Sports Fighting and Self Defence

As I grow older, I grow more repulsed by sports fighting. I have not even the slightest inclination to step into a ring or onto a mat and try and hurt someone until they give up or a referee says to stop. There is no sense, no purpose for the violence of blood and broken teeth and strained joints.


Last week I accidentally went along to a tournament sparring class in the wing chun school I’ve just joined. I strapped my gloves on like everyone else to see what their combat fighting style was like, and after a fun and sweaty workout, they invited me back next time. I politely agreed, knowing in my heart that I really had no desire to repeat the experience. Fun as it was, I left with bruises, scratches a worryingly sore (broken?) toe, and the deflated ego that comes from being punched all night long. It confused me greatly how some of the students who attended couldn’t get enough of ring fighting, and celebrated hurting other people to claim a victory.


I used to think that tournaments and competitions were good ways of seeing how you’d go fighting someone who was trying their best to hurt you. I figured that if you could beat a guy in the ring, it would mean you’d probably be able to beat a guy on “the street”. I’ve since realised that the rules of a sports match, and the aim of beating the other guy, are hardly at all applicable to self-defence.


While I was walking down the street with Beth, staggering somewhat due to quite a bit of stomach pain, my peripheral vision noticed someone hurrying towards us from behind. In a split moment, I realised that their pace and direction meant they were either about to barge between us, or they had some business with us. As I turned to face them, they reached a hand towards me and I brushed it aside with a soft hiki uke (hooking deflection), then shot my seiruto (palm strike) straight into their neck. For reasons I could not say, I did not actually strike but rested my palm on the man’s neck without putting any pressure into it. Then it clicked: he was one of my colleagues from work and had come to say hello.


More recently still, I was jogging with a friend, chatting as we approached our cars. I heard a sudden heavy footstep behind us and turned as a body blurred towards us. His arms moved towards me and I stepped back, executing a chopping backfast and a depressing palm strike in quick succession. He had swerved to avoid me too, pulling his arms back so that I didn’t need to deflect them. Then it clicked that he was my third, much fitter friend whom we had gone jogging with, whom we hadn’t seen in about half an hour as he tore off into the distance.


In both these instances I reacted defensively, and I think appropriately. (Admittedly I scared both the people who caught me off guard, however both of them found it funny and neither of them were hurt.) Those responses (not reflexes) might have served to keep me safe and well if indeed I had been under attack. I used to wonder if I really was good enough at martial arts to protect myself, and because tournaments weren’t the best way to find out, maybe I’d need to go into Northbridge and get into a fight and try and break someone’s arm or knock them unconscious. I never did, obviously, because that would have been stupid. However I did use to worry about it a lot, that maybe if push ever came to shove I would lose. I don’t worry about that any more.


Why? Is it because I think I’m hot stuff now that I’m a black belt? Well, kinda, yeah. More accurately, it’s because I trust that all of the thousands of hours I’ve put into grooving appropriate responses will be sufficient if the need ever arises for me to protect myself. Every now and then I’ll be surprised by what could be a potential attack and I’ll respond in a way that makes me feel like I would have been okay if there was any actual danger. I also get reminders from time to time that if a real attack had been imminent I would have gotten my head caved in. I think both of these are important, and it’s worth striving towards being safe and being peaceful.


I don’t mind people who enjoy the game or sport of competitive fighting. I just don’t feel like it will help me learn the sort of things I want to learn from martial arts. And also, I don’t particularly enjoy being beaten up, or even beating someone else up just to prove I could. That’s the arena of bullies.

Finding a Gentler Way

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned on this blog, so if I haven’t done so already, I’ll mention it now. A few months ago I decided to pursue my desire to learn judo, the Japanese art of “the gentle way”. From what I understand, it takes the brutal efficiency of jujutsu (the “gentle art”, the empty-handed grappling art designed to break joints even against an armoured samurai) and turns it into a safer sport based on throws (with grappling as a slightly lesser focus).

