Monday, February 28, 2011

Adopting a Faux Contest Cycle

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Iron Radio.  It's a group of high level strength athletes - a powerlifter, a strongman competitor, a bodybuilder - talking about some aspect of training, often with a fairly interesting guest.  As I read this description to myself I have to say that the show is a lot more entertaining than it sounds.

On a number of episodes the guys talk about competing, whether it be in bodybuilding contests or powerlifting or Highland Games meets or whatever is appropriate for their sport.  I started thinking about competitions and their effect on training, and the way competition is often viewed by traditional martial artists.

Competing on a regular basis (which can mean doing so every few months or even every few years) serves a couple of purposes. 

One is to gauge one's progress.  If you're a powerlifter I think the value is pretty clear - a competition gives you a chance to see if your lifts have gone up or down, and by how much, under judged conditions.  In other words, you can't cheat your way into apparent progress by modifying your lifts.  If you're a bodybuilder you can see how you're placing - but that's a little harder to interpret, given that your placings will depend on the competition, and if the quality of competition changes your placings will change.  In martial arts you have the same problem - even if you find a contest and judging criterion that you think are appropriate (which is a whole other topic) you might get better yet fall in the rankings simply because more very good competitors enter the contests in question.

So the value of competition to a karateka is mixed.  If you come in 2nd in sparring in 2008, then come in 4th in 2009, did you get worse as a fighter?  Maybe - but maybe you got better and a few great fighters entered the contest in 2009 that weren't there in 2008.  Even if the competition is the same, perhaps the judges were different.  And the ability to point-fight well might not really be your goal as a karateka, in which case the value of competition is mixed.  Maybe you got more powerful - which is great, but wouldn't help you much in a point fighting tournament.  What if you're interested in self defense?  A competition that could accurately measure your ability in that area would be... odd, and very hard to find.

There are, however, (at least) other reasons to schedule competitions or similar events for yourself on a regular basis:
  1. Having a contest/ peaking event will help you periodize your training.  It is impossible to maintain the same elite level of fitness all year - to be very fit you have to cycle a little bit, hitting high targets, then backing off before overtraining sets in, etc.  If you have an event - a target date - to train for, you can plan your schedule with rest breaks and so forth more efficiently.
  2. Having a contest will help you stay motivated.  Nothing works as well for motivation as a target date.  You can always put down the ice cream, but if you're scheduled to be in a grinding fight or on stage in a bikini in 2 weeks it's remarkably easier.
Now many karateka scoff at competitions for a variety of reasons, many legitimate, but many events will serve these purposes other than tournaments.  Promotions are a good example - going for a higher rank works just as well, on all counts, as an upcoming contest. 

You can also do an informal event.  For example, Clarence Bass (a fairly famous author in the area of fitness and fat loss) used to schedule an annual photo shoot for himself.  Everyone knew when it was going to be, and he had to be in tip-top shape for that day.  Weight Watchers weekly weigh-ins serve the same purpose, as do weddings, Memorial Day (the first day of the season you hit the beach), and others.  You can replicate this in karate.  Give yourself a date - maybe every 6 months or every year.  On that date have your classmates (or wife or mom or whatever) take a cheap digital camera and film you doing your 5 best kata (or spar everybody in class or do as many pushups in 3 minute as you can).  Tell everyone when the date is.  Put the video on YouTube - no matter how badly (or well) you perform.

If you're not using a belt test or an actual tournament you have to do a few things:
  • Make your peaking event (video shoot, photo shoot, just a test like doing a certain number of pushups or burpees in a certain time) public.  Tell your friends and classmates when and where it will be, then publish the results - on your web page, blog, YouTube, whatever.
  • Make the date a hard date.  If you get the flu the week before, do it anyway - your performance will suck, but that's part of the process.  The danger of having a "soft date" - where you give yourself permission to postpone the event - is that it becomes too easy to slack off on training and just push the date back.  The whole thing won't work if you allow yourself to do that.  On the other hand, if you break your leg, don't try to film yourself doing kata.
Now you organize your training around that "contest" date - even if it isn't a real contest.  Ramp up your training in the time leading up to the contest - make sacrifices to sharpen your skills as well as you can.  After it's over, ease off for a while.  Work on your more basic skills, strength development, whatever.  Take a little rest.  If you need to gain lean body mass, bulk up a little away from the "competition," then lean out as you approach it.

