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conflict management and practical karate
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Present and past perspectives on my training

Mon, 2017-09-04 12:45

Don’t get me started on all the critiques I could make of my karate in this picture. 

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.

Last day at school.

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.

Hospital time is never fun but at least these days (in the UK) you can often get small rooms, a personal TV, internet access and even ensuite facilities. I’ve been lucky and even in the days when we didn’t have such luxuries I still had great care from military and NHS staff.

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.

I have access to free weights, a bench, a rowing machine, battle rope, mats, kick bag and the Great British countryside. Not to use them would be inexcusable. 

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.

Self Defence on a road trip or acid trip?

Tue, 2017-08-08 13:48

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.




Stop deskilling yourself!

Tue, 2017-07-18 16:38

There are lots of ways to train the martial arts, and many different and differently weighted reasons to do so. There is a danger however that through misguided training weighting choices, we may actually be hindering the skill development either of ourselves or of our students or worse, reducing it.


Developing stamina

Stamina is a useful attribute, although often ‘sport specific’ due to the tasking placed on different muscle groups by different activities. In baseline terms, in our daily lives, most people want the ability to climb flights of stairs, walk several miles or run short distances without discomfort.

Stamina training is important if you are engaging in a sporting event; you need to have the resilience to remain ‘at your best’ for as long as possible, and you need the ability to recover your equilibrium in brief rest breaks. To train for this you do need to regularly work at a pace that taxes the body, progressively pushing yourself so that you can keep going for longer.

Training with a raised heart rate (and where possible raised adrenaline levels) can also replicate and illustrate what the body is capable of doing under the stresses of a situation that may cause an increased adrenaline level. This is an important facet of a good training programme, however for reasons which I will explain below, care should be taken as to the percentage of training this forms.

Where personal training time is short, I have in the past advised using martial arts movements as a substitute for general aerobic training to maximise training time and technique repetition. This advice does come with a caveat however: repeating martial arts technique is only good if the technique is good. While repetition is a pathway to good technique, sustained repetition of poor technique trains poor technique. As a result it is important to vary training speeds and intensities and drills to ensure that students are not wasting time drilling bad technique (and are training fast recovery of equilibrium as well as fast technique).


Developing will power

Dig deep. Push yourself. Keep on going. You can do it. We’ve all heard these phrases. Stamina training has long been recognised as one of the delivery methods of the developing the mind-set to ‘keep on going’, to ‘keep fighting’ or to ‘stay in the game’. Providing it is calibrated to continuously stretch and expand (rather than break) the comfort zone, this is a further reason why stamina training of some kind should play a key part in the training of those physically healthy enough to engage in it.


Developing skill related fitness

In physical terms skill may be defined as possessing reliable efficient and appropriate movement to achieve a desired result. There are six skill-related fitness components: agility, balance, coordination, speed, power, and reaction time. Skilled martial artists typically aim to excel in all six areas.

  • Agility is the ability to change and control the direction and position of the body while maintaining constant rapid motion.
  • Balance is the ability to control or stabilise the body, either when a person is standing still or when moving.
  • Coordination is the ability to use the senses together with parts of the body during movement. Using the hands and eyes together is known as hand-eye coordination.
  • Speed is the ability to move your body or parts of your body swiftly.
  • Power is the ability to move the body parts swiftly while applying the maximum force of the muscles. Power is a combination of both speed and muscular strength.
  • Reaction Time is the ability to reach or respond quickly to what you hear, see, or feel.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. To develop skill related fitness I have written in the past about the different benefits of different speeds and intensities in training and how some types are better for developing stamina, others for ‘testing’ ability, while others for developing ability.

If you want to have a reliable skill set then it needs to be practiced repeatedly, correctly. Training martial arts technique with a raised heart rate and (if possible) raised adrenaline levels needs to be done to test skill and to develop spirit. The issue comes when sustained ‘high speed’ or ‘intensive’ stamina training utilising martial arts training occupies too high a proportion of training time. When I see people engaging in this form of training, particularly if they are going ‘all out’, then usually after the first few minutes their guard drops and their technique becomes sloppy – and that is the individuals who looked as if they had good technique to begin with.

