I recently read Junger's book, "Tribe." It hit a lot of my buttons-- not well thought out or researched, explanations just asserted even when there were far simpler possible explanations. He had a theme and a bias and stuck to them... but it got me thinking.
We live in an amazingly interdependent society. How many of you butcher your own food? Make your own clothes? Do both? Raise the cotton or wool to make the clothes? You're reading this on a machine you didn't make. Maybe, if you are really good, you assembled your own PC, but you damn sure didn't make it. Amazingly interdependent... but not really.
Societies have always been interdependent. You can think of the best survivalist societies you know-- the Kalahari Bushmen or the Lippan Apache or whatever and in all of those societies of super-survivalists, the greatest punishment was to be ostracized. Because as good as they are, no one survives for very long alone.
What's missing now is not the interdependence, it's the awareness. One side is easy to see-- the iconoclast rebel who declares himself free while typing on a keyboard (that some corporation produced) and sucking down corn chips and Mt. Dew (ditto) in his mom's basement (do I need to say ditto again?)
It's physically impossible to tweet "I'm off the grid."
Junger wrote about the other side. All of us, on some level, want to feel the interdependence. We want to feel the connection. Corny as it sounds, we want to serve.
A few of us have been trying to figure out why it seems that individual power--agency-- is so systematically denigrated in modern society.
I think there is an assumption that agency is a contrary force or contrary attitude to interdependence. It’s not. In what I consider a natural society— tribal hunter gatherers— increasing one's own agency was important for the good of the tribe. You wanted to be the bravest warrior or the most cunning hunter or the wisest healer. Change that, not ‘or’. Ideally ‘and’. So it was all about increasing agency or personal power, but for the good of the tribe.
You can look at the collectivist movements (socialism, communism, fascism) as attempts to force a tribal level of interdependence from the top down. It takes massive control because the tribes are artificial and we have enough radical ideas and different points of view that people can find their own tribes and can easily switch tribes. In order for it to work, people would need a monolithic set of values. Hence force. And failure. But those movements appeal mightily to the people looking for that sense of connection.
As wisdom (one type of power) increases, so does a recognition of interdependence as a fact. Individualists recognize that agency is not a contradiction to cooperative society. It is required if we want society to continue to improve.
At the same time, we aren't insects. We will never all have the same values or the same priorities. Nor should we. Wisdom is to let people disagree. Even more than focussing on increasing our own agency for the good of the tribe, we focus on increasing the agency of others. Accepting other people’s differences _and_ their power.
Our society tries to draw a distinction between the passive and the active-- and to include passivity in the definition of "good" (but that's a post for another day). That has resulted in the infantilaztion of adults. Screw that. Be strong. Let others be strong. Cherish their strength and your own.
Either way, it probably wound up on my shelf because the publisher used the same stock photo for the title that my publisher did for a book I wrote, "Force Decisions." Funny, right? And also a cautionary tale about using stock photos, probably. But it was a good book. A good read and probably the best layman's introduction I've found for some of the neuroscience behind decision making and fear.
There were a lot of crossovers between Sharps book and other stuff I like, and that's always gratifying. He presented academic theories that were very close corollaries of Gordon Graham's "discretionary time." And ConCom's Monkey and Lizard. Good stuff.
There was also a tool in the book. "Feature Intensive Analysis." He didn't describe the actual process, it was more of a, 'people have a tendency to gestalt, but when you have time you will make fewer mistakes if you analyze the features of the problem.' So I let the concept sit and played with it for a bit.
Underlying background concept. Labeling, or "ist-ing" is one of the reliable signs that your monkey brain is in control. We call people names to put them in a tribe we don't have to listen to. If I call you an asshole, or any descriptor that puts you in a group, whether your political, religious or national affiliations or... it puts you outside my tribe, Which means (to my monkey brain) I don't have to listen to you. It protects me 100% from the possibility that your arguments might have merit. We all do this.
Sharps used the term gestalt as a related concept. A gestalt, traditionally, is when you see the totality of a concept. A car is thousands of little parts and each car is different, but the gestalt of "car" exists in our head as a unified thing. Professor Sharps pointed out, that just as labeling is a tool to prevent you from analysis, so is a gestalt. Whether you use the ConCom word of labeling or Sharps' interpretation of gestalt, it is a way to not think. And people are lazy. We have a definite tendency to avoid the laziness of hard thinking.
Shading into politics, one of the things that has been annoying me is the "all good or all bad" soundbite nature of most of the things I see discussed asserted. I realized these are gestalts. If I call you a "fascist" (or asshole, most people don't distinguish) I don't have to think, I'm done.
So I decided to take a stab at my own feature intensive analysis of my gestalts in politics. On one axis (sorry, talking about fascists here, forgive the pun) a list of my political labels-- communist, democrat (party), fascist, libertarian, republican (party), socialist...*
On the other axis, traits that I consider important. The features. I tried to be careful with the source of the features. For instance, I didn't use the modern academic definition of fascism but Mussolini's definition. I used Marx directly for the features of communism. For the stuff that wasn't in the literature, I used personal observation when available. If I didn't have literature or personal observation, I gave that feature a null value. If literature contradicted, I gave a null value. If observation and literature contradicted, I went with observation. For instance if a group insisted that they were for personal freedom and peace, but called for everyone who disagreed with them to be executed and planted bombed (I've just read both 'Prairie Fire' and 'Underground') they got marks for "being okay with using violence to silence their opposition."
