Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sparring Styles: a Training Paradigm

Have an idea I wanted to share about teaching beginners how to spar.

I've seen a few cases of younger students learning how to spar, and most of the time I see students paired up with someone of similar skill level, fully covered in foam and hard plastic shells, and told to spar. Some kids are naturally aggressive, and they tend to do better, until they use too much force, where someone will usually tell them to control themselves. Some kids never seem to really get the hang of what they should be doing (I was one of those for a long time), and I imagine many become discouraged and quit because of it.

So I have an idea of a systematic way to train students to free spar, based on a very simple notion of the different styles that someone can use in sparring.

There are a lot of different ways to categorize fighting styles. Boxing has several - the outfighter, the boxer puncher, the swarmer - and you can read a lot of analysis of fighting careers, arguing about which fighters use which styles predominantly (almost no really good fighters are all one thing, but most also tend to fall into one category or another).

Styles are often defined by a few things:

  • Preferred range. Does the fighter 'want' to, or try to, or work to, be far away from their opponent, close in, or at a middle distance?
  • Initiative. Does the fighter try to initiate exchanges, applying pressure by continuously attacking, or do they prefer to wait for their opponent to make a move, revealing openings that can be exploited?
  • Orientation. Does the fighter fight orthodox (left hand forward) or unorthodox (right hand forward)?
  • Psychological tendencies. Is the fighter a front runner? A front runner performs very well as long as he/she seems to be winning, but quickly falls apart if the fight starts to go bad. Some fighters are the opposite, and can't seem to really 'get going' until they've been hit, preferably hit hard and hurt.
  • Risk aversion. How willing is the fighter to take a chance in order to create an opportunity?

I"m sure there are other dimensions that I've missed, but I hope I've given a rough idea of how we can determine someone's style. It's a fun exercise to identify the styles of your favorite fighters, identify the styles you like most (if you follow fight sports), identify your own style, and establish the weaknesses and strengths of each style and each matchup (some styles are stronger than others in certain matchups, like rock paper scissors).

Here I want to focus solely on Initiative.

Every sparring exchange starts from a pretty much identical place. Two people are facing each other, in some kind of ready stance, at some distance where they aren't touching. Sometimes they're bouncing in place, or circling slowly, or standing relatively still, but they're at some distance and not exchanging.

Then someone moves. Sometimes this takes a while, other times it's quick. One person attacks/ moves in/ initiates an exchange, and the other person responds.

Stylistically, some people are more likely to move/attack first, and some are more likely to wait for their opponent. I'm sure there are some people who are exactly as likely to do either. For the sake of this post I'm going to make some quick definitions.

The pressure fighter is the person who wants to move first, to initiate an attack.
The counter fighter is the person who wants to wait, to let the other 'guy' move first, and act in response to that attack (i.e. to counter).

There are some gray areas here. Does a feint count as initiating an attack? I don't want to get too bogged down, so let's agree that these distinctions are not absolute, but more like guidelines to help us make order out of the chaos of free sparring.

Sometimes two pressure fighters meet each other. This tends to look like a brawl, as you have two fighters both trying to move forward and attack at the same time. Sometimes you have two counter fighters meet, and this can be tedious and slow, as each patiently waits for the other one to lead and make a crucial mistake.

Ideally, a pressure fighter fights a counter fighter. In that situation pressure fighter has to learn to attack responsibly, knowing that the counter fighter is ready to exploit any openings in his defense, while the counter fighter has lots of attacks on which they can practice their skills - the timing and techniques of countering an attack.

So what is my system of teaching?

First, I believe nobody should free fight until they have a decent handle on the basic techniques of their style. You don't want to still be concentrating on how to throw a punch while you're trying to throw it at a live opponent who is also trying to hit you back. How long should that take? I don't have an exact number, but I'd say between six months and two years, and I'm willing to make allowances for gifted or slow students. I'm not a fan of throwing white belts into free sparring.

While the students are learning the basic techniques (how to stand, how to kick, how to punch, how to move, how to block), they should be taught a basic understanding of these styles. They should have an idea of how the pressure fighter has to move so they aren't just charging in like wild boars, flailing their arms at the opponent.

When they start to spar, beginners should NEVER fight beginners. Instead, beginners should ALWAYS fight intermediate students. BUT the beginners should be taught to ONLY fight as pressure fighters. They should always lead, always move first, and try really hard to attack without getting hit hard in return. They will learn to recognize attacks, judge distance, and move within striking distance, all the skills that they'll need as a counter fighter.

