What is the 50 State Challenge? Want to join the Challenge? Email me here.


Saturday, September 1, 2018

Understanding School Bullying Policies

I know in my last post I assured everyone that I had a Takeaway Technique for you, but I'm putting that off yet again.  It is coming, I promise, but today I'm taking a quick detour to talk about bullying policies.

Oh, high school, how I don't miss you.  Photo Credit.

In the United States where I live, schools' policies about bullying vary between school districts and individual schools.  Private schools especially are likely to have their own school-specific policy, but even in public schools there is no guarantee of consistency from one school to the next.  Most anti-bullying policies sound good on paper, but in practice some are better than others.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are working for a school and have been tasked with writing a school's bullying policy.  Obviously, you don't want bullying to happen at all, but you recognize that it will happen, and what you write determines how it will be handled.  So, how should it be handled?

Ideally, if you are in that position of power, your primary goal will be to minimize bullying and protect the victims.  However, this is very hard to do with a policy.  How do you create a blanket statement for how bullying will be punished fairly?  How do you handle cases that are not clear-cut as far as who the instigator is and who the victim is?  What do you do if the school misjudges who is the aggressor and instead punishes the kid who was only trying to defend himself?  What do you do if the parents of the students involved don't agree with how the school has handled the problem?  And, what happens if your policy seems fair on paper, but eventually an edge case comes up where everyone can see that a bully is behaving egregiously, but according to "the letter of the law," he has done nothing wrong?

Creating a fair and effective bullying policy can get especially murky when the bullying is not physical and occurs in digital spaces that are less visible to teachers and parents.

Violence is incredibly complex (and bullying even more so because it is not always physical), so creating a policy to handle bullying can be daunting.  One solution is to make it vague, giving educators and administrators more leeway in handling specific cases.  This comes at a price, though, because educators and administrators are often already stretched very thin.  This gives them an extra workload, and a high-pressure one at that.  What happens if they make a mistake and mishandle a case?  What happens if the case is handled fairly, but the bully's parents disagree and threaten to sue?  Can the school afford to pay damages?  What will happen to the quality of education if the school has to pay out a massive settlement?

One way to protect against this is to minimize transparency.  The school probably already has a policy to protect the privacy of students' personal information including grades and disciplinary record.  By expanding the confidentiality policy, you can ensure that the victim and the victim's family don't learn of how the situation was addressed at all.  All you have to say is "We are conducting an investigation and will respond appropriately."  The parents will have to take your word that the situation is being addressed sufficiently.

With this kind of policy, the school is protected and the students' well-being is entrusted to the adults who can address the situation on a case-by-case basis.  So, is this policy effective?

Hopefully.  'Cause this is awful.  Photo Credit.

Hopefully, under a policy like this, the teachers and parents will handle any situations well.  Usually the school and its employees have the best of intentions, but when it comes to resolving issues, the policy will protect them but not help them.

If you are the victim, the parent of a victim, or the instructor of the victim, it can seem like the bully has more rights than those who actually need protection.

Suppose a larger boy corners one of your students in a bathroom stall and physically attacks him.  What should your student do?  If he physically defends himself in a school with a zero tolerance policy, he'll face the same punishment as the bully.  The school doesn't have to determine which kid was in the wrong and just suspends both of them for fighting.  Telling students to never fight under any circumstances puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the victim who must choose between enduring the abuse until an adult arrives, or physically defend himself against school rules.  In order to physically defend himself, he not only has to stand up to a bully but also the school itself.

So in this case, should your student put up with physical abuse until an adult intervenes?  The worst bullying tends to happen when adults are not around, so he might endure a lot if he doesn't fight back.  If he goes this route and trusts the system, what if the system doesn't stop the bullying, or even makes it worse?  That can happen if a bully is punished and wants to retaliate against the victim for reporting them.

In this case, the victim and the victim's family most likely won't be allowed to know anything about how the situation was addressed.  They might ask for the bully to be removed from the classroom or otherwise denied access to the victim.  This is extremely unlikely to be allowed.  A far more common solution is to offer to remove the victim from the classroom.

Understandably, this option is not popular with victims.  A kid who has been bullied extensively probably has very poor self esteem and is at least somewhat socially ostracized.  Having that kid sit at their own separate lunch table or stay in the classroom at recess is not going to be good for that student's social or mental well-being.  And if the victim turns down this kind of "help," well then gosh, I guess the bullying wasn't that serious after all!

Adults enforcing the social isolation that the bullies intend to cause is not exactly a solution.  Photo Credit.

Not every school is like this, and not every situation plays out like this.  In fact, this is more of a hypothetical worst-case-scenario.  (Not really, it certainly does get worse.)  But if you encounter a school's bullying policy that seems ineffective, frustrating, or just makes no sense, try thinking of the policy as a tool to protect the school rather than a tool to protect the students.  If it suddenly starts making sense in that light, at least you will have an understanding that will help you in future interactions with the school.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Kicking the Snot out of Cancer and Other Arkansas Stories

For my second stop on the 50 States Challenge, the kind folks at River Valley Martial Arts agreed to host me.  The dojo is in Russellville, Arkansas, a town of less than 30,000 people, few enough that I got teased for being from the city.  That was funny to me, because being so near Milwaukee and Chicago, Madison seems small to me.  But later I realized they weren't joking--Madison has a higher population than any city in Arkansas.  It was a bit of regional culture shock that I didn't expect.

Kicking in the How To Learn Any Kick event.