I may not have used the FI Analysis the way Sharps intended, since I was back-engineering from a vague description of effects. But I liked it. I found it useful. It did confirm some of my gestalts, some of my impressions of how closely related some of the political labels were. But if it had been just confirming what I already believed, I'd be pretty skeptical. Like everyone else, there's a part of me that likes pre-existing beliefs validated. That's not what happened. I found a few quite unexpected similarities and differences.
And before anyone asks, no. I am not going to share the specific analysis here. 1) I didn't do it for you, I was testing a test for (to an extent) objectively testing my own instincts and, 2) There are few things more likely to put you, as a reader, in your monkey brain than to show you that your favorite affiliation is actually 80% similar to your most hated.
*Not right/left or liberal/conservative, I consider those to be a different taxonomy. I could do an FI analysis those traits, but it would be an apples-to-oranges comparison with the affiliations listed.
In all of my books and videos there are deliberate differences between my kata and my paired application (oyo) that has resulted from my analysis (bunkai).
“Practicing a kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another.”
Gichin Funakoshi, Twenty Precepts
Karate kata are generally taught and trained as a solo platform. Through their stances they hint at suggested weight distribution and methods of movements that can support the upper and lower body techniques of which they are made, and indeed at the oyo (if any) of the form that its teacher had in mind from their own bunkai.
I say ‘if any’ because changes in kata may be made to obfuscate purpose, allow greater speed in transitional movement for aesthetic purposes, or provide a greater athletic challenge. Furthermore changes may come about through the copying of the movements of older karateka who have themselves changed their form to reflect how they wish to move and exercise their more mature bodies, or through ignorance of potential oyo or flaws in their approach.
This is not meant as a criticism of any one system; the onus is on all of us to examine what we do and ensure that in application we use the most appropriate posture rather than sticking with something higher or deeper as the case may be.
But whether moving slow or fast in the kata, there is a significant difference between executing controlled techniques into thin air compared with endeavouring to make maximum impact on a target, or moving against the resistance of another person while grappling. This is a subject about which I have written in greater detail in Volume Four of my Pinan Flow System series of books.
The postures and techniques found in the majority of movements in kata are not designed to exactly replicate the biomechanical structure for optimum application, but instead their purpose is varied and can be:
- to protect karateka from unbalancing, instability and injury by limiting the power of movement against no resistance,
- to balance the ‘hollow body’ that forms good biomechanical structure for striking and grappling with exercise that inverts that posture to ensure balanced muscle development for good health,
- to indicate either a single tactic or through generalisation (lack of specificity) give an altered movement that acts as a coat hanger reference point for multiple similar or overlapping tactics,
- to highlight a principal of movement on which a number of tactics are based,
- to provide an important physical exercise that underpins and strengthens the muscles required for many tactics.
In many kata there are straight rear leg postures or very high stances. These are not necessarily wrong, but a product of their context. A straight leg can be an exaggerated example of thrust, codified into ‘good form’ for aesthetic purposes and to limit forward momentum against thin air which risks injuring the knee joint. In similar vein, thin air fighting puts balance and weight bearing limits on power generation through the movement and positioning of the knee and hip.
Unlike the postures often utilised throughout the majority of kata, when grappling with a training partner, attacking, preparing to attack or bracing during an attack, the back should not be held at a perfect right angle to the ground.
No matter how good your stance or footwork, having an ‘upright’ or classically ‘arched’ back while resisting physical force from another person is biomechanically unsound. The greater the level of force you are resisting, the more necessary it is to brace appropriately to take the load so as not to place undue stress on your back or compromise your balance, so the greater the angle of your back (and depth of stance and thus angle of shin) required. There is a difference between lifting an object and exerting or resisting force along other planes of movement.
The postures of kata protect and develop the body in solo training. They are the other side of the coin that balances the effect of the postures of paired training. Karate is soft and hard, relaxation and tension, grappling and striking, slow and fast, expansion and contraction.
For health and flexibility, form cannot always mirror function. To provide greater depth of application from a limited sequence of movements, form cannot always mirror function.
The kata is a map, but the map is not the territory.
And there are other subjects that dance on the edge of deep buttons: How often is domestic violence a one-way street? What about cultures that have wildly different ideas about consent?
One came up recently. One of the common reactions to an accusation of abuse is denial and normalization. A child accuses an uncle of molestation or rape and suddenly mom and dad, the fierce protectors start saying, "Oh, I'm sure that couldn't have happened. Uncle Fester would never do anything like that. Little Kelly must be exaggerating again."
On top of the act of violence, the victim has to deal with the betrayal of a social network that pulls away. Protectors who deny, essentially calling the victim a liar, add to the damage.
I get why professionals doubt. We have due process and "innocent until proven guilty" for very good reasons. But Anna asked why so many victims in families are left out in the cold. Denied.
My take? People are stupid and talk a lot of shit. But only in the abstract. They are loud-mouthed in their machismo and silent in their cowardice. So the person who has watched innumerable news reports about child molesters and always said, "If anyone did that to my kid, I'd kill 'em." Well, that person now has to put up or shut up. Faced with the actual prospect of doing what they said they would do and the sure and certain knowledge that they'd go to prison for actually doing it, they become silent cowards.
But they can't bear to think of themselves that way. They can't be cowards. The event must not have happened. Because if it did happen, they definitely would kill that somabitch. And they aren't killing, and they refuse to recognize their cowardice. To prevent cognitive dissonance, they are left with denial.
