blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Sirens begins tomorrow!

(Well, Sirens Studio is actually already in progress, but I couldn’t swing my schedule into alignment until the conference itself.)

But I am excited! I pick up a friend at the airport tomorrow morning, then head to the hotel to meet up with existing friends and meet some new ones. A couple folks have volunteered to help out with “The Movement You Don’t See" (it’s a low-low-impact workshop, but I did want to demo a couple things that some might find uncomfortable), so I’ll get to meet up with them, too.

My son has been such a good sport, helping me decide what to leave in and take out of the presentation. My inclination is to teach a three-hour class, so keeping it all within an hour is a bit of a challenge.

So if you’re attending Sirens, find me and say hello! If you’re in the Denver area and not attending, drop me a line if you’d like to BarCon for awhile anyway!
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
Last week ended up being incredibly and unexpectedly busy–and for a spectacular reason.

I found a new place to train.

This is not a small thing.

I moved to Colorado a year ago, mind. Though I didn’t spend every moment of the last twelve months seeking out a new dojo-home, I invested a great deal of energy looking up schools and instructors online, asking around, and spending more than a few hours sitting or standing in parking lots watching classes through storefront windows.

That watching-classes part quickly became depressing. I wasn’t looking at how marvelous the students were. I was watching how instructors managed their class and interacted with students… and never once came away thinking, “I’m impressed!” In fact, I never walked away thinking, “Wow, good job.” I wasn’t looking for a school that taught the exact art I’ve learned for the last fifteen-ish years–that’s impossible for many reasons--but was looking for quality instruction and school community.

Yeah, I’m picky. And I don’t apologize for it. But it did leave me with nothing but exhausted options by summer’s start. Then summer was too crazy-busy to expend energy on the search. Then I hit September, was tipping into depression at the prospect of letting yet more months pass without a martial arts home.

So I expanded my search and found a listing for a small school a few more miles away. Rather, I re-found it. It’s a school I’d set aside very early in my search because I thought it was a little too far away. But now that I know non-highway routes and backroads, it’s fairly easy to get to.

I sent off a little note eight days ago asking for a get-to-know you appointment. Last Monday, I received an answer. Tuesday morning, I arrived to meet the husband and wife team running the school. I started classes that evening, and have since spent about ten hours training.

And I feel MARVELOUS.

After observing my kata, the head of the school said I had plenty of the yang and he’d like to teach me the yin. He started me on a couple forms–White Crane and Tai Chi–and shared the applications of the movements so I’d start with an understanding of the form rather than its mere memorization.

Husband and wife invited to come in to train during any class I wanted. I love what I learned, I loved how he taught, and during the evening classes, I absolutely loved the camaraderie and collaborative work between all students.

And when he said he’d been waiting for someone who wanted to also teach, I started getting all teary-eyed.

And the topper: I spent Saturday morning observing their kids’ classes, and got all teary-eyed again. They teach young people the way I like to teach young people. They give their young students the respect, attention, and open-heartedness I was looking for.

I am in the right place, and I’m so very glad I chose to be picky.
blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

In the comments to Making the Nice-Guy Challenge a Safe One, [livejournal.com profile] mrissa and [livejournal.com profile] scallywag195 both shared questions and perspectives I wanted to answer in more detail. That "more detail" ended up being much longer than I thought... but here it is!

Questions from [livejournal.com profile] mrissa first:

My question is twofold:

1) In what context would his actions have been reasonable in a class/mat setting? In what context is "respond as though someone who is not in pads etc. is the actual attacker" the correct scenario? If this was a mismatch of reasonable expectations, I am having a hard time seeing where his expectation was reasonable.

The short answer is, "When Sensei says so."
Read more... )

blairmacg: (belt)

In 2013, I made a mistake that still affects my physical abilities—everything from Okinawan weapons training to using a screwdriver.

Two students, father and son, began classes at my dojo. The son was an energetic eight-year-old. The father was a six-foot-six retired drill sergeant who’d trained in a similar style about twenty years prior, but who wanted to start again as a white belt in order to train with his son, and had observed enough of my classes to decide he wanted me as an instructor. He was the kind of returning student who makes a sensei’s job easier by acknowledging long-ago rank is not a measure of present ability. He was fun, supportive of his son and other students, perfectly respectful, and quick to smile. I liked him. Still do.

As I mentioned in The Snarky Partner, I teach hold escapes not only as a basic self-defense technique, but as foundational training for partner work. That’s what the man and his son were learning, alongside another dozen or so new students. As usual, one of the first escapes I taught was a shoulder-hold escape: the bad guy grabs your shoulder, and you break the hold. It’s a totally simple technique I’ve taught and performed thousands of times. I not only know how to teach it in a few minutes, I know the counters, the means to avoid injury, the importance of release, and so forth. So I worked my way around the circle of young and older students, letting them each try it a couple of times with me as their partner, before reaching the father.

I reached up to take hold of his shoulder with my right hand. Just as I grabbed, a younger student starting spinning in place. I gave the child my attention for two seconds—”John, eyes on Sensei!”—and that’s when the father whipped his arm around to perform the escape.