Their main program is faith-based, which had me curious.  I wondered what a faith-based program would be like.  The first thing I thought was that so many of my martial arts friends and students were not Christian, and how I would never have met them at a specifically Christian school.  The idea of religion in martial arts is as weird to me as doing martial arts during a church service.  But here is a whole school of people who specifically signed up for religion in their training.  And the whole point of this project is to see and experience other ways of doing things, and Sensei Kyle Bennett offered me a great opportunity to do exactly that.

Sensei Kyle Bennett (right) and some weird blogger (left).

In a striking coincidence, Sifu TW Smith released a KungFu Podcast episode about Christianity and Asian martial arts only a few weeks before my visit.  I was eager to listen, but I waited until the return trip because I didn't want his perspective to color my experience at River Valley Martial Arts.  Now that I've listened, I don't think it would have influenced my visit.  He gives a really thoughtful and well-researched account as always, which I can strongly recommend to anyone interested in exploring the idea of Christianity in martial arts more deeply than I will cover here.  Also, it was cool to hear him reference my Training is an Engineering Problem blog post.

I drove into Russellville after a day of sightseeing and arrived at the dojo just as the youngest students' class was starting.  The center of the training floor was set up with a huge pile of training equipment arranged into the shape of a life size car, complete with seats, seat belts, and swinging doors.  After a warm up, the meat of the lesson was about how to get out of an abductor's car.  The religious element was not pervasive--it was obvious in the beginning of the class and later during the occasional bible-referencing joke--they weren't praying in between sets or anything like that.  At least in that class, I think a non-Christian could have participated with a minimum of discomfort.

After that class ended, I was up.  Sensei Bennett introduced me to the students and handed the class over to me.  It was a wide range of skill levels and ages, which makes the class a little more challenging to teach, but not insurmountably so.  The topic was How To Learn Any Kick, and I went over kicking theory, balance drills, and conditioning exercises that can help people kick better regardless of their age or experience level.  My goal was to make sure everyone got something useful, to make sure everyone felt like they got their money's worth, even though that money wasn't going to me.  It was going to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

Karate and Krav Maga students learning the nuances of pivoting.

There are lots of good reasons to support St. Jude's, but the main reason is because they efficiently turn money into kids not dying of cancer.  We asked attendees to make a donation instead of paying for the class.  The very kind representative at St. Jude's set up a website for us to take donations, but most of the donations ended up being made in cash, which River Valley Martial Arts sent in by check.

Hundreds of dollars worth of cancer treatment and research.

With only $20 being donated digitally, and $437 being donated via check, we ended $43 short of our goal.  Maybe a few generous readers would like to chip in a few bucks and get us up to that $500 mark?  You can still donate on behalf of the 50 States Challenge here.

Either way, it's easy to feel good about raising $457.  That money goes directly toward treating young cancer patients, but the research is freely shared throughout the world so that other families can benefit from new treatments as well.  Each donation to St. Jude's is effectively helping twice.

After that it was time to train.  The school's main program is karate, but they also have a thriving Krav Maga class, which is the one I took.  This was my first Krav Maga class, though I've had some exposure just by casual training sessions with martial arts friends who cross train.  I was looking forward to trying something new.

The first part of the class was an intense workout of exercises that could be found in general fitness classes.  This was very welcome because I had basically been sitting in a car for a week leading up to that class.  My workouts on the trip had been limited because I had to train outside, and there was only so hard I was comfortable pushing myself in the oppressive heat.  It was good to finally do a real workout in real air conditioning.  I suspect that was one of the main draws for most of the people there.

After we were all reduced to quivering puddles of sweat, we were paired off to work on knife defense drills.  All of the specific techniques were new to me, but they all made sense from a general martial arts perspective.  Basically I relied on my understanding of the underlying principles of movement, timing, balance, etc., to keep up with the people who actually knew the techniques.

You're not going to get hurt, but it's still uncomfortable to get poked, so don't mess up!

My absolute favorite part, though, was when we were paired off to wrestle over training knives.  One of my partners (primarily a BJJ student, I think) specifically sought me out.  I instantly felt like I understood him, because that's the kind of thing I would do.  Visitors, if they've trained before, always behave unpredictably.  Visitors present new challenges, even if they're not very good, because they'll spar/roll/drill differently than anyone else you've trained with before.  That day I held my own against some partners, but not him.  He soundly bested me every time.  But I did surprise him a couple times, like it seemed he was hoping I would.  One of those surprises was when I used my foot on his wrist to push his hand off the training knife.  Then he turned around and did the same thing to me, only better.  And I thought, this is how training is supposed to be.

I really enjoyed my visit, and I left feeling a little sad that I was so unlikely to see any of these people again.  But I still have the Statebook, at least.

Thanks for signing my book, guys!

Conspicuously absent from this post is my Takeaway Technique that I learned in Washington and taught in Arkansas.  That's because I'm saving it for the next post.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Back to the Martial Arts Road Trip: Arkansas

I've been posting rants, training articles, and general weirdness for so long, I figure some (most?) of you forgot that this is actually a martial arts travel blog.

To recap, I had this idea for a martial arts travel project, and Iain Abernethy was kind enough to help me get it started.  I visited Sensei Kris Wilder in Seattle, Washington.  Then after visiting only one state, the project had to be put on hold while I visited my ailing instructor in Korea and opened my school.  Being busy with owning a school and starting a podcast, the 50 States Challenge fell on the back burner.

What's the 50 States Challenge?  Since most people probably forgot...

The 50 States Challenge boils down to three main pieces.
1.  I travel to all 50 states and find a martial arts school in each state to host me.
2.  At each host school, I teach something and I learn something to pass on to the next school.
3.  We support a charity chosen by the host school.

And then I blog about the experience here, illustrating how much the different styles and philosophies of martial arts have to learn from each other.



