Friday, September 27, 2019

On Fandom: Little Men in Sumo

I think a lot about the philosophy or psychology of fandom in fight sport - as in, I think about questions like which fighters should we be fans of, and why we follow certain fighters.

Sumo is a very interesting combat sport for many reasons, but one big oddity is that it doesn't have weight classes. There is simply sumo, and if you're not very big, then you don't get to compete against other little guys, you have to find a way to compete with much larger opponents if you want to be a professional rikishi.

Also, unlike some other sports, mass is a HUGE advantage in sumo, to the point where it's one of the few sports where being obese is almost a requirement for success. The top ranks are dominated by very, very large men, and a big part of the sport is eating and living in a way to support huge bodies.

Yet there are usually a couple of much smaller (smaller being relative here - they're all still over 200 lb) guys in the upper division. They manage to compete by utilizing their assets - usually incredible agility and balance - and using moves that other rikishi can't keep up with. It's not a great strategy - if it were, there would be lots of guys doing it - but some competitors manage to pull it off for a while.

If you want current examples of competitive little guys, the best is Enho, but recently we saw Ura doing quite well (he's hurt, but if he gets healthy again he's a must-watch), and Ishiura can be great fun though not consistently. Kotoeko is worth a look as well.

Many sumo fans (including me) root hard for those little guys for two reasons, I think. First, we like seeing people overcome tremendous odds to achieve success. We generally like rooting for underdogs. Second, the little guys are almost always putting on exciting matches. They can't just lean on and grind out opponents (because it's physically impossible for them), so they have to try all kinds of exciting, crazy moves to win. And they do.

If you want to watch sumo, the best way has been through Kintamayama's channel, but he's phasing out his posts, so try Natto Sumo. If anything, Natto Sumo's coverage has advantages, because he puts up lots of graphics showing information about the recent history of each rikishi (so you can easily see who is on a slide, how long they've been competing, etc.).

Keep your sadness hedge alive, though. The likelihood of an Enho or an Ishiura ever dominating the sport is very, very small. If you want to root for a winner, you'll have to learn to appreciate some of the bigger guys as well. If you want suggestions, I can't get enough Takakeisho or Hokutofuji (though Takakeisho was injured at the end of the last basho, and we have yet to know if he'll ever be the same again).

Friday, September 6, 2019

Handstand Training for Martial Arts

Don't do handstand training for martial arts.

There, I saved you tons of time and energy!

I regularly see advice given to martial artists along the lines of, "you should train in gymnastics," "you should do Olympic lifting," "you should jog several miles a day," and so on. Not all of these are bad ideas, but it's important to understand something about exactly how much these practices will help your martial arts.

A handstand is a highly unlikely position for you to be in while doing martial arts. I have never seen anybody hold a handstand in a fight of any kind - free sparring, UFC, kickboxing, or boxing. Which doesn't mean it could never happen, but it's so unlikely that it's not worth training for. Strength is position specific (as well as speed specific) and there's nothing in karate that's very much like holding a handstand.

Handstand training will not carry over well to your karate, so any time and energy you spend on handstand training is unlikely to improve your karate. And since time and energy are finite resources, it will possibly detract from your karate (by keeping you from doing more karate practice).

Please notice that I'm not saying you shouldn't train handstands. I'm saying you shouldn't train handstands for martial arts.  BUT you may WANT to do handstand training. Maybe you think doing handstands is cool. Maybe you're bored with martial arts and want to spend some training time on non-martial arts activities to give yourself a mental break. Maybe some person you're attracted to thinks people who can do handstands are super hot.

These are all great reasons to do handstand training. There's nothing wrong with mastering a skill (assuming it isn't inherently dangerous, which handstands aren't).

Handstand training will develop your overhead pressing strength, which is good and useful. But it would be more efficient (unless you can already do handstands) to just do some dumbbell or kettlebell overhead pressing than to take up a handstand training routine if that's your only goal.