It comes up too, in personal self-defense. A lot of critical decisions, actually. Draw your lines. Know your go buttons. But think of them all in terms of the consequences as well. Promising to avenge your daughter may satisfy your indignation, but promising to go to prison for her is the reality. Is it worth it? If not, keep your mouth shut.
Have a plan. Know where your lines are. Know what you will do when they are crossed. Know the price you may have to pay (on every level: social, legal, emotional, medical...) And keep your mouth shut. If you hit the line and can't find the guts to execute your plan, at least you won't be outed as the liar and coward you are. And if you do hit the line and execute the plan, well, words are discoverable and can come up in court. They can also give a heads-up to the target. Either way, silence serves you better.
And last point-- If you have been outed as a liar and coward (like all the people who said they'd leave the country if the election went a certain way) don't deny it. Resolve the dissonance. You might learn something.
Another reason the new book hit me so hard was that the process (my life process for the last several years) has violated my own epistemology. My society has a common belief about where knowledge comes from. There are nuances, of course, and people have varying loyalties to their own thought processes, including their epistemologies, but the general belief seems to be:
We have a large pool of all known things, called Science. There are special people, called scientists, who add to that pool. They study the known Science, and ask themselves questions, and design experiments to answer those questions*. As those questions are answered, the body of science grows, and as it grows, the pool of known things becomes greater.
I know that's absolutely not how it works. The asterisk marks the place where laymen completely misunderstand the scientific method. * In real science, the scientists hypothesize answers to the questions and design experiments to prove those answers wrong, to test the limits of those answers. Science doesn't prove, ever, it disproves. It is not a fact finder but a bullshit detector.
And most of the big gains in science have worked exactly the opposite. Almost never does big growth come from building on past knowledge. The big growth comes serendipitously, from noticing something that science can't yet account for and figuring it out. Darwin noticed that there were no rabbits in perfect rabbit country in South America. Every school kid learns about the accidental discovery of penicillin. Einstein had to think outside the box to work out relativity, and maybe that was made easier because experimental science did it's job and disproved the widely-accepted idea of aether.
I was raised in a society that takes the mythologized idea of science as its primary epistemology. Unless I am careful, that's my default. That idea has a powerful but subconscious sub effect. The model is Darwinian. Whether or not you believe in evolution, on some level you believe in Darwinian selection. It is nearly impossible for a thinking person not to believe so obvious a concept.
Short and simple: In any given population, whether a species or a body of beliefs or a design or an advertising campaign, there exists a range of differences. The differences that are more successful propagate faster than the ones that are less successful, and each succeeding generation is more like the successful generation before it.
The model is a perfect example of circular logic: Whatever the next generation looks like determines what the environment was selecting for. This is only a problem if you're self-centered. If you get miffed because what you value is not what was selected for. An excellent engineering design can be trumped by a superior ad campaign. The economic environment in which ideas compete to survive is ruled by pocketbooks, which in turn are ruled by emotions. An excellent business model that serves many consumers well can be regulated out of existence by government agencies who want to flex power (ours is a mercantilist, not a capitalist, system.)
Circular logic, in this case, doesn't make it wrong. We directly experience selection in every aspect of our lives.
Because of the Darwinian sub-aspect to our epistemology, we have a subconscious default that our current practices are the best available. Every society and most individuals have had a reflexive view that their ideals of right and wrong are universals, but this is something different. Republics are assumed to be better than aristocracies because they evolved from and therefor must have been superior to, those aristocracies. Our teaching methods evolved from older methods, and therefor must have been superior to those older methods. QED.
Except, not. Because of the circularity of the Darwinian logic, that statement will always be logically valid. But it is begging the question: superior with regards to the challenge of what environment? Artificial selection is always faster than natural selection. I have no idea how many tens of thousands of years for natural selection it took to drift wolves from coyotes. But it took a fraction of that time to create chihuahuas from wolves. Are chihuahuas better than wolves? Not stronger, not smarter, but they are absolutely more successful. By Darwin's rules, the chihuahua is superior to the wolf. Because man hunted one and bred the other? Man is just as much a part of the environment as climate.
Most instructors, including me, have extensive experience with the public school system and with martial arts training. Another cognitive bias enters here. When you have devoted a significant chunk of time and effort to something, you have to start telling yourself it's because it's the best. You see it in martial artists all the time, and in people who have taken a profession they disagree with and debaters who are assigned a side they disagree with but in the course of forming arguments convince themselves of their position.
Is our public education system effective? In terms of access, yes. In no other way that I see. Any service provided by the government will always be a lowest-common-denominator solution. It will be run by bureaucrats for the sake of it's own bureaucracy. Paperwork will always be more important than people. Compliance with standards will always trump mission. In the school system, private schools who have to compete (for students and money) will consistently produce better achievers than a system that has no competition and whose clients are compelled to attend. Despite the fact that the US spends more money on public education per student than any other country, our public schools are regularly out-performed by private schools, charter schools and even home schoolers who are essentially amateurs at education. Basically, anyone who cares about the students, or simply wants to be better than other teachers, outperforms the lowest common denominator. Big surprise.
Upshot? Our current educational system is a Darwinian survivor, but not by competing for making a smarter or more critical or more self-reliant kid. Exactly the opposite.
And martial arts training. The rote training, kata, forms, all of that, get a lot of flack from martial sports and combatives. When things are predictable, you can script them. When unpredictable, attempting to script is worse than useless. I've looked at some martial arts training classes and thought, "This is exactly how I would train my enemy to fight."
