old habits die … never?

Sometimes training can be frustrating when partners just don’t “get it.” While the same complaint could be voiced to pretend something should work, in this case, it’s not a cop-out. That’s because I’m not talking here about my side of training at all – this is from observing other people training from a totally independent view.

You can usually tell when somebody comes to a training session with the idea that they’re very good already. In this recent case, you could also tell that they were annoyed to find that “new” ideas were slamming hard into their long-term world view of how training works. When you think you’re great at something, and you also believe that your particular “something” is also great on its own, then it’s twice as painful to realize that none of it is working like it’s “supposed to” work.

In my own case, I often train with either one extreme group or another: modern operators from various teams who use physical force as a tool to reach a goal OR classical martial arts enthusiasts who enjoy the pure academic pursuit and novelty of what were once horribly violent methods. They certainly CAN intersect, but they usually don’t come into contact with each other very much at all. Now, when I’m leading a training group of classical martial arts folks, I very much enjoy re-visiting the violent awful realities that defined the era that created those techniques. It’s like an odd “historical reality based” training, I guess.

Well, I got to see somebody with very good classical movement get VERY frustrated by someone significantly his junior (both in life years and in training years), have little or no trouble tearing lots of holes in his technique when we added stress, emotion, and violence back into the technique. Everyone in the room knew the “kata” pre-arranged set of movements we were practicing; that wasn’t an issue at all. I think most of them even took the time to memorize all of the Japanese words that defined each step. But that doesn’t matter so much when you violate the “rules” that they’ve set up in their heads about how training is supposed to work.

I decided to see if it was possible to short-circuit one of the techniques by grabbing the other person’s face head-butt them, and throw them backwards, skull-first, over our own knee. Please understand that this is totally normal for us, and is part of a written, formalized method from a different “kata” that most people there already knew. By no means is it unreasonable in the context in which we were practicing, but it is NOT normally how it’s done.

Questionable Responses

So what happened? Lots of awful things:

1. Some people literally just could not break the pattern they knew so well. It wasn’t because it worked so well .. they just didn’t see the other option become available, because they were no longer looking for it.

2. If the new thing didn’t work, they just added strength, and got mad when it didn’t work. No kidding. This is an adults-only group, and one of them got so upset that he wouldn’t train with the junior guy who found it easy to defeat his confusion. Same guy would probably lecture all day about how important it is to learn to use technique rather than pure strength.

3. Some very beginner level mistakes re-surfaced (this is what got me thinking to write in the first place about this session). If the written “kata” pattern calls for you to evade one direction, then the other, that’s fine to practice. But just moving to one side and then the other, completely independent of what your partner is doing, doesn’t really make any sense. Moving to the other side because they’ve readjusted and are coming to get you is a good reason to move in a new direction. So, patterned movement without reasoning is something I see beginners do all the time (it happens in dance classes, too).

We’re not working on some choreography, though – efficiency and violence is really all that we have in our training (this one is supposed to classically end with a hard driving stomp into a soft, exposed area on the opponent after you’ve pinned his broken body to the ground. Everybody at this training session knows the pieces, but it’s awkward sometimes to help them understand that as Rory Miller says, we’re practicing “making cripples and corpses” or “widows and orphans” when we train in classical martial arts like these. We can’t lose sight of the mindset required for that – and at advanced levels, that’s not choreography.

4. If it didn’t work, some observably gave up on the “new” idea. In their minds, if they can’t do it, then it must be because of my silly idea, and certainly not because they just need to train under stress more to deal with violence. Ugh.

Why Doesn’t This Bother Them More?!

The other thing we did that should have frustrated more people than it did:

We did one of Rory’s drills in which potential attackers are on your left, right, and in front, with a controller behind. There are some subtle ways to manipulate this drill, and in our case, I decided we would have two rounds of several attacks each. In the first round, we would practice flinching and evading away from the incoming attack; in the second round we would move aggressively towards the attack. Based on your emotion and mindset at a given incident, one could make more sense than the other.

Note: In our training, one of our primary training modes is to do our best to get off the line of the incoming attack. More clearly, if we’re standing on a set of train tracks, our initial movement back, side, or forward, should be able to deal effectively with the incoming train.

I made sure we started on a set of intersecting lines on the floor, so that we could judge accurately if we were moving back or forward. It should be painfully self-evident if we don’t clear the imagined train tracks. If we’re still in line with the initial angle of attack, there should be a fist/elbow/kick/weapon still aimed at us.

But for goodness sake, the folks at this session included some who apparently don’t regularly train for actual violence. They mostly stood in one place, twisted somewhat appropriately to avoid a brunt-force attack, and moved into approximately the proper ending position … but ending almost exactly where they started. Some of the guys more accustomed to these stress challenges worked on angles and looked for opportunities to include immediate action to the attacker (hitting back).

Again, I don’t mind seeing people find flaws in their technique – that’s the point of training. We must have “deliberate practice” and work hard to find and improve the elements of skills that aren’t up to par. Anything else is just self-congratulatory ego-building, and is dangerous on way too many levels to have any place in a training session.

But the folks who didn’t move, and basically just got pummeled, didn’t seem to notice. They checked their final position, and it looked about right to them, so it must have been good. They didn’t even notice what the person attacking them was doing – that is so darn frustrating. The whole point was meant to be successfully finding an advantageous angle … and when that didn’t happen they looked to find something that they did do well, instead, so that they could reassure themselves that it was going just fine.

Can You Fix an Invisible Error?

I honestly don’t know how to fix it though – since I don’t think it was a conscious process. That can be addressed in a conversation. I’ll be working on this particular issue for a while, and wondering at the same time what things am I neglecting in my own training. After seeing this happen, I imagine it’s possible (likely?) that I also have some lacking skills that I don’t even notice. If I noticed them, I’d work on improving them … but we can’t intentionally fix “unconscious incompetence” so this may be a lost issue without an instructor present to look specifically for such flaws. That’s the best part, I guess – finding someone interested in finding your flaws, and remembering to send your ego away so that you can process the hopefully harsh truths that they give you. I’m looking forward to more of that at our next session, now less than 24 hours away.