You can just fight what you have seen before

I was finishing a beginners’ course last night and one of the attendees was expressing his doubts about how he will develop the necessary skills to throw punches and kicks as well as blocking attacks at the right time.

I immediately reassured him that with time and careful teaching all necessary defence and attack skills will develop like natural instincts; I also added that “you can just fight what you have seen before”. To prove this simple concept I stepped a couple of metres away from him, removed my belt, folded it 4 times and threw it toward his chest saying ”catch!”.  He caught it without hesitation and smiled.  I then carried on explaining; you naturally catch an object thrown at you because that’s what you have been taught since you were a kid, by playing ball games and so on.

If you train just specific techniques you will be vulnerable to attacks which you are not used to.  You will be able to block and avoid kicks and punches once you have seen them coming your way, many times, and being taught how to block and avoid them from different positions and angles.

To develop good fighting skills it’s essential to train in a variety of ways, with people of different sizes and shapes.  In that way each possible combination of techniques can be tested and natural reactions get developed at subconscious level, generating instinctive moves.

A peculiar flaw in Tae Kwon Do practice

Tae Kwon Do – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

I recently attended the Varsity Tae Kwon Do match between Cambridge and Oxford University.  I noticed, more than ever before, a very common flaw that was uniform across the 20+ bouts I watched.

There seem to be a total neglect toward guards while people are fighting.  In fact I had the impressons that fighters were in fact unaware that their arms could actually be kept in a convenient position to maximise guard and protection of their scoring areas while eventually blocking their opponent’s attacks.  Kicks were thrown without any attention about where the arms were and even when punching with one arm the other seemed to be totally forgotten that it existed.

Let’s face it it’s not easy to keep a decent guard while fighting; being a big fan of proper guards I spend more that 50% of my coaching time reminding people to keep their guard where it should be.   However yesterday I was seriously disappointed by the amount of scoring that Oxford managed to achieve by simply kicking unguarded torsos and faces.

Some Tae Kwon Do fights are full contact but likely not in this occasion; given the average skill I saw I believe it was mostly because of lack of performance and real power training.  If any of those scores, particularly to the face, were delivered with real power they would have needed some serious medical attention.

The kickboxing teach is very much based on kicks so I feel confident I could teach one thing or two to these young men and women if next year they perhaps want to actually beat Oxford.

Improving performance in martial arts: a progressive approach

Image copyright and courtesy of the Judo Channel

Many martial arts techniques require actions that involve groups muscles that are not usually used in any other everyday’s activity; let’s we consider for example:

  • round kick to the head from tae kwon do
  • chain punches from wing chun
  • harai goshi from judo

Each of the above mentioned techniques are part of the basic training for their respective martial arts and yet, they involve several groups of muscles, at a high speed and in perfect synchronization and it could be quite challenging for a novice.

Achieving top performance in any of these moves (or any other technique) usually requires what implicitly most martial schools teach as part of their standard curriculum:

  1. the technique is shown by the instructor
  2. the student tries it and familiarise with the various aspects of the move: starting position, foot work, shifting weight in the right direction and at the right time, maintain a proper guard during the technique and the ending position
  3. once repeated a few times the instructor feeds back some suggestions about adjusting what is not working and the technique is repeated more times until a decent level of performance is achieved

I have been using successfully the approach described above with thousands of students; for some decently co-ordinated people techniques just come natural and everything simply works.  However there are people that struggle to learn a complex move at ones so they get overwhelmed by the whole process or frustrated by the lack of achievement.

If one of my students encounters this kind of difficulties I implement what I am here defining a progressive approach for improving performance.  When we are learning a new technique the aim should be to achieve unconscious competence, when your technique just flows without conscious effort.  Before achieving that state we need to work, consciously on the technique and repeat it until it becomes automatic.

