blocking

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I have been interested in martial arts since probably around age twelve. There wasn’t many classes available in my home town of Comines (France), only traditional Judo and Karate. I tried a few Judo classes, but it wasn’t what I had in mind when thinking about martial arts. Judo would actually have given me a good base, but I chose karate, because let’s face it, it was flashier, more like what I saw on television! Progress however was slow. Not only did we have to repeat precise movements over and over, but we also had to remember their names, in Japanese. I didn’t question their methods. There was an older (I just say that to make myself feel better) girl in class who had a brown belt and could kick my ass. I thought that eventually, I would get there.. Four years later, I wasn’t much better, but I didn’t know it. My training, or so I thought, would have been sufficient to prevail in most violent encounters. I am rolling my eyes here thinking about how naive I was and how little I knew. Fortunately, I didn’t find out after waking up on a hospital bed, like so many “martial artists” who encounter real violence. No, I got punched by my little brother! The worst part is, I told him to do it. But I told him to hit me with a right to show him a cool move. He used the left… Wham! I said “no, you can’t hit me like that.” That’s when reality set in.. What I learned worked, only in the dojo…

I wasn’t about to give up. I later found a Kung-Fu class in Villeneuve d’Ascq, 45 minutes away on my 50cc motorcycle (a glorified moped actually). Most of the time, that meant 45 minutes in the cold, or rain, or both. What we trained in was a sort of stylish Karate. The teaching methods were about the same. I did last six months in that class, just because the techniques were more refined, more clever. In the end, it wasn’t any more effective. Unfortunately, I regained that false confidence that comes so easily when among peers, unchallenged. When a Tae-Kwon-Do class opened right across the border, on the Belgian side of the town, I gave it a try. This time, it was sort of an aerobatic karate. Fortunately we also did full contact, and that was somewhat better. Ground fighting back then was not popular like it is now. That experience didn’t last long. One of the students ended-up sleeping with the teacher’s wife (now, that’s what I call having some balls). The class closed shortly after that. So, I had trained for years in different styles and was pretty confident of my abilities. But confidence isn’t a bad thing, right? Well, only if it isn’t misplaced…

Not far from my house was a “maison de la jeuness” of sort, a youth house, with a bar, ping-pong tables and whatnot. I don’t think the bar was supposed to serve alcohol, but it wasn’t like anyone would card you in France if you looked old enough to ride a bicycle. I was wearing a black leather jacket, which I set on the back of a chair to play ping-pong. After a while I heard a ruckus behind me, some drunk guy jumping on tables, wearing a jacket too big for him… Mine! I decided to finish the game before leaving. He would get tired of it and leave it somewhere around, I figured. I just kept a eye on him to make sure he didn’t leave. Ten minutes later, it was time for me to go home, and I asked him to give me my jacket back. “Come a get it!” he screamed.. That moron was going to waste my time. I ran after him. He couldn’t run straight, so it wasn’t long before I caught him. He tried to swing at me, but I was holding him by his collar, actually, my collar. Now, I have long arms, and he was smaller than me. He tried to swing at my face repeatedly, but wasn’t making contact. I thought that was pretty funny and laughed. His face turned red, he violently shook himself free and pulled a knife out of his pocket. By that time, we were outside, with about two dozen witnesses around. I heard someone yell “cut him!” (went to see the guy afterwards. He apologized profusely). This is when false confidence can get you killed. I stood my ground, in a classic karate stance. Today, I would simply leave, I don’t care. At eighteen years old, you don’t think conservatively. In a way I am glad I didn’t turn around. I don’t know if that would have been better or not. He may have decided to attack if I hesitated. I made one step forward. He hesitated for a couple seconds, then suddenly put the knife back in his pocket, and threw my jacket on the ground. The incident was over. Lucky or not, I can’t help but think about the consequences, had he attacked. We had a photo in our Systema class of someone’s back after been sliced. You can see it here, with other gruesome photos (NOT FOR KIDS!) That always turned “knife fighting” from “cool” to “get me out of here” in two seconds flat, for most people, me included. The others never stayed more than for a few lessons.