If you care about these things, you can time it so you're leanest during the summer, when you're more likely to be shirtless.  And make sure your schedule doesn't interfere with anything important.  If certain times of year are especially busy at your job, peak right before the busy season so you have extra free time when work is busiest.  You get the idea.

If you're just trying to get "in shape," photo shoots on or around special dates are always good.  Peak around a family reunion, anniversary, holiday, or birthday.  Pick something that works for you, and remember - make it public and stick to it no matter what!


Friday, February 25, 2011

What should rank mean?

Before I start, let me just clarify that this post is purely my opinion on this subject and is not by any means the official position of Seido Karate or meant as a criticism of any style or person in particular.  Having said that, I wanted to talk a little about what I think rank means, or should mean, in karate.

I distinctly remember many years ago hearing about a policy at a particular martial arts.  This school awarded promotions, or new belts, automatically upon a student's completion of a certain number of hours of classtime. I don't remember the algorithm, but you can imagine what it looked like - take 50 hours of classes to go up a belt, maybe 500 total hours to get a black belt (I could be way off on the number, but that's not the point).

To put it simply, I was horrified.  I felt that a rank - a color of belt - was supposed to represent a particular skill level.  I imagined legions of students slogging away in class, barely paying attention to what they were doing, then beaming with pride as they accepted their undeserved black belts.  It seemed like a betrayal of everything rank was supposed to mean - mastery of a martial art.  I believed that rank ought to represent a pure indicator of skill

Over the years my beliefs in this area began to shift.  In college I trained with a wheelchair bound student - Kevin - who everyone should read about here and here.  Seriously, stop reading this and read those two articles, they're more important than this one.  You can come back when you're done.  I'll wait.

There are many other examples that affected my thinking.  My teacher, Christopher Caille, who is a fantastic martial artist, had some knee problems (this was a long time ago).  He couldn't kick above his waist and his movement was somewhat hobbled (although he could still kick my ass at any time).  If you walked in and, not knowing who he was, watched him perform a kata, especially one of the more athletic ones, you might think his skill less than it was.  Despite that, it would have seemed ridiculous to reduce his rank.  His situation was temporary, though - but what about aging karateka?  Eventually all martial artists lose their physical ability to perform.  Should they lose rank as this happened?

There are other examples along the continuum that made me think more.  I'm not a physically gifted ahtlete.  I can look okay doing karate, but I might never look great (in the sense of having really sparkling technique, etc.)  What if I work much harder, for a longer span of time, than a more gifted student, and still fall short of their ability? Should I definitely be ranked below them?  What about an extremely un-talented student who worked very hard for many, many years?  For them to languish in the kyu ranks forever would seem unfair.  On the other hand, promotions shouldn't be completely unconnected to skill, not if high rank is to have any meaning at all.

Recently I was thinking about this matter some more.  What should the basis of rank be - work done or ability?  Or something else?  To answer that I backed up a little anad asked: what is the purpose of rank?

I am well aware that there are styles in which there is no formal ranking system.  I have no problem with that concept, and I'm not interested in defending the idea that a formal ranking system is a good thing.  But in a style, like mine, that does have a formal ranking system, what is its purpose?

First, rank serves an instructional purpose by conferring authority on a student.  If you're a white belt doing something, and the yellow belt near you corrects your form, then a sandan comes by and corrects your form in a slightly different way, you should listen to the sandan.  Is the sandan always right?  Well, no - the yellow belt might be right in that particular situation, but in general you can count on the guy who's been training in the style for ten years to know better than the guy who has been there six months.

Who should have this instructional authority - the person who has worked more or the person who is more talented?  I believe that the person who has put more work in - who has trained harder and longer - is usually going to be a better teacher, will have more transmissable knowledge, than a more gifted athlete who might have better technique.  Why?  Because the harder worker will have to learn all the subtle tricks and adjustments to technique that make them work, while a gifted athlete will often do them unconsciously.  The best teacher I ever had, I think, in terms of teaching basic technique, was a guy who was an extremely poor athlete and very uncoordinated.  He'd had to master every "trick in the book" to get his body to do anything that resembled karate, and so if you had any kind of technical problem you could be sure that he'd faced and overcome it.

Rank also serves as a cue for modeling.  If you walk into a class and see two people you don't know doing something differently from one another - whether it be attitude-wise or technique-wise - you should probably imitate the one of higher rank.  Now, do you want to model the more talented athlete more or the harder working athlete more?

