Sunday, December 30, 2007

UFC 79: An Exhibition of What I Respect and Despise About the Sport

Last night I watched my first UFC event. What intrigued me most about it is the fact that it really was a tale of two cities so to speak. The best and worst that the sport has to offer.

The grudge match between Rich Clementi and Melvin Guillard thoroughly disgusted me. Not the fight itself, but the attitudes of the fighters. Guillard led the stupidity by walking to the ring wearing a mask in imitation of the Predator. Yes, the one from the movie. He even had the music from the movie playing. What was he thinking?!? Then when Clementi won the fight he told his opponent to "suck on it" complete with gestures. They had to hold Guillard back from attacking him. It's antics like that that denigrate MMA as a sport to the general public.

Fortunately, the event was redeemed by most of the other fighters, particularly the ones from the title fight, George St. Pierre and Matt Hughes. The title fight itself was a pretty amazing display of skill. I was amazed at the range of skills that GSP can use effectively in the ring. The neck throw from his offside was just awesome, not to mention the arm bar he used to submit Hughes.

All that being said, what impressed me most was their sportsmanship. They both hugged after the fight, clearly respectful of each others' abilities. GSP even whispered something to Hughes on camera. Something that made him laugh in appreciation. I would absolutely love to have been a fly on the mat to hear that remark.

Anyway, overall I enjoyed the show. Though I still think Dana White needs to get with the times and add at least one woman fight to the card.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

New Year's Motivation for 2008

2008 is right around the corner so it's time to start stepping things up and looking ahead to the development of my MMA career. Any time I feel like I want motivation, I like to watch Satoko Shinashi's fight highlight video here. Now here is a woman (a tiny woman at that at 4'11", 105 lbs.) who has an amazing combination of skill, experience and conditioning. Her main disciplines are Judo and Sambo. I have the utmost respect for her abilities.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Holiday Training (or Lack Thereof) Blues

Christmas is like a training black void. For the past several weeks, class attendance has be lower due to all the merry-making associated with the season. And this next week will be even worse with my MMA coach gone for a whole week.

I'm trying to make up for the lack of training sessions with my coach by training with various partners I have, but ultimately it won't be as intense. That coupled with all the extra eating and drinking that seem unavoidable at this time of the year, I worry that I'll be set back come January.

For other people in the same predicament, all I can suggest is to take it easy on the food and booze. Indulge but don't over indulge, especially if you have a big event or tournament coming up. And if you can fit in a work-out here and there, even if it's not as much as you usually do, you'll thank yourself come January.

Happy holidays to one and all!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

West Coast Jiu-Jitsu Board Breaking Party 2007

A few weeks ago, you may have read my post, The Truth About Board Breaking, in which I had said that in actuality, it is quite easy to break a single board, with the proper mix of technique and confidence.

Last night, we had our annual Xmas board breaking party at which each student chose a single strike and a number of 1" boards that they would break with that strike. I also write each student's Xmas card on their board as a little festive touch. You have to understand that board breaking is not really something we do in Jiu-jitsu, we just do it for fun once a year at this party.

I am happy to report that every student who came broke their boards, as you can see in the video above, though not necessarily with the strike they had originally chosen. Breaking a single board is largely psychological. If you doubt for even a second that you can break the board, it causes a slight hesitation at the moment of impact that can prevent the break. In a couple of cases, we had to switch the strike to a different one with which the student had more confidence, but the students can ultimately learn to take the confidence from the switch and put it into other strikes in the future.

I would like to say at this point that I had intended to break 3 1-inch boards with a side kick, having broken 2 with a hammer fist the year before. I attempted a few set-ups, but noticed that since I hadn't been training my side kick as much recently, I didn't quite have the confidence to attempt a 3-board break. With 3 boards if there is any mistake or hesitation whatsoever, you haven't got a chance. Plus, I had never attempted to break 3 boards at once.

Instead, I switched to an elbow strike, which in theory, would have less power because it uses an arm instead of a leg. That being said, I had been training my elbow strike a lot more recently due to my MMA training, so the confidence was there, as you can see in the video. So, though it wasn't the strike with which I had intended to break the boards, I was still able to do the 3-board break that I set out to do.

Them's the breaks...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My Most Recent Grocery List of MMA Conditioning Exercises

At the end of my past blog post, Stepping It Up: Conditioning for MMA, I wondered whether my coach was serious about the conditioning sessions being typically much harder than the one I had just endured. The truth came out last night.

Here is the grocery list of my conditioning session last night: 5 3-min. rounds of skipping, 300 squats, 150 leg lunges (75 per leg), 200 donkey kicks (100 per leg), 200 calf raises, 3 min. of jumping/ stepping up and down off the side of the ring, 3 sets of 50 push ups in three different hand positions, 3 min. of holding my arms out to the side while gripping a 2-lb. weight in each hand, 100 tricep dips, 50 dive bombers (similar to a tiger push-up), 50 tricep lifts with a 9-lb medicine ball, 50 shoulder presses with a 9-lb medicine ball, 100 arm circles with a 3-lb medicine ball (50 in each direction), 100 sit-ups with a 5-lb medicine ball, 100 twisting sit-ups, 100 leg lifts.

Even though last night’s training session was more intense than the conditioning session that I described in my previous post, mentally, it was much easier. I suspect it was easier physically as well, but it’s hard to judge. And it’s only been a couple of weeks since that session too. Conditioning has always been my least favourite part of martial arts training, but it really is amazing how quick you can make progress with conditioning, much as I hate the process.

That being said, when I cheerfully announced that the conditioning seemed to be getting easier, my trainer told me to expect it to get worse… much, much worse.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Cat Fighting Legitimized: The Sex Appeal of Women's MMA

When I decided to get involved in MMA, I knew that a large part of the public appeal is sexual. This is a chance for men to see honest-to-goodness, legitimate cat fights.

Like their male counterparts, MMA women wear very little when they fight, usually just a pair of shorts with a sports bra or a slinky rash guard on top. Either way, very little is left to the imagination. As a result, the men who watch women's MMA more often than not enjoy the sexually suggestive aspect of two scantily clad women throwing down as much as they like the technical excellence (if not more).

I expected as much when I first decided to get involved in this sport. What I didn't expect was how in my face it would be. After I posted my first submission fight on YouTube, I noticed that someone had subscribed to find out when I added new videos. I decided to click on this fellow's profile to see what kind of videos he himself had posted. I immediately found nearly a dozen videos of women doing "submission fighting" in bikinis. I call it submission fighting, but in most the videos the women clearly had been prompted to use more sexually suggestive positions.

I sighed and shook my head.

I know I can't change the fact that men are going to have their sexual fantasies related to MMA fighting but I do wish that women wouldn't be so willing to take the fantasy to this level. It encourages men to see women's MMA purely as a sexual show and ignore the fact that these women train their asses off every bit as much as the men to be best they can be.

The people in the crowd watching MMA matches should be doing so in anticipation of a knock-out or a great submission, not sitting there hoping that in wrestling and pawing at each other the women might somehow kiss, as Seinfeld once said.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Mud and the Blood and the Beer

I posted this vid more for fun, but I do want to make a brief point related to it. Training against choreographed attacks as is customary in traditional martial arts, or training specifically for competitions is all well and good and both have many benefits, but you also have to understand that it can be very different in a real situation, in the mud and the blood and the beer, as my Sensei always said.

Sometimes a lack of training can be made up for with pure rage, which can be overwhelming when you don't expect it. There can also lots of other unexpected elements too, like items in your physical surroundings (chairs, bottles, cars, etc.) or maybe your attacker has friends. You have to keep yourself from tunnel-visioning your focus on your one attacker so you can stay aware of everything else around you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Pigtails + Scooter = Strong Woman?