I gave up martial arts as soon as I could buy a gun. I trained regularly for ten years. I would go to Arras, when the only IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation) club was. I became pretty proficient with pistols and sub-machine-gun (Owned a Mini-Uzi for three years). I kept on shooting until I moved to Florida in 1993. Five years ago, riding a Honda 600 on a dark rainy night in Sarasota, a driver cut me off in front of Marina Jack. I hit the car head-on at 40mph. I saw the car below me, then the sky, then the pavement, crashed on my face on the wet asphalt. I remained conscious the whole time, got a helicopter ride to Tampa where they put my shoulder back in it’s socket and inserted a titanium rod inside my broken femur. I had no insurance, so they let me out after only eight days, without reeducation or anything else for that matter. I can’t blame them, I didn’t have the money. I knew however that I needed to do my own reeducation if I wanted to walk properly again.

When I was well enough to run around with a cane, I started to go out again. One night I met my friend Milos at Jacks (now Esca). I knew he was into some Russian martial art, and started asking him a few questions. Was it some sort of Russian Judo? I had heard of Sambo before. He assured me it was quite different, and invited me to the class. I made my way to Orange Avenue on my new GSXR1100 (I know, I never say I was quite sane). I could barely climb the stairs to the class. They had a couch there. The room was small, without mats, just a thin office carpet over concrete. The students were wearing normal clothes, some camo pants, jeans, sweat pants, whatever. Some wore shoes, some didn’t. They had no rank belts.

The class started with warm-up exercises, hard ones. Then a ten-minute static push-up, which not everyone finished. The instructor, Sonny, ex Spetsnaz soldier, looked like a though guy who knew what he was doing. The real work started. That’s how we call it, “work.” I guess because Systema used to be only for “professionals.” Sonny had one of his best students Blake attack him any way he wanted. I have seen many martial arts demonstration when I was younger, and I always had the same reaction: “Waoh!” Not this time. This time, it was: “Oh shit…” I knew what I saw was real, and it was the first time I saw it.

Systema doesn’t teach much techniques, it teaches principles. You don’t have to remember any names of moves in Russian, any more than you have to remember the moves themselves. How is that possible you may ask? Without going into every principle, the four main ones being: Breathing, movement, form and relaxation, I will try to explain. There is an infinite number of ways an opponent can attack you, with or without weapons. Preparing to defend against every possible attack, even against every possible kind of attack is a fantasy.

One of the first thing you learn is to move aside. It sounds simple, but it isn’t so easy. Many arts teach blocking. That’s may be fine in some cases, but what if the blow this time comes from a baseball bat? Want to block it? I think not. However, if you have been practicing blocks for years, you may just do that. If you have never trained in martial arts, you probably will. Some people just freeze, an old evolutionary reflex, and get hit in the head without moving an inch. So, you learn to relax and step aside. Not too much, because you want to be close enough to inflict damage to your attacker. You move just enough to let the fist (or whatever else) graze you. That’s where we do our “work,” intimately close, where it will be most uncomfortable and devastating to your attacker. By stepping aside, you can exploit your opponent’s momentum. By not learning techniques, your mind is free to invent it’s next move on the fly, because your brain has learned body mechanics through training, not moves set in stone.

Learning was fast. After three months, I could ask any friend to attack me any way they wanted. Something would come out.. At least, I was avoiding the strikes or kicks, or anything weird my most creative friends would come up with. I learned something I now repeat often to new students: “Move your feet first.” It’s not quite as simple, but it helps them like it helped me.

Next comes the relaxation. Relax in a fight? You can take much harder blows without damage when you’re relaxed. Drunk drivers seldom get killed in the accidents they cause, because they are loose. I don’t even get that many bruises anymore, because I am pretty relaxed when sparring. I am still learning to relax, and more specifically, relax different parts of my body. Good Systema practitioners can use selective tension and relaxation to confuse or hurt an opponent. I am only beginning to explore that realm after more than four years of training.

