Sunday, July 3, 2016

Train as if someone is recording you

One of my role models in hard training -
Graham Ravey Sensei 8th Dan Goju Ryu
When I first started karate my instructor told a story in class about a student he observed training on his own.  He'd arrived at the dojo during a time when no class was scheduled, gone onto the floor and undergone a 1 1/2 hour training session so disciplined, so focused that my instructor had watched the entire thing, transfixed.

Never once did the student break concentration or pause for a rest: he just kept repeating the same movements, one after the other, so that he went well into, and over, his VO2 max.  Watching himself in the mirror, he'd only move on to another technique once he'd achieved whatever (high) standard he'd set.

At the end, he finished his last technique, moved to "yamae" and remained motionless for a minute, his breathing ragged, his body so drenched with sweat that his gi had become translucent.  Then he bowed. and left the floor.

All without a word.

Over the years I've pondered this anecdote considerably - often wondering whether I had the physical stamina, but more the mental discipline, to train that way.  It seemed an almost unattainable ideal.

I've long admired this video of my friend Mark Cook training solo.
It reminds me of the story my instructor told me all those years ago.

But very recently I have realised that I do, to some extent, already train this way.  In some respects it has become the cornerstone of my personal practice.  I just hadn't noticed.

My training keeps me in whatever shape I'm in - despite aging, injury and a chronic immune illness.  It has kept me in active martial arts training long after I was told by medical experts that I wouldn't be.  Occasionally I even wonder how it is that I can do some of the things that I end up doing.

Sometimes it occurs to me that I am able to do some things I couldn't do when I was much younger and healthier.  This year I turn 50 and I've set myself the goal of doing 15 chin ups and 80 push ups on my birthday.  Achievable?  I think so.  But why am I so confident?  Logic should tell me otherwise, but my intuition (based on experience) does not agree!

Last year's birthday challenge

The reason I trust my intuition is a mix of focus, determination and gradual, responsible conditioning.

Without realising it, thanks to my training I've now become more focused than I have ever been in my life.  When I'm training I remain in the moment.  I don't give up.  I keep going.  I redo a movement time and time again until I get it right.  I don't care if I am out of breath or dripping with sweat.  I ignore the pounding headaches, the ache in my muscles, my gasping breath and my racing heart rate.  I push on with single-minded determination to my goal.

I think that what lies behind the effectiveness of this mindset is the following:
  • I set a goal that is achievable at that given time.  I never bite off more than I can chew.
  • I don't stop until I reach that goal.
  • I (usually) listen to my body and back off before I do myself harm.
  • Lastly, but most importantly, I train as if someone is recording me.
In case you haven't noticed, I produce a lot of videos.  These aren't carefully planned or rehearsed.  They are filmed ad hoc during or straight after lessons as the mood (and topic) takes me.  When I don't get it right on the night, I usually let it go.  (Often opportunities to record something come and go because, for reasons I'll explain in another article, no two lessons are alike and by the next lesson I might well have moved on, and the moment - and thought - will be gone.)

It's for this reason that I will sometimes stay behind after class to film a technique or form for the sake of completing our students' technical database.  In most cases I won't be "prepared".  I might not have done the particular form for weeks, months or even years.  I might be feeling unwell, sore or be injured,  But I set myself the challenge of filming the technique or form for posterity anyway.

And so (perhaps to the chagrin of the student(s) who are filming) I will keep repeating the form or technique again and again, one after the other, until I get it right.

Those who practise forms will know that after one performance you're usually out of breath.  After two in a row you have exceeded your VO2 max.  After three you're starting to flag.  But I keep going.  If I absolutely need to, I give myself a 10 second break.  After 10 or so performances, I might stop for 30 seconds to view the footage.  Then I'll (foolishly) go back and start again.

Why "foolishly"?  Because the simple fact is that once you're that fatigued, your performance standard invariably drops.  And your chances of making an error increase exponentially.  So why not stop after the first few?  Because I keep searching for that elusive (impossible) "perfect" performance.  I want to get it "right" - as a benchmark  that will serve as a reference for the database.  I want to set an example.  It needn't be the "best" and it needn't be "perfect" (if that is remotely possible) but it must clear my own standard of suitability as a student resource.

