Tests & Preparation

Taking Responsibility for Higher Level Learning

I recently graded for my light blue belt in Shorinji Kan Jiu-jitsu and I’m happy to report that I passed and am feeling altogether smurfy in my new belt. As I go up the ranks in Shorinji Kan, I’m reminded of how the nature of training and grading preparation changes the higher you get. All too often students get into the higher belt ranks in their style without being fully aware of the shifts in responsibility so it’s important to understand what this entails.

The Shift in Responsibility

When you’re in the citrus coloured belt levels, your instructor more or less takes care of you. You put complete trust in them to make sure you know what you’re supposed to know for your level so that when you’re put up for your next grading, you’re aware of what is expected of you. But when you get up to the upper intermediate and senior level Kyu ranks, the responsibility shifts. Sensei is often more focused on the lower ranks’ development and you start to play a role in their development too, running warm-ups, teaching breakfalls, sometimes even teaching techniques. As a result, you don’t always necessarily get to train some of the higher level techniques that you’re expected to learn at your belt level. (more…)

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6 Favourite Movie Fight Scenes for Inspiration

I have a few students getting ready for belt tests. I know that many people have a tradition of watching their favourite martial arts movies the night before a test to help pump them up. I imagine people also do this before big competitions as well. Anyway, I’ve put together a list of my 6 favourite martial arts movie fights that each have their own themes for motivation. (more…)

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The Difference between Panicking & Choking

I’ve been on a bit of a psychology arc for the past couple of weeks on this blog. I started with a discussion on what it means to choke and followed up with a discussion on the importance of ‘will to win’┬áin the martial arts. This week I’m going to discuss what happens when you panic, which is often confused with choking. They are, in fact, very different animals.

As previously discussed, when you choke, you over-think your actions. You bring yourself back to a beginner’s mindset, mentally planning all the details of your moves. If you have moved beyond the explicit learning of a beginner and moved on to the higher level development of implicit learning, you lose your grace and fluidity of movement, as well as the quick reactiveness that comes from relying more on your intuitive mind.

Panicking, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. When it occurs, you stop thinking, reverting to base instincts. You experience perceptual narrowing, often focusing on one single thing. This is one of the reasons multiple attacker situations are so dangerous. People who don’t have experience dealing with these types of situations experience physical symptoms of perceptual narrowing, including tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. They focus entirely on one attacker and then are blindsided by the person’s buddies. Another common example is dealing with a knife attack. Even people with some training have been known to make the mistake of grabbing at the knife as it comes at them, focusing on the blade as the primary threat. There are, of course, better options, such as using physical barriers, creating space, controlling the arm holding the knife, etc. But when panicking, many people only see the knife, so that is what they try to grab, despite the inherent dangers of doing so.
I’ve also seen people panic on belt tests. For example, I might ask a candidate to do a technique again, telling them that they’ve done something wrong. The stress of this makes them panic, so what do they do? The exact same technique performed incorrectly in the exact same way of course! These people usually say afterward that they knew as they were doing it that they were making the same mistake again, but felt like they just couldn’t stop themselves.

So what can we do to prevent panic? Train lots… then train some more. Create training situations that allow you to experience higher levels of stress. Train to deal with multiple attackers. Train to deal with knives and other weapons. Though most dojos wouldn’t dream of doing it now for liability reasons (nor am I endorsing it as a practice), historically some dojos even used to use real knives in training (doing all movements slower and with far more control of course) just to give students the experience of dealing with the psychological stress that comes with a real knife.

People with a lot of experience tend not to panic, because when the stress suppresses their short-term memory they still have some residual experience built onto useful instincts they can draw on. The more you train, the less likely you are to panic. Choking is always a potential hazard though when stress rears its ugly head. While panicking and choking often look the same to the outside observer, they result from very different things going on inside your head. I hope this article helps you recognize the difference.