The INTERMEDIATE students that are fighting the beginners should ALWAYS fight in a counter fighter style. Counter fighting is harder - you have to recognize the attacks coming and respond, which by nature takes extra cognitive processing over just attacking with what you want to attack with. But the intermediate students already have a better sense of timing, distance, and fight awareness, because they're not new anymore - they've been learning that stuff as a pressure fighter this whole time.

So an intermediate student has a block of time to learn basics without using them, along with learning the theory of combat as a theory. Then they have a block of time to learn to be a pressure fighter responsibly - to lead and attack without getting clobbered. Then they have a block of time to learn to be a counter fighter, to react to an opponent's mistakes. Once three blocks of time have gone by the student is advanced. And just to give some perspective, I'm imagining that these blocks are somewhere between six months and a year and a half - I'm not saying anyone should be stuck in one category for a decade. And if you think the blocks should be unequal in length I have no problem with that.

An ADVANCED student should be pretty competent at everything. The ADVANCED student can fill in as a pressure fighter if some intermediate student needs a partner or as a counter fighter if a beginner needs a partner. And the ADVANCED student is ready to face other advanced students, and in those situations they can use whatever style they're comfortable with.

I also think it would be useful if two advanced students spar, and both are definitive counter fighters, they should probably agree to take turns going against type. Two really disciplined counter fighters just watching each other is a waste of training time.

A few additional points:

  • Being a pressure fighter is not an excuse to brawl or fight without control. Even if you're attacking first you should use the appropriate amount of contact and defend yourself (keep your head moving, move laterally to avoid strikes, keep your hands in responsible positions for defense, etc.)
  • I am NOT saying that either style is inherently superior. I am saying that everyone should be reasonably good at both styles, even given that everyone will probably have a preference for one over the other.
  • In every free' sparring sessions where one partner is less than advanced both partners should recognize that they have a role to play. The beginner student should never spend an entire round backing up. The intermediate student should rarely jump in on the attack (exceptions can be made). In short, everyone should have a clear notion of what, generally speaking, they're supposed to be doing.
Whether you use the notion of styles to teach sparring or not, it is a useful system for analyzing your own sparring ability and planning strategies for use in your own free sparring practice.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Kata for Athletic Development

I was reading comments on an online martial arts forum the other day, and some people were discussing the usefulness of kata. One person remarked something like, "if your kata wouldn't work on the street then they're worthless."

This is an incorrect way of looking at kata, or at training in general. It's just as wrong headed as if someone said, "if your pushups wouldn't work in a street fight then they're not worth doing."

Of course nobody is going to drop down and start doing pushups during a fight (or at least, I can't think of any possible situation where that would be smart). But we don't do pushups to practice for a fight - we do pushups to develop attributes that would help in a fight.

Kata, in my opinion, can be seen in the same light. While some kata or some parts of kata might contain movements that are useful in a fight exactly the way they are in the kata, that isn't the only criterion we should use to judge the effectiveness of kata.

I've said this before, but I think it bears repeating: when correctly done, kata practice is very useful for athletic development.

What I mean by 'athletic development' is the development of athletic qualities like strength, endurance, proper movement (using the scapula properly, hip mobility, thoractic mobility, breathing coordination, that sort of thing).

There is a lot of focus paid to kata by bloggers and guys working the seminar circuit to discuss the bunkai in kata. Bunkai are basically self defense applications for the movements in a kata - if you've ever trained traditional kata, you know that there are a LOT of movements that seem impractical or weird or useless, and there's a large group of very knowledgeable practitioners who try to unpack the practical uses for those movements - finding a way that those seemingly silly movements can be used in real combat situations.

Now I don't have anything negative to say about anybody who explores the practical applications of kata movements - that's fantastic work, even though I personally don't invest a lot of energy thinking about that.

But what I find interesting in kata is not the applications of certain movements to combat or self defense, but the application of those movements as exercises that develop athletic ability.

For examples:
  • Moving forward and turning in zenkutsu dachi (front stance), especially with turns of various degrees, is a lot like the lunge matrix exercises that athletes will use. You can look at taekyoku kata as a long sequence of modified lunges in varied directions.
  • Large circular overhead movements (think shuto mawashi uke) are great for mobilizing the thoracic spine, which will make all upper body movement more efficient and improve shoulder health.
  • The opening 9 moves of Seienchin, or moves 5-6 of Gekisai Sho, are great for posture and scapular control.
  • All kata, if paced properly and done vigorously, provide a form of High Intensity Interval Training.
I'm sure there are many other examples.

