A dignified approach to sparring beginners

sparring

Image Copyright and courtesy of Duncan Grisby

A couple of weeks ago I was having a chat with a friend who started white collar boxing in a local Cambridge club late last year. He described his first day in that club in a way that many would depict as a horrifying experience. He was asked to enter the ring to spar with 5 established, fit and trained athletes from that gym, just to see “what he’s got”. Result was, unsurprisingly, that he had a black eye and bruised nose. In my opinion the above described event could indeed be a good approach to check who really has the guts to step into a ring without necessarily being prepared for that kind of confrontation; it’s also a great way of losing, by the dozens, potentially good students and future promising fighters, by discouraging them to continue training.

As a martial artist and a coach I find this kind of attitude very much old school and outdated; I like to teach, instil and apply what we could define as a dignified approach to sparring beginners, a methodology that encourages a novice student to starts her first steps into sparring without unnecessary risks of getting hurt.

Sparring is about putting in practice what technical lessons are teaching: techniques, combinations, foot work, attacking, defending and blocking; it all gets mixed together at fast pace and without precise order. At first this is all very confusing and often overwhelming; for some people sparring triggers nearly irrational violent instincts while others simply freeze and get frustrated, feeling incapable of delivering decent performance.

We must assume that any decent martial arts club will have a bunch of senior students and members who are skilled in sparring and fit for fighting. Some of them are perhaps competing at local, regional or national level. These people have both the skill and the fitness to potentially hurt, seriously hurt, a beginner if just they wanted to. However it makes very little sense to do that; I educate all of my students to avoid exploiting the advantage they have on beginners.

A dignified approach to sparring beginners is simply about setting your skills at a level that is slightly better than the beginner you are training with and showing her how you can score on them starting from a fairly soft level of contact. Pressure of contact can and should be increased as and when applicable. This methodology ensures that the advanced student is winning the round and maintains its technical superiority while it offers a list of advantages to both people sparring:

  • Better control of the fight
  • Reduced risk of injuries from both sides
  • Fostering an increasing self confidence for the beginners that ultimately helps to improve her technique and sparring skills

In some cases the dignified approach to sparring beginners becomes difficult to maintain because:

  • The beginner is learning and progressing a lot faster than expected and her techniques from one session to the other improves to a much better point
  • The beginner builds up a false illusion that her sparring skills are now sufficient to put in difficulty the advance student
  • The beginner gets enraged and starts hitting without any control

In the above cases we usually approach the problem with a few words of advice; if the beginners still misbehaves out of logical control we suggest increasing the pressure until it is enough to win the round and educate her.

So if you are a beginner you can be assured that your first sparring sessions will not be traumatic and testing what “you have got” but be aware that there are usually many people in the club that can potentially harm you so respect for your opponent is always a must.

One-off Self Defence lesson

MarkerPenHaving been training martial arts for over 3 decades I struggle to consider the concept of a one-off self defence lesson for an untrained student but last week I tried delivering one.

It all started when my friend Vicky asked for help after being attacked by an ex colleague, a large and tall guy with some serious mental issues.  After several episodes of increasingly violent verbal abuse on the street he finally decided to swing a punch at her.  Vicky was fast enough to dodge the attack and nothing else happened but she was obviously very shaken and scared when it happened.

When she asked for my help I was obviously prepared to offer my knowledge and expertise but I immediately clarified how martial arts need to be learnt and assimilated over a long period of time so the right kind of reaction becomes automatic and natural.  Apart from technique and reflexes martial art also offer two key factors:

  • the mental training to rationalise a dangerous situation in order to react in a calmer and more effective way
  • the necessary fitness and physical conditioning to fight back

I though I could try compressing a few basic concepts aimed at helping Vicky to increase her level of personal safety and security, all in one hour session.  Vicky is in her early forties, physically fit by spending regular time in the gym but she never practiced any martial art or fighting sport; she is medium built, about 1.70m tall and she often wearing shoes with high hills.

