Training as if your life depends on it

You might have heard the phrase “Train as if your life depends on it” before. It shows up in a bunch of writings, articles, books and adverts (sometimes with: “Because it does!!!” -*cure dramatic music* thrown in for good measure).

This serves different purposes. Sometimes it’s an admonition to be focused in class and used to bring awareness back of what you may be training for. Sometimes a reminder of the nature of the skills practised, or a reference to the environment in which a certain art may have arisen, and it’s original purpose. And every once in a while, it’s part of tacticool cosplay BS about how dangerous the world is or how hardcore a particular school/style is.

Whatever the specific reason, the phrase shows up a fair bit. And while sometimes it has merit, I think that the way it’s usually put misses a really important point: Your life is more than your survival.

“Life” vs. “Survival”

When martial arts or self-defence people say “Train as if your life depends on it” what they often mean is “Train as if your survival depends on it”. Almost exclusively it is put as training for a life or death struggle in which your very survival is at stake. And that has value, for several reasons.
It could be that your circumstances are such this kind of struggle is not unlikely for you, usually because you are in a violence profession, are in shitty circumstances or made some really poor life choices. In which case you really want to take your training that seriously. Perfectly valid.
Or it could be that the art you practice arose under circumstances where such struggles were common (many martial arts did) and a key goal of the training is to preserve it and the accompanying mindset with as much accuracy as possible. Also very valid.

Of course sometimes neither of these is the case, and it’s just a way of bringing a particular mythology into the training, in which case it’s a bit questionable. Many martial arts students will probably never have to fight for their lives, and will be more likely to have to deal with conflicts at a level where that sort of intensity is not appropriate. But that’s something for another time.
So making it all about survival can have a lot of value- more or less depending on your circumstances and reasons for training – but it also kind of misses the point. Life is more than survival. If you take your training seriously enough and invest enough into it, your life WILL depend on it. But not so much because it will save you from some hypothetical bad guy (again, depending on circumstances), but more because how you conduct your training and the lessons you take away from it can majorly impact how you live your life.

Why Martial Arts are Good for You

Martial arts can be a great tool for self-improvement, but the reasons why are often misunderstood. While it is often associated with learning particular philosophies or trying to emulate a particular archetype, and those certainly can contribute, the most impactful is the training itself. You can learn philosophy elsewhere, there are classes, there are books, hell these days the internet has really good stuff on it to get you reflecting on the big questions. And while the archetype thing is cool, its important to remember that whatever warrior image you are emulating, the image you have is likely the equivalent of being the last person in a game of telephone, bearing little resemblance to the original reality of the lives of those people. That doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial, but it’s not the main thing.

See, in terms of the benefits for personal development, the big difference between martial arts classes and (some) other methods is in the training. Physical training is a tool for integrating philosophical ideas and mental models into tangible practice and putting them in action. This is one of the things I like about traditional arts when they are done well, the mental and physical sides are interconnected, and this process has good synergy. Training that is actually character-building forces you to struggle in some ways.
If you want to get better at overcoming adversity, the right class throws an appropriate amount of adversity at you in training to practice that.
If you want to get better at responding to pressures and threats with calm and compassion, the right class will let you train that physically in your practice.

Small tangent, that last one is often cited as a benefit of Aikido, but in order to do that you have to have some pressure/intent from uke. Staying calm in the face of a calm feed (or the martial equivalent of a limp noodle) from a calm gentle partner, while it can have other benefits, does nothing for calm under pressure long term.

Same goes for being more relaxed, determined, focused, assertive and so on. A really large chunk of the personal development value of martial arts comes not from the various philosophies they come with, but from giving us a space to embody those qualities that we wish to develop in physical practice.
Some researchers suggest that this is also the source of the psychological benefits for the survivors of violence, but like most such research it’s a bit speculative and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Bottom Line

What I’m getting at is really this: If any of the above holds true, as I believe it does, then how you show up at training will have a lasting impact on how you live your life. While “how you do anything is how you do everything” is kind of bullshit, there’s grain of truth to it, and how you act in the context of an activity like martial arts, often over many hours throughout many years, is pretty certain to have carry over to everything else. (Cobra Kai, anyone?).

So think a little bit about how you approach martial arts training. Many of us can’t practice in the usual way right now, only solo or through online classes if at all, so this is a good time for reflection. Consider your attitude and actions in and towards training, and have a think of how that might be impacting your life. And when you do get back to training, in class or on your own, train as if your life depends on it. Because it does (*Cue slightly less dramatic music*).

Timeframe, Reloaded

This is something I originally wrote on my older blog, about 5 years ago. I’m fairly shamelessly reposting it here because my views on this haven’t changed (that much) and it’s still quite relevant. I’ve added a little bit at the end so I don’t feel completely lazy 😉

I got a question on time frame the other day. Someone asked me how long it would take them to see results if they started training. We talked about it a bit but it’s actually a difficult question to answer. In this case they told me what they are currently doing, their state of fitness and level of interest. And I know what my classes are like. When it’s a general question, it’s harder.

