Saturday, February 28, 2009


One of my non-martial art friends has, a couple times, questioned the idea of why one should spend so much time studying this stuff. It would seem to him that there is a point of diminishing returns: The likelihood of violence where the knowledge might be necessary is one notion -- if you haven't gotten in a fight since junior high, what are the chances you'll get in one tomorrow? Another thought has to do with how much ammo you need. If you have the basics down -- solid punch or two, a few techniques you can do well, maybe the ability to grapple a bit -- then aren't you skying off into the very theoretical realm? You really think three ninjas will drop into the alley, come at you from the points of a triangle flashing tanto blades on a snowy day when your gout is acting up? yadda yadda ...

These are legitimate questions. 

I think for most of us dojo rats, the pure self-defense aspect got answered to our satisfaction a ways back. We got the tools needed to deal with the drunk in the local pub, or the soused uncle at the Christmas party, maybe even against somebody sober who could move in balance. 

We keep training for other reasons: We like the process for itself. We enjoy the company. We are looking for some kind of depth. We sing the Cheers theme song -- or the Diet Dr. Pepper commercial ...

In Olympic air rifle or pistol competition, the state-of-the-art guns are incredibly accurate.
Lock them into a bench rest, they will put the pellets through the same hole all day long at ten meters. I have an old reciprocating-piston air pistol that came with a three-shot grouping target. When I got it, it was the most accurate handgun you could get. The target shows a single ragged hole. 

The guns today put that one to shame.

The idea is that the tool is not the limitation, the shooter is. If you can do your job,  you can achieve perfection.

I think that on some level, that's what a serious martial artist is looking for -- that kind of precision.

Will s/he ever get that in real time? Almost certainly not. But that's what you reach for,   a perfect game. Not just to win, but to do your absolute best.

Of course, in an adrenaline-soaked dust-up against a strong and violent attacker, your very best might be ugly, and you can't get wedded to the old Jim Kelly notion of being too busy looking good. If you stop and pose for the camera, you aren't living in the moment. And you might not be living at all in the next moment.

Aim for the fish's eye, hit the fish somewhere ...


Rory said...

From the Risk Management perspective you don't need to train much for the things you do every day. Even if they are dangerous, the fact that you do it daily means you know how.

You also don't need to train for the things with no bad outcome. It doesn't really matter if you pack your suit case 'wrong'.

Training time _should_ be concentrated in the Low Frequency/ High Risk stuff.

Steve Perry said...

So, I should concentrate on ninja trios with knives in alley while favoring a gouty big toe? That would certaily qualify as low freq/high risk.

Maybe work on my meteorite dodging ... ?

'Twould seem to me that most of your training time would be spent training for what might be a bit more likely -- maybe a bit more frequently but still high risk for your environment.

Reminds me of the hoary old joke about the guy sitting on the corner holding two cooking pots. Every now and then, he bangs them together.

"Dude," a passerby says, "what are you doing?"

"Keeping the wild elephants away."

"You're crazy! There's not a wild elephant within eight thousand miles of here!"

"See? Works, doesn't it?"

Rory said...

You misunderstand, I think. My point was aimed at your friend questioning why you train for something rare. If you haven't been in a fight since school if one happens now you will need training to make up for the experience that you lack. Training is what you need for dangerous (high risk) things that you have little experience (low frequency) in.

The 3-ninja, godzilla, elephant defenses, well, it's up to each of us to decide the line between unlikely and imaginary.

Dan Moran said...

Look, the martial arts as an end in itself, all good. I've spent too many hours practicing my 3 point shot to get snarky about people doing what they enjoy, whatever it is. At least there's a theoretical scenario where the Ninjas drop out of the sky and you have to go mano a mano (a mano a mano) .... nobody ever protected themselves with a rainbow 3 pointer.

I really do think there's a sweet spot on the curve when it comes to self defense, though. A point beyond which further work, if not actually counter productive, is no longer productive ... for the average person. But I wouldn't imply that some amount of work isn't useful (or I wouldn't have put my children into martial arts classes.)

I do have a gender bias in this area -- plenty of women would be doing themselves a favor by familiarizing themselves with the basic tools of self-defense, up to and including carrying a gun and knowing how to use it.

I will also say I haven't seen nearly as much fun in dojos, or boxing gyms, or wherever, as I've seen on basketball courts. But that may be my own filters at work. I've never liked being hit.

Jay Gischer said...

I agree with all your reasons, and with Rory's reason too. And I still have more reasons. What is learned on the mat has implications for life well beyond physical violence.

It is an opportunity to practice remaining "calm under the hell of the upraised sword". This is a skill that is helpful in many situations where violence is not on the table.

Furthermore, the process of continuous improvement is apparent in the dojo as well. We learn to see our flaws and live with them for the time it takes to correct them, rather than denying their existence. This too is part of the process, and is highly valuable in life.

Steve Perry said...

Once again, Demon Language confounds me ...

Mea culpa.

Master Plan said...