We started the lesson as a set of conversations where we discussed scenarios and possibilities.  I often teach that the best physical self defence could be considered when you can run away; wearing high hills reduces this possibility by a fair amount.  I suggested having a conscious awareness, when walking, of the type of floor she is walking on to understand how slippery it would be if a fast movement, sprint or other action was required.  The very best self defence is to avoid the danger altogether so we started enlisting how to improve personal security when travelling, when at home and when out both for work or socialising.  Increasing awareness about the environment and where a potential attacker could be hiding will reduce the chance of an attack to the absolute minimum.  Without becoming obsesses we should mentally rehears situations when an attacker could be behind a corner or in a dark alley or in a park behind a tree; this will gradually educate the mind to consider and evaluate various what/if scenarios.

For practicality I suggested to consider having handbags with a long strap so they can hang from a shoulder and both hands could be available at all times for both attacking and defending. Some people suggest having an acoustic alarm, a pepper spray and/or a small object that can be used as a weapon when things get difficult.  A pen could be a good weapon; I have nothing against it but it can easily break (unless you use a metal one) and, if used to hit the wrong place it could potentially kill an attacker… a bit too extreme.  For me a big and thick permanent marker (or whiteboard pen), used in a hammer fist punch, could be a great weapon reducing the risk described above.  In general the law states that each self defence action should use reasonable force… a very grey area indeed. I warned my one-off student that any action she takes against an attacker could have legal repercussions for her if she injures the other person.

Vicky and I then started playing a bit physical; we first worked of the very attack she was recently victim of.  Most street attackers, when untrained in martial arts, will attack by swinging punches in a very broad and circular motion.  For the untrained person that is what feels as the most powerful attack.  I am always pleased to have this theory confirmed when, once in a while, I witness a street fight, usually late at night, among drunken.  The swinging punch could be dangerous if it hits you in the face but, luckily, it is very easy to block or even to dodge as Vicky already demonstrated.  For the swinging punch I suggested using blocks similar to Pak Sau from wing chun.  By turning the centre of gravity and walking slightly toward the punch we can actually neutralise even a very strong punch delivered by a much heavier opponent (as it is usually the case when a woman is fighting a man).  It took just a few minutes for Vicky to pick up the technique and apply it well and with the right timing.  It took a bit longer for her to relax when she saw me attacking her with increasing power, despite the attacks were controlled and would not hurt her even if she completed miss the block.

We then tried to familiarise with the concept that an attacked could sneak out of a corner and grab her with the intention of pulling her toward a concealed place or in his car; we worked on a couple of defences from wrist/forearm grabs.  We also briefly worked on a strangling position from behind.  To simply explore on attacking technique I showed how a hammer punch delivered in a descending motion toward the head, face or collarbones could be more effective and devastating than a jab or a cross that would require months or years of training and conditioning.  I here realised how for Vicky it was painful to hit the palm of my hand with medium strength so presumably delivering a really hard blow it would be excruciating.

I completed the session by suggesting to have a friend to practice these techniques and rehears them until they become second nature; I invited her to come back to me with questions as all the concepts clear and fresh in her mind at the end of the session would quickly start fading and become blurry and less obvious as time passes by.

Being used to teach to students which are with me for the medium or long period I always like to approach each concept gradually and ensure that the student can assimilate it well.  Here I had to really squeeze lots of concepts in a very short time.  I noticed how strange it could be for a person not used to martial arts training the simple concept of being grabbed, held, punched and other violent situations that are somewhat familiar and everyday practice for people that are training martial arts regularly.

Another great lesson from Bill Wallace

The combination of Bill Wallace’s words together with some of the scenes makes this video from 1991 a great lesson about martial arts, its phylosophy of training and how we can improve even after many years of training.  I agree completely with these concepts and that’s why I am still training with the same, sometimes more, passion than when I started.  Enjoy and comment please:

Meet Maul Mornie

After having seen the numerous videos that Maul has on his You Tube channel I was convinced I had to meet him and try out his style. I was initially discouraged by the fact that he is always travelling to different places delivering seminars and that he is usually booked for a good part of a year in advance but, nearly by mistake I found out he was in touch with a local teacher of Silat that runs classes in Cambridge University, Lee Wilson, and so I caught the opportunity and turn up at a seminar held in Darwin College in early March.