What is the time frame for learning martial arts? I’m not actually asking, it’s a silly question. First we’d have to define what we mean by martial arts exactly, they all contain different skill sets. Do you include violence dynamics? Classical weapons? Knowledge of history? Acrobatics? Physical fitness? Music (e.g. in Capoeira)? Philosophy? Physical skills only? Which ones? Do you need to be able to fight? In what conditions? In a competition? What level and rule set?

Then we need to work out how it is assessed, gradings have a wide spectrum, from technical demonstrations (or on-line certifications) all the way to gruelling multi-hour ordeals and even some patently insane stuff. Many include minimum practice times between them, regardless of ability.

And how do we judge practice? How many hours/days/years? Under what conditions? Do we base it on history (iffy, records in martial arts tend to be crappy)? If so, from when? 15th century Japan? Post-war Okinawa? Are those still applicable today?

Note that I’m not trying to answer any of the above questions, but they are things we need to consider.

Based on their individual style, school and practice and considering these factors, no two people will come up with the same answer. Mine will be different from yours. I have different answers for different things. If I disagree with someone else’s answer, I will try to at least ensure we are asking the same questions. Full transmission of a historical style is a different thing from basic physical competence. “Mastery”, if such a thing exists, of the intricate mechanics of a style is different than basic self defence ability, is different from the ability to fight in a cage. Teaching ability is different again, so is the ability to apply the lessons in your daily life and interactions.

I’ve been grappling with these thoughts for a while. There are various schools of thought on whether or not there are short-cuts within the martial arts that can be used to accelerate the process. Personally I’m ambivalent on the subject. There are no short-cuts that take out the need to work hard. But there are certainly instructional and practice methods that are a lot faster than others. It is like that in almost every area of life, why should martial arts be different? And if you just got a little internal glitch when reading this, that’s probably something you should think about in some detail.

I bring this up now because at the seminar in St. Andrews I saw two people with no training background in 6 hours get to the level where we could have taken them to most martial arts schools, told people they were advanced practitioners, and it would have been believable. They could have wiped the floor with many so called martial artists. How is this possible? A couple of things. I’m not entirely sure about the mechanism, but there are a few noticeable factors. These are my best guess, so take them with a grain of salt.

Motivation. The people who did well really wanted to be there. Wanted to know the information, wanted to get better not look better (this is an important difference). In the middle of the course was the theory portion, and explanation of the seven factors of self defence training (See “Facing Violence” for details). The people who got really good showed noticeable interest, and a very noticeable improvement in physical performance after the talk. Other people went the other way, information overload or getting scared maybe? Not sure, but either way, it was a factor.

Principles & play based teaching is another big one. Getting your body to move in the exact specific way to perform exact specific techniques just right takes time. Then learning to apply the lessons from those techniques to be able to improvise takes more time. Good principles based teaching avoids this issue. Let people explore the principles, let them play, and they get really good really fast. The downside is that it’s very hard to measure so it makes grading and assessment hard. Also difficult if you need to pass a style down just-so, because the expressions of the principles will be slightly different for everybody. Not an issue in seminars like this or for self defence really, unless egos get involved.

“Play” is actually another huge one. It’s how we naturally learn and improve, and it’s fun. I’m not sure when we as a species had the bright idea that play and learning should be two separate things, but it wasn’t our finest moment. When we separate them we get it in our head that f you’re having fun and exploring, you’re not “really learning”. And if you’re really trying to learn something, you are not supposed to play and have fun. It’s idiotic, to put it mildly, and the effects of reversing it are spectacular.

So, if you’re reading this, think about the time frames you have in your head. What are they assumed to refer to? What do they actually refer to? Do those two match or not? You might find that there is a disconnect. It could go either way, you might think that long time frame was ridiculous, until you actually look at what is expected to be learned and realise it’s appropriate. Or you might realise that the thing you actually want to learn could take way less time than you thought, because the assumptions don’t reflect your actual needs.

The 2021 stuff:

We place such high value on “time in practice” in the martial arts that we often miss one very crucial point: The quality and nature of that time matters a whole lot. Research in fields such as medicine and counselling has shown that once people get to the level of “good enough” (within the constraints of their environment or in their own estimation), they tend to stop improving. Without deliberate effort and effective continuing education, there is very little correlation between time in field and applied skill.

That is not to devalue the impact of time. Of course in general experienced martial artists are better, and partly that is because the nature of martial arts encourages constant development. And considerable time spent in focused practice is an important component of high level skill, that is well established.

But on the other hand if you’ve been in the martial arts world for a while you have surely seen people with decades of experience who have been coasting by for most of that time and are… not as good as they or their followers make them out to be.

I guess my point is that it is important to look at what people actually do, not just how long they have been doing it, and to make sure in our own practice we are pushing our envelope a little bit consistently to avoid stagnation.

