Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Make Them Miss, Make Them Pay

Saturday afternoon First Defense Krav Maga hosted GM Jeff Smith, a karate and TKD practitioner from the "blood and guts" era of full contact kickboxing. Krav practitioners spar, but not competitively. Our head instructor Nick Masi brought Mr Smith to the school to share his knowledge of movement, striking, and tactics. Here I will try to capture some of his drills and key themes.

Mr Smith began the seminar by explaining his key principles: footwork, distance, accuracy, timing, and speed. We worked movement drills and relaxed our shoulders to avoid wasting energy and losing speed.

Mr Smith said skipping rope was a great way to practice relaxing shoulders while developing endurance. If you constantly trip on the rope, get rid of it! Just work the movements. You generate the most striking power in a stance, not while moving. Therefore, we drilled moving, striking, and moving again.

Mr Smith led us through a series of attack sequences. From a left foot forward fighting stance, these included:

  • Lead (left) jab, lead (left) front kick, right cross.
  • Jab, lead side kick, cross.
  • Jab, plant left foot, spinning side kick with right leg, left strike.
  • Jab, lead (left) round kick to opponent lead thigh or body, cross, left upperhook.
  • Jab, lead outside crescent kick (strikes with outside of foot), cross.
The counter-attack sequences included stepping offline and blocking the jab with the near (left) hand, then striking with the rear (right, or cross) hand. 

Versus the lead round kick, Mr Smith showed the importance of the defender stepping to his or her 7:30 (diagonally left and back) to take away some of the kick's power. Stepping to the 1:30 (diagonally right and front) would put the defender closer to the kicker. Mr Smith taught us the "universal block," a two-armed motion that drops the defender's right arm low and the left arm high to protect the head. The defender can try to trap the attacker's leg with the low arm and then throw the attacker. 

When executing this block, the defender should turn the right shoulder towards the attacker. The high left hand should face palm out. One of our senior instructors, Chris, served as demonstration dummy by having Mr Smith whack Chris' left hand, with palm out and palm in. Palm out engages stronger arm and shoulder muscles, while palm in collapses such that Chris hit himself in the face while Mr Smith struck his arm.

Versus the front and side kicks, the defender should step to the 1:30 and deflect the kick to his or her left side before striking.

Beyond specific techniques, Mr Smith described how a combination of technique and application makes a good fighter. He said to practice in stages: first 1/2 speed, then 3/4 speed, and only later full speed. Always practice drills involving head contact while wearing a mouth guard! 

Movement-wise, you "bounce" to set distance or get to the outside, and walk when advancing towards, or what I thought of as "stalking" the opponent. Mr Smith said one of the keys to his success was to "make them miss, make them pay," hence the combination of defense and counter-attack skills.

When meeting an opponent at the center of the ring, don't touch two gloves to the opponent's glove or gloves. Always touch one glove, and use the moment to gauge the correct striking distance. Clever!

Mr Smith noted that he turns 70 next month, and afterwards my fellow students were amazed. We thought he was in his 50s given how well he moved. Of course we hadn't done the math concerning his fighting in the 1960's and 1970s, so we were all surprised. I felt he was a great role model for staying incredibly active while others his age might barely play golf!

After class I asked Mr Smith to share his toughest fight, and what made it difficult. He said fighting on the undercard at the "Thrilla in Manila" was the toughest, because millions of people watched and he as a light heavyweight fought a heavyweight. You can see the fight online here, with part 1 being the introductions and part 2 beginning the first round. 

I hope Mr Smith returns for the next level of his seminar. If you have a chance to invite him to teach at your school, I am sure you will enjoy the experience. Thank you GM Jeff Smith for sharing your knowledge with a Krav school!

What did I miss? Let me know here on on Twitter!

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

What Does the Student Need

I've been enjoying the Jiu-Jitsu Brotherhood podcast, hosted by Nic Gregoriades. Nic brings a deep philosophical approach to his jiu-jitsu, and his podcast reflects that thinking. In episode 10 he interviewed Matt Thornton, the famous coach known for his concept of "aliveness" in training.

