No budo here!

13 Mar

Budo tabletI am not a bukoka. Without getting into the definition of a budoka, I think there is a generally cheapening of the term so that the popular meaning has become simply anyone who practices a form of martial art. I personally believe there is more to it than that and just handing over a membership fee does not make a person a bukoka.

Having said that, there are aspects of Spirit Defence that resemble a traditional budo approach, in the sense that I don’t accept everyone who contacts me for training and I don’t make my living from teaching. I also run sessions that I do not accept payment for, but choose who can attend. But in the end, I am just teaching technique – albeit while providing what I consider to be a good martial arts “education” (yes that does sound pompous, I agree!). But we are not training budo as I do not place any particular emphasis on how people should behave outside training. To me, budo extends beyond the dojo into the everyday realm. So, no budo here!

However, I am seeking a more balanced approach for myself because I want to integrate other aspects of my life into my martial arts practice (and visa versa). That is a choice I am making for myself and I do not impose that on others. Of course, those who train with me are, without exception, nice people who live honest lives – but that’s not because of me. They train with me because of who they are, they are not who they are because they train with me. It is an important distinction I wish more martial arts instructors would make.

A message to my son.

18 Feb

I want to explain martial arts to you, but it’s not as easy as I thought. When you and I train, we train for self defence – to learn to protect ourselves against someone who wants to harm us. We train with contact and I know you can hit hard with your elbows, your knees and especially your hammer-fist! Some people in martial arts say they train kids in self defence but then they spend all their time kicking and punching the air in lines moving up and down a hall, gym or dojo. Will that protect them? Who knows? All I know is that I want you to be able to defend yourself and so our training is the most honest training I can provide. We have fun in training but we don’t play games. It’s serious, but we still manage to laugh.

But there is another side to martial arts: a way of living that protects us from within. You see, we train as though the enemy is “out there”. But sometimes, the enemy is us. Sometimes we are hard on ourselves; sometimes we feel like no-one understands us; sometimes we feel like we don’t fit in and sometimes we feel angry or sad for no reason at all. So there is another side to martial arts: developing as a person. Every time you walk into the dojo and begin training you are doing something positive. Every time you are hitting the pads you are doing something good. Every time you improve your technique, you are becoming better.

Some people believe the dojo is a place for becoming stronger and faster – a place where the most important things are trophies, belts and competitions. You and I know better: the dojo is a place where we train our minds and we become better people who walk the world with open eyes. Every minute you train hard in the dojo you become stronger inside and you do something good for yourself – and something good for your Self. Feel good about your progress and strong that you made the decision to walk into the dojo rather than watch TV (and no – watching TV in the dojo is not an option!).

There are many different types of strength. If it were only physical it would be easy!

Remember what Morpheus said? He said, “Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?” In the movie he and Neo are in the Construct. But “this place” is also our world. Being physically strong or fast is nice but being strong and fast of mind is better. It has nothing to do with muscles and it has everything to do with you and how you see yourself.

The dojo is place where you take another step away from The Matrix and towards The Real World. Once you believe you are important enough to spend time on, you will never want to go back to The Matrix again. You will meet many people who do not want to be unplugged and they will try hard to influence you and draw you back into their world. But you will also meet others who are like you – they are out there waiting to be found and you will find them!

The other side of martial arts give us a path to develop as a person and a way to avoid monkey dances. I am talking about a thing called Budo (“Martial Way”). It is a way of living that seeks to defend ourselves from our negative thoughts about ourselves and others. It is Self Defence – defending the Self from the Self. Don’t try to understand this, just think about it for the next 50 years or so and then come and explain it to me (but please speak up as I will probably be a little deaf).

I know not all of this will make sense right now. It really doesn’t matter as this is not the only Way. There are others. The only thing you need to do is to take the first step and then another and then repeat.

I love you my son. You are very clever and kind.

Please remember to be clever and kind to your Self.