Read more... )

No matter how nice and skilled a stranger seems, never assume you share the same ground rules for contact. Not even shared terminology is a sign of safety. My version of “testing strikes” might not be anywhere near what you expect. You do not want to discover that difference during the flash-second face and fist share the same space.

Sharing and exploring martial arts with others is an awesome thing, and anyone you’d want to learn with won’t be affronted by establishing boundaries and setting expectations before things get physical. Students well-trained will appreciate and share your insistence on knowing parameters ahead of contact.

As always, questions and comments are most welcome!

This article originally appeared for patrons only at Patreon. So if you find it valuable and helpful, please consider becoming a patron  so I can continue providing the content you like!

For more self-defense and fight-writing related articles, check out this page.

blairmacg: (belt)

One of my business writing clients is a company headed by twin brothers. Big twin brothers who have worked hands-on construction for almost forty years. On the business side, they’re great clients. On the personal interaction side, they are a great deal of fun. After a recent business lunch that included talk of martial arts, the few-minutes-younger brother asked if I thought I’d “be able to take” the few-minutes-older brother if he tried to attack me. I looked the older brother up and down and smiled. “Sure! My thumb will still fit in his eye socket.”

There was a moment of surprised silence before the laughter and nodding. It was one of those good-natured exchanges based more on fun curiosity and comfortable friendship than the need to challenge.

But friendship and curiosity aren’t always elements in those conversations, and when they’re absent…

Every now and then, the mention of martial arts in a group conversation results in an edged challenge from a stranger who—apparently threatened by the very thought of martial arts—wants to cut down that threat right away, with words or with fists. Most do come from men (though I did have a fearsome experience with a woman who claimed she had top-secret CIA training she wanted to demonstrate…).

While some challenges are set out with overt hostility, most are made in a mocking tone that quickly becomes, “What’s your problem? I was just joking!” if the conversation doesn’t go their way and the need to save face arises. In that way, it’s similar to the “I’m just awkward” creepiness seeking to cover its rear when exposed.

Depending on the setting and company, these challenges range from a middling annoyance to a heart-racing adrenaline trigger. Every martial arts student will have different reactions and different methods to deal with the challenges, depending on a combination of personality, experience, and training philosophies. Every instructor will have different advice, based on the same. This is mine.

***

Read more... )
blairmacg: (belt)

(The following article originally appeared as content for Patreon backers on November 21, 2015.)
This is an odd article to write, and not at all what I expected to be writing.  After all, I've a fight scene break-down in the works, a post on chokeholds in the wings, and an interview set for after the first of the year.

But right now...  Well.

On the morning of November 21, I sent messages of encouragement and excitement to a past student of mine preparing to test for her Sandan rank (3rd degree black belt), and exchanged cheerful notes with my own teacher, Shihan, of more than a dozen years, who'd be overseeing the test.

Then all my karate contacts on all social media platforms went quiet for a few hours, as one would expect during a long and demanding test.  But what followed was not the  outpouring of celebratory pictures and comments tempered with tales of hardship.

Instead, I found a smattering of brief comments, then a bunch of longer ones, expressing loss and grief.

Shihan's sensei of four decades had died unexpectedly, and Shihan had found out ten minutes before bowing onto the mat to evaluate the efforts of almost three dozen students prepared to prove themselves worthy of the black belt.  He made the announcement to students and observers, dedicated the day to Hanshi, and began the test.

Had it been Shihan who'd passed away, he would have wanted the same thing.  And you know what?  So would I.

This is not an article about my loss and grief.  Truly, I met Hanshi only a scant handful of times so my sense of loss is removed, more of an empathetic reaction for those who were close to him.  This writing is instead about continuity and legacy, understanding how those things contribute to the formation of a fighter's mindset, and how a fully realized mindset creates an authentic fighting character.

**

The style in which I've trained for fourteen years is indeed a family style, founded in 2001 with Hanshi's encouragement and approval.  The founding couple have four sons, all of whom run at least one dojo. Three of the daughters-in-law also teach.  Six of the nine grandchildren hold a junior black belt; two are still far too young.  The eldest grandchild, who became one of my own first students way back when, earned his adult black belt at the last test I observed before moving to Colorado this year.

When the family gets together, a large chunk of time is spent adjusting details of form, sharing discoveries made through studying historic materials and diverse styles, discussing stories of martial artists who'd influenced them, and making modifications to teaching methods that improve student learning and achievement.  There are in-depth discussions and physical demonstrations on a million other details that would eventually be handed down to thousands of students.

Ten skilled martial artists with collective experience exceeding 250 years...  Believe me—when I was fortunate to be present at those gatherings, I knew enough to understand how much I'd learn, as a martial artist and a writer, by silently absorbing every single moment.

As you might imagine, such a tight group of primary instructors results in an amazingly high level of training consistency throughout the style.  The angle of punches in Pinan Shodan is precisely the same for every student at every dojo.  Every dojo teaches the same methods of utilizing body mechanics over brute strength.  All students learn the same wrist control to deliver nunchaku blows.