Nic asked Matt for advice on how to be a better martial arts coach. Paraphrasing Matt, his response was the following:

When teaching, ask yourself "what does the student need from me, right now, to succeed?"

Matt's question really resonated with me. In jiu-jitsu I'm a student, but in Krav Maga I'm a student and a member of our instructor development program. I help teach kids and adult fundamentals classes, and I'm available for private instruction.

Matt added that instructors should worry less about "looking good" in front of students, or demonstrating the latest and greatest flashy technique. Instructors should concentrate on getting through to the student and connecting with them, such that the student makes progress.

Nic has also said that jiu-jitsu (or really most martial arts) are the only athletic endeavor where there is an expectation that the coach is "the best player on the team." He said:

Imagine if people expected the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers (currently Tyronn Lue) to be better than LeBron James. Does that make any sense? We do this in jiu-jitsu though.

It's probably a function of rank, given the instructor is likely the senior person in the room. I agree that it does not make sense. In some cases it is true, but only in certain applications. When I see Prof Pedro Sauer demonstrate his technique, it's clear he operates at a level beyond anyone I've seen personally. Probably Rickson Gracie is the only person I've witnessed with technique at our beyond Prof Sauer's level. However, Prof Sauer, at age 59, can't roll the way he did 20 or 30 years ago. Does this mean he needs to be replaced? Of course not!

Keeping "what does the student need" at the forefront of teaching led me down this path: the student needs the type of instructor that connects with him or her, helping the student to make progress. Some students may need a sparring partner who can push him or her physically, as is the case with competitive athletes. Even in that situation, it may be better for the instructor to coach from the sidelines as the student engages with a comparable competitive sparring partner. Others may need a more technical approach. Still others may need help in areas we haven't considered yet.

I also subscribe to the philosophy that the teacher should always try to develop students who surpass his or her capabilities. Nic called this "creating the weapons of your own destruction!" Jeremy Lesniak from Whistlekick makes a similar point. The alternative to constant improvement -- stagnation, or worse, degradation -- is unacceptable to me. We should all want our arts to improve, and that manifests through students who surpass their teachers.

How do you answer "what does the student need?" Let me know here on on Twitter!

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Bouncing Back During the P4 Test

Last weekend I tested for Krav Maga Global Practitioner 4 ("P4") rank. I had last tested in March, for P3. This test taught me a lesson about resiliency and keeping calm in the face of adversity.

To grade those of us testing for P4 and above, my head instructor flew in a former student now living in Austin, TX. Will is an Expert 1 known for being a serious grader. We heard he had failed 5 of the last 7 people he tested for Graduate rank. I had trained for a while with Will before he moved from northern VA to TX, so I knew he was tough but fair.

The first hour and a half went well and soon it was time for me to demonstrate "stop kicks." You have probably seen these in Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do -- using the lead or rear leg to intercept and block an opponent's low kick. I had just worked on these with our kids classes that morning, so I felt ready to go.

It was not meant to be! I couldn't stop a single kick my partner threw at me. Will even swapped out my original partner for another, in case I was worried about hurting my partner. No difference! Will walked away and I knew he gave me zero points for that section.

I was so angry! I do not have a temper, but you could not tell it last Saturday afternoon. I was near the half-wall separating the training floor and the waiting area, and I hammer-fisted the horizontal wall surface. I'm sure a few bystanders suspected something was wrong, because they had never likely seen me so angry.

I had 2/3 of the test left, but I was upset. What could I do about it? I  remembered a situation at the Rickson Gracie Cup jiu-jitsu tournament a couple weeks prior. One of my team members from Prof Pedro Sauer's school was not happy with her competition performance. I remembered hearing Professor tell her that it was water under the bridge, that she could not do anything about it, and it was better to focus on the next challenge.

I decided that I was experiencing the same problem, and I would adopt the same solution. I made a sincere effort to let go of my frustration and concentrate on the next portion of the test.

We moved on to self-defense techniques. Will told my partner to execute a series of attacks until he said stop. I would have to deal with each in turn. My partner started throwing attack after attack, and in between each I took about one second to concentrate on shaking off the stress, relaxing my body, and preparing for the next challenge. During this portion of the test I probably felt the most "flow" of the whole 4 1/2 hour event. It was quite a change from my feelings only a few minutes earlier!