Again, I think you'd be better off modeling the person who has put in more work.  Why?  I'll put it simply - you can try to mimic the attributes of a talented karateka, but you're never going to be any more talented than you already are.  Talent isn't learnable.  On the other hand, work ethic and dedication are things you can learn, or develop.  You're going to be a lot better off following the hardest worker in class and doing what they do than following the most talented person - unless they happen to be the same person.

Rank also serves as a guide for respect.  Take my style as an example.  I know only a small fraction of the people who train in Seido Karate personally.  When I meet new people in the style, I treat them all with respect (something I try to do in general with everybody), but when a higher ranking person says something I'll listen better.  I'll listen to their stories, consider their opinions, and generally try to treat them in the classic way we're supposed to treat our elders.

Again, the question is, should this kind of deference be shown to the more talented practitioner or the one who has put in more work?  Again, I think that the answer is the one who has put in more work, for two reasons.  First, I think they will generally show more insight - understanding comes from hours of training, not an inborn sense of coordination.  Second, in general we want to show that we value hard work so we encourage our juniors to work hard - showing the greatest respect for natural talent doesn't encourage beginners to work hard, it encourages them to wish they had more talent.  Showing the greatest respect for those who have put in a lifetime of hard work encourages beginners to try to earn that respect - by working hard for a lifetime.  That is something they can hope to do, talented or not.

I can't think of a sense of rank in martial arts that ought to be based on proficiency as opposed to time and effort.  The harder working, more experienced karateka should be ranked as high or higher than the more talented, less experienced and less hard working person who may show more proficiency due to having more talent.

All of which means that, in the end, I think rank should be given according to something very similar to the formula that used to horrify me.  Hard, consistent training should result in promotion - even if the student isn't as talented or can't move as well as their more talented peers.  I'm not sure the policy should be so cut and dried - maybe not a specific number of classes - and I'm all in favor of some allowances being made for people who train more often on their own (as opposed to classes in the dojo) and for really gifted athletes who master the movements and syllabus very quickly.  But, overall, I think that hard work repeated over time should be the basis of rank.

What about the student who trains consistently but doesn't improve?  That's a problem - not with your ranking system but with your teaching.  How can a student show up class after class and not get better?  If they show up and don't work hard then perhaps you should be encouraging them to find another hobby.  If they show up and work hard yet don't improve then their instructor needs to figure out the problem.

This summer I hope to test for my sandan.  Should I get it, that extra stripe on my belt will mean something - it means that my lower ranked classmates should pay attention when I give them advice, listen to my war stories, and treat me with a (small amount of) deference.  They should do so not because I have extra yellow threads stitched into my belt or because I coughed up the promotion fee, but because in order to get that stripe I had to spend many, many hours working at karate, and while doing so I've hopefully figured out some things they don't know yet.  Will it mean that I'm a better fighter than every lower ranking student?  Not by a long shot.  But it means I should know enough to teach them all a thing or two, even if it's while I'm getting my butt kicked by a younger, stronger, more athletic student.  And in just the same way, while I listen to everybody and try to learn from everyone, I pay extra careful attention to my seniors, and indulge them longer if their stories seem boring (which is very rare anyway), and know that they all have more than a few tricks they can teach me if I'm lucky during any given sparring session.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sparring Your Kohai

I've been posting a bit more sporadically lately, for which I apologize, but my new job is taking a little more time than I'd like - it's always annoying when work and family gets in the way of the important things, like blogging and karate training!

We sparred in class today and I had some thoughts to share.

In my dojo we are often in the position of spending a significant amount of time sparring with lower ranking students, children, and/ or people with injuries that prevent them from sparring effectively.  It's somewhat disappointing - I always find it more fun to spar people who are at least as good as I am, if not better (not that I'm a very good fighter, just that I'm not usually challenged by a green belt or an 11 year old).  There is a tendency to either "tune out" and go through the motions or go into full teaching mode - correcting your partner's mistakes while not really focusing on what you're doing.

There's nothing wrong with "teaching mode" in my opinion, but there are things you can do to benefit from sparring sessions even if you're sparring people who do not really challenge your abilities.

