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Skills, drills and equipment

With no port as our destination, no wind is favourable.

Training is to develop skills, often through drills, which sometimes require equipment. The priorities in training are skill, drill and then equipment. Here are some of the traps we can fall into when we: ignore their relative importance; are lacking in one of these three; or have too much of one of these three:

  1. Putting skill, drill, equipment in the wrong order

      • Over emphasising drill: Making orthodoxy or variations a fetish in a drill can be at the expense of gaining skill. Both these extremes share the belief that “knowing the steps” is the same as competence. We need to find a balance between orthodoxy and variation.

        • Too much orthodoxy: insistence on only doing a drill one way. When we fall into this trap we might use the appeal to authority fallacy to justifying ourselves. There can also be a complacency that mimicking the outer form of the orthodox drills will train skills. Stifling evolution of a drill can kill skills instead of preserving them.
        • Too many variations: Chasing variations can turn us into stamp collectors or “technique magpies”, where we constantly move from one shiny new variation to another without ever becoming competent at any of them. Changing drills too rapidly can lead to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” as untested ideas displace proven ones.

      • Over emphasising equipment: We should use the right tool for the task at hand. There is a trap of being a stickler for orthodoxy or a magpie when it comes to equipment.

        • Stickler for orthodox equipment: sticking rigidly to one type of equipment can tie us down to one way of training. The “dojo approved brand” can also be more expensive than other brands of the same quality.
        • Equipment magpie: exotic variations on equipment can be a expensive distraction.
  2. The practitioner lacks in one of the three areas

      • Lack of skill:

        • To train some skills we need a minimum ability in some base skill. If we find ourselves in this situation it may be better to do a drill that focuses on the base skill for a while. Learn to walk before you can run.
        • In some paired exercises it is the difference in skill between the two partners that matters. We can be so far behind our partner that we don’t gain anything from the drill. If we think we’re in this trap we should talk to our coach or training partner.

      • Lack of drill:

        • Not knowing the “steps of the dance” can hinder drill training. A little investment in learning the drill can speed up learning the skill as long we don’t fall into the “stamp collecting” trap mentioned above.
        • Poorly defined drills: it is possible to have useful free form drills with few rules. However, without a clear shared understanding of what the drill is there can be problems.

      • Lack of equipment:

        • There is a minimum level of equipment needed to train some drills effectively.

  3. Having too much in one of the three areas:

      • Too much skill:

        • The drill is aimed at a lower skill level, e.g. a sub 10 second sprinter would deteriorate if he trained like a 13 second runner. This is not to say that we should stop drilling fundamentals, but we should drill them appropriately.
        • We may have more skill than our drilling partner to the point where we gain little from the drill. In this case we could give ourselves some handicap to focus our training. We might also sacrifice our own short term training to help our drilling partner improve.
        • Sometimes other skills may mask our lack of skill in a drill. Imagine a boxer who is going to run with a training partner. At the start of the run they punch their partner knocking them out, they then walk the rest of the course! They get to the line before their partner, but they have not improved their running. 
      • Too much drill:

        • Drills that cover many skills may not teach them all well. Long complicated drills have a place as “reference material” but a focus on some skill is useful in training. For example, many karate katas are quite long, when training them we may try to focus on a particular skill through the whole kata or just train one section of the kata at a time.
        • “yellow belt paralysis”: Sometimes knowing that we have options stops us doing anything. This happens in the early part of our training where we have been introduced to several options but have not developed confidence or competence in any of them.
        • Sensei syndrome: spending so much time teaching and thinking about training that your own training suffers (a recurrence of yellow belt paralysis).

      • Too much equipment:

        • Too much protective gear: this can lead to acting quite differently to how we want to train ourselves to act
        • An excess of equipment can get in the way of training as we spend too long moving it around or getting changed.

It is possible to pay lip service to skill development, avoid most of the traps listed here and still not improve. To make sure that the desired skills are being developed we need an appropriate feedback mechanism.


Never satisfied with ukemi, episode 2

Last New Year I resolved to improve my ukemi (link to the origional poster here).  Like nearly all resolutions it fell by the wayside.  In the space of a few months I became quite lazy with the gymnastic exercises I’d set myself.  I don’t think I’m any closer to doing any of the spectacular feather falls.

Like every year I’ve had some small niggling injuries.   When I’m tired or feel aches in some muscles I find the judo/split-leg style forward roll more comfortable one side and the aikido/tucked-leg style more comfortable on the other.   I’ll check in with the physio to see if there’s some underlying cause for this and prevent it turning into an injury.   There are certain muscles and joint that maybe aren’t getting the maintenance they deserve.