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How ‘Will to Win’ Affects Martial Artists

Last week, I discussed choking while performing in the martial arts and how it is very different from lacking ‘will to win.’ This week, we’ll take a closer look at ‘will to win’ and how it affects martial artists.

Having motivation or the “will to win” is an important aspect of martial arts, not simply ones with a competitive emphasis. In the context of self-defense, having the will to win is huge.

Having the will to win is being in a psychological state that can help push you past your usual barriers and summon up strength and/or creative use of your skills that you never knew you had in you. It’s what gives a mother the adrenaline dump to move a car that has her child trapped. It’s what makes a prisoner of war tell himself stories aloud to overcome the crippling loneliness and despair months, even years of human isolation. It is amazing what obstacles humanity can overcome when instilled with the will to win.

For a martial artist, will to win is what makes a woman able to fight off a much larger attacker by doing something completely unexpected with devastating effects. It’s what gives you the energy to keep fighting when completely exhausted. It’s what keeps you from freezing in fear when faced against a deadly weapon or multiple attackers.

People without will to win often defeat themselves before they’ve even begun. They see obstacles as insurmountable and, as a result, don’t try or make a lack-lustre effort that is doomed to failure. And when failure occurs, they use it to justify their negative judgement of the situation.

Most martial arts in some way try to instill will to win in its participants. Some do it through competition. Others do it through tests, be it formal tests like belt gradings, or training tests that put you under pressure, like martial arts circles or high stress sparring against multiple attackers. In either kind of test, you can be pushed to your mental and/or physical limits to help develop the will to win to push past tiredness, nerves, disadvantaged defensive situations, etc.

In our dojo, we don’t do competitions, but we do use both formal tests and training tests (like the ones previously described) to instill will to win in our students. In what ways are you pushed to the limits at your dojo?
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Why We Use the Coloured Belt (Kyu) System

Many people eschew the use of the coloured belt system (or ‘kyu’ ranks) as not being traditional to the Japanese roots, claiming that they are simply a carrot dangled to keep impatient westerners interested. Mikonosuke Kawaishi is generally regarded as the first to introduce various colored belts in Europe in 1935 when he started to teach Judo in Paris. He felt that western students would show greater progress if they had a visible system of many colored belts recognizing achievement and providing regular incentives who felt that it would help westerners learn and stay.

While that was the original reason for the introduction of the coloured belt system, and not an altogether complimentary one towards westerners at that, there are a number of other reasons why the system makes sense, even if it’s not used as a dangling carrot.

In our dojo, we use the various ranks to break up our students’ learning into logical blocks. This is to provide the best platform for learning for our students, to ensure that the proper foundation is being built so that people don’t focus always on learning new stuff when they don’t have the skills they need to move ahead. The kyu system is also designed to help keep people safe. If people don’t learn the proper skills before doing live training like sparring or grappling, the chances of injury are greatly increased.

Belt/kyu gradings give us teachers a system whereby we periodically take a focused look at our students’ progress to ensure they have learned what they need to know before moving on to more advanced curriculum. In our dojo, a new belt is not a trophy to be coveted or lorded over other students, nor would we ever put up with such behaviour. It is meant to indicate what level of curriculum the student knows, serving as a guide for us teachers. It also helps newer students understand who can help them best when they need it.

This may not necessarily be the way it is done in dojos throughout Japan, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t equally valid in a western context. It is not necessarily a reflection of “the impatience of westerners.” Different cultures learn in different ways. In the west, people are more accustomed to systematized learning systems and tend to do best when knowledge is broken up into stepping stones.

At our dojo, you’re only invited to grade for the next belt level when you’re ready, as evaluated by the instructors. If a student takes twice as long as the average to move to the next level, so be it. I’ve had students wear the same belt for over a year, even two years without progressing. And I’m not talking about senior belts, I’m talking about lower levels here. If they haven’t learned what they need to learn to move on to the next level, they simply stay where they are. Many dojos would consider this practice bad for business, but in the kind of dojo I’m running, it is much worse for business to let people move up a level or learn curriculum they’re not ready for as it produces poor martial artists and can lead to injury (their own or others’).

