Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume?

Suppose you wanted a new Cadillac.
You find out that you could save a lot of money by purchasing the individual parts off the assembly line, rather than buying a whole car completely assembled.
So you rent a dumptruck, back it up to the Cadillac plant and they load all the parts of your new DTS into the dumpbox for you.
You drive home and dump all the parts out in your driveway.

Now you sort through the debris until you find the ignition.
You stick the key in and turn it over.
Can you drive away in your new Caddy?

Why NOT?
You HAVE all the pieces, don’t you?
It’s not just having all the pieces that matters; it’s how they’re put together that counts.

This is very much like studying a martial art, including fencing.
It isn’t enough to learn a bunch of different techniques.
You have to understand how each piece is connected to all the other pieces to form a coherent whole. Each technique has to make sense, not just in and of itself, but also in relation to everything else, technically, tactically and strategically.

Let’s take it a step further.
Instead of a getting a new Cadillac, let’s suppose you’ve really done your research, and you’ve determined what the “best” parts are of various cars, which is to say the things you “like” about each one. You’re no fool. So you go get the chassis from a Lincoln, doors from a Cadillac, the engine from a Ferrari, wheels from a Volvo, drive train from a Buick, and so on.
Now you try to cob your car together.
Good luck, Dr. Frankenstein.
These are all great pieces individually, made of superb materials, well-crafted.
But they weren’t designed to work together.

I’ve actually had a beginning student who wanted to study different weapons with different teachers all at the same time in order to select out what he liked for his “personal style.”  And this was not a child; this was a “mature” adult.
Now, understand, it’s certainly true that each person is a unique individual and expresses things uniquely. You WILL eventually have a “personal style.” Can’t help it. You can only fight like the person you really are. “Personal style” isn’t something you have to work to create.
I suggested that maybe before he worry about creating his own unique personal style, he might want to learn how to fence first. Otherwise your “personal style” will just be a collection of limitations -- habits, faults, errors and weaknesses – that any opponent with a brain bigger than a fruit fly’s will exploit.

Hello, Mr. Concrete Wall, how are you today?

It’s tough trying to explain to someone who has utterly no comprehension of combat or training for combat, why the Frankenstein approach isn’t a very good one, at least not if you want to achieve an appreciable level of skill in any of those weapons.

Now, there ARE some things that you CAN transplant from one place to another.
Foundational principles apply across the board.
The fighters’ mindset is the same, no matter what weapon you’re using.
And some individual pieces may even be switchable.
Lots of cars have the same size tires, for example.
That tire iron might fit the lug nuts on a variety of vehicles.
And the lucky dice you’ve got hanging from the rearview mirror, right above your glow-in-the-dark plastic Jesus?  Sure. That’ll work.
But to know what you CAN transfer and what you CAN’T, you have to know how everything in the first car is connected AND how everything in the second car is connected, too.  Only then can you determine if you can take a carburator, or distributor or engine from one and swap it into the other.
You have to know BOTH cars very well.

What I’m suggesting is, pick something and learn it.
Really learn it well.
Then pick something else and learn it well.
What’s the same? What’s different?
In the long run, over time, the things they have in common will, indeed, integrate into a coherent meta-whole.

But it takes time.
Be patient.
And it will come.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Gorilla Tactics

You have five gorillas in a cage.

Now, the one thing gorillas love more than anything else is a nice fresh banana.
You hang a banana in the middle of the cage.
Naturally, the gorillas go for the banana.

But when they do, you hit them all with a firehose.
Every time a gorilla makes a try for the banana, WHAM! – they all get hit with that cold, hard charge of water.
Pretty soon, they stop going after that banana.
As soon as that happens, you take one of those gorillas out and put in a new gorilla.
Naturally, the new gorilla makes a move for the banana.
But when he does, the other gorillas beat the snot out of him. They don’t want to get hit with that damned firehose again.
Pretty soon, the new gorilla stops going for the banana.
As soon as that happens, you take out another old gorilla and put in another new one.
Naturally, the new gorilla makes a move for the banana.
But when he does, the other gorillas beat the snot out of him -- including three original gorillas who don’t want to get hit with the firehose AND the first new gorilla who had never, himself, been hit by the firehose. He joins right in. “When in Rome..,” you know. Pretty soon, the new gorilla stops going for the banana.
As soon as that happens, you take out a third original gorilla, and put in a third new one and repeat the whole process.
Then again.
And again.
So now you have 5 second-generation gorillas.
You take one out and put in one new third- generation gorilla.
Naturally, the new gorilla makes a move for the banana.
And the four second-generation gorillas beat the snot out of him to prevent him from going for it—
None of the second-generation gorillas has ever been hit with a firehose.
They don’t have any idea why they’re doing what they’re doing.
They’re just doing it because “That’s the way we’ve ALWAYS done it.”
Remember this story whenever you ask a question about why something is done a certain way and the answer you get is “ Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
You know right then and there you’re talking to a poor brain-washed gorilla.
I question everything I do.
I want to know WHY we do it that way.
Why not some OTHER way?
I want to know the rationale behind it.
And if there isn’t one, why keep doing it that way?
Well, I don’t.
When the answer is “That’s the way we’ve ALWAYS done it,” I start looking for alternatives.
Once in a while, I discover that we’ve always done it that way because, indeed, that’s the best way to do it.
Other times, not so much.
When I discover that the way we‘ve always done it is the best way, then I keep doing it that way, no matter what.
But when I find something that doesn’t have any rationale other than “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” I don’t hesitate to change – sometimes radically –  what I’m doing or what I’m teaching.
You can probably guess how the other gorillas behave when I do that.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Compared to What?

