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Monday, 29 November 2010

To Spar on not to Spar

It's a perennial question in the martial arts world and one that continues to ignite debate. In some places it also seems to have become an indicator of whether your art is effective or not, if it is "alive" - ie you work against a "resisting opponent"

Sparring in the generally accepted sense means two people, usually with some form of protective gear, working within a sports-based ruleset over a set period of time or rounds. Adherents to this method point to benefits such as technique development, good stamina and working under pressure as the main benefits to be gained. But are there drawbacks to this kind of sparring as well? I think there are and, depending on your training goals they can have a negative influence on your development

First let me say that I'm not of the "too deadly to spar" school. This is often used as an excuse to never engage in any type of work outside of a fixed response pattern, which even at basic levels of training is of very limited value.  On the other hand there are of course real safety factors to consider and no-one would suggest we regularly break each other in training in the name of "realism"

But if your goal is to study self-protection , sports-based sparring is of limited value. To begin with look at the range and set-up of sparring vs fight. Actual fight range is very close - I'm talking about a person intent on causing serious harm here rather than arguing or a pushing match. When a person is in the mindset of wanting to knock your block off they close in very quick. They want to punch, grab, bite, It's a very different experience from touching gloves then maintaining a safe distance while you feel each other out.

There is a psychological aspect to consider too. A highly agitated and aggressive person is acting off of primal instinct rather than a carefully though out strategy. That in itself can be overwhelming and needs to be prepared for.

We must also take into account environmental factors. Sparring takes place on mats or in a similar "safe" area. Real life incidents can happen anywhere at any time. As I write this outside it's dark, cold and icy. Not ideal conditions. You may be seated, on a bus, with family or friends.  There is your own condition to consider too - you could be injured, tired, drunk (shurely not!) or feeling on top of the world

In short there are countless variable factors to any situation, and we haven't even mentioned weapons or groups yet. None of these factors are replicated in the conventional "sparring" situation. One more thing to think about is that the sparring experience replicates only a very specific moment of any situation - the actual physical  hitting/grappling part. If we are serious about self-protection we need a wide range of awareness and observation skills, how to read people, good communication skills not to mention a reasonable understanding of legal and associated issues.

I feel that to just train in conventional sparring is not sufficient to develop good self-protection skills. But with a little work we can get the benefits of good sparring while avoiding the pitfalls. An easy way to do this is to run goal-based sparring sessions. These can be as simple or as involved as you like. On a simple level give one person two minutes to get through a door and the other person has to prevent them  doing so. You can add in other conditions as neccesary to simulate different situations

This can develop into very sophisticated drills, such as the ones put together by Ed and Rory at this year's training camp, which put people through a range of physical and emotional challenges. As they ably demonstrated real self-protection work isn't all about being "tough" and charging through everything like a bear with a toothache, it is about having the skills to assess a situation and react accordingly. It's not often how self-defence is "sold" - people like an easy answer or a "no fail technique" that will get them out of trouble. The truth is unfortunately more involved than that, even the simple solution of giving someone a slap can have consequences way beyond the original situation.

So to spar? Yes -  but with conditions. As with all training be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the drill. Having a good ground grappling session helps develop skills and is a good workout (probably the most real you can get without injury).  Gloving up and having a spar is good for hitting and getting hit, movement and developing tenacity. For instructors who run these drills - every now and then throw something different into the mix. Three people boxing instead of two. Chuck a knife to one of the grapplers. At least that will keep your people on their toes and stop them getting too "sparring" fixated. To take it beyond that start working the type of drill mentioned earlier, keep it safe, keep it challenging and keep it grounded in reality and personal experience - then sparring becomes a useful tool

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Man and Superman

Admit it -  I bet when you were a kid you were tempted to send off for a pair of those X-Ray Glasses in the comics. The desire for "super-human" powers is universal, old as time and is still an area ripe for entertainment, trickery, scientific study, pseudo-science, manipulation and marketing.

Sales of comic books and movie spin-offs are at an all time high, we all enjoy Spidermanm, the X-Men and co. Magicians and mentalists such as Derren Brown are doing very well too. Running parallel to that is the NLP / psychology  industry which has made huge inroads into the corporate market.

The martial arts world has always been fertile ground for superhuman feats. Every culture has its myths and legends, from Achilles to Cuchulain to Mu Lan to King Arthur. Many martial art styles have roots in mystic practices - Shaolin temple, ninjitsu, Zen monks. They often talk about developing "superhuman" powers. Traditionally these might inlcude things such as - light body skills (the ability to jump high distances from a standing start), poison hand/ dim mak (the ability to kill with a touch),  telekenesis (the ability to move people or objects with the power of the mind), telepathy (the ability to read others' thoughts) and so on. In  popular culture martial arts masters are able to display any or all of the above thanks to years of rigorous training in their respective disciplines.

