Thursday, January 19, 2017

Ronda Rousey: Lessons in Loyalty

As I write this we're a few weeks away from Ronda Rousey's 48 second destruction at the hands of Amanda Nunes in her attempt to regain the UFC bantamweight title, a little over a year after losing that title to Holly Holm.

A few things are interesting about this sequence of events:
  • Rousey was an extremely dominant champion for quite a long time, to the point where most people watched her fights to see how quickly she'd finish her opponents, not whether or not she'd win.
  • Rousey trained under the same coach for the entirety of her MMA career.
  • Rousey, despite being a very good athlete and having years to do so, never really learned how to box (or at least never, either in open workouts or in actual matches, demonstrated that she had). She could punch well, but never seemed to learn to move her head, move laterally, or defend herself from strikes in any way.
  • It was well known that Rousey couldn't box - she got hit fairly often in the fights she had before Holm, and many analysts were pointing out her boxing deficiencies long before Holm exposed them.
  • Rousey's coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, is objectively awful. We can see this in a few ways: his corner advice during fights is meaningless and detrimental, in stark contrast to the corner advice we hear from more respected MMA coaches. None of the fighters working in his gym, and there are a few, have been successful other than Rousey, and Rousey's success was primarily due to her Judo skills, which she had developed elsewhere. We can also put at least some of the blame on Tarverdyan for Ronda's lack of progress in striking skills (again, she can punch well, it's the other skills involved that she still isn't executing at even an amateur boxer level).
So, a quick recap: Rousey is a former Olympic level judoka who started her MMA. Her judo skills were so good she became a dominant champion without ever developing a well rounded striking game. Even after being exposed for her lack of striking skills, she stayed with the same coach, not seeking out training elsewhere, a coach who not only couldn't develop her striking skills but was completely unable to advance the careers of the many talented athletes who had joined his gym.

None of the above is even remotely controversial. Literally nobody in the MMA community thinks Rousey is improving under Tarverdyan or that she has any chance to regain her title while she continues to train with him exclusively. So why does she stay with him?

There are two common narratives being offered to explain Rousey's behavior. 

The first 'explanation,' and by far the most common as far as I've seen, is that Rousey is too loyal for her own good. Tarverdyan is the coach who trained her from the time she was a nobody until she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She's embodying the virtue of 'dance with who you brought to the party.'

The other narrative, and the one I find much more believable (though I don't know Rousey personally, so this is all conjecture), I heard from Larry Pepe of Pro MMA Radio. His idea is that she's mentally fragile. We see lots of evidence for this - she's admitted to wanting to kill herself after losing a fight (!), she wasn't able to face media before the Nunes fight, she's been overly emotional and hostile towards opponents, she fights like a frontrunner (does well but only as long as she seems to be winning). She needs a coach who will coddle her emotionally, not being overly critical or harsh. Tarverdyan obviously works her hard (she was physically in shape for the Nunes fight), but they are very, very close emotionally, and he never seems to speak harshly to her. She won't leave because she can't handle the kind of criticism she'd get from a good MMA coach.

The first story, that Rousey is loyal to a fault, is obviously much more flattering. Loyalty is a virtue, after all; mental weakness is not.

But should we regard loyalty as a virtue in cases like these?

I am certain that Rousey should NOT remain loyal to her coach. His deficiencies put her in very real and serious physical danger - she was deliberately going into a cage and getting punched in the face by a very strong woman, sent in there by a coach who did not teach her to defend herself. With absolutely no hesitation I can say that her loyalty, if it was loyalty that made her stay, was misplaced. Not only that, but she HAD to have known how bad he was - there were dozens of professional combat analysts telling her that Tarverdyan is an awful coach, citing specific and numerous examples, and they were completely in consensus about it. Rousey's choice was a bad one, whether it was motivated by loyalty or by a fear of change.

But what about someone like me, and I imagine most of you readers? Those of us for whom martial arts is a hobby? for most of us, the consequences of having a less - than - great instructor are far less serious than for a professional fighter (I highly doubt I'll ever be in a 'real' fistfight ever in my life). A teacher who instructs in bad basic mechanics can put us at higher risk for orthopedic injuries, so that's an issue to think about.

Another major difference is that most of us aren't easily qualified to know if our instructors are less than great. Most of us train in a fairly narrow world - we don't test our abilities in violent conditions against the world's elite. 

If you've ever spent much time on YouTube maybe you've seen video footage of some epically bad martial artists. Do they know how bad they are? Do they realize how poor is the quality of the instruction they've received?

So here is the interesting question: suppose that you are an amateur martial artist, and you suspect that you could get better instruction from some other teacher or some other school. What's the right thing to do?

The traditional martial artist inside my heart wants to tell you to stick with your original teacher. Loyalty is important. The relationship between student and teacher is important.

But I'd hate for someone with an awful instructor to feel obligated to stay with them forever. That seems like a punishment.