And maybe that's what happened. If the Japanese had conquered the Americas in WWII and the occupying army ordered you to teach them American catch wrestling... how would you teach an enemy occupying army you hated? Especially working through shitty translators?
Though I can intellectually see the flaws, these are the models I was raised with.
And thus my hesitations on writing a book about teaching. I want to have a bunch of scientific papers to back my my observations that it works better. (One of my first readers is a professional educator, and he showed me the research was out there-- Thanks, Quint.) I want it to build off of the traditions of training in my culture. I want it to be a visible evolution. In short, like a little whiny special snowflake, I want to do something really really cool but with absolutely no exposure to any ego risk. And that's too bad for me.
In lots of ways, this teaching method is a devolution, turning back the clock.
Is teaching about the student? the material? you? your career? If the answer is anything but the student, this book isn't for you.
Are you willing to let your students be better than you, and become better faster?
Can you handle the fact that this is about chaos, and changing the questions as much as finding the answers? Do you get that that means your students can change the rules on you whenever it suits their needs? And that means they will beat you. If you need things controlled and measurable, you aren't teaching survival, but obedience.
The smallest, weakest student you have ever had is a natural predator. She may not be able to fight you, but she can kill you. Easily. Do you have the courage to teach those tools and show that mindset to a super-predator?
If someone you loved was going into harms way in the immediate future, how would you give them the best chance possible?
There is a difference between training (for development and/or testing of skills) and utilizing those skills outside of your training, whether in a competitive format, in scenario training or in an unsolicited violent situation.
What we do in training is a game. That is true whether you are competing in any of the top-level martial arts competitions or whether you are engaging in the most realistic self defence training possible. It may be a game focused on a very serious purpose, it may be incredibly tough, but it is a game nonetheless and it has rules and conventions in place to enable it to be played in a manner that not only allows for progressive skill development but also can be done safely. It is important that we all accept this in order to gain the maximum benefit from our training.
So what do I mean by ‘playing the game’?
When you train with someone else it is in your interests to ensure that they, like you, are developing their skill sets and improving. A training partner that cannot progress limits your potential because it means that the training you do with them will be limited and less fulfilling for both you and them.
It is obvious that there are times when you should resist your partners movements, and they yours, but doing so at the expense of learning or practicing the optimum biomechanics for a movement is not necessarily one of them. You have to play the game and increase resistance gradually. In similar vein being a completely limp training partner can be a step too far and again limit the development of the necessary skill sets, which is a waste of both people’s time. It is in your interests (both in terms of training safety and your own skill development) to have a skilled adaptable and alert training partner, and you bear a measure of responsibility for that as well as both your partner and the class instructor.
Training is a game for more than one person, and any drill – be it attacking, taking a throw, or holding a pad has as much educational value and potential for the receiver (observing patterns of movement, learning telegraphs, feeling for flaws or potential escapes, learning why a hold works to better employ or escape it, psychological conditioning) as it does for the one practicing.
Almost all my drills are games and they involve making pulled contact to elicit movement; as a result they require give and take. It’s important to know when to go with a drill or how to resist to allow someone to practice and refine a skill set and when to seize opportunities to turn the tables, to take an escape if the opportunity is there, to teach both parties about their strengths and weakness and keep themselves ‘on their toes’.
If I hit someone in training, but pull the contact, I expect that person to move as if they have been hit and simulate some degree of effect, whether that be the full effect (going down) or partial (turning the head or body, buckling the legs, or momentarily relaxing). If they don’t do this then my follow up response is nonsensical – my training partner is not playing the game, they aren’t giving me realistic stimuli and thus they are inhibiting the development of appropriate responses.
This is akin to a person holding pads for a head shot but putting all their force into their arm so it is as if the person’s head is a stone cliff face. Heads move. Certainly some people have such strong necks that their heads don’t move so much, but they are few and far between (and an experienced person might relax their neck with a shot to an alternative target first). For a person developing their head shots, and learning the biomechanics of power delivery, the game needs to be played. The pad needs to give, the resistance has to be measured. If you engaging in mobile pad training and you never let your training partner hit the pads, you aren’t doing anything for their confidence or skill development. You may think you are proving that you are faster but you’re actually proving something else about yourself.
Whenever you are training you need to keep in mind both context and purpose. What are you training for and what is the purpose of the exercise you are doing. It is a game. Playing to win every time is not necessarily a winning strategy.
The last post (just below this one) back in November I talked a bit about thresholds.
The threshold über-basics. These are levels of experience, completely separate from training. There are likely many more levels I've never experienced. Just as training is no substitute for experience, experience alone is no substitute for training-- it's entirely possible to be an unconsciously competent but shitty driver. The levels:
No experience. You can't even know what you don't know. You can have a lot of information and tools. You can be an excellent instructor of those tools.
1 Encounter. Mentioned in previous post. Tend to be focused on a single answer and teaching tends to be more for personal therapy than the benefit of the students.
Conscious incompetence. Somewhere, and following Ken Murray's lead on this it's around 3-5 real force incidents, the shock becomes less overwhelming and you start trying to apply your skills. Side effect, you realize how little your really know.
Conscious competence. You still have to think, but you're starting to get good at it.
Unconscious competence. You deal with the problem without consciously thinking about it. Tend to make poor teachers, because they don't consciously recall what they do, and a lot of technical nuance has become complete mental gestalts.
Split mind. I've only heard one other person talk about this, but you let your body/hindbrain deal with the primary problem unconsciously and divert your conscious mind to something useful. In my case, it was almost always composing the report.