So after a long hiatus, I'm traveling again.  This time I went to Arkansas because one of my students was competing at NASTA Nationals there.  Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I also visited River Valley Martial Arts, supporting St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

If you've been reading my blog for more than a few seconds, you will not be surprised that it was not all seriousness.  I wanted to get the full Arkansas experience.


Yelling at Yellville!

Rocking a little at Little Rock!

Wait, what?

This little resident of Toad Suck was still learning how to fly.  He (she?) let me get pretty close before squawking a protest and hopping away.

It's okay, little guy.  I can't fly either, and I've been training FOREVER in bird years.

One of my first stops was Beaverfork Lake, where I snapped this picture of an old bridge.  It was built almost 150 years ago to cross Cadron Creek, where it stood until only a few years ago when it was restored and brought to this park.

<insert tortured analogy about building bridges to the past and future here>

That park was one of many picturesque places where I could have stopped.  Arkansas has a lot to offer if you're into the outdoors.  In June, it helps if you are not a wimp about the sun trying to kill you.  I'm pretty sure at one point I was more sunscreen than person.

It looks like Buffalo River, but it's actually a pool of my sweat after training in the heat.

Buffalo River National Park is especially interesting in that within its boundaries is the Rush ghost town.  It was once a thriving city because of its zinc mines, but as the value of zinc waned, so did Rush.  There are still some buildings standing, though.  Unlike most ghost towns, these buildings are protected by the National Park Service, so they are preserved better than most.



The houses were fenced off with signs everywhere forbidding entry.  I'm sure it wouldn't be safe, and certainly the buildings couldn't withstand much foot traffic, but that didn't stop me from wanting to explore.  I would really have liked to peek inside.

Then there's Pivot Rock.  If you brave enough hairpin turns, you can walk a wooded trail to see these weird rock formations that have been a roadside attraction for over a hundred years.

One of the upside down pyramid formations at Pivot Rock.

In North Little Rock, there is a place called The Old Mill, which is neither old nor a mill.  It's a replica built in the 1930's in the style of mills of the 1830's.  It has a little fame by being featured in the opening credits of Gone With The Wind.

It might not be real, but it's pretty!

The park around it was picturesque as well, not to mention teeming with wildlife.  There were ducks, geese, turtles, birds and fish everywhere.

Also not real:  all the wood in this picture.  They're sculptures.

Next up in my whirlwind tour of Arkansas parks was the one I was most looking forward to--America's only Taekwondo park.

This looks exactly like every picture I ever took in Korea.

The H.U. Lee International Gate and Garden is in downtown Little Rock, which by no coincidence is also the headquarters of the ATA, which practices Songahm Taekwondo.  It is so much like parks in Seoul, that I felt like I was back in Korea, once again running around in oppressively hot weather with a camera, loudly announcing "I AM A TOURIST" in signs that everyone can read.

The park even had haetae sculptures on either side.  These mystical dogs are creatures of justice trusted to protect the people from fire and natural disasters.  They're also the symbol of Seoul, and you can see statues of them in places of importance throughout Korea.

Haetae!  Who's a good boy?

Immediately past the gate, there are statues of taekwondo students bowing to greet visitors.  

Students greet visitors to the garden.

I had a lot of busy feelings at this park, when I probably should have been feeling more tranquil.  The feelings intensified as I came to the main display in the garden, a bronze bust of Eternal Grand Master Haeng Ung Lee and a giant lineage chart behind him listing the most prominent figures of Songahm Taekwondo.

I'm visiting a park honoring a style of taekwondo that I don't train in.  My kwan doesn't have a park, and probably can't afford the $1.4 million dollars that these guys paid to get one.  But if we did have a park, I would totally rather go there than here, so I guess I don't belong here.  Except that THE WHOLE POINT of me being in Arkansas right now is a project about tearing down the walls between different styles and letting us all help each other.  Focus, Carlson!  Get some good pictures now, and mull over it later.

Having mulled it over later, it was the laser focus on one style of taekwondo, centering on one particular lineage, excluding figures of other branches whose achievements and contributions were equal to or greater than some of the names that did get listed, that made me feel weirdly unwelcome.  By excluding other styles, I felt excluded, too, like this place is only for Songahm people.  The cynic in me wonders if that exclusion could have been the intent, to improve the influence of their style by essentially creating a giant ad for it in the form of a downtown park.  But I tried to enjoy the place in the spirit that it was probably intended--to honor something they care about and the instructor who made it possible, and welcoming visitors to share in something they love.

The centerpiece of the garden.

Despite my roller coaster of conflicting thoughts, I do recommend this place to any other wandering martial artists who find themselves in Little Rock, especially if the weather is nice and the sun isn't trying to melt you into a quivering puddle of sweat and sunscreen.

Very near the taekwondo park was a restaurant called The Flying Fish.  Not to imply that I didn't enjoy my meal there, but the most notable thing was the Billy Bass Adoption Center.  Remember those singing fish that were all the rage in the early aughts?  Well, I found them.  Like, all of them.

Walls and walls of retired singing fish.  With no batteries, thankfully.

I left for home early on a Tuesday morning, when there wasn't much traffic on the rural highways, and it wasn't too hot yet.

From a scenic overlook on a deserted road.

Usually when I'm travelling for Martial Journeys, I am busy.  I have more things to do than time to do them.  I frantically rush from one spot to the next, trying to get the right picture to make a good blog post.  But when I got here, I was done and headed home.  I took a minute to just enjoy the view.  It felt so weird to be on a highway alone, seemingly the only person for miles in any direction.  I supposed that people didn't have much reason to be there at that hour.  Except for me, and I was there enjoying that view because I do martial arts.  It's been a weird journey.