This is not to say that I have anything against the traditional Japanese way, I just think that each way has its place and is relevant in different contexts both inter-culturally and even within one culture. Neither way should be looked down upon unless it is being improperly used (i.e. people are not learning what they need to learn) or with cynical motivations (just to make more money without care for quality).

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How I Learned to Be a Student

As part of his Shodan requirements, Chris was expected to submit an essay. The topic I gave him was to answer the following question: “What is the most important thing you’ve gained as a martial artist from cross-training in Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu?”. His essay response was very interesting, served with a healthy dose of humble pie. It was as follows:

How I Learned to Be a Student

By Chris Olson

Training in a martial art can be a very fulfilling and enriching experience. It can also be very insular and lead to a very narrow view of the martial arts.

When a new student to the martial arts begins their training, it’s important they receive regular and consistent training to ensure a solid learning of basic and fundamental techniques. Organizations with a well-developed and standard curriculum offer stability, and opportunity for students to grow, and over time take more responsibility for their own training.

They begin to fulfil a necessary role in the dojo, becoming role models, assistant instructors and eventually instructors. Much of what students learn, how they learn, and how they eventually teach is influenced by how and who taught them. You can often tell who taught an instructor based on their method of instruction; the analogies they use while demonstrating, their movement in executing a technique, etc.

While this can lead to a consistent level of instruction, (hopefully a good one), it can inhibit the growth of both the style and the instructors.

Cross training can offer more advanced students/instructors several benefits to further personal development.

It provides the chance for instructors to see a similar technique taught with a different focus, providing new angles for understanding the technique. It can also expose them to entirely new techniques and concepts that can enhance their training.

The biggest benefit I have received from training in another style of Jiu jitsu is not what’s been added to my technical repertoire however. It’s the maturation of my training mind-set, and development of a wider perspective.

I started training in Can-ryu Jiu jitsu because I was looking for a replacement for my original style, Shorinji Kan. I was looking for exactly what I had before, not something new to learn.
Becoming a white belt again, and starting fresh with an open mind was much harder to do than I thought. In retrospect I did a lousy job of it.

Yes, I put on the white belt, and I said all the right things, but underneath it I was an arrogant, cocky brown belt, not really looking to learn, but looking to practice what I thought I already knew. I was lucky that my quiet arrogance was misconstrued as respect and shyness. I didn’t think I was arrogant, and unwilling to learn, but I was, I just hadn’t realized it yet.

I faked learning long enough to actually start learning, at which point, I realized, that might be a better approach. It turns out that it was better, and I’ve been very fortunate since.

Through my connection with Pacific Wave Jiu Jitsu, I’ve been lucky enough to train with professional boxers, MMA students, a Pan American games gold medallist grappler, a world renown Aikido Sensei, and numerous Jiu jitsu instructors. My wide experiences have taught me more techniques than I can remember, but the one thing I do remember is the great attitude and friendly sharing nature of the martial arts community. It’s created a healthy drive to move outside of my comfort zone and to learn from wherever I can.

After nearly a decade of training, I feel more like a student than ever before. I think I’ve finally figured out how to learn, and I am now as comfortable getting insights from senior instructors as I am from my own students.

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Braving through a Belt Test with an Injury

My student and assistant instructor Chris Olson completed his Shodan exam this past Sunday. I am happy to announce that he passed. He earned his Shodan, but suffered a number of hardships during his grading in the way of injury. This made the grading more difficult, both from his point of view in having to try and perform without aggravating his injury, and for me in that I had to strike a balance between pushing him appropriately, but without creating scenarios that are sure to cause further damage.

Chris injured his foot quite badly during the 2-on-1 sparring portion in the first quarter of his grading. We’re still waiting for x-ray results, but he either got a very serious bruise or very minor fracture. We stopped the grading after he got hurt in order to ice it and assess whether or not the grading should continue. Chris wanted to keep going. He was able to walk on it, so we let him, asking that our doctor student, Jenny, keep an eye on him for the rest of the grading.