This might seem exotic applied to self-defense, but it mirrors most people's experience learning to drive (manual transmission, at least) pretty well.
After the weapon defense seminar in Manhattan, a friend asked why I don't teach it more often, and I pulled out the line that it would be stupid to train under a judo coach that only had five matches.
That's only part of what's going on. My reluctance stems exactly from the threshold model. The techniques themselves are clean. Designed around the attacks that happen. Efficient. Gross motor. I know the key points and failure points. Are they answers? In Knife defense? You gotta be kidding. But they are better than zero percent chances, which is the best I can offer when it comes to knife defense.
If I'd never had anyone try to stab me or only one person, I'd probably be eager to teach this stuff. Unconscious incompetence and confidence often go together. But on knife stuff I am solidly at conscious incompetence. Emphasis on the conscious. I'm completely aware and very focused on how much I don't know. How many of those five encounters depended on luck and maybe instinct...and knowing that luck can't be taught.
If I'd had a few more people try (and was lucky enough to be intact) I'd have the confidence to share.
Hmmm. Two posts in a row working out my cognitive biases. Pattern?
Nonexistent reasons include writer's block and lack of time. I don't get writer's block. There are times, probably most of the time, when I don't feel like writing. Some of the reasons for the feelings will come in the rational and irrational lists below. But just because I don't feel like it doesn't mean I can't do it. Writing is like any other job-- you show up, you do the work. And honestly, I think my uninspired writing is technically better and far more readable than when I'm in the zone. In the zone I'm writing to myself and use all kinds of shorthand and personal language that doesn't translate to anyone else.
And time. I don't always have hours to write, but I always have minutes. And if I ever start using the time excuse, I just have to monitor the minutes and hours I spend doing unproductive things, but that would be embarrassing.
Writing on other stuff. Time writing here is not time spent writing for Conflict Manager Magazine or working on the next book. And the next book (On Principles-based instruction) took a ridiculous amount of effort in the rewrite.
Too personal/too public. A lot of the most interesting things I am observing now are people. Instructors, students, classes. And, frankly, I sometimes see some weird and disturbing shit I'd like to think about out loud on the blog... but I don't want to deal with the e-mails of "Dude, were you talking about me?" Most people talk others down to build themselves up. Even if that's not my intention, I refuse to follow the pattern. It was okay when I was doing the blog as an anonymous jail guard, now that it's part of my living, it would violate my ethics.
I do have a backlog of good ideas, but it might take a year or two for time to create anonymity.
On the line between rational and irrational.
Swiss cheese brain. It might be the concussions, or age, or simply volume, but I'm worried about repeating myself, turning into the old guy in the corner telling the same stories over and over again.
Relevance. I've influenced enough people who are coming into their own as instructors and writers that there is a very visible next generation. I also don't want to be the old guy struggling to stay relevant when his first-hand perspective is a decade out of date.
These are the deep ones. The things actually affecting my performance are all known cognitive biases. But they still work.
Imposter syndrome. Everyone I know who is really good at what they do has a voice in the back of his or her head telling them that they suck. The book that kicked my ass over the last year is about how to teach, which is something I've only been doing full time for eight years. Who the fuck am I to write on that subject? One of the first readers (those are the people kind enough to critique the first draft) gave me a list of educational reference books to back up my points, but my reaction was, "how would I dare to write if I wasn't already familiar with the literature..."
Blockheads. One of the recognized cognitive biases is the human tendency to assign more weight to bad outcomes than good ones. I taught roughly 900 people last year, and I remember the three who just couldn't get it. Occasionally, you'll see it in a comment here, where someone writes, "What about..." And I want to reply, "You mean the thing I addressed directly in the very first paragraph?"
Tribalism.The election season hit me hard. Not the politics itself. On social media I watched friends, people who I consider thoughtful, advocate violence as an acceptable response to words. Declare that people who disagreed with their own opinions should be exterminated. Characterize their sides acts of violence as "free expression" and the other side's violent words as "vicious oppression." I saw the Orwellian doublethink hard and it was coming from the bottom up, not the top down.
That was what I wanted to write about most and there's really no way to talk about it. Once tribalism is triggered, people are out of their neocortex anyway. The people who are staying rational don't need to hear logical breakdowns, they have their own. The ones who most need to hear it are incapable, and convinced that their opinions are already based in logic and "truth." (Pro tip, if you ever catch yourself screaming that you're being rational, you aren't being rational.)
It sucked bad enough that I wanted to fall back to my own immediate tribe, and not even all the members of that.
Tribalism is true, but it's under irrational. Because that bullshit has nothing to do with what I write about here. Different parts of my life. But it made a damn good excuse to write and delete.
To kick or not to kick, that is the question.
This debate comes up regularly on martial arts forums and such discussions tend to produce variations on a number of regular characters:
- The person who is convinced that whatever he or she does in class will work.
- The person who sees kicking as a low percentage strategy but advocates low kicks if kicks are used at all.
- The person who has used kicks ‘in real fights’ and therefore believes that they are a high percentage effective strategy, especially high kicks.
- The person who has used kicks in competitive fighting and therefore believes they can do so in self defence.
- The person who has no opinion but just wants information.
- The troll.
So who’s right?
When it comes to applying martial arts techniques in self defence, context and training methods determine the results. We get good at what we train for.
If you don’t train kicks regularly then the likelihood of being able to use them in a self defence situation decreases considerably.
