Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Myth of Silver

One of many interesting conversations I overheard around the time of the Rio Olympics.  I seem to recall the drama surrounding legendary Japanese wrestling Goddess Saori Yoshida, who was apologetic and in tears for having lost to Helen Maroulis in the final to win "only" a silver medal in the Olympic women's 53Kg wrestling this summer.

Genuinely sympathetic, some TV programs empathized with her tears.  Yoshida is truly a legend in women's wrestling, having already won gold in three prior Olympics and won gold in every major championship she attended since 2002.  She had been considered basically invincible.  "Settling" for merely a silver medal must have been humble pie indeed. Saori Yoshida surely wanted to go out undefeated but now will be thinking hard about whether she can still step on the mats in Tokyo in 2020 at 37 years old.

However, the psychology goes a bit deeper than that.  Helen Maroulis had her sights set on Yoshida for years, even choosing to wrestle at 53kg instead of her usual 55kg since that was where Yoshida competed.  She spent countless hours studying Yoshida's videos and training specifically to beat her, having previously lost to Yoshida in a mere 69 seconds during their first match.  Saori Yoshida has not been complacent by any means, but it is very hard to defeat someone whose entire being is focused on beating you.  Maroulis' laser focus, commitment and dedication are the very definition of what makes an Olympic athlete.

It is easy to celebrate a gold medalist.  Winning an Olympic gold medal is a testament to the many years of hard work and dedication in overcoming all the obstacles that separate truly incredible athletes from everyone else.  It must be the pinnacle of pride to stand on the podium in front of the World, celebrated for your prowess.  I can't imagine anything like that feeling.

At the same time, Bronze medals are laudable achievements.  We recognize that making the top 3 slots and ascending to the stage requires a burst of effort for the athlete that may not be a legend, but can surprise you with an unusually great performance.  The battles for bronze are often some of the most hotly contested among athletes that can be far easier for us to relate to. These are not storybook heroes but their struggle for the stage is no less glorious and we applaud them for being able to share the platform with the champions.

Sadly, the silver medal is neither of these.  It does not have the impact of winning a gold, nor does it have the merit of struggling to barely make it into the top 3.  For many, a silver medal is actually considered a sign of FAILURE, an "almost bronze"- a shameful reminder of someone who worked hard, but just not hard enough to win the gold.  An athlete who will be considered as never being quite good enough to take it all, or starting to show they are past their prime and fading away.  As if to say "Second Place is just First Loser".  Nothing but the best is good enough.

Our modern society is one of extremes, and little sympathy for those in the middle, left to obscurity.  We idolize the rich and shame the poor, and for those of us in the middle, a bronze medal is the best we could aspire to as our 15 minutes of fame.

In the martial arts world as well, we see the black belt as a basic symbol of achievement and dismiss the hard work that goes into every single step of the way.  We forget the pride of each belt we achieved along the way and the many lessons we learned with sweat and blood on the mats every week as we inched our way forward.  When people hear I do martial arts usually the first question they will ask is "Are you a black belt?" as if none of the others matter at all.  Of course, to those us who are serious in the art, a black belt is really just a beginning; a symbol that we are finally ready to start the deeper learning that comes next.  It's a lot like finally buying that plane ticket to an exotic destination.  It shows an investment that is in preparation for the next stage.

I hope we will remember that a Silver medal is no minor accomplishment and is still worthy of great praise.  I hope we will remember that the key to success in life is to do our very best at every opportunity and not obsess over how we will be "ranked" by others, to celebrate our victories however small.  I hope we will remember to be simple and humble, and to just DO GOOD WORK every day.  There is honor in that, silver medal or not.  Everyone wins if they have given their all.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Fuel Efficiency

(thanks for the inspiration Guys!)

Last night we were training hard, like we do every class.  It was a little different, though, since some of the students are busy preparing for instructor testing at this year's ITA, the Instructor Training Academy for Kali Majapahit in Singapore later this month.  Two of my students are testing for Kasama, assistant instructor, and one of my students is testing for Kadua Guro, full instructor, the first time since I started our Japan branch in 2011.  I am very proud of them for their hard work and dedication.