Two down, 48 to go!


Of course sightseeing was not the main purpose of the trip.  I'll get to the martial arts in the next post, but if you just can't wait to have more Martial Journeys in your diet, you can check out my podcast.  I'll have a new episode out before the next blog post goes live.

Friday, June 1, 2018

How to Make and Train With a Jegi

A jegi (roughly pronounced "jay" like the bird and "gi" like the karate uniform) is a traditional Korean toy, similar to a shuttlecock.  It's used to play a game called jegichagi (literally, "jegi kicking").  Legend has it that the game was developed from martial arts training.  No one knows if that is actually true, but there's some evidence for it.  Either way, there's no reason it can't be part of your training today.

Traditionally, the jegi was made with a 100 mun coin and hanji, handmade Korean paper.

100 mun Korean coin (photo credit)

Even though 100 mun might sound like a lot, this coin had so little value that in order to buy anything, you needed a lot of them.  People would thread them onto strings like beads and tie off the ends, then they could drape the strings over their shoulders to carry them around.  So even poor people had a lot of these coins lying around.

To make a jegi, the coin would be placed in the middle of a folded sheet of hanji paper.  By poking a hole though the paper to match the hole in the coin, the paper could be torn into strips and pushed through the hole in the coin, resulting in a paper-wrapped coin with feathered paper strips coming out of the hole.

Making a Jegi


In the spirit of the people who played jegichagi so long ago, we're going to make them out of whatever materials that we have at hand.  I like to use plastic bags, coins and string, but you do you.  Like a Jedi's lightsaber, you will design your jegi to be one-of-a-kind, perfectly in tune with your connection to the Force, from only the purest Kyber crystals... wait, where was I?  Oh, right, making a jegi.

If you don't have a cat but want a similar challenge level, you can toss your plastic bag into the air and cut your squares with a samurai sword before it lands.


1.  Cut squares.

You want two squares of plastic, each about one square foot.  For those who live in parts of the world that use a reasonable system of measurement, you get to make your squares 30 cm x 30 cm.  You don't have to be exact, and in fact I encourage you to experiment with bigger or smaller squares and see what you like.  Bigger squares means longer strips, and more air resistance, so the jegi will move more slowly through the air.



2.  Pick your coin(s).

You can use any coin you like, or really any small object that has a little weight to it.  You can also use multiple coins.  The important thing is that you get the weight right.  Too much weight, and your jegi will fall really fast and be difficult to use.  Too little, and it won't move easily through the air and it will be difficult to kick it high.  You can experiment to find your personal sweet spot.

I'm using a single penny.  I like the weight it gives my jegi, and also we should get rid of pennies whenever we can.  I should mention that this makes for a very light jegi, which will be difficult for traditional play but easier for martial arts training.


3.  Fold everything.

There are easier ways to do this, but if your art is usually practiced barefoot, it's nice to have a little extra padding.  If you want even more, you can wrap your coin in a tissue before following these steps.

a) Fold your squares in half and place the coin in the center.

b) Fold your coin into its own little strip along the folded edge.

c) Fold the strip a second time.



d) Roll it up.



4.  Tie it off.

Take your string and tie the plastic down near the coin, so the coin is secure and can't slide out.



5.  Cut the plastic into strips.

If you've been careful with your folding, it should be easy and quick to cut the plastic into strips, about 1 cm (half an inch for my fellow Americans) wide.  If, like myself, you have the craft skills of a drunk toddler, you'll probably have to cut each strip individually.  But success is a journey not a destination (or something) and eventually you will have a jegi.

Qapla'!


6.  Feather out the strips.

You've got it!  Even if you skip all this arts and crafts nonsense and just buy a jegi, you will have to do this step, which is to separate the strips from each other so that they can catch the air individually.  Wait, you can just buy these things?  And I'm here with my scissors and string like a sucker?

At this point, most humans would also identify this thing as a cat toy.

Let's Play!


So you have your own jegi!  Now what do you do with it?  Traditionally, jegichagi was played by kicking the jegi with the instep of the foot, trying to keep it from touching the ground, with the winner being the player who kicked it the most times before it finally fell.

I play it a little differently.  My method is picking it up, kicking it once, chasing it to wherever it fell, and trying again while some old Korean guy starts laughing on the sidelines, proceeding to demonstrate how easy it is and offering some advice that is beyond my language skills to understand.  Anyway.

Certainly you can play the traditional version of the game and use it to develop your hip muscles (or you can do that without the jegi).

There are also variations where you have to keep the jegi in the air using only a specific kick, or where you can't put your foot down between kicks, or where the jegi is kicked between players in a group.  Have fun with it!

Let's Train!


If you're training barefoot, I recommend doing a few light practice kicks so you know how your jegi feels before you go nuts (or before handing off your jegi to a young student).

Pick a striking technique.  Any punch or kick will work.  Toss your jegi into the air and try to hit it with the technique you chose.  Don't worry about where it lands, just try to make your hand or foot connect with the jegi.  If this is your first time playing with a jegi, you will probably find this plenty challenging.  Experiment with which techniques are easy and which are difficult.

Here are a few ideas, in order of difficulty:

Reverse punch
Front kick
Roundhouse kick
Side kick
Spin hook kick

I've never met a student who can reliably hit a jegi with all of those techniques.  Even so, it's great for developing fast and accurate strikes.

Here are a couple of my younger students working their kicks on a jegi:



Lets Play AND Train!


Ever played a basketball game called Horse?  You can modify the rules to play with a jegi.