  • Practice your control.  I think your kohai will benefit from getting hit fairly solidly at least some of the time, but in general you want to be very judicious in the amount of force you apply.   
  • Focus on your posture.  Keep your chin tucked, the crown of the head back and high, your pelvis slightly rotated anteriorly, your lats tensed, core tight, and your shoulderblades tucked down and back.  Maintain this posture though the free movement of sparring - you probably won't be able to concentrate on these cues while sparring people who are good enough to send you into "survival mode," if you know what I mean.
  • Be more precise in your footwork.  When evading, focus on moving just enough to avoid getting hit and no further.  When attacking, work very hard to put yourself into the precise distance where your techniques can do the most damage (too close and you won't get full speed; too far and you'll miss or overextend yourself to hit your opponent).  
  • Practice your weaker techniques.  If you're a great kicker, try to use your hands more.  If you tend to block attacks, work to evade them instead.  You're not going to get beaten up, so use skills with which you are less comfortable.
  • Conserve energy.  Focus on eliminating the extra movement, bobbles, and other leakages in your energy structure.  Try to win your matches without draining yourself.
  • Attack with more precision.  If you do point sparring in your dojo (which we do, sort of) while wearing equipment (pads) you might be in the habit of striking in a general area - punching the body, kicking the torso, etc.  Instead, really focus on landing your strikes on very specific points - every shot should hit a pressure point or weak spot.  A punch to the solar plexus or a hook to the liver are NOT the same as a punch to the upper chest or a hook to the ribs.  You don't have to use a lot of power - you're not trying to kill your kohai - but really make sure you are landing your shots in a way that would be effective if you were to load them up.
  • Clear your mind.  Really focus on having an empty mind, not anticipating your opponent's moves but reacting to them.
I wouldn't say you can do all of these things at once - I know I can't.  I can only focus on a handful of cues at once.  But every time you're partnered up with someone with weaker skills you have a chance to improve on and polish your own.  Take advantage of it instead of just whining that you've missed a chance to fight someone really good.

By the way, the same logic can be extended to easier/ deloading workouts in any context.  Say you're a runner who is used to running 10, 6-minute miles in a training session (which is hard for you) or someone who does 10 one handed pushups per hand in every training set.  Suppose that you have a planned de-load - a workout, or a period of time, where you are deliberately backing off on the intensity and workload in your workouts (which you should definitely do periodically).  Suppose you decide to run 5, 7-minute miles or do just 5 pushups per hand.  Instead of just coasting through the workout - which you could do, since they're well within your abilities - really focus on your technique.  Make sure every step lands perfectly and is perfectly symmetrical (right leg and left leg moving the same way).  Make sure every pushup is done with a tight core and your shoulders perfectly level and tightly packed.  Really focus on doing everything right - you're not going to be distracted by the need to push through a lot of pain and/or fatigue.

Every rep of every workout is an opportunity to grow as an athlete and as an artist.  Value doesn't only come from the hardest reps or the ones where you are most fatigued.  Practice and drills are only wasted if you do them in a half-assed way.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Glutes and Lats

Every once in a while you might be looking at the answers to a whole bunch of questions and notice a significant trend in the answers.  This happens to me with diet - want to improve performance?  Enhance longevity?  Reduce inflammation?  Reduce indicators of aging?  Improve appearance?  Moderate carbohydrate restriction shows up in research on all of these.  So... eat fewer carbs!

I've been noticing a similar trend with training.  Think about these questions:

Do you want to improve overall athletic prowess?  Focus on training glutes and lats.

Burn fat?  Glutes and lats (they're the biggest muscles in the body, hence will burn the most calories).

Increase overall muscle mass?  Glutes and lats (see above).

Maximize your cardiovascular conditioning?  Glutes and lats (see above again - bigger muscles means more cardiovascular demand means more fat burning means more potential for muscle growth).

Protect the spine from injury?  Train glutes and lats (lats stabilize the core,supporting the spine; strong glutes protect the lower back).

Increase overall power generation and transmission?  Glutes and lats again (hip extension for generating power; lats for stabilizing the core to transmit that power).

Look good to the opposite sex?  Glutes and lats yet again.  You can't beat a nice v-taper and a round, tight pair of cheeks to attract attention.

In summary, your training should always, always include a hip - extension dominant exercise (swings, deadlifts, squats) and some serious pulling (rows, pullups/chins, deadlifts, etc.)

