Ageing and training

For the first 15 years of my martial arts training I had a teacher who was always training as part of the class.  While many sport coaches are usually on the side barking orders he was actively showing, demonstrating and practicing his techniques with us.

Unsurprisingly when I started running my own classes I could not think of a different way of teaching and, more than 25 years later, I am still training while teaching and teaching while training.  Until about 4 years ago I could probably count on one hand, within a whole year, the number of lessons I missed or I simply coached without being part of the class. More recently, partially due to a number of training incidents which damaged my back, toes, shoulders, ribs and arm I started to slack a bit, train lighter or a bit less intensively to a point where a standard training session would be kind of challenging.

Early last year I was taking it easy as I was still recovering from a broken rib which happened in October 2015 and, during a training session, I ripped a tendon in my left arm which required a surgical procedure to be put back in working order.  I noticed then that I allowed my fitness level to slip too much below a minimum expected level and this was triggering a number of niggling issues.

At that point I decided to increase the frequency and regularity of my training while reducing the times I allow myself to simply run a lesson to no more than once per month.  I also select very carefully my training partners to minimise the risk of training due to excess of force or lack of control.  Fast forward about 6 months of very regular and consistent training and I feel, once more, at the top of my game.  I decided to concentrate on fast and technical training, which I most enjoy, and leave the sheer full contact stuff to people who are 10, 20 and 30+.

I simply had to acknowledge that if I have students in my weight category or heavier and they are training for full contact fights I should not try to spar with them full contact as I can get hurt.  Apart from that I can still train regularly and consistently with a broad range of athletes at various levels of skill and fitness and keep in good shape while enjoying myself and being able to keep my technique at a high level and being worth the black belt I am wearing.

Martial arts and binge drinking

Massimo kicking AndreaI recently went on a holiday where I spent ten days in different places in France and Italy. I noticed, once more, how these countries have a very different drinking culture compared to England where I live.  In most southern European countries it is very much about drinking in small amounts while socialising.  Although British drinking culture is also associated to socialising, there appears to be more  emphasis on the drinking itself.  The result is often having seriously unhealthy side effects with people experiencing hangovers  which incapacitate their activities the day after drinking, or some times longer.  This post discusses a simple martial arts orientated solution to binge drinking.

One of my students was pointing out, a few nights ago, how he drunk excessively on a Friday night and felt awful  throughout the whole weekend.  He felt totally frustrated as he was incapable of doing anything physical.  I find it strange that people want to drink to this extent knowing they will feel sorry for it.  Then, the next time they have a chance, they are back to the same binge drinking.

So I suggested to this student a simple and practical advice which I have been applying to myself since  I can remember.  Force yourself to train, just turn up to a class and train.  Training martial arts when hungover is a very fast way of recovering for the following reasons:

  • The need to move fast will have a cardio vascular effect which will help sweating and getting rid of toxins
  • The release of adrenaline will sharpen your mind
  • Drinking plenty of water at the end of training will re-hydrate your body and make you fill better

Having advised to date a reasonably large number of students I can draw this conclusion: perhaps the first time you train when hungover it will feel very weird but, in my experience, it will have the following long term effects:

  • Helping faster recovery from hangovers, e.g. shorter hangovers
  • Better functioning in the long term
  • Fostering the reduction of drink intake by reminding you, next time you drink, that training the following day is not optional

Here is the story of another student of mine called DB.  He was a computer programmer who used to have a simple life style:

  • Monday to Friday: work 8-9 hours, go home, cook dinner, eating while watching TV and drinking no less than a bottle of wine or a few cans of beer, every single time.
  • Weekends: finding one or two parties around the region, attending them and drinking all night, feeling hungover and sorry the following day.

His perception of his drinking was hardly ever  excessive as he rarely felt drunk but he noticed how his physical and mental performance was decreasing. At age 30 he felt like an old man; he realised  how sluggish his reaction time was and how bad his physical performance was in terms of speed, power and endurance.  When he joined our club he soon realised how people of a similar age, or even much older, could perform so much better than he did.  He progressively reduced his alcohol intake to the point he was going totally dry for weeks and get the occasional drink at parties over weekends.  His will to gain martial art performance pushed him to reduce his drinking by 80-90% within months. Training martial arts helped him to understand how badly he was treating his body when unaware of the damage he was causing.

So next time you go for a drink or a party make sure you commit to training the very next day, no excuses for hangover or laziness.  Repeat several times and let me know the results.

Regular training to avoid injuries

There are lots of people out there that play the occasional football or tennis match or spend a week per year skiing.  Most martial arts require a different approach and cannot be practiced occasionally if you want to enjoy the benefits that they can bring and avoid injuries.  While I adopted a regular, quasi religious training regime since I was a teen ager I see many of my students or other fellow martial artists having a very irregular training regime: I believe this can be the strongest cause of injuries and loss of motivation.

When you are at the beginning of your training you have a steady increase of performance in terms of speed, power, flexibility and, progressively, technique.  Your mind, as well as your muscles, get trained and they learn the subtle intricacies of how and when firing the right muscles in the appropriate time and order.  You can consider that some of the muscles used in certain techniques are not used much in our normal daily activities.  For the same reason these muscles have a stronger tendency to loose their performance when not used.