Recently, I had my heart warmed by a comment. One of the guys I train with at my Brazilian Jiu-jitsu school said his daughter said she wanted to have her hair tied back the same way that I do. Incidentally, she said she also wanted to ride a scooter like me when she grows up.

The father had brought his 4-year-old daughter in to watch class because he couldn’t get a sitter that night. After having watched me roll with the guys the whole class, she wanted to be strong like me and therefore wanted to copy every other aspect of me.

I am not a radical feminist, but like most people, I believe in equal opportunities for women. And while I think opportunities for women have increased over the last few decades, the reason why we don’t see more women involved in non-traditional jobs and sports is due to lack of role models. Kids are very influenced by what they see when they are young so if they don’t see any women training in a martial art, they’ll think it’s “just for boys.” Incidentally, BJJ schools are bad for this since so few women train in it generally. I'm the only one at the school at which I train.

Now I don’t do martial arts training for the purpose of influencing young women of the world. I just like martial arts. But if it opens the eyes of 4-year-old girls to the possibility that they too can do what I do, I can’t help but be pleased. The 4-year-old girl’s father was also thankful for the influence, as he wants his little girl will grow up to be a strong, independent woman.

That being said, I can’t help but chuckle to think that that one little girl now associates pigtails with her image of strong women.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

My First No-Gi Submission Competition

Everyone wants to know how my first no-gi submission competition went. The video here shows the match. There were only two competitors in my division, myself and Tasia Yim from Team Franco.
So now you're asking, "Ok, c'mon! What were the results?" The results were as follows.

It was an excellent match. We were a good challenge for each other skill-wise and we were about the same height and weight. There were a number of good exchanges in both rounds. An instructor from another school even came and congratulated me, saying that Tasia and I are both very skilled and that we put on a more interesting fight than many of the men's matches.

I personally learned a lot from the experience. For one thing, I learned that even though your opponent is not allowed to grab the pants in a match, I'm better off wearing board shorts. This is because bare skin is more slippery and provides less traction when making guard passes. Also, incidental grabbing can still happen, regardless of the rules. It's not that it's necessarily intentional, it's just so natural to do it under the heightened tension of a match.

Yes, I know. You want to know who won.

We both did truly. After the match, we hugged, mutually agreeing that it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. We even exchanged contact info so that we can meet up to train together in the future. I have every respect for Tasia's abilities and I think we stand to learn a lot from each other.

Yes, yes. I know. You want to know who won the match.

The truth is, Tasia was awarded the win for both rounds. The ref told me that if we had been going by the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu point system, I would have been awarded the win. In BJJ, you get points for successful throws, guard passes, and dominant positions. In Submission Series competition, points are only awarded for submission attempts. Of course, in either point system, if one of us had successfully tapped out the other, that action alone determines the win.

As a result, I learned that the only way you can conclusively assure a victory in any competition of this sort, whether it's MMA, Pankration, submission competition or Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, is to get your opponent to tap out. That or knock them out if the rules allow it. If it goes to points or judgment of any kind, it's out of your hands and there may be room for debate.

I was told by a number of spectators that they had thought that I had achieved equal to if not more submission attempts in both rounds. Even Tasia herself told me that she thought I had won both rounds. But none of this really matters, of course, because only the ref's judgment counts when it comes to determining victory.

You often hear people bitching about politics, bad match-ups, weight cutting, unfair rules, anything and everything that can theoretically cause an imbalance. With a match like mine and Tasia's, gold, silver, it's all the same to me. I entered this tournament as part of my learning process about the relevance of submission competition in real self-defense. It was also yet another way of preparing myself for MMA ring fighting in the future. But first and foremost, I wanted to have fun.

I got all that and more. I couldn't be happier.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Recovery Time and Its Importance in Conditioning

Last week, I started doing some killer conditioning work-outs with my MMA coach. At the time they seemed brutal and inhuman, but I realized that if I stuck it out, it would get easier. I was amazed that by the next week, I could already feel a noticeable difference in my muscles’ ability to endure an even heavier work-out. But this didn’t come without proper recovery time.

After the Thursday work-out, I was sore for the next 2 days. I would have normally gone to do Brazilian Jiu-jitsu training on the Saturday, but decided to let my body rest another day, until my legs were no longer sore. It helped that there was a major snow storm that forced me to park my scooter until all the snow melted. There was still a little soreness left on Sunday, but I trained anyway. I did, however, focus more on skills training. By Monday, I was fully recovered and I was already experiencing the muscular endurance benefits of that recovery.

So many dedicated athletes train so hard that they end up doing more damage than good. If you don’t allow your muscles to fully recover, it actually causes them to weaken over time. And if you train with your muscles in a weakened state it leaves you more prone to injury. A recovery period is absolutely necessary in order for the muscles to rebuild themselves to provide the strength and/or endurance benefits that are sought. The average recovery time is 36 hours but it can be as much as 48 if you do a particularly hard work-out.

So remember: Pain is no gain unless you take time to refrain.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Stepping It Up: Conditioning for MMA

There is no God. There is only my MMA coach. And he’s definitely NOT benevolent. Last night I headed out to the dojo to train with Mark, my MMA coach. I thought maybe that since I was still sore from Wednesday's training that perhaps he might go easy on me. I was wrong.

You know, I used to think that I was in pretty good shape. Last night, as I trained across from Gina Skopelitis (the girl in the photo), Mark’s Diamond Glove winning boxer, and I was disabused of any such notion. The truth is I am in very good shape compared to the average martial artist. But that level of fitness is not even in the same league as pro-level fitness.

We went through a series of conditioning exercises, including: 100 squats, 60 leg lunges, 2 minutes of jumping up and down from the ring, 2 minutes of sit-ups (while lifting a 4kg medicine ball up over the head then passing it back to my partner), 2 minutes of sprawl push-ups (while passing the medicine ball back and forth with my partner in between), 2 minutes of doing boxing punches with resistance bands. And after that, we started our skills training. Before this week, we had only really focused on skills training. I guess Mark was trying to learn my style before diving headlong into a heavy physical program.

Gina, systematically went through each and every exercise, putting everything she had into it while I struggled to keep up. Every time she sensed my energy flagging, she would yell, “C’mon! Let’s go!” and I would respond by eking out what was left of my reserves. Endless respect to her. I provided self-comfort by reminding myself that she’s already been training with Mark for over a year. My muscles silently screamed back in response, “You think we give a crap?!?” Even today, as I sit at my desk, every time I shift or move, a different muscle group gives me the finger. Boy, am I glad that today is my rest day!

As we finished the series, Mark approached us. “Good job. That was one round. We usually do three, right Gina?” Gina nodded stoically. I looked at them both incredulously. I couldn’t decide if they were serious or this was Mark’s way of testing to see how serious I was about my training.

The way I look at it, I’m in this far. May as well see how deep it really gets.

(Photo of Gina taken from a Richmond Review article about her recent victory.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Jiu-jitsu in High Heels and a Skirt

Ok. This video really impresses me. Not only was this woman (Miss May Whitley) a pioneer in that she was learning a martial art in the 30s, she also performs this self-defense technique demonstration wearing high heels and a skirt.