This means it must not have sequential or technical errors.  The timing or tempo must be in the ballpark of what is acceptable.  The amount of force generated, and the focus and "finish" must be sufficient to illustrate the point. 

It doesn't matter if person X or Y can do it better.  They aren't there for me to film.  There's only me.  So I, with all my limitations, must make do.

The net result is that I always set out (somewhat optimistically) to get it done in one to three takes.  The reality is, judging by the video record, that the average is more like ten to fifteen.  Mostly in a row.


The walking cane form. I think this was Take 15 in a row.  Not what I wanted, but it
will have to do!

I recently refilmed a walking cane form this way after a Saturday class.  A student stayed behind to film.  A few others were watching.  The form is quite athletic - especially for an old guy like me.  The first performance went off the rails as I tried to remember and emphasise all the little details I wanted recorded for posterity.  Juggling mental concepts like this inevitably takes you "out of the zone" so you make one or more tiny mistakes here and there.

So okay, Take 2.  That is nearly perfect - but right at the end I realise I've almost finished and it's all going great!  And that realisation is enough to make me fluff the penultimate move.  On Takes 3 and 4 I'm so out of breath that my performance standard drops significantly: even though I've got through the form more or less without error, I know the result sucks.  It won't do as a reference point for students.  So I take a 20 second breather and start again.  And this time I get it right, but it's too slow and lacking in "oomph".  The two Takes after that are much too fast.  The three Takes after that are slower but lack focus or definition.  The two Takes after that lack force.  In the Takes after that I slip on a pool of sweat or miss a technique.

Somewhere along the way I get through one complete performance.  And it feels so-so.  I pause to check the footage.  And it looks okay.  It clears the bar.  Just.  It ticks the boxes without feeling "great".  It lacks the energy and spontaneity I had at the start, the technical proficiency in individual movements I'd honed in the middle and the flow I'd established somewhere towards the end.  But it works.  Well enough.

By that time I realise that I've been training solidly for an hour.  I'm drenched with sweat. I've been focused on one goal the entire time, trying to stay "in the zone".

When I think about it, I now do all my training - even my "kitchen training" in the same way.  I'm so used to the work ethic of video recording that I now apply it universally.  If I have half an hour at the gym at lunchtime, I am focused for that whole half hour.  If I am leading a class in repetitions I am focused.  I train as if a camera were on me - as if I'm trying to "record it for posterity".  Whether it be my form in push-ups (and the required number) or the performance of a form, or the execution of a throw or projection, I always approach the task the same way: with the goal of "getting it right" - right enough to serve as a point of reference.  


I initially filmed this with my own performance being less than stellar.  And received
howls of protest and derision.  I had to re-film it with the right focus and effort - all at some
personal cost due to injury, including a broken hand.  Such is life.


The fact that there is no camera on me most of the time is, of course, irrelevant.  Because the net effect of this work ethic - arrived at after years of footage in and after class - is that I've learned to make the most of very limited periods of time.

Quite subconsciously, I've found myself arriving (more or less) at the point of mental discipline shown to my instructor by that anonymous student all those years ago.  

So when it comes to training on your own - or in a class for that matter - my main piece of advice is this: always train as if someone were recording you on video.  It'll keep you on your toes - and in the moment.  There's no better way to attain mental discipline and "zanshin".  There is no better way of making your training really count.

Copyright © 2016 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, June 24, 2016

The debt we owe to our masters

In most karate schools it is common for students to bow not only to the teacher and each other - but also to the shomen (front) where pictures of the dojo's founders are displayed.  Karate students will be familiar with the expression "shomen ni rei" (or "shinzen ni rei") - ie. "bow to front/tradition".  We used to do this but discontinued the practise in the mid '90s - partly because we did not want to associate our dojo with Shinto practices.  We are, after all, a secular school and have no intention of promoting (or discouraging) religious faith of any kind.

But lately we have reintroduced a practice of bowing, at least symbolically, to our teachers - both recent and ancestral.  Why?  Because we view it as a solemn acknowledgment of their contribution.  We would not be standing where we are but for this contribution.  As a tradition, our ritual bow is both contemplative and meditative: it makes us pause to appreciate those who gave us the knowledge upon which we are building.