You should also be doing some anti-rotation work, some pushing (pushups, handstand pushups,etc.) and some abduction/ adduction work, but everybody from the weekend warrior to the health conscious person to the serious athlete to the serious martial artist should focus their training on the lats and glutes if they want to see the best results.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Making Time Count

One reason I think some martial artists are skeptical about the value of supplementary training is that they see any kind of strength and conditioning work as detracting from skills practice in their art.  Given that most of us have a fairly limited time to devote to our arts, every hour spent on S&C is an hour taken away from practicing our art.  I think this idea comes from the observation that very strong, fit people are often not very good fighters, and that karateka who become overly interested in strength work sometimes let their skill practice fall by the wayside.

I have two general responses to this line of thinking.

First, the value of S&C work for the martial artist needs to be placed in a very specific context.  This context rests on two points.  The first point is that any person's adaption to a style of training will be inversely proportional to the time they've spent doing it.  For example, if my friend Kathy, who is an experienced runner, practices running for 10 hours over the next two weeks, her time over any particular distance (let's say a mile) isn't likely to change very much.  She's put in a lot of hours and miles running already.  On the other hand, if I started training for distance running, using some intelligently designed protocol, I bet I could significantly reduce my mile time in 10 hours of training.  I might bring my time from ten minutes to nine minutes - keep in mind I haven't run a mile all at once in ten or fifteen years.  There's no way Kathy - who runs marathons fairly regularly - is going to shave a minute, or ten percent, off her best mile time over the next two weeks, month, or perhaps even the next year.  Of course, her mile time is far better than mine is, far, far, better, but her rate of progress is also much lower.

This means that a weak person starting a strength training program is going to get much stronger, very quickly.  An out of shape person starting a conditioning program is going to improve by leaps and bounds over the short term.  Neither will end up with elite status in that quality in just a few weeks - but they will hugely improve.

The second point is that any person's fighting ability is going to be some product of their skill, strength, and conditioning.  You can argue the math, whether any particular quality is more important, but given equal skill a stronger fighter is a better fighter.

So consider two very skilled, but weak and out of condition fighters.  Both spend 5 hours a week training total.  One devotes all of his training time to skill training while the second starts spending 25% of his training time on S&C and 25% on conditioning (remember, both start out very skilled but weak and out of shape).  Who will be better after 6 months?  Clearly the second fighter.  The first fighter, already very skilled, will only be slightly more skilled.  The second fighter will be only very slightly less skilled than the first (having spent half the time practicing his skills) but will be much, much stronger and much better conditioned - having started out weak and out of shape.

The trick is to think of training in terms of "bang for the buck" - this expression is used in this context by Robb Wolf all the time.  For a weak person you can't get more return on your investment of work and/or time than by strength training.  If an Olympic weightlifter comes into your gym to learn to fight, they're going to do best by focusing entirely on skill training.  If a powerlifter comes in, they probably need mostly skill and endurance work.  You can make the greatest overall gains by spending time on what you're weakest at.

Of course, if you want an elite level of skill, you're going to have to continually train your skills.  But you're going to be much better as an overall fighter if you spend some time on the S&C side as well, because for a minimal investment of time you can make big improvements.  But remember that this only works to a point.  Eventually, adding in more strength training will only result in marginal improvements in strength.  At that point those extra hours might be better put into pursuing greater skill.

The second overall reason to incorporate S&C work into your practice, in addition to the fact that it will make you better at your art, is for health.  Being very skilled at karate won't protect you from a heart attack or stroke.  Having a 500 lb. deadlift, however, will do both.  Unless you are faced with serious violence on a regular basis you're probably better off doing a little extra S&C work, even at the expense of some skill work, to cover your bases.  You're not going to be a very good fighter if you're dead.

Take home:  do at least enough strength and conditioning specific work to take advantage of the big changes that occur when someone starts a style of training, but not enough to become an advanced strength athlete or an advanced endurance athlete (unless that's your goal, in which case go ahead).

For me that amounts to maybe an hour a week of pure strength training and maybe a half hour a week of pure conditioning training, and the rest of my time devoted to skill development.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Intermediate Strength Routine for Karateka

As I've written before, you should change your strength routine every 6-8 weeks to encourage consistent progress.  Most people can't just pound away using the same exercises, poundages, and rep schemes and get consistently stronger.

I decided to prioritize my weakest movement, the pullup (or chinup).  I have never had a good connection, or feeling, in my lats.  I can rarely get a pump in my lats, and when I do pulling exercises I rarely feel a strong contraction in those muscles.  The problem is that along with the glutes the lats are the most important muscles in the body, and I believe correct use of the lats is a key to developing good striking power with the hands.