I first noticed this when training for my nidan promotion - I was doing a lot of kata practice (kata performance is a significant portion of our promotions), and I found that my movement during sparring was much better than it had been, and the only footwork/speed drills I was really doing was kata.

I'm not trying to claim that any kata were developed or modified specifically to improve athletic ability - I honestly have no idea if any historical figures had this in mind.

But, when you are thinking about your kata practice, and wondering why certain moves are present or what benefits you can gain from that training, it might be worth thinking at least a little bit about things like how performing those movements can improve your physical qualities, indirectly making you a better fighter, and not just how those movements are directly applicable to combat.

Dumbass Martial Arts? Maybe...

There's a facebook group called Dumbass Martial Arts (I won't link to it, though I'm sure you can find it if so inclined) that shares videos of martial arts things that are, to varying degrees, ridiculous.

Just to be clear, I have nothing against this in principle. Many martial artists deserve to be ridiculed - especially the ones who make unjustified claims about the self defense applications of their bullshit arts (you know who you are). And I understand the urge to laugh at the expense of those less knowledgeable than you are. It's fun to be in a club (traditional martial artists! Real martial artists!) that other people either don't know about or think they're in but aren't..

And you can imagine the kind of  videos they share - if you can't, go to Jack Slack's pages in Fightland and watch everything titled Wushu Watch. Fake techniques, partners that throw themselves around the room, all kinds of bullshit and craziness.

The other day there was a post in this group of a woman doing a kata in some kind of competition, with a #bullshit tag on the post.

I won't link to the video here, but the woman in question was doing a traditional kata but with a kind of XMA presentation. If you're not sure what that means, do some youtube searches around xma kata competition and see what you find. Her ibuki was a long, drawn out scream, many seconds in length. Her stances were so deep that they were obviously completely ineffective. When she kiai'ed it took minutes to end. Every kick was at least head high. It looked like kata designed to look cool to people who know nothing about martial arts.

In short, to a traditional stylist, it was somewhat painful to watch.

The comments were pretty much what you'd think - people were brutal. They said how awful she was, how she was disrespecting the art of karate, how the judges should have walked out, and so on and so on.

And, to be honest, I'm not a fan of the presentation either. It's not the way I practice karate, it's not how I want to practice karate. If I had to choose between watching that sort of kata and kata as practiced by an old school karate practitioner, with short, effective movements, realistic stances, and functional breathing, I'd prefer the latter.

However, I really dislike the level of disdain people showed this young lady.

There are two levels on which I'd defend her:
  1. She might not know better - she might have a teacher who has convinced her that what she is doing is either good traditional martial arts or effective martial arts in a self defense context, and she believed that instructor, in which case the fault is her instructor's, not hers; or
  2. She likes what she does, and while she knows that it  is neither traditional nor effective for self defense, it brings her joy.
I don't know the woman from the video, or what she thinks of her own performance. But when I watch it, I see something that isn't traditional karate, and doesn't seem very practical for self defense, but which:
  • clearly demonstrates a high level of athleticism;
  • clearly demonstrates a high degree of commitment - she clearly practiced that kata for many hours, with great focus and determination;
  • clearly contributes to her fitness and health - nobody can do kata in an XMA style and not be reasonably strong, flexible, and fit;
This reminds me of my thoughts when I first read a few articles about tricking. If you're not familiar, tricking is a practice where people work on high difficulty martial arts techniques, like jumping spinning kicks, cartwheel kicks, etc. - the kinds of pseudo-gymnastics moves that look cool but that represent only a tiny portion of traditional karate (largely because they're mostly useless in 'actual' fighting). At first I scoffed, but most guys who practice tricking don't think they're learning to defend themselves, nor do they think they're really learning traditional martial arts. They are fully aware that they're just mastering a set of skills that they think are cool, and who are we to argue with that?

I think we should ridicule or scoff at martial artists who do these XMA style or alternative (any style that doesn't seem effective) performances in two situations:
  1. If they themselves claim that what they're doing is highly effective for self defense (this puts their students in actual danger, which isn't cool);
  2. If what they're doing is orthopedically dangerous - explosive movements are inherently higher in risk, but there are correct and incorrect ways to do them, and if a particular practitioner is moving in a way that is exceptionally dangerous to practice then we should scorn them.
So for the folks over at Dumbass Martial Arts, in my humble opinion, you should lay off anyone doing kata in some crazy over the top style, UNLESS they're claiming that such a performance is better for self defense OR they're doing things that will obviously hurt them to practice. Otherwise, acknowledge that they're doing something they think is cool, even if you disagree, and either ignore them or try to enjoy their performance for what it is.

My two cents.