They want to do their best, so we are carefully reviewing all the various material, and there is a lot.  To test in Kali Majapahit as a Kasama or Kadua you must have a wide range of skills including single/double stick, several styles of empty hands self-defense, boxing and kickboxing, edged weapons, and a lot more.  Then, they asked for more cardio at the end.

We train hard and like to get a good sweat going, but they also know that ITA is no joke.  It's several long days on the mats, and testing is even harder.  When you are testing, there is usually no break during the seminar even for lunch, and you have to run to get water if you get any chance at all.  When everyone else rests, you MOVE...and KEEP MOVING.  These are the hardest tests I've ever taken.  Pacing is very important since some sections may go on for several hours without a break.

My students want to be in the best shape they can be in, and that's good.
At the same time, cardio alone will not get you there, and if we are strong we can be fooled into thinking that using our physicality is the best way to fight.  We burn it up during the boxing and kickboxing, hitting the pads as hard as we can every single time.  By the afternoon of Day 1, the tank is already empty and the rest of Day 1 and Day 2 are inconsistent and incrementally more difficult.  We forget that "How we train is how we fight" and that we always need to have some energy left at the end to walk away.

Many students and even instructors forget that a key to martial arts is EFFICIENCY.  The best fighters always do more with less.  They have strong bodies, but still look for the easiest, most direct way to accomplish their goals.

FMA are particularly famous for being "lazy" in that we train to go around opposing force and avoid direct strength on strength whenever we can.  We use guntings to disable and weaken our opponents, we rely on superior footwork to gain a good strategic position and deliver maximum force when we hit.  We use weapons where we can in order to multiply our impact force or use edged weapons which require less effort to employ.  Deliberately, we attack the enemy's structure to remove their power base and strength and make them easier to defeat.  We fight dirty because fighting dirty is much more efficient.   In Kali Majapahit, we know that we will often be in bad odds during a confrontation, so we skew in our favor by being brutally efficient in how we apply force.

This is in direct contrast to many other fighting systems such as Kyokushin, boxing, Muay Thai, for example, which rely on having a stronger, more athletic physique than the opponent.

In fighting, just like in life, knowing when/where/how to get the most return on your effort is the key to sustainability.  Especially as we grow older, just relying on physical strength will no longer be enough.  It is far far better to focus on developing clean, efficient body mechanics so that the strength needed is minimized and every calorie spent earns the maximum result.

Focus on body mechanics and efficiency rather than just speed and power and your skills will improve much faster.

Make every single movement count.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Keep Walking

We all hit a plateau sometimes.
In work, in sports, in relationships, sometimes we feel like things aren't moving - or aren't moving fast enough.

For me, the time between the ages of 20 and 30 had the greatest acceleration I have known. At 20 I was a forklift driver in a warehouse in suburban Chicago.  I graduated high school with no money for college and my parents had already retired and moved away across the country to Reno, Nevada, essentially leaving me on my own.  I knew how to work hard, since I started working almost full-time since I was 14.  I had lived on my own since 18 and was basically happy going to work and doing my job.  It just didn't feel like my future.   Fast forward 10 years and I had two college degrees, spoke a foreign language and lived 10,000 miles away in Japan.  It felt like I had literally reinvented my life from zero during those years.  I look back on those long days and nights and wonder how I ever got through it, but somehow I did.  That first year in Japan, 1991, I used to open my desk drawer, stare at my return ticket and imagine flying back to Chicago the next day - giving up on my dream of living in Japan because it was just too hard to move forward. The next morning when I woke up I would always close the drawer and get back to what I had to do. One day at a time.

This year I'll be 50 years old, having lived more than half my life here in Japan.  The dreams I had when I landed in Japan at 24 have all come true beyond anything I could have ever wished for.  I am lucky far beyond my expectations.