Good movement is a prerequisite of survival. We learn to move constantly. Our strikes and movements are more circular than linear. This way, you don’t stop moving and become a sitting duck. With good movement, you need good form. Simply stated, keep your back straight. If you need to go down, bend your knees, not your back. Simple in theory, difficult in practice. When a fist flies at your face, your natural reflex is to bend backwards while raising your hands, leaving your feet right where they were. The problem is, you’re still in the line of attack, and now a slight push will make you topple over. Not to mention that you could trip on something behind you. Again, those are principles, not techniques. Once you can reasonably move in a relaxed manner, a flurry of opportunities “magically” appear for you to take advantage of. Actually, your brain, free of unreasonable fear, has learned to recognize those opportunities and make your body move as to steal your opponent’s movement and make it yours, to his demise.

Breathing might sound simple enough. Everyone breathes, we have been since we were born. I remember learning to play the guitar. I would be so tense and concentrated that I would forget to breathe! The same happens in a fight. I still forget sometimes, fighting on the ground. Our strength comes from both the food we ingest and oxygen. There isn’t any time to eat a power bar when someone puts a knife to your throat, so oxygen is your next best choice. Forget to breathe for a few seconds, and you will be in a world of trouble fifteen or twenty seconds later, even after resuming it. I used to find 2-minute full contact rounds exhausting. Now I can last easily ten minutes or more, just by breathing properly and relax. I was sixteen then, I am forty two now. Breathing is also essential to absorb blows, and avoid panic in some situations.

The teaching methods of Systema were developed for the Russian elite special forces. Training elite soldiers is expensive. The faster they learn the better. Systema is fast to learn, even though prospective students find the training awfully slow at first. The reason is that you can’t learn something well by starting to do it fast. No music teacher will try to tech you to play guitar by having you try to play like buckethead (Google him!). Your start slow, your brain learns. As time goes, you slowly learn to replace the flinch response by more appropriate movements.

Strikes are an art in itself within Systema. All parts of the body are used to strike. Blows are loose and heavy, like hitting with a sledge hammer on a string. I often strike with my shoulders, elbows, forearm.. unlike most martial arts, strike are multi-directional, and used to affect an opponent’s form and balance. We learn to take punches too, and getting hit in the body by an experienced instructor can be a sobering experience. A good instructor will find out what your comfort level is, and hit you slightly above it. After a few months, you really just don’t care much anymore.. There are not set techniques here either, and the same general principles apply. Emphasis is on avoiding injury. The only goal of Systema is survival.

Systema is not the only combat system teaching principles versus techniques. I mentioned it here because that’s what I know. Other such systems are mostly military in nature and reserved for special forces. Nobody else, aside from some law enforcement agencies need that level of efficiency in hand-to-hand combat. I say combat here, not fighting. Fighting is a sport, or an agreed upon duel. Combat is when someone tries to kill you, without warning. Most “general public” martial art practitioners fortunately will never have to use their skills. Those who will probably will face unexperienced attackers, and the techniques they know might be enough, with a bit of luck. Our instructor used to tell us about a fictitious character named Todd, or whatever his name was at the time:

Todd is an angry man. He just finished his second tour in Iraq and saw things that really desensitized him to violence and death. He himself killed a few people at close range. He started to go a little crazy, so the Army had to let him go. Back home, Todd didn’t fare too well, started using meth, couldn’t keep a job. He blamed it on everyone else but himself. Todd spent all his time at the gym, getting stronger. He is 6’2”, 250Lbs of muscles. Todd trains five times a week in various martial arts, practices knife fighting. On week-ends, he goes to the range and shoots a thousand rounds, pistol and assault rifle in realistic situations, moving targets while on the move. His wife has had enough of his physical and verbal abuse, and just left him. He is furious! He needs to take it on someone, and goes out, fuming, looking for a victim. That night, that someone turns out to be you…