As I was working on the heavybag this morning, I had a moment of gratitude for the gentleman who taught me my modest boxing skills. I was practicing a particular combination, and was in the groove of it, captivated by the rhythm of it, lost in it, carried along like a leaf swirling down a gurgling mountain stream. Between punches I felt my gloves come up and brush my cheekbones.
“Keep ya hands up, keep ya hands up!” my mentor, JD, had admonished me. “Ya drop ya hands in practice, ya drop your hands in the ring! And yull wish ya hadn’t.”  Actually, he said that much more colorfully, in fluent Chicago-ese. I’m translating charitably.
He was, like all good teachers of fighters, a stickler for “tryin’ to make it real.” 
You see a lot of guys work the heavy bag with their hands low, concentrating on punching power and forgetting about defense. It’s an easy trap to fall into.
The bag doesn’t punch back.
Another of JD’s pet peeves was the speed bag. Most guys stand up in front of it and wail away using the side of the fist, the back of the knuckles, dog-paddling away at  hummingbird pace.
JD would have none of it.
“Ya not gonna punch like that are ya? What’s the point? Don’t practice anything ya don’t wanna do.”  So he bade me approach the bag in a good stance – hands up --- work it with proper jabs, straight rights, double jabs, slip side-to-side…
A typical workout would go like this:
At the beginning of training, JD would start the clock which would then automatically signal a three-minute round and a 1-minute break, continuously for the rest of the session.
We would also put on his favorite album which would also play continuously for the rest of the session. It may have been the only album he owned. It had been played so much, you could hear both sides at the same time.
You come in, gear up, grab a corner, do a couple rounds on the rope to warm-up.
Then maybe go to the mirror (or use your reflection in the window if the room was crowded) and do some shadow boxing.
Then some bag work.
There was a light bag that swung a lot, so you could practice punches moving in and out. There were heavier bags, including one super-heavy bag that I don’t believe ever moved an inch when I hit it. There was an uppercut bag. Double-end bags.
There was “Rocky,” which was a sort of a turnstile with two arms – one arm had a coaching mitt affixed to it, the other a boxing glove. The idea was to punch the mitt and then duck before the glove swung around and hit you in the head. The harder you could punch, the faster you’d have to duck.
Between rounds, quick, hit the floor for some sit-ups or push-ups.
After 8 or 10 or 12 rounds, if you were working the way you should, JD might call on you to step into the ring with him to work on the mitts. He presents targets, you nail them with the appropriate punches. And, yes, keep your hands up or you’ll certainly get clocked by one of those mitts. It’s an experience from which you can personally attest to the truth of Einstein’s theory of the relativity of time.

Or JD might pair you up with another guy and have you work on a particular drill together. One drill. ALL night.
Not much. A round or two sometimes. Not every time. Just when JD thought you were ready for it. You were invited; you didn’t ask.

If you NEEDED to spar because you were training to peak for a fight, that was different. Then you’d progressively increase your sparring rounds. Maybe 2 or 3 or 4 rounds for every round of the fight you'd have to fight.
But whether you were sparring or just working on the bag, you ALWAYS trained as if you were in against an opponent who wanted to take your head off.
Because you weren’t training to punch a bag.
You were just using the bag to train for punching an opponent – who wanted to take your head off.
Boxers keep it real because there’s a serious price to pay if you don’t.
A price you pay in blood. In sprained ribs. In sprung jaws. In black eyes, and broken noses and brain trauma.
Even with a foul protector, a mouthpiece, headgear and gloves, you know you could get seriously hurt.
Or even worse.
And you'll probably get routinely hurt in minor degrees.
So boxers respect what they’re doing.
They respect the opponent’s ability to do them damage.
I wish fencers trained the way boxers train.
If they did, we wouldn’t need to distinguish “classical” fencing from “sport” fencing.
If I could rig a cattle-prod or a taser to the point of the weapon, I could bitch-slap “sport” fencers back to reality overnight.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
(with apologies to Les McCann/Eddie Harris)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Graduated School

Here’s the foundational principle of all fencing lessons.

