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Thursday, 21 January 2010

Training History

Having written something about my general background I thought I'd detail my training history and some other relevant experiences!

My very first martial art training was in Judo as a young kid - must have been around 7 or so - later I did some boxing too

Of course around that time the Kung Fu series and Bruce Lee were all the rage, and this sparked my interest in the Chinese styles. However unlike today there was very little information around and even fewer clubs - it was all either karate or judo. There was no internet either (pre-historic or what!) and outside of films and TV the only source of information were some American and Hong Kong magazines. It wasn't until the late 70s that the Chinese arts began to be taught more widely

At age 17 I began my training in Chinese martial arts, with John Ding at his newly opened class in Barkingside. John was originally from Malaysia and had a background in Shaolin and Preying Mantis before learning Yang family Tai Chi Chuan under Chu King Hung, who was one of the top teachers in London at that time

At the time I didn't know very much about the different styles of Kung Fu, so it was pot luck that I landed in an authentic "fighting" school of Tai Chi rather than one of the more..shall we say "vague" classes that were also springing up at the time

Class training was once or twice a week and consisted of a lot of (painful) stance work, form training and push hands and application. The class sessions were supplemented with the Monday night crew - a group of us who trained together regularly at the gym in the old Claybury Hospital. Lads such as Steve, Terry, Tony Powell, Dusient, John Elliott and Rob Brenner. I suppose the training was a bit crude - working out applications by trial and error and generally whacking each other about. But they were always good, hard, informative sessions with a great spirit of camaraderie.

John's classes expanded and he eventually opened a full time school in South Woodford (still there I believe). By this time I had started teaching my own classes. I worked full time at the centre, both taking classes and editing Tai Chi and Alternative Health magazine which John had launched.
In the meantime I had got the chance to traing with John's then teachers - firstly Chu King Hung and later Gin Soon Chu. There was a week long course in France with the latter and he also came over the UK a few times. I'd also met some other friends and started training with them - most notably Rob Murray and Dave Nicholson.

Rob came from an old-school karate and jiu jitsu background but was interested in trying anything. Over the years we trained a couple of times a week together, exploring JJ, tai chi, wing chun, stick fighting, RBSD, extensive fitness training and just generally trying things out. I learnt a lot through training with Rob and he is someone who to me has always exhibited the importance of an open mind and a determined attitude in training

Dave Nicholson was running Tai Chi and Hsing I classes in Yorkshire. Dave also had an interesting background (his dad was a bare knuckle fighter back in the day) and he brought a unique Yorkshire down-to-earthness to the Chinese Internal styles! We clicked straight away and for many years shared knowledge, trained together and ran workshops and competitions. Pound for pound Dave was one of the hardest hitters I'd felt and again I learnt a lot from our association.

As you might expect a lot of this training  was starting to take me out of the "classical" approach. While I had a wider interest in health, philosophy, etc like most people from my background my main interest was in self defence. Things like knife defence, working in crowds and so on were not being addressed in the traditional style so I began looking round to "fill in the gaps"

By this time John and I had parted ways so I was now my own boss and set up my own group. I kept up my Tai Chi training with Jim Uglow, but also  became a "workshop tart" and trained as widely as possible. People I have trained with at workshops include (in no particular order):

Ji Jian Cheng
George Xu

Chen Xiao Wang
Erle Montaigue
Dave Turton
Peter Consterdine
Rick Moneymaker
Sensei Kanazawa
Yap Cheng Hai
Richard Dmitri
Steve Morris

I received more in-depth Tai Chi training from Vincent Chu, who I hosted in the UK on a number of occasions. I also began collecting videos from a wide range of sources and started feeding any good stuff into the mix - some ideas from Silat and Rick Hernandez in particular.  There are also some other friends and colleagues I'd like to mention - Jim Fry, Terry Shepherd, Gary Musson, Tony Kirby, Tony Walmsley - plus some of my own guys who helped a lot in running the group  - Leigh Revell, Steve Blatcher, Jason and the Chingford crew

By this time I'd also moved out of London and was teaching in the Peterborough area, as well as travelling back down to London once a week! It was about this time I first got hold of a video of Vladimir Vasiliev. I must have played that tape a hundred times, trying to work out how he did what he did. Coming from an "internal" background I could appreciate the fluidity and power of his movements but thought his partners were falling over a bit easy...

His approach intriguedme so I contacted him and was pleased to learn he was due to visit the UK. At that seminar I got to feel Vladimir's skill first hand. Many years of push hand type training and "real" experiences had left me confident in my ability to stay on my feet. With Vladimir I felt like a total beginner and gained an undestanding and appreciation of why his partners seemed to fall so easily.

Very soon I was on a plane to Toronto for the first of several visits to "Systema HQ".  At first I was drip feeding Systema into my training and teaching but there came a time when the sensible thing was to embrace it totally. It's not something I've ever regretted and has opened up so many different aspects of training as well as benefitting other areas of life

Since that time I've hosted Vladimir in the UK and trained in the UK and Moscow with his teacher Mikhail Ryabko and some of his top guys such as Sergei Ozhereliev and Sergei Borschov as well as Konstantin Komarov

I still like to keep an open mind and look at all types of training - it's so much easier with Youtube these days! There are some good people about - for example I'd rate Dave Turton as one of the top self defence guys in the UK and Steve Morris of course is a legend. But overall I'm very happy with the training I have now and the access I have to such skilled and generous  teachers. In a funy way though I think people are a bit spoilt for choice these days and it perhaps makes them less appreciative of what is around. The martial arts world is still sadly largely insular and parochial and aside from a few friends it's not a world I choose to inhabit very often! Of course a lot of it is big busines now, either the McDojo type or the commerciality of some of the MMA people, but, hey, everyone has to make a living. The downside of that is some of the silliness apparent on internet forums over the past few years, but I'm sure that's a passing fad.