I, who only wears the high-heeled shoes/ skirt combo maybe twice a year, am particularly impressed that this woman can do these manoeuvres with those handicaps. She must have excellent balance and technique to pull it off. Not that I’m about to make it our new official training uniform or anything. :P

Monday, November 26, 2007

Playing Without a Queen: Bridging the Size Advantage Gap

There's no doubt about it. I'm small. I stand 5'4" tall and weigh about 130 lbs. With the martial arts being a male-dominated realm, I've had to deal with numerous difficulties related to my lack of height, weight, strength, and reach. While there have been times when this has frustrated me, in the long run, these disadvantages have benefited me in ways that were not readily apparent at the time.

Performing martial arts techniques and manoeuvres as a smaller individual is like playing chess without a queen. Your opponent has the upper hand and you have to use the pieces that you do have to the best advantage. Many beginner players mentally give up once they lose their queen, seeing it as futile to continue. But players who get used to playing without a queen, improve their overall strategy in the long run, learning to use their pawns and other pieces to keep their opponent on their toes. And the pawns, often seen as nothing but fodder, can even become queens through superior strategy. The same is true for the martial arts. At first, you may be frustrated by the uphill battle of trying to make techniques work on larger people. But after time, you'll adapt and improve, using good technique, speed, reflexes, accuracy, etc. to bridge the size advantage gap.

That being said, there is less room for error when you play without a queen. The more pieces you lose, the less flexibility you have to check mate your opponent. In applying this analogy to a martial arts context, imagine yourself being attacked on the street. People who attack others usually do so when they perceive that they have the upper hand. The attacker may be a larger man attacking a small woman. He or she may be wielding a weapon of some sorts. Or they may be attacking with a group of people. With the odds stacked against you, you can't afford to make mistakes. Every blow you take may be the one that takes you out, so you have to try and make it so that every technique you do cuts your attacker down a notch. Every successful blow you get in evens the playing ground and makes your attacker(s) re-evaluate whether or not you're worth it the risk.

Being small means that I continually find new challenges as I add to my knowledge of the martial arts. Even now, with a 3rd degree black belt in Jiu-jitsu and over 14 years of training, as well as having studied a variety of other martial arts, I still come across new techniques or new training partners that require that I modify or compensate in some way for my lack of size. The difference is that I now know that by overcoming these additional challenges I have more opportunity to improve my technique than my larger, stronger colleagues.

Check and mate.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Truth about Board Breaking

John, one of my old training buddies who has a 2nd degree black belt in Taekwondo, used to tell me that the trick of breaking a 1" pine board with a strike is one of biggest secrets of the martial arts. The secret is that it’s actually very easy to do. Perhaps not for the fellow in this video, but most people can learn to do it easily, even without any martial arts training.

Every year at my dojo I hold a “Christmas Board Breaking Party.” I supply the boards and my students each make a small donation to a charity of their choice in exchange for the opportunity to break a board or multiple boards. We get the whole thing on video for fun too. We don’t train board breaks as a part of our art, but I did learn to do it when I trained in Taekwondo.

Sometimes my students are hesitant about doing it, thinking that it looks hard and that they might not be able to do it. To this I always reply, “I saw a 7-year-old physically handicapped boy break a 1” pine board with a hammer fist strike. If he can do it, you can too.”

When breaking a single, 1” board, there are only two technical considerations to keep in mind. The breaker must aim his strike through the centre of the board without any hesitation. The holder, on the other hand, must hold that board very firmly with no give to allow the strike to properly penetrate the board. I usually encourage my students to take a few breaths first and do a kiai when performing the strike. This helps with mental focus and power. But honestly, most people can break a single board even without this practice.

Where board breaking becomes more challenging is when there are multiple boards or when you have to break the board(s) with tricky kicks like they do in Taekwondo. I’ve seen some masters do it and this can be a pretty impressive display of technical mastery.

That being said, being able to break boards does not necessarily mean you're a master. As Bruce Lee's once said: "Boards don't fight back." I once would have agreed with Bruce, but after watching this video, it seems possible that boards can put up a pretty good fight.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sparring Within Your Comfort Level

Sparring is a great tool that allows students to learn to apply martial arts principles like distance, timing, attack, and defense. It is used in dojos as one of the methods of practicing live training against a non-compliant partner. The problem with sparring, however, is that without the proper amount of control, it can lead to injuries.

To improve skill development and prevent injuries, I’ve developed a graduated approach that eases students into unpredictability and spontaneity of sparring.

Beginner: Punching only. Intensity level 1 only.
Intermediate I: Punching and kicking. Intensity level 1 or 2.
Intermediate II: Punching, kicking, and throws/takedowns. Intensity level 1 or 2.
Advanced: Punching, kicking, throws/takedowns, and ground grappling. Intensity level 1, 2 or 3.

The 3 intensity levels are as follows:

Level 1: Low speed. The body is kept very relaxed, especially the arms when performing a punch. Strikes should have no follow-through. Minimal contact is allowed, but if a blow lands on an unprotected target, it is light enough that it causes no discomfort. The focus is on learning control, improving specific manoeuvres, and increasing overall confidence levels.

Level 2: Moderate speed. The body is kept relaxed, but a little follow-through on strikes is acceptable. Light contact is allowed; if a blow lands on an unprotected target, there may be some minor discomfort, but no lasting injury. The focus is improving reaction speed and integrating sparring strategy.

Level 3:
Fast speed, while maintaining the same level of body relaxation, strike follow-through, and contact level as level 2. The focus is the same as level 2, but there is an added emphasis on control due to the higher speed.

In our classes, everyone wears protective equipment including, mouth guards, 16-oz boxing gloves, and shin guards. When two people spar, if they are at the same level, they agree to an intensity level that at which they'll work. If one person wants a lower level of intensity, the other person will default to that level. If a person who is more advanced is sparring with a person at a lower level, they must default to both the sparring technique level and intensity level at which the less advanced student wants to work.

In my opinion, sparring should only be introduced after a minimum of several months of regular training. A complete beginner should not engage in sparring as they are still learning basic skills and developing the necessary control. Introducing sparring at too early a level can create anxiety in the student, hamper their improvement of their technique (they're too afraid of getting hit to work on technique!), damage their confidence, and can even cause injury. Instructors should also exercise caution and keep track of their students when sparring, paying special attention to beginners.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Mission for Submissions

I’ve been reading a number of books with photos and descriptions of various submissions, but I feel like there’s always something missing. Books are no substitute for a good teacher, but they can be useful guides for remembering things you’ve already learned. I, unfortunately, wanted to learn new techniques I hadn’t learned before. I turned to, a free Jiu-jitsu video tutorial website, for guidance. is run by a colleague of mine, Ari Bolden Sensei from the Jiu-jitsu BC Society. He runs a Jiu-jitsu school in Victoria, BC (Canada). Ari Sensei is very skilled and has a diverse training background, having studied both traditional forms of Jiu-jitsu as well as Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, with ties to Eddie Bravo.

I wanted to learn to use the rubber guard more effectively, since I’m pretty flexible. Unfortunately, the instructor I’ve been training under is not a specialist in this particular guard. He’s a bigger guy who’s getting on in age and therefore does not have the necessary flexibility to make the most of this versatile position.

I remembered Ari telling me about his site months ago when it was just starting out. Now there are over 150 video tutorials of all kinds of submissions, including a few featuring Eddie Bravo. I excitedly poured over all the material on the site, looking forward to working on the techniques at Jiu-jitsu that night. When I did get to the mat, I found myself trying to remember the techniques, but failing. The only one I could remember how to do was the last one I looked at before going to class. I really should have known better, but I got carried away looking at all the cool new stuff.

So here’s my tip. If you’re going to use videos to help develop your skills, pick a few specific techniques you want to learn (no more than 3 at a time), then work toward developing these first before moving on to the next ones. If you try to learn too many all at once, you confuse yourself and dilute your learning of each technique.

