Friday, May 26, 2017

Longevity in the Martial Arts

How long can we train in the martial arts?

As a 45-year-old who returned to practice in January 2016, I've been pondering this question for the past few weeks, in three separate ways.

First, in episode 161 of the Whistlekick podcast, a practitioner of the Chinese martial arts said that as a younger man he focused on the so-called "hard" or "external" styles, and as he aged he transitioned to the "soft" or "internal" styles. For example, you might begin learning Wing Chun or Kung Fu, then migrate to Tai Chi, or spend more time on Kung Fu forms instead of sparring. I have done some Wing Chun and Tai Chi, but the majority of my Chinese practice involves Kung Fu forms.

Second, I participated in Professor Pedro Sauer's Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu spring camp in Herndon, VA. Professor is in his late 50s and he talked about the importance of learning technique rather than relying on strength. He said it is good to have strength, but you should "keep it in your back pocket." When you learn Jiu-Jitsu with technique and leverage, you can continue practicing Jiu-Jitsu your whole life. Professor spoke in front a picture of Grandmaster Helio Gracie, who was still on the mats in his 90s. During the camp I couldn't help but notice the number of older people practicing BJJ, mixed in with the younger students. The camp consisted of a three hour Friday session, two three hour Saturday sessions (with a two hour break), and a three hour Sunday session.

Third, I participated in a Krav Maga Global camp at NovaMMA in Arlington, VA. I was only able to attend four hours on Friday and four hours on Sunday. (Saturday evening I visited Evolve Academy in Gaithersburg, MD to train at a Rener Gracie seminar.) Although there were some older practitioners there, it seemed that most of the participants were a decade or two younger than me. The physical intensity level of the camp was fairly high. One of the outstanding young students from my home Krav Maga school said the Saturday session left him completely exhausted. This young man is 17 years old, and we often joke that a two hour session is just a warm-up for him! The camp consisted of two full days of training (Friday and Saturday, 9 am - 5:30 pm), an extra three hour seminar Saturday night (6-9 pm), and training or testing on Sunday that started at 9 am and ended between noon and 2 pm, depending on the grade being tested. The grading ended with an exhausting "ladder" drill: 1 combat sprawl, 2 punches; 2 combat sprawls, 4 punches, and so on, up to 10 combat sprawls, 20 punches, then back down to 1 combat sprawl, 2 punches.

Comparing these experiences, I wondered about my ability to continue practicing each style.

For Kung Fu, I believe I can continue practicing forms as long as I can walk. My Kung Fu Sifu is in his late 50s and his Sifu, Master Chan Pui, is 80. Master Chan is an extraordinary individual, and I have never been able to move like him, at any age! However, practitioners can modify Kung Fu forms to suit their athletic capabilities. Forms can be a life-long mental and athletic pursuit, albeit one with little combat application (in my opinion).

For Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I believe I can continue rolling for almost as long as I can do Kung Fu. The older the practitioner, the more of a focus on defense and survival. The longer you practice, the more technique you develop. I believe the Boyd Belt is one way to keep a realistic outlook as you age. However, I think it is possible to fully participate in Jiu-Jitsu with practitioners of all ages as I get older.

For Krav Maga, I am less certain of my ability to maintain a lifetime practice. Some readers might point to the amazing story of Ton Maas, the 84 year old who just earned his KMG graduate 2 rank. I have also seen some practitioners older than me succeed in their training and grading. However, the structure and pace of the Krav Maga world seems more physically demanding than what the average older practitioner can sustain.

For example, in March I completed the five day General Instructor Course Part 1. My body held up pretty well, but five full days of training is a lot for a 45-year-old. To become a full instructor, I have to complete parts 2 and 3, each of which are nine days long. This process does not seem to consider the physical recovery challenges of someone not in their 20s or 30s!

Some readers may think it's my fault for not pursuing instructor certification 10 or 20 years ago, and that is a fair criticism. Perhaps Krav Maga is ultimately a younger person's art. However, that means the pool of instructors will not be as large as it could be, simply because the training and certification process is designed for younger participants. That in turn leads to fewer people with the life experience to match potential older students.

The same physical endurance dynamic is at play in Krav Maga gradings. My first test lasted 1 1/2 hours. My second test lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes. My third test lasted over 4 hours. I have seen tests for higher grades last 8-9 hours, with no lunch break. I have heard of tests taking two full days! The factor driving these tests is the requirement to demonstrate all material, from all ranks, during the test. Beyond techniques, candidates engage in a variety of sparring matches (standing, ground, mixed, etc.) and cap off the sessions with the ladder drill. I have thoughts on why KMG leadership believes the physicality and comprehensive nature of the tests are required, but I will save that for a future post.

