The Wing Chun foundation for Jeet Kune Do

I just the found the video below on you tube and I just could not resist to write this post.  Having read many books and articles about Jeet Kune Do (JKD) as well as having practiced wing chun solidly for over 5 years I was kind of giving for granted what I see in the video but it’s obvious that for some people it is not.

JKD is a concept and not a style; basic principle behind JKD is to learn various martial arts and just retain what works for the individual, discarding what doesn’t work.  This is somehow a precursor concept of MMA fighting, mixing styles to have a complete repertoire of techniques that cover all ranges of fighting including grappling and ground work.  In my opinion that is somehow fine for a person which has decent experience in one style, then moves on to the next one and so on.  Trying to learn at the same time different styles just creates confusion because a correct stance for one could be wrong for the other and you never know which one is which.

In principle different practitioners of JKD could have developed, given the hundred of martial styles available, completely different kind of JKD.  However if you join a JKD school, as long as it is authorised from one of the original students of Bruce Lee (Dan Inosanto, also portrayed in the video, comes to mind), you will learn from scratch techniques that seem to be unique of JKD but, apart from some simple adaptations of footwork and other details they replicate very precisely basic Wing Chun techniques and concepts.  Enjoy the video:

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.

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.

Understanting Strong Posture

Different martial arts teach and instill different postures that have been designed to offer the ideal position(s) to best use attack and defend actions for that specific style.  Although what works for Aikido is so substantially different from Kickboxing or Wing Chun they all make sense when you apply the techniques from their particular repertoire.

This post addresses basic concepts about what a strong posture is and how it can be better understood and improved.

Some basic attributes of a strong posture

  1. well balanced: attacks can come from different directions and your posture should be able to cope with it;
  2. well rooted: you should feel in control of your balance and how to shift it back, forth and sideways;
  3. relaxed: the posture should not involve any unnecessary muscle;
  4. with a proper guard: a strong posture for martial arts will always have to reflect the most adequate guard for that style;
  5. ready to action: you should be always ready to react to an attack so your posture should reflect that; do spend some time analysing “what if” situation and try to be realistic with your own level of fitness and proficiency in your style.

Developing a strong posture

A strong element of self awareness is essential to well perform martial arts techniques and moves: good news is that the actual training helps developing the self  awareness that helps its own improvement.  Following the teaching of an expert teacher you can surely have a feeling of what is suggested and required by the style you are practicing.

The next step, once you are fully comfortable with the basics is experimenting and see what works for you, your body shape and level of fitness: what is ideal for an Olympic champion of tae kwon do will not equally work for a software engineer practicing Ju Jitsu.

Understand and improve your strong posture

In my opinion the best training for your posture is to increase your level of awareness about it.  Be aware of your position feel it with your eyes closed.  Then try moving forward and back, then side to side and then in circle: stop in between, literally freeze in position and check.

A mirror is also a great tool: if you see your image and can balance all elements associated to it you are likely to store them into your unconscious memory when automatic reactions are originated.

The final and next step is asking a friend or training partner to test your posture by pushing, pulling or simply testing where weak points can be found.

My Thoughts about Wing Chun

Massimo & Alan during a Wing Chun seminar in 2005I have been practicing Wing Chun (WC) on and off for several years and I was lucky enough to be exposed to 4 different lineages of this art, each of them slightly different and each of them asserting to be the best.  My deepest knowledge is in the Austin Goh system that I have practiced regularly for nearly 4 years.  I consider myself an intermediate practitioner of WC and I enjoy training it occasionally and using some of its basic principles in everything I do when practicing martial arts.

When I first heard of WC, in the early nineties, I was at the beginning of my exploration journey in different martial arts.  Growing up in a small provincial town with just a Judo, Karate and Kickboxing school there wasn’t much to learn about other martial arts.  And while videos were simply not available (or unaffordable) there was no Internet that allowed having a look around.

In 1991 while speaking to a colleague from another town I found out about the existence of WC.  The description I received about this martial art was somehow confusing and the concepts described were just not possible to be visualized, at that time.  The fact that many school teach to their students to avoid giving demonstrations or in depth explanations of what and how they practice doesn’t really help, does it?

Description

If you have experience in various styles of Kickboxing, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Tang So Do and Kung fu you will realize that, more or less, kicks are kicks, punches are punches and stances are stances.  More emphasis here or there but you can see a common line of evolution and many commonalities.  Discussing WC you hear concepts like sensitivity, touch reflexes and central line and that can be a bit disorientating.  The guards and the stances are initially awkward but every makes sense once you get used to it and you have a full grasp of the whole picture.

A fundamental concept of WC is contact training: the average distance of two people practicing with each other is about the one of their elbows extended forward and when practicing you are always in contact with your partner.  You always work with both hands keeping in touch with your opponent’s arms and each technique is always meant to strike: even when certain moves are erroneously classified as blocks they can always be used to attack.

WC is ideal for short distance fighting and for this reason the expert practitioner will seek the short distance by bridging the gap (distance when opponents cannot touch each other) and get to a distance where kicks would be difficult to use.  Being a martial art orientated to fighting and self defence kicks are minimally used and limited to the waist and below (groin, knee cap, leg in general).  Depending on the style there is more or less emphasis on kicking techniques but literally negligible compared to other styles.

History (inspired from the WC Federation site)

WC is a subtle and complete system of Chinese Kung Fu, developed over hundreds of years, with its roots in the Shaolin Temple tradition. Legend has it that in 1645 a Bhuddist nun by the name of Ng Moi devised the system and taught it to a young girl called Yim WC, who successfully used her newly learned skills to defend herself against a local bully who attempted to rape her.  Originally a very secret system, the sophisticated art of WC was only passed on to family members and close, trusted friends. It was only when the legendary Grandmaster Ip Man (now sadly passed away) arrived in Hong Kong that the style was taught more openly.  Ip Man happened to teach to the early Bruce Lee that started to teach WC as soon as he arrived in USA and then it used it as the basis for his Jeet Kune Do and he depicted the art in several famous movies.

What I like about WC

Here are the main points on which I advocate WC to be a great martial art:

  • WC is a no frills, very immediate and direct martial art: it can be practiced effectively by people of any shape, body shape and size and it can be very useful ad a practical self defence system.
  • The contact training allows metabolizing the adrenaline and stress of fighting at a very short distance: you learn to cope with fear and minimize your reactions to any kind of attacks.
  • The way techniques are usually taught help relaxing and most muscles in a position and status that allow maximum reactivity at fast speed while instinct would suggest stiffening and becoming slow.

What I don’t like about WC

There aren’t many things I don’t like about WC as a martial art but, to keep my tradition in “My Thoughts about …” I will list a couple:

  • The level of fitness required to practice WC is substantially lower that other more physical styles: this means that while it will keep your body in decent shape you will have to integrate WC with something else if you want to be super fit.
  • I also dislike and disapprove the too many political actions between the various schools, driven by mere personal interest of a few top guys.

Conclusions

WC is a great martial arts; it teaches very clever concepts that can be applied to the practice of many other martial arts.  I would suggest to anybody, whether she is a total novice or an expert black belt to give it a try, with an objective view.  Make sure to find the right school though.   Some of them are not too friendly and they have a very arrogant way of positioning themselves: I was lucky enough to meet some of the good ones but I heard of some very bad…