There seems to be a belief that the more time people invest in this training, the longer their skill set can be maintained, so they are making progress. This belief is fostered by the illusion created by them being able to move for longer, perhaps maintaining power levels for longer or even increasing them slightly. The problem is that for most of the time they are rehearsing technique at a low skill level: they are practicing, but not practicing perfectly. They are deskilling themselves by drilling bad technique. They are increasing their stamina which means that they can hold a skill level for longer, but because they are predominantly rehearsing the six skill related fitness attributes at a low level, their overall optimum skill level is decreasing.

This does not mean that there is no place for intensive martial arts training. It has its place as a test of ability, but that place is as an occasional event, and if weekly as a small fraction of that weekly session. Running, rowing, cycling, swimming, skipping or controlled high repetition lifting are all ways in which stamina can be increased – often in a time efficient manner due to the different pace compared with martial arts training. The greatest efficiency however is that these do not detract from the development of skill related fitness in the martial arts, which means that the skill level that is held for longer is a higher skill level overall.

The Fantastic Four – the elephants that carry your training world

Sat, 2017-07-08 18:50

We all build the mental worlds in which we live, and we don’t all live in the same world, even if we believe we do. Some worlds, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, we know are just fantasy. After all, the Discworld is a flat disc that is carried by four giant elephants on the back of a turtle that swims through space. Most martial artists build their personal training worlds on the backs of four elephants, elephants that I like to think of as the Fantastic Four (though admittedly some don’t even see or recognise all of them). These elephants that hold up our individual training worlds are Legality, Training Practicality, Training Viability, and Underpinning Psychology. The question is, “Are your elephants fantastic, or fantastical?”


Elephant One: Legality

What is legal in self defence does vary from country to country, however often people make a number of very flawed assumptions when it comes to what is legal and what is illegal.

A common misunderstanding of reasonable force is that it is somehow less effective or more gentle or gentlemanly than just ‘going for it’. That is not the case. Using reasonable force should not put you in any greater danger because you are simply using force when it is necessary to a level in response to the threat you perceive. A further myth is that ‘you can’t use force’. Here in England the late Professor of Law Gary Slapper noted that the Criminal Prosecution Service had found in 2005, when they looked at prosecutions over the preceding 15 years, there had been over 20 million crimes that they had looked into with regard to the use of force, but during that time there had only been 11 cases where people had been prosecuted for excessive use of force in self defence.

What is legal largely depends on context rather than techniques themselves. As a result it is more correct to think in terms of situations where doing something is likely to be interpreted as illegal: for example continuing to injure someone if they are unconscious or otherwise visibly ‘out of action’. In similar vein doing something that is likely to take a life is not necessarily going to be viewed as illegal if under the circumstances action is necessary and you have a reasonable belief that the threat to you is lethal and can convey that in subsequent interviews. Remember, even a simple punch to the head can be lethal. Engaging in legal use of force in self defence does not mean that you won’t be arrested because the Police have a duty to ensure that you have not acted in breach of the law.

Much of this comes down to having a thorough training methodology based on an understanding of the laws in the land in which you live, and being able to describe your actions in a manner consistent with those laws. In an online discussion with fellow instructor the excellent Marc MacYoung I once described the “I’d rather be judged by twelve rather than carried by six” approach as indicating “a casual approach to training and ROE that is bad for the trainee and bad for others in the environment they enter. To me the phrase implies an acceptance of uncertainty and a faith in the correct judgement of others, and I don’t like that at all. I don’t want the people I train questioning their decisions or ability to act or wondering whether they are going to go to court – I want them to be so clear on the self protection ROE that there isn’t any doubt clouding their minds or confusing their actions.” Marc immediately replied that he’d upgrade my ‘casual’ to ‘sloppy’ and he’s right. With the access to information and good training that is available these days there is no excuse for instructors to demonstrate approaches that are unnecessary.

