, and not just the myths and irresponsible nonsense like “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”  That’s just a flashy cover for the fact that someone doesn’t know the real legal consequences of their actions and choices.  Knowing those is our responsibility.

This is one of those lessons that stretches out of the dojo and into every area of our lives.  What are our responsibilities?  There are plenty of things that we can do that it would be best not to do.  Even if it would be entirely gratifying to apply a joint lock and tie that obnoxious jerk in the next cubicle into a pretzel, or choke that self-righteous jerk into silence, and it would be a simple and easy application of what we do at practice, we know we shouldn’t and we don’t.  There are lots of places in life where we have power and we should consider if and how to use it.

We have lots many different kinds of power beyond the physical power that budo practice endows: economic, social influence, parental, business, and others.  We don’t often spend time thinking about the responsibility to use the power we have wisely, yet how we wield social and economic and parental power might be more important than how we wield the physical violence of the martial arts.  WIth the power that martial arts gives us, the responsibility not to abuse it is very clear, with other, more subtle forms of power, matters are not always so clear.  Sometimes it’s too easy to use power to shoo our kids away when they need some attention but  we’re a bit tired.  It’s all too easy on the job  to use power to dump work on people or to get out of doing things we should be doing.

This is power too though, and it should be used with consideration and a sense of responsibility as well.  If we’re really serious about budo, we have to recognize that the lessons extend beyond the door of the dojo, and impact every aspect of life.  Budo is about physical power in it’s rawest and most basic form, but the lessons about considering when and how it is appropriate to use that power can inform everything we do.  Budo teaches many lessons, but how we handle the responsibility of power is one of the biggest.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Most Essential Principles In Budo: Ma'ai


There is no single essential element of good budo. There are a number of elements that make up the common foundations of all good budo, whether it is empty hand, small weapons, swords, spears and naginata or even kyubado. I wrote about structure in a previous post.  Another essential principle is ma’ai 間合, often translated as spacing. This one seems simple, and turns out to be exceedingly complex and subtle.  

At it’s most basic level, spacing is the distance between you and your opponent.  That’s the most basic level.  After this it quickly gets complicated.  Ma’ai 間合 is the Japanese term, and and while it refers to distance, it also implies the proper or correct distance. The problem and complexity comes from the fact that what is the proper distance is different for every encounter.

Let’s start just with empty hand encounters to keep it simple. I’m 183 cm tall. My reach and range is longer than someone who is 160 cm tall, assuming we’re both using the same sorts of attacks. My range is longer, so I don’t need to be as close to reach out, make a connection and apply a judo technique. An opponent who is 160 cm has to come well inside my range before she can attack.   

Seems simple enough. How about this then? I’m a judoka, so I’m not big with punches and kicks.  So let’s assume my 160 cm opponent is now proficient at Tae Kwon Do. Oops! The ma’ai just changed significantly, and not in my favor. Now my opponents kicks are effective at a greater range than my grappling. On the other hand, if I get inside her effective range, my grappling is more effective than her striking.  

So good distancing,ma’ai, changes with the person’s reach and the techniques being used. It’s the combination of your effective attacking range and your opponent’s. What’s good for one is more than likely not optimal for the other.  Kendo breaks down ma’ai into several discrete ranges, which is easier in kendo because the shinai’s length is controlled to prevent major differences between kendoka.   The Kendo community has analyzed their three main ranges, toma, issoku-no-maai, chika-ma (outside of attack range, attack with one step, close enough to attack without moving).  Their analysis is focused on two very similar opponents with identical weapons.

Once we get outside the competitive arena with it’s requirement that things be “fair,” whatever that might be, ma’ai becomes a very fluid distance. In both gendai and koryu arts, kata are designed to teach the fluidity of ma’ai by setting up the student to practice against a variety of weapons and partners.  This is true in Judo in the Kime No Kata where the student must deal with everything from grabs to strikes to knife attacks to swords.  It’s true in most Aikido training as well, with a variety of tanto and sword disarms.  

Many classical bujutsu systems cover the entire gamut of weapons combinations, from both persons unarmed to one person armed, to both armed with the same weapon to asymmetrically armed training.  Many weapons arts mostly emphasize asymmetrical training scenarios.  In Shinto Muso Ryu, the only time both partners are armed alike is in a few of the okuden forms, and seven of the Shinto Ryu kenjutsu kata.  In JIkishinkage Ryu the combination is usually sword versus naginata.  Most koryu arts include a variety of weapons in their curriculum.

