Why do you train? What could you train for? What should you train for?
Across my clubs and those that are affiliated to me, we use the phrase training for life.
I focus on orientating my training towards self defence. There are compromises because in one of the systems I teach that means ordering things with regard to the traditional order of its kata, and some things I train are drills to illustrate principles rather than self defence per se (although these develop good understanding of biomechanics, which in turn increase your odds on delivering applications, which in turn assists effective physical self defence).
The reality however is the majority of self defence is not physical, and in practice I cover this through verbal presentation, examined material in the syllabus, advice on published reading material by other people, and my Sim Days. A further reality is that given the overall low prevalence of violent crime, the type of students I attract, and the training I give my students, the odds on them ever having to put the physical training into practice are very low.
But self defence isn’t the only thing I mean by saying training for life.
Most people face far greater health risks from physical inactivity or poorly trained physical activity than they do from violent crime.
Training for life is about providing good quality training that improves people’s health. The martial arts have not always enjoyed a good reputation when it comes to this.
While there are a number of long-lived martial arts practitioners, there’s no conclusive evidence to indicate that their longevity was the direct result of their training. In karate this is particularly problematic as the Okinawan population is generally quite long-lived.
There has been a generation of long term practitioners of martial arts in the west, particularly in Japanese Karate systems, who through a likely combination of genetic factors and inappropriate training have left the martial arts or required surgery to knees and / or hips to attempt to repair the damage that their training has done. There are still instructors out there demonstrating the same poor stances and mobility practices that will cause injury, many of whom run large clubs or associations.
Martial arts training should be challenging, but that does not excuse sloppy approaches to injury risk management. People come to a class to get fitter, stronger, more flexible, more mobile, to focus aggression in a safe manner etc. – they do not come to get injured. In any physical activity there are risks of injury, but injury should never be accepted as a normal thing: usually it means that someone has made a mistake, or the student has over-estimated their capability and not been reigned in by the instructor, or the instructor has pushed the student further than they should. This is not training for life. I take it personally whenever we get an injury of any kind in my classes or seminars, whether it’s a badly strained muscle or a cut knuckle, because I want to see if it was preventable, because its not why people come to train. I’m not wrapping my students in cotton wool; to be effective they have to experience pain and physical and psychological discomfort, but they don’t have to experience injury. From warm up through to warm down (and I’ve experienced some shocking injury causing warm ups in recent years by instructors young enough to know better) and training advice for home training, our methods need to be professional, up to date, and appropriate.
Training methods must be appropriate to the health and abilities of participants and take on board good practice and information from other physical disciplines. Where contact is used (and I believe it should be used on a very regular basis) its purpose should be understood and its intensity adjusted according to the needs of the trainee. Head contact in training should be carefully managed and minimised to strike the balance between the head being the most commonly injured part of the body in violent crime (and thus the need to practise attacking and defending it with correct distancing and commitment) and the need to protect the brain from long term damage. This does not mean ‘going soft’, but neither does it mean that a ‘good session’ should leave you drenched in sweat or moving in pain for the next week. As I have written before, fast training or exhaustive training does not necessarily mean focused or good quality training.
Why do you train? How should you train?
Train for life.
The other day while reviewing some light personal training I’d just done, I found myself wondering what a younger version of me would have made of both my current ability and direction, and my current approaches to training. I tried to see if I could look back at his methods and intent at a crux point in his training where moving away from his first training group to University made him have to make harder choices about how he spent his time.
I suspect the younger me would be surprised and perhaps disappointed at how little time I spend training.
That version of me would be up at 0600 to knock out a light two-mile run, some stretching and some kata before breakfast. He would be asleep by 11 at night to get as much rest as possible. He did weights three times a week, and he would make seventeen hours of karate classes a week in addition to personal training.
That version of me was enjoying his last full year of good health before anaemia, organ failure, dialysis, transplantation, medication side effects and multiple surgeries took a toll.
These days I get up to ninety minutes of light personal solo training a day. That has not changed since I started karate and is something I consider incredibly important for my health. That time includes any weightlifting or supplementary aerobic training I do and it may be spread throughout the day. I don’t run for training purposes any more. I’ll use a rowing machine or battle ropes if I want to take my heart rate up. Instead of training as a student in seventeen hours of classes a week, I teach six hours of classes over four days of the week (unless I’m teaching seminars or private classes).
I’m very aware of the weekly physical training deficit created over the last twenty-four years, especially because I recognise the difference between training and teaching. I don’t teach line work, so I’m not at the front of the class unless I’m leading students through a form; rather I’m spending the lesson moving from group to group, correcting and demonstrating. That has its advantages in terms of refining and ingraining good movement, but it’s not the same as training. With that said I think I make more of my solo training time now than I did then: I train more efficiently and choose my exercises with greater care. I also now get to spend at least two hours a day reading or observing subject matter related to karate, the martial arts and personal safety.