Whether you can use kicks bears no relation to what someone else has reputedly done in self defence or in the ring, it depends not only on how much you train them, but how you train them.
If the opportunity to kick comes in the form of relative positioning and pressure that is familiar to you, then you are likely to be able to employ that skillset. Everything comes down to how you train and to a large extent how many of the six things you should do in physical training for self defence are present in your approach.
A few years ago I put together a video showing all the kicks and attempted kicks used by participants from a range of different martial disciplines in my Sim Day scenario training. The clips came from hundreds of simulations, but featured very few kicks indeed (although knees were very successfully employed).
This was in part due to the enclosed environment, but primarily because most people had no experience in trying to kick at that range or under those conditions. Although we don’t kick in many of our regular drills, of the participants my personal karate students (and a very experienced LEO who is also a Ju Jutsu instructor) kicked the most because the environment and range was familiar.
Since then I have seen more kicks employed successfully because the kickers are returnees to the Sim Days and are not only more comfortable with the environment and range but have also made little tweaks to their own training based on the lessons from previous sessions.
So can you kick in self defence?
Only you and your training can decide that.
Disclaimer. This is an analogy. Like all analogies it generalises.
Kata, for most of us, is fixed. It is a set construct that we learn and rehearse. It does not vary very much. Over time different instructors have figuratively taken the same block of ice and carved away at some of the edges, added on smaller blocks, broken it down into lots of blocks and reassembled it in a different way, or taken chipped off elements from lots of different blocks to form a new block for others to replicate. In this manner we have lots of stylistic variations on the same kata and new kata have been created. Because it has been frozen (fixed) and joined in different places at different times its crystals are generally not aligned and it is filled with air bubbles; the block is opaque.
Training regularly is said to polish technique. Training regularly in a kata does indeed polish the structure, it polishes the surface of the ice. You get to know the contours and positions, you can form them in your minds eye and they become ingrained. Polishing the ice has value for understanding the shape of the form. But form is not the same as function. Form is a dance that teaches important positions, movements and develops strength and balance – a combative dance but a dance nonetheless. Polishing the ice brings the satisfaction of the development of those attributes, it takes a lot of effort and brings clarity to the surface, but as with a lot of ice the interior remains opaque and hidden. The dancer cannot utilise the form outside of the choreography; to deal with the unpredictable they are forced to utilise other methods. Their kumite and/or self defence bears no resemblance to their kata.
As a state of matter, ice is limited. It is strong, incredibly strong, but not adaptable. It can be cut to fit shapes, but then is limited to those shapes. It is limited to predictable fixed scenarios.
There is a welcome increase in the interest in learning the applications of kata in karate at present. This interest itself is nothing new, but I would argue that for many years the explanations given to students were so ridiculous and ill-informed that they drove away from karate those of a practical and independently minded nature who were not prepared to overlook the deficit and simply continue to develop the attributes gained by polishing ice.
More than ever it is possible for karateka to easily find videos and books on karate application, and while there is exceptionally good stuff out there, it still isn’t all that common and it is often surrounded by the bad and the ugly. Even amongst the good, I see a lot of demonstrated applications produced by well meaning people that I regard as ice. They have simply chopped up the kata into smaller blocks and arranged each for static attacks. There is no evidence of adaptability, there is no provision for failure, a way of moving between applications is not taught. They have simply created more blocks of cloudy ice. It is simply a smaller dance routine. They have the shape of the form but cannot see through its substance.
To get inside the kata you have to do more than break it into blocks. You have to heat it up through training. You have to work those blocks through unpredictable and dynamic training until they completely break down and merge together into one transparent mass of water. Good application is like water. It moves freely, it fills and exploits spaces, and it continuously adapts. The tiny air bubbles and ill aligned crystals that made the ice opaque disappear, and the meaning and potential become clear. Applications should be fluid, they should be adaptable, and we should be able to flow like water from one to the next, nor be limited to one kata.
Once we have our water, our kata becomes something different. A medium through which we swim in our paired or multiple person training. We benefit from and utilise its substance, but it no longer constrains us with the rigidity of blocks of ice. Having heated it this way through our training, we can allow it to cool in a controlled manner into ice for our solo practice, and because we can control how slowly it cools and freezes in layers, we control its opacity. It is ice to polish once more in solo practice, but now it is transparent, and now we can see through it.
Kata may be ice. But be like water my friend.
“In war it is all-important to gain and retain the initiative, to make the enemy conform to your action, to dance to your tune. When you are advancing, this normally follows; if you withdraw, it is neither so obvious nor so easy. Yet it is possible. There are three reasons for retreat: self-preservation, to save your force from destruction; pressure elsewhere which makes you accept loss of territory in one place to enable you to transfer troops to a more vital front; and, lastly, to draw the enemy into a situation so unfavourable to him that the initiative must pass to you.”
Field Marshal Viscount William Slim, Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945
Many tactics cross multiple fields. We can draw upon the experience and advice of successful military leaders and apply it not only to modern warfare and politics, but also to business decisions and even to competitive or consensual violence.
But does this apply to personal safety? Is there value here for the physical element of self protection, the aspect that is often termed self defence? While self defence has some overlaps with
- consensual violence (accepting a challenge to ‘a fight’ or engaging in physical violence when it could be safely avoided),
- competitive violence (such as UFC, Olympic TKD, WTF Karate etc.),
- or the use of armed or unarmed force by individuals in a professional civilian or military capacity (such as Security, Police or Infantry),
it is a different entity.