Whenever you add supplemental training to your martial arts practice, you should be clear on WHY you're doing it, so you can figure out whether or not it's a good idea. If you are doing curls at the end of your workout because you want bigger arms, great. If you're doing it to improve your punching power... that's not going to work. If you like to run triathlons, great. If you think training for them will make you tireless in sparring, that's not going to work (unless your aerobic base is really bad).

Knowing WHY you're doing any of the parts of your workout will ultimately make you better at reaching your goals, whatever those goals are.


Sunday, August 4, 2019

Instagram Fitness: Photoshop, Synthol, Steroids, and Peaking

I recently got an Instagram account (If you have any desire to follow me, you can, but it's mostly pictures of food and my vacations... just search for Joe Berne). There's a lot of interesting content available, including a ton of fitness pictures - lots of very muscular, lean fitness models showing off their abs, arms, etc. It's all free and easy to find, and it's very easy to get inundated with pictures of very, very fit looking people, all kind of in your face on a daily basis.

To be absolutely clear, I'm not saying there's anything inherently wrong with any of this. I'm simply saying that there is a very specific danger to exposing yourself to this content.

Some people can look at these sort of pictures and have no negative impact. But many people can find these pictures discouraging - especially those of us trying to lose weight or gain muscle or otherwise improve our appearance. It can be easy to fall in to a trap of looking at a fitness model, then looking in the mirror, and feeling like your goals are unattainable, and that it isn't even worth trying.

Now plenty of people avoid this thought process entirely, and get nothing but extra motivation from so-called motivational pictures. And that's great! If you're that sort of person, fantastic.

But if you find yourself getting discouraged by these images, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Very few of those models actually look like that year round. They're posting pictures from a photo shoot for which they have 'peaked,' they have extra makeup and stuff on, they have great lighting, etc.
  2. Many of those models have advantages over you that have nothing to do with hard work or dedication. For example, they all have great genetics.
  3. Many use performance enhancing drugs.
  4. Many have had cosmetic surgery. 
  5. Many don't have 'regular' lives that interfere with training (kids, full time sedentary jobs, etc.). 
  6. That's not to disparage their accomplishments, just to say that comparing yourself to them is a little bit like a race car driver entering his Honda Civic in the Indy 500 and feeling crushed at not being able to qualify.
If you feel demotivated by these images, stop looking at them. There are more-realistic Instagram accounts - look for something with people who post excerpts from their workouts on a near-daily basis (both so you're not seeing a peaking picture and so you get a feel for the way even these people have good and bad days). Or stay away altogether.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to stay motivated. There is no good or bad here. Figure out what works for you, and stick to it! 

If Sartre studied karate: An existentialist analysis of the Shodan

A significantly large percentage of martial arts students quit shortly after earning their black belt (including me - I took a 12 year 'break' almost immediately after earning my shodan).

There are potentially many reasons for this, but I think one is a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be a black belt, one that can be nicely contextualized through an existential analysis.

Existentialism is a branch of philosophy that focused on a number of things, only some of which I'll be concerned with in this post. A significant issue that existentialists in general talked about was freedom and reification (reification is just a fancy way of saying you think of yourself as an object). I'm going to explain and simplify, because that is the part of high level philosophy that I was good at.

People tend to think of themselves the way they think of objects, as having fixed qualities. People think things like, "I am a good person," or "I am a bad person," "I am lazy," "I am hardworking," statement either positive or negative that paint a picture of us as fixed objects with fixed qualities that persist through time.

The central understanding of the existentialist philosophers was that these statements are all incorrect. Humans, unlike, for example, chairs, are free. Every moment of your conscious life, you can choose to be lazy, but even if you think things like "I am lazy," you can also choose, at any moment, to do some unlazy things. The same is true of almost any claim one makes - a person can think, "I am a good person," but at any moment, even after years of having that thought, choose to do something bad. That is existential freedom (which is not necessarily a good or comfortable thing - in fact, it is kind of nauseating).

When people imagine earning a black belt, they conflate two senses of the idea of becoming something new. They understand, on some level, that passing a test earns one a title which is acknowledged by a community of people. For example, because in 2011 I was given a belt with three stripes on it by the leaders of my style, a large group of people will now call me 'senpai' whereas before they didn't have to. They let me line up in a certain place, bow to me in a certain way, and so on, acknowledging my rank.

