Friday, January 20, 2012

Reality Check: Compensation

On a given day, even walking down not-so-mean streets, you are apt to pass people who are either bigger, stronger, faster, more agile, better-trained, better-armed, smarter, meaner, and sneakier than you, just to name a few. 

Should you get into a set-to with somebody who is all of these? The smart money isn't going to bet on you to win.

You understand why, don't you?

Chances are you aren't going to run into too many people who are all of these, not if you are serious in your training, and you have learned how to compensate. 

Pump a lot of heavy iron, you can get bigger and considerably stronger, but not appreciably taller; if you are five-foot high, even if you can bench a Volvo, you won't ever get to six feet, with the reach of somebody that height. The amount of muscle you can pack on will be limited by your frame and testosterone, and a middleweight using strength alone can't outmuscle the heavyweights.

You probably can't get much smarter than you are. However bright you were on your ninth birthday, chances are you'll stay close to that, at least in terms of IQ. You can gain knowledge, but the wetware's processing speed doesn't get a lot quicker.

You might could get meaner, and by this, I mean develop an attitude that you are the person who gets to walk away, whatever it takes. It's what they teach the Marines and the SEALs and the Rangers–get it done and go home. 

You can increase your agility. You can, to an extent, increase your useful speed. But where you can really improve is in your skill. You can be better-trained and better-armed. 

You can surely be sneakier. That's my preferred route. I'm old, slow, weak, a pushover. So I have to come up with something else.

When you compensate for those things that are less amenable to change by fixing the ones you can fix, you could give yourself a useful advantage, should push come to shove. And if you can't run away and you have to defend yourself or your loved ones, then you want to play your game, using your strengths, and not those of your attacker.

There's an old saw: Don't get into a fight with an old man–he'll just kill you. It speaks to the point eloquently: You can be old, slow and weak, but if you have a gun  or a knife or a lightsaber and the wherewithal to use it, that MMA champ's physical advantages count for a lot less. Assuming, of course, you can get to your weapon before he takes your head off. 

All of this is to say that you need something that you can reach for when you need it. You need to figure out what that is, and develop it.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Size Matters

I probably shouldn't have to say this, but in martial arts, one size does not fit all. What a man who is six-foot-four and two hundred and twenty pounds can make happen is different than what a five-foot-tall hundred pound woman can do.

Whatever techniques you use have to be adjusted to your physiology. The origin story for Silat Sera has it that the founder was gimpy–one good arm and a clubfoot–and that meant he had to devise ways that allowed him to get past his handicaps.

The one-armed martial artist who learns how to do circular blocks, or stop-punches, or other techniques that don't need the second arm or hand is a staple in origin stories. I've studied half a dozen arts over the years, and two of them feature a one-armed creator.

If you can take care of business with one arm, then having a spare is lagniappe. So the next teacher to come along can add that in, and give you more choices of tools to use.

Most recent class, I found myself working out with another student who was fifty pounds lighter and six or seven inches shorter. My reach was much longer than his. I could tag him outside his range, so in order to tag me, he had to get in. A fighter who is smaller has to make that adjustment. An in-fighting art can allow a shorter player to negate a bigger fighter's long-range tools, but you have to know how to get there.

The first serious arts I fooled with were out-fighting ones. If I could stand back and use long kicks, why wouldn't I do that? I liked the staff over the knife, the spear over the sword. Farther away was safer.

At least that's what I thought back then. Sometimes, closer is safer. It depends on what you know. And when I ran into in-fighters who could get past my long-range stuff, I was in trouble.

Um. Anyway, working with the shorter student, we had to keep adjusting his tools. If you can't reach me with that elbow or knee, then you need to use a different weapon. The punch is longer than the elbow, the kick reaches farther than the knee. Don't try to force a short technique to stretch past its limit.

A good teacher will tell you to adjust the techniques to yourself. If you can't safely reach the attacker's nose with your punch because he's too tall, then hit him someplace you can reach. But if the teacher is a big guy and you are small, you need to be responsible for making those changes. You have to learn your own range, and if it's not the teacher's range, use yours and not his.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Once upon a time, I entered a weapons competition at a martial arts tourney. This was in Louisiana, 1974, so long ago that they were still called "karate tournaments." Not the gathering in New Orleans at which I saw a "kung fu master" screw up a double machete demo that resulted in his student visiting an ER for sutures in his belly above his iliac crest, but not long before or after it. Those were the last days I spent any time attending such events.

I did a chan-gen staff form, and the level of competition back then was not anything like what it is today; no wushu gymnastics; nobody did somersaults and flying drops to full-splits while waving skeletonized aluminum weapons–it was all stand-up stuff and "real" weapons, such that they were. As I recall it, most of the competitors did Okinawan forms.

The guy to beat, apparently, was a fellow who was going to do a double nunchaku form while blindfolded. On the one hand, these were the standard tapered-octagonal ash sticks that used to be all you could buy–heavy, and if you whacked yourself, dangerous. On the other hand, waving them around is more a thing of feel than of sight.

I did my form and stepped off the floor. The guy-to-beat–let's call him "Chuck," for his choice of implements–came over to me, held up his nunchaku, and said, "I could take you."

I smiled. Didn't believe him for a second. I was, back in those days, very comfortable with a long stick, and the staff, handmade and capped with brass on both ends, was solid. To get close enough to whack me with his numbchucks, he'd have to get past my weapon, and I didn't think he could do it. 

Chuck stepped up to do his form, and it was pretty impressive. He had good control of the weapons, he danced around, moved his feet as he battled imaginary opponents, stepped this way, turned, spun, he was skilled, moving fast and hard. And blindfolded.

Thing was, Chuck got lost during the turns and spins, and when he was finished, he, did a deep bow to the judges, only, they weren't in front of him, they were ninety degrees to his left. When he came up and removed his blindfold, I could see it in his face–he knew he had goofed. Hadn't stuck the landing.

Probably that's why I beat him. And I  must confess that after his brag, that felt pretty good.

Of course, we were both outscored by a tai chi guy doing a sword form, which was really uncommon in those days and locale. Still, I got a trophy and it was bigger than Chuck's.

Um. Anyway, the point of all this is that while mindset matters–attitude will carry you through sometimes when skill alone won't, both will serve you better. Being a bad ass is good. Being a well-trained bad ass is better ...