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.
The meta-concept is the "Looking Glass." A reference to Lewis Carroll's book. You cross a threshold of experience and things that made sense in a certain way now make sense in a different way. When you were eight years old, girls were icky and there were girl germs and love was stupid. And love songs were stupid and poetry about love was stupid... right up until you fell in love for the first time. You stepped through the looking glass and even though an eight-year-old could tell you were being stupid it didn't matter. Because the logic and reality of one side of the looking glass no longer applies.
Falling in love. Having a child. The death of a parent. The death of a close friend. Your first fight. Your fiftieth fight. All are thresholds, and once you cross the threshold the way you think and the way you see the world changes on a fundamental level.
"Let it go." "Forgive." "Just get over it." From one side of the looking glass, this is worthless, meaningless advice. But everyone who has crossed that particular threshold has, at some point, decided to let go. From the other side of the looking glass, it is simply obvious.
"Put him down." "He never gets a move." "I own every beat in the rhythm." These are simple tautologies on one side of the looking glass, near-impossibilities on the other.
One of my friends has a metaphor for power generation. "Spill the tea." I'm close enough to the threshold to see it, but nowhere near close enough to use it.
When someone gives you advice from the other side of the looking glass, just because you don't get it doesn't mean it's not true. Conversely, when you cross a threshold, it doesn't make your new truth truer than the earlier truth. Just different.
The world is better than ever before. In the US, poverty doesn't mean what poverty means. The poorest people I know own computers that would not have been available to any government at any price in the 1970's. If you are reading this, you have access to a computing system that didn't exist not that long ago. You cannot believe you are poor if you have access to a system that no one in your grandfather's world could have imagined. Measure. Do you have access to hot water, ice, food from multiple continents despite any season and more knowledge than you could mine in a lifetime? Then you are a god, beyond what any Roman emperor could access. and you live in a golden age.
There is an old saying about academic politics: The politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.
Here's the deal. Since the mid/late 1800's, we have an ideal. We are all products of our culture and early education, so shift this 200 years in any direction and it might make no sense, but here goes:
- People matter.
- Equality is important.
- Individual liberty is important.
- People can continuously improve.
- Society can continuously improve.
- A legitimate government serves the people, it does not rule the people.
And, for as long as this ideal has been held as pretty much universal, there has been a constant tension between liberty and egalitarianism. They are mutually incompatible. If you allow maximum freedom (liberty) there will be wild disparities in possession, friendships... anything you care to measure. Conversely, there is no way to have egalitarian outcomes except by controlling individuals. Yes, I am aware that there is an entire branch of political philosophy devoted to proving that there is no antagonism between freedom and equality. Any six-year-old can shatter those pathetic arguments.
A quick and dirty way to phrase this, imagine a basketball game: If you value liberty more than equality, you want the rules applied equally to the two teams. If you value equality more than liberty, you will believe that any score that doesn't end in a tie is prima facie evidence of unfairness and you will continue to tweak the rules until all games are ties.
In the dawn of the 21st century, we forget that "poor" used to mean "starving" not obesity. Not that long ago, poor people in North America couldn't read, and now they have access to free Harvard courses. That a (personal example) an eight-year-old bottom of the line economy car can outperform the hotrods we dreamed about as children.
Bringing it home, people are tribal. They seem to need an 'us' and a 'them.' The less actual difference there is, the more vicious and heated the rhetoric needs to be. Communist, fascists and socialists were never enemies because they were different. They were always enemies because their policies appealed to the same people. They were similar enough to compete for resources. Civil wars are more vicious than other wars because of the similarities between the sides, not the differences.
And this big, scary divide in US politics right now? It is really simple. We agree on almost everything... except where we should strike the balance between individual liberty and equality. And because that is such a relatively minor point, tribalism demands that we get vicious about it.
Tribalism demands. We needn't obey. (Obviously) I'm heavy on the individual liberty side. We don't need to agree. We both want people to be happy. I believe that unfettered opportunity will have that effect for more people and, as an aside, that a few people pushing the envelope changes everyone's potential. If you believe stuff makes people happy and managing the output of stuff will make more people's lives better, you aren't my enemy. We just disagree.