I successfully completed the test, and I realized it could have gone south pretty easily. I was thankful that I was able to turn it around.

Have you experienced a setback like this, and if so, how did you respond? Let me know here on on Twitter!

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Krav Maga Global Training for Jiu-Jitsu Practitioners

I've been a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner since the very end of January 2017. I listen to several BJJ podcasts, and I sometimes hear participants critique Krav Maga. Some of the popular comments include the following:

  1. Krav Maga is mainly groin kicks, eye gouges, and palm strikes. 
  2. You don't need a long time to learn Krav Maga. In fact, you could learn the system in a week.
  3. If you practice authentic, self-defense Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, you don't need to learn a so-called "reality-based self-defense system" like Krav Maga. 
  4. Krav Maga students say their techniques are too deadly to train against live, resisting opponents. Yet, "aliveness" is the key to training. Therefore, Krav Maga is of little use in real confrontations.
I've been training in the Krav Maga Global system since January 2016. I'm a "practitioner 3" who has completed the first five days of our 24 day General Instructor Course. I'm no expert but I'd like to offer my reaction to these critiques.

First, if you've seen something called "Krav Maga," it's possible it indeed was nothing more than groin kicks, eye gouges, and palm strikes! "Krav Maga" means "contact combat" in Hebrew, so anyone can brand their "fighting system" as "Krav Maga." In fact, Krav Maga as a term has become a popular marketing mechanism. Plenty of teachers offer one- or two-day "certifications" to become "Krav Maga instructors."

My experience is solely with Krav Maga Global (KMG), the system codified by Eyal Yanilov. KMG is primarily a striking system. We do not try to overcome opponents using joint manipulation or chokes as we do in BJJ. KMG's curriculum includes hundreds of techniques to address a variety of armed and unarmed confrontations. The techniques are based on a handful of natural reaction principles, similar to core tenets of BJJ like leverage, pressure, and so on.

Second, Krav Maga is often advertised as a "simple system." This is based on the natural reaction principles and the relentless desire for efficient and effective solutions. As with BJJ, "knowing" a technique does not mean you can apply it when challenged. 

For example, in my 2016 Martial Arts Year in Review post, I documented that I trained Krav Maga for over 200 hours last year. Only this month (August 2017), did I start to believe I am moving in the right direction with my striking, footwork, and overall movement! It takes hundreds of hours to even begin feeling like you are making real progress.

Third, KMG is without a doubt focused on self-defense. There is no internal debate as we find in the BJJ world between the competition people and the defense people. One of the reasons I feel comfortable training at Master Pedro Sauer's school is that his school and system are very self-defense focused. He cultivates incredible competitive talents like David Porter, but the school's focus is self-defense. Nevertheless, I feel that there is room for collaboration among my KMG and BJJ communities. Some KMG solutions to problems seem more effective to me, and some BJJ solutions to other problems seem more effective to me.

Fourth, although we KMG students are concerned with safety, we do not rely on "deadly" techniques. We pressure test our techniques in a variety of formats, trying to simulate the stress and conditions of real confrontations. We also spar at different intensities and in many forms. Sometimes we only spar with hands, or only feet, or everything but the ground, or everything including the ground, or nothing but the ground! 

Our ground games are nothing like BJJ, however, because we do not train submissions -- our goal is generally to disengage and get back to our feet when possible. This is an area where I think KMG could learn from BJJ. BJJ, in turn, could learn by sparring with a striking-focused KMG student. Still, I agree that there's nothing like that resistance you get from a rolling partner in BJJ -- which is one of the reasons I love jiu-jitsu!

Do you train both systems, or are you in a similar situation? Let me know here or respond to me on Twitter!

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Quit Playing Games with My Heart

Have you seen this chart, or have you heard about the topic it describes?

(Scroll to the very bottom of the post for TL;DR if you like!)

From "On Combat", as rendered by Not for commercial use.
In brief, as I have heard it taught and as this chart explains, the higher your heart rate, the worse your physical performance. This idea has implications for anyone in a physical confrontation, where an increased heart rate seems to mean an inability to perform self defense actions.

