Showing posts with label sparring. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sparring. Show all posts

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.

Etudes for piano : « FuseesLiszt » by Franz Liszt — Travail personnel. Wikimedia Commons –

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.  

Early 20th century randori

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.

Hard training is great for strength, but what does it do for technique?
 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.

This site had a very nice article about practicing from a musical perspective.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Change in Classical and Modern Martial Arts

The classical arts of Japan (pre-1868) have a very different structure from the modern arts. The classical arts are entirely defined by their kata. If you take something like Suio Ryu or Shinto Muso Ryu, they have a clearly defined set of kata. Changing the kata is frowned upon, not because innovation is bad, but because it's really difficult to find anything in the kata that has not been boiled down to the essence of effectiveness.

Most koryu (again, pre-1868 traditions) kata are paired kata, always practiced with a partner. The reasons for doing the kata a particular way become vividly clear in a bright black and blue manner if you try to change things. The attacking partner is an immediate check to see if what you are doing is effective or not. And when it's not, you may well end up with a beautiful bruise as proof. Recently a friend and I spent a morning working through some kata slowly. Each time we tried to change the kata, we discovered that the kata form was the strongest way of responding for both the shitachi and the uchitachi. Each time we tried something different the openings and weaknesses of the new positions were clear. After hundreds of year of practice and examination, our forebears in the system had worked out the most effective way for things to be done. Our lesson was to understand why they designed the kata as they did.

The practice of the kata define the koryu traditions. Nearly all of the lore and wisdom that generations of teachers have accumulated is in embedded in the kata. It's up to students to tease this knowledge out. One way to do that is with what my friend and I were doing. You deconstruct the kata, try different reactions and attacks at each juncture and see if they work, or as we discovered, why they don't work.

Traditional Japanese systems, koryu budo, generally have very specific and clear pedagogy. Shinto Muso Ryu has a clear set of 40+ jo kata, as well as 12 sword kata, 12 walking stick kata, 24 kusarigama kata, 30 jutte kata, and I've forgotten how many hojo kata. These are very clearly defined. It's extremely difficult for teacher who hasn't been training for decades to make changes, and the kata themselves make it difficult. As I discussed above, we couldn't find any weaknesses in the kata we were exploring. We just learned a lot of options that don't work as well those taught in the system already. With this kind of situation, there just aren't many opportunities for innovation.

The most common way koryu arts change is that someone develops a new kata to address some situation or condition that is not considered by the existing kata. In Shinto Muso Ryu for example, they developed some new kata at the end of the 19th century to make use of the walking sticks that had become popular at the time. This is a logical extension of the principles of the stick that is the main weapon in Shinto Muso Ryu to a shorter stick. They didn't change old kata, or get rid of anything. They developed a few new kata to teach an understanding of the ranges and uses of the shorter stick. Systems do change, but they do so very slowly. With koryu, those changes are usually minor additions to the system rather than revolutions in the way things are done.

People sometimes wonder why koryu systems don't have lots of sparring and tournaments like the modern arts of kendo, karatedo and judo. Surprisingly, this is not a new question. Groups have been arguing about the value of sparring type practice in Japan for over four hundred years. When Japan was at war with itself, which was most of the time from about 1300 through 1600, there were more than enough opportunities for people to test their ideas, techniques and skills, so the question didn’t come up. Once Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country and removed the last possible source of revolution in 1615, those opportunities disappeared. Soon after that sparring and challenge matches started to appear. Arguments over the value of sparring compared with kata training began almost immediately, and have continued unabated to this day. Over the centuries though, the styles that emphasize sparring as a part of their training never demonstrated significantly better records in the many challenge matches. If the sparring faction had shown consistent success the other systems would have changed rather than lose.  The systems that emphasized kata weren’t losing, so there was no need to change. Kata remained the core of training because when done properly, it works.

Tournaments are a relatively recent phenomenon. Tournaments first showed up late in the 19th century once the Japan had reformed its government and sword teachers had no way to make a living. Some people started doing matches to entertain the public and try to support themselves as professional martial artists after traditional positions working for daimyo disappeared.. These didn't last long, but they contributed to the development of modern kendo. Modern kendo equipment dates back to that used for sparring and some challenges as early as the 17th century.

Sword demonstrations and prize matches during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) popularized and contributed to the creation of a sport form of kenjutsu done with shinai (bamboo swords). Similar matches for jujutsu schools contributed to the rise of Kodokan Judo. Kano's students won a number of noted victories and the Kodokan was invited to participate in inter-style matches by the Tokyo Police. The Kodokan did exceptionally well in most of these matches and earned an impressive reputation. These matches though also drove some significant changes in the Kodokan's curriculum.