And I do mean "building".  We are not mindless automatons, doggedly repeating the lessons of the past without inquiry or creativity.  Instead we explore - and as a result our arts evolve.  In case we miss something, we keep the original form there as a reference point: something to come back to in order to verify that we haven't strayed off course and misunderstood the lessons of the past.

In this regard Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying: "Poor is the student who does not surpass his master."  The central concept is that students should build on what their teachers taught.  Indeed, that is the way humanity has progressed from the dawn of our species.  It is the only way humanity has progressed.

Inevitably this means that a student must absorb the instructor's knowledge - if not all of it, most of it - and then add something to this body of knowledge.  As Isaac Newton is reported as saying: "If I have seen farther it is because I have been standing on the shoulders of giants."

In an earlier essay I remarked on the incredible body of information contained in the "knowledge of the ancients".  After all, traditional martial knowledge, while "antique", remains largely as relevant as it ever was.  That is because have no reason to suppose that we, in our modern Western lives, have surpassed all the technology employed by our ancestors in unarmed or weapons combat.  Martial arts are, by their very nature, concerned with primeval skills because they relate to our most primitive tools: our bare hands or extensions of these (in the form of sticks, swords or other weapons).

If you think "modern innovation" has necessarily surpassed ancient martial knowledge, consider this: a large number of us in the privileged developed world will never face serious violence - that is a statistical reality for which we (fortunate) people should be grateful.  Indeed many (most?) of us are likely to go through life enduring little more than a few of scuffles.  Those of us who do experience more significant violence are most likely to do so in a domestic environment  - which is certainly horrific, but in terms of prevention or management, a far cry from the "alleyway scenarios" painted by "reality-based self defence experts".

Which leaves the average martial artist somewhat removed from our ancestors who lived in more brutish times.  Disregarding those who engage in security, police or military work, the closest most marital artists get to "combat" is usually a controlled training or competitive environment.

So if we are interested in civilian defence (as opposed to engaging in a very specific competition format, be it boxing, muay thai, MMA, kyokushin knockdown karate, sanda, san shou, BJJ, judo, western wrestling or fencing) we go back to the knowledge of the ancients.  It is the traditional way.

Have I expanded (or at the very least interpreted) that traditional way so as to add something "new"?  Most certainly.  But in every case, I have done so after careful observation of what has worked for me under pressure.  Consider, for example, the use of the taijiquan sequence known as "carry tiger home to mountain".  I was first taught this sequence by my karate teacher Bob Davies, then my internal arts teacher Chen Yun Ching.  Did either show me the specific application below - ie. against an o soto gari (outside leg reap)?  No.  I have however used this particular application for 30+ years, often in sparring against judoka and jujutsu practitioners - and it works.  So this particular application goes into my personal "box of tricks".



The same applies to many, many other applications I've "developed".  I put "developed" in quotes because my interpretations are arguably so obvious one wonders whether I can claim to have developed anything at all: it is more likely that I've simply reinvented the wheel in each case.  Am I "building" on what the masters taught - or am I finally understanding their lessons?  You decide.

Here is another video taken on the same night, concerning the "rollback and press" movements from the taijiquan sequence known as "grasp bird's tail" - again taught to me by both Bob Davies and Chen Yun Ching.



You'll notice that the above application uses the "pass" maneuver so ubiquitous now in wrestling, BJJ and MMA.  In other words, it is "thoroughly modern" in some senses.  Furthermore, the way the elbow lock is applied, in particular the direction in which your opponent is directed, negates a dive by your opponent to your legs.  Again, this seems terribly "modern" until you consider that I learned the importance of this concept not in a gym or cage but while training in a park in Hong Kong - where an internal master taught me some very timely lessons about civilian defence grappling.

So I credit all my teachers - particularly my main teachers, Bob Davies, Chen Yun Ching and James Sumarac.  I have their pictures, and the pictures of our ancestral teachers (Chen Pan Ling and Chojun Miyagi) on our "shomen".  I am proud to honour them with a bow each lesson.