When I first encountered this concept, it did not make sense to me. In my teens I was a high school cross country and track runner, and I frequently elevated my heart rate over 200 bpm. I did not encounter these symptoms. In my twenties and thirties I played men's league ice hockey and managed to perform complex motor skills such as skating, puck handling, and shooting, all while my heart was racing. 

Now, encountering this chart and its ideas as a martial artist, I'm learning that I should be experiencing tunnel vision and racing to the bathroom when my heart rate is high. Could there be more to this phenomenon?

The chart appears in On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by Lt. Col. David Grossman and Loren Christensen, published in 2004, but it derives from a 1997 article Grossman wrote with Bruce K. Siddle titled Psychological Effects of Combat, for the Academic Press Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict. 

In On Combat, the authors write:

"There is a zone that exists, generally between 115 and 145 beats per minute (bpm), where you are at your optimal survival and combat performance level... Starting at about 115 bpm, your fine-motor skills begin to deteriorate."

The authors caveat these statements:

"We should be cautious about fixing specific heart rate numbers (or any other precise measures of physiological arousal) on Condition Yellow, Red, or Black. The impact of these Conditions can vary greatly depending upon training, physical fitness, and other factors. Also, it must be understood that these heart rates apply only to survival stress or fear induced heart rate increases. You can so a set of wind sprints and get your hear rate to 200 bpm, but the effect of this exercise induced heart rate increase will not be the same as when fear or survival stress causes the increase." (emphasis added)

You can download a .pdf version of the chart with similar caveats added to the bottom.

Apparently my earlier examples involved exercise without survival stress or fear, so I did not experience the negative effects inherent in the chart. But what is the source of these statements?

The authors state later in the book: 

"The linking of specific heart rate with task performance was pioneered by Bruce K. Siddle, author of the excellent book Sharpening the Warrior's Edge, and one of the great pioneers in the field of 'Warrior Science (TM).'"

I happen to be reading Siddle's book now. On pages 48-49 he writes:

"Levitt and Gutin (1971) studied the performance of a five-choice reaction time task and found that the ideal resting heart rate performance is at the rate of 115 heart beats per minute... After the heart rate increased above 115 bpm, the subject's performance began to deteriorate, with the worst performance at 175 bpm. 

Similarly, Levitt (1972) examined the affects (sic) of various stress levels induced by exercise, on tasks varying information-processing demands... He found a clear Inverted-U effect, with optimal performance at the heart rate of 115 to 145 bpm. His students' performances were clearly less effective at heart beats of 80 and 175 bpm."

Siddle repeats these findings using different wording on page 79.

I find three flaws with the heart rate theory at this point.

First, as far as I can tell, Siddle did no research on his own, as he has no training or expertise in this area. Despite this problem, Grossman and Christensen refer to "Bruce Siddle's research" as if Siddle conducted original work. Siddle's "research" consists of citing two papers by Levitt, one of which had a co-author, Gutin. That's it. Siddle built his whole theory around two studies, and Grossman and Christensen then built then theory on top of Siddle.

Second, Grossman and Christensen's caveats noted "these heart rates apply only to survival stress or fear induced heart rate increases." I believe they added these caveats to address criticism such as those I listed earlier. However, the caveats are inconsistent with the research Siddle cites to support his heart rate theory.  Levitt's 1972 research involved subjects on treadmills, not fighters in stressful situations. According to the caveats, this exercise-induced heart rate elevation should not have caused degraded performance. However, Levitt's research did cause degraded performance. Which is it?

Third, more recent research shows that conclusions by Siddle, Grossman,Christensen are no longer tenable. For example, a 2007 paper by police officer Kathleen Vonk titled Police Performance Under Stress (pdf) stated:

"Although the Inverted-U theory is well-known within the police training arena, many essential components have unfortunately been omitted or forgotten over the years. Siddle included these components in his book Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge, however much of the information has been left behind. For example, even in basic psychology text books both task complexity characteristics and personality characteristics are mentioned as affecting one’s performance, relating these characteristics to an individualized Inverted-U. Rarely, if ever, are these mitigating factors even mentioned in defensive tactics programs...