Here are my thoughts:
  1. If your livelihood or personal safety depend on your martial arts skills, learn whatever you can from whoever you can. Loyalty inside the dojo doesn't matter when your life is on the line.
  2. If you and/or your classmates are getting injured at a rate you're not comfortable with (and you suspect that poor instruction is the culprit), go elsewhere. Loyalty is not as important as your orthopedic integrity.
  3. If you've been training for a short period of time, and you're making progress, stay where you are. If you're not a master after three months it isn't because your instructor is bad, it's because you've been training for just three months.
  4. If you're not making progress anymore, sit down with your instructor and see if you can work out together what's going wrong. Maybe you're not training often enough. Maybe your instructor has more to teach you but has been neglectful (it happens) and will help more now that you've made a point of it. If he/she gets angry at you and doesn't change anything, maybe it's time to move on.
  5. If you don't want to leave, but you'd like something more, learn on the side. Watch YouTube videos, go to seminars, ask questions on forums. You might even find something useful on this blog, or shared from my facebook page, every so often. Progress yourself. I pick up a good technical tip every few months from various sources outside my style (things that don't conflict with the way we do things in Seido).
  6. If you've been training for a long time, remember that your style is a social network, not just a place where you learn a set of skills. Maybe switching dojos would advance your technique slightly (and if it's more than slightly, then maybe you should switch). But it might not, and you'd be harming long lasting friendships that probably mean a lot to you.
I don't have solid, hard and fast answers to these issues. There are definitely cultural elements here that are strange and conflicting - I'm an American, with fairly typical American values and views (well, typical for an East Coast Jewish white guy) engaged in an activity bound in traditional Asian values. 


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Defense within Offense: Training to not get hit

There is a lot to be said about striking defense, so please understand that all I'm going to do in this post is make a small point, it's not at all meant to be a comprehensive treatment of defense.

We're a couple of days removed from Ronda Rousey's massive loss to Amanda Nunes, who treated her like a punching bag and stopped her in 48 seconds, less than a year after Holly Holmes did something quite similar to the once-dominant champion.

For now, a great video of the fight and a lovely analysis of what happened can be found here on Dan Djurdevic's blog (I'm not confident that the video will stay up because of copyright issues, so watch it soon).

Nunes and Holm used somewhat different tactics, but what their approaches showed in common was that Rousey doesn't know how to integrate defense into her offense (or, even, show effective defense even when that's all she's trying to do).

What does that mean?

If you watch some MMA you can see a vast difference in skill levels between competitors. There are some fighters who are really good at protecting themselves while they are attacking. So while they are throwing kicks and punches they are still not completely vulnerable to counterattacks. This can be done in a few ways:

1. Keeping a good stance (weight centered, chin tucked) so any returning strikes can be absorbed efficiently.
2. Staying mobile, both keeping the feet moving (not simply planting the feet and swinging for the hills) and keeping the head moving while throwing combinations so that they are presenting a more difficult target to hit.
3. Maintaining good position with the off hands for defense - for example, while throwing a left jab, keeping the right hand near the jawline to provide some protection. The shoulder can be used in a similar way (acting as a shield for the chin).

Again, some fighters are good at this, and some (probably most) are terrible. No fighters do it perfectly all the time, but Jose Aldo is usually pretty good at it, for one example. Lots of fighters who are said to be good strikers are effective because their offense is overwhelming, but when they get into situations where their opponent isn't cowed and starts hitting back they take a lot of punishment.

Now if you get a chance to watch fighters during training sessions, often the ones who are worst defensively show that in training.

Watch a fighter when they practice their offensive techniques - striking the heavy bag or pads held by a coach. Some fighters are good at moving their head off line, slipping and weaving, while practicing their offense, but most fighters will just wing punches while their head remains in a completely static position.

The problem is that during a fight (or even a sparring session) it's really hard to develop new habits (having another person trying to hit you is distracting). If you are used to throwing kicks with your arms flailing at your sides for balance, then try to keep your hands up in protective positions while you spar, either your kicks will suffer or you'll start to forget the modifications.

To avoid this: always practice your offensive techniques the way you'd want to use them in a fight/sparring session. If you know you should keep your off hand near your chin when you punch, make sure you're doing that when hitting the heavy bag, even if the heavy bag isn't going to punch you back. If you know you should be pivoting and moving laterally while throwing long combinations in a fight, do that when you're hitting the heavy bag or the mits, even if your target isn't throwing back at you.

Maintain responsible defense even when you don't need it.

A short list of things to do (I'm sure there are more suggestions that could be added to this list):

  • Make sure your head does not stay in one place while you throw punches and kicks - keep slipping it into different positions.
  • Keep your hands in responsible defensive positions while kicking (and your off hand while punching).
  • End every attack combination by stepping back, pivoting, or moving away, not frozen in place waiting for a counter.
  • Keep a good stance - balanced, weight centered - at all times; don't 'reach' too far to land your strikes.
  • Have a coach/ training partner watch you occasionally to make sure you're not presenting yourself as a sitting duck while practicing your offense (sometiimes this is hard to notice yourself).
Overall, the idea is to maintain in your mind a strong awareness of keeping yourself hard to hit while your'e attacking, while by inclination I think most of us tend to think only of how to hit the other person when we practice hitting techniques.