Also, I generally advise beginner students against the use of videos and books without the guidance of a teacher or advanced student. Beginners need to learn important fundamentals first, which are not really covered in tutorials for specific techniques.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

MMA Ground Game vs. Street Ground Defense

Since starting my preparation for MMA competition, I’ve gone back into Brazilian Jiu-jitsu training. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is widely hailed as the most comprehensive system for training the MMA ground game. While it does teach important body maneuvering and positional strategy that can enhance your ability to defend yourself on the ground in a real street situation, the competition emphasis of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu lacks a number of important components for realistic street defense on the ground.

The two most important things to keep in mind in ground defense on the street are that there are no gender/weight classes and no rules. When there are no weight classes, it means that a 90 lb. woman could be faced with a 240 lb. man. And it is generally accepted that given a ground fight between two people with equal technique, the larger person will win.

The fact that there are no rules can help tip the scales for the smaller person. Here are 6 targets and tactics that are not allowed in MMA tournaments, but can greatly aid in ground defense on the street:

1) The groin. This is bar none the most important target in reality ground defense that is not considered in MMA tactics. Since it is an illegal target, you’ll see a number of holding positions applied that leave the groin completely wide open as a target. In reality, it is a vital target because it takes so little force to affect it. Even a minor flick with an open hand can cause a man to jump, so you can imagine what kind of effects you’d get if you manage to grab hold of the area and give a solid squeeze.

2) The eyes. While it is completely understandable that attacking the eyes would be illegal in MMA, they are a very effective target that can’t be ignored on the street. You can flick your finger tips across them, causing them to water and blur the vision. You can also bore into them with a thumb to pry a person off you and create space for follow-up strikes. And, of course, both these tactics can be very painful.

3) Pressure points. Many pressure points are illegal in MMA tournaments, despite the fact that they are safe to use on an opponent with little to no risk of permanent injury. Some of these include: mandibular angle (along the jaw line, approximately 1” below the ear, jugular notch, the intercostal nerves of the lateral thoracic (between the ribs). With the aid of a knuckle, a few fingers or a thumb, these can be used to cause intense pain, thereby providing leverage points that can help you pry a person off of you and give you the necessary space to do even more devastating strikes.

4) Pinching. It is not considered the most “manly” of defensive tactics, but it certainly has a place in reality ground defense. While pinching can hurt pretty much any place you can grab hold of skin, two of the most sensitive areas you can target are the upper inner thigh and the upper inner arms. A sharp, pinch and twist can cause many an attacker to immediately lift their hips and recoil in pain. Plus, there’s the added benefit of causing a nasty bruise that can help identify an attacker to police.

5) The Hair. Despite the fact that it is an illegal target in MMA, most competitors either shave their heads or tie their hair back in a way that keeps it from getting pulled or trapped in the natural progression of the ground game. Pulling the hair is painful and is great for taking control of the attacker’s head. One of my favourite Jiu-jitsu sayings confirms this: Where the head goes, the body follows.

6) The Fingers. The fingers, toes and wrists are illegal targets in MMA because of the volume of injuries that would occur if they were allowed. Because they are smaller joints, they are much easier to injure, dislocate, and break. This is exactly the reason why they make such great targets in real self-defense. The most important of these targets is the fingers as the toes are covered by shoes, and it takes a lot more skill to effectively attack the wrist. In a ground attack, the aggressor is likely to try and grip some part of you to hold you down. In going for the grip, there is an opportunity to grab onto the fingers and in one sharp, effortless motion, dislocate and or break them.

On the street, ultimately you want to stay OFF the ground. This is because there are a number of risk factors on the street that make fighting from the ground particularly dangerous. Please refer to my article Why Grappling is More Effective in the Ring than in Reality for more details.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Finding the Eye of the Storm

In my last post, I discussed the importance of teaching women to harness their anger in self-defense classes. The other night, I had the privilege of seeing a woman reaching a level of development in her training in which she accomplished the complete opposite. She found what I call the 'eye of the storm.'

I went to an amateur boxing match on Saturday night to watch a girl named Gina fight. She's an amateur boxer who trains with my MMA trainer and has aspirations of going pro. In all her previous fights, she had used anger to summon up the fight in her, which she would unleash on her opponents. This had worked very well for her in the past. But Saturday's fight was different. Leading up to the fight, she commented to me that she was worried because she felt calm... too calm.

Gina was worried that she wasn't going to be able to summon up the anger she needed to fight in the ring. Mark, our coach, insisted that it was good thing, that her confidence had overridden her need for anger. But fighters are a superstitious lot. When a routine is working for them, any change in it, whether or not it's for the better, tends to make them nervous.

Mark proved correct in his assessment of Gina's state of mind. When she went into the ring, she fought in the eye of the storm. While punches flew at her and from her, she stayed calm and relied more on technique to best her opponent. And best her she did. Gina did so well, that they stopped the fight after the second round because she was 20 points ahead and there was no chance the other girl could bridge the gap in the 3rd round.

As I said in my last post, anger is a great way of teaching untrained individuals to summon up the courage and energy to defend themselves against an attack. But as students progress in their training, they should learn to rely more on their skill and technique to get the job done. Anger, when unleashed, consumes more energy and usually trashes your technical performance. Plus, it can prevent you from being more strategic in your attack and/ or defense. Applying anger to your martial arts is like lighting a powder keg. It will go off and has the potential to do a lot of damage, but not necessarily when and where you need it.

When you have learned to perform in the eye of the storm, it is a sign that your training has settled into your mind and your body and you'll be able to achieve greater things than you have ever done prior to reaching that level.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The One Thing Every Women's Self-Defense Class Should Cover

The title of this posting is a bit of a misnomer. There are many things that every women's self-defense class should cover, personal awareness, safety practices, body language skills, practical defensive maneuvres, and more. But as far as the physical defense portion of the class goes, the one thing they should all teach is how to mentally psyche yourself up to defend against an unprovoked attack.

Many women have trouble summoning up mental and physical energy required to put self-defense maneuvres into action. You can teach the most practical defensive techniques, but if they aren't able to mentally psyche themselves up to overcome their fear, their application of those techniques will likely be ineffective at deterring their attacker.

I teach women to release adrenaline by harnessing their anger when faced with an attack. The best way to do this with most women is to tell them to imagine that the aggressor is trying to attack a vulnerable loved one, their child or younger sister for example, and that they are the only thing there to protect them. The instinct to protect someone else is stronger than the instinct of self-preservation, so this works much better at getting women to build up their anger and therefore their adrenaline. This gives them the energy necessary to repel an attack quickly and fiercely, which is the best way to get the attacker to back off. The attacker is looking for a victim, for easy prey, not someone that will pose him any difficulty or get him caught.

For more articles about women's self-defense, visit the articles page of my website. Also, if you happen to live in the Vancouver area and are looking for a women's self-defense course, I'm teaching my Self-Defense for Busy Women course on Sun. Nov. 25.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Know Your Limits, Train Within Them

Being enthusiastic about your martial arts training can be a good thing… as long as it doesn't push you farther than you're ready for. When you push your limits, you run the risk of physical and mental burn-out, and in worse cases, injury (your own or training partners'). I, myself, was guilty of this in the last few days.

I was got really enthusiastic about training up for MMA events in the future. I was really keen to make as much progress as possible within the shortest amount of time. So I went ahead and devised an aggressive training schedule that included new aerobic and anaerobic conditioning and extra training in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, MMA-specific skills, sparring, grappling, etc. Before my new training regimen, I was teaching Jiu-jitsu classes 2-3 days a week (1½ hour classes with 30 min. open training beforehand) with 20 min. of yoga every morning. And to that weekly schedule, I added 2 Brazilian Jiu-jitsu classes (one hour each) and 2 MMA-specific training sessions (1 hour each), as well as 2 skipping and 2 running workouts.