Since human beings are so different and complex, attempting to categorize or generalize an optimal performance zone to one specific heart rate range would be virtually impossible. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, the police profession may be better off looking to the athletic profession in terms of improving physical and mental skills under elevated stress levels." (emphasis added)

Vonk (who has a BS in exercise science) then describes the results of six years of research where her consulting firm collected heart rate data of police officers in a variety of situations, from training to field operations. I recommend reading her paper to better understand her suggested approach, one that abandons heart rates as factors causing stress responses.

My take-away from investigating the Siddle-Grossman-Christensen heart rate theory is that you cannot make any predictions about individual performance based on heart beats per minute. Martial arts instructors should be very careful how they approach this topic with students.

Unfortunately, we cannot seem to excise this theory from popular or martial culture. For example, consider this 2013 Art of Manliness article: Managing Stress Arousal for Optimal Performance: A Guide to the Warrior Color Code. The authors of that article are also confused about Jeff Cooper's color codes, but that's a topic for another post!

If you would like to read a lengthy criticism of the heart rate theory and chart, see this blog post by police officer and trainer W. Hock Hochheim titled Death to the Heart Rate Chart. Stu Marshall, an anaesthetist (a doctor that administers anaesthesia) calls Siddle's work an urban myth

TL;DR: There is little to no science behind the theory that increased heart rates degrade performance. Multiple other factors appear to be responsible, i.e., read Vonk's paper.

What do you think of the heart rate theory? Is it bogus, benign, or beneficial? Let me know here or respond to me on Twitter!

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Five Exercises to Relieve Martial Arts Wrist and Finger Pain

Do sore wrists and fingers interfere with your martial arts training?

I stopped training martial arts training in 2001 after I broke my wrist in American Kenpo class. I didn't know I had broken it until several weeks later, when a doctor took an X-ray and saw the wrist was healing. I had "protected" it using the sort of wrist brace you use for carpal tunnel syndrome. The doctor said "that's going to hurt again in 10 or 15 years."

Here we are in 2017, and I don't want this old injury to hold me back! My family also has a history of developing arthritis in the fingers, so I am doing what I can to avoid that situation as well.

Earlier this year I felt wrist pain when doing Krav Maga striking drills, and finger pain doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I decided to fight back with a multi-pronged approach. Let me share the drills I do to relieve martial arts wrist and finger pain!

1. Wrist strength. I was inspired by my StrongFirst training to focus first on wrist strength. When the muscles are weak, all that the body has left are the joints. Joints aren't meant to carry the loads intended for the muscles, so joint pain can be a sign that muscles needed to be strengthened.

To address the likelihood that the muscles supporting my wrist were weak, I bought a Sportneer Wrist and Strength Exerciser. The first two images below show how I position my arm to flex my wrist upwards, while the next two show how to flex downwards. It's important to work both directions under load. I do 10 contraction or extension reps per set, with 2 or 3 sets each day.

To work side-to-side motion, I use a light weight (5 pounds or less) and rotate the wrist back and forth in the other plane of motion.

2. Grip strength. I felt pain in the pinkie fingers after rolling in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so I took the strength first approach to deal with that problem too. I'm using two devices, a Kootek Hand Grip Strengthener and a Gripmaster Hand Exerciser. I like the Kootek gripper because it is adjustable. The Gripmaster is only 5 lbs per finger, so I need to buy a new unit to increase the tension. However, I like the Gripmaster because I can isolate weak fingers, such as my pinkie. 

Like the wrist drills, it's important to do "opening" drills, not just "closing" drills. I plan to add some finger expansion exercises to my routine using rubber bands. This will balance the closing strength that I am building.

I do 10 contraction or extension reps per set, with 2 or 3 sets each day. 

3. Wrist protection. I still use wrist wraps when striking, as I described last year. I wear them 9 out of every 10 workouts or so. When I am striking but not wearing wraps, I pay extra attention to wrist position when making contact with the pads. I recommend this video by Shane Fazen with his tips for hitting the bag and avoiding wrist pain.