Dad :-)

Technique hunters: Training versus studying martial arts

28 Jan

Not long ago I found my first grading certificate in martial arts. It was a jujutsu grading from 1982. Over thirty years ago! I was 15 at the time and I trained twice a week in Jan de Jong Jujutsu in Perth (as bizarre as it sounds, my high school had a jujutsu club and we could train during the school day) . In fact, my first lesson in jujutsu was about two years before that but I didn’t last long as I was so hopeless at it at the time (I still recall Mr de Jong’s extreme patience with me). Even though I took my first martial arts lesson at 13 and my first grading at 15, I don’t really count this time in my total martial arts years.

Why not? Because I recognise that there is a big difference between adult training time and children/youth training time. Yes I was learning techniques that I still use today, but I really had no idea what I was doing. I was just training the techniques without understanding them. A couple of years later I really began to study martial arts as opposed to just training in it. Once I entered that period, my knowledge and understanding improved a lot.

When I hear a 23 year old state he has been a “martial artist” for 15 years, I cringe. Are you really counting the time when you were eight?? It’s like a 23 year old author stating he or she has been a writer for 15 years. Really? Are you really counting those one page efforts from primary school? By that logic, an athlete could count the time he/she was learning to walk.

This is all sounding elitist, I know, and it probably doesn’t really matter all that much (except for the misrepresentation, but martial arts thrives on that). To me, it is just a symptom of a different issue – technique hunting and training versus studying.

There really is a difference between training the martial arts and studying martial arts. In my experience, those who spend their whole martial arts “careers” in training mode are technique hunters – they are looking for more tricks to add to their repertoire of 10,000 techniques. Kids’ training is like this – just memorise the movements. Sadly, many never really move beyond that point. Bruce Lee said he does not fear the person who knows 10,000 techniques; rather he fears the person who has practiced one technique 10,000 times (oh great, two things I said I would never do here: 1. Complain about people nowadays and 2. quote Bruce Lee – now I am doing both in one hit!).

Anyway, a true study approach to martial arts training takes time and is sometimes difficult and challenging. However, the great benefit of such an approach is that it removes the need to constantly add to the bag of technique tricks. Studying looks for underlying principles and common themes between techniques so that training becomes a more efficient process. This approach requires more engagement and effort on a cognitive level and is not for everyone. Perhaps it is something that comes with age (or maturity?).

I want to understand what I am doing before adding too much more to it. Of course, learning new techniques is fun, but really after a while they are just variations of a theme. However, you need to take the study approach to recognise that theme in the first place.

I truly believe studying martial arts can lead to benefits outside the gym/dojo. An enquiring mind is never a bad thing.

Hands, hips and habits!

20 Jan

In training I will often say the two main things to look out for in any technique are the hands and hips. I might just add feet to that as well.

Whether you are punching, kicking or moving on the ground  – hip mobility and movement is very important. Good hip rotation with a power hand strike (e.g. the cross or rear elbow) will add an enormous amount of power compared to a strike done with no or little hip movement. Forward movement with good footwork will add even more power.

Similarly, there is only one place for your hands – up. Keep them up. If you standing and there is a threat in front of you – keep your hands up. If you are on the ground and there is a threat in front of you (or on top of you) – keep your hands up.

Good hip movement and keeping your hands high need to be practiced so that they are ingrained and become an integral part of your technique.   They become protective habits much like automatically putting on a seat belt before you start the car engine. The only way they can become habits is to pay close attention to them in training and to focus on the details. The process of developing positive training habits by focussing on details has a great benefit of training your mind in addition to your body (it will also help protect your mind by preventing your brain from being damaged by punches!).

