Monday, April 30, 2012

The Belt System

Having a ranking system in your martial arts training is a subject of some controversy. Many argue that the ranks are irrelevant, while traditionalists maintain that it is necessary to learning. I'm far from a traditionalist, but this system has worked for so long and helped me set and achieve goals in my own training. I also train and teach styles that don't have any kind of rank distinction, so I have a base for comparison. I respect the fact that everyone has their own reasons for their preferences, but the following are a few reasons why I support ranks and belts in my training curriculum.

1. Structure in learning
By establishing a curriculum, a ranking system will help distinguish what techniques and concepts should be emphasized for each student. Obviously students with a strong foundation will be advancing at a different rate than others, so the belt system will also help each student learn according to their needs. The lower ranks should work mostly on the foundations of the style, intermediate level students should be training to learn counters and strategy to execute their techniques and advance level practitioners will focus on advanced techniques and applications. Ranks also help us determine how to properly test certain students in exams to evaluate their progress. It really helps to organize the best way to teach a new student.

2. Setting the standard
When you achieve certain ranks, you will develop a certain standard of performance of yourself. This is a good thing, because with every rank comes more confidence. Belt exams have been some of the hardest accomplishments of my life and when you're putting that new belt on for the first time it feels amazing. Acknowledging your level of expertise will force you to admit that you're getting better, therefore removing all excuses in your training. In certain styles (like Kempo Jujitsu, for example) it is also possible to be demoted a rank. This added stress also helps in staying motivated and focused. Overcoming these challenges has directly improved my ability to deal with stress everywhere in my life. Stay confident and proud of how far you've come.

3. Beating a higher rank
As some of you may have experienced, there are few experiences as satisfying as beating someone of a higher rank. In most styles, your belt level isn't solely based on your ability to compete (there are specific requirements at each level), but their rank does indicate that they've been training longer and been through more exams than you. It is a great achievement and should just fuel the fire to train more. My belt was never a limit to how much I could learn, just a constant reminder of how much further i should push myself. I'll admit now that in my more arrogant days higher belts were a sort of target for me in training. Don't worry, most of the time my ass was promptly handed back to me. That just kept me training and trying harder all the time. My rank always made sure that I was always humbled and always hungry. That should never change.

4. Target on your back
Reaching higher ranks will continue to train you in stress management. As I mentioned, it feels great to tie off that belt for the last time and putting on your new one, but that feeling is quickly bumped aside when you feel the lingering looks of everyone in your dojo. Like it or not, the higher your rank the bigger the target on your back. I admitted earlier that I would deliberately seek out higher ranks in training and I quickly learned that it goes both ways. This constant pressure will also keep making you better. I often sign off with "Fight or Die" and this is because of something my sensei told me on the day that I earned my black belt. He explained to me that most people see black belts as being indestructible, so the challenges won't just increase in numbers but also in intensity. He wasn't lying! I've been fighting my ass off ever since that day and that has allowed me to really improve fast. I'm challenged every time I teach a class or seminar and I take no offence to that at all. I enjoy the challenge and appreciate the people who would like to train with me.

These are just some observations I've made that differ from when I'm training or teaching a non-ranking system. There isn't the same level of pressure or accountability, but these aren't fatal differences in your training. Just some reasons why the belt system is a preference of mine. We each need and look for different experiences in our training so make sure you're clear on what works best for you. Find the methods that bring out the best of what you have to offer and stick to it!

Jordan Bill
Fight or Die

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fighting Angry

Every sport fighting fan loves a good grudge match, myself included. It's always fun to get into a good dramatic story on why two people should throw down. The best fights are often motivated by the need to win something, like a championship or avoiding an elimination in a tournament. A grudge match, however, is totally different. Often the fighters' top priority is to hurt their opponent or make them look bad. The audience usually eats this up because the need to assert dominance is often more entertaining. When there's something like a title on the line, fights are often defensive and highly technical, which doesn't always sell as well. Angry fights, on the other hand, are all about offense. This is not always the most intelligent approach. Good for fans, bad for the fighters.