Training generally incorporates one or both of two simple objectives: 
1) to diminish sensitivity/awareness/responsiveness, or “de-sensitize;” or
2) to heighten sensitivity/awareness/responsiveness, or  to “sensitize.”  

For example, we want to “desensitize” the student to meaningless actions, no matter how suddenly, quickly or forcefully they are made, and we want to “sensitize” the student to the subtle cues that reveal the opponent’s true intentions.

A cat who once lived with me, Niger the Great, by name, was the master of “cool” and a perfect example of the kind of desensitization I’m talking about – though I certainly didn’t train him.  One day my black lab puppy was making a goofy fool of himself, cavorting all around Niger in mock aggression. Niger sat as immobile and calm as the sphinx while the silly hound did his capering – out of distance.  Unfortunately for the pup, his distance perception and control was not as precise as the cat’s. As the dog ventured just a tad too close, Niger shot out one paw in a stiff jab reminiscent of Larry Holmes in his prime. One jab. Just one.  Nailed that pup right in the eye and sent him whimpering to a neutral corner, shaken but not too badly injured.
Gave that cat some respect after that, I can tell you.
And it was an excellent fencing lesson for me.

There is no finer example of sensitization than a good horse.
My partner doesn’t need spur or leg or even rein. Sometimes all I have to do is turn my head and look where I want to go – and he goes there. At the same time he can distinguish that from any random turns of the head, just looking at the scenery as we ride along.

Whether we want to sensitize or de-sensitize, we employ graduated exposure, ie, progressively greater or lesser “cues.”
To sensitize, you begin with the greatest possible stimulus or “cue,” one that is easily perceived and recognized by the subject, then gradually diminish the cue until it is as subtle as possible.
To de-sensitize, you start at the opposite end of the scale with the smallest cue your subject can perceive, then gradually increase the stimulus until it is the maximal cue that you can give.

Here’s how the process works.
Suppose you’re not comfortable with heights but for some reason have joined a volunteer fire company. Ladders are in your future.
You might set up a 24-foot extension ladder and step up onto the first rung, and then step back down. You do this as many times as it takes for you to be completely comfortable on the first rung. You might go up and stay there a while, sing a song, have a coffee.
Then you go up TWO rungs and repeat the process. When you’re completely comfortable with TWO rungs, go up to THREE.  Then four and five and so on.
You might, if you’re clever, use positive reinforcement for each success – maybe a bite of carrot cake, or some other treat.
This is progressive de-sensitization by graduated exposure.
We do this with horses all the time.
I do this with my students all the time, too.
The main difference is that horses are a lot smarter, learn a lot faster, and seem to never forget once they’ve learned.

Suppose your goal is to “sensitize” your student.
Let’s say you want your student to learn to slip under a left hook.
You start by exaggerating the set-up for the punch in slow motion so that your student perceives it easily and has all the time in the world to deal with it.
Little by little you increase the speed and decrease the amplitude of the preparation, until you’re throwing a serious punch.

Two quick fencing-specific examples:
Suppose my objective is to sensitize my student's hand to make a thrust as early as possible as the line of engagement "opens."
From an engagement in sixte, I might give the cue (opening the line) so big that I'm practically parrying quarte with my hand on the floor. It's an opening the student is highly unlikely to miss. Over time, I make the cue smaller and smaller. Eventually, the student correctly perceives the opening when my weapon just slightly lessens the pressure of the engagement.

I want my student to have sang-froid that a reptile would envy, remaining calm and composed enough to make the smallest possible parry. I need to disconnect his/her startle reflex.
I begin in slow motion, with very little aggressive energy, fixing my student's hand in the right position until it is reliably correct. I then gradually increase the amplitude, speed, force and energy of my attack (even shouting or stomping my foot on the attack) until my student's parry cooly remains EXACTLY where it should be and not one bit bigger.  This is the "auto-pilot" level of skill.

The most important parts of the process are:
Start Easy. Select the proper “size” cue. If you don’t, you and your student will both get frustrated.
Go slow. Progress by the smallest increment possible. Take whatever time it takes.
Review. Each training session, start at the beginning. As your student adapts, you can progress to the “real thing” sooner and sooner. But the early reps are still excellent practice and a warm-up, and good confidence-builder.