In brief, I see myself active in Kung Fu forms for as long as possible. I hope to continue rolling in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as long as I avoid major injuries. For Krav Maga, I expect to physically top out at some point, so long as the non-routine events (instructor training and grading) expect the physical performance of those in their 20s and 30s.

What are your thoughts on longevity in the martial arts?

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

The True Spirit of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Monday night I took part in the Gracie Combatives class at One Spirit Martial Arts, where Master Pedro Sauer is the head instructor. The class went well, and I felt good enough to stay for the next session. It was an open rank class taught by the Professor himself. He concentrated on techniques for escaping the mount, then split the class into white belts and colored belts for positional sparring.

The goal of the white belts was to keep mount and submit the higher belt. The goal of the higher belts was to sweep or submit the white belts. As the drill progressed Master Sauer took some Facebook Live footage to share with the world.

This was the first time I had tried a drill like this. It was cool, but I had a small problem. I did not really know how to execute any submissions from mount. Because I've spent most of my short time in Combatives, I've only practiced a Kimura from guard thus far. I've worked on the rear naked choke as well, but that isn't helpful from mount either! This is not the fault of the Combatives program. Rather, it's a result of my attendance schedule and the classes I've been able to attend over the last few months, when I started training BJJ.

As a result, I ended up playing more of a defensive game, just trying to keep mount. That was plenty, but I will still missing out regarding the drill. Even with this limitation, my training partners were all cool. Seeing my white belt with no stripes, they offered me suggestions and explained how they were able to sweep me or submit me. In the photo above, a purple belt named Bo is giving me tips on home to better position myself.

The really surprising part of the session occurred when I partnered with one of Master Sauer's black belts -- Dave Porter. You may have seen him politely destroy opponents in gi and no gi tournaments.

When I took the mount, he asked "do you know any submissions?"

"Not really," I replied.

"Let's learn some!" Dave said.

He then taught me a cross choke and an Americana!

I was so impressed by this. He could have just ruined me in less than two seconds. Rather, he realized I was totally new, totally without skill, and probably interested in learning something. Dave gave me a chance to try the two techniques while we rolled a bit.

To me, this is the true spirit of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu -- everybody learns. Thanks to Master Sauer, Dave Porter, and all the other training partners for making this a positive experience for me.

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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Martial Proposition

In late March 2017, Iain Abernethy released another edition of his excellent podcast, titled Reinventing Violence. From 25:35-26:05 he makes the following statements:

"We need to understand what criminal violence truly is, and then seek the best solution for that. So, what all arts should do, when it comes to the self defense side of things, is to objectively look at the problem, and from there seek the optimum solution. 

Now what this will mean in practice is that the self-defense aspect of all the martial arts will end up being pretty much the same, because the problem will define the solution."

Iain's idea of the problem defining the solution, rather than the solution defining the problem, is the key to this podcast. His overall concern is that too many martial artists do not understand the true nature of violence. Because they lack this experience or knowledge, Iain says, they claim that their system is, or at least can be, the solution to the problem of violence.

I interpreted Iain's comments in this manner:

If martial artists understand and agree upon the true problem of criminal violence, then the self defense aspect of all martial arts will converge on a single solution, or set of solutions.

This if-then construct is a testable scenario. There is an input (criminal violence) and an output (self-defense). Therefore, we need inputs to begin testing Iain's proposition.

How does one define criminal violence?

In my day job I work in the cyber security sector. Almost everyone has heard of antivirus (AV) software. While these programs do not remotely represent the best way to defend computers from threat actors, the way reviewers test AV software provides a starting point for our criminal violence question.

Thugs assault ice cream truck worker. Source: YouTube.
Some testing shops use a corpus of normal, suspicious, and malicious files as inputs for AV software tests. By asking AV software from different vendors to test against this corpus of files, "consumer reports" shops can try to assess the effectiveness of AV software.

I am not proposing that one can really test the effectiveness of self defense aspects of martial arts in the same way one can try to test AV software. For one thing, testing AV software is a hotly debated subject. However, perhaps we can borrow one part of the idea: the corpus of files, or "problems."

Imagine if a set of martial artists, or even members of the martial arts community voting online, selected real-life videos of self defense situations, and added them to a corpus of "criminal violence problems." Martial artists could then review these videos and analyze how their system addresses each problem.

While this process and idea has many inherent challenges, I am intrigued by the thought of defining "criminal violence" by a selection of real-life videos.

Personally I do not think much would change in the martial arts, for a variety of reasons. I therefore, at this point, disagree with Iain's statement that "the self-defense aspect of all the martial arts will end up being pretty much the same, because the problem will define the solution."

What do you think of Iain's claim, and what do you think of my video collection idea?

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