Given that it is no suprise to find that the promise of "superhuman powers" is often used to bait a commercial hook. A casual glance around the internet will bring you the secrets of the "no touch kockout", "iron shirt" to make you immune to blades, "short range telepathy" and similar claims

So do these things exist? Are there really people who can read your thoughts and kill you with a mere touch? In recent history both major superpowers obviously thought it was an area worth investigating. The USA set up groups like the Stargate Project, the Soviets had similar programs running  (in fact the book Experiments in Mental Suggestion discusses research as far back as the 1920s). As you might expect from the Cold War era  it is difficult to draw definite conclusion from amongst the fog of secrecy, competition, desire for funding and   mis-information. However I can't help feeling that if anything truly substantial had been achieved we would have had some kind of trickle-down effect by now

On a more personal level over the past 30 years I've experienced a wide range of teachers, some of whom claimed "special powers". In fact some of whom built their whole persona around those powers. So I've seen most of the no-contact people, a few ninjas and various type of chi-power exponents.  In 100% of cases where  their powers were heavily promoted,  I thought their work was totally explainable through mundane psychology. They were very good at leading, establishing rapport, cold reading and so on. In even less savoury cases they were very skilled at manipulating the psyche of their students through what could probably best be described as "grooming". Of course there are a few Youtube clips of what happens when these teachers try and work with someone who hasn't been through the process - with predictable results!

On the other hand I've met a few people who demonstrated interesting skills not so easily explainable. The big difference was these skills manifested in normal situations rather than as a show-piece. No attention was drawn to them, they weren't presented as anything special. No money changed hands either! 

Now when I say not so easily explainable I'm not talking about a supernatural experience here - I've never seen anyone levitate, knock someone out with no contact or explode a chicken from 6 feet! The skills were more in the area of awareness and ability to interact on various levels with other people. This for me, points  to the fact that some of these so-called "superhuman" powers are in fact very "human". They are simply outside the range of what we use everyday.

Let's take a simple example, the hunter who lives and works in the forest, the commuter who works in the city. Switch environments and both will struggle. The commuter in the forest will not be able to predict the coming change in weather, see animal tracks, pick up the distant scent of woodsmoke. To the city dweller these may appear to be "superhuman" abilities (Crocodile Dundee) when in fact they are the result of training, experience and finely honed natural senses.

You can apply the same thing to human interaction. Those of you who trained at our Body Language Workshop recently will now be able to pick out some good indicators of stressful behaviour. When you get good at this you can amaze people by telling them what they are thinking in some circumstances. It isn't telepathy - you aren't literally getting a word flash up in your mind - but you can "read" them through the physical indicators. Refine that skill to a higher level and you can understand how some people disappear from view, confuse you into forgetting your name and all the other things that a skilled operator or  "mentalist" can achieve.  That's not to say there isn't trickery involved in stage mentalism though, as anyone who has seen my "mind reading" routines will know!

So "superhuman" abilities are a fantasy. Either the wishful thinking of someone wanting to be a lot more than they are, or the bait on a hook to reel in the vulnerable and gullible. Developed human potential is something esle altogether - but even then this development takes part alongside regualr training, it grows alongside the "bread and butter" skills. To sell it as some sort of instant "add-on" is also misleading in my view. There is also an issue of potential harm for anyone undergoing some types of training without adequate qualified supervision, that applies equally for physical and psychological work

I guess the old adage applies at the end of the day "if it sounds too good to be true, it is"

I'll leave you with a story I heard about an instructor up in Manchester. There was a local Ninja who was offering to teach the "secrets of invisibility".  Out of interest the instructor  visited the class and the results were less than spectacular. A few weeks later the instructor was in a local pub and saw the nija talking to a girl. He went over to the table, ignored the ninja and started chatting up the girl. The ninja gave an indignant "oi mate!". The instructor turned and said "sorry mate, I didn't see you there!"  Classic....

PS  if anyone out there feels they can demonstrate powers of telepathy, non-contact work or the like please do get in touch -  as long as I can film whatever goes on I'm happy to give it a try.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


To develop skills in martial arts or any sport you need a good understanding of your body's form and structure. Without this you will never develop true strength or efficient power and may even run the risk of short or long term injury
This DVD shows the importance of posture, how to develop good spinal alignment, the use of the hips for low impact running, how to maintain good form under pressure and more. There is also a bonus section from the 2010 Training Camp on the use of circles and lines in hand-to-hand work and how joint rotation assists in both absorbing and developing power

Running time 1 hour 45 min, available at our store