That is when techniques won’t be enough to save you. Only a good physical condition, with good sound principles of combat will give you a chance. Whatever your art or discipline is, you can always incorporate those principle in your system. Free yourself of limitations imposed by tradition and dogma, and let your mind show you what it can do. If you never trained in martial arts or self defense, then make sure the style you get into isn’t too strict and limited in it’s teachings. Most styles labeled as “traditional” are outdated. You should probably visit quite a few schools before signing-up.. If there is a Systema group near you, give them a chance, go to a few sessions. Training should be fun. Keep an open mind, that is the best way to learn.

I will here be sharing some of the concepts I learned practicing different martial arts and how they apply to any style and sometimes affect daily life as well. I did not come up with these ideas, but I rediscovered them with the help of good teachers, through practice and reflection. I won’t mention any styles here, it isn’t the point. If you want to know what I practice, read more of my blog. There are no secrets in martial arts. What works just does, it doesn’t matter where it came from and what it’s called.

Relaxation: Here is one concept that applies to martial arts as well as life in general, when anything comes at you at high speed to hit you. Have you ever heard that drunks usually don’t get hurt in car accidents? That’s because they are loose. Tension in your body at the moment of impact will create injury. A friend of mine once had a minor fender bender, but she pushed on the break pedal so hard that her foot shattered on impact, multiple fractures. Had she loosened up, there would have been no damage. The same goes for receiving punches. The problem is that it takes quite a bit of practice to be able to relax in such situations. Breathing helps, and I will get to that later. In any case, you will reduce your chances of getting injured by relaxing your body. If zero was no tension at all, and ten the tenser you could be, I would say three would be a good number to receive a punch. That would be just about the same amount of tension you have while doing a relaxed push-up. Most martial arts do not teach relaxation, on the contrary. They teach tension and aggressiveness, to beginners at least. When you see old timers though, you can tell they are much looser, and it works. Having most of your muscles work at the same time, many not needed for the task will also burn a whole lot of oxygen. You will get tired much faster being tense. When I was doing kick-boxing at age 18, a two-minute round was exhausting. Today, I can go much longer with more efficiency, and I’m 41. Same goes for other physical activities, use your imagination here.. Try practicing relaxed, you will soon see a huge improvement in your performance and ability to take strikes.

Breathing: Relaxation has to be in tune with breathing. We have a certain amount of energy stored in our body from food. You can’t however pull out a candy bar when someone tries to rob you.. It would take too long to take effect anyway. For immediate strength, you need oxygen. Most people will stop breathing when they get into a fight.. It still happens to me once in a while, ground-fighting, or doing anything stressful I am not accustomed to. Then, I realize it, but it’s too late. You end-up panting and can’t catch up. All your attention is on getting more air, and the punches keep coming; not good. You need to practice breathing continuously, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Inhaling from your nose helps slowing down your breathing but also helps cool your brain, which under stress needs it badly. Exhaling helps relax and makes you less prone to injury. When someone comes at me, I exhale and relax instead of tense up and stop breathing. You can practice this by having a friend walk to you with his arm extended and a fist, you step aside exhaling and relaxing; do it slow. Relaxing will save oxygen, and proper breathing brings it to you. It’s a win-win combination.

Blocking: Repeat after me: “blocking is bad.” Well, I shouldn’t say that.. let’s just say that in my opinion you should only block if absolutely necessary. Why? Because it hurts, and you can end-up with a broken arm. It also adds time between the attack and your counter attack. Blocking obviously has it’s place in training, but I think that there often not enough emphasis on vacating your spot when a strike comes. Once a friend of mine, interested in MMA asked me “so, you mean you don’t block! what do you do, step aside?” and chuckled.. I replied “yes.” Most of the time you only need to step aside a few inches to avoid a strike. It sounds too simple, but it works. I’ll elaborate more about movement, but it is much better to redirect a punch than block it. Get used to block, and some day, you might try to block a baseball bat. Guess what? Unless you’re some kind of freak, the bat wins and your skull might be next. You avoid a strike with your feet (moving), not your arms (blocking). Again, that applies to life in general as well, like for falling objects, cars, etc. You don’t block a car.. To practice, put your hands in your pockets and have a friend throw very slow punches at you. Move aside as little as possible to avoid getting hit. Also, do not bend your back, I’ll get to that..