First, distinguish between external and internal criticism. External criticism comes from other people. It may be wrong, misguided, actively designed to sabotage you… listen anyway. The more you want to find a reason to ignore or deny it, the more important it is to listen. If it is bad advice, you should be able to explicitly and dispassionately articulate why it is bad. But be careful. There’s a reason why watching for your own cognitive biases is a lifetime commitment.This post is really about internal criticism. Do you know why an outside copyeditor is necessary to a professional writer? Because you can’t catch your own errors. If you knew how the word was spelled, you would have spelled it right the first time. Yes, there are clumsy finger errors, etc. Quibbles. The point is, you generally don’t make errors you recognize as errors. Almost always, the decision you made in the moment was the one you judged to be best in that moment, with the information you had and the time you had to think. If you think of something better, cool. That’s a learning experience.One example. Just a synopsis, it would be really long to type. Climbing with a partner. His jumar (ascender) got jammed. Halfway up a slippery cliff. Rope wedged in the same crack as the jumar. Starting to get cold and wet. Only decision I could see was to unhook and free climb to get above him and work from there. Shitty climb on slippery rocks with no protection and a 40 foot fall.It worked. Six months later I thought of an easier, safer solution, and I was kicking myself for not thinking in a few minutes of something that took a half year of unadrenalized pondering. Sigh.Examine effects, not feelings. Most people’s problems are second or third order. Writing the essay is the primary problem. Worrying about the grade you might get is the secondary problem. Worrying about what people will say about your grade is tertiary. A big piece of ‘non-attachment’ is ignoring the secondary and tertiary concerns. Which is actually easy, because the primary problem/solution is usually physical and real, as opposed to both emotional and imaginary (and if it’s going to happen in the future it is imaginary in this moment.)Be in the moment. Related to the last one, but I get very specific about this. I mean to be in your senses. Look, listen, smell, touch, taste. Don’t look and then start an internal dialogue describing what is right there. Look, don’t describe. Listen, don’t judge. Live, don’t interpret. I know that’s hard, but it is really powerful.With a lot of attention/practice/mindfulness, you can do this with your internal states as well. This lets fear, anger, love, rage, annoyance, self-doubt—all that stuff— move through you without sticking. You can feel anger without becoming angry, and love without becoming stupid.Think less. The less time you spend thinking in words, the easier the last two points become. Meditation, solitude, hunger and fighting are some of the paths I’ve found. Those are in order, from easiest to hardest, but also from least to most effective.After Action Debrief. I’ve written about it here XXX link XXX. I f you’re going to have a critical voice in your head anyway, you might as well train it to be useful. In a nutshell, the AAD is just three questions: What happened? What went well? What could I/we do better next time?That’s it, but you have to be strong enough to say, “That went about as well as it could have.” Let yourself have your wins.
Focusing pain. Sudden sharp pain tends to clarify your mind and order your priorities. Give yourself some pain if you are too much in your head. Snap your ear whenever you catch yourself in your critical head.
There are more strategies that work. Remember that your brain can and should be exercised and disciplined, just like your body.
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.
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.
Where do I get the right to say that they are wrong and I'm right? Fair question. This is the way my brain works: These are people I care about and generally, but not always, that means I admire their intelligence*. If they believe X and I believe Y, I assume I'm wrong. I then, depending on the question go to first sources (like the actual court case). Or go to the data (the Bureau of Justice Statistics, commonly). Or design an experiment (Who is more hateful, X or Y? Let's type "All x should die" and "All y should die" into google and see who is talking about killing most.)
I think that's pretty solid. Confidant that it is far more than the people I am disagreeing with have done.
But here's the question, and it's really two three questions.
1) Should I even bother to tell them I disagree? I know a few sense it, but as long as it stays submerged, the friendship continues fine. Understand, they are usually passionate about their position-- one even said it was important enough it was okay to be wrong. I can't even wrap my head around that, largely because I'm not passionate about the positions. I am relatively passionate about the path to those positions.
2) If I decide to have this disagreement, how? Facts don't actually sway people. For that matter, if we agreed on an experimental design and their position was mathematically proven flawed, my experience is that they would double down. And never forgive me.
Oooh. There's a third question.
3) Most of them are happy being passionate. It may come across in words as feeling outcast and beleaguered and under constant attack, but that belief makes them feel special and gives their life meaning. If someone is wholly invested in their enemies as a core of their identity, is pointing out that their enemies** are imaginary a dick move?
The challenge here is not winning the argument. My ego doesn't need the strokes of winning. The challenge is preserving the friendship and, possibly, helping a few friends avoid a path that will be hard to recover from.
