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.