The second sense of black belt, though, is where the problem happens. People imagine that they will be something different once they have passed that test. They imagine that they will become something new - closer to some ideal of what they think a martial arts student IS. More dedicated. More disciplined, perhaps.

The truth (the uncomfortable truth) is that you can NEVER BE more disciplined or harder working or more dedicated. Those are not traits that you own or possess, the way you own or possess your eye color or your height. Instead, those are traits that only describe choices that you make, that you have to make freshly every day, every hour, as you live your life.

No matter how long you've trained you are, fundamentally, free to skip your next workout. You can never BECOME something that necessarily trains. By the same logic, though, no matter how long you've skipped training, you are also always free to go to the next class, to do the next workout, to resume your training.

Every single day you have to choose what you want to be. You can never become that thing (because you can never become anything) - you are not a thing. This is what existentialism is teaching us.

Once you've earned your black belt, you will be the same you that you've always been, freely choosing from hour to hour how you'll live your life. Choosing to train the next day will be no harder or easier than it had been before.

If you want to BE a different sort of person as a black belt, you will have to continually and freely choose to live a different life than you lived before. If you want to make a kind of hokey slogan, you can say that you can't BE a black belt, but you can always choose to make black belt choices.

Earning any advanced rank is meaningful - it's an acknowledgement of the choices you've made in the past, and of the skill you've developed. But it doesn't change the fundamental truth that to live a certain life, you have to continually choose it, every day. You have to re-become a black belt every day.

You might think that once you've got a darker belt around your waist that you'll be a different person - feel differently, have a different character, automatically make the right choices (to go to class, eat right, stretch every day, whatever) where before you used to sometimes falter. Sadly, it's not true (it can never be true). You're not like a chair, which can be painted to have a new color. You're a human, free to make all the choices, and to suffer the consequences of those choices.

The good news (if there is any), is that no matter how unmotivated, lazy, or whatever other negative traits you've expressed in the past, you're free to stop making those sorts of choices. I didn't say it was easy, but it is possible. So if you haven't been living a black belt sort of life, you can start to. Right now. That's freedom.

Osu (but as you read this, please think of me as saying Osu in a French accent, with a beret on my head and a cigarette dangling out of my mouth, to get the proper effect).

Friday, June 21, 2019

Are you too old (fat, out of shape, handicapped, untalented) for karate?

I actively read a large number of martial arts related forums, mostly because I have a social media problem and not because there's a ton of value in their contents (though I do find some gems). I frequently see questions that look like this:

"I'm (old or fat or out of shape or handicapped in some way). Is it worth starting karate (or some other martial art)?"

Now my strong suspicion is that this isn't a real question - the person knows that it's okay to start karate, no matter how old or fat they are, but they want some encouragement and positive feedback. And that's fine, I have no problem with people using social media to get some metaphorical massaging from strangers.

But the real answer is twofold:

1. Of course it is. Literally no matter who you are (maybe other than an actual quadriplegic), you can train in martial arts - and if you do, you'll soon be much, much better than you are now!

2. Probably not. No matter how hard you train, you'll never be as skilled as a truly gifted athlete who has been training since youth. You literally will never catch up to them and be as skilled as they are!

Which one is the real answer? Both. Because the question is ambiguous.

If you are only willing to start martial arts training if you have a reasonable chance of being one of the best in the world at it, then yes, you're probably too fat, too old, too out of shape, and too un-talented to start.

BUT if you want to study martial arts because you're interested in the myriad benefits of martial arts training (better physical health and fitness, improved self confidence, better mental health, improved capacity for self defense) then, unless you're a quadriplegic (sorry to quadriplegics), you can absolutely gain those things.

If you want to be better at martial arts than other martial artists who have been training since childhood, your chances are slim. If you want to be better than the general population, your chance is almost 100%.

The 'trick' to being happy with your training is recognizing what you want, and to whom you should compare yourself, and realizing what your expectations should be.