It is a simplification, but I like to think of self protection as to
AVOID, DETER, NEGATE and ESCAPE aggressive behaviours and violence.
Each of those has many facets. The final one, escape, is the physical one. Its aim is extrication – whether of myself or others. It’s a deliberately vague and permissive term in some respects, while being incredibly definite in others.
The aim is to escape. It is to remove myself (or others) from harm. That harm to me also includes possible repercussions from the use of violence. That is not something to think of at the time: that is something that is addressed beforehand in training methodology and the mentality fostered. This aim is one of self-preservation and it is one of strength. I give myself permission to do whatever I think is necessary to reasonably negate the threat as I honestly perceive it at the time.
Slim’s exhortation to “gain and retain the initiative” is one to which all good self protection instructors adhere. We see it in so many forms. It is keeping others in the OO of the OODA loop for example. The physical means to this will vary from person to person, from instructor to instructor, from system to system.
But how much of what Slim says here applies to self protection?
Retreating for self-preservation is wiser than seeking a battle you do not have to fight nor gain from winning. While you should not have to, choosing carefully where you go out, what route you walk or drive, or leaving an unfinished drink at a club or bar because of a bad vibe or argument; all these are common sense.
Accepting the loss of territory in one area to enable you to transfer troops to a more vital front?
This could be applied to the planning of property defence or burglary prevention situations where you choose to strengthen security/protection/cctv in one area at the expense of another, but this does not apply to most self defence situations.
It is the last item on Slim’s list that is the most interesting to me, and perhaps the most controversial. “To draw the enemy into a situation so unfavourable to him that the initiative must pass to you.”
This is something we see all the time in competitive and consensual violence. One or both participants trying to trick the other in order to gain and retain the initiative makes up a significant proportion of each event.
Does this apply to self defence?
How or when do you draw someone into making a mistake while retreating so you can escape if you are trying to avoid, deter or negate the threat in the first instance? This is different from pre-emption. Pre-emption is an aggressive defence selected when threat avoidance, deterrence and negation (negotiation) have failed. It may be disguised by innocuous body language, it may be set up by the trick of a gesture or a glance, but it is part of the advance that Slim describes, not a trick of retreat.
In non consensual violence, until aggression or violence occurs an interview process is still taking place. The target is threat assessed. In most instances if the target appears aware of the selection or exhibits body language or verbal indications that they will pose a risk of failure and potential harm/exposure to an aggressor, they are deselected in favour of searching for an alternative easier target.
Luring an attack by retreating to appearing weak through your body language is not a sound self defence strategy in the vast majority of cases.
Few attacks are certain until they commence, and once an attack does commence there is no certainty that by appearing weak beforehand it will be any less aggressive or successful. What criminally/violently inclined person thinks “I’m going to attack/approach this person differently/in-a-less-alert-manner because they don’t appear to be ready for me”? That is a competitive sparring perspective. In most cases a person that has selected a target is alert and watching for signs that things might go wrong.
A faked weak persona is not so likely to lull them into a false sense of security and vulnerability to counter attack as a confident persona is likely to deter them from attack in the first instance.
I am not a psychologist but I would wager that those undeterred from continuing by a strong front are not going to initiate in a manner that leads them to be successfully suckered by a fake weak front. It is a strategy that will have worked on occasion, but it is a poorer strategy than deterrence.
To sum up I return once more to the initial words of this quotation from Field Marshall Slim. “It is all-important to gain and retain the initiative, to make the enemy conform to your action, to dance to your tune.” This goes beyond the physicality of self defence and to the heart of self protection. Avoid, Deter. Negate.
Don’t share our secrets!
I’ve come across this refrain in the Traditional Karate Community a number of times.
It usually crops up when a person posts a video online where they demonstrate a drill they’ve been taught or a new thing they’ve worked out. Sooner or later somebody pops up and berates them for sharing a technique only taught to ‘advanced black belts’ in their system.
“Sharing trade secrets isn’t cool.”
“Have some respect.”
“Lots of people have had to work hard for years to gain access to that knowledge.”
The secret is: there aren’t any secrets.
Depending on the emphasis and technique weighting of different systems, one styles basics is another’s ‘advanced technique’. Something you might only cover as a black belt is something another student learns from Day One.
I’ll admit that there are nuances to movements and applications that are often not taught right away, but these are not secrets – they are there in plain sight and feel for those paying attention. Beyond that because they are often core to the approach of another art there are already numerous instructional videos and books out there in which they are set out.
Is this a bad thing? Are we putting dangerous knowledge in the hands of the irresponsible? Isn’t it best only to share these things with people we know and never publish books or videos?
My answer to this is no. I can show you a drill in a book in eight pictures and eight sentences. I can talk for twenty five minutes on video on the same drill and still not have covered every nuance or the underpinning rationale that explains what it is, how it works, and how to make it your own. Books and the videos are there to give you knowledge, ideas, and a framework for training; but only study and hours of practice will give you understanding and ability. The book or video, like the teacher, only shows or opens doors – it is the student that has to put in the effort to go through them.
There is only one secret, and it isn’t well kept. That secret is the arduous task of good observation, practice, analysis and repetition. That is what gives people ‘secrets’ and they don’t come easily.
I try to weight my physical classes according to the skills I believe my students are most likely to need.
We have a broad syllabus, we cover a lot of different things, but to do so I try to rely on a small number of interlocking drills and techniques that can be used in lots of different ways. The size of the toolbox is not what impresses me; I’m not impressed by high numbers of techniques, drills or kata: it is the versatility of a small carefully stocked toolbox and the user’s ability to skillfully use the best tool for the job that catches my attention.