Priorities and stuff

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on here. Life stuff happened, and the truth is that other things have been a higher priority for me, for reasons both valid and those that are kind of BS. I know, I’m not supposed to say that. Feels weird even writing it. I’m supposed to say “I didn’t have time”, that’s the socially acceptable phrase for not doing something.
Culturally, we’re really comfortable with the idea of being so busy we can’t do things, much more so than with prioritising certain things to the exclusion of others by choice. “I don’t have time” is the socially acceptable – and legit less harsh if it’s someone else asking for something – version of “that’s not a priority for me at the moment”. Or more accurately, it might be a priority, but I’m spending what time (or other resources) I have available on other things which are more of a priority to me. Ok, mini rant over. Bottom line, blogging was not as much of a priority for me as other things that got the necessary time and attention instead.
Doesn’t have that much to do with the pandemic situation, except for the peripheral impact on mental state etc. I’m fairly introverted, so on the whole, the current lifestyle agrees with me. Although it’s been long enough I was really having a slump the first two months of this year. Other factors too, but pandemic/lockdown fatigue was in the mix. But really, I mostly like my wife, my dog and my friends, and many of the latter live scattered all over the world anyway, so social isolation is not affecting me as much as some people. Shout out to my extrovert friends, I feel for you… And there have been plenty of silver linings. Which brings me to what I have been/am up to, martial arts and training wise.

One of the positives has definitely been the increased availability of online training. I’ve been able to do more (and cheaper) CPD for keeping up my professional qualification than in the last few years combined, with more choice of topic, which has meant lots of high quality training on financial crime and fraud prevention, amongst other things. There have been some really amazing groups for martial arts & SD that come together online, which has meant really cool opportunities to hear about and try new martial arts, do some teaching and reconnect with a few aspects of martial practice I’d lost touch with a little bit over the years.
It’s also been nice for opportunities to access training, even with dojos closed. I’m participating in six hours of physical online classes per week at the moment, trying to pick up some Bagua with Ed Hines and online Aikido classes with a friend who is an excellent instructor (that one is mostly conditioning – Aikido is… not ideal… for solo training). Plus one dance class, SD training calls five days a week and some solo training. Together with a lot of walking, courtesy of the dog, I’m probably in better shape than I’ve been for a while, and pretty happy with my training.

My personal trainer gets paid in snacks, mostly

I hadn’t realised that wasn’t quite the case before, with most of my recent training being solo or through seminars – don’t get me wrong, I love seminars, but I’ve missed regular classes, and this way I can be picky who I train with. The last local dojo I tried was ok for teaching quality, but most of the students acted like I had just sat down at their regular table at the pub, from the moment I walked in. The quality of training feedback from partners was equivalent to the attitude. The teacher was good, but why would I spend time in that place? One of the wonders of the internet is that it gives us so much more choice of who we interact with on a regular basis, and right now I’m really taking advantage of that.

Having said all that, I’ve actually done a bunch of writing, just not published anything. So now I get to go through and edit, pull together and finish a whole bunch of writings in varying states of completion. I have a couple of related projects that I’m dusting off, was on a podcast that should be releasing at some point (ha, that apparently released while I was writing this. Will share the link soon), things like that So more stuff coming soon. This is back to being a priority for me.


Whatever way you look at it, this year sure qualifies as “Interesting times”. The stuff that is happening right now in the US and other places, the protests over the killing of George Floyd, are the latest part of that, and they are the manifestation of issues that impact a lot of people.

If you are like me and most of this does not affect you personally, if you are not a member of a minority community, or a law enforcement officer, or have a stake in an affected area, then I have one, only one, suggestion: Listen.
Specifically, listen to the stakeholders, those who are affected. By the protests. By the death that led to them. By the background factors, the previous incidents, the different life experiences that play into it. It’s easy to try and intellectualise, to think we understand what it’s like, but mostly, if we’re not in those groups, we don’t.

I mean active listening, the way you would- should – in person. For those not familiar with active listening, it’s listening while fully paying attention to what the person is saying, shutting down your inner monologue and processing what they are saying before you formulate a response. There’s more to it, but the rest is mostly window dressing.

The internet is great for getting information, but it’s not the ideal environment for active listening, especially on social media. It’s really easy to start reading something and immediately filter it through existing perceptions and tribalism, to stop reading or watching after the first sentence that triggers those, one way or the other. Almost as easy to jump in with a response.

I think right now the “paying attention and processing” part is really important. Yes, the situation is complex, yes, there are other perspectives, yes, you have feelings about stuff that people are saying, but maybe it doesn’t have to be about that right now.

Listen, process. Then take action, if you so decide. Help if you want, reach out if you like. Speak up and share your opinions if that’s what you choose. If you’re not a stakeholder, just don’t make it about you and your Amazing Journey of Personal Growth (TM). No matter what impression Hollywood gave you, it doesn’t have to be about that right now.

PS: Wait, why is this here? I generally don’t do politics in public, and this is as much as I will budge on that right now. But this also has relevance on topic.
If you are in the martial arts and self defence world, at some point you will be learning from, practising with, teaching or giving advice to people who live a different reality to you, and are vulnerable to different things. Being able to listen to them, and listen well, is a relevant skill. Depending on your personality, not easy. But really fucking important.

The frail old master

The topic of physical fitness for martial arts has come up in a few conversations I had recently. Its relative importance continues to be debated, and there continue to be people who claim it does not matter. Personally, I think that physical fitness matters a great deal. Especially in the way of “being fit to do this particular activity” (see this article by Kasey Keckeisen on the topic). I think that the idea that it doesn’t matter continues to exists in some parts of the marital arts world, especially within internal arts, partly because the “frail old man who kicks ass” has become such a figure of myth. Let’s go and poke at that myth a little bit though.