Fusen Ryu is reported to have defeated a number of Judo representatives with strong ground techniques. At the time, Kano was not in favor of focusing on ground fighting because he felt it was a dangerous place to be in a street fight. However, these losses on the ground in public matches pushed him to develop a groundwork curriculum for Judo. One of the big surprises about this is the way he went about it. Contrary to the idea of martial schools jealously guarding their secrets, at this time at the end of the 19th century, people were much more open. Kano invited the head of Fusen Ryu to teach groundwork at the Kodokan Dojo, and he did. With the help of the head of a rival system, Kano significantly strengthened the Kodokan curriculum. Kano never became a huge fan of groundwork, always believing that staying on your feet was optimal in a fight, but the pressure of doing well in competitive matches drove him to adapt his art.

In addition, Kano changed from the classic menkyo, or licensing, system, and created the modern dan rank system based on competitive ability.  The koryu systems award licenses based on a persons level of understanding and mastery of the system, up to and including full mastery of the system.  Kano abandoned this system for one in which students were ranked according to competitive ability in matches.  If a student could defeat four other students of 1st dan level (commonly known as black belt) , then he was promoted to 2nd dan (black belt).  This resulted in tremendous changes in what is taught and how students train.  Anything that is not allowed in competitive matches is marginalized in training, even if it is effective in combative situations outside of training.  The focus narrowed to those techniques which are most effective in competition.  The up side of this focus is that it drives innovation and experimentation.  Judoka are constantly looking for innovative ways to win in competition and refining their techniques to make them more effective.  The down side is, as I describe above, that anything not useful in competition is largely ignored, even if it is highly effective in situations outside of competition.

Various pressures on competitive martial systems are still visible today. For the larger systems such as Judo and various Karate styles, two of the big pressures are popularity and money. In the last 15 years the International Judo Federation has been busy making numerous changes to the rules for competitive Judo matches in order to make Judo more television friendly to maintain popularity and keep it's place in the Olympics. The matches are seen as being too slow and difficult to follow, so changes were made to speed things up. In addition, there seems to be some reservations about how well people from other systems, such as wrestling and BJJ, do when they enter Judo tournaments. I have heard complaints that wrestlers and BJJ players use a lot of leg grabs and take downs that aren't classical Judo. The techniques work though. My feeling is that in Judo, we are reacting in the worst way possible to these challenges from wrestlers and BJJ players. Instead of inviting them into our dojo to learn from them, as Kano did, the IJF has chosen to ban the leg grabs and take downs from Judo competition. To me this only makes Judo weaker and less worthy of study.

In the Karate world, I see a lot of things in tournaments where combative functionality is not even considered. People invent kata that are flashy and athletic, but have nothing to do with the rich history and combative effectiveness of the Okinawan traditions. I have seen rules for weapons kata that require a certain number of weapons releases. This means that people are required to throw their weapon into the air! From a standpoint of combative functionality, this is ridiculous. However, to people who don't know better, this looks impressive. These Karate tournaments seem to be responding to a desire to be as popular as possible, rather than as effective as possible. It is a similar to what the IJF is doing make Judo more television friendly so the International Olympic Committee won't drop Judo from the Olympics like it tried to do with Wrestling a few years back. I won't even get into the silliness that is Olympic Tae Kwon Do.

Many of the modern arts are relatively easy to change because they are competition focused and committee governed, so changes in the rules will drive major changes in training. The koryu arts are deeply seated in kata that have been refined over centuries, and I can't really imagine any pressure big enough for them to make significant changes to their curriculums. Since the classical systems are not looking for rapid growth or tv money, they are under no pressure to change except that which they have always had; to adjust their systems to they remain relevant to the world around them. Judo and Karate both have strong depths of kata, well thought out and highly refined, but these traditional, effective and functional kata are often ignored in the race to perform well in competitions. The desire to do well in competition and to be visible on the world stage will continue to drive changes in these arts. I would love to see the pressure and focus of modern arts return to combative functionality, but I doubt that will happen when it is so easy to get caught up in the ego trap of popularity.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What Kata Isn't