Nor does it matter that I left my first teacher, Bob Davies, at the end of 1996 after 16 years of loyal following.  Just because you leave your teacher to pursue another path does not diminish their importance in your martial arts development - indeed in your life.  Bob Davies will always be my teacher - and his picture will always hang on my "shomen".  I am not only happy to credit his teaching (as this blog will testify), but I feel obliged to do so: the imprint he left on my martial arts (and my character) is indelible, his lessons lifelong.  The same has been true of my beloved, now retired, master Chen Yun Ching and my esteemed teacher and mentor James Sumarac.

I notice that many students of the martial arts "fall out" with their teacher, then try to revise history, often rubbishing that teacher in the process.  Assuming these students have had a productive career with their teacher (ie. they have not been totally misled by nonsense), what they don't realise is that in so doing they are rubbishing themselves - or at the very least, the knowledge upon which they rely.  In the case of long-term training relationships, it is fair to say that you reflect your teacher - you are an extension of him or her.  In my case, there was certainly a time when almost everything I knew came from Bob Davies.  Even now, 20 years later, a sizable portion of my martial knowledge can be directly attributed to him.  For that he has earned my respect.  I am what I am because of him.  And I am happy to acknowledge it, even if our formal affiliation ended long ago.  We remain on cordial terms.  Certainly my feelings towards Lao Shi Bob remain those of deep respect.  This is a respect I owe him.  Just as he owes a debt to his teachers and those before him.

We martial artists are all subject to the same human frailties.  We can have personality conflicts, we can have different objectives/goals and varying technical preferences.  These are all fine.  There is no shame in saying to your teacher: "I have decided to go onto a different path."  Just be sure to remember where you came from - and to give due recognition for how you got to where you are.

In the case of the classical arts, the knowledge you gained from your teacher is the product of a long line of tradition.  Whatever you paid for this knowledge, it was likely far too little relative to what you gained.  You benefited from hundreds of years of accumulated wisdom.  You most probably paid less than you would have for a common gym membership.

So at some point your path up the mountain might well diverge from that chosen by your teacher.  If it does, never forget that your teacher - and your teacher's teachers - got you to where you are standing right now.  And the farther up the mountain you are, the greater your debt to them.

How is this debt discharged?  Very simply: with appropriate acknowledgment.

For these reasons I will continue the tradition of bowing to the shomen: I will acknowledge the contribution of my teachers.

Whether or not you follow a custom of bowing to a "shomen" in your dojo, I believe it is incumbent upon you to observe at least the general principle embodied in this ritual.  It is part of your giri: your duty as a student of the traditional martial arts.

Copyright © 2016 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mastery - and the question of time

There is an old rule of thumb in martial arts: 1,000 repetitions to get the basic idea of a movement, 10,000 repetitions to get it more or less right, 100,000 to get it near perfect.

And that's just a movement.  We've not yet talked about application.  Application takes much, much more practice.

Let's put it in the perspective of some other art - say, music.

You might want to be a world-class jazz guitarist, playing lead solos off the cuff, with no two performances alike.  And that's how jazz is meant to be played.  You're responding to your environment: the other musicians, the crowd, the venue, its atmosphere, your own mood, the time of day... practically anything and everything.

So what does it take to be a good jazz guitarist?  100,000 repetitions of scales won't cut it.  I don't know what the figure in repetitions is, but it's going to be a lot higher.  Actually, it's measured less in terms of repetitions than it is measured in time.  You need time to become a master.

"But I'm super-talented and ultra-focused," you'll hear people say.  "I have an unbelievable work ethic and I'm already doing things that 'masters' can't do!  Check out the speed of this particular solo..."

Yes.  You're good.  Really good.  But you're not Django Reinhardt - yet.  You won't be until you've approached his experience.  Because, in the end, there is no substitute for experience.  However much you wish it were otherwise.

In the case of a jazz guitarist, this experience isn't just about you and the guitar.  It's about you and your band.  It's about playing live.  It's about not "choking" when you suddenly realise that there are 10,000 people watching you.  It's about knowing what to do when you make a "mistake" and taking things in a different direction.  It's about knowing how to deal with the fact that you're having a bad day...