Yes, there are people who don’t fit conventional ideas of fit who are good martial artists. One of my main Aikido teachers is in her 80s and roughly the size of an underfed hobbit. And she is in great physical shape for her age (at my wedding, she partied and danced until 4am…). I once attended a Systema seminar where the teacher was, whatever way you look at it, clearly obese. His mobility and skill at movement were exceptional though. He was “fit” for what he was doing, if not in other ways. In fact a lot of the “unfit” teachers – the ones who are actually good, not the internet experts who’ve added a rank to their belt every time they had to expand it – are actually not. In particular, they tend to have the types of fitness that relate to their particular activity, usually as a result of being in great shape when they were younger, and of keeping up with practice as they aged.

That is another thing, most of the people pointed to as examples of “he’s old and frail and good, you don’t need anything but technique” have been doing this a long time. Their technique is excellent, and this compensates for their physical drawbacks. Again, compensates. If they were also fit, but kept the same technique and tactics, they would be better. Unfortunately a lot of time technical refinement comes out of necessity, which comes out of physical decline. Many of these people are not unfit by choice (again, the good ones, not the tactical donut brigade).
Older, less fit martial artists also tend to be sneakier in their tactics, again out of necessity. There is also a certain part of this which is deliberate deception. If you read some of the accounts of early Japanese teachers sent to the west, you find instructions on how to use practice methods that negate the strength advantages of bigger, stronger students to make them feel inferior to the teacher (see this for an example).

Similarly, there are a lot of stories of frail old masters beating younger, fitter challengers. While I don’t doubt some of this happened, a lot tends to be somewhat embellished with time, especially by the students of the master in question. The stories notably get more spectacular the less verifiable eyewitnesses there are, and there tend to be less of these stories as we approach the age of the cell phone camera.

Culturally, there is one single biggest contributor to the iconic “frail old master” trope: martial arts movies and other media. There’s a reason it comes up a lot, and that is that it can make for good stories. However, like many other things, the reason this idea makes for good stories is because it is so rare and exceptional. “Big strong fit full contact fighter wins against small old dude” is not interesting, because it is what you would expect. The other way round, more exceptional, more interesting. But because of this, and because so much of our “knowledge” of violence comes from the media, we see it more and it seeps into our idea of how prevalent it is in reality.

With the internet, and the rise of mma in recent years, a number of very unfortunate challenge match setups between young, fit full contact fighters and older traditional martial arts teachers have show the fallibility of the “invincible old teacher” idea. You can make all sorts of arguments about the type of matches or of the people who participate in them, but at the very least they show that the myth does not stand up to reality in that particular context.

The concept doesn’t just show up in traditional martial arts by the way, it’s not that different in the self-defence world. “Badass old men” memes are common, and there are many dangerous people who do not at first glance look like they are particularly fit. But again, often fitter than they appear, lifetime of experience (that you cannot substitute), sneaky, using tools, and not better than they would be with greater fitness. Also plenty of people who share that stuff around or follow their own version of a guru – to live off vicarious badassery, as it were. Many while perpetually being in a constant state of “I need to get back to training one of these days”. Some convincing themselves they are so sneaky/tactical/alpha dangerous badasses that they can get away with eating like the dumpster behind a fast food franchise and not being able to make it up the stairs without wheezing, but are secretly lethal weapons.

So, in my opinion this particular source of the “you don’t need to be fit” idea is a myth. Like many myths, there is a kernel of truth to it. There are amazing martial artists and very dangerous people of advanced age or with physical issues. But it’s not that common, and chances are you are not them. If you try to emulate them as they are now, you will never be that good. Aikido is lousy for this, because common images show O’Sensei as an old man, rather than in his prime.

There are for sure things to admire about some of the old or out of shape master that do exists. Perseverance in the face of physical issues. The technical excellence that comes from a lifetime of practice. The sneaky tactics that let them keep up with younger, stronger folks in some ways. When we look at them as examples, this is what we should emulate. We should not point at them to falsely proclaim that physical fitness is irrelevant, or even a hindrance. To paraphrase a conversation with one of my teachers: “The idea is to use skills and tactics like a sneaky old person, and move like a fit young person, not to move like an old cripple and fight like a young idiot”.

Do we even need that “harmony” stuff?

With personal development being advertised as a training goal in Aikido and other martial arts, the question of its usefulness does come up. If our primary training goal is self-defence, do we still need personal development and philosophy? Are they useful towards that goal, or a secondary consideration at best? The answer as usual is the entirely unsatisfying “it depends”.

Personally I think they are useful, even necessary to some degree for one simple reason: While some people show up to class and only really need martial skills and knowledge to defend themselves, this is not the case for everyone. Many people who starts a martial arts class do not already possesses the mental and emotional skills that are essential to self-defence. To a large degree, self-defence is a mental skill. It requires us to have the emotional capacity to take the necessary actions, whether that is to not get sucked into a conflict, de-escalate an argument, or put hands on another human being and use force to stop them. Therefore, if we want to teach self-defence, we need to be able to help people develop those skills as well as tactics and physical techniques.