Form and stances: The same friend I mentioned before wanted to spar, so we did. He mostly came at me with his head down. All I had to do was get in and push his head further down to my knee or the ground (he was also shorter). He had really good moves, but he wasn’t able to take advantage of them because he didn’t keep his form. When you get really good (I’m not there yet), you can bend the rules, and your back.. In general however, keeping your back straight will save you a lot of trouble. Your position is much better when your spine is aligned and strong. You can still move very efficiently that way, with your knees slightly bent, very naturally. This brings me to stances. Like it or not, we are not monkeys, or cranes, or tigers, but humans. What might work for these animals doesn’t necessarily work for us. A stance also limits your mobility, and will also warn your attacker that you may have some skills. It is easier to move in a natural position, something we do every day. Back straight, small steps, knees slightly bent, you start to get the picture.. Many strong positions in classic martial arts come from a past when a punch had to go through body armor be be effective; that is no longer necessary. What about your arms? Well, I like to keep one arm up, but not in a fist, just touching my chin, as if I was thinking of some problem. It is non-threatening (as to not escalate a situation), and makes my elbow ready to roll-in a punch. When it hits the fan, you won’t necessarily have time to get into a stance, and once chaos takes over, your nice stance won’t be there anyway. Personally, I forgot about stances all together and just concentrate on keeping my form. It has worked wonders.

Movement: Stand still, and you’re a sitting duck. Simple concept, hard to do in practice. Our brain needs more time to process information it isn’t used to receive, like a flurry of punches. Then, it needs to find out what to do next. That’s when we stop, and wham! Lights out.. This is especially true while being shot at. Very unlikely you might say, and you’re right, but it happens. In a fight, or combat, an attacker aims at your head and your body. Stand still and he will find his marks. You don’t need to move a whole lot, only a few inches, but continuously, that is the hard part. If you need to go down, squat, with your back straight. Move around the attacker. Moving away works if you can simply run away. Otherwise, you just prolong the violence. You need to move close to do your work.. Try to face your opponent while you move. If you get struck, you can just move away the part of your body that receives the blow. Moving around also allows you to see around, look for other potential threats. You can almost always move aside and redirect blows, kicks, and whatever else. Many martial arts teach techniques with pauses, you do one, two, three, four, with a slight stop in between.. Try to do the whole move in one. There should be no stopping. Movement should flow like water.

Vision: An obvious necessity.. You need to see what comes at you to avoid it. Your retina is composed of rods and cones. The cones make you see in color and focus on details. the rods are more numerous and only “see” in black and white, but they are very sensitive to movement in an almost 180 degrees field. You’re better off using the rods. We tend to focus on objects threatening us, like on the knife of an attacker. That however limits our options. Remember than our natural reflexes are for the good of the specie in general, and might not always be best for the individual in specific situations. I find it more efficient to use my peripheral vision. To do so, I tend not to focus on any particular point of the attacker’s body, and this way, I see it all. I set my gaze to one side over the person’s shoulder. Anything moving anywhere in my field of vision gets picked-up by the rods on my retina and prompts immediate action. No need to lose time on details all the time. I will focus for instance during a knife disarm, to see on which side the edge is, but most of the time, I try not to. Use your peripheral vision, you will see “more,” like that guy’s buddy coming from the side with a broken beer bottle while you choke his friend who tried to hit you.. This is not limited to martial arts either..