Strikes:   Kicks and punches look and feel a little better in bag/pad work.  Strikes in aikido still wander a little, I should refocus on bokken suburi to rectify this.

Grabs and holds in aikido:  I’m still pulling/pushing/etc.  I think it’s improved a little but the big mistake is still withdrawing my centre and losing extension.  Part of the problem may be that I still think of the holds as just a way of facilitating my partner’s training.   I’ll try to practise some exercises where you progress the attack from the initial hold (like morotedori to yonkyo).  Hopefully experiencing these a few times will change my attitude to the holds.

Breathing:  This has improved since the start of the year.  I’m rarely the first to lag in training but being a more conscious of it has improved the feel of techniques as both uke and tori.  There were times in the past when taking ukemi from my instructor I’d be caught in a position not breathing in or out.  Mindfully breathing in before each technique has helped this but I’m sure it’ll happen again.

Extension:  This was highlighted to me in summer school as my weak point.  I see mindful practise and bokken suburi in my future to help this.

Flexibility:  I have lost a little range of motion.  I’ve been particularly feeling this in zazen (lack of flexibility -> compromised structure in sitting position even with props -> muscle spasms -> distraction/discomfort).  The once a month zazen discomforts are soon forgotten but a week of morning zazen hammers home the point.  A combination of arriving a little earlier to warm up and static stretching after/outside of training should help this.

Escaping:  In aikido I’m still trying to avoid techniques too much instead of keeping extension and following them.  I’m having fun playing with the wrestling in college, it’s amazing how a little hip mobility and a bridge can get you out of a lot of trouble.

Posture:  I’ve gotten into the lazy habit of rising up and taking the weight more onto my back leg.  I’ll try to exaggerate hamni for a while so putting the weight forward becomes natural.  Bokken suburi and mindful practise rear their heads again as the obvious tools or improving this.   Mindful sitting and walking are on the list too.

change of blog name

I noticed there’s another blog using the name “mostly martial”, so I’ve changed the name of this blog to “consensual recreational violence” to avoid confusion.  The new title also more closely reflects the reality of my training.

I’ve been told before to be careful of the trap of believing my own bullshit.   Hopefully the more accurate title will help me avoid the trap in future.

[“consensual recreational violence” only gives one other hit on google so hopefully the blog will also now be easier to find ]

Borrowed clothes, writing about training

I’ve been practising aikido since 2004, with varying sincerity, dabbling in some other arts aswell.   What business does a novice like me have writing about aikido?

  1. to record what my teachers show me
  2. to make me think and organise my ideas
  3. to record a beginner’s experience
  4. to make the above public to enforce some quality control on the writing
  5. to share food for thought with the readers

To expand a little on these points:

1:  Anything especially insightful on the blog is probably plagiarised from my teachers.  My main teacher’s job is teaching aikido, so it wouldn’t be right to give away all he teaches for free.

2:  I don’t have to limit myself to writing about things I understand deeply.  I’ll write about things I’m not even able to do.

3:  another excuse for low quality of the content

4: Knowing that there are some people out there reading this motivates me to look for inconsistencies in my thoughts.  Hopefully readers will point out things I don’t fully understand.

5: If you’ve read more than one of my posts hopefully I’ve been successful with this part.

Pure trickery

This is part of a series on the aspects of martial arts, the first post can be found here.

In this section we’ll look at pure trickery.  Examples of practitioners of trickery, who use little violence or athleticism, are: pickpockets, con men and conjurors of the big stage and up-close variety.  Up-close conjuring being so widespread, we’ll look at that.

As we said in the initial post, the conjurer works by controlling what the audience concentrates on.  This can be both registering where the audience is concentrating and controlling that or forcing the audience to concentrate on something of the conjuror’s choosing.  Here’s an example of a classic magic trick, passing a solid object through a table, from Mark Wilson’s Complete Course in Magic:


The magician states that he will cause a solid object to penetrate through the top of the table.  With that, he places a coin on the table and covers it with a glass, mouth down.  He then covers the glass with two paper napkins, which conceal both the glass and coin from view.  The magician explains that, by mere concentration, he will cause the coin to “melt” through the top of the table.  After several unsuccessful attempts, he explains that the reason for failure is that he forgot one of the most important parts of the experiment.  He must first strike the top of the glass, giving the coin the momentum to penetrate the table.  Suddenly, with a sharp downward motion of his hand, the performer smashes the glass and the napkins flat on the table.  When the napkins are lifted, the coin is still there but THE GLASS IS GONE!  Immediately, the magician reaches beneath the table and reproduces the same glass.

Secret and preparation

The secret of this trick is based on a very clever principle.  Due to the natural stiffness of the paper napkins, they will retain the form of shape of the glass even if the glass is not within them.  This creates a very convincing illusion which makes this mystery possible.

