Running an accessible club while encouraging meritocracy

FrontKickMartial arts, particular traditional ones, are often based on rules which resemble military regimes.  In many Dojos it’s common to refer to the master/instructor/coach as “master”, “sensei”, “sifu”; in my opinion this is often excessive and encourages an unnecessary distance between students and instructors.  I always allowed my students to call me by my first name and establishing a collaborative role where I share my knowledge and experience.  At the same time I make sure they respect me for my experience and ultimately my position of authority within the club they have decided to join.

I always aimed at running a club which is accessible for anybody to join, train and improve their technique and overall skill.  I enjoy training with instructors and advanced people that help me challenge my technique and fitness; at the same time I also train regularly with beginners and intermediate students so they can experience first-hand my teaching and feedback.  All of my instructors are encouraged to do the same.

I am aware of many so called fight clubs, particularly boxing clubs, where there is a very strict hierarchy about who can train or be trained by whom.  In those environments only the key fighters have access to high quality tuition while the others, inexperienced or just not good enough, have to accept being considered less valuable students.  This, in my opinion, might discourage potentially good fighters who did not yet get the chance to move up the skill ladder.

Of course meritocracy has to an important role to play and it naturally does.  Students who train more often, attend to more lessons, tournaments and become more involved with all club’s activities are automatically more visible.  They get more exposure to key lessons and more naturally get chosen as training partner by the most experienced students and instructors; the more this happens and the better they get, a very natural selection.  So if you are an advanced or intermediate student who is already getting the right kind of attention from instructor you are in the right place.  At the same time if you feel a bit invisible within your club and would like to change this you should try to get more exposure toward the better part of the class; train more often, try to learn better techniques and keep practicing; it’s a long journey.

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The first UFC defeat of Ronda Rousey

I was intrigued by the content of this video with testimonials from Dana White and lots of Hollywood celebrities which built a great hype about this event.  Personally I had no strong opinion about what could be the result of Rousey vs. Holm at the UFC 193 in Melbourne. Being a kickboxer and loving strikes I surely had a natural preference for Holly Holm who is a Kickboxer and Boxer. She has been winning most of her MMA fights with kicks in her opponents’ heads which is kind of exceptional.

As Sylvester Stallone said in short interview: “one of them will win and the other will lose”.  That’s what happens every time. Obviously expectations are very high when you have a challenge between two undefeated fighters: at the end of the fight one of them will be a former undefeated fighter.

When I saw Rousey’s defeat by Holm’s flag strike, a kick in the head, I was pleased of such a spectacular win but also surprised of what that defeat has generated.  My surprise to the results has a number of different angles which I will explain in a few points:

  • Nearly superfluous to say Rousey is a great grappler and managed to finish most of her latest fights by using what she knows best: judo throws followed by very fast punching to the opponent just grounded or armbars.
  • It was pretty obvious that Holm would not want to go there, hence her very mobile footwork, succeeding to maintain a stand up fight where she is strongest. By using this strategy Holm managed to keep Rousey at bay and hit her in the face a number of times with strong cross punches as well as with a round elbow strike.
  • I was very surprised to see Rousey losing her usual control to the point that in the second round she charged Holm so aggressively and uncontrollably that she fell against the net.
  • Perhaps not having the level of control she is used to have and feeling the pressure of an opponent who would not be as controllable as others she lost her concentration. Definitely her guard was not where it was supposed to be and one by one each of the strikes chipped her down to the point that Holm’s kick had a clear path to Rousey lower jaw and neck putting her KO.
  • Rousey doesn’t really behave like shy as a person; she is full of herself and proud of being a tough fighter which was undefeated until last Saturday. Dana White himself, having discounted for years women being part of UFC, has been promoting her as the best fighters he has worked with. Regardless of this result hopefully he will not change his point of view about her.
  • Fame doesn’t come without repercussions and her bravado has definitely irritated lots of people. Her behaviour just before the fight, including her refusing to touch Holm’s gloves in my opinion should have not been accepted by the organisers.  If we accept substandard sportsmanship behaviours what are we teaching to all beginners and children that look at us to learn how to behave?
  • Despite Rousey’s arrogance I was surprised, to say the little, about the amount of poison spewed toward her. Starting from her main contender Meisha Tate, which is kind of understandable, to Donald Trump and many others all were very happy she lost and filling up social media feeds with their negative comments.
  • This fight reminded me a bit the famous rumble in the jungle when Muhammed Ali challenged and defeated George Foreman in Zaire. Foreman was so sure of winning this fight that entered a three years of depression due to his defeat.  Mind coaching and mental rehearsal have become standard practice for most professional fighters so I assume Rousey’s will be no different.  I trust Ronda will be surrounded by enough councillors, sport psychologists and mind coaches which will help her to analyse what went wrong, cope with the defeat and get ready for her next fight.

