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Thursday, 2 September 2010


When you’ve been training in martial arts for a long time it’s easy to forget what it is that makes people first start training. It’s also easy to take certain things as read or that certain things seem perhaps obvious, either in terms of undertstanding or of avoiding like the plague
I’ve not carried out a survey but would hazard a guesS that one of the top reasons for people starting to train is how to handle yourself - whether in the “street” or the sporting sense. It may be they have had a bad experience in the past or live in fear of something bad happening. The Martial Arts would seem to offer all the answers - but do they in fact offer a false sense of security?

The answer is undoubtedly yes - at least in the case of the numerous “experts” selling fast-track systems of "ultimate" street defence, or offering black-belts within a year if you sign the contract. Anyone looking at one of these websites with highlighted words and a carefully structured sales pitche would do well to imagine they were buying a car instead. Would you go to a forecourt that promised you a Porsche for the price of a Robin Reliant and could teach you to be an expert driver in one easy lesson? Apply the same logic to the E-bay ad that promises to you the secrets of the fighting arts in one cheap DVD and you won’t go far wrong.

However the problem can go beyond the obvious shifty sales-types and into any style or school. There are three types of false security that we need to guard against

So we can run 12 miles in four minutes, do 500 press-ups, take a punch from King Kong and look great in a tight T-shirt. It’s good for marketing and  good for the ego. Of course being functionally fit is good for our training and general health - when kept in balance. The danger is when it becomes an end in itself and you become tougher-than-tough. Nothing or no-one can touch you, out run you, be stronger than you. It’s an illusion that can soon be shattered by an out-of-shape brawler with a severe attitude and a beer bottle. Or a group of teenagers who don’t give a toss. On a couple of occasions I’ve seen big men taken down after getting themselves in situations they could and should have backed away from - one was left with a severe injury, a result of scaring the guy he was picking on so much he was driven to desparate measures.
CURE - work outside your comfort zone. Take on new things that you have to learn from scratch. In training simulate injury or work from a vulnerable position. Don't assume you will be on tip-top form when attacked, you may be sick, tired, drunk - or all three!

“What do I do if…” I’m sure we’ve all heard the question or even asked it. The good instructor will explore the possibilities. The less good instructor will give a technique. “You do A, B and C, it’s an ancient technique that never fails”. Or “ you do A, B, C these are commando techniques that never fail”
Simple answers to a complicated question. Of course answers can be simple but should never be simplistic.  In some schools techniques can be linked together in elaborate sets and kata. They feel good to do, they give you a sense of movement, power and control. But we should always be aware that they are just what they are - a choreographed routine that, at their best, teach us body mechanics and possiblities, at worse are a codified set of stylised responses to stylised attacks. There is a dnager of trying to fit your secure technique into each and every situation. Or of adopting a strategy that is fine for your training method but inappropiate for a real situation
CURE - do some freestyle work. Don't have a set attack/ defend response. Work in a group of people, or try blindfold work, each will cut down on "thinking" time and force you to respond naturally. If your techniques aren't coming through, examine the training - is it the techniques or is it you? Either way, make the neccessary changes

Every style is the best. I’ve yet to hear a school say “those guys down the road are better than us”. It might be that the style can trace its roots to ancient warrior monks who fought all-comers, or undefeated samurai who prevailed against the odds. It may be that the founders are special forces operatives, professional, dangerous men. Or they could be world champions in their particular style. Nothing wrong with any of those, if they are true. You can take security in the fact you a re learning from experienced people - but that is all. Because they are not you! Unless you hire them as a 24-7 bodyguard it’s highly unlikely they will be there if you need them either - it’s down to you.
So don’t be too quick to boast about who or what your teacher is or can do. Leave that sort of talk for the playground - or for the sort of internet forums that have “who’s the hardest instructor” polls or “would X beat Y in a fight” threads. Some people phone me and ask "does it work"  - the answer is "no, "it" doesn't work - you do". It's not an answer that the marketeers would approve of, but if people don't realise that basic fact it's unlikely they will get very much from training with me

CURE - train around! If any teacher tells you you can't train anywhere else - leave them. No-one has all the answers. Be open to different attitudes and approaches, try out different styles and instructors.

How can we guard against becoming too secure in our training? It seems and odd thing to new-comers - they come to training to be made to feel secure. Stripping away their securities would seem to be counter-productive. In fact the reverse is true - when done the correct way. Becoming aware of our weaknesses and insecurities is the first step to adressing them. We all have limitations and weakness - we have to learn how to overcome them or to work around them. The Systema method of having no fixed syllabus as such is very helpful in this respect. No-one knows what to expect at class. Things might change at any moment. Rather than being shoe-horned into the requisites of the style, students learn to adapt to the situations presented, discovering strengths and weaknesses along the way. Likewise the training can be instantly adapted to the needs of the student. Some drills specifically put you into very vulnerable situations and invite you to explore your response and learn and grow from the experience
For the instructor it’s doubly challenging - not only do you have to provide the appropriate levels of challenge for your students, you have to ensure that you aren’t just teaching from your own comfort zone as well. This may mean recognising that you have a weakness in some areas and either working on those, or in calling in other instructors who can cover those areas for you. A pyramidal or hierarchical structure is anathema to this approach. Getting in and mixing it with the students will blow any notions of instructor infallibility out of the water too! If you don't mix it up with your students, ask yourself why
Security is good -we nened it in many aspects of our life, emotional, physical, belief. But security founded on the rock of experience, honesty and understanding and is much stronger than that founded on the shifting sand of ego, falsehood and hype.

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