Once we get to this variety of combinations the terms for ma’ai become much more interesting and challenging.  If I’m holding a kodachi facing an opponent with a tachi, her issoku-no-maai is longer than mine.


 If I switch to jo, mine is now longer than hers.  If she’s got one of those giant naginata or a yari, hers is longer than mine.  And then we have the variability of some types of kusarigama, but I’m not going to go there today.  


The continually changing combination of an individual’s range and her weapon’s range makes ma’ai exceptionally difficult to master (and even more complicated to write about). By practicing with a variety of partners and in a variety of weapon combinations you can develop a good sense of maai.  I’m starting to understand some aspects of it, but I have a long way to go.  

One thing that is critical for learning learning ma’ai is that attacks have to be effective. I hear a lot about “sincere” and “committed” attacks in some arts.  I’ll be honest, I really don’t care if the attack is sincere or not, and I really don’t care if it’s committed.  I care about whether it will be effective.  A sincere, committed attack that will never reach you is worthless for training because you will never learn at what range you are vulnerable, and at what range you are effective.  The same is true for an attack that purposely misses to either side.  I can’t learn how to deal with an attack that isn’t effective.

The attack doesn’t have to be fast and hard.  It doesn’t have to be heavily overcommitted.  It does have to be on target.  That’s the key.  On any number of occasions I’ve told students to “Hit me.”  They swung their weapon and I didn’t move because I didn’t need to.  I could see they weren’t doing anything that would impact me.  I stood there and watched their weapons swing past in the breeze.  Then people asked why I didn’t move.  I didn’t move because my sense of ma’ai is strong enough that I can see when someone is attacking effectively and when he is just waving at empty air.  Waving at empty air is not effective or threatening.

Every attack, no matter how slow, has to be such that it would impact my position.  If it’s not going to do that, how am I going to learn what distance and attack is dangerous and what isn’t?  If you don’t know the difference, you will fall for every feint and false attack.  An effective attack is not one where you overcommit and throw yourself at your opponent either.  For an effective attack you move in maintaining your balance and integrity while striking or cutting so that you will impact your partner if she doesn’t move.  

As you practice kata and randori with a variety of partners and weapons combinations, you will develop a more and more sensitive understanding of ma’ai.  With an understanding of ma’ai comes awareness of the difference between an empty threat, and a position that is vulnerable to attack.  You will also be able to see  when your opponent is open to attack on the other side.  Without an understanding of ma’ai you are vulnerable to every threat and intimidating move because you won’t know the difference between an attack that will affect you and movement that cannot hurt you.

NOTE:  “Ma’ai” has 3 syllables in Japanese:  mah-ah-ee.  In English it comes out as 2 syllables “mah-eye.”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Most Essential Principles In Budo: Structure

A question came up in a budo group I’m part of asking what the 3 most important concepts in budo are. It’s an interesting question. What ideas are most fundamental in the art you practice? These concepts undergird and direct your training. They direct the focus of your training and what sort of things you are practicing. People offered quite a few ideas, including:

Keep your body relaxed.
Always keep your center (or be centered).
Keep your elbows down, and close to your body
Always try to control the first move

Many of the ideas offered were specific to Aikido, which is the point of that group. My thoughts are more general and apply to any form of budo.  My list  is structure/stance, spacing and timing, in that order.  Each builds on where the previous concept is, and without effective use of the previous concept the next cannot be employed effectively.  All apply regardless of whether you are doing kung fu, judo, boxing, aikido, swords, staves or scary stuff like kusarigama. This my list, and I make no claim that it is definitive.  I offer it in the hope of sparking good conversation and consideration of the most important elements of practice and application.   I’d thought to do these all in one post, but it looks like it’s I’m going to have to give each one it’s own post.  

My first principle is structure/stance.  Without a solid, connected, supported structure you can’t accomplish anything.  This why I’m only partly joking when I say that the only thing I really teach is how to walk and how to breath.  Good structure is what allows the fastest, most effective, stable and strong movement.  If you are slouching and rolling your shoulders, tipping your head at the ground and not supporting yourself, you can’t breathe deeply or efficiently.  Slouching and poor posture compress the torso so it cannot hold as much air.  You will get tired more quickly just because you can’t get enough oxygen into your body fast enough.  

Slouching also robs the body of it’s natural structural integrity.  If you slouch, you’re off balance already.  Judo folks stand or fall based on their balance, but this is true for anyone in any art.  If you’re not balanced, you’re not stable in at least one direction.  

slouch alexander technique.gif

In the picture above (from this site) the two diagrams on the right show what our structure looks like when we slouch.   Can you imagine trying to do any physical activity with that sort of compromised structure?