Let me first explain what I mean by self-defence being a mental skill. In order to protect ourselves, it is likely that we will have to take action in a stressful situation. We need to be able to be under stress and still make good decisions. We can have the best technique in the world, but if for example someone screaming insults in our face throws us completely off our game, it’s not going to help much. We might know what to look out for, but without the ability to control our attention and maintain focus, we might not notice a potential danger. We might have good situational awareness, but if we do not possess the ability to resist peer pressure, we might not act on that awareness when we’re about to be pressured into something unsafe. Without the assertiveness to set good boundaries, we might end up being manipulated into a situation of such disadvantage that no degree of physical skill will save us. There are some people for whom even the fundamental thought “I am worth defending” is a goal to reach, rather than a reality. This is not even taking into account creeps and other low-level predators that are most effectively dealt with by using soft skills, and who prey primarily on people without the emotional capacity to deal with them decisively.

Additionally, a lot of the skills we are taught in self-defence run counter to our social conditioning. Many of us have been taught all our lives not to be rude to strangers, not to hurt people etc. While in normal circumstances, these may be appropriate, there is no magic button that makes all of this conditioning disappear in a self-defence situation where we need to be rude to the predator circumventing our boundaries, or to hurt the person attacking us. One of the great things about martial arts in general and Aikido in particular is that they provide a fun and comfortable environment to practice dangerous physical skills with friends. It is a very different thing to use the same skills outside the dojo, and the emotional difference needs to be addressed in training.

Lastly, the flipside of the above is that some people, young men in particular, might have trouble walking away from a confrontation. We’re naturally inclined to fight other young men for social status, a tendency that can be reinforced with social conditioning. Things as utterly trivial as an insult to our favourite sports team can suck us in and escalate into physical confrontations. For many of us, even if we avoid the fight, unless we can blame it on external circumstance – friends holding us back being the most common – we feel the pull of an unfinished script from the fight that didn’t happen, and it bothers us. A natural consequence of good training should be the disappearance of the insecurity that drives this, and the ability to walk away unbothered.

These are just the martial considerations, of course good personal development through training should also make our lives better in general. Better mental health and happiness, plus the ability to deal with difficult situations that fall outside of self-defence are very real benefits. For most of us in fact they are far more valuable than self-defence skills as such. But even from a purely martial perspective, unless a school has serious preselection of students – which almost always excludes those people who actually need the skills – these aspects of training are really important.

For the Love of Books

It looks like many of us are going to have a lot of time to read on our hands in the immediate future, so I want to talk about books a little bit. Reading is one of the great pleasures of life for me. When I was younger, that mostly mean fiction novels, a great escape from everyday existence. Over the last decade, I mostly read non-fiction on various topics of interest. A lot of self-defence, martial arts and psychology stuff, but also random other books. I go through big gaps where I read no fiction, and then usually I start again when I have a long flight or train ride, and catch up on books series I used to read for a while. Fiction gives me a sense of calm, relaxing pleasure. I can immerse myself in the books world in a way that few other forms of media can match (works for audio books too).

For non-fiction, it’s a little different. I can enjoy the reading itself, and the quality of the writing is a major factor in that, but I get most of my pleasure from the learning aspect of it. The amount of information we can access nowadays is mindbogglingly awesome. The internet is a big part of that, but books are probably still my favourite way to consume knowledge.

So for non-fiction, I can enjoy the reading itself, but more importantly the information. Sometimes it’s learning something new, perhaps about a domain that I have little or no experience in, or sometimes a window into the mind of a high-end expert in a field I have some minor background in. For martial arts, it’s not remotely the same as training with someone, but a genuinely informative book – as opposed to one of the “this is how much of a badass I am”/”this is the gospel of my martial cult” books – from a genuine master of their craft from anywhere in the world is a treasure. For self-defence, good quality information is a huge aspect of it, in the beginning perhaps the most impactful part for personal safety. And it’s something that people used to rely on their instructors for exclusively. Which is fine if you’re lucky enough to have an instructor who knows their stuff, but also makes you vulnerable to misinformation or propaganda, and by default limits you to your teacher’s level of knowledge.

The internet has the opposite problem, there is too much information, and a LOT of it is bad. Like really bad. Of course there are bad books as well, but there are plenty of good ones, and for so many people – myself included – the first step to looking into self-defence and asking the important questions was reading the right books. Frankly, even if you are an instructor looking to make your students safer, you could do a lot worse than picking up a good book on self-defence and including the information in your training.

It’s easy to just read stuff in your area, but if you love learning for it’s own sake, it’s worth picking up books on other areas. There is also a surprising amount of stuff that carries over between specialities, especially on the mindset side.

There are books that, while enjoyable and interesting, fall down a bit on the actionable info part. There are books that have nuggets of information in what is mostly a bunch of mediocrity. My personal pet peeve is when the authors can’t keep themselves from soap-boxing on their politics every three pages – I know the youth of today irritates you, but I got this to read about systems thinking not your views on man-buns buddy… (that was in pretty much the only self improvement book I read that I thought was actively bad).

I don’t set a lot of new years goals (I have a different end-of-year thing I do), this year I have two. One is fitness related, the other one is to finish my non-fiction reading list. The current situation might actually help with that one, small silver lining…

Now I’m a pretty fast reader, and have taken some speed reading classes to improve that further. But since the last time I made any significant progress on that front was a few years back, and to help with my goal, I recently got a new course and am working through that now. It’s interesting, because the method is slightly different to what I had previously learned, and this means initially it’s slowing me down until I get used to it (or not, in which case I’ll stick to my old one). The real benefit I’ve experienced so far is in retention of information and note-taking, both things I’ve wanted to work on.