Lost Focus
For me, the most important thing in a fight is to keep the brain goal-oriented. This enables us to stay cognitive and keep the reptilian brain from taking over. By staying engaged with our thought process, we can focus on ending the fight while taking as little damage as possible. We can control the pace and keep our strategies sharp. Your ability to adapt goes out the window when you decide to just rage out. A fighter who can keep his cool will solve this problem in no time. If you're only goal is to hurt your opponent, then you might be at a loss after you land your first punch. If he's still standing after that and you can't come up with a new plan, you'll inevitably just repeat your plan. You'll be stuck in a loop, so to speak, because you've shut off the intelligent part of your brain and can't adapt. Stay sharp and stay smart.

Letting yourself indulge in anger when you're fighting won't just make your mind freeze, but your body also. Anger leads to tension, which reduces mobility. This will also increase your heart rate (like it needed to be higher in a fight) and tire you out faster. Your muscles will tense up and you'll feel stiff. Your mobility will be greatly reduced, which will make it challenging to keep up. So now you'll be unable to stick to a smart strategy, run out of breath and not be able to move as much. This is all before your opponent even throws a punch! Fighting is hard enough, don't make it worse.

Taking Damage
There's a common expression in sports: "Defense wins championships". This is a strategy that requires some fore brain activity. You have to be able to think to enforce this concept. The idea for intelligent fighters is to win while taking as little damage as possible. This isn't such a priority when someone loses their temper. I've seen it happen and felt this myself (younger days, thanks to my corner for correcting that). When you're motivated by malice, you stop caring about your well-being. This shortens careers, kills brain cells, will get you killed in a street fight and often cost you the match. Also emotional control is a matter of discipline, which is a reflection of your training.

Getting mad and losing your temper often means that there's an insecurity that has been exposed. In fighting, people are often angry because they might not think they can win. Not every time, but often if someone makes it personal with me, I see it as an act of over-compensation. Losing your temper is losing control. Train hard, stay disciplined and push yourself regularly. Keep cool, stay healthy and keep winning.

Jordan Bill
Fight or Die

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Visualization: Keep it real

"Visualizing" is a word that gets thrown around a lot, especially in the world of fighting and training. The concept is often encouraged, but rarely elaborated. Guided meditation drills and role playing in your training can help you focus on the context of what and why you're training. Sometimes, however, we get too caught up in the idea of fighting for our lives in an alley somewhere and we get carried away in training. Out of fear, we compete instead of practice, which can hinder us just as much. It's hard to learn anything new or practice your timing when your stress is too high. A careful balance needs to be established in our training and one of the best ways to find this "sweet spot" is to meditate on the two extremes.

Not Enough
If we don't remind ourselves why we're training and take some time to imagine the scenario that would cause us to fight then the greater purpose is lost. Instead, we risk getting caught up with competitive drills and unrealistic techniques. We forgot how/why we'd be fighting. It's like seeing someone with perfect timing on the pad drills, but have never punched someone or been punched. Warning signs of this include getting distracted with irrelevant details, concern with how you "look" when doing the exercise and overly concerned with labels and names of everything. A punch to the nose and suddenly everything is grouped into two piles:  techniques that will make this stop and everything else. Those are the important details. To fix any issue resulting with under-visualization, train harder. And by "train harder", I really mean "hit harder". Any kind of role playing or reality simulations you can add to your training, periodically, will greatly improve your ability to understand the reality of defending yourself.

Over Visualization
Don't over do it. I see people become too competitive in their training (usually beginners) and they stray from the focus of the exercises. A lot of times this comes from a fear and over compensation. When someone is insecure with an aspect of their training or their overall abilities, they often try to avoid confronting this area by being over aggressive in their drills. This is like pretending you didn't hear the question because you don't know the answer. There's only one way to get better and that's by constantly visiting your weak areas and improving them, not hiding behind your comfort zone. When this happens in training, you're not only removing yourself from the exercise, but also depriving your partner of the chance to improve also. Stay focused. Save the fighting for the street.

Keeping your training in context shouldn't be difficult for you. You know why you're training and each drill should be relevant to some kind of fighting context or skill set development. When you see someone stray from the focus, this usually means that they need work in this area, but opted to go to a place that is more comfortable for them. No one is improving anything this way. If you're partnered with someone, frequently take them out of that zone, stop the drill, remind them what the focus of the exercise is and reset. Stop them every time or you're running the risk of getting lost in some competitive battle of egos. Meditate regularly on the two extremes of focus and keep yourself grounded in the middle. You showed up to the dojo to leave a slightly different person. Make sure you get what you're working for.

Jordan Bill
Fight or Die

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