With good structure, loads and forces can easily be absorbed and handled, movement is quick, light and easy, and changes can be adapted to readily.  Without it we can’t carry or absorb loads or force, movement is difficult, slow and tiring, and it is difficult to adapt to changes in the situation.

I’ve been showing this to my sword and jo students for years with a simple exercise.  I let them hold a jo against my solar plexus whatever way they like holding the jo, and I can push the jo back into them and them across the room without any effort at all.  They can’t do a thing to slow me down and I can reach them with a weapon or my hands before they can do anything about it.  If the structure of the wrist is off it’s optimal angle even a little, it will collapse under pressure and be useless.  

Wrist structure Bad.JPG
With the structure of the wrist compromised like this (particularly clear in the left wrist) a push on the end of the jo will make the wrists collapse into the body and allow an attacker to easily drive in.

On the other hand, if the wrist is at the proper angle, I can stick a 140 kg goon on the other end of the stick and he can’t push into me, or even into someone half my size.  How can it be that just changing the angle of the wrist where you hold the stick can impact so much?  I’ll let the mechanical engineers and the physics boys explain the details, because I don’t have a deep enough background there to do it anything like accurate justice.

Wrist Structure good.JPG
With properly aligned wrists, you can support far more than your own weight pressing into the end of the jo, and push from the hips with more energy than the arms can generate.

This split between weak structural configurations and strong ones carries over to every joint in the body, and to the way the body as whole is arranged.  If the wrist structure is good, but another joint such as the hip, knee or ankle is not aligned properly, the whole body structure is still weak and will collapse even if pressured only slightly.  

Structure gives the body the ability to move, and when that structure is taken away, there isn’t much anyone can do.  Over the weekend Howard Popkin impressed that upon me anew.  He can, by simply moving around the force and structure of the body, completely undermine the power of people bigger and stronger than I am, and throw them casually, without so much as taking a deep breath.  He simply maintained his structure and went around the lines of strength in mine.  

You can push all you want on someone who keeps their structure aligned so your force is directed into the floor.  It takes very little strength to maintain your structure under this kind of attack.  The attacker’s force actually pushes your body to maintain good structure without the addition of much energy on your part.  If you decide to push back, it’s actually easy to do because your structure is already supporting and negating their power.  When you push back, they fly.

It’s interesting that according to Kano Jigoro, founder of Kodokan Judo, one of the two great secrets of great Judo is kuzushi 崩し.  Kuzushi comes from a verb in Japanese that means tearing down, knocking down, breaking things into smaller parts.  Sometimes it implies undermining and destroying a foundation.  This is one of the great realizations of Kano’s that he put into his Judo.  If you destroy the foundation of someone’s structure, take them off their foundation and remove the support from their structure, they become incredibly weak and a small woman can throw a large man.  

This is true for whatever art you are practicing, whether it is armed or unarmed, jujutsu, karate, sword or chain, staff or rope.  You maintain your posture and then you destroy your opponents.

The first step in mastering budo is learning to properly maintain your own structure.   If you can’t do that, nothing else is possible.  Once you’ve got that you have a powerful base to work from.  Then you learn to manipulate and undermine your opponents structure.  Once you destroy the integrity of their structure, throws and joint locks are easy.  The key is that destroying the integrity of someone’s structure doesn’t involve harming them.  It just means making them slump or slouch or come away from a balanced stance.  Once you’ve done that, the actual technique isn’t terribly important because without a solid, balanced structure, it’s nearly impossible to defend oneself, even from a very poor attack.

Judoka spend an immense amount of time practicing off-balancing techniques to accomplish this.  Aikido folks work on movements to draw someone out of good physical alignment.  Daito Ryu folks work on doing it with the smallest movements possible.  It all comes down to the same thing.  Destroy the ability of the body’s structure to support it, and the person can’t resist anything.

There are the two sides of structure in budo.  Create and maintain a solid, efficient, mobile structure in yourself while undermining your opponents structure and making it unable to support him and his movements.  Mastery of structure is absolutely to everything we do in budo.  We can’t begin to move and breath properly until we learn to do so with good structure.   We can’t defend against anything without good structure.  Effective attacks are impossible with an unstable structure.  

Good structure is at the root of all good budo, whether it is a striking art, a grappling art, or a weapons art.  Without good structure, you have nothing.  That’s why it’s the first of my essential principles of budo.