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.