One player issues a challenge.  It can be anything from "I am going to punch it and not miss," to "I am going to kick it with a flying spinning roundhouse kick with my eyes closed and make it land perfectly balanced on your head while reciting Funakoshi's 19th precept in Klingon."  The player then attempts whatever challenge they issued.

If they succeed, the jegi goes to the second player, who must attempt the same challenge.

If they fail, the second player does not have to attempt the challenge and instead creates their own challenge.

If you fail a challenge you didn't create, you get a letter.  Your first letter is H, then O, then R, and so forth.  Once you spell HORSE, you are out of the game.  The last player in the game is the winner.

Happy training!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

How to Vet Someone

We have to trust people in our lives.  There's no getting around it.  You trust the other drivers to stay in their lanes.  You trust your doctor to prescribe you the correct medication.  You trust your spouse to behave responsibly with the kids.  And the good news is, this trust is usually reasonable and soundly placed.  But sometimes we can end up in bad situations because of misplaced trust.

Never trust anthropomorphized punctuation marks.  photo credit

The answer is not to be perpetually suspicious of everyone.  That is no way to live.  But there are some things you can do to be safer.

Trust Your Gut


Your first line of defense is your initial interaction with the person.

Your brain can hold on to seven details (give or take) at once.  That means at any given moment, you are ignoring the vast majority of the details around you.  It's called Miller's Law, and if you'd like to read more about it as it pertains to self protection, I can highly recommend Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker.  But for now just understand that you have a biological limitation of considering only a few details at once.  In order for you to function as a person, your brain has to efficiently choose and filter those most important details quickly and accurately, discarding the rest.

A side effect of this phenomenon is that you can have a visceral reaction to a person or situation and not understand why.  If you feel a gut-wrenching fear when meeting a stranger in a public place, you might not know why.  Some people will tell themselves that because they don't know why they feel that way, they're being foolish, that there is nothing to worry about.  We all have social conditioning toward being polite, which is usually a good thing, but it can sometimes make us less safe.  That fear was caused by something--maybe the person was dressed far too warmly for the weather in a way that could easily conceal a weapon, or maybe the person was standing too close, or maybe the person parked right next to you in an otherwise empty parking lot, or maybe someone is just too determined to give you help you didn't ask for.

What if they just pose for creepy-looking stock photos?

Your brain won't necessarily remember those details.  You probably also won't remember the air temperature, what color his shoes were, or what the floor was made of.  Those details weren't important, so your brain filtered them away.  The important detail was that you were facing a threat.

If a coworker "creeps you out," or the guy you've hired to mow your lawn inexplicably makes you uncomfortable every time you see him, you want to take those warning signs seriously.  Trusting your gut will do a lot toward making sure the people you let into your life are worthy of being there.

Look Them Up


This section will probably be less useful to those who live outside of the United States, but there may be similar resources in your country.

So, they didn't creep you out or raise any red flags when you met them, and now you're considering bringing this person into your life.  The idea is to do a little due diligence before giving someone access to you or your family.  If you need a pet sitter, if you have a new boyfriend, if you're signing your kids up at a local martial arts school, etc., you will need to trust a person who you don't know very well.  But if the person has a criminal history, you can probably find out.

A history of domestic violence is a solid predictor of future violence.  photo credit

A quick note before using any of these tools--If you are looking up this kind of information for employment purposes, the laws are different and more restrictive.  Check your state laws before doing a background check for employment purposes.  You can still do it, you just have to do a little extra work.

1.  Federal Searches


First there are the federal tools, which you can use in any state.  The first is the National Sex Offender Registry.  This is a free resource that lets you type in a name.  Alternatively you can search by location, which is handy if you are moving to a new neighborhood.  The other federal tool is PACER, which allows you to access public court records such as criminal convictions.  Some of its features are not free, but you can search for names without paying a fee.

2.  State and Local Searches


The next thing to do is to check their local public records.  This is another one that requires some caution as the laws are different from state to state regarding which records are public.  In general, you can look at your own records, or you can look at someone else's records if they consent to it.  Some states make the records public regardless.  My home state of Wisconsin does this, and you can type any name into this website to look for criminal convictions.  Many states have similar tools, and a quick internet search should tell you whether your state or territory is one of them.  Barring that, you can visit the local police station and court house.

If the person has lived in more than one state, you'll have to check multiple states to get a complete picture.  There are some commercial services that will do this for you, but their accuracy varies.  You are better off doing the search yourself, if you can.  But if you don't know all of the states a person has lived in and you want to check the entire country, it may be worthwhile to use such a service.


3.  Internet Searches


The easiest but least reliable method of looking someone up is to just do an internet search.  But it's dubious... if you type my name into Google, for example, you are likely to find a whole lot about the much more famous television personality of the same name.  You could find me by adding "Martial Journeys" to my name, but you would only see my professional life.  It would be very hard for you to use Google to find my Star Trek Dresden Files crossover fan fiction.  Mostly because I never wrote any.

Or did I?  I didn't.  photo credit

But if I did, you probably wouldn't find it unless you knew to look for it.  So it's hard to know whether your new babysitter runs a dog-fighting business on the side, or is prominently involved in a hate group, or whatever, unless you specifically thought to check for those things.  And you can't check for everything.

However, there are a few things you can do to make the process a little less useless.  First, search for their name and any aliases you know of.  Try a search for their name and add either their profession or the state or city they live in.  See if you can find their social media accounts.  Do a Google Image search and click the "visit website" option to see what the related content is.

Taking a few minutes with a search engine to try to vet someone before you let them too deeply into your life can save you a lot of pain down the road.