I will never be able to win a UFC match. I would absolutely win a MMA fight against 90% of my peers (meaning, men of my size in my age category) - because most of my peer have absolutely no training. Compared to my peers who train in martial arts I am probably below average (I've taken long breaks from training). Maybe I'm average? I'm not really sure.

BUT I guarantee that I'm much, much better at martial arts, and more fit, and healthier, than an alternate version of myself who didn't train at all.

So the real secret to success in martial arts is in carefully choosing how you evaluate your success! If you only think you're 'good' if you're holding a UFC belt (or have won an Olympic medal or an international tournament) then you'll most likely never be happy. If you are happy knowing you're better than you would have been without training, then you're guaranteed to benefit from training.


Bollywood Martial Arts films

I love Bollywood movies.

I barely remember how I got hooked - I'm pretty sure I started with Krrish, which I watched because it's a superhero flick and I was curious (quick review: it's fine, not great). Then Netflix offered up Baahubali, which is an amazing 2 part movie that everyone should see (though it's a Tollywood movie, meaning it was shot in Tamil and Telugu, not really Bollywood). From there somehow I got addicted to standard Bollywood movies, especially those from a golden age from 1997-2012, and especially romantic comedies. Ironically, my wife is South Asian, and I've introduced her to these films (if you didn't know, I'm an American Jew of Eastern European descent and I have no real connection to South Asian culture other than a love of spicy food and the fact that I recently married into a South Asian family).

So if I criticize Indian movies, I'm coming from a place of love. My favorite actor is Shah Rukh Khan; my favorite actress is Kajol; I love Bollywood and watch Indian movies all the time. I'm not a hater on Indian movies.

But most Bollywood action movies have terrible martial arts.

[Small caveat: I'm not really in a position to comment on Indian cinema as a whole. India produces a ridiculous number of movies each year, and other than 50 words in Hindi I don't speak any South Asian languages. So I'm really only commenting on the Indian movies that are available in the US, on Netflix or Amazon Prime, with English subtitles. If you're reading this and can speak to other Indian movies with great martial arts, please comment on this post!]

I mean this in two ways. If you watch a standard Indian action movie, like the Dhoom or Race series, when and if there are unarmed combat scenes, they're pretty mediocre compared to similar Hollywood movies. The Bourne series, for example, has much better fight scenes.

Also, there are relatively few Indian movies with a real martial arts focus (or, as I mentioned above, they aren't getting subtitled and/or aren't available for streaming here).

The closest thing India has to a martial arts focused actor is Tiger Shroff (son of famous actor Jackie Shroff). Tiger (not his real name) seems to have some legit martial arts background in tae kwon do. He has 3 films you can watch in the US, in English (all have been on Netflix):
1. Heropanti - very entertaining - I found Tiger super charming is this one. B- for the martial arts (not bad, but nothing super innovative or exciting. This is no Ong Bak).
2. A Flying Jatt - superhero movie, also quite fun, maybe C+ as a martial arts film, but B- as a movie.
3. Baaghi - straight up martial arts standard movie plot and style. B+ as a martial arts movie, but nowhere near in the can't-miss level of something like Ong Bak or The Raid.

Other Indian martial arts films that you can find on Netflix or Amazon Prime:

Waarrior Savitri: retelling of a famous Indian fable in the modern day, using martial arts. Not a terrible movie, but not a good martial arts movie. Maybe C- as a martial arts film.

Kung Fu Yoga: Might be Jackie Chan's worst movie. Avoid at all costs.

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota: This is the gem. On Netflix now, this is both a pretty entertaining movie (nice plot, funny moments, good acting, everything you'd want in a good movie, B+ as a general film) it also has some excellent martial arts. Ironically, the best moves are probably done by the female costar, who has some really lovely scenes using a scar as a weapon.
Watch this one! B+ (maybe even an A-) as a martial arts film!!!

Generally speaking, martial arts haven't penetrated India's entertainment industry the way they have in, say, Thailand.

If you haven't watched any Bollywood and are looking for a primer, that's something I might do at some point. Watch Kal Ho Na Ho - if you don't love that film, give up (also, what is wrong with you???)