I really do think there's a sweet spot on the curve when it comes to self defense, though. A point beyond which further work, if not actually counter productive, is no longer productive ... for the average person. But I wouldn't imply that some amount of work isn't useful (or I wouldn't have put my children into martial arts classes.)

I do have a gender bias in this area -- plenty of women would be doing themselves a favor by familiarizing themselves with the basic tools of self-defense, up to and including carrying a gun and knowing how to use it."

I think the basic tools of self defense, which is not martial arts, would be beneficial to boys and girls alike. Or chicks and dudes if you prefer.

Awareness of how, why, in what way, crime\violence happens and how to not be there.

For the physical side of the self-defense pie I think martial arts offers a couple of advantages. One is, as Jay mentioned, dealing with mental stress. For a lot of folks getting tapped\slapped pretty lightly in the face is a serious pattern interruption\freeze inducing thing. Even martial artists. This of course only applies as far as it applies, once a person gets comfortable with whatever level of whatever is being done at their school....further stress inoculation effects seem, to me, to be unlikely to occur, and in fact some degree of regression might even set in past a certain point.

Otherwise I think it devolves in to a "average person" versus an "average situation" sort of thing. Violence (and thus self defense) is not at all average. So then...?

The other things martial arts seem beneficial for in self defense realms is simple refinement of the physical routines needed, but how valuable that really ends up being...dunno. As Mr. Perry mentions I think the benefit here, and it relates to the mental stress\adrenal response\SSR part, is that the more skill you've got in training, the more room you've got for it to degrade against the 27 Ninja with Uzis and still have it be effective.
If I can do it perfect, every time, in training, odds are better, not perfect, but better, than I'll do it well enough when the shit is hitting the fan. Skill surplus to counter stress based degradation.

Mostly I think martial arts should be studied and applied as martial arts inside their context, and then adapted to specific scenarios such as a person might expect to encounter.

That is I try to learn Tai Chi and Silat to learn Tai Chi and Silat, but I'd rather practice scenario work for self defense, adapting Tai Chi, Silat, Judo, boxing, WWE moves from the top rope, or whatever else is required, combined with mind state, mind set training, verbal work of various sorts, perceptual training, etc, etc, ad nauseum for "self defense".

Steve Perry said...

Dan --

I think the notion of polishing your sword until it is as bright as it can shine is why we keep at it. True, there will be a point beyond which the reflective nature of the steel simply won't develop any higher albedo. Trick is, how do you know when you get there? And how much is needed to keep it gleaming? Rust never sleeps ...

MP's point about having more than you need for when the battle plan fails to survive first contact with the enemy is, to use the NRA's slogan, part of the notion that it is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have.

The multiple ninja scenario is pure fantasy. Against three trained men with knives, the biggest problem is how to run when you are in shit up to your eyeballs. Unless you have a gun and are far enough away to cook 'em before they get to you, mano a mano in that situation is going to be bloodier than Big Charity's ER on a hot Saturday night during the full moon.

If you could sink a three-point shot anywhere inside half court with somebody sticking a hand in your face, you'd take it, wouldn't you? And might there be a place where nobody would think you could make that shot worth training for, just for that reason?

A perfect game of golf would be eighteen. Far as I know, nobody has ever done that, but now and then somebody aims for the little hole a couple hundred yards away and sinks the ball in one. Luck? Sure. But they were trying to do that.

Philosophically, our style trains to deal with somebody who is bigger, stronger, faster, as well- or better-trained than we are, expecting that there will be more than one of him and they'll be armed.

MIght not be able to prevail in such circumstances, but if you expect big trouble and the trouble is much smaller, then it's a gift.

Guy roars in, you punch him one time, he falls down? Hey, it's disappointing, but I'll take it.

It's not for everybody. If, however, you get to that place in your thought, then you've maybe moved past the "average person" listing. What you become might be passing strange compared to average.

Good enough is all you need most of the time. If Muhammad Ali's wrist was crooked when he beat Smokin' Joe, well, who is going to rag on him about it? But if Ali had been better at slipping punches, maybe he wouldn't be unable to control his injury-induced tremors.

It is, as old Albert said, all relative ...

Worg said...

Precision is great but quantity has a quality all of its own. Personally I'd rather concentrate on fluidity and speed. If I don't hit a sweet spot on rake #5, there's always #12.

Precision in practice is important and a good thing-- if my block is always at that perfect 45` angle it'll work much better, in theory, against slop in either direction.

But in my experience when the fur starts flying, speed and viciousness of delivery carry the day. Between some heavily practiced air-warrior karateka and a streetfighter who thinks he's Hannibal Lecter, I'll fight the guy in the sailor suit every time.

Steve Perry said...

Oh, yeah, one more thing: There's another aspect of this, especially for guys like me --

We are none of us, Benjamin Button notwithstanding, getting any younger.

If you are thirty, in shape, and practicing your art, then you have a pretty good arc of time in which what you know will work without adjustment due to diminishing physical capability.

When you are sixty, you either learn to fight smarter instead of harder or you can't keep up.