My approach follows these steps:

  1. quickly establish what is already working in the technique
  2. isolate one or more aspects that need improvement
  3. instruct the student to focus his/her attention just on one aspect of the technique at the time until that works
  4. repeat <3> until all non working aspects have been worked on and improved
  5. finally perform the whole improved technique a few times to focus on the positive outcome and ensure it pushed at subconscious level

A typical example of the above process applies well to people that, when kicking front kick, drop or open their guard.  So here is the application:

  1. quickly establish what is already working in the technique: the kick is ok but the guard is not
  2. isolate one or more aspects that need improvement: the guard the unconsciously is opening up while kicking
  3. instruct the student to focus his/her attention just on one aspect of the technique at the time until that works: simply forget about the kick, it’s already work, just think about the guard be conscious to see where it while kicking
  4. repeat <3> until all non working aspects have been worked on and improved: keep kicking until the guard stays in position
  5. finally perform the whole improved technique a few times to focus on the positive outcome and ensure it pushed at subconscious level

The above methodology has been working for me for a long time and, while nobody actually explained to me in the first place I noticed its power and simple effectiveness over many years of practice.

What experience gives you

Recently I was running a lesson with the Cambridge University Kickboxing Society and I was pointing out to two young ladies, part of the beginners course, how one was not hitting as hard as she could while performing a simple exercise.

Her partner was surprised of my remark and she stopped asking how I could tell she was not hitting “as hard as she could”.  Surprisingly that was the first time somebody questioned my teaching in this way and I pondered for a few seconds before answering.

Many years of experience allow you to recognise and evaluate very quickly, within matter of seconds while a person is practicing martial arts, whether the he/she:

  • Is Powerful
  • Is Fast
  • Is Well co-ordinated
  • Has good reflexes
  • Can bear strong attacks
  • Has a good sense of fighting
  • Her body mass and shape allows a certain level of power

As I listed to her the above, non exhaustive, list of features and mentioned my experience in years that exceeds by a decade her age she quickly accepted my comment and carried on training.

Many instructors like to feel powerful and imposing their dogmatic teaching to their students expecting them to simply trust and believe him/her.  As my teaching is fully based on scientific principles everything can be explained and showed how techniques can be improved and fine tuned to deliver maximum efficiency and power.

So I quickly helped her partner to adjust her posture and angle of attack and within a couple of exercises she was hitting 30-40% harder.  Physical fitness can be and will be improved by continuous training  while the right technique will improve your performance in a very short time.

That’s what experience gives you.

Kickboxer – Van Damme

Copyright of its author, all rights reservedLast night I was browsing various TV channels and I bumped into Kickboxer a movie produced in 1989 with the main character played by a young and f it Jean Claude Van Damme.  I remember seeing this movie at the cinema when it was released (yes, I am that old) and I often refer to it when I explain certain techniques, not necessarily for the quality of the scenes but mostly to describe how things should not be done.

The story is pretty simple: Van Damme’s older brother (in the movie) is an undefeated national champion of full contact kickboxing and somebody suggests he should go and change the Thai champion.  He goes and accepts to fight Thai Boxing rules (that obviously allow elbow and knee strikes that he cannot handle) and he gets not only defeated but his back gets broken and has to be on a wheel chair.  Van Damme’s character decides to avenge his brother by learning kickboxing under a famous local master and at end, as it happens in any respectable American production the good wins, the bad gets beaten and humiliated and so on…

My reason to write this post is to point out a few features that suggest watching the movie while a few comments about how the director could have done a better job.

Van Damme has a typical Karate posture and style, with a low (shall I say inexistent?) guard and a very pumped up attitude for single killer punches  rather than good, classical combinations of boxing techniques: he doesn’t (at least in this movie) looks very much of a kickboxer.  At the same time his fitness and technique, at least in performing certain kicks (like at the end of the fight when, out of the ring kicks Tong Po in the face with a perfect side kick and then, with the same leg he kicks round kick in the face of the organiser) is just great.  What is very annoying is the continuous cut and re sampling of scenes that try to amplify the prowess of the various techniques.

In movies people can be kicked and punched for hours without much damage or even running out of breath and this is no different but, ok, perhaps I am a bit too strict on these things.

As a conclusion I can say that this is a decent martial arts movie, if you ignore the awful non combat scenes and plot it shows some good techniques and, as it happened last night, when I bump into it I tend to watch at least some parts of it.