While in regular training you enjoy progresses in your training and this enjoyment is released in the form of endorphins that make you feel good.  If, for any reason, you stop training for a few days or weeks your muscles tend to loose some of their fitness.  When you try a technique that was nice and easy last time you did it you find yourself suddenly struggling with it or, if that happens in a self defence situation, risk your life in the process.

A regular practice for amateurs should be considered when training 2-3 sessions per week, possibly practicing all year round: each training session should be between 1 and 2 hours long.

Regular training to avoid injuries

How strongly do you wish to succeed in martial arts?

When you see a person who is active and among the top performers within your school or club have you ever asked your self what took that person to be what she is now?  We surely cannot assume that anybody was born capable of punching, kicking or performing any other martial art move in a seamlessly fashion: these are acquired, learnt skills.

I tend to think that many qualities all have an input to the final performance of a martial artist but I am willing to develop and discuss in this post the top ones:

  • Talent
  • Physical fitness that can be split essentially in:
    • Agility
    • Strength
    • Speed
    • Flexibility
    • Coordination
  • Observation skills
  • Mental flexibility
  • Wish to succeed

Let me now see these and briefly expand on them:


I define somebody talented when she walks into the training room for the first time and she naturally performs anything shown in a relatively easy and natural way.  Talent can be natural or built on previous experiences, non necessarily in martial arts: e.g. dancers and gymnast can naturally perform many martial arts moves.  Talent opens up doors and a number of possibilities to the performer.  Doing things is easy for her so she tend to quickly get to a decent level and often moving on to the next challenge without seeking excellence in its current shape or form.  While I am not stating that talented people do not stick around, in my experience they get easily bored and need continuous new challenges.  I have seen a relatively high number of talented people to get to some level of proficiency in martial arts but a much greater number dropping off within a few years.

Physical fitness

Regardless the martial art you practice there will be some physical fitness involved and being fit or developing a certain level of fitness will help your performance.  In my experience most people will develop over time the level of fitness for their required or expected performance, regardless of their initial fitness level (exceptions do apply).  This is to say that people naturally or initially fit will have an edge or a small advantage over the less fit ones but this will not affect most people in the long run.

Observation skills

I define observation skills when somebody can see a technique performed by another person and she can quickly understand and replicate it without need of deep explanation of the single movements involved.  I consider observation skills a great tool for the martial artist to improve her own performance and gradually absorb other people skills without constant assistance of an instructor or coach.  In my experience the person good in observation skills will be careful in how different people perform the same technique and find her own way to master it.

Mental flexibility

I define mental flexibility the skill of being adaptable in your approach to learn and perform a technique or a combination.  In general there are physical, mechanical and safety rules about performing techniques but often there isn’t a right or wrong about using that or the other technique.  While physical flexibility can be a great skill for certain martial arts, mental flexibility is great for all of them because it allows adapting to what works and what doesn’t.

Wish to succeed

A person with a strong wish to succeed will fuel her enthusiasm to perform.  The wish to succeed will ensure this person will:

  • train regularly and often: this will have the most immediate effect of increasing the number of hours of training per month or year; her mind will get more and more involved with the training becoming a second nature.  Let’s try to remember that the mind and the subconscious are what we mostly train when learning and performing a martial art: muscles and bones simply move in the direction and with the speed and intensity that the mind dictates.  The secondary effect of this is that instructors and senior students will see this person around more than others and default to her more and more of their attention.  This will help this person to get slightly better than other and keep an advantage over other, less committed people.
  • train with the most challenging people in the room trying to be as good or better then them
  • Participate to seminars and other external activities organized by her school or club – visit events organized by others

I will conclude this post by simply stating the following: at whatever point your martial training started or will start your wish to succeed will be the most valuable component and likely the quality that will be pivotal in your success in martial arts.  Other qualities, even the ones I did not mention here will all matter but just as long as your wish to succeed is there.

If you just want to sweat go for a run

Some times at the end of those intensive lesson when everybody is pushed to the limit some of my students come to me and congratulate or thank me for how good the lesson was.  Curiously this happens more often when I happen to run a “low tech” lesson with simple and immediate techniques that simply require intense and fast workout.

Some martial arts can be a hard and sweaty job: repeating many times sequences of punches and kicks and other strikes at a fast pace can surely be a physically demanding task.  At the same time those who feel that a good lesson should be just the one that makes you sweat profusely I suggest to go for a run, do a round of circuit training.

My main goal as a coach is surely to prepare students in most aspects of performing martial arts, including teaching and improving techniques, combinations, balance, foot work, guard, strikes, defence and so on.  When sparring there are also aspects like release tension and being relaxed while having another person in front that is there to punch and kick you.  In certain cases an individual gets stuck in a situation where a certain kick or punch doesn’t work or it is not as efficient as it could be.  These are the times when the expert teacher or coach can really help to  get things working.

To some extent when I enter more complicated areas of training, explain or practice a difficult set of combinations it seems that a smaller number of students find it useful: is it perhaps because the others don’t really grasp the full essence of the lesson?