Let’s get this straight.  Classical martial arts kata are not practice fighting.  They are not what fighting is or was. Martial arts kata do not simulate combat conditions.  They do not recreate actual combat scenarios.  If kata aren’t any of these things, then what are they, and why bother with them?
Kata are pre-arranged training sequences.  Kata are training scenarios for learning about essential elements of conflict.  I train in both classical and modern Japanese martial arts, and both use a lot of kata.  Classical arts tend to focus almost entirely on kata training.  Gendai arts like Judo use a combination of formal kata training, randori/sparring, and informal kata.
Kata are not for mimicking combat . Kata are for getting better at combat. They are a training tool for learning the skills necessary for dealing with combat.  They are an exceptional tool that has survived hundreds of years of testing and application. As a training tool, they provide a framework for practicing various aspects of combat, not just repeating techniques or practicing in a sparring situation where much of what is effective is not acceptable because of the risk of injury.  
Kata is not sparring, and with good reason.  All sparring assumes a dueling scenario.  2 people faced off and fighting.  Any equipment is equal.  There are no surprises, no unexpected changes. There is an assumption of fairness.  Kata is not handicapped by any of these of these assumptions.  Kata allows a much broader investigation of conflict conditions.
Classical martial arts kata generally start out simple, but they rarely assume anything is fair or equal.  Araki Ryu Kogusoku is famous for one of the first kata taught to its students.  It assumes asymmetrical armament (tori has a tray, uke has a tanto), and applies surprise to defeat the better armed opponent.  There is nothing fair about this situation.  It is unfair and tricky and applies deception.  Just like a lot of conflict in real life.  Sparring is worthless for learning these lessons.
The kata of Kodokan Judo, unlike the games of Olympic Judo, rarely assume anything is fair or balanced.  The Kime No Kata is a great example.  It is a set of kata of encounters between two people.  One person, always unarmed, is attacked in sequence in a variety of scenarios.  First the two are kneeling facing each other, as if talking, and one, uke, attacks the other in a variety of unprovoked and basically surprise attacks.  Then uke attacks from the rear.  After that a succession of attacks with a knife from the front and side.  Then both stand up and there are unarmed attacks from the front, side and rear, followed by attacks with knife, stick and sword.
Sparring is extremely limited in so many ways that kata is not.  In all of these jujutsu kata, the only thing the person being attacked, nage in Judo terminology, know is what attack is coming.  They don’t know when, or how fast, or from what range, or how strong the attacks will be.  Uke has complete control over these.  
One complaint sparring enthusiasts often make about kata is that you always know what attacks are being made, so it’s never a surprise.  The same is true in sparring.  In sparring a very small set of techniques and attacks are allowed, and the vast majority of possible attacks are excluded under the rules.  On top of that, in sparring the attacks are always coming from the front, eliminating 75% of the directions attacks come from.  With it representing such a tiny fraction of possible encounters, sparring seems quite overrated as a training method for anything except sports encounters.
Another thing kata isn’t is completely prearranged.  Kata leave a lot of room for changes in range, timing and rhythm. In koryu bugei systems, the uke is always supposed to be the senior, more experienced person.  It’s uke’s job to control the speed of the kata so their partner is always learning and being pushed into new territory.  In addition, just because know exactly which attack is coming doesn’t mean handling the attack is easy.  No one tells uke when he has to attack.  Uke gets to decide the exact moment of the attack, its speed and intensity.  I have had uke’s drive me completely helpless just by drawing out the attack a little bit and then drawing me into responding at a different rhythm and speed than they attack with.  This left me wide open with a big stick incoming at speed and completely unable to do anything about it.
Kata isn’t locked into one interpretation.  Uke’s job is to adapt the kata’s speed, intensity and range to the student’s level so they learn as much as possible from the training.  Kata also isn’t locked into just one uke.  If you train with many different uke, each will bring different things to the training, things that make each practice of the kata unique.  Different sizes, heights, strengths, speeds and levels of experience in each uke  all combine to change the kata every time you do it.
Kata doesn't have to work every time you do it.  In fact, when you are learning, it shouldn't work a lot of the time.  You should be making mistakes and your partner should be stopping to show you why that particular way of doing it won't work.  There is abundant room in kata training for failing.   Are you getting bored?  Then uke should ramp up the speed so you are having difficulty doing the kata.  Or get a more powerful uke. Or one who is difficult for your to read. Boredom banished.  If you are practicing kata in such a way that you can always make it work, you're doing it wrong.
Kata isn’t some dead, fossilized thing that you trot out to see how things were done at some time in the past.  Kata are vital and alive and being changed and adapted all the time.  No one says you and your partner can’t decide to try the kata differently and see what an appropriate response would be if you change one element.  For advanced students, that’s a great thing to try.  The creation of kata isn’t over either.  People are creating new kata all the time.  Most new kata don’t end up being preserved and passed on, but sometimes the kata have enough value that they are added to their system.  The history of styles like Eishin Ryu and Shinto Muso Ryu show how things were added to these systems down through the centuries.  Gendai budo do the same.  Kodokan Judo didn’t create the Kodokan Goshin Jutsu until the 1950s.  Over time, kata get tested, and the worthwhile ones are kept and passed on, while the others are dropped and forgotten.
Kata are a teaching method for practicing the most fundamental and important aspects of conflict.  They are a time tested method that allows you to practice all sorts of dangerous attacks and defenses in a controlled manner.  Kata allow attacks from every angle at all sorts of speeds and force levels, and they allow that practice in all sorts of asymmetrical match-ups. Kata give practitioners the opportunity to practice these match-ups at a variety of speeds, strengths and intensities, so they can grow and their skills progress.