So that's what you might call my "formal" training background. Outside of that I've done the odd bit of doorwork over the years,  for friends who were running clubs in East London and was involved in all the usual silliness young men get up to when they don't know any better. More recently I find myself back in the live music world and it's been interesting to have resort to "direct action" a few times again - some things never change it seems!

I also worked for the Crown Prosecution Service for a few years, which was an educational experience - both from gaining an understanding of how the legal system works from "behind the scenes" and also in seeing all the different cases coming in. My work at Crown Court included putting evidence bundles together, including scene of crime and autopsy photographs. Believe me once you've seen the results of a frenzied axe attack you will never underestimate the danger of dealing with edged weapons.

My wife is currently Crime Reduction Officer for the local area which again has lead to new  understanding of how criminals operate  -  so I guess you could say I have experience with both sides of the coin.

My own personal training these days still has a large self defence element, but is more geared towards health and mobility as I approach 50! Hopefully I maintain some of that youthful interest and enthusiasm though perhaps tempered with a little more realism or cynicism....  If I had to sum up my approach it would be "Take your art seriously, take your work seriously, but don't take yourself seriously"

Apologies if I've left anyone out from the above and thanks to all my teachers, training partners and students past and present. Here's to the next 30 years......

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Why I Teach

Before explaining more about my training background and what I teach I though it might be useful to write some thoughts about why I teach (apart from "it beats getting a proper job....)
My aim is to give people good "general" self defence skills that will help them cope with day to day difficulties. It's important to me that the training methods foster good general fitness and health. I also hope to encourage an open-minded attitude in people, to make them inquisitive (nothing is above questioning), adaptable and as self-reliant as possible.

I hope that the training reflects that - and that while covering all the generalities (which of course the principle-based approach allows us to do ) we also have time for some specifics. Some of our people need these for their work, be they prison staff, serving military, etc and it's interesting for the other guys to cover these areas as well. Where I can't teach specifics myself, we are lucky in having a wide range of skill sets across the group (from English backswording to hot-wiring a car...) to draw upon. . Outside of that we can always look to call in other groups or people for their expertise

I try to make the training multi-faceted and evolving. Everyone has input in the process (a standard practice in Systema classes), there are no divisions of grade, rank or experience. The training should be progressive with varying levels of pressure to test understanding and encourage skill development. There is no emphasis on competition (in the sporting sense) or being glued to a syllabus (in the traditional sense). Hopefully the lessons learned are universal in their application. I tend not to distinguish between training for this or that, to me it's all just training - the application is up to you.

There are some things any instructor has to balance and these are the most challenging areas of teaching. There is realism vs safety (training is never real, there is always a compromise, the balance is in minimising the compromise). There is information overload vs in-at-the-deep-end. I tend not to be an especially technical instructor, nor someone who explains every minute facet. Having said that it's important to ensure everyone has at least some understanding of a drill or exercise. Sometimes the meaning is layered and sometimes students come up with their own understanding too, which is something to encourage.

The needs of the individual vs the group. I'm lucky in having an experienced group of guys who work well with each other or with new people. There's always a balance between helping someone who is struggling (which is all of us at some point) and keeping a level appropriate to the group as a whole. There is also a danger of always playing to the strengths or needs of one or two people in the class (and that includes the instructor!)

Which leads to - personal skills vs student skills. What I mean by that is not to be an instructor who wants to develop people in his own image, but encouraging people to develop their own strengths. Of course we all have areas of particular skill and ability, but the balance is in recognising what our students need, not what we like to do. The same can be said for projecting our own fears or psychological hang-ups onto our students (believe me I could write a book...)

In short I see my job as an instructor to construct an environment in which people can develop their skills, develop their ideas and test their understanding in a challenging but safe way. It's not for me to say how successful I am, but, with a small measure of pride I'm pleased to see how the Regulars have developed, especially over the last year or so. On the one hand it makes my job easier - everyone knows to just get on with it. On the other it's harder to find new challenges and to keep things fresh and dynamic for all of us.

But the main reason I kept until last - I enjoy it! The day I don't is the day to stop doing it.....even if it means getting a "proper" job....

You can see clips of our class and workshop training at my Youtube page

Thursday, 7 January 2010


..and welcome to my Blog!

As this is my first post I thought I'd write something about who I am and where I'm from!

I was born in 1963 in Forest Gate hospital (no longer there!) within shouting distance of Upton Park.

Most of my childhood was spent in Manor Park, latterly at a house on Romford Road (no longer there!) and I went to Avenue Infants and Junior school (no longer there - are you seeing a pattern?)

At age 12 we moved up the road to Ilford, where I spent my teenage years. Attended Ilford County High school, took A levels and then got my first job as a trainee surveyor

There's two major interests in my life, both started around the same time. The first is music - I had lesson on the old family joanna from a youg age. The second was martial arts, which started with my dad taking me to a judo club in East Ham.

At 18 I got into my first band (The Academic Hamiltons) and also started serious Kung Fu training with John Ding at a club in Barkingside

I guess I had the usual upbringing for a lad of that time and place, there was always a lot going on, politics and music were very active at the time, plus of course all the youth sub-cultures (Mod) and football stuff (West Ham of course)

Over the years my involvement in music waned but I persisted with the martial arts, eventually becoming a full time instructor in the mid-90s. More recently I took up music again (Hammond organ) and currently balance my work between teaching (Systema), making DVDs and playing music

I'm married and live in rural North Beds - a far cry from E12 but the country life suits me now!

Over the coming months I'll be posting thoughts and experiences on training, music and anything else that I feel like!

Be seeing you