*There are other virtues I admire besides intelligence. No one has to be perfect or superior in all categories to be my friend.
** And this is a really fine line because there are always a few real assholes. There are millions of good christians, but the 70 (or less) members of the Westboro Baptist Church make the news. There are tens of thousands of people working to make a better world, but the loudest, shrillest and stupidest two percent become the poster children for 'Social Justice Warriors.' As long as that worse 2 % or 70 individual or whatever exist, the enemies, just barely, miss being completely imaginary.
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.
Jumping into this anyway, because it is important.
Criticism is a shitty teaching paradigm. Telling people they are doing things wrong, even telling them what they are doing wrong is literally worse than useless: Useless teaching would leave students unimproved. Criticism actually makes the students worse.
This will probably be a hard sell. When I came up through the (primarily Japanese) traditional martial arts, stern criticism was the standard teaching method. I've even had an instructor say, "Only perfect is good enough." And I was cautioned not to praise students because it would make them lazy. In the law enforcement world, right after I was promoted a senior sergeant told me, "Do you know why you'll never be a good sergeant? Because you don't understand that everyone is lazy and dishonest and our job is to catch them and punish them." Her crews were consistently poor performers because they spent more time watching their backs around her than doing the job.
But it's only a hard sell because we are all so used to it. When something is shitty, being the norm doesn't make it less shitty. We know criticism is poor teaching methodology.
Why is it bad? Let me count the ways.
- It's all brakes, no engine. Criticism stops behavior. If that behavior isn't replaced with a better alternative, improvement can only happen by luck.
- Criticism almost always works off the wrong metric. The instructor judges a strike (for instance) by whether it looked right. In striking, looks don't matter for shit, it's a kinesthetic skill.
- Criticism, especially of the wrong metric, is usually arbitrary. The coach may be looking at foot placement one minutes and hand position the next, may focus on a minor problem in stance and miss the big problem (something that would result in injury) in the hands.
- The instructor's reaction becomes the student's metric. Not whether the technique worked, not how much energy was delivered, but whether they got yelled at or not. Getting better, when you are measuring improvement by the wrong metric, is nearly impossible.
- When the student is anticipating the instructor's reactions, the student is thinking. Cognitive processing is too slow to use effectively in a hand-to-hand conflict and thinking about irrelevant things is worse. Excessive criticism makes your students slow.
- When the students are driven to avoid criticism, it pushes them from a gains maximization to a loss minimization strategy. In other words, they are no longer trying to win, they are trying not to lose, and that is usually a very weak, passive and reactionary strategy when the shit hits the fan.
- And to compound point six, the game they are trying not to lose isn't even the right game. They are worried about what sensei will say, not working to put the bad guy down.
- At the extreme end of this, when everything is criticized, the only strategy left to the students is to do as little as possible, to become as passive as possible. The condition is called, in psychology, "Learned Helplessness." Constant criticism creates passive people, which is another word for victims.
- Reward even small improvements. It doesn't have to be anything big, just a "Good job" or a nod. Just as people decrease behaviors that are criticized (punished) they increase behaviors that are rewarded. Rewarding small improvements creates a vector toward further improvement.
- Tell the students what to do. Avoid telling them what not to do. "Avoid telling them what not to do" is only seven words but because of the double negations 'avoid' and 'not' it is tons less clear than "Tell the students what to do." Positive statements are clearer than negative statements.
- Don't criticize bad techniques, replace them. Instead of telling someone her stance is wrong, show her where her feet should be and explain why.*
- Use the right metric. If you are teaching strikes properly, it will show on the heavy bag.
- Let nature judge. A lot of the wrong ways to do things hurt. That's why they are the wrong ways. Improper hand positioning hurts your wrist when you punch the heavy bag. A canvas bag will teach you when your punching angles are off. All the wrong ways to do a break fall hurt. If you use the right metrics, you almost never have to criticize because the world takes care of that for you.
That's bullshit, and if you have that little voice in your head, kill it.
*Quick note on explaining. I find it very useful to explain the underlying physiology or physics that make something work. If the principles are true, they apply everywhere and if the student understands the principles, he or she can adapt them under stress. That said, the principles work. They have visible effects. If you have to explain that something worked when it clearly didn't, you're wrong. You aren't explaining, you're attempting to brainwash.