To improve my lats I knew I needed to do lots of good reps, preferably done without generating a lot of fatigue. That's the best way to improve the nervous system's ability to fire a muscle or movement pattern.  Ideally I'd grease the groove - do a couple of reps at a time, many times a day.  Unfortunately, I work in an office where doing chinups is sort of frowned upon.  So I needed a workout that would let me do lots of sets.

As before, I decided to keep my workout in a circuit style.  I just prefer to rest from one exercise by doing another one.  As long as the loads (weights I use) aren't high enough to really tax my conditioning I feel this is the most effective use of my time.

To choose a pulling movement I had to pick between pullups (palms facing away) and chinups (palms facing towards you).  Chinups are easier - because the movement is biomechanically stronger for the biceps - and I can't do very many of either exercise.  So chinups were the answer (remember, I need to do lots of reps to get the effect I want).  I could have done band assisted pullups or something, but I didn't want the hassle of setting up extra equipment in my bedroom.

Here's what I came up with:

10 sets of chinups (I did 1 rep each set the first time, while this past Tuesday I'd increased it to 2 reps each set).

After each set of chins I did either pistols with each leg (I started with 2 reps per leg per set and got up to 4 with the last workout) or 8 or so swings.  I alternated so I wound up doing 6 sets of pistols with each leg and 4 sets of swings (I did pistols after the 5th and 6th sets of chins).  I cheat on the pistols - I hold a pair of 5 lb. dumbells while I do them to maintain my balance.

After each of the first 5 sets of legs I did a set of one arm pushups with each arm.  The first workout I alternated 2 reps with 1 rep.  This past Tuesday I did 3/ 2/ 3/ 2/ 3, for a total of 13 reps with each arm.  I do these with my legs spread fairly wide (which makes it easier), touching my chest to the floor with every rep.

After the 6-10th sets I did handstand pushups with my feet on a dresser, using pushup bars to get more depth.  I manage 5 reps each set.

The whole thing - 10 circuits, a total of 41 sets if you count each single limb exercise separately - takes just under 20 minutes.  Once it is done I add a couple of sets of adduction/ abduction - either leg raises with an ankle weight or sidestepping with my feet in a band, isometric ground - squeezing out of a deep horse stance for the adduction.  This adds and extra 2 minutes or so.

Total time?  Maybe 30 minutes if you count the warmup.  It's a nice predominantly bodyweight routine.  I'd like to build up to sets of 5 on these exercises before I do something to make them harder.  To make them harder I'd tighten up the technique - do pullups instead of chins, bring my feet together on the pushups, stop assisting the handstand pushups, and use a heavier kettlebell or a pair of kettlebells for the swings.

The routine isn't core-centric enough for my taste, but I find adding in sets of rollouts or planks mid-way saps my energy for the other moves.  I've been doing more core work on my kata days and counting on the one arm pushups to give me a little extra anti-rotation work.

I do this, usually, twice a week.  It's a nice workout - doesn't fry my system, leaves me with enough in the tank to practice kata the next day, and I'm definitely getting stronger.  Give it a try!


Monday, February 7, 2011

Knowledge vs. Intelligence

I was talking to a friend at work the other day about smart people who don't think things through and dumb (or less intelligent) people who become very insightful by thinking correctly.  This dovetailed into other thoughts I had about martial arts, and I figured what the heck, let me blog a little amateur philosophy at you.

Here's my thesis:  if you want to make good rational choices you need to have two specific beliefs or characteristics.

By choices I mean choices of what to do or of what to believe.  Both are choices, though they're made differently.  A rational choice is a choice made for reasons.  Think of it as a choice you could defend.  Somebody who, for example, decides which way to go at an intersection by flipping a coin may in fact be making a correct choice - that is, they may end up going the right way.  But it isn't rational in the sense that it's a choice supported by good reasoning.

If you want to make good rational choices you have to mix humility and arrogance in a very specific way.  You have to be humble about what you know.  If you think you know everything already you won't spend the time and energy needed to both fact-check the things you think you know and explore the things that are outside your knowledge base.  This is a pretty classic idea in martial arts - the parable of the student and the full cup of water is exactly about this (very briefly, a student is compared to a full cup of water, it's so full there's no room for more knowledge, so the student can't be taught).