This often has more to do with the passage of time than the literal number of repetitions.  Because that passage of time is often what is needed for something to "bed down".  It's for this reason that sometimes it's best to "sleep on it".  How many times have you found yourself frustrated by a particular technique or skill, mucking it up almost every time, only to find it vastly improved if not "effortless" the next day?  It has happened many times in my life and I'm sure it will keep happening.  Indeed, I've come to trust the principle of "sleeping on it".  I've come to expect less from sheer dogged repetition and more from activities such as visualisation, if not pure "rest": time for my subconscious to process a new technique or skill - time to make it truly mine.

And it's the same in every other art or discipline.  In my present day job I work in the field of legislative drafting.  I remember coming to the profession after almost a decade in the law: I was a highly-regarded court lawyer with many big cases under my belt.  I was logical. I loved to write.  I had no doubt  I'd pick up the new job in a flash.  Except I didn't.  I realised that everything I did - every new task I got handed - posed novel challenges for which I had no answer.  Indeed, there was often no precedent.  It's still the same today: the job is like an ever-changing kaleidoscope of problems no one has ever seen before.  So when I first started (and for the 5 years or so after that), I found myself running to my more experienced colleagues almost every time.  And despite the novelty of the questions I posed, they adapted their knowledge and solved my dilemma.  Seemingly effortlessly.

I quickly realised that those who had been working in the profession for 20 or 30 years had something I didn't have and couldn't match - no matter how many extra hours I put in, no matter my work ethic, no matter what "talent" I thought I had.  Because whatever my skill, potential or determination, I simply didn't have their experience.

In other words, I lacked time.

I've found the same in other writing.  Consider, for example, that I've been writing this blog for almost 9 years.  At my peak I was managing an average of 5 articles per month, totaling about 200,000 words per year.  Together with my 4 or so other blogs, my overall word count in some years was at least 350,000.  And you have to remember that through most of that time I maintained not only a 50 hour per week day job, but a rich family life, a regular (intensive) training schedule and even a fortnightly radio show (the Combat Sports Hour on 93.1 SportFM).  My blogging has only tapered off in the last 2 years because I've written 3 novels in that time, produced 4 martial art DVDs, published my text "Essential Jo" and published 5 books for other people (including my own translation of a Serbian language best-seller).  "How do you manage to write so much - and so easily?" people ask.  "It takes me hours to structure a simple letter to my landlord/neighbour/prospective employer etc. - yet you write a structured, researched and reasoned 3,000 word essay in a couple of hours!"  The answer is/was just this:

Time.

I've spent many decades learning the writing craft.  Along with marital arts, it's my passion.  It isn't some "talent" as much as it is a function of of work.  Writing is hard work.  Learning to write is harder.

Take another, non-artistic, example: bathroom tiling.  I'm tempted to do my own in renovating our bathroom at home.  I've never done tiling before and I know it's not easy.  It requires technique.  If I do it, I know I'll end up with an okay result: my sense of perfectionism will allow no less.  But I also know that it will never look quite as professional as that done by someone who has been tiling for 30 years (and who is good at it).  They will do it in one tenth of the time and to a standard I can't possibly hope to achieve.  It would take me a heck of a long time to catch up to such a tiler.  If I ever did.

So, back to martial arts.  Why would time be any less significant in our chosen activity?  Of course it isn't!  It's just that unlike guitar playing or tiling, we can disguise the significance of time with the speed and power of youth.

Skill is still skill - and that takes time.

I've had many highly talented and athletic students come through my class - some as former gymnasts or dancers who have exceptional coordination and timing.  Others have been professional or semi-professional athletes, competing in triathlons or in other martial disciplines (eg. wrestling).  But when it comes to karate or the internal arts, they are rank beginners.  Why?  Because they haven't had any time in these arts.  Yes, they might progress very quickly - often far faster than other students who don't have their aptitude, fitness or work ethic.  But they are still beginners.

Certainly, relative to me, they are still beginners even after 2, 5 or 10 years.  This is true just as I remain a beginner relative to my current teacher, James Sumarac.  We are both beginners relative to Noguchi Sensei in karate and Master Chen in the internal arts.  The difference between our experience is measured in many decades - not in a handful of years.