I am pleased that after some time in hospital and a few long days of silence Rousey has released an official statement explaining she will take some time off and come back stronger than before.  Martial arts, taught in the traditional way, promote humility and being humble: unfortunately these qualities don’t fit too well with the show business which fighting sports, and UFC in particular, have become.  Perhaps this loss will teach Ronda Rousey how to be a real champion, someone that after falling this hard goes back to the drawing board and understands what went wrong, learn from her mistakes and becomes even better.

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Tae kwon do and flexibility

Copyright Duncan GrisbyTao Kwon do is a Korean martial art mostly based on kicks, delivered above the belt.  Having trained with several black belts of this discipline over the years I got to the conclusion that lower body flexibility is not really optional when training and practicing Tae Kwon Do.  So in my perhaps naïve interpretation I always assume that people practicing this martial art should be flexible or at least having pushed their flexibility to its limits.  Most of the experienced Tae Kwon Do practitioners which joined my club have usually a few common treats:

  • Typical side stance when sparring
  • Good combination of fast kicks from different angles
  • Not very good punching skills
  • Hardly any guard

This description is perhaps stereotypical but accurate for over 90% of the people I met in many years of experience.  Good news from my point of view as a teacher and fighters’ coach is that:

  • They have good kicks
  • Stance and guard can be adjusted
  • Punches can be taught

So in general I am happy to train with and teach kickboxing to experienced Tae Kwon Do practitioners.

A few weeks ago I had an enquiry from someone with over two years’ experience in Tae Kwon Do who I welcomed him to join us which he did.  After training with us a few times with a group of beginners, he proved to be part of the 90% I described above.  Nothing too surprising apart from his flexibility which was quite modest despite him being in his early twenties.  On his third or fourth lesson I suggested him to train with a group of more advanced students as, on that night, the beginners were practicing very basic material.

Funny enough he decided to stop his membership immediately after this lesson justifying himself he wanted to pursue his Tae Kwon Do experience. Read between the lines: he did not like getting punched and felt overwhelmed by the pressure that punching combinations caused.  This is not really the first time this happened but the surprise came to me when he prised, among the good things about our club, how good is the stretching we do as a warm up which gave him an inspiration about improving his flexibility.  I do appreciate we spend a considerable time stretching, but I just considered funny the fact that someone who did Tae Kwon Do for over two years had to realise his lack of flexibility at a kickboxing club.

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The essentials of traditional training

Front Kick - pictures courtesy and copyright Duncan GrisbyI have been training kickboxing since 1981 and in the few years before then I learnt Judo and Karate Shotokan. Over the last 20 or so years I trained a variety of traditional martial arts and appreciated some aspects of them. My approach to martial arts was always as Bruce Less suggested: “try everything, acquire and make yours what works and discard what doesn’t work and the inessential”. I previously wrote about my not too positive opinion about traditional martial arts and too formalised etiquette in certain clubs but I will spend today some time praising its pros.

Just a couple of days ago I was running a class with the Cambridge University Kickboxing Society. While I was teaching some basics to total beginners Phil, one of my assistant instructors, was coaching some intermediate and advance members. Among Phil’s group, made of about 20 people, 7 were regular members of our club with 6-24 months experience and the rest were experienced newcomers. When, later one, I swapped role with Phil and took over the advanced class just to assess their skills I realised how poor some people’s technique was, despite several years of training in other clubs and schools.  Some of them could punch and kick in a decent way but their combinations, coordination and footwork was appalling.

At the end of the class it was refreshing hearing from Phil that the footwork and execution of most beginners, after one hour with me was better of most of the advanced students we just acquired. I am not trying to undermine other coaches and instructors’ work; over the years I just realised how important are the very few basic, traditional exercises we do which apply to footwork, stances and coordination of arms and legs to ensure active and passive guard during both attack and defensive work. People who have never seen regimental training (what in Japanese would be referred as Kihon) simply have no mind set to simply de-construct techniques and postures in a way that they can be easily learnt, adjusted or corrected.

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Haywire – Gina Carano

I was surprised to watch Haywire last night and like it to a point of considering it the movies with the best (read: realistic and credible) fighting scenes I have seen in a long time.

There is no doubt that my passion for martial arts was started in the 70ies with Bruce Lee and other Hong Kong productions which were invading the cinema theatres at that time;  I have also written in the past about movies that, seen now with experience and knowledge, look a bit ridiculous.  Too often choreographers and stunt coordinators simply assume we are all gullible and we don’t understand what’s possible and just fill up movies with scenes which as just pure fantasy.

I found Haywire different; using techniques which are credible and nearly realistic.  Gina Carano showing off her full repertoire of Muay Thai well mixed with ju-jistu and wrestling. It’s realistic to the point that she fights people bigger than her with real effort and manages to get hurt in the process, she even looks out of breath a couple of times which is unusual in movies.  

Of course some scenes are exaggerated.  She gets shot in an arm and, despite a few minutes of pain, two scenes later she carries on fighting as nothing happened.  Then the scene in the hotel, against the character played by Michael Fassbender, when her head and face hit glass panels and other sharp objects without getting cut but, hey, it’s a movie after all 😉  Well done to producer, director, actors, stunt coordinator and of course Gina who uses very well her martial arts skills together with the typical action movie plot.

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