I should mention that feedback or "reinforcement" is vital -- on EVERY repetition.
It should be both tactile (the action is successful) AND verbal.
When making corrections, do it in a positive, confidence-enhancing manner.
Praise your student for ANY degree of progress in the right direction.

Good horsemen call that "rewarding the try."

Try it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fencing: It's For the Birds

There is a park near here, at the end of the lake. It's a lovely park, very popular with children. I went there as a child. Took my children there when they were young. And now, I have students who go there.

One of the most popular activities at the park is feeding the birds. There are Canadian geese all winter and a variety of ducks and smaller birds all summer. A pair of swans, last I knew. But by far, the most popular have to be the gulls. Everyone calls them "seagulls," but of course, they aren't. We're nowhere near an ocean.

There are hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. They love being fed bread, or popcorn, or, if you aren't careful, your lunch. We saw one steal a meatball once. Poor bird got it stuck in its throat. You know the birds in "Nemo" who say "Mine! Mine! Mine!"? Yeah. No kidding.

I was watching the birds one day when I noticed something. When they aren't swarming around some poor kid, trying to steal his sandwich, they are often sitting on the tops of the pavilions. And when they are still, they seem to prefer to keep a certain distance from the other birds, so they are all pretty much evenly spaced.

Once I noticed that, I also saw that the birds liked to maintain a certain distance from each other, and from people, when they were on the ground. I played with one bird for quite a while. When I walked towards him, he would back away from me. Just enough to keep his distance. Huh. I even got him to walk to the side, and to walk towards me as I backed up. Always keeping his preferred distance. Interesting. I couldn't help but turn it into a game. I'm sure people thought I was nuts.

I stood on guard. Advanced. He retreated. Retreated, and he advanced. Cool! We could fence!

but wait...

When I tell this story to my students, I always ask if they have seen the birds at the park, and they always have. I ask if they have ever tried to catch one- a favorite game at the park. Most of them raise their hands. Then I ask if any of them have ever CAUGHT one.

No hands go up.

Why not? Why hasn't anyone ever caught one of the birds?

The first answer offered is always that the birds can fly, which is true. They can.

But interestingly, that isn't usually why they don't get caught. They DON'T usually fly. They COULD, but they don't have to.

So how do they get away? How do they keep their distance?

The thing is, my legs, although not long by human standards, are MUCH longer than the tiny little bird legs.

If I take a bird-sized step towards the bird, he takes a bird-sized step away from me. No problem.

But what if I take a human sized step, or even a giant human sized step towards the bird?

He can't take a human sized step away from me. His legs are too tiny.

So what does he do?

The kids all know. They've seen it hundreds of times.

The bird takes several bird-sized steps, in rapid succession.

If I try to go to the side, to flank the bird, he can easily change direction and keep away from me.

If I stop, he can stop, without losing his balance.

He doesn't even have to think about it. Which is good. His brain is not even as big as his legs are long.

I use this story when I teach advances and retreats, to help the students understand why it works better to take several steps of a manageable size than to try to take huge steps. Even though I can take MUCH bigger steps than the bird, he can always easily outmaneuver me, taking smaller steps. His smaller steps are quicker and more balanced, with less time spent with one foot in mid-air. He can change directions, stop, start, stop and start again, as he needs to, always keeping me away from him.

Don't believe me?

I can give you directions to the park, if you don't have your own local bird hangout. Try it. See if you can get a bird to play with you. It's enlightening.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Attack of the Killer Butterflies

I’ve taken a lot of martial arts classes from people who’ve never actually been in a fight, themselves. That’s a lot like learning to ride from someone who’s never seen a horse.

Back in the bad old days, I found myself in a tight spot a time or two. The experience made me think I was losing my mind.
I wasn’t.
I just wasn’t prepared to deal with the reality of the encounter because there was a whole dimension to it that I didn’t know anything about --- because those martial arts teachers I’d studied with didn’t know about it, either. Fortunately for me, I was acquainted with a gentleman who had seen substantial combat in Europe in WWII. He convinced me that my responses were more or less normal by relating his own experiences.

Now, I make it a special point to share this knowledge with my students, too, so that they will understand what happens physiologically and psychologically in combat, even, to a small degree, in the mock “combat" of a fencing bout.

When faced with a threat are four possible threat responses: flee, yield, posture or fight.
That is, you can run away from it; you can surrender to it; you can try to scare it away; or you can destroy it. But in every case, you’ll get an immediate “adrenaline flood," the old “fight or flight hormone,” and what you do depends a lot on how you handle that.