Last year I became interested in Hojo Undo exercises from Okinawa. Hojo Undo involves training with makeshift objects in a way that supports one’s practice of martial arts. It probably a pays to look at what Okinawans do for health as they have one of the longest lifespans in the world. One such exercise from Hojo Undo involves using nigiri gami or “gripping jars”

There are several ways to use the nigiri gami, but I used them for grip training with my shoulder blades held back as much as possible while carrying them in a “farmers walk” position. I have a habit of rolling my shoulders forward and over the years this has exacerbated an old shoulder injury I have. I found that by doing very basic exercises with the nigiri gami and paying attention to my form, my general posture improved. In other words, holding my shoulder blades back in a more natural way became a habit and my awareness of my “bad” habit of rolling my shoulders forward became enhanced. Consequently, my practice began to extended beyond the dojo.

I am also at the very early stages of practicing yoga and I can see many similarities between it and martial arts – not the “techniques” themselves, but in the notion that, if willing, there is the opportunity to practice yoga in everyday life. Like yoga, the potential of martial arts as a form of self development depends on the practitioner’s willingness to look beyond the physical and see other aspects of the art. A deeper level of understanding and discipline is required to live the practice beyond the dojo or the yoga mat but the effort is worth it.

A simple way to begin taking the benefits of training into everyday life is to build positive habits in training. As martial arts are mostly taught with a focus on the physical, it makes sense to start there. Good form and attending to details in training builds body awareness. This awareness can then transfer to life outside the dojo or gym.

Like anything, awareness needs to be trained until it becomes a habit. By focussing on the physical and your body – and I mean really paying attention to it – you are developing mindfulness. The repetitive action of focusing on some aspect of training while filtering out unrelated thoughts has a training effect on your mind as well as your body. From there, you place yourself in a good position to discover the non-physical aspects of training. It is a long long process!

  • Pay attention to details in training.
  • Reinforce positive habits in training
  • Use the mental discipline developed from focusing on training details outside the gym/dojo
  • Repeat.

Remember: You are either reinforcing an old habit or developing a new one.

Going to the ground is almost as stupid as not going to the ground. Or is it the other way around?

3 Jan

This year marks the 20 year anniversary of the UFC. I personally believe Mixed Martial Arts in general and the UFC in particular have done a lot for the martial arts in terms of raising awareness and working hard to bring them into the mainstream. I know there are many people who disagree with this and it’s not my intention to try and convince you otherwise.

One of the obvious benefits to come from the UFC is the introduction of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and ground fighting to the martial arts population. While the same ground techniques that were showcased in the first few UFC matches (and many since then – eg the arm bar, RNC, triangle choke) are fundamental Judo ne-waza techniques, the notion of fighting on the ground, from one’s back was a foreign concept to those in striking based martial arts. The UFC changed that.

The fact that so many MMA fights ended up on the ground led to an explosion in interest in BJJ and ground grappling. Unfortunately, it also led to many misconceptions about self defence: one being that all – or most – street fights end up on the ground. The ingenious strategy of the Gracies in the early UFC of taking an opponent out of his comfort zone and to the ground into a position of strength for BJJ has been erroneously applied to the non-sporting context of street defence. Outcomes in sporting events are specific to that environment.

The Gracie’s purposely took the fight to the ground as part of their overall strategy. This is quite different from a fight naturally ending up on the ground. In fact, more recent UFC fights (ie the last 5 to 8 years) highlight the idea that a good take-down defence will prevent the fight ending up on the ground and two strikers will rarely end up fighting on the ground. In addition, the “real world” problem of obstacles such as walls and tables may actually prevent combatants from falling over rather than always facilitating it (there is no referee to stop you from holding the fence!).

Ok, so if I am correct that a fight will not automatically end up on the ground unless one or both combatants execute a takedown, then where does that leave ground fighting for self defence? Is it worth worrying about? After all, ground fighting doesn’t really make sense if there are multiple attackers or weapons involved. At this point, those who train no ground techniques at all get very excited and exclaim that it is a dumb idea to go to the ground and “we don’t train for the ground because we don’t get taken down”. Yes… good luck with that one. Training ground fighting and defensive techniques from the ground are immensely important. The fact that you don’t want something to happen doesn’t alter the fact that it may happen.