When I say "Your circles get smaller." what that means is literally true in some cases, but mostly it means that your technique has to rely more on skill -- and -- precision than it once did.

A power-block works. So will a slight tap on the arm -- if you time and place it just so.

Worg's comment about picking the guy off with the second or ninth or fourteenth technique if that's what it takes works a lot better for a thirty-year-old jock than it does for an old guy. I might not have enough wherewithal to get to fourteen these days. Yeah, I'm in good shape for a guy my age, but as much as I hate to go there, I am a man my age, and it matters.

If, with the first shot, I can hole the bullseye, maybe I don't need a second shot, much less emptying the cylinder and then having to reload.

So a power/speed technique I could pull off at twenty-five (or even forty) when I could deadlift the front of a VW and move quick to do so, isn't going to be there for me when I'm seventy. Yeah, I can be in better shape then than a lot of couch potatoes half my age, but one of those diminishing returns demands that I constantly alter my techniques to fit the machine doing them.

One of the reasons I like silat is that there is a whole lot less alteration necessary to keep the stuff working. My teacher's teacher is still doing it, and if you watch vids of him, you can see that anybody who believed they were about to mug a pot-bellied old cigarette-smoke grampa would be in for an unpleasant surprise if they got close enough.

The reality is, if the MMA champion who gobbles steroids, works out out seven hours a day, and bench presses his GTO, swaggers over and says, "I'm gonna tear your fuckin' head off!" then I expect I can make a good case to the jury why I had to shoot or stab him.

Steve Perry said...

Might as well dump this in, too ...

The late Gordy Dickson, who knew zip about fighting, came up with great characters in his Dorsai. In one of the books, there's a scene I halfway recall in which the gist is that the Dorsai facing what looks like a situation about to get physical is not worrying about whether he can take the other guy or not, he's thinking about the best way to do it without mussing his clothes.

We go round in MA circles about reality versus fantasy all the time, about whether our confidence is real or false, but one of the goals for me, and for, I suspect others, is to have more of a degree of choice. Not, Can I survive this encounter? but can I deck this guy without spilling my tea?

When fight-or-flight kicks in, tea is apt to get spilled. But if you are adept enough -- or even just think you are -- maybe that hormone cascade won't happen. If it takes fear to trigger it and if you aren't afraid? Might be more techniques are available to you.

If you know you are going to get amped on adrenaline, you can train for it by keeping what you learn simple and utilizing big muscle groups. Small muscle control fades, which is why cops miss somebody at fifteen feet shooting -- trigger fingers get small attention because we weren't born with guns in hand. Broad movement with legs and torsos and maybe arms work. Fine needlework? Maybe not.

Average guys who gets into a fight has to figure the juice will flow and keep it simple.

A guy who has gotten into more wrangles than he can remember, who routinely has to deal with violent felons, alone, he's is probably not going to be quite so ramped. He will have different options.

In the Real World™ there probably aren't that many people who can move from that calm place, but there are some. And there are techniques that include meditation, centering, auto-hypnosis and enough physical practice that, combined, can help one move closer to that place. Such study offers some interesting possibilities.

If you could slice things so you could get bullet-time, i.e. the ability to see things as if they are moving slowly but still move at normal speed yourself? That would be cool -- and extremely useful in a fight.

Worg said...

"I might not have enough wherewithal to get to fourteen these days. "

Maybe you do and maybe you don't. I've heard too many people say that kind of thing ("I do a little such and such") to ever believe it, it just sounds like a complete lie. Then there's the fact that, considering your age, you are built a little too much like Bruce Lee for comfort.

But I've seen some guys older than you, and HELLA out of shape, move so fast that it's creepy. Terrifying, actually.

And an eyeball ain't the front of a volkswagen.

You're right of course about precision. If you're training anyway there's no reason not to train perfectly. But I think that sometimes people get wound up in it to a degree that's counterproductive.

What I do and the way that I do things is thought out pretty carefully given my build, level of experience, physical advantages and frailties. I am a big guy, and for whatever reason I'm also tolerably fast for my size. Other peoples' mileage might vary but personally I am going to be practicing to rain down loose, snappy cavity strikes in wholesale quantities until the cows come home.

Steve Perry said...

Worg --

Sure, you work with the strengths and weaknesses you have, play to the former, and downplay the latter. Got it, you can use iit.

Thing was, I was cheating a lot of stuff with muscle, and while it worked, that wouldn't always be the case. I could see the day coming. Better to get a technique I can do ten years out than one I can't.

I used to give young guys my rap: Yeah, sure, come back and see me when you're my age -- oh, wait, you can't, because if you live to be my age, I'll be dead by then.

Eventually, you have to learn how to fight smarter and not harder. Sixty might be the new forty, but ninety is still ninety. Like the old and young bull joke: Young bull says, Hey, Pops! Let's run down there and fuck one o' them cows! To which the old bull replies, Why don't we walk down there and fuck them all?

You have to start choosing where you want to spend your energy, and for me, it ain't running ...