I started a new job this year that is a big challenge for me, and I often think back to when I was 20 and starting my professional life.  I worry that things aren't moving fast enough...sometimes I even want to go back to my old job and my old life, telling myself it might be easier.  Of course that isn't true.  As Lincoln's quote above suggests, What's most important is just to keep walking forward, even slowly, and make sure not to go backward even a single inch.

In the martial arts as well, there are times when we feel stuck.  New techniques, new skills, new awareness just isn't racing in like it used to as a new white belt.  Sometimes we even feel like we have seen it all before, wishing we could go back to the wonder of those early training days.  I think about being back in Singapore with my brothers and sisters at the place on Yan Kit Road where it all started, amazed by every new things Guro Fred or Guro Lila would show us.  Back then, there weren't any other black belts except Fred and Lila.  Now we are all teachers, too.

My Kali journey, like my Life journey, keeps moving forward.  Sometimes slowly, but always forward.  I am forever grateful for the experiences I have had, even more grateful for being able to share them with my students, who will be tremendous teachers in their own right and go on to grow teachers of their own - one black belt at a time.

Don't worry so much about SPEED, focus on DIRECTION.

Keep Walking.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Zone

A little tidbit from last night's training...

Summed up, fighting is about mastering the Kill Zone.
I define The Kill Zone as the place where you are able to deliver your maximum effectiveness (greatest impact force/accuracy with least effort) into your target.  Of course, it is also about insuring you stay outside the kill zone of your opponent.

First of all, to do both requires good footwork.  Mobility is key in order to get into good position and stay out of your opponent's good position.  In FMA, this footwork tends to be triangular in nature, moving us on unexpected/uncomfortable lines for our opponent and putting us closer to the target, which gives us more attacking options.  Staying in motion also minimizes our opponent's chance to prepare a good attack by continuing to move us away from their kill zone and into our own.  Generally speaking, good fighting footwork always seeks to gain the back of the opponent since this is usually the safest place for us to be when we attack.  This is another key reason for our triangle footwork. Avoiding your opponent's kill zone is generally a function of seizing and keeping the initiative through sudden aggressiveness, since this pressure forces the opponent to react instead of initiate.  As Guro Fred often points out "Fight on YOUR terms".

Second is ranging/distancing.  This means that while moving we try to get in a favorable distance for us and stay in an unfavorable distance for our opponent.  Our favorable distance is where we are able to generate striking power (greatest rotation of hips/shoulders/spine and extension of arm/leg) .  We know that our body generates the greatest power when we are able to engage the large muscle groups of our lower back/core/hips and transfer that power through our shoulders into the arm or into the feet via the leg when kicking.  As good examples, check a proper golf swing or baseball/rugby swing.  For kicking, Muay Thai has excellent body mechanics, often using the shoulders and arms to counterbalance and generate additional power from torque.
Efficient techniques rely on the back/core/hips for power and use centrifugal force to increase power.  Many techniques involving takedowns and follow ups on the ground also use gravity to increase force and lessen dissipation since an opponent cannot back away and dissipate impact force when lying prone.  As well, throwing techniques and sweeps have similar body mechanics (rotation/extension) but use the environment (floors/walls) for impact.

I often observe students being too close when they try to hit, limiting their ability to generate power.  Particularly in kickboxing/boxing when we have gloves and pads on, it is important to have proper range so that proper body mechanics can become part of the muscle memory through repetition.  Thrown properly, any single hit should end the encounter.  In FMA, we further increase the odds by throwing multiple hits in combination.

It goes without saying that different hits have different ranges (elbows versus roundhouse kicks, for example), as do various weapons of different lengths and configurations.  However, the use of hip and shoulder rotation plus extension is universal and students should consider how this is done in every technique they learn.  Of course, we all have different bodies and taller/shorter people with longer/shorter arms and legs must necessarily adjust distance and angle to yield the best application of personal force for each attack.  Sometimes this involves actively moving the opponent to a different angle or range.  In FMA we often do this using our checking hand to push/pull/redirect their energy, which also tends to disrupt their balance and structure.