One Last Note:  Find a Balance


One thing that we as martial artists (especially instructors!) have to remember is that balance is important.  Training in martial arts should make your life better.  If you make yourself so nervous and so cautious of everyone around you that you are unable to relax and enjoy your life, you might live longer, but it won't be much of a life.  If you are so carefree that you obliviously walk right up to a threat and end up in some trouble, that is obviously not right either.  You need to find a balance.  There's no need to vet every single person you encounter.  But for the big, high stakes question marks in your life and your family's life, it's often worth doing.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Training is an Engineering Problem

On April 13th, 1970, an oxygen tank blew up aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

This caused a quadruple system failure--something the astronauts hadn't been trained to handle because it was assumed that if four systems failed at once 200,000 miles from Earth, it would be impossible for them to survive.  But on their doomed lunar mission, that is exactly what happened.  The astronauts and ground crew had to find creative solutions to problems no one had anticipated.

This is not where you want to be when everything around you starts to break.

At one particularly dramatic moment in the Apollo 13 movie, the engineers on the ground are given the instructions, "We need to make THIS fit into THIS using nothing but THIS."  The actor then dramatically dumps a box of junk onto the table, and everyone gets to work.  (I'm paraphrasing, the actual quote from the movie is here.)

They needed to make round lithium hydroxide canisters fit into holes designed for square canisters using only what they had with them in the spacecraft.  You can read all the gritty details here, but for now just understand that if they could not do this, three people were going to die of carbon dioxide poisoning.

This was one of several engineering problems they had to solve to get the astronauts home safely.  The academic solution would have been easy.  Just design and manufacture an airtight seal of the appropriate dimensions and place it over the hole.  Of course, that wasn't an option for the crew of Apollo 13.

That is the quintessential engineering problem--making something work despite far less than ideal conditions.  But even though we usually think of engineering problems in terms of technology, it's often useful to apply the same thinking to other problems.

Apollo 13 liftoff.  It was a marvel of engineering to even get this far.

My broad use of the terms "engineering problem" and "academic problem" come from The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, (which is excellent reading or watching, by the way), where he explains raising his kids after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.  His professional background was split between academics and engineering, so those were the two ways that he knew how to solve problems.  He said that if he approached raising his kids as an academic problem, he would certainly fail.  He would objectively be a terrible parent because he would disappear from their lives at a young age.  But by approaching it like an engineering problem, knowing that he won't be there for most of their lives, how can he plan for it and give his family as much as possible for the future before he disappeared?

I find this thinking to be very valuable because most problems are engineering problems, but very often people approach them like academic problems.

One example that comes to mind is when a coworker complaining to me about one of our bosses.  He had a laundry list of faults about how this boss was terrible at his job and bad for the company, but there was no one higher up in the company willing to take any action against him.  My coworker complained to me that he should not behave this way.  And he was right, no one in that role should behave that way.  But oxygen tanks shouldn't explode, and fathers shouldn't die when their children are young.  Sometimes you have to deal with things that should not be, and build a solution under less than ideal circumstances.  My coworker and I had to make a round peg of a boss fit into a square hole of a company using nothing but the tools and skills at our disposal, because it was an engineering problem.  Was it fair?  Of course not.  But neither are quadruple system failures or pancreatic cancer.

Most workplace problems are engineering problems.

Once you start classifying problems as either academic or engineering, they become a lot easier to solve.  In my case, I started seeing engineering problems everywhere.  Difficult training partner?  Engineering problem.  Opening a school on a shoestring budget?  Engineering problem.  Siblings not getting along while I'm teaching?  Engineering problem.  Scheduling issues?  Budget issues?  Personnel issues?  Engineering problems.  As an added benefit, once you start looking at your engineering problem in terms of the tools you have to solve it, it becomes less of a problem and more of a puzzle.

Applying this thinking to your training can help you improve more efficiently.  The first time I encountered this, it was before I had ever considered academic problems or engineering problems.  I was a high school student on a volleyball team.

There were a couple star players on the team, but most of us were beginners and our coach had to teach us all the basic skills.  At one practice she showed us how to dig for a ball that had gone flying off away from the intended target.  It was difficult--dive after the ball, propel yourself along the ground with your free arm, let the ball bounce off your hand instead of the ground--for the small chance that someone else would be able to rush in and return the ball over the net before it hit the floor.  Long before we felt comfortable with the skill, we stopped working on it.

It's really hard! photo credit

Our coach explained that she was only introducing us to the skill, that she didn't want us to get good at it.  She said that at our level, our practice time was far better spent on core skills, learning our basics well enough to prevent the ball from flying off unpredictably in the first place.

It made sense.  We were (mostly) novice volleyball players with a limited amount of practice time.  Approaching it as an academic problem, we would have been doomed to failure--objectively unskilled players at the end of the season.  We could certainly get better as the season progressed, but it was not realistic for us to master every single skill.  But our coach approached it as an engineering problem (although I doubt if she would have called it that) and looked for how to make the team as successful as possible using only the players, tools and time available to her.

Martial arts training is also an engineering problem.  Real life violence is infinitely more complex than a volleyball game.  Even dedicated students seldom practice, say, five hours per week.  But even with that much training, it is not possible to master every single skill that might be useful in a violent encounter.

Here is a very incomplete list of potentially useful skills:
- the punching skills of professional boxer
- the kicking skills of a taekwondo Olympian
- the throwing skills of a judo master
- an equivalent mastery in every weapon, improvised weapon and firearm
- an equivalent mastery in awareness and de-escalation skills
- an equivalent mastery in active shooter and bomb threat situations
- an equivalent mastery in crowd psychology

That is the academic solution--to prepare for everything you might need.  But it's not possible.  Even if you did not sleep, there would not be enough hours in the day to attain all of those skills to that high of a level.