It was clear that the foot injury was affecting Chris’s performance, but we kept that under consideration in our evaluation of the test. While his ground grappling suffered greatly (Chris normally uses his legs a lot when he grapples) and his throws weren’t nearly as smooth (his injury prevented him from bending too low), he did some beautiful Jiu-jitsu circles, including a blindfolded circle. Because of the flexibility of choice in performing the circles, he was able to choose appropriate techniques that wouldn’t cause him as much pain.

While Chris’s Shodan grading wasn’t performed under the most ideal circumstances, it was a good for demonstrating both Jiu-jitsu skill/versatility and warrior spirit to fight on when the chips are down. We are all very proud.

There is a line though that you have to be careful not to cross when it comes to injuries during belt tests. If the person can’t put weight or pressure on the affected area, they shouldn’t continue the grading in my opinion. My golden rule is that if continuing with the grading is likely to worsen the injury in a serious way, the test should be ended. It can be a hard judgment call to make though. I was just glad to have a doctor on the mats to help make the call.

Does anyone out there have any experience with handling injuries during a belt test? Please share in the comments.

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My Promotion to Yondan

I have some good news to share here on the blogosphere. After reviewing my 6,000 word written thesis on knife defense, as well as my teaching skills in a recent knife defense course that I instructed, among other things appropriately chosen by my superiors, my Sensei, Ed Hiscoe Shihan, informed me that I am to be promoted to Yondan, 4th degree black belt, in the art of Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu.

My belt will be presented to me by Steve Hiscoe Shihan (my Sensei’s son) at the upcoming black belt seminar in Chilliwack, BC. I’ll be teaching a two-hour course covering higher level ground defense curriculum that day. This is another milestone in my 17-year career in the martial arts.

Thanks everyone for all your support past, present and future!

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The Power of Intention in Self-Defense

I was recently chatting with a Shorinji Kan friend of mine in Toronto who is preparing to test for brown belt in his style. He was saying that he felt that he was ready for the physical rigors of the test but was somewhat worried about the mental pressure and intensity he was anticipating from his ukes (attackers) during the test. I replied, “It’s all about intention.”

If your intention to defend yourself is stronger than your attacker’s intention to see his or her attack through, more than likely, you will prevail. My favourite analogy to explain this is that of the alley cat vs. the doberman.

A doberman is a big dog that could easily rip a cat to shreds in terms of a physical contest. But have you ever seen an alley cat fight? In comics or cartoons, an alley cat fighting is usually portrayed as a whirling mass with sharp claws sticking out violently. This is a pretty accurate depiction. An alley cat also hisses and squeals an awful high-pitched noise while it fights. So sure, the doberman could make short work of the cat, if it wanted to. But the doberman isn’t stupid. It realizes that if it did go in for the kill, it would take many scratches in the process. It could lose an eye or it could take one on the nose, damaging its sense of smell that it relies on for survival. Seeing the risk, the doberman shies away, because it simply isn’t worth it.

Another good analogy is the human vs. the wasp. Many people when encountering a wasp will uselessly flail their arms and run away to avoid a wasp. But why? Humans are massive compared to a wasp. Even if it did try to sting us, we could destroy it with one swift smack of our hand. As with the previous analogy, it simply isn’t worth being stung. So we choose to run away in a comical fashion.

So let’s apply this to our mentality when defending ourselves.

When I teach women’s self-defense classes, I tell the students, it’s not about being stronger than your attacker – that’s not likely to be the case. It’s about being an unappealing target. This starts before an attacker even makes a move. For example, I tell women that if they’re taking money out of an ATM and they feel like they’re being watched and sized up as a target, immediate hit cancel then yell and swear, maybe even kick something saying, “I TOLD HIM TO PUT MONEY IN OUR ACCOUNT! THAT &@#$* IDIOT!!!” This accomplishes 2 things at once. It communicates that the woman has no money to be stolen, plus it shows that she’s no pushover and might fight back or yell enough to bring attention to the situation if he makes a move on her. The woman has successfully made her potential intention stronger than that of her attacker’s.