The book I’m using to practice is also fascinating, and has so far given me one good way to describe something with training I had struggled to put into words, and one really interesting insight into a mental process (yes I’m being vague on purpose, if I get into it I’ll ramble, so I’ll save it for a later post or two). I’ve read a previous book by the same author, which was interesting but really fell down on the actionable info part, so I’m reserving judgement until I finish it.

Variable Drills and Learning to See – Part 3

In the last two posts I wrote about variable drills, and how & why they are important in learning how to “see” in a martial context (part 1 & part 2 here). What I’m advocating in these articles is that, if we are interested in developing functional skills in a reasonable time frame, we have to make space for variable drills in a our practice. This time -last one on this topic, for now – I want to talk about one particular aspect of this, which is working with failure and resistance.

In the “classical” model of practice we get a specific input and then perform a specific technique in response. The assumption generally is that everything will happen as intended. This is in part so that any failure is due to us doing things wrong rather than environmental variables, thereby supposedly isolating the development of technique. While that is fine for teaching certain aspects of technical skill, it should be clear that everything does not always go as planned, and we need to address that in our training.
There are a few different ways of doing this. Of course the simplest is to improve technical ability and/or physical power to be able to negate resistance and reduce the chances of failure. I’m not going to go into that one too much here, because it doesn’t fit the overall topic and discussing it – and the dysfunctional relationship a lot of the martial arts world has with it – is it’s own big can of worms. Just know it’s one approach, and getting better and stronger never hurts, but it should not be the only approach taken.

Assuming that we are not so incredibly awesome that we can do no wrong and just ignore any resistance, an important part in dealing with failure and resistance is being able to feel when it’s happening. Developing the skill to feel when a certain tactic or technique isn’t working is absolutely crucial, because it stops us from getting our asses kicked while we are desperately trying to make that one thing work. Once we know what it feels like when something works and when it does not, we have a cue to make us switch tactics. Also depending on what exactly is happening, we might switch to different things, and the better we are at reading the situation, the less we have to pause and re-orient, which would give the other guy more time to act.

Sense of touch is faster than sense of sight for this purpose, and in a physical confrontation that small difference in speed can make a considerable difference. This alone would be reason enough to develop the ability to tell by feel whether a technique is working or not. As we notice something isn’t working, we can adjust. It is my belief that we need variable, live-ish practice to be able to develop this skill to a viable degree with a reasonable time-frame.
Going deeper, with enough of the right type of practice, this can extend to being able to tell why something isn’t working, feeling exactly what has gone wrong. This in turn will give us more options for the response, as we can react to the specific problem.
These are different points in a progression, I am a firm believer in training skills that are applicable at the current skill level of a student. In this case, I think it is fairly pointless to teach a student 10 different ways to overcome resistance to a technique depending on exactly which way the opponent resists, while they do not even have the ability to differentiate between “it’s working/it’s not working”, let alone why. This can occasionally manifest in a truly comical manner, with tiny, largely irrelevant details as triggers for picking from an overly specific Rolodex of techniques, which only seems work when practising with people from the same school/style *insert gasp of surprise and shock here*.

So one approach to overcoming resistance is to practice switching to variations of a technique, or to a different technique altogether. There are different apporaches to this, with different strengths and weaknesses. One common one is: “I do a technique, it doesn’t work, I do a different variation/different technique as a result, and so on and so on”.
About a decade ago, I went to a couple of seminars with one particular teacher. The style was a form of Jiu-Jitsu, I cannot remember which one. This teacher was skilled, but notorious for putting together long chains of techniques during his seminars very quickly, to the point his own students couldn’t follow, and glossing over technical details. The method was exactly what I described above, you do one technique, then if it doesn’t work you do another, and so on. But there was one problem I realised even then, and it’s been one of my personal pet peeves ever since: There was never a reason for the original techniques to fail. So what ended up happening is that we put a lot of reps into half-assing techniques so that we could get to the next part of the chain. The reason this is a problem – aside from repeatedly practising doing techniques wrong – is that it does not in any way address feeling when something is or isn’t working! Instead you are running through a choreographed sequence of half-assery, while your partner stands there like a dummy, occasionally throwing you a new feed. The only redeeming feature of this training to me is that it can be quite fun, otherwise I find it a counterproductive waste of time.

When we did variation training at my old dojo, we implemented two important changes to the training method. First, in order for the technique to fail, there has to be a reason. That means either 1) nage messed up or 2) uke does something to stop it. We usually focused on 2), meaning for the drill nage does a technique, and uke does something to counter it (usually something simple, not some elaborate, beautiful countermove). This gives uke something to actively practice, teaches them how to counter certain techniques effectively, and allows nage to develop the feeling for what resistance feels like. If the variation we switch to is an appropriate one, the whole thing also ends up feeling more intuitive.
Related to that last point, the second thing we did is that our training is principles first. Note that I mean fundamental, underlying mechanical principles like “leverage”, or “this is how a joint works”, not jargony martial arts sayings that take a while to make sense. Having an understanding of these principles together with the ability to feel when something goes wrong creates a baseline of adaptable skills that allow for more variable training and the practice of improvisation.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that rather than turning resistance or failure training into a slightly more complicated version of choreographed practice, we need to be introducing variable, reasonable elements of resistance and progressively building the skills to deal with it. Developing the ability to “feel” what is going wrong using variable drilling is a crucial part of this process. One beautiful thing about it is that – while obviously essential for self-defence – it also enhances more traditional practice, because it allows us to understand where the different parts of our art fit in far better than just going through memorised motions does.