Ok, I admit it. I overdid it a tad.

As a martial artist, I'm very aware of the state of my body and I've learned to listen to it. On Sunday, I noticed that both my elbow and my ankle were feeling a little "tweaky." That is to say, I felt light, but sharp pain in my cartilage and tendons when they went through certain ranges of motion or experienced minor levels of stress. This was my body nudging me in the ribs and saying, "You might want to take it a little slower."

Dr. Jenny, one of my Jiu-jitsu students who is a doctor to whom we all refer to for impromptu advice, confirmed this. I told her what I was doing for training. She widened her eyes and told me quite plainly, "That was overly ambitious." What I should have done was slowly introduce new elements to my regular training schedule, allowing my body to adapt before increasing the frequency and intensity.

Even if you're not training for a major physical event, you should apply this in your regular martial arts training. If you're learning a skill that is completely unfamiliar to you, start off slowly. Train the movements of the technique before attempting the maneuver on a partner. Then when you do it on a partner, move slowly so you have time to correct and adjust your movements. As your technique improves, add more speed and intensity. This will help prevent injuries that can cripple your progress and the enthusiasm that caused them.

We all have limits, but these can be extended by pushing them strategically.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Banzo's Sword and the Road to Mastery

I received a number of interesting comments regarding my recent blog post "The Appeal of McDojos." One particular issue caught my interest though, and that was the mentality toward progression in one's training.

Traditional eastern martial arts are heavily influenced by Zen philosophy. Many Zen koans provide wonderful guidance for aspiring students. I would like to reference one particular koan, "The Taste of Banzo's Sword" taken from Zen Flesh Zen Bones.

Matajuro Yagyu was the son of a famous swordsman. His father, believing that his son's work was too mediocre to anticipate mastership, disowned him.

So Matajuro went to Mount Futara and there found the famous swordsman Banzo. But Banzo confirmed the father's judgment. "You wish to learn swordsmanship under my guidance?" asked Banzo. "You cannot fulfill the requirements."

"But if I work hard, how many years will it take me to become a master?" persisted the youth.

"The rest of your life," replied Banzo.

"I cannot wait that long," explained Matajuro. "I am willing to pass through any hardship if only you will teach me. If I become your devoted servant, how long might it be?"

"Oh, maybe ten years," Banzo relented.

"My father is getting old, and soon I must take care of him," continued Matajuro. "If I work far more intensively, how long would it take me?"

"Oh, maybe thirty years," said Banzo.

"Why is that?" asked Matajuro. "First you say ten and now thirty years. I will undergo any hardship to master this art in the shortest time!"

"Well," said Banzo, "in that case you will have to remain with me for seventy years. A man in such a hurry as you are to get results seldom learns quickly."

"Very well," declared the youth, understanding at last that he was being rebuked for impatience, "I agree."

Matajuro was told never to speak of fencing and never to touch a sword. He cooked for his master, washed the dishes, made his bed, cleaned the yard, cared for the garden, all without a word of swordsmanship.

Three years passed. Still Matajuro labored on. Thinking of his future, he was sad. He had not even begun to learn the art to which he had devoted his life.

But one day Banzo crept up behind him and gave him a terrific blow with a wooden sword.

The following day, when Matajuro was cooking rice, Banzo again sprang upon him unexpectedly.

After that, day and night, Matajuro had to defend himself from unexpected thrusts. Not a moment passed in any day that he did not have to think of the taste of Banzo's sword.

He learned so rapidly he brought smiles to the face of his master. Matajuro became the greatest swordsman in the land.

[Excerpted from Zen Flesh Zen Bones]

Every person who undertakes a martial art has different obstacles to overcome - some physical, some mental - the mental ones being far more important than the physical. If a student wants to progress toward true mastery, whether in the martial arts or any other skill, he or she must learn to develop patience, acceptance of their capabilities and limitations, the abilty to remove one's ego from their training, the list goes on. This is why traditional martial arts tend to have longer intervals between gradings. They realize that the instant-oatmeal approach to training sacrifices these and other valuable lessons that long-term dedication to learning provides.

There is one book that I like to recommend to students who want to understand what it takes to make the most of their martial arts training. The book is called Mastery. It is written by a seasoned Aikido instructor, but the mix of psychology and Zen philosophy is brilliantly transcribed to be applicable to any discipline, martial arts or otherwise.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Blow-Throw-Blow... Pro?

Anyone who has trained with me or reads my blog regularly know that I’ve always begrudged what MMA and UFC have done to the world of martial arts. Because of their popularity, they have brought on a macho attitude toward training that is deemphasizing more traditional martial art styles. That being said, I have been getting extra training on the side from an ex-pro fighter in MMA-style fighting. And now he wants to give me the opportunity to go pro, to train me with the purpose of entering women's MMA competitions and even getting sponsorship.

The reason why I started getting the extra training in MMA is because it’s so prevalent these days that I believe a martial arts instructor who focuses on self-defense ought to understand how to defend against it. There are other benefits too. The focus on live training gives me the chance to work important skills like distance and timing. Plus, the training with my instructor is just plain fun.

I’ve been pondering whether or not to go through with the idea of going pro. It’s such a great training opportunity. I’ll get in amazing shape. It’ll add to my overall understanding of the martial arts. It could help me get the public face I need to get publishers to back my martial arts book ideas. And in interviews, I could get the message across that there is a massive difference between fighting in the ring and self-defense on the street, that there are many important skills and approaches to personal protection that are not covered when training for competitions. But then on the flip side, I’ll be entering a world of ego trips and violence for the sake of sport. These are precisely the opposite of the goals I want to achieve in my martial arts training.

I then considered the path taken by founder of Aikido and martial arts legend Morihei Ueshiba. His mentality toward training was as traditional as it gets. But even he benefited from publicity stunts, having allowed a sharp shooter fire at him with a rifle to demonstrate his ability to evade bullets. Whatever about the reality of what happened that day, the reporter that bore witness to the event was completely convinced, thereby generating massive international publicity for Ueshiba and his art. Not that I believe that my entering MMA tournaments would be anywhere near as big as that (especially if I get my ass kicked!) but it has the possibility of getting far more publicity than I can by just quietly running my humble Jiu-jitsu dojo.

My plan is to incorporate much of my Can-Ryu Jiu-jitsu background with the idea of besting my opponents as humanely as possible, in ways that are non-injurious. I understand this may be a hard feat to accomplish, especially since my opponents will probably not harbour any reluctance to break my nose or bloody me up. But somehow this resonates better with me than simply going into the ring and drawing on aggression with which to bludgeon a person into submission.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Yoga and the Martial Arts

Yesterday, one of my students lent me The Martial Artist's Book of YogaKnowing that I incorporate a variety of yoga stretches in my martial arts classes he thought I might find it useful. After five minutes of flipping through it, I ordered my own copy.

I've always considered yoga a wonderful complement to my martial arts training. Though I don't often have time to do classes, I do 20-25 minutes of yoga every morning after my 20 minutes of sitting meditation. Since I took up this practice, I've noticed a number of benefits: increased flexibility, greater overall body strength, improved balance and posture, and quicker recovery time after training.

There is a reason why yoga complements the martial arts so well. They come from the same roots. Bodhidharma developed a number of exercises, borrowing from yogic systems, and introduced them to the Shaolin monks in the 6th century in order to prepare their bodies for long periods of meditation. These exercises later served as the base from which Shaolin Kung Fu was developed.