Silat Suffian Bela Diri is a martial art that originates in Brunei and I believe it is somehow related to other Silat styles that are practiced in Indonesia and Malaysia: Maul himself admits to have little knowledge of those other styles and that what he practices and teaches is a direct lineage from his family.

The first impression of meeting Maul is warm and friendly: he appeared in the training hall greeting in a very friendly way people he met in previous occasions and welcoming in a equally warm way myself and others he was meeting for the first time.  His smile and facial expression is very reassuring and encouraging as well as his teaching style that is involving from the very first second.

Silat, similarly to other martial arts of South East Asia, is a martial art based on weapons, particularly knife: the training is usually starting by learning how to handle and defend against a weapon and moving onto bare hand fighting at a later stage.  As the seminar was open to all levels and there were people that, like me, had very little weapon experience he decided to start with the very basic drills that included the three basic knife strikes (cutting down vertically to the head, cutting across slashing the throat and stabbing horizontally toward the stomach).  Within minutes we were all practicing these basic drills and developed amazing ways of dealing with these kinds of attacks that would potentially be deadly if applied by an opponent with a live blade (all training is practiced with training knife blunt blades and edges).

The most amazing thing was seeing how Maul could handle these attacks with amazing precision and all counter attacks where at the same time conceptually simple and amazingly effective within a broad range of situations and circumstances.  The other hard to believe feature is his skill of moving incredibly slowly to demonstrate a technique that could potentially harm the opponent but then accelerating at an unexpected (even for a trained, expert martial artist) speed when showing how a techniques should be delivered in real life.

I was really amazed and totally impressed by Maul as a top martial artist and teacher as well as by his great personality and friendly manners: if you have a chance attending one of his seminars just go and try his style, technique and his unique teaching skills.

Meet Benno Westra

I was recently guest at a Wing Chun seminar run by sifu Benno Westra organized by my friends at Cambridge Kung Fu.  Wing Chun is a martial art originated in the South of China and it’s predominantly an bare handed based system that was initially defined by a woman: advanced forms use butterfly knives and long pole but the majority of applications and demonstration are done empty handed.  Wing Chun is a martial arts that to my knowledge has no sport application and it is taught primarily as a simple, direct and no frills self defence system.

Wing Chun is in reality a family of different styles and I personally trained many different ones: it is intriguing to see how each of them is similar more or less to the others while it interprets various aspects in a totally different way.  In general emphasis on one or the other technique is due to the lineage, the master or grand master that defined the style and his/her personal taste for one or the other aspect.

The first impression of seeing and meeting Benno Westra is warm, friendly and encouraging: a big step forward compared to many high ranked people in the Wing Chun arena that like to look down to the common mortals and use intimidation and nearly mystification to justify their position.  His practical approach to Wing Chun is meant to enable any practitioner to have a good structure and a no non-sense preparation to situations that can happen on the street.

Given my exposure and years of training in other styles of Wing Chun I was some times performing instinctively in a way that was substantially different from what being practiced.  When he corrected some of my techniques he was explaining and justifying why in his style things work that way.  I appreciated hearing a number of times how there isn’t a right or wrong approach to one or the other situations: that leaves a great level of freedom to analyse and appreciate what works and what doesn’t for yourself.

Starting from a simple drill that was deflecting punches to the face we built in a number different variations of lat sau, using wu sau as a central, main technique for the day.

It’s difficult to measure results out of a 4 hours seminar, because it depends very much on what you expect to get out of it.  My approach is usually to go with the flow, experience and see what comes out, trying to be totally unbiased, objective and to learn something: I was happy to exceed my expectations in this occasion.

I liked Sifu Benno’s style of teaching: he uses many interesting metaphors and humorous stories and jokes while presenting top quality techniques and offering comparison to many other martial arts of which he has practical experience himself.  I am looking forward to the possibility of participating to another seminar.