Training doesn't look like an engineering problem, but it is.

So how do we look at this like an engineering problem instead?

1.  Define the goal.  


If you are training to win a judo tournament, you can probably skip all that boxing stuff.  If you're training purely for self defense, there's a lot of footwork and complex kicking that a high level taekwondo athlete would need but you can safely ignore.  If you're trying to pass your next belt test, you can put other skills on the back burner while you focus on promotion requirements.  Being clear and honest with yourself about what the goal is should help a lot.

2.  Prioritize what is common.


If you've got a tournament coming up, maybe it's legal to throw a kick to the head in the middle of a double back flip, but you are far more likely to face a garden variety roundhouse kick.  So practice defending and countering a roundhouse kick.  Depending on the rules of the tournament, roundhouse kicks are usually more common than other types of kicks.  Punches are usually more common than ridgehands.

Self defense training, in my opinion, is where this goes wrong most often.  It's easy for us as martial artists to fall into the trap of thinking that certain techniques are widely taught, so we stand a reasonable chance of facing them in real situations.  The fact remains that no matter how widely an arm bar is taught, we are far more likely to face a push or a punch than an arm bar.

3.  Prioritize based on the progression of the event.


Just like when I was playing volleyball, there are decisions to be made about how much time to train for preventing a bad situation and how much time to spend on recovering from that bad situation.

This is going to make some people mad, but it's true.  If your goal is self defense (again, see #1), you are better off prioritizing preventing bad things from happening.  Prevent going to the ground by learning to end the fight before it goes there.  Prevent getting in a physical altercation by learning to de-escalate.  Prevent needing to de-escalate by avoiding a situation before it has the chance to turn tense.

Not getting into a fight is a skill!  It might not be as fun to work on (Is your goal to have fun?  Nothing wrong with that!), but if you are training because you are truly concerned for your safety, this is where you need to spend the bulk of your time.  Don't ignore your physical skills of course, but your training time is better spent learning how to not need your physical skills.

4.  Work on principles.


You can train more efficiently by working on principles rather than techniques.  If you understand what you can do when an arm is extended toward you, it will matter a lot less whether the person is trying to punch you, push you, grab you, and so on.  If you deeply understand how a hinge joint works, you can exploit its limitations whether you are manipulating someone's arm, leg, finger, or toe.  It is a more difficult way to teach and learn, but ultimately it is more efficient than trying to ingrain a myriad of specific techniques to handle different but similar situations.  That's the academic solution--to know the exact answer to the exact situation.  Violence is just too complex to learn that many techniques.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The 3 Ways to Strike Effectively

Everyone wants their strikes to be effective, by which people usually mean "hitting hard."  But it's possible to have a "hard" strike that is ineffective, because what happens when a punch or kick lands is more nuanced than just how much muscle and effort is behind it.  To fully understand this, it's helpful to think about exactly what happens during an impact.

When something runs into something else, one of three things will happen:
1.  Something is going to break.
2.  Something is going to bend.
3.  Something is going to move.

When you strike water, will it break, bend or move?  It depends.

Actually you're very likely to get some combination of those things, but usually whatever happens will be primarily in only one category.  Which one you get (like almost everything in the martial arts) is just a matter of physics.

To paraphrase Dr. Dick Solomon from 3rd Rock from the Sun, "Kicks don't hurt people!  Physics hurts people!"

I was going to get mathy about this, and then I found this article by Dan Djurdjevic.   That article is objectively better than what I was going to write in every way, except that mine would have definitely included cat pictures.

I pass a million physics classes to get my degree, and yet my competitive edge as a martial arts blogger is still cat pictures. 

Striking vs. Pushing


If I throw a kick (or any striking technique, for that matter), I might be striking and I might be pushing.  It is impossible to tell just by looking at the technique thrown in the air.  It depends not only on how the technique is thrown, but also what is being hit.

Let's say you're doing a front kick to a large practice pad.  If you are striking, even if your strike is excellent, it probably won't impress many onlookers.  Take that same technique to a human body, and you'll break bones (Category 1: Something breaks).  But against a pad, the foam inside deforms a bit, and very little comes of the impact (Category 2: Something bends).  The pad is doing its job--protecting the pad holder from injury--at the expense of making the kick appear ineffective.  Oh look, Dan Djurdjevic did an article about this, too!  He even used front kick as an example!  I DON'T EVEN NEED TO BE HERE!

Where was I?  Right.  It looks ineffective.  It actually IS ineffective, against the pad at least.  The kicker was throwing a technique intended to break something, but the pad only bends.  Nobody went to the hospital, so it didn't work!  That's the price of safety.  Everything has to be modified so that it doesn't work.  That doesn't mean it's bad training or bad technique, only that you need to be aware of how and why it didn't work.  In this case, it didn't work because a pad was used for safety.  The kinetic energy has to go somewhere, and somebody thought it would be better for that kinetic energy to go into bending a pad than into breaking a person.  (I know, crazy, right?)

Now let's say you're throwing a very similar kick against the same large practice pad.  This time, you throw your kick and the pad holder staggers back several steps.  This looks impressive to onlookers, and they applaud you for your excellent technique, all except for the guy who immediately calls his agent to jump-start your career as the next Chuck Norris.  Impressive, sure, but this is not a strike.  It is a push.  (In fact, in our style, we call this a push kick instead of a front kick, and maybe in yours as well.)  Without the pad, this same kick would deliver very little damage to the pad holder, but still move them roughly the same distance (perhaps a little farther, because none of the kinetic energy being transferred would have gone into deforming the foam in the pad).