I’ve may have mentioned before that I get cravings for certain martial principles and I practice them obsessively. Off the top of my head, I can recall being obsessed with side kicks, spinning kicks, single whip, teisho, mae ude hineri uke, mawashi uke, bagua’s fourth and eighth palm change… Actually, the more I list, the more there are. Suffice it to say I’ll spend weeks drilling one movement as I go about my daily life. A little while ago, my “flavour of the month” was osotogari – the great leg sweep – and I decided I’d follow up on my desire to get better at throwing people.

A little while later I found myself at a judo club, and I picked it up very quickly. It seems that it never gets less scary stepping onto a foreign school’s mat – it was just as awesome and terrifying as that first day of Taekwondo – though I had a good grasp of the basics already and picked up the throws as quickly as I picked up my opponents before dropping them on the crash mats. It was ridiculous how fun it was to pick up someone more than twice my body weight and throw them clean over my shoulder. Although I’m probably among the weakest students, my stamina and flexibility are among the highest that I’ve seen, and my practical fighting skills seem to be more advanced than those of my comrades. I do acknowledge though that the judoka, while more crass than the students of the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts, are good at what they do, and I would like to get good at it too.

However it’s definitely harder for me. Leverage is everything in judo, and for a little guy to throw a taller, heavier or stronger guy is significantly harder. Seriously, size matters a huge amount. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but by jove it makes a difference in the early stages. I recently attended a judo conference (which was targeted mainly at black belts, and I felt sorely out of place there learning advanced knowledge when my basic curriculum was still mostly empty) and did randori with the other attendees for 45 minutes straight. It became pretty clear to me that most of the time they could read my intentions clearly and stop me with a little resistance, and overcome my resistance with a bit of force or muscle. Any time there was a situation where I had to pit my strength against my partner’s in order to break their structure, I invariably lost despite the advice of my teacher (yelling at me to apply my strength against his weakness, and yet I still struggled to dominate).

The greater lesson I learned from the experience is that every single one of my scabs had come off at some point and I bled all over myself and my uniform. My fingers were torn from the rough fabric of grasping other people’s gi’s, I got kneed in the balls (and they still hurt days later), my shoulders are wrecked and my back was horrendously tight due to the improper warm-up, and I was left with dark bruises across much of my chest and arm where my partner had grabbed me with all of their might. I expended huge amounts of energy, gained numerous injuries, and I don’t think I’ve learned enough to realistically apply any of it in my karate randori. I acquire new injuries every time I go, and after every lesson I ask myself whether it’s worth the pain to acquire the skill.

True, I would love to learn how to throw people more easily, and true, my few lessons have increased my success rate already. I guess I’m going through the white belt phase which is horribly disheartening and feels like I’m making no worthwhile progress compared to the skill of the higher belts. I think for the moment I’ll stick with it (at the very least for another lesson) and see if my mind changes once I’ve filled out more of that empty curriculum in my head.

EDIT: I think I’ve figured out why I don’t like judo as much as karate. I’m definitely going through the beginner phase where I’m disheartened by how much I have to learn and how much better everyone else is. However it’s harder to get the balance between practicing basics and practicing techniques dynamically. That is to say, my partners are either letting me throw them without resistance, or resisting so much that I struggle to throw them. And this hurts! Unlike karate where all the strikes are pulled, I seem to be acquiring new injuries every class from straining or being grabbed strongly. Maybe I just need partners who can teach me at just the right level of challenge to encourage me to learn.

General life update

To be honest, I’m only writing this because it’s been a while since I’ve used my mechanical keyboard and I just wanted to type. I guess this is going to be a stream-of-consciousness type weblog about nothing in particular.

I’m learning to eradicate the word “but” from my vocabulary. It’s pretty close to “should” in terms of words that are unhelpful and limiting. What’s so bad about “but”? It’s a negative word. Not in the sense that it’s offensive. In the sense that it literally negates the thing you just said. For example, “You look good, but…” means “You look good, wait cancel that no you don’t.” It’s tricky removing it because it’s become so commonplace to me – I’ve struggled to avoid it once already in this paragraph. Can you pick where I was tempted to use it? I’m replacing it with words like “though”, “although”, “and”, “despite” and “however”. I think it creates more opportunities and places less barriers on things, and I hope that it will translate to my thoughts and actions.

The Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts celebrated it’s 30th Anniversary over the weekend. It’s been thirty years since Dan and Nen first opened the school, and it’s grown into a highly respected and talented organisation. As a black belt, I demonstrated quite a bit of the advanced syllabus, particularly weapon forms. I practiced them for hours, drilling them when I was in the dojo, at home, walking down the street, in the kitchen and lying in bed. I found I was doing the sai form subconsciously, internalising, processing and personalising the knowledge so that it could become an expression of myself. When it came to performing on the day, I made mistakes in almost every performance, though (not but!) they were mostly so minor I doubt anyone noticed. In particular I really nailed the swimming dragon sword form, and I can’t wait to watch the video to see if it looked as good as it felt. To read my teacher’s blog about the event (and a link to pictures), you can click here.

I’ve been really getting into Resident Evil Revelations 2 on the PS4. (And may I say, what an absolute pleasure it is to own a PS4, the king of consoles, named “Shiriaru” for his whiteness and his deliciousness.) I’ve become a bit obsessive, perhaps even addicted to completing the daily missions, getting the massive amounts of XP and gold and phat l00t. It resets every day at 3pm, and it’s one of my highest priorities when I get home from work to jump online and complete all the missions. I’ve maxed out Jill’s level, and I’m working on getting stronger weapons and levelling up Wesker and Neil so that she can inherit their evasion skills. My max level Jill is going to be evasion master with a crap-tonne of sniper bullets.

Work is an absolute treat by the way. After my confidence-crushing, is-it-me-or-them, maybe-I’ll-be-a-librarian-instead encounter with my last job, I’ve found back at the same organisation and part of a new team.

Ah, gotta go. Write another time.

Black belt

Last night, I finally earned that belt which I have dreamed of. When I was a teenager just starting out in Taekwondo, I thought getting to black belt was the end game, the ultimate goal, the proof of mastery of the art (and the accompanying invincibility and inherent awesomeness). And in just over a year I got it, largely due to monthly gradings and a “if you give us money we’ll give you a new belt” attitude. (My club, despite hosting the most state champions in WA, was a bit of a McDojo/black belt factory.)

Things with the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts are a little different. The gradings are irregular, maybe two or three a year. And they say from the start, it’s a long-term journey. In the same way that one doesn’t pick up a guitar and play Hendrix after a week, it takes hours and hours of grooving movement and internalising concepts before a person has the requisite skill and knowledge to transcend it. This means that the students stay on their grade for months, or even years depending on how frequently they train. The resulting difference in skill between belt colours is obvious, with good reason; each and every student trains until they have learned what their grade was designed to teach them. This makes for a robust system of competent martial artists, where everyone’s current skill level is clearly visible by the colour of their belt.

When I was first introduced to the system of Wu-Wei Dao, I was blown away by how much I didn’t know and how skilful the students and teachers were. I didn’t care in the slightest about rankings or belt colours, I just knew that these guys knew their stuff, and I wanted to have more of that in my life. (And it was admittedly refreshing to find a school where I was not one of the top students, which I had grown accustomed to and caused me to become a little arrogant.)

Last night I achieved that dream which I so treasured as a young man. And I must admit, it gives me a thrill of pleasure to see such a symbol around my waist. But it does not change me. Ever since that first lesson of Taekwondo, I have said to myself that I will act like a black belt whether I wear one or not. I have trained hard, I have worked to cultivate a good attitude, and I have helped my fellow students as much as possible. I have strived to be a good martial artist and human being, to be “an officer and a gentleman” as Kancho would say, and to set a good example for the other students. Being yudansha is more about the colour of the cloth around your waist: it’s an attitude. Jesse Enkamp said it well: “If you’re a black belt, you should brush your teeth like a black belt, tie your shoes like a black belt and wipe your a** like a black belt.”