As we gain more knowledge and experience, we see more options for each position/range the opponent is in.  We can then look for the most efficient attack to deliver in each moment, with the least preparation/effort to deliver.  Thus, a skilled fighter has more potential attacks that can be used at any range and angle than a beginner.  In Kali Majapahit, we master a variety of different strikes and kicks at all angles and directions to give us the best chance of having a ready solution to any situation we encounter.

Lastly, as I have said to my students many times, we want to deliver the best weapon (usually the smallest hardest surface area) against the best target (usually the softest, weakest area) of our opponent.  Likewise, we want to take away structure and balance at all times and keep our opponent from ever regaining them.  We want to go around resistance rather than meet strength with strength, since this is the most efficient movement.  Silat is especially good training for going around blocks, and for finding uncommon angles of attack and removing balance/disrupting structure.  Done well, the opponent should always be off balance until the encounter is over.

One of the best ways to improve your martial arts skill is to actively consider the body mechanics of each technique.

  • How do you engage your back/core/hips to generate power?
  • What range gives you the ability to extend fully?
  • What striking surface generates the most  impact force?
  • What targets are the best for each attack?

Asking these questions helps you identify the unique "kill zone" for every attack and increases their effectiveness.  Each new technique should be considered this way.

Make physics your friend rather than your enemy.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The People Whisperer

I really like watching Cesar Milan's TV show "The Dog Whisperer".  At first, 6 years ago, we started watching it to better understand how to bring Butch, our pug puppy, into our family.  We hoped it would help us understand dogs better.  What we didn't realize at the time was how much it would help us understand people better.  As Cesar often says "People say I train dogs, but in many ways I train people".

One of the most important things he talks about on the show is the importance of energy.  He says "the dog is a reflection of your energy, your behavior.  You have to ask "What am I doing?"  That's the right question to ask."  He clearly means that dogs understand and respond to the energy we give them - when we are calm and relaxed they are calm and relaxed.  When we are nervous or excited they are nervous or excited.  It should come as no great surprise that people are often the same.

Thinking about this, I discovered that the very same technique, projecting calm-assertive energy (being quietly, confidently in control), helped me to better manage my children.  Ultimately, it even helped me at work with both coworkers and clients.  I was far more successful when I would purposefully consider the kind of energy I was giving off, and try to keep it calm-assertive as much as possible.  The lesson was clear --- it was not about changing others, it was about changing MYSELF.  The energy you give becomes the energy you get.

Using this technique of calm-assertive energy has helped in so many ways.  Avoiding the projection of excited, aggressive energy, especially when confronted by it from someone else,   has helped prevent situations from escalating and allowed me to avoid injuring anyone.  Cesar points out "It's important to note that aggression isn't the problem.  It's the outcome of a problem." I believe this is very often the case with people, just as it is with dogs.

Calm-assertiveness has helped customers feel confident that I can and will help them achieve their business goals.  It has helped other staff view me as a leader and trust me to make the right decisions for our group.  It has improved my relationships at home by helping us establish and maintain harmony.  Cesar says "Assertive does not mean angry or aggressive.  Calm-assertive means always compassionate but quietly in control."  I couldn't agree more. I try to make this my normal state of being.

Of course, I don't always remember to use this technique, but when I don't and I see things heating up or starting to go the wrong direction, I always ask myself "What am I doing?  What kind of energy am I giving?" and this usually helps get things back on track quickly by changing my energy back to calm-assertive.

In martial arts we talk about energy all the time, usually in the context of our KI or life-force, which we apply in fighting and use for health.  I believe the study of energy is a universal one, and of great importance when we consider the energy we give to others by our words, our expressions and our body language.  As Cesar says "Dogs do know how comfortable you are with yourself, how happy you are, how fearful you are, and what's missing inside of you."  I believe people instinctively know this, too.

Become The People Whisperer...

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Value of Trading Places

About 18 months ago my lovely wife Sanae and I got an opportunity to start studying social dance, being lucky enough to get instruction from two of Japan's national amateur champions, Minato Kojima Sensei and Megumi Morita Sensei.  In addition to being world-class competitors and bright, wonderful people, they have a lifetime of knowledge and great skill in teaching.