With the rise MMA and UFC, an attitude has developed toward martial arts training that deemphasizes the mental and spiritual development, making it more about just learning to fight. I am of the opinion that the mental and spiritual aspects take your training to a higher level that cannot be learned when training solely for the ring.

No matter what your reasons are for taking up a martial art, The Martial Artist's Book of Yoga will introduce you to exercises that will help develop your body and mind for martial arts training. It's definitely worth checking out.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fighting from the Clinch

Today I had another private training session with my MMA instructor. Though his primary training was boxing (he's an ex-pro boxer), he has a broad base in other martial arts and is training me to integrate skills from them all. Today's lesson involved fighting from the clinch.

Clinch work appears in a variety of martial arts, including muay thai (Thai boxing) and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. Both approach the clinch somewhat differently due to the two arts different styles of fighting, but the two methods can be used together, as I experienced today.

To use the main muay thai clinch, you slip your arms around the attacker's neck, connecting them tightly around the back of the neck while keeping the elbows tightly together and close to your body. Once in this position, you can easily drive your knees into your attacker.

There are various kinds of clinches used in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, they even incorporate the muay thai clinch as previously described. Today, we worked on using the skills that are trained in BJJ's commonly taught pummeling drill in which you slide your hand under your attacker's armpit, keeping your shoulder forward.

After training both skills, we integrated the two approaches and combined them with punches and kicks, which were used to create opportunities to enter the clinch. Using the BJJ skill of sliding your hand under the arm pit, you can create an opportunity to slide into the muay thai clinch so you can use your knees. It's also important to remember that when you finish your sequence of knee kicks to exit on an angle so you are less vulnerable to counterattacks. Even better to throw out a jab while exiting to further discourage retaliation.

I thoroughly enjoyed today's lesson, particularly because it reminds me of the importance of keeping an open mind when it comes to cross training in other martial arts. I'm not a huge fan of the macho attitudes that have arisen as a result of the popularity of MMA (mixed martial arts) competition. That being said, I believe that it has encouraged more sharing between the various arts, leading to innovation. This is one of the ways that the Western mindset has positively influenced martial arts training.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Gloves Are Coming Off!

Last night, Chris, a former student of mine, was back in town and came out to train at my dojo. Chris is a brown belt in another style of Jiu-jitsu in addition to being a yellow belt in my style. I took this opportunity to experiment with an idea I had for sparring.

When we spar in our dojo, we usually wear 16-oz boxing gloves for our own and our sparring partner’s protection. This is because we make contact when we spar. There is no limit to our targets, groin, head, face, etc. Our sparring is to learn skills for self-defense, not for competition. We don’t necessarily hit as hard as we can when there’s an opening in the face, but we'll still hit it. This helps us get an idea of what it’s like to be hit so we can learn to shake it off.

What I wanted to try was the same as our usual sparring method, but using open hand strikes instead of punches. To do this we would have to spar without the big, poofy, protective gloves. Given that Chris has a long history of training, I figured he was a good candidate to experiment with this. I figured he would have sufficient control to do open-hand strikes to the head without following through fully.

It was quite strange at first. Not wearing the gloves meant that there was a lot more space in the guard, meaning there were more opportunities for attack while being more open to attack. Also, it was clear that the open-handed jab and cross had a shorter reach by a few inches. While the open-handed hook that we use (more like a slap in that the fingers are angled toward the attacker) has a longer reach. This, however, didn’t matter much to me since my reach is so much shorter than Chris’s. He is 6’1” and has arms like an orangutan. I always end up relying on my speedy kicks to make up for my short arm reach.

Another thing we noticed was that it was, of course, much easier to try to do throws or takedowns on each other with our hands freed up. Grabbing and trapping also played more of a role. And naturally, ground grappling was made possible, though in our style, as far as street self-defense goes, we teach that it’s better to stay on your feet. Either way, it was refreshing to have all the extra options.

It would be really nice if we could combine the protective qualities of the 16-oz boxing gloves so we can maintain the sparring intensity, while having the freedom of bare hands. Perhaps the answer is simply to only allow advanced students with good control to do this exercise.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Appeal of McDojos

I was talking to a friend of mine named Slan at work this morning. He was planning to take up Aikido at a local community centre. That is, until the Vancouver civil service strike shut the community centre down for nearly three months. Frustrated by the strike, he complained about it nearly every morning. He even threatened to start a blog about it to voice his complaints. He's a programmer though, not a writer.

"So Slan, have you started your Aikido classes now that the strike is over?" I asked, looking forward to discussing his experiences.

He looked up at me from his desk with a defeated look. "No, not yet. I've been emailing every other day since the strike ended and the instructor only responded once to tell me that 'He'd let me know when things were up and running again.' No timeline, nothing."

Slan trained in the martial arts for most of his life. At one point he was a running a school, a commercial one at that. He recently read my blog posting about McDojos, and fully agreed with my criticisms of them, having experienced them first hand.

"McDojos have their faults, but there are advantages to them, otherwise they wouldn't they wouldn't make it as businesses," Slan put forward. "Someone should write an article about that."

So here I am. I, myself, have trained at a couple of McDojos in my time. There were times when there was an art I wanted to learn that simply wasn't available in a non-commercial school. With my experience, I was able to be sufficiently discerning to be able to take what I needed to learn out of my time there, stripping away the baggage the commercialism carried. That being said, I agree with Slan. In my mind, there are clearly some benefits to the commercialism along with the baggage. These are as follows:

1) Stability. A McDojo with a good business platform tends to have a stronger base. It has full control of its school, its commercial space. It is not at the mercy of a public school's or a community centre's scheduled events, strikes, other programs, etc. This means the schedule and location is more consistent. These things only change if the head instructor decides to change them.

2) Instructor focus. The head instructor of a McDojo has their focus entirely on running their dojo as a business. This means that new students get the care and attention they need when making the decision of whether or not to join their school. If the dojo owner is running it well as a business, he or she ensures that there is advertising that helps people find them and they handle dojo enquiries in a communicative and timely manner.

3) Class flexibility. Because a McDojo has to pay rent, they tend to have more classes available. This is, of course, so they get the most out of the space for which they're paying. But for a student, it means that if for some reason you can't make class on Monday, you can make it up on Tuesday. Or if you do shift work and you can't make an evening class, you can make it up during a day class. This is more convenient for people with inconsistent schedules.

So what does this mean for non-commercial dojo owners? Running a commercialism-free school doesn't mean that the business side should be ignored. You can reject the negative byproducts of commercialism but still make use of some of the good business practices that they follow. Even if you can't offer as much stability or class flexibility, you should always make efforts to communicate with your students. That way you can draw in the kind of students that are best suited to your dojo and retain them better once they get there. Though it can be difficult to find the time to do this if you're also working a full-time job.

It is my life dream to run a basement dojo. No, there isn't as much space as what you can get in a typical McDojo or a community centre class. But it does afford me the stability and control that I want, without having to run my dojo with profit as a primary concern.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Controlling the Gag Reflex

I’ve always encouraged my students to wear a mouth guard for safety while sparring. Even though I discourage my students from using a lot of force when hitting the face and head, accidents happen when the adrenaline is pumping. And when those wayward blows hit home, a mouth guard is an important piece of equipment for protecting against concussions and mouth injuries.

That being said, until recently, I hadn’t been wearing mine. I had bought a fairly high end one, the Brain Pad Lo Pro for women, which has a breathing channel and protects the upper and lower jaw. I hadn’t even boiled it and fitted it to my mouth, the reason being that I remembered what it was like the last time I wore one. I could only just barely control my gag reflex while I was wearing it.