Please comment if you think I've missed anything!


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Karate for Fat Bastards

[Please note that I'm  using the term "Fat Bastards" in the most affectionate tone possible. And also note that I count myself as absolutely a member of that group!]

What's a Fat Bastard? For the sake of this post, I'm talking about anybody who is thickly built. Stocky, big boned, actually fat, or even lean but with a lot of muscle. Anybody who couldn't be called lanky. And I don't mean to exclude women, but the term 'Fat Bitch" doesn't have the same playful connotation (at least in American English), so I'm going to avoid it.

Why am I writing about thickly built people? Because in many ways karate is designed to favor the lanky, the scrawny, the width challenged individual. Karate is easier for skinny people.

Now you're probably thinking, "Surely this is overstating things, Joe?" No, it's not. It starts even before the class begins, as soon as you put on a gi. Why do we wear a jacket that wraps a double layer around our midsection? Who looks good in this? Only skinny people. If you are already wide through the torso, a gi just makes you look fatter and blockier. If you're very skinny, it gives some substance.

Second: point fighting. Point fighting is combat designed to strip away all the advantages of solidity and mass. In a full contact fight, solidly built people have some advantages - being able to absorb bigger impacts without falling, generally being able to hit harder. Point fighting is made to take away those advantages and make frail, skinny people look more effective than they are. Don't agree? Find someone your height but 25 kg heavier and similarly skilled to you. Stand toe to toe and trade full contact left hooks to the body with them. Then do 2 rounds of point fighting. See who 'wins' each phase.

Third: jumping techniques. I promise you the first person who decided to try a spinning jumping kick did not weigh over 100 kg. How good you are at getting into the air has a lot to do with different kinds of strength, but weighing more is always going to make it harder.

What should the thickly build karateka do? Well, if you're carrying a lot of extra fat, you should probably try to get rid of some of it, for health reasons (remember, having extra fat isn't particularly healthy, but neither are some of the methods people use to lose fat, so be sensible. If you can safely remove some fat, great, but don't starve to death or shoot your stress levels through the roof to get skinnier). At some point, though, many of us will have realize that even with reasonable efforts in that direction we're still thickly built; either big boned or heavily muscled or carrying stubborn fat or some combination of those.

My first instinct is to tell the thickly built karateka to sort of focus on the aspects of karate that work well for the thick and focus less on those that don't. For example, focus on clean technique, rooted stances, fighting from up close and with greater contact. Worry less about anything with jumping and spinning. Work to break lots of boards in a stack, and not to break a board flipped up into the air with some kind of jumping technique. Get really strong. Make sure you are training a style that does some contact!

But the more I thought about it the less I liked this answer.

The truth is this: If you're thick, you're at a disadvantage developing those kinds of skills (jumping, spinning, speed-based stuff). You'll probably never be truly elite in those areas. But if you really love that stuff, you can also definitely get much, much better at them than you are now.

So if you love that type of karate, you have a decision to make: either focus on those skills knowing that you'll never be quite as good at them as people who are better suited to them (and also work hard) OR shift your attention to the type of karate that your body is 'designed' for.

And really, neither answer is wrong.

I personally know that I would find focusing on skills that don't suit my body too demoralizing - for me. I personally couldn't sustain that kind of martial arts practice over a lifetime. I, instead, focus on being able to hit the heavy bag as hard as possible, and focus on strategies in kumite that get my opponents closer to me. I'll never be truly elite at anything in martial arts, but I can be pretty good at those sort of things.

But if I loved the jumping stuff enough, I'm sure I could work on it and get much better at it than I am now, even if I could never be great.

And the more I think about this, the more I feel it's true for other types of limitations.

If your'e genetically suited for endurance rather than speed, you'll never be a great sprinter. So if you're trying to compete in the Olympics, you'd better train for marathons and not the 100m. But if you're just a recreational runner who loves sprints, and you can handle the idea of working on sprints your whole life without ever becoming really great at sprinting, then go for it! But go for it with open eyes.

Find a way to train that YOU will love, then do it. There is no right or wrong beyond that.