Social dance has improved my martial arts tremendously, and both share a common skill on being aware of yourself and your partner's position in space without looking.  Both emphasize good footwork and balance, and both require grace and FLOW.

Today, Kojima-Sensei gave us a new drill.  I had to dance the ladies' part and Sanae had to dance my part.  In dance, the man typically leads, and the lady must adjust/adapt/respond to his communication through posture, head position, and the pressure of his right hand on her shoulder blade.  When reversed, we begin to understand the other's point of view, which in turn enhances our own understanding of how to move together to create the most efficient whole as a couple.

This was a great drill.  In dancing her part, I understood much better how important my lead is in giving my partner the direction she needs to stay in sync.  I felt how necessary it is to remain light or "floating" in my footwork in order to easily respond to my lead's guidance.  When I danced the lead again afterward I was greatly improved, more relaxed and more confident.

In martial arts as well, it is very important to train both sides (shite and uke) of every technique. We must master the motion by doing (shite), but deep understanding is gained by receiving (uke) as well.  When we become used to the feeling of techniques being put on us, even punches and kicks, we no longer feel any panic when we are under stress.  By feeling when our balance is going, we better learn how to take it away from an opponent.  By experiencing the locks we get insight into how to remove the slack and escape when we apply them to others.  Thus, even when sparring, it is just as important to work on defense as it is to work on offense.

Of course, in dance the goal is to keep your partner moving freely and unimpeded in lockstep with you, while in martial arts it is diametrically opposite.  My goal is to make each movement as difficult for my opponent as possible, taking away and keeping away their strength and balance completely from start to finish.  That being said, the same drills can yield the same benefits in both dance and martial arts.

Utmost gratitude to my teachers for their patience and training.

"It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own."  - Tsunetomo Yamamoto (Hagakure)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Ante Up

Take a look at the list on the left.

You would think these are a given, but they aren't.
In our modern society, with access to so much information, perhaps too much information, time and again I see situations where people show up without the list on the left being ready.

There are always reasons that can be given for not doing/being any of these, just as there are ways of insuring that we always do them.  To me, these are the ante to earn the right to sit at the table of learning.

Reading through the list, you can even go as far as to say that they all reflect one single attribute - caring.

To learn, to really learn, we have to care.  It has to be important enough for us to want to do what is needed to insure success.  Very often, failing to bring these things is evidence, sometimes subconscious evidence, that we don't care enough about the result.  This is easily visible in kids' classes.  Many times the parents push their kids to do an after-school activity that the kids don't really want to do.  Thus, some or all of these 10 attributes are regularly missing - often in rotation.  The flip side of this list would include such negative behaviors as self-importance, arrogance, entitlement, privilege and the general feeling that we are owed something by someone else just for being who we are (hint: we aren't).  As the saying goes "you've got to earn it to learn it."

However, it is important to understand what is really going on here.  Teachers were not born with the knowledge or skills they have.  These have been earned with hard work over many years, coupled with a desire to share what they know.  It is not to be taken lightly.  In school, work, and free time mentors come in a variety of forms, all of which deserve the respect of the student for a good knowledge transfer to be possible.  Going further, bringing these attributes makes us worthy of being taught - that shows the most important type of respect, self respect.

I am incredibly proud to be a teacher.  My students bring these 10 key attributes to class all the time, and that pushes me to give 100% in every single lesson.  They work very hard, which makes me want to work even harder.  Together we have a rhythm and a balance together.  We motivate ourselves and each other.

Time spent in the dojo is designed to instill these attributes, especially self-respect, into each of us - teacher and student alike, with the goal that we face the world outside the dojo ready and worthy of being taught all the skills we need to succeed in our lives, according to our own definition.

If you get up every day and try your best to learn something new, if you do your best to show these 10 attributes when you engage others, I have good news.  You will make it.  Inch by inch if that's what it takes, you will always get there if you stay the course.

In the end, that's what really matters.