The risk management approach to martial arts and self defence

At this point you are probably thinking that I am contradicting myself – on one hand I am saying that fights don’t necessarily end up on the ground in street situations. On the other hand, I am saying they frequently (but not usually) end up on the ground,  so we need to train for scenarios involving ground fighting (yes…. that was confusing for me too).

I look at this from a risk management point of view. In risk and threat assessment we consider two factors: the likelihood of an event occurring and the potential consequences of that event should it occur. The table below is a typical, albeit very basic, risk matrix:


From this table you can see that an event that has a medium likelihood of occurring but has a high potential impact is rated as being a “high” risk event. I would place a street defence situation ending up on the ground as being in this category. The occurrence of an assault for most of us is a low probability but high impact event that is rated as “Medium” risk. These ratings are also termed “threat levels”.

We need to train ground defence techniques (and weapon defences and multiple attacker scenarios) because the potential consequences of ending up on the ground in a street defence situation are quite severe. Any argument that uses frequency of an event without considering the consequences is really missing the point of self defence training in the first place. The whole basis of self defence training (note the difference with martial arts training) is to prepare for an unlikely, but potentially catastrophic, event.

What to train to prepare for the ground street defence secenario?

There are two aspects to this. Firstly, I think train whatever you enjoy training –  be it ground grappling, kata or standup striking. That is, don’t get too hung up about what you should be doing – just be honest about what you are doing and why. Secondly, if you want to mitigate the risk of being on the ground in a street defence scenario (or any other scenario), then train specifically for that scenario. This means accounting for all those nasty little factors that are often cited as evidence for why going to the ground is a bad idea for self defence. These include, weapons on the ground, multiple attackers with one on the ground attacking you and others standing attacking, obstacles and groin strikes (and striking in general). Detractors of MMA and the UFC who state that it is not “real fighting” because there are no multiple attackers, weapons or groin strikes rarely or never train under those circumstances themselves. These are exactly the sort of scenarios that need to be trained in addition to one on one unarmed attacks.

If you train BJJ for sport and think you are training self defence, have your training partner throw a punch or pull a training knife every now and then to see how different it is. Pulling guard will never be the same again! You might not train like this all the time, but just be aware of the limitations of training only one aspect of a martial art.

Conversely, if you think you would just poke an attacker in the eye to stop the fight, actually train with a good ground grappler and gain an appreciation of how difficult this is. Both of you will benefit from the experience. It is possible to use eye pokes, but your skills and effectiveness with them will be enhanced if you understand different ground positions and have an appreciation of how to use them. But also consider that attacking the eye may not be quite the finishing technique you think it is and it may only be possible to induce a change in position. Training self defence ground grappling will enable you to capitalise on that positional change.

Transitions: you can’t get there from here.

Lastly, train escapes from all ground positions with all of the above in mind. Please note that this includes transitions from positions that are usually considered dominant in grappling competition – such as guard and the mount. For example you could transition from the guard (both top and bottom positions) to standing and from the top mount position to standing. Do these under multiple attacker situations and you will see that it is more difficult that you may think.

Similarly train to defend against transition techniques such as take-downs. If your primary defence to a double leg take down attempt is to strike the attacker in the spine before he gets to you, you possibly need to consider the effect of momentum (not to mention the pain numbing effects of alcohol, drugs, adrenalin and/or anger). Actually train it against a motivated attacking partner to see what other options you have.

The main point is: train as many scenarios as possible and the drill them all. Go easy at first and then increase the pace and resistance. Always train in a safe manner. This is a problem solving approach that works very well.

The debate of whether fights end up on the ground or whether it is a good idea to go to the ground really is quite pointless. We could discuss it and write about it for hours. Sadly there is fantasy and magical thinking on both sides of the fence. My suggested solution is to experiment and do the training in an honest, realistic and safe manner. Whenever you hear yourself say “Well if someone tried to do X on me, I would just do Y”, actually train that scenario and variations of it to see if Y is the awesome technique you think it is, or just another letter in the alphabet.