Variable Drills and Learning to See – Part 2

This is part 2 of a series on variable drills and developing perceptional skill in training. In part 1 I talked about why variable drills are necessary for the development of those skills. This time I want to give some examples of what kind of things we can learn to “see” better.
I want to talk about two specific perceptional skills in this post:

  • Visually seeing range, distance and movement
  • Feeling position, movement and balance through touch

The first one, seeing range. This was one of the big themes at the sword seminar with Maija Soderholm. The reasons are simple: In the context of a sword duel, we need to know when we can reach a target, and when the opponent’s weapon can reach us. This is one of the most fundamental skills for that context, and a huge amount of the tactics of various weapon arts are absolutely based on understanding both our own and our opponents range very, very well. With sword styles, the nature of the weapon – sharp – means that being in range to be touched by the weapon is bad news. Probably my favourite drill of the seminar was a form of play both using and developing this skill. After learning basic cuts, blocks and footwork, we did light free play with a partner, the purpose being to not get hit, but also to learn when we need to block a strike and when it’s going to miss anyway so we don’t need to deal with it. Of course we got it wrong a fair bit (or I did anyway…), but that’s how you learn, and it really gets you better at this quite quickly – plus it’s a lot of fun.

For any art where “not being hit” is a big part of the tactics (like, I don’t know, Aikido…) realising what it takes for the opponent to be able to hit us is the first part of developing the skills to not have that happen. In order to do that we need to have a pretty decent understanding of range from the other side, which is one reason I tend to advocate including striking drills in our practice. It’s an area where many of us could use improvement. There are very popular “practical” aikido videos out there with shockingly bad ranging, and from the comments few people realise it.

With unarmed arts, touch is part of ranging, but there’s a bit more to it, power generation for example. Whether or not we can hit the target AND have an effect are both important there.
It’s not that complicated to begin to develop this skill. We can move around with a partner – in a pattern or freely, depending on the drill – and see at what relative distance we can touch the targets we want. One person begins to see what their range is, the other when they are in range. We need to do it with different body types, and repeat a fair bit in order to flesh out our understanding, but if we don’t get weird about it, it’s not complicated. When we’ve got a basic understanding of power generation (see point 3 further on), we can slow down and add that in. And, if we do padwork and are decent at it, include moving pad drills – carefully, don’t go full force, the injury potential does go up when the pads move.

Once we have developed some skill at seeing range and angle, it opens up options for our evasions and offlining. We’re no longer doing certain evasions because “that’s how the technique goes”, we’re doing them because we understand what puts us at risk of being hit and what does not. And, like with swordplay, we can start to use deception. If we’re clearly out of range, there is no reason to attempt a strike. But if we present an obvious target that appears to be open and reachable, then maybe we can draw something we want.
So that’s one thing to “see”. Another perceptional skill is developing our ability to feel what is going on by touch, so that when we have hands on the other person, we can know what is going on with their body. How they are positioned, where their weight is, how they are moving and so on. Touch is considerably faster than sight, and with a style like Aikido, we’re generally trying to get hands on as quickly as possible, and keep contact once we got it. For Aikido to have any chance of working, this skill is absolutely crucial, because the information it gets you is extremely helpful to “seeing” gifts that we can use in time to take advantage of them.

If you do any grappling or body manipulation art for long enough, you will get decent at this pretty much by default. Having said that, there are ways of speeding up the process, and especially if you are training for self-defence, you might not want to spend years doing something else just to develop this skill. In general, the more free play and the less strictly proscribed technique, the more this will develop. Having one partner move the other around, with the “rag-doll” being various levels of compliant is a great one, since one partner feels what they need to do to move a body, and the other learns how it feels when someone is applying force to move them. You eventually add stuff to it, using the force the mover is applying to throw them. Which will sometimes work, and sometimes not. Blindfolded drills, one-step or grappling are great for this. The simplest way to speed up the process is to draw attention to it. Start actively looking for this information in training, even when doing “classical” paired practice.

An example from last month: I was teaching a class at my old dojo. Was asked to do some self-defence basics, so we did that for a while, then I gave people a choice on which skill we would work on. They chose balance and balance breaking. So we went over some of the theory: base; centre of gravity; cone of balance. You break balance by moving the centre out of the cone. I demonstrated some of the ways of doing that and then we played with it. One of the cues was to practice feeling the point when the partner’s centre of gravity moves past the base. Didn’t take much for people to start picking up on it. And put it into practice in the training game we used (one-step, for those of you familiar with it).

It works pretty much the same for feeling movement, feeling where structure is strong and weak, where there are “empty” spaces we can use and so on. This becomes really important when dealing with resistance, which I wanted to write about as well, but this is getting long again, so there will be part 3. Next time I’ll talk about resistance. And rant about why I both love (when they’re done well) and detest (when they’re done badly) “failure” drills .