4. Wrist stretching. Students in today's Krav Maga Foundations seminar probably saw me sitting in a squat when drills were being introduced, holding my hands together in one of the two postures shown below. These are my go-to stretches. There are also a ton of great stretches in this Global Bodyweight Training video. I do these stretches whenever I think of them, throughout they day. 

I also do some wrist twirling sequences, forwards and backwards, that I remember from Wing Chun class. 

5. Kali drills. I need strong wrists and fingers for more than Krav striking or BJJ grips. Kali is both a driver and a solution. I use a single rattan stick in each hand. My main wrist drill involves rotating stick circles forwards and backwards, while keeping a fairly tight grip on the sticks. I am not simply touching my index finger to my thumb and twirling the stick in that space. I try to keep a full grip and rotate forwards and backwards. My right side (being my dominant hand) is much better than my left, but I'm making progress. 

I recommend two videos for Kali drills. The first is more warm-up-oriented and features Shawn Kitzman. Start with Shawn's drills, then add examples such as these by Paul Ingram. Start slow! If you try to twirl as fast as Paul, you will hurt yourself.

Bonus 1. If there is one lesson I learned through months of physical training (PT) for my shoulder, it is to avoid exercising through pain. However, as you develop strength and flexibility, you can add an exercise that works the wrists: the Ground Force Method (GFM) Ground Force Exploration (GFE) sequence. Andrea U-Shi Chang taught me the GFE last year. I use this series as a BJJ warm-up because it takes place on the ground, and it incorporates strength and flexibility motions.

Bonus 2. My second bonus is simple: experiment with different finger and hand techniques when doing push-ups. For years, traditional flat-palm push-ups were tough for me, because of wrist pain. By default I did knuckle push-ups. Recently I've tried adding fingertip push-ups, which I learned from Annika Kahn from Jungshin Fitness

Bonus 3. Finally, especially on the ground, protect your fingers. At BJJ class the other night, one of the instructors recommended using a closed fist when making contact with the mat. You should also be careful when sweeping, because you can end up with a wrist injury if you don't think of how it might move.

What sorts of exercises do you do to relieve wrist and finger pain?

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Sportification of Martial Arts

I'm reading Kendo: Culture of the Sword by Alexander C. Bennett. I started reading it to better understand the history of Kendo, which I've mentioned a bit here. As you might imagine, Kendo started as a battlefield practice. It was one manifestation of the combat art employed by sword-wielding Japanese warriors.

Over time, as the leaders of Japan sought to reduce bloodshed, sword combat became less common. Swords were used in warfare, but as Japan became more peaceful, the numbers of "sword battle veterans" diminished. Various parties sough to continue to infuse the spirit of sword fighting in certain elements of the citizenry, leading to the development of Kendo and its sport elements.

I'm currently reading the part of the book that deals with the re-militarization of Kendo, due to the wars Japan fought in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a fascinating phenomenon which I have not encountered (yet) with other martial arts. Following World War II, however, Kendo (as I will soon read), was "sportified" again, as the population swerved away from militarism.

I find "sportification" to be a fascinating topic because those of us who practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are witnessing similar transitions. BJJ grew out of a sport art, judo, then became "streetified" via the Gracie street brawls and challenge matches. For the last few decades, some BJJ schools have focused on the sport aspects, rather than the self defense elements. Leaders like Rickson Gracie and Pedro Sauer and many others are trying to preserve and promote the self defense characteristics of BJJ, fearing that sportification will deny a key element of BJJ to current and future practitioners.

A similar dynamic seems to be happening in my other main art, Krav Maga. Krav Maga was also born out of combat, in the fight against fascism in Europe in the 1930s-1940s. Krav Maga then became the Israeli Defense Force's hand-to-hand system in the 1950s and beyond. There are no Krav Maga "competitions" that garner any attention, as far as I know. However, the system has effectively adopted a more civilian flavor due to the nature of its demographics -- civilians in mainly industrialized countries. Certainly plenty of soldiers (the IDF of course) and police train Krav Maga, but the majority do not expect to use their training on a regular basis in conflict zones.

Last, I think there are lessons to be learned from arts with longer histories, such as Karate and Kung Fu. I hope to find other books which address how these arts transformed from their origins into the versions we see today.

How do you see the sportification of martial arts?

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