The why and how

31 Dec

Why do you train martial arts? There are many reasons why people train – from improving confidence to sport and, of course, self defence. The question of “why” is important as the why should dictate the how – that is, how you train should reflect your purpose (the why). For example, if your “why” is self defence, then your “how” should be self defence.

A common situation is that people begin martial arts looking for self defence, but end up with martial arts. At some point along the way, the original purpose is forgotten and a kind of indoctrination takes place whereby participants train in a way that is completely removed from what they originally wanted, but believe they are still getting it. It’s almost a tragicomedy. There are many reasons behind this but I want to focus here on one aspect of training that is frequently overlooked. That is, the difference between techniques,  tactics and strategy.

Techniques = the movements, attacks and defences we physically perform in martial arts

Tactics = the means by which a desired objective is achieved

Strategy = the overall plan

In martial arts training often technique dictates tactics and strategy is not discussed. A different approach (the one I take at Spirit Defence) is to define the overall strategy and then study what tactics are appropriate for different scenarios. This process assists in training techniques that achieve our objectives. That is, strategy dictates tactics which dictate technique. To a large extent, I can do this because I mainly teach privately, one on one. I have different people train with me and they frequently have different needs – for example, security personnel have different needs to a person training for general self defence. I have trained people in preparation for specific overseas postings and their needs are determined by the specific environment they will be facing. It is easy to personalise training to such a degree when there is only one student at a time. I imagine this would be very difficult in a group situation.

I look at this on a number of different levels. For example, the general tactic of controlling distance by moving closer to an attacker facilitates a number of techniques. Techniques are relatively easy to learn, but executing the tactics needed to facilitate the technique is frequently more challenging. At Spirit Defence we tend to spend a lot of time working on tactics and take a problem solving approach in developing the means by which techniques can be used (more) effectively. In a future blog post, I will talk about this in more detail.

Our strategy is to escape if possible and control if necessary. In order to escape, we need to understand the environment and assess a range of factors such as the motivation for the attack, whether weapons are involved, if others are likely to assist our defence or assist the attacker and what escape options are available. If we have no means of escape or need to protect loved ones, then control becomes an issue – but here we are not just talking about controlling the attacker, we also need to consider control of the environment, ourselves, bystanders and the potential legal aftermath. We understand this because we have a well defined strategy. Without this, we would be left ignorantly trying to assess the merits of individual techniques without any understanding of the circumstances.

For me, strategy is the “why”. What is your purpose for training?

Let’s look at an example. In an MMA competition, maintaining the mounted position is very dominant and many fighters strive to be atop their opponent in order to deliver heavy strikes or set up submissions. It would seem logical to assume that the mount would also be great for self defence – right? Well, perhaps, but it depends on your strategy. If your strategy is to escape, then maintaining a position that leaves you open to attacks from other people and probably turns the defender into the attacker may not be a good option. Remember I am talking about maintaining the mount – I am not talking about the technique in isolation, rather I am talking about how it is used and misused tactically. Perhaps a more suitable position is the knee ride as it allows for a quick recovery to a standing position, maintains control over the attacker and facilitates good mobility and visibility to deal with other potential attackers.

The difference is one of strategy – in MMA it is to win by points, get a knock-out or a submission. The mount is great for these. A different strategy in self defence necessitates different tactics and perhaps different techniques. Training for competition will provide excellent attributes for self defence – but for many people it will not provide self defence ability because the circumstances are different. Yes, getting a person to tap from an arm bar is fantastic – but how will that play out in a street defence situation?

Of course, the reverse situation is true too. If I were to enter a martial arts competition, I would train according to the rules of competition as these will affect my tactics. No one in their right mind would spend all their time training competition illegal street defence techniques and tactics such as groin kicks or using improvised weapons. The environment and situation are completely different.

I am in no way saying we should only ever train for pure self defence – the martial arts offer more than that, but many practitioners probably need a reality check. The key is to just be honest in training. Know your why and the how will be clear.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 41 other followers