The second thing you need is to be arrogant about how smart you are.  What do I mean by smart?  A smart person is able to quickly reach good conclusions from basic data.  It's like processing power in a computer.  Intelligence is a very complicated thing, and I don't mean to oversimplify, but you have to believe that given the same basic set of facts you are as capable as anybody of finding the patterns in those facts, discriminating between the trends in the right way, and drawing truthful conclusions from those elements.

Why do you need to think you're smart?  Because if you think a person or a group of people (doctors, strength coaches, martial arts instructors) are smarter than you and know more than you then you have no reason to think for yourself.  It would make far more sense to just do what they tell you to do.  Think about it - if your doctor knows more about bodies than you and is smarter, then he/she is going to reach far better conclusions than you will.  So why would you think for yourself?

On the other hand, if you can recognize that your doctor or strength coach may know more than you but may not be as smart, then you have motivation to study the basic facts behind the matter at hand (Should I take statins?  Should I back squat to improve my karate?  Should I pre-load my hips before strikes while doing kata?) because you'll think that you might reach a better (more truthful) conclusion than your doctor/ coach/ instructor.

If you think you're smarter and more knowledgeable than everybody, however, you'll have no motivation to think or work through any of your questions, because you'll think you already have the answers.  Which gives us the full cup of water analogy - if you already know everything then you can't learn anything new.

When I say you should be arrogant I don't mean that you should sneer in your doctor's face or act disrespectfully to your sensei.  I only mean that you have to maintain an internal belief that you can, if pressed, come up with conclusions as good as or better than anyone's, including your instructors.  You have to read an article by Mike Boyle and say to yourself, "clearly this guy knows more than me - his head is filled with observations from training hundreds of athletes for many years that I can't hope to match - but if I can learn from him what he's observed I have a chance to understand exercise as well as he does, if not better."

Be arrogant about how smart you are and humble about how much you already know.

And be smart enough not to wear your arrogance on the outside!


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hero of the Month: Dan Djurdjevic

My hero this month (this is actually for January, as that's when I started writing the post) is a man I've never met and whose name I can't pronounce.  I know him only through his blog (and a single e-mail exchange of little consequence).

Mr. Djurdjevic writes a blog about karate, karate technique, and its relationship to the internal arts (which he also studies).  His blog is in a way the total opposite, or complement, to mine - it's about technique, fighting strategy, and martial arts lineages, while spending very little time on supplementary conditioning or workout tips (I don't mean to imply that he'd endorse my training methods, just that the focus of his blog is completely different from mine).

First of all, Dan's a pretty good guy, at least as far as I can tell from reading a lot of his writings.  He disagrees with a lot of people but always does so respectfully and politely.  In the one communication we shared he was very polite.  None of that makes him my hero, of course - there are plenty of nice people in the world.

Mr. Djurdjevic is my hero because he exhibits a few particular traits in his writing that I find both admirable and personally valuable.  In no particular order:

Mr. Djurdjevic is completely willing to challenge martial arts orthodoxy.  His take on hip use in kata, the meanings of various techniques, and sparring in karate are all very different from most karateka today, even very many high ranking and prominent presences.  He is polite and always thoroughly explains his disagreements, justifying his positions thoroughly.

Mr. Djurdjevic manages to analyse the internal martial arts - specifically xingyi and taiji - in a way that is completely un-mystical.  He contrasts those arts with karate based on patterns of footwork (things like which foot tends to land during strikes) and the timing of momentum shifts.  No references to supernatural powers or extrasensory perception.  He does so in a way that intrigues me, and I'm hugely skeptical of the internal arts, or at least I was.

Mr. Djurdjevic is very careful and consistent to place his analysis and writings in a very clear context.  He writes about karate as a system of civilian self defense - and he consistently writes that he's using that context.  He's not discussing cage fighting, prison guard tactics, or special forces training.  As such his criticisms are super clear and to the point - he'll often specifically mention the ways that boxing or ring fighting techniques differ from traditional karate but keep the criticism in context - a boxing technique might be appropriate for a rule-bound contest where people wear gloves in a way that it isn't for a civilian self defense scenario.

You may not agree with everything written in his blog, but I guarantee that reading through it and thinking about all of it will at the very least improve your understanding of your own karate.  I can't recommend the blog, the results of Mr. Djurdjevic's complex and contextually aware thinking about karate, highly enough.

I was going to put links to several of his posts in here, but I'd rather you just troll through his archives and see for yourself what treasures await.