I’ll leave the remaining details of this trick to the interested reader.

Three stages of a magic trick

The three stages in a magic trick are the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige.  The Pledge sets the scene and conditions the mind of the audience.  The Turn is where the magician changes something about what was shown in the Pledge.  The Prestige is everything after the Turn, mostly revealing the effect of the Turn to the audience.

In the above trick the Pledge involves everything up to the point where the glass is covered and some of the first few attempts to vanish the coin.  The audience was being introduced to a glass-shaped napkin and led to believe that it is this shape because the glass is inside it.

The Turn in this trick happens when the magician removes the glass from under the napkin without us noticing.  The Turn is disguised by the napkin retaining the shape of the glass and other slights.  The audience has come to believe that a glass-shaped napkin will have a glass under it.  Disguising the Turn is the heart of the trick and allows for a dramatic Prestige.

All three parts are essential to a performance and it’s a poor magician that neglects any of them.  Let’s look at these three phases as they relate to martial arts.

The Pledge

Controlling how you will face your opponent can be compared to the Pledge.  This is heavily emphasised in The Art of War.

Some amazing feats that are shown as martial arts demonstrations can be explained with the mental conditioning and suggestion that magician’s use.  The interested reader should check out Lulu Hurst, the Little Georgia Magnet as an example of skilful use of the Pledge.

The Turn

Changing the situation without our opponent’s knowledge is the Turn.  This can be expressed as getting inside their OODA loop.  To do this we either slow down their loop, or speed up our own.

Let’s look at some examples

  • Making the Turn at the very beginning (appearing)
  • Making the Turn when the opponent thinks they have an advantage (vanishing)

For the first type we have the sucker punch.  The attacker approaches an unprepared target and minimises the time between the defender recognising the attack and the point where it is too late to defend, i.e. minimises the defender’s available time to react.  The attacker has to deny the defender the queues that would trigger a defensive response.  Attackers can either put the defender’s attention away from the queues, or remove the queues.

Putting the audience’s attention elsewhere can be as simple as asking what time it is, approaching them from behind or flashing their eyes.  Magicians call it misdirection.  Misdirection allows for longer wind ups to the attack.

Removing the queues is about the conjuror/attacker changing themselves, May the very firstlings of my heart be the firstlings of my hand.  In striking this is minimising the wind up / telegraphing of the strike.  There are two important aspects to non-telegraphed action.  Firstly never falling into a completely neutral position, and secondly being able to maximise your acceleration to critical.  In Kashima Shin Ryu this is embodied in striking directly from mu gamae and motion and stillness in one.

The second type, making the Turn when the opponent thinks they have an advantage is like vanishing in magic.  A lot of this is to do with mindset, are we surrounded or in a target rich environment?  When the opponent senses some advantage or disadvantage there is an imbalance.  There are several things we can do with this imbalance.

We can use the imbalance as misdirection.  This is like the movie cliché of the hero with their hands tied behind their back.  The evil henchmen think the hero is helpless and are unprepared when the hero kicks out with their feet.

Slightly more sophisticated is to make the imbalance our own advantage, following the judo maxim “when pushed, pull; when pushed pull.”  Hollywood is fond of tomeo nage, the hero, being pushed backwards, uses the momentum to help pull the attacker forward and sends them flying head over heels.

Somewhere between these two options are techniques that more closely resemble the magic trick we discussed in the beginning.  This can be illustrated by framing in BJJ.

Framing is useful in escaping from inferior positions.  We create an easily maintained rigid structure that we can move around while our opponent is restricted.  This is very different from pushing our partner or trying to scramble without putting up a frame.  The frame is like the napkin in the magic trick.

I would argue that the Turn is crucial point in most magic tricks and martial arts techniques.  It is the fundamental training of the conjuror and should be heavily focused on in martial arts too.

The Prestige

The Prestige is the source of many differences in martial arts.  Many variations in technique will crop up at this stage.  This is part of the thinking when instructors say there are very few techniques, or only principles and no techniques at all.

Some allowances have to be made for our partners in training in the Prestige stage.  These allowances could be abbreviating the finish of the technique, using safety equipment to protect our partner, reducing the speed or power of the technique, substituting the target or restricting the range of techniques used.  We need to be vigilant to bad habits that can be disguised by, or even encouraged by, these allowances to safety.


There are a few aspects of the conjuror that we can emulate in martial arts.  These include the preparation put into their performances and the careful managing of the audience.

There are also traps we should be careful of like: passively watching a performance instead of practising; over-reliance on secrets; and misrepresenting one skill as another.

Athletic magic

This is part of a series on Athletic, Violence and trickery.  The first post in the series can be found here.