Techniques Vs. Principles: Styles limit you. That’s what Bruce Lee found out, and he was right. So many martial arts are in a neat little box. The problem is that if you have to fight someone who has a different box, or worse, no box at all, you’re in trouble.. Then there is always the “my box is better than yours” pissing contest. In truth, who cares?! Remove the box, and let creativity take over. That’s the “art” in “martial arts.” I was once in an MA class, holding a position, fist extended, squared shoulders, which looked more like a yoga pose than anything else. The instructor was walking around “correcting” students. He looked at me and lowered my arm by about two inches. Two inches! What difference does it make? What if my imaginary opponent was taller? The problem became clear to me when once fooling around with my younger brother (I was maybe 17 at the time), I asked him to punch me “like that” to show him a move. He punched me all right, but not the way I had anticipated, and it hurt. This is why black belts get creamed by street thugs. You never do the same move twice, and every situation is different. You might need to learn basic techniques when you start, but overall, it is much better to learn sound principles. When I spar with beginners and take them down in a very creative way, they often ask “how did you do that?” and I just say “I have no idea!” We then have to do it again slower to find out. Never have a “battle plan” in hand-to-hand combat, because it will never work. It is by nature to unpredictable. My point is, if you practice a certain style, try something new. If you have a rigid instructor, get together with other practitioners and explore different avenues, visit other schools. Look at what works from one style to another, what doesn’t.. You can apply the principles I am outlining here to your style. You don’t have to forget what you’ve learned. Just free yourself of techniques, be creative, you will amaze yourself.

Train slow: Many martial artists think that training slow is a waste of time. If you are offered to drive a nascar racer, do you take it to 200mph on your first run? I doubt it.. Read this excellent article (PDF) to understand why. Basically, your brain needs to form new pathways so that your response becomes automatic. A different part of the brain is involved. If you can’t do it properly slow, you won’t be able to do it fast. It is much a matter of proper timing. The speed will come naturally later. You don’t need to be faster than your opponent, just match his speed. There is no such thing as training too slow. Give your brain the time to learn proper body mechanics and timing. Get used to not flinch upon attacks, but instantly move the right way. Slow training will help you achieve this. Fast sparring is necessary, but only after you acquire the required mechanics. Skip that part and you may pick-up many bad habits that may hamper your training for years.

Ego: Having a good opinion of yourself is great, you should. Sometimes though, ego gets us in trouble, especially with martial arts. If a beginner slugs me in the face and I fall on my ass, I burst out laughing! It is just funny to me, and a learning experience. For some people, it is a most humiliating ans stressful experience; imagine, all those years of training to get owned by a newbie!.. In a seminar with different styles, I worked with a black belt instructor (I don’t have a belt, we don’t use them). He was good, but I was more relaxed and could get to him without too much trouble. He was getting quite “panicky” because his students were around and he wasn’t performing up to his expectations.. So what? We’re among friends here, who cares who’s better? Belts and ranks put too much pressure on students. High ranking students feel like they have to defend their titles. Me, I like to have fun. I don’t care if a little girl sends me flying like a rag doll, I’ll congratulate her and ask her to show me, even if she’s in her first class. Ego has no place in a dojo, training hall, park, or warehouse where people try to learn a fighting art. Usually, people with ego problems are reminded of that in a hurry, and they often leave after a few classes. Those who stay lose the attitude. The class I frequent is very relaxed, everyone smiles, and we laugh a lot at ourselves and each others, all in good spirit, that’s part of why I keep going!

I don’t consider myself to be an expert. I am offering you tips that worked for me. I practiced a bunch of martial arts when I was a teenager, but never stuck with any of them, because they didn’t work in real life. Then, a couple decades later, I found what I was looking for, and doing so, found out why. Feel free to discuss those principles here (register to post comments) or ask questions. No style wars though! The purpose of martial arts is to make our lives better, healthier, free of stress, and keep us and our loved ones safe. It has changed mine, I love that stuff!