Your body responds to emotional stress like fear much differently from the way it responds to physical stress, even though it seems to have a key component in common: heart-rate. When I run hill sprints, I can push my heart-rate to the 90% zone. But a minute or two minutes later, I’m ready to go again, with no ill effects from the first sprint. After a dozen, I’m fatigued. But throughout, my mind is clear, and my coordination is good.

Fear is different.

At a heart-rate of around 60-80 beats per minute (BPM) --with allowances for individual variation-- you’re “at ease.” Relaxed. Maybe asleep. And vulnerable. Let’s call that the “white zone.” *

Between 80-115 BPM, you’re “on guard,” alert and ready. Let’s call that the “yellow zone.”

Somewhere around 115-145 BPM you’re “engaged” and functioning at your peak combat/survival performance level. Call this one the “red zone.” Your complex motor skills, visual reaction time and cognitive reaction time are all in high gear – BUT your fine motor skills deteriorate.
Entering this zone is where you might find you have “butterlies in your stomach.”Experienced fighters learn to routinely evacuate bladder and bowels before a match.

When you hit 145-175 BPM your performance begins to deteriorate – EXCEPT FOR AUTOPILOT SKILLS (about which, more in a moment). Cognitive processing deteriorates. You experience vaso-constriction (to reduce bleeding from wounds), tunnel vision, loss of depth perception, loss of near vision, auditory exclusion, tachypsychia. Let’s call this the “gray zone.”

Above around 175 BPM, you are “lost” in the “black zone.” This is the level of irrational fight or flight, freezing (paralyzed with fear), submissive behavior, voiding bladder and bowels, gross motor skills at highest level (running/charging), catastrophic vaso-constriction. Without going into too much personal history, I can tell you that, as a child, I had substantial experience with fear, and visited the black zone more than once.
I remember what it’s like to be “paralyzed with fear,” to exhibit cringing submissive behavior, and to experience blind panic flight. Take my word for it: you don’t want to go there, any more than I want to go there ever again.

Post-Adrenaline Crash.
You can sail for quite a while in that adrenaline flood. But when it’s all over, it isn’t over. Depending on the nature of the event, and your own individual make-up you may find yourself ravenously hungry, hyper-sexual and/or sleeping like a rock for 18 hours.
You may feel a little “queasy” or you may vomit your guts out. You might get the “shakes” so bad you can’t light a cigarette. You make feel cold and shiver.
Some effects may linger a long time – known as Post-Traumatic Stress. Nightmares. Hyper-vigilance. “Flashback” over-reactions to distorted perceptions of non-threatening stimuli. But that gets into different territory beyond the scope of this particular discussion.

If there’s one thing you can derive from all of this, it’s the importance of psycho-motor training. Because in a fight, you don’t “rise to meet the challenge,” YOU SINK TO THE LEVEL OF YOUR TRAINING. That is, the only skills you will retain and be able to execute reliably are those skills that you have rehearsed so many times, that you can do them AUTOMATICALLY, without thinking, no matter what else is going on.
That’s “autopilot.”

I once watched a boxing match in which one of the fighters suffered a devastatingly perfect hook to the jaw. He was literally “out on his feet,” before his back hit the canvas. But even in that state, on the deck, he instinctively, AUTOMATICALLY covered up and rolled, even throwing a counter or two.
I was tremendously impressed.
THAT is where I want my skills to be. Where the body still performs even when the mind is gone.

There’s a way to help control your anxiety-driven heart-rate: breathe.
Some call it “tactical breathing,” or “focused breathing,” or “mindful breathing,” but I’ve heard it called a lot of other things too in various martial arts. Sometimes we call it “re-set.” Doesn’t matter if you call it “Uncle Charlie,” as long as you do it.
It goes like this:
  1. Inhale through your nose, filling your belly fully, to a slow 4-count.
  2. Hold for a 4-count
  3. Exhale through your mouth for the same slow 4-count
  4. Hold for a 4-count
Repeat for 2-3 cycles, as needed.

Make no mistake: however much we strive for verisimilitude in fencing, a fencing bout is to a real fight as a child’s cuddly stuffed lion is to a real lion prowling the Serengeti.
The butterflies you experience before a tournament, are itsy-bitsy, teensie-weensie little butterflies, even though they may feel to you like B-52’s.

But by using “focused breathing,” you can tame those killer butterflies and “re-set” to remain at the level of optimum arousal: relaxed, alert, aware and responsive.

* adapted from ON COMBAT by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Warrior Science Publications, 2004.