"But so what?" the argument might go.  "World champion competition fighters are usually young."  Yes.  But that doesn't mean they are masters of their art.  They use speed and power to disguise the gaps in their arsenal.  Now if you were to put their masters in young, fresh, undamaged bodies, I think you would see a very big difference...

And don't forget, we traditional martial artists are not training just to "fight" but to improve our skill through diligent effort - gong fu.  We are striving for perfection of an art.

To the extent that we are training to develop fighting skills, these are focused on civilian defence - not one-on-one fighting competitions with a defined start and finish, defined boundaries, only one opponent, no weapons, rounds, a referee...

And we aren't training to "beat" or "hurt" someone - but rather not to get hurt.  We win if we succeed in minimising our own harm - even if this means running away and doing no harm to our opponent whatsoever.

As a result, our fighting skills are necessarily more defensive in nature - they are not focused on attack, although they involve some very ugly counter-attacks where necessary.  We are learning a gritty, earthy but still highly functional ancient technology for this purpose.

Ultimately, this involves learning certain techniques that take a long time to master and even longer to perfect, particularly in a dynamic environment.  We approach it this way because we want to keep developing and refining new skills well into old age.  Yes, we might start with simple, functional self-defence for reasons of instant practicability, but ultimately we are going for subtle, advanced skills that utilise efficiency and timing - and rely as little as possible on speed and simple brute strength - physical attributes that fade with age, injury and illness.

In a traditional civilian defence art this typically involves learning "form" - whether it is an isolated formal technique (eg. a standard judo throw) or a sequence of such techniques (in patterns or "kata").  We first apply those techniques in a formal setting (one-step sparring), then move to using those techniques in a more dynamic environment - via drills that repeat certain attacks, matching your response to them automatically (eg. in rhythm training).  This ensures the techniques emerge spontaneously through what is known as "action-perception coupling" - something I have previously described as "situational reflex" (note - not "situational awareness", which is a completely different thing).

We then test whether you have this "action-perception coupling" in free sparring - where we see if the techniques you've learned in kata (or rather, the principles inherent in those techniques, rather than the literal form of them) emerge spontaneously, or whether you just default to "faux boxing" under pressure.

All of this takes time.  I could teach you all the katas/forms I know in a couple of days (if you were really keen).  Let's call it a month if you wanted to remember them all.  Heck, make it a year if you want to actually look like something other than a total goofball.

But what use will you get out of all these forms?  Absolutely none.  You won't have had time to "make them your own" - to "internalise" them so that they become part of you - so that the principles taught by the forms emerge without conscious thought.

The same still applies after 5 or 6 years when you get your shodan.  Yes, you might be very "tough" - formidable even.  You'll know pretty much all the forms - inside out.  You'll know their details.  You'll know their bunkai (applications).  But almost none of these will emerge in your sparring.

Because shodan just means you've acquired the form.  This is only the first step (the literal meaning of "shodan").  

You won't have had nearly enough time to couple your action with your perception.  And even if you have certain reflexes, they won't be optimal ones taught in the kata bunkai.  Yes, there might be glimpses of the principles taught by the forms - but only glimpses.  All of us who have trod the traditional path and gone through shodan know this to be true.  Heck, forget that fancy application you saw of naihanchi: can you even land that side thrust kick you can do so perfectly in the air or against a bag?  It's hard isn't it?

I think those who practise judo and jujutsu actually appreciate traditional form much more than karateka or other traditional stand-up fighters: they see it as highly functional.  They know it takes time to make it emerge spontaneously under pressure.  Why do they have a better understanding of this?  I think it's because in any form of grappling, you are in more or less constant contact with your partner.  The kinaesthetic feedback is so much richer.  Moreover, the permutations of movement in time and space are so much more constrained.  Move out of contact and the permutations of possibilities expand exponentially.  Collectively, these factors mean that the process of applying traditional grappling techniques, be they throws (judo) or ground and other restraints (jujutsu), is ultimately much easier to understand and plot.  With traditional standup fighting, many go about blocking, kicking and punching in the air, but are then left scratching their heads when they confront an opponent in free sparring.

As a result, many traditional standup martial artists get disillusioned with traditional form: they can't see how their "blocks" or other techniques should be applied.  So they change their "standup game", reverting it to something "proven" - usually some sort of boxing or Muay Thai - which features none of the original aspects of their traditional art.  To me this is akin to learning judo nage but only applying Olympic wrestling in sparring.