This category includes performers of physical feats that go beyond our normal way of using our bodies.  Performances are both solo and interactive.  We already indentified synchronised swimming, mime, Olympic gymnastics, break dancing, XMA, tricking and Wushu in this category.

I’d like to look in more depth at one specific example, ballet.  Ballet is widespread, has high performance elements and has established teaching/training methodologies.  (It also originates from the around same time as Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū, the 15th century.)

Becoming a ballerina

We don’t all have to be ballet dancers and gymnasts, but if we want similar abilities we have to look at how they train. The short answer is “long and hard,” being a professional level ballerina requires a training regime that is a full-time job.  At the high levels long hours are put in just to maintain the skill level.  Having never gone further than a smattering of dancing as a child I can only offer an outsider view of ballet.

The fundamental exercises in ballet are primarily concerned with range of motion and strength.  Ballerinas do countless repetitions of body weight squats in various positions (called plie in ballet) focusing on alignment and control throughout.  This strength gives them the grace of a swan swimming: moving smoothly on top because of the powerful work underneath.

In the saloon the ballet student cultivates graceful movement.  From the very beginning, when the novice is shown 1st position, they are encouraged to do so with the graceful air of ballet.  Just putting their feet in the right place is not enough.  Similarly when the novice is shown the plie it is often with the aid of the barre and graceful body and arm shapes are shown.  Even if the student never performs in a recital they are “doing ballet” from day one and should carry out their exercises with that in mind.

Outside of the saloon the student should also move gracefully.  In the beginning this is done consciously (both as training and for the continuous rewards of grace).  Later it is also done out of habit, the ballerina can’t “turn off” the graceful principles of ballet.  Mundane tasks can become beautiful like a formal piece of dance.

Naturally this shouldn’t be dressed up and advertised to avoid unwanted attention.

How should we, in martial arts, be like ballerinas?

  • Ballerinas do not shy away from difficult work, the product of which is movement that appears effortless and natural.  In martial arts we should hone our craft with similar diligence.
  • They have a clear goal, grace, which informs everything they do.  This sincerity should be in martial arts too.
  • The modesty that the ballerina shows outside of the saloon should also be familiar to martial artists.

How should martial artists be different to ballerinas?

  • Grace and beauty are not the primary goals of martial arts.  Our concerns should be more with function than form.  The exact nature of our aims is personal.  When training partners are aware of each others’ aims they can be more easily fulfilled.
  • Some of the physical skills and habits that are built in ballet, gymnastics, etc. are undesirable in martial arts.  For example the slightly concaved “dished” shape adopted by gymnasts in aerial manoeuvres is aesthetically pleasing but is a vulnerable position when being thrown forward.  How much of what we do in the dojo is to follow an aesthetic?  Does this aesthetic have any other values?
  • Rhythm and timing are vital in both ballet and martial arts but there are significant differences in the two areas.  I’ll look at timing more in “athletic violence” and leave it at that for now.

Athletics, Violence and Magic: some thoughts for MA

“It is essential when trying to get to the top to use proven equipment; only when you are on level terms with the best can you afford to experiment with your own ideas.  If you can’t fathom out what is the best equipment, because the top people all seem to have different ideas, then spend time talking to them and find out why they use what they do.” – Lawrie Smith in Tuning your Dinghy

An outsider may see martial arts as skillful athletic violence, so skillful it look like magic or trickery.  There may be other qualities the novice may attribute to the martial artist but over the next few posts I’ll be looking at combinations of these three.  By looking at disciplines that combine these qualities, and their elite practitioners, we can learn something for our own training.

Venn diagram of trickery athleticism and violence

Fig 1

A brief description of these:

  • Athletic:

An athlete trains their body to be capable of amazing physical feats.  These abilities are usually externally verified through competition with similarly trained rivals.

The conjuror carefully controls what their audience concentrates on.  They then reveal unexpected realities.  Discussed more here.

  • Violent:

The combatant incapacitate their adversary.

The illusions are created with physical skill e.g. synchronised swimming, gymnastics, break-dancing, mime and contortionism.  Exhibition style martial arts like XMA , tricking and Wushu fall into this catagory.  Discussed more here.

  • Athletic violence:

The athletes compete in codified violence, trickery and deception is discouraged.  “Rock ’em sock ’em” style boxing or milling (The partners square up and exchange blows, boxing tactic not allowed) fall under this heading. .

  • Magical violence:

The practitioner relies on escalation of force or some other “silver bullet” while athletic ability is ignored.

  • Magical athletic violence:

The warrior should have all of these qualities (my apologies for this cringe worthy word).

In the next few posts I’ll be looking at these different catagories in turn, examining their relation to martial arts.