A fellow instructor and I discussed the issue of ‘historical’ techniques recently and how they fit into this. I’m referring to applications of forms that are clearly likely to maim or kill someone when they no longer pose any threat. From an intellectual perspective these applications may have historical value, so should we teach them? If you teach them you are certainly liable if someone uses them in class, and could be liable in a private prosecution if they are used outside of class. Saying “I don’t teach this but you can do…” then demonstrating what you claim not to teach does constitute teaching a technique. In such instances my personal view is don’t teach it. You aren’t legally going to use it because it will never be necessary, and any student that has been trained to a level to be trusted with such knowledge should be able to spot the option without it being taught.


Elephant Two: Training Practicality

“Do not expect the combat fairy to come bonk you with the combat wand and suddenly make you capable of doing things that you never rehearsed before. It will not happen”

On Combat, Lt Col D Grossman, 2004


Under pressure people fall back to natural behaviour and the things they have drilled the most often; if the drill was appropriate to the physical, mental and chemical situation in which they now find themselves.

There are a number of things that some instructors make look very easy and simple to do, while not actually doing them. In fairness some of these are easy to do, the issue is that the students aren’t doing them (because to do so would involve an injury that would knock them out of training) and therefore aren’t actually getting good at doing them. The further issue is that because they aren’t actually being done people often have an over-exaggerated idea of how effective they might be against a resisting, emotionally charged and adrenaline fuelled (and maybe drug loaded) aggressor with a high pain threshold and a real intent to continue to harm you rather than stop on experiencing injury.

Most striking can be practiced through hitting a person slowly, and greater delivery power developed on pads or armour. Similarly a lot of grappling can be tested to a high degree. Once you get into ‘too deadly to train’ however you are getting onto more dubious territory. There’s no denying that some of that stuff works, but it may not work as well as you think – to a large degree because not everyone notices pain or injury when they are in a state that is causing them to be violent, but mainly because you’ve never really trained it.


Elephant Three: Training Viability

This is the corollary to the above.

I’m not going to flag up specific techniques although I’d invite you to take a good ‘third eye’ look at what you are doing and ask yourself – “Does this really work?” There’s stuff out there that works on a relaxed training partner but is not going to make any significant difference to someone whose mental focus is on hurting you. Pain compliance is great, if the other person notices pain. In similar vein there are moves that require very specific angles and set ups and incredibly frequent practice to maintain to use in a highly specialised training model.

With this in mind you need to be clear as to how what you are training fits within your long term and short term training aims. What is good for physical and mental exercise (long term health and continued interest in the discipline) may be timewasting or dangerous so far as self defence is concerned. That’s not an issue if self defence isn’t the reason why you are training.


Elephant Four: Underpinning Psychology

Can you hit another person as hard as you can?

Can you hurt or injure another person?

Can you hit someone in the face?

Can you claw at someone’s eyes?

Can you deliberately break a neck?

Can you deliberately hit someone with a blunt or bladed weapon?
Can you stab someone?

Can you shoot someone?

Can you do any of the above from behind?

This may seem like a strange list, it’s certainly not exhaustive, but until they have given themselves permission to do things like those listed above, a lot of people are temperamentally unsuited to actually hurting others. That temperament is something that does not necessarily go away with most martial arts training, and just because many people have been able to do such things under extreme pressure with no training at all does not mean that you or your students will be similarly motivated or enabled by circumstances.

Teaching people to do physical things that they are not mentally capable of doing is a waste of time. Exploring ‘red lines’ that might exist in lists like the one above through discussion of when they might be legally or morally acceptable is vital if you want students to have given themselves permission to do those things (or anything at all). Without that underpinning belief and release from inhibition students are far better off developing their ability to deliver simple unarmed powerful striking and throwing techniques that are equally effective.


These four elephants work together to bear the burden of your training world. They can be extraordinarily well-prepared and subject to regular review, or they could be a complete fantasy, a passed-down myth that has never been challenged by rigorous research or testing. Choose your elephants carefully for they carry your world.