Variable Drills and Learning to See – Part 1

Having some thoughts on training sparked by last month. I had a busy October. Several seminars, as student and instructor. Briefly, what I’ve been up to: 5 days IDC/Infighting/Scenario Training with Rory Miller in Germany; teaching a 2 day self-defence course for university students in Scotland; 2 days Visayan Corto Kadena Escrima with Maija Soderholm in England; teaching one class at my old dojo in Cyprus. I’ll write more on the specifics later. Some common threads running through the classes, and some thoughts I want to put down.

When we talk self-defence, or even in traditional martial arts, we talk about awareness a lot. Awareness can mean different things to different people, but fundamentally it means having the ability to both perceive and understand what is going on, and – if it is to be useful – the ability to act on it. In one context, this means what is going on around us in our daily lives, to avoid unpleasant or dangerous situations. In another it means spotting opportunities. But it also applies to the physical training itself.
Mostly drawing on the stuff we did with Maija here. Everything we train to do in a confrontation works under certain circumstances (OK, that’s a lie. There’s plenty of stuff that will never ever work, when I say “everything” I mean everything decent). Timing, distance, momentum, position etc. have to be right. A tangent: Right not perfect. The more robust a technique, the more wriggle room. The more anti-fragile the concepts it’s based on, the better it adapts under chaos. But that’s a separate issue and a separate post for later.

So, everything works under certain circumstances. The principle of using gifts, incidentally the martial aspect of the “Aiki” concept, is based on this. Gifts can be many things, body position, distance, limb position, timing, momentum. What I can do in a fight, every technique, has certain criteria of these things that make it work. Gifts are mostly the other person doing as much of the work to get to that point as possible. Many techniques that look complicated out of context are only complicated because it takes a lot of work to get to the right position from neutral. Neutral is not what we’re interested in if we’re training for application. Stuff happens in fights, the other guy is going to be doing bad things to us, and these in turn create the circumstances that make certain things easier to do.

The first step to being able to do the right thing under the right circumstances is being able to recognise the right circumstances when they occur. It should be really obvious, but in order to develop that particular skill, it needs to be practised. In order to practice finding the right circumstances, there has to be some level of variability in the drill. There has to be a degree of change in the circumstances, so that we can learn to recognise the right ones when they occur, and the wrong ones when we try and fail.
In a lot of, let’s call it “classical” practice, the circumstances are handed to you. Your partner or uke does the exact thing that you need for the technique to work, in the exact same way, every time. While you can get really good at some aspects of technique this way – although it’s not ideal for learning, more on that in a bit – you absolutely do not learn how to see opportunities. Oh, sure, there is some minor aspect of timing, but as anyone used to more variable practice will tell you, it’s not remotely the same thing as a fight or even sparring. And this can create more problems, because there are plenty of people – often with decently high rank – who have exquisite timing in the very particular circumstances of a particular pre-set attack, and are convinced that this means they have exquisite timing in all circumstances. That is very rarely how it works, specific closes-system skills in timing do no not carry over particularly well to open systems and chaotic circumstances, largely because the related skills of recognising opportunities and decision making are underdeveloped.

This is one of the reasons I think having drills and training games as part of our practice is really helpful. If we introduce drills where the circumstances are changing dynamically, success starts to require good decision making. Good decision making starts to require recognising opportunities. This starts to develop the ability to “see”. I’ll illustrate with an example. We can practice throws by going through a number of different techniques in response to specific attacks. This is classical practice, and has it’s place. We can also use dynamic drills to practice “seeing” the time and place for throws. “French Randori”, Judo style sparring, responding to feeds from moving pendulum footwork, throwing from random committed attacks and so forth. There’s a huge variety. I’m not a big fan of using only one single drill, because all of them have safety flaws and tend to be good for slightly different things, and I’ve sometimes seen people throw a single drill like this in training on rare occasions to “tick the box”, which really isn’t the point. In my opinion open practice like this should be done every class.

There are good reasons for it from a motor learning point of view as well. There is considerable evidence to suggest doing practice like this that includes variable inputs and decision making speeds up learning considerably compared to simple repetition. It increases practical skill acquisition as well, because the goal shifts from doing something right to doing it well. Because things get a bit messier in these drills a lot of the time, it becomes less about the aesthetics, and more about the essential mechanics, about whether something worked or not. On that, one of the limiting factors to introducing variable practice is that it increases the rate of failure considerably, even for experienced people. The worst hit tend to be people with a lot of skill in the classical methods but little experience with variable practice. This increased failure rate is not actually a problem, unless we’ve internalised that we should never fail – there’s no cost to failure in training. In fact it increases the rate of learning quite a bit. According to some research in fact, being successful in practice all the time results in a learning rate close to zero. So the problem is entirely one of ego and training culture. That’s a whole different can of worms, not going to get into it now, just be aware of it.

There are other points I want to make and some I want to expand on a bit more, but I think that’s enough for one post. As you can tell I’m a big fan of variable practice and dynamic drills, and I think they should have a central place in our training. They help accelerate learning, make training more fun and are absolutely crucial for developing perception and decision making skills for physical conflict.