I’m certain that the younger version of me would say I’ve got soft and need to train more. I’m experienced enough now to appreciate the value of quality training time and cumulative training rather than just quantity, but I would agree with him that the majority of my excuses are simply excuses. If I need more rest, then I could go to bed earlier. I could get up earlier to get in some important training first thing in the morning. I could easily get another thirty minutes to an hour a day that would make a positive impact on my karate technique, my physical health and my state of mind. Alternatively I could lift more, stretch more, or add in more high intensity interval training to my slow practice.
Two weeks have passed since I wrote the paragraphs above and I decided to take up the imaginary gauntlet laid down by the memory of my younger self.
It’s been interesting.
So far I have managed to get up earlier, engage in more regular stretching, and squeeze in a little more physical training every day. I’ve not yet fully mastered the knack of going to sleep earlier. The results? Well, the most noticeable thing was that for the initial two weeks I definitely ached a lot more in the morning (until training for that day began), but after that fortnight my body adapted and I don’t ache any more than I did before I upped my training.
That’s a clear sign that in gentle increments I can increase what I am doing further, a signal that the real barriers to greater improvement were more mental than physical. Just because I am over twice the age of that young man, doesn’t mean that I can’t do what he did.
I’m smart enough to realise that the fact that I have had two transplants and have to take a lot of daily medication does place some restrictions on what I can do, and how far I should stretch my comfort zone each session, but that doesn’t stop me training and it won’t stop me improving.
All the best
Have you had to rebuild yourself or get back into your training after a serious illness or operation? Is it something you’re doing right now? Feel free to comment and share your thoughts and experience.
In the UK the recent release of crime statistics indicating a marked rise in the percentage of both moped related robberies (both of the vehicle and using the vehicle as a means of facilitating crimes) and acid attacks have caught the attention of the media. This has not escaped the attention of a number of self defence instructors who are using heightened public awareness of these attacks as a means of encouraging students to try their systems, with interesting videos, photos or online advice on how to deal with such attacks.
It is worth noting two things about both phenomenon: firstly when numbers are (relatively) low (in the hundreds), any increase is going to register as a higher percentage increase – which is what we have here; secondly these crimes are thankfully generally concentrated in small areas of the country as a whole. In saying that, I do not wish to downplay the awfulness of these crimes for the unfortunate victims (or witnesses, friends and families, or the emergency services) and in particular I hope that measures can be taken to licence and control the sale of corrosive liquids and increase their viscosity so as to make it harder for them to be used in this way.
This does not change the fact that on a scale of likelihood for most people, the odds on being a victim are comparable to those of being a victim of gun crime – incredibly low.
I have not given the matter of defending against moped riding assailants (whether on foot or while in a car) or of acid attacks detailed attention beyond reading accounts and making observations from footage (as opposed to setting aside the time to run multiple training simulations to trial and establish high percentage solutions) because it is very low on the likelihood of things that are likely to happen to me or my students. That is not to say that I am not intending to study it in detail to see how my current approaches apply, but I am not the type of instructor to knock out half-baked fantastical knee jerk crowd pleasing improbable and impractical solutions. Those who follow my videos on facebook will know that I recently included a ‘prank’ water attack by teenagers on unsuspecting adult trainees as one of the opening scenarios of one of my SIM DAYS, but this rather contrived event was done as a tool to raise awareness within my group of both the danger, speed and the difficulty of handling such an event – not to illustrate a fantasy response.
My personal knee jerk response to the increase in this particular type of attack is that the most practical immediate approach is to include Acid First Aid in the written syllabus for my students, and include it in the questions in their theory exams to ensure they have a familiarity with measures that can help reduce damage.
We should not lose perspective. If you are teaching a regular ‘self defence’ class or a martial arts class orientated towards the same, then the core priority for your students is actually stuff that they don’t really want to be spending a lot of training time on, because most of them are using your classes as an exercise medium. While I talk about training my students to avoid, deter, negate and escape aggression and physical violence, the reality is that a large part of that is covered in reading and writing exercises, and the majority of my classes are spent on the physical escape aspect with that and the other elements combined in my Sim Days.
So what is that escape?
Well there’s lots of stuff I could teach, but I know what I should be focusing on. Boring though it may seem, the core aspect, the bread and butter of any physical self defence training, has to be pre-emptive striking and defending against the most common form of physical attack. My students love the challenge of doing Failure Cascades, and they are a great form of dynamic (and often alive) training that helps reduce the unpredictability of violence and improves their responses by linking drills, and they enjoy switching tactics for those rare occasions where it might be more appropriate to control a person rather than simply escape, but ultimately they need to be able to hit hard and not get hit in the first place. That might not sell well, it might not be cool, it might sound too simple, it may not result in flashy videos or thousands of online followers, but it is evidence-based practice.