For some reason, and I don’t think I’m alone here, it feels very unnatural to have that piece of plastic stuck in my mouth. The moment I put it in, I feel the urge to spit it out. I have to really relax and keep breathing to keep the gag reflex from taking over. Usually when I get sparring, the sensation goes away – I’m too busy trying to hit and not get hit – but the moment I stop sparring, the gag reflex comes back.

At any rate, I decided it was high time I get my gag reflex under control. I’m always asking my students to do things to push them a little outside their comfort zones in order to progress and improve. I ask them to learn to throw themselves to the ground, to get hit in the groin (with a cup on, of course), etc. It seemed hypocritical that I was putting off doing something that brought me outside my own comfort zone.

My students now get to chuckle at me as I make massive gagging noises every time I put my mouth guard in before sparring. Yes, it’s embarrassing because it shows a weakness. At the same time though, it also shows strength. I’m facing my physical awkwardness and working through it. Each time I put it in, the gag reflex becomes less pronounced.

Everyone experiences some kind of awkwardness, fear or embarrassment when they first start taking a martial art. The goal is to work toward mastery of the body and mind so we can better use them in training and in life.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

How Martial Arts Improved My Tennis Game

This is not some miracle story about how I was able to miraculously pick up the sport of tennis in an impossibly short amount of time. But my background in the martial arts did help me out on the court.

Up till this morning, I hadn't swung a tennis racket since just over a year ago when I first started learning the game. So this morning I went to play with my parents while on a family visit in Ontario. I remembered the last time I had played, having just received instruction from a tennis pro who had helped me get a real feel for what it was like to hit the ball properly. My game had improved massively. But this morning, as I took my first swings since last year, it felt like I was swinging a log at a basketball.

But even though I had lost all my skill from the previous year, I still remembered how my body felt when I did hit the ball properly. For every ball I hit badly, I was able to correct my shift my body position a little closer to the one I associated with that feeling. After a hour of practicing just hitting the ball with my father, I could feel my old technique starting to come back. Not that I was ready for Wimbeldon or anything, but there was definitely some progress.

Martial arts training made me better at learning new skills by teaching me body awareness, an understanding of the learning process, and the patience to keep me from swearing and throwing my racket across the court over every missed ball.

Miyamoto Musashi, a famous Japanese swordsman and author of The Book of the Book of Five Rings, said that by studying one thing in depth, you can understand ten thousand things. While I'm no martial arts master, I definitely find that my training has afforded me a personal perspective that allows me to be flexible enough to take on many of life's challenges, tennis strokes included.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Knife Defense for Dummies

While this Jim Carrey skit is a hilarious exaggeration, there are many martial arts schools that attempt to teach "realistic" knife defense. They teach specific maneuvres against very choreographed attacks, which bear little resemblance to what happens in a real situation.

If a dojo is going to teach knife defense, they first thing they should teach is the level of respect that should be attributed to knives. They are extremely dangerous. Many cops state they would rather face an assailant with a gun than one with a knife at close range. Against a knife, you're pretty much guaranteed that you'll get cut. This is because the nature of a knife attack is more fluid and changeable and therefore less easy to predict. This makes knives harder to take control of compared to guns at close range.

Because of the fluidity of the knife attack, instructors should never teach entirely choreographed techniques as their primary knife defense. Here are a few things that viable knife defense instruction should comprise of:

1) Blocking.
Should be based around a type of block that is so simple it can be done under extreme stress. The block should also keep arteries protected.
2) Controlling. A method of controlling a knife so you can immobilize your attacker with strikes to vulnerable areas.
3) Barriers. How to put barriers between you and the knife (i.e. using personal items like a bag or jacket or environmental barriers like cars, park benches, etc.)
4) First aid. How to treat cut wounds to prevent loss of blood long enough to get help.
5) Explanation of Risk. Explanation and re-explanation of how dangerous knives are and to avoid altercations involving them at all costs.

I understand the desire to teach more complicated maneuvres as they help students develop their overall martial art skills and awareness. I simply believe that knive defense is NOT the correct forum for this kind of development. It can give students false expectations about what a real knife attack entails leading to a dangerous lack of respect for the threat they pose. Just ask Jim. ;)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Friends That Fray Together Stay Together

I recently held a launch party for my book, Weapons of Opportunity, in Ottawa to which I invited a number of old training buddies and students, as well as my instructor, Ed Hiscoe Shihan. The majority of these people I hadn't seen since I left for Japan to teach English and train in the martial arts. Most of them are characters in my book too, including John Nash (known as "Josh" in my book) who wrote a comment about it on his blog.

I was amazed to discover that even though we didn't all email each other regularly while I was away, somehow the bonds that were forged on the mat were just as strong as the day I left. Through years of repeated strikes to pressure points and slams from being thrown to the mat, we have created an affinity for one another that is different from any other kind of friendship.

When you train in the martial arts and commit to it in the long term, you get a lot more out of it than physical fitness, self-confidence, and the ability to defend yourself, you also get close friendships unlike any other kind you make in day-to-day life. When you can hug someone or shake their hand after they have kicked you in the groin, knocked you out, given you a black eye, or twisted your joints in ways they're not meant to twist, you've got the base for a friendship that can last a lifetime.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Enter the McDojo: The Problem with Commercialized Martial Art Schools

Commercialized martial arts schools (or “McDojos” as I call them), like the piss-take version shown here in this clip from the movie Napoleon Dynamite, exist in most major cities. They often have great facilities, convenient schedules and flashy demos that entice many people to sign up without looking around for alternatives.

I generally advise people against joining McDojos for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are usually run as a business first and foremost and secondly as a martial arts school. Unfortunately, when a school is run for profit the students’ technical development tends to suffer. The reason why is that most students want to feel as though they are progressing quickly. And if they don’t go for the belt tests fast enough for their liking, students tend to quit.

To combat this, McDojos often promote students to their next belt levels, regardless of their level of skill in the required curriculum. By the time these kind of students get to black belt, they have a myriad of bad habits and lack true skill.

Other McDojos will create more level divisions, either more belts or “stripe” tests between belts. The school will then require the students to pay for these extra tests, an often costly addition to their regular tuition.

Ultimately, if profit is the main goal for a martial arts school, it shapes the way the school is run, often to the detriment of the art. At a school with which profit is not the main goal, if a student doesn’t have the required patience to develop towards true mastery he or she just drops out and nobody minds. That’s because the school simply wants to develop the good quality students who strive to achieve technical excellence and embody the true spirit of their art.

For more information about choosing a martial arts school, check out this article I wrote for my Jiu-jitsu website:

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Kicking Like a Girl

After the blog post in which I discussed the value of kicks and the commitment required to become proficient at them, I decided to dedicate an entire class to training kicks. In our style of Jiu-jitsu, we don’t practice any fancy kicks, just practical ones. The ones we covered during that class included: front kick (to the groin or solar plexus), side kick, roundhouse kick, and lateral femoral kick (to the outside of the thigh).

For our warm-up we also did dynamic tension exercises using kicking positions. This involves holding the leg up in the cocked position of a kick, whichever kick you like. Then you slowly extend the leg out into the kicking position then back to the cocked position. We did this ten times slowly then ten times fast. We did these exercises for the front, side and roundhouse kicks. Inevitably, my students had sore butts after doing these exercises. In addition to the strength training one gets from doing these exercises, students get to practice emphasizing proper leg position while kicking.