But then if an assailant decides that the woman is worth attacking in a different kind of context (it certainly isn’t worth taking any risk just for money or material possessions) the woman has to become an alley cat. I teach women to yell loudly and aggressively, using words that communicate that she is in trouble, like “STOP!” or “NO! LET ME GO!”, while combining it with strikes to vulnerable targets.

This plays on the psychology of the attacker. Most attackers who physically prey on women are not looking for a challenge. They look for easy victims that reinforce the perception they are trying to create that they themselves are stronger and more powerful. They also don’t want to get caught. This naturally limits the risk he is willing to take and the defending force he is willing to face in the assault.

A woman can make further increase her intention by raising the stakes in her own mind. She can do this by thinking about the situation like she is not simply defending herself. She can imagine that the man will attack and rape her daughter, mother, sister, anyone she cares deeply about, when he is done with her. Alternatively, she could imagine that this man will take away her ability to do the one thing she loves most in life. If she is an athlete, he could paralyze her. If she is a writer or another kind of academic, he could cause her brain damage. By thinking in these terms, women can increase their intention to fight back to a degree they couldn’t normally summon up in their day-to-day lives. And when a woman fights back with that much intention, you better believe that the attacker would think twice.

Now to bring this into a grading context like my friend is anticipating.

Your ukes who will attack you during your grading will definitely be putting pressure on you as that is what they have been commanded to do to test your skills and intensity. When you’re facing intense circles or V’s or multiple attacker situations, make your intention stronger with a loud kiai. It may not psychologically affect your attackers in your particular situation because they’ll all be fairly experienced martial artists that are used to hearing kiais (though it does have a greater affect on students from the lower ranks). A kiai does, however, put more intention into your weakeners, the strikes you use to soften up your ukes, so you can take them down. When they feel a solid weakener, they’ll loosen up because they know if they don’t, they’ll get it twice as hard the next time. As a result, your intention to defend becomes stronger than theirs to attack you.

Good luck to all the Shorinji Kan-ers who are up for gradings this and next month!

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What Are YOU Training for?

The other day I was training in my class, having my assistant instructor Chris lead the instruction. I spent the whole class working on a single throw, uki goshi or ‘floating hip,’ cycling between all my more advanced students as ukes. This throw is new to me having recently learned it from my Shorinji Kan Jiu-jitsu contacts.

Having seen me working hard at improving my technique with this one throw all class, one of my students asked me, “What are you training for?” thinking that I was training with a specific goal in mind like an upcoming test. I looked back at him, slightly confused and answered, “For fun. What are YOU training for?” By this answer I meant that I had no specific future goal that I was training for. I was just training for training’s sake.

I think this is an important question every martial arts student should ask themselves. Are you training for specific goals like fitness, belt level advancement, self-defense, etc. Or are you training out of a love for the art? Goals like belt level advancement are unsatisfying at best and don’t promote a long-term appreciation of the art. I find that belt chasers tend to get bored when the period between belts gets longer as they advance or they feel that they’re not being promoted quickly enough. People that have goals like self-defense and fitness tend to last longer because doing a martial art over the long term only improves these things, but then after awhile, these students get to a level of fitness or self-defense proficiency after which they don’t see very noticeable improvements in these things and start to wonder if they want to continue.

Ultimately, no matter what reasons a person starts training in the martial arts, it is those who love it for the art’s sake that stay with it in the long term. The higher level skills are not as likely to be used in a practical context. Most martial artists, the respectable ones anyway, tend not to have to use their skills in self-defense. But that is not why they do it. They do it simply because they love it, and with continued training, this love of the martial arts and consistency of training transforms them both mentally and spiritually.

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