Wearing kuro obi is, as I said, both thrilling and kinda scary. My brother tells me those two emotions produce an identical autonomic response, it’s just the mind that chooses whether to be excited or fearful. My physical condition, while decent, is not extraordinary, and I still have a lot of work to do on my attitude (I’d like to complain less, be kinder, and to be more grateful, for instance). The other yudansha have set high standards for the school, and I will work hard not only to meet them but promote them, because it becomes me. To put it another way, now that I’ve finally managed to do 50 push-ups, I will not allow myself to do any less from now on. It’s all up-hill from here, but you know? I’m enjoying the journey up the mountain, and I don’t particularly mind that it doesn’t have a summit.


How Martial Arts Has Changed My Life

l_366d2555331aa370f6b96cd2d5010405I was idly wondering this morning what would have happened if I hadn’t swung by that Taekwondo place in 2006 and tried a lesson. I often fantasised about fighting and martial arts, a passion I was often in trouble for as a kid. (Miss Barrett absolutely hated how often I was reported to her for “play fighting” when in actuality I was choreographing complex fight scenes.) Throughout the past eight eight years I’ve trained very regularly, usually around 3 times a week for about six hours in total, but at one stage I was training six days a week for around fourteen hours. Why have I trained so much? Well, because I love it.

But what would have happened to all that passion and energy if I didn’t have the martial arts? I know that no matter how busy I was I always made time for training, and it has been an island of stress-relief in a sea of troubles. I think it’s fair to say that I probably would have broken down a lot sooner, maybe in the first years of uni and just stuck with what was familiar and convenient. I might be still working at Coles, a very scary thought. If I had stuck it out in social work, I don’t know how great I would have been at coping. I certainly would have struggled most days and I’m not sure if I’d be able to manage any job. (Even with martial arts as a coping mechanism, PICYS was still a really hard experience for me.)

Sensei RaveyI’ve made some of my closest friends through the dojo, and I’ve met many great and inspiring people. In particular, my teachers Dan and Nenad are among the very best men in the universe, and I am learning to be a better person because of them. Another important but unspoken element of training with others is that I am practicing being social in good company. I’ve always been a little quirky and I’ve found it hard to connect with others, but having friends forged through a shared passion is one of the most valuable elements of community. In all honesty, without the dojo I’d be supremely socially awkward and probably highly reclusive. (As it is I’m still a little awkward and enjoy time by myself.)

I’d probably be of less-than-average fitness. I don’t really consider myself especially fit, but compared to many other people I have to acknowledge that my physical abilities are fairly advanced. A huge part of how I understand myself is in terms of my flexibility, my strength (what little there is), my ability to fall over and land safely, and the hope that if I’m ever engaged in a fight that I’d be able to defend myself and avoid injury. If I hadn’t learned martial arts, I think some of that confidence and sense of identity would have remained because it’s just always how I’ve seen myself, but it might be muted. It’s kind of unfathomable for me to imagine not being able to touch my toes.

625550_10151904391393158_261813344_nI’d probably not have very much self-discipline. As it is I still eat copious amounts of junk food and can’t quite will myself to sleep early or leave the house with time to spare. Without the tough sessions at the dojo where I push myself to keep on going, even though I’m shaking and staggering and feel like throwing up… Without the gashuku where I confront my fear of pain and cold and hunger and tiredness… Without my morning runs where I voluntarily get up early and push myself physically, I think I’d probably live a more comfortable, sedentary lifestyle. But discomfort is good sometimes because it makes you aware of what you’re capable of surviving, and reminds you to enjoy the comfortable things you have. I daresay without training I’d be surrounded by comfort food (which I kind of am now, but at least I work it off) and have low self-esteem.

I’d probably have quite poor foot-health. As it is, I’m oddly proud of how strong my feet are in terms of twisting and turning and lunging and striking in the dojo. On my runs I wear vibram five-fingers which are essentially gloves for my feet so I still exercise barefoot muscles without stepping directly in duck poo. My feet do a lot for me, and I am grateful for their strength.

It’s hard to say what other changes to my life might have developed if I’d gone a different path. But whatever might have happened, I am so grateful for what has been and what is still to come.