For the rest of class, we trained our kicks in a variety of ways. The side kick, for example, we first trained from a horse stance to emphasize proper technique. We then trained it from a sparring stance (like the one used in boxing) snapping the kick out quickly using the front leg. I’ve used this type of side kick many a time during sparring sessions. When someone attacks me with their fists, the often open up with their ribs. They usually underestimate how close I can be and still kick with my front leg effectively, allowing me to snap my side kick out quickly under their punch, hitting home in the ribs (usually resulting in a bit of a grunt). We also trained the jumping side kick into the body shields. This allows you to cover a great distance and get more power, but has very little practical value. Unless the attacker is half unconscious, it’s not that likely that this kick will land since you can see it coming a mile away. Lastly, we trained the side kick from the boxing stance using the rear leg. This has practical value because it allows you to step into the kick. Plus, it is good for training balance.

During the class, I couldn’t help but notice that the women in my class showed considerably more natural ability with their kicks than the guys, even the ones that were learning these kicks for the first time. For some reason, they are generally more flexible and coordinated in the legs. I don’t like to make generalizations for the most part because it can cause you to see what you expect to see rather than what is actually there. But there is some truth to certain generalizations.

One exception to the rule was my student Dave. He has always been very nimble with his legs despite the fact that he is 240 lbs and top heavy to book. As I watched him kicking, I felt compelled to complement him.

“Dave, that is awesome. You kick like a girl!” I said, in an admittedly cheeky fashion.

“Hey! Them’s fightin’ words!” he immediately retorted.

I was making a point, however. “Why? Girls are generally better at kicking than guys.”

Dave opened his mouth, then closed it again. I couldn’t help but be amused by the look on his face that clearly indicated a struggle between enjoying the complement and being compared to a girl.

I made the remark in fun, obviously playing on the classic insult, “You punch like a girl!”. I’ve never been a fan of this comment. I’ve even heard male instructors try to light a fire under the asses of their female students by yelling this at them. The natural reply is a legitimate rebuttal. “But I am a girl!” Even though the instructors who say this are just trying to push their students, it can be frustrating to some women who don’t see the intent behind the remark, causing them to feel like they will never be able to punch properly because being a girl is the definition for punch badly.

I am by no means a femi-nazi, but I do believe in giving everyone, whether they are a man or a woman, every opportunity to be the best they can be.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Martial Arts Training with an Injury

Oftentimes when a martial arts student gets an injury, whether it’s as a result of training or from some other activity, they stop training entirely while they recover. When one of my Jiu-jitsu students has an injury, I encourage them to come to class anyway. I mark their injury off with a red ‘X’ on their body using electrical tape, to make sure other students remember to be careful performing techniques that could affect the injury. There are a number of benefits to doing this.

Sure, a student might want take a day or two off right at the onset of recovery in order to allow inflammation to reduce and pain to subside to a manageable level, depending on the injury. But beyond that, it’s good to come to class and do only what you’re capable of, going extremely easy. Why? Some people are inclined to become depressed or disconnected while recovering from an injury. It’s a good idea to try and stay as active as you’re able to keep up your spirits, and so you don’t lose your training momentum entirely.

Training with an injury can also teach you things about your techniques you would never have realized while training in perfect health. For example, right now one of my students has a minor shoulder injury. A stout-hearted student, he came to class the very next day after having aggravated his injury, not wanting to miss out on class. He was working on a wrist takedown with which he usually has a tendency to overuse strength to make it work. As I watched him move through the technique during class, I was stunned when he did it with almost perfect hip motion and footwork.

“Glenn, that was great!” I commented. “Where did that come from?”

He looked at me with a quizzical expression, not even realizing how big a difference there was in the execution of his technique. “I don’t know. I was just being careful not to hurt my shoulder, so I was using less strength.”

I slapped him on the back, pleased with his progress. “You should injure yourself more often!”

Another added benefit to training with an injury is how it develops your versatility in defending yourself. In a real self-defense situation, you won’t likely be able to ask an aggressor not to attack you right now because you have an injury. You have to be able to improvise and use your body and any other tools you have at your disposal to fend off the attack, handicap or no handicap.

While there are many benefits to training with an injury, students should still exercise due caution though to make sure they don’t make the injury worse. I’ve seen a number of very optimistic students over-extend themselves during their recovery period, causing re-injury of their wound. I, myself, have made this mistake before. We all want to get back to training at full capacity as soon as possible after an injury, but in the meantime, we should practice another very important aspect of martial arts development: patience.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Training… Just for Kicks

Kicking can be a very useful skill when sparring or defending against an attacker. Even though punching is easier to learn and apply, kicks should not be ignored. There are many benefits to kicking, including: being able to maintain your guard while still attacking, making up for differences in reach, not to mention you can generate more power when attacking the body.

The problem many students face with kicking is that they find it harder to become proficient at them. They become discouraged and, as a result, focus more on their punches. Admittedly, kicks do take longer to learn because you have to improve your balance and coordination to do them, but it’s a worthwhile endeavour.

If you want to improve your ability to kick, my advice is always the same. First of all, do your best to train your kicking technique with correct form. Use a mirror or have your instructor critique you regularly to ensure you’re getting it right. After all, practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect, as my Sensei always used to say.

The second thing is to practice your kicks regularly. In Jiu-jitsu, we don’t use a lot of fancy kicks, but what we do use our students are expected to learn well. But even kicks like side kick and roundhouse kick can take a long time to become proficient enough to make them fast enough and powerful enough for them to be useful in a sparring or self-defense situation. Students should train their kicks as regularly as possible to help ingrain it in their muscle memory. Doing some extra kicks at home or before class, with or without a kicking shield, will go a long way.

Once you get the basic form of your kicks down, you’ll also find that the balance and coordination you acquired to be able to kick proficiently will help become better at your other Jiu-jitsu or martial arts skills.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Meditation, Martial Arts and... Scooters?

I recently taught a seminar the Jiu-jitsu BC Society's annual intensive training camp. The theme of the camp was the mental and spiritual aspects of Jiu-jitsu. Most of the training in Jiu-jitsu is focused on practical application, but I find that even still the art has does have a mental and spiritual undertone that is picked up by students the longer they train. We don't usually discuss it directly in class however. I took this teaching opportunity as a challenge, to directly address an aspect of mental and spiritual focus that has direct applications in Jiu-jitsu. The seminar topic I chose was 'Meditation Posture and Breathing as Applied to Jiu-jitsu Techniques.'

The straight-backed posture and deep breathing of meditation improves Jiu-jitsu technique application in a variety of ways. I've discussed these on my Jiu-jitsu website's September newsletter. The biggest problem I find in teaching people to develop this posture for Jiu-jitsu is that people in general have very poor posture. Even if they do try their best to maintain posture while training, the habits they develop while sitting at work, driving in their car, eating meals, watching TV, etc. will always creep in.

I try to encourage students to try meditating for 20 minutes a day (I practice the Zen style). This is a good start because it is a time when you can focus entirely on developing that posture, in addition to achieving various health benefits.

Trying to use meditation posture while driving, is trickier since modern vehicles are designed to allow you to relax back while you drive, making it easier to stay in a slouched position. A great alternative to the car for this is the scooter. I bought a scooter several months ago and I found that while riding my scooter, it's very easy to maintain meditation posture. Additionally, because I am much more vulnerable in an accident on a scooter, I develop my awareness of surroundings every time I ride. Meditation breathing helps with this. It also helps prevent road rage when drivers cut me off!

There are many ways you can apply meditation posture and breathing in your day to day life. The more you do it, the less you have to THINK about applying it to your Jiu-jitsu because you make it your natural state. This is the perfect remedy for people who say they find they don't have to train, since it allows to improve your Jiu-jitsu no matter what you're doing.