So, which is better?  That depends entirely on what you are trying to do.  If you are trying to do damage, you need to strike.  If you're trying to create space, you need to push.  It's important to train both.

Training strikes and pushes


Heavy bags and practice pads are great for training pushes, because you get a lot of feedback as to your effectiveness.  If your pad holder takes two steps back instead of one from your roundhouse kick, you know you are delivering more kinetic energy into your push.

Strikes can be trained on pads, but you get more performance feedback from board breaking.  If you can break a one-inch pine board with your technique, great!  If you can break it while it is only held securely on one side, even better!  If you are pushing instead of striking, that board is just going to move (Category 3) instead of break (Category 1).  Breaking a board that is completely unsecured (being dropped and punched out of the air, for example) is even more challenging.  But if you can do it, you know you have a good strike that is not pushing at all.  Again, though, if you take that same technique to a heavy bag, the onlookers will yawn, except for that one guy who calls his agent to say never mind, that he was wrong about you being the next Chuck Norris.

Plus when you put your foot through perfectly good lumber, you tend to feel pretty good about yourself.

Striking and Pushing vs. Deforming


So, Category 1 (breaking) and Category 3 (moving) both have their uses, but what about Category 2 (bending)?  Bending is more complicated.  Bending can be as simple as squishing a pad, or as nuanced as changing an enemy's structure.

If my kick to the knee twists his leg such that it is no longer supporting his weight and he falls over, he has neither been pushed back (Category 3) nor taken substantial damage (Category 1).  I've changed his structure (Category 2) to create an advantage for myself.  The same is true if I strike the groin and he doubles over, putting his head at an ideal height for a knee.  (Technically he's probably driving that motion rather than being moved into that position by my kick, if you want to split hairs, but the bending happened all the same.)  If I strike to the face and he leans backwards with his groin unprotected, that is also beneficial bending.

Strikes involved in joint locks and escapes from joint locks will be mostly bending impacts.

The other side of the coin


Having an understanding of how a strike can break, bend or move is helpful for optimizing your techniques, but it's also helpful for keeping yourself from getting injured.  You can use the same idea to defend yourself.  This comes in two flavors:

- If someone is trying to strike you, and you know what their goal is (break, bend, or move) you can manipulate your own structure and movement to try to make their strike fall into a different category.

- If you're the one initiating the strike, some of that kinetic energy can still go into you.  You generally don't want to be the thing that is doing the bending, moving, or especially breaking.

Here are some specific examples of how managing these three types of strikes can keep you from getting hurt.

1.  Protective equipment of any kind is meant to turn breaking (Category 1) into bending (Category 2).  Heavy bags, handheld targets, sparring protectors, floor mats, foam padding on weapons, etc., all exist entirely for that purpose.  (Well, and to appease insurance companies, but that's another topic entirely.)  When the impact happens, the majority of that kinetic energy goes into deforming the pad instead of deforming the person, making everyone a lot happier at the end of training.  This is also why car hoods are designed to crumple in an accident, why you would rather slip and fall on a carpeted floor than a marble one, drummers don't like to hit concrete with their sticks (crediting Casey Grillo with this observation--never tried it myself!), why gym shoes have rubber soles, and why buildings in earthquake-prone areas are designed to sway.  Bending is just plain healthier than breaking.

Protective gear takes your percussive kinetic energy and uses it to squish the pad instead of injure your partner or yourself.

2.  If you've been trained to exhale when holding a bag for a strong kick, that is another example of making something bend instead of break or move.  In this case, the thing that's bending is your lungs and your stomach, and it hurts a whole lot less than getting the wind knocked out of you.  (Actually, there's a lot more to it than just converting kinetic energy into Category 2 here, but that's definitely part of it.)  Learning to time your breathing can absolutely help protect you from the bad kind of impact.

3.  Once when I was training in Korea, I was sparring against a guy with the stereotypical taekwondo build--tall, skinny, long legs that can hit you from clear across the room.  It was full contact rules, so I didn't hold back when I knew I had him lined up for my side kick.  That would have been fine, but I didn't anticipate him moving forward into my kick at just that moment.  For a moment I thought I was going to snap him in half like a twig.  But in an impressive feat of athleticism, he completely reversed his momentum and went with my kick.  He tumbled a comical distance across the mat, halfway across the fairly large training floor.  But he stood up completely uninjured, having converted my striking impact (Category 1) into a displacement impact (Category 3).  Being able to "go with it" can prevent a whole lot of damage to your body.

Because the other option is just trusting your pads.

4.  Grandmaster Park cautioned me about teaching punching too early because of how difficult it is to punch well.  Ideally, when you punch, you're delivering your kinetic energy into your target.  But if your technique is off by even a little bit, that kinetic energy can go into you instead.  The most common examples I've seen of this are when the thumb is not positioned correctly or if the wrist is not straight.  If your thumb is protruding out in front of your knuckles so that it hits first, that kinetic energy is very likely to just break your thumb instead of breaking the other guy.  The same goes if you have your thumb tucked inside your hand.  If your wrist isn't straight and your arm isn't aligned properly behind your fist, your Category 1 breaking impact can get turned into Category 2 bending impact, which can be really awful for the tendons in your wrist.  There are lots of reasons to make sure your technique is correct.  Just because something seems like an inconsequential aesthetic detail doesn't mean that it actually is.

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I hope this has been helpful for understanding the different ways that striking techniques can be effective.  If you are properly categorizing your movements as breaking, bending or moving techniques, you're already a step ahead of those martial artists who see no difference.