This does mean that I have one or two drills that I try to teach almost every single training session, and I have a number of things I always do in my personal training.
A small number of my students welcome these like old friends, they are the rare perfectionists: they know that while they can do it, it could be done better.
A larger proportion sigh. They want to be doing the cool stuff. They want to be fighting on the ground, or breaking out of a control, or experiencing the challenge of running an unpredictable cascade failure through a series of drills against a resisting opponent trying to better them. The stuff I want them to do is boring – it’s the first thing they learned, they know it, and working a jab / cross (or similar) preemptively or in reaction against a pad is tiring, as is constantly dealing with head punches. They don’t want to sweat the small stuff.
If the ‘small stuff’ isn’t strong, isn’t biomechanically right, then the ‘big stuff’ will be weak. Beyond that if the small stuff isn’t as good as you can possibly make it, you’ll never need to go to the ‘big stuff’ because it will most likely be over when the ‘small stuff’ fails.
Working on the basics is not easy, whether you are training as a student or planning your class as an instructor.
Much is often made of the discipline of the martial arts, the self control it can develop. Often the focus of that is on turning up to train. That can be difficult, of course it can. I very much doubt there is a single martial artist who has reached a stage where they are teaching who does not have occasions when they really struggle to force themselves to do some personal training, where the fatigue and the aches and the call of the couch or the fridge are telling them ‘missing this session will be good for me’.
In my opinion a harder discipline than turning up is the discipline to rigorously focus on the basics, on your underpinning movements. Constantly exposing yourself to your weaknesses, tirelessly working to get the same thing better is physically and mentally punishing. The visible rewards and changes from each practice become so small that at times they are often barely perceptible. It’s not an easy task and it is not a solo task, and it is a never-ending task.
The advanced level, the ‘big stuff’ is not a new move, or a new form, it’s the same stuff we’ve always done, done with greater reliability, greater precision, greater efficiency and better timing. I’m working hard to get there. Are you?
It tracks for other things and it generally tracks for other people. One of the issues with writing from personal experience is that you can't really know whether something you notice is idiosyncratic to you. One stupid example-- I tend to remember high-stress incidents in mirror image. I'd go over a force report and everything in there was exactly what happened, except everything I wrote that I did with my right side, e.g. "I then knelt on the side of XXXXX's head with my right knee to immobilize him against the ground." I'd actually done with my left knee.
How idiosyncratic is that? Without the combination of force incidents + report writing + report review I wouldn't even know. Same with the idea of experience thresholds rewiring your brain. Internal change is usually imperceptible unless you have a mechanism to bring it out. Or a combination of alertness and luck.
That's a digression.
Kathy Jackson over at The Cornered Cat is one of my "Honorable enemies." She's a good friend who has no hesitation in telling me when she thinks I'm wrong.
One of my threshold observations was that people who has prevailed in a single violent encounter were consistently the worst teachers. These were the ones that felt there was only one right answer, whether it was rage or fitness or speed or power or... the one thing that had worked was the only thing that could work. And, because all thinking humans know that's not true, these instructors had a constant cognitive dissonance they needed to resolve. As a result, the students they attracted were not students at all, but just pawns in their self-therapy.
Kathy pointed out two instructors who were superb, but each had one violent encounter. Which made me dig a little deeper. She was right. But those two instructors had not prevailed by any stretch of the imagination. They had survived on luck or the intervention of others.
One of the other things that rewires your brain is to be absolutely sure that you will die in the next few minutes while being absolutely sure that there is nothing you can do to change the equation. Situations of complete helplessness exist, and I think almost everything we do as societies and individuals is geared, at least in part, to deny this truth.
These two instructors had hit that rock-bottom of helplessness and were allowed to live. And it has driven them to become the best they can be. They have the constant bullshit filter of their own experience and a drive to push their limits. They're extraordinary instructors.
Recently, Kathy pointed out another pattern. The experienced, effective, skilled operator who has that feeling of total helplessness late in their career.
(remind me to write later about how much fear and cognitive dissonance there is at the heart of this)
Simple truth is that no matter how alert, fit, skilled, experienced, equipped... name any combination you want... there is something out there that can crush you like a bug on a windshield. The incidents are rare, so most will never face them. And if you do face them and die, which is common, you don't have to work out the emotional issues afterwards. But when you hit complete helplessness and live, that can really mess you up.
We train to be harder to kill. That's cool. It's cool right until we become invested in the identity. When we start to believe that we can handle anything. Confidence is fine, but when it is not paired with humility and the sure and certain knowledge that the world is bigger than you and can bring you down, it creates a vulnerability.
So the tough guy (and I want to write swaggering, but not always) who has convinced himself he is the best of the best gets rolled. Nothing he had was enough. Maybe he wakes up in the hospital fully aware that the only reason he's not in the morgue is pure dumb luck, or the whim of violent strangers.
The pattern? Generally he goes out on one more mission to prove he can still "get back on the horse" and then he transfers from operations into teaching. He fantasizes extensively about what might have worked in that one encounter and when he thinks he has something that might have worked, he insists it would have worked. And he teaches that, obsessively. Not the hundreds of other things that did work in real life before the one incident. The fantasy that makes him feel less vulnerable.
Like the instructor with only one encounter, it's not really teaching. It's self-guided therapy. And the students are just pawns in that therapy.