So in summary, my view is this: every art takes time to master.  This includes all traditional civilian defence arts.  Arguably it is especially true of "standup" arts like karate, taijiquan etc.

Yes, you can learn every kata.  You can learn every bunkai.  But this has nothing to do with mastery.  Mastery comes when the principles of those forms emerge without thought or calculation: when you apply them spontaneously in dynamic, resistant environments.

After 20 years of sitting on 4th Dan, my brother Nenad and I recently graded to 5th Dan - the rank many associate with "mastery".

Do I feel like a master?  No.  I see too many instances where I fail my own definition of the term.  But it is an honour to have received this recognition nonetheless.

And, objectively, I know that I do, at least sometimes, produce spontaneous applications of the kata/form under pressure (or at least, the principles of those applications).   So maybe "mastery" isn't any particular line of achievement either, but rather the first concrete step in making the bunkai "your own" (much like shodan is the first tentative step in that general direction).  Given the time it takes to "master" anything, is it a wonder it has taken me 20 years since 4th Dan (and 36 years training in total) to feel I was ready to claim that I'd made that first step?

So next time you find yourself wishing you could "jump to the advanced stuff" remember the (likely missing) essential ingredient: time.  There's no substitute for it.

Copyright © 2016 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Join me for World Tai Chi Day!

If you're in Perth on 30 April 2016, feel free to join me in celebrating World Tai Chi Day.  The details are below!


Sunday, March 6, 2016

Book review: The Fighter Within by Chris Olech

I must confess that I approach book reviews with some trepidation nowadays.  I get asked to it very often and I really hate giving bad reviews - it's not my thing.  If you scroll through Youtube you won't find me dropping negative comments on people's honest performances of forms, kata or sparring etc.  I just don't see the point in being mean.  Nor do I think it is "constructive" to tell people when I think where they are going "wrong". (I might draw the line at something fraudulent or harmful, but that is a different story.)

Similarly I get concerned about reviewing books because I'm not sure what to do when faced with a stinker: do I lie and say something "nice" (perhaps damning with faint praise) or am I honest?

With Chris Olech's new book "The Fighter Within: Everyone Has a Fight" I had no such concerns.  As a fight journalist with practical ring experience, Chris brings both professionalism and authenticity to this inside view of the modern fight game.

Along with is own hard-knocks experience, Chris gives us deeply insightful interviews with such luminaries as Fedor Emelianenko, Rashad Evans and Rich Franklin, just to name a few.  In so doing he succeeds in doing what few (if any?) have ever managed to do: bring the daily, grinding life of the modern sports fighter to the average reader.

Chris' book is simultaneously absorbing and compelling, largely due to his first-class writing style.  Ultimately it is, however, also uplifting because it is, at the end of the day, about triumph.  And I'm not talking about winning or losing a match: I'm talking about something bigger.  Because the greatest battles of all are the one we wage against ourselves.  And these are battles that each of the interview subjects has waged - and won - repeatedly.

So for all those who are interested in the fight game but who would never consider entering it, Chris' book offers a fascinating vicarious experience of what it means to be an MMA fighter.

Far from the glamorous belts, interviews, endorsements and hype there is that daily grind: the aching muscles, the lungs that feel they could "pop", the injuries, the heartache and depression of overcoming a defeat or setback of some other kind... These are all things that constitute the reality of the MMA fighter.  How he or she deals with this reality is what actually determines the "fighter within".  And it is in detailing this process that Chris' book overcomes the crass fixation with personality and scandal, or the hyper-detailed technical analyses of fight styles, that often typify most MMA books.

So Chris Olech has done more than produce a mish-mash of interviews with famous fighters.  He has given us a very rarely seen window into the life of the professional fighter - the clearest, most fascinating yet.  If you are an MMA fan - or indeed a fan of any combat sport - you should greedily consume Chris's new book.  Rarely does fight journalism come in such a eloquent, compelling, eye-opening, first-hand form.

I unreservedly give it 5 stars.

Copyright © 2016 Dejan Djurdjevic