That level of scrutiny is essential to preserving the best of martial arts study and evolution, and to ensuring every student is held to the highest standard.  Truly, it's pretty simple to make a student smack the top of their foot against their opponent's head.  It takes a trained and focused teacher to teach a student how the angle of the stabilizing knee will affect the kicking leg's targeting and control, how the turn of the hip should be engaged, what the tension (or lack of) in the upper body will produce, where the hands and elbows should be during the kick, and what the body should prepare to do next.  Establishing and demanding that level of exceptional consistency and results is also essential to the continuation of smaller family styles.

But after sitting on black belt review boards dozens of times over the last decade or so, after watching hundreds of students from all the dojos test side-by-side, I can usually surmise each student's primary instructor after watching a single kata or a handful of self-defense techniques.  The differences lie not in technique, but in style and bearing.

The rhythm of a fight.  Whether the student most often breaks right or left.  If the student strikes or throws first under pressure.  It's in the way deference is given to instructors, how confidence is shown in a fight or in answering questions, and how community support is expressed even in the midst of harsh competition.

And we discuss and reinforce the behavior we most want to see in our fighters, because we understand the strongest fighters have the potential to be the most resilient leaders.

So our students are the ones who lend their weapons to fellow tournament competitors who forgot theirs.  They're the ones who'd give up their own class time to help a struggling classmate earn the next level of kata, spar with students half their size in order to teach and encourage, hug a classmate who was crying over the death of a pet, or pull me aside for an awkward conversation of concern about a fellow student who was being teased at school.

And as we worked on strong a kiba dachi, or talked through the impact of weapons bans on karate's development, or compared the way to throw a classmate to the way to throw a enemy, we talked of all those things.

Y'see, what we teach creates continuity.  How we teach creates legacy.  That's why instilling values in a fighter is a fundamental goal of any instructor or any style at any level, even if the teacher doesn't realize it.

In the writing world, influence matters.  Sure, there are the "masters" of our genre, who are widely or narrowly recognized as ones who impacted the field, whose works are foundational to understanding the evolution of a genre.

But then there are writers who influence us in more personal and, frankly, more important ways—the writers whose support and encouragement pushes us to strive for improvement, who demand we do our best, who teach us how to interact with fans and other writers, who believe we have the ephemeral gift of storytelling that will move readers as deeply as they themselves have been moved.

Influence matters in the fighting world as well.

Yes, there are the masters most students learn of early on—those who founded their particular style, or whose identities have become more legend than fact.  But, also as in writing, the most important influencers are the ones much closer to us in time.

The teacher who gives our first hard-earned nod of approval, who shows us how to deal with the pain of injuries, who teaches us how to interact within a rank-based society, who believes we can find inside us the grit and confidence to stand firm when faced with a terrifying fight.

To view the totality of fighting is to understand the interplay of continuity and legacy.

Just as surely as the body has been trained, so too has the person's character.  When we respond, how we respond, and why we respond is coached and modeled by those of higher rank and technical skill.

Students who are bullied and mocked throughout their training will come out the other side a wildly different fighter than one who is supported and cherished.  A person taught to treat their attained skill as a new responsibility will behave differently than one taught to treat it solely as a personal accomplishment.  New people are seen as potential community or presumed enemy.  Interruptions are potential or possibility. Creativity is enthusiasm or disrespect.

So despite the impression given by certain how-to books or zealous students of the All-Perfect Superpower Martial Arts Style, technique and ability demonstrated in a fight are secondary—in both real life fighters, and the fighters in fiction—to the person's character as a fighter.  And that character isn't formed by hours on the mat or studying old documents or watching (if they exist) grainy films of masters. It's trained into the fighter by present and present-day influencers who provide context, purpose, and connection.

In other words, believing technique makes a great fighter is like believing good grammar makes a great storyteller.

**

Chances are you're a reader.  As a reader, you'll have specific reactions to events or conversations because you're reminded of a story or character.  You'll have specific priorities when you pack for a trip, purchase furniture, consider lighting, allocate your resources, and a million other things.

You're a reader even when you're not reading.

And don't even get writers started on how writing permeates their lives!

It's no different for fighters.  And yet, writers tend to take on their fighting characters in compartmentalized ways.

Some of that comes from the great distance between what many writers know about fighters and fighting, and the level of fighting they want to include in their stories.*  Some is caused by the rabbit-like proliferation of "How To Write Fight Scenes" books, and the tons of articles that define a fighter's "mindset" as what the character does and doesn't think about in relation to a fight.

So writers end up creating characters who fight—and some who fight very, very well—but who aren't fighters if they're not fighting.

This is wrong.

There are all sorts of stereotypical "tells" used to attempt demonstrating a fighter's mindset: Always know the exits, never sit with the back to the door and/or always sit with your back to the wall, take cover after a loud noise...  While none of those things are inaccurate, they're collectively as deep as signaling your character is a "reader" by adding glasses, a ragged paperback, and a tendency to ignore one's surroundings.

That's just not good enough, my darlings.

"Mindset" isn't what comes and goes when violence is present or absent.  Mindset is what the fighter understands about where she fits in the world. Mindset is constant and ever-present.  Legacy and continuity—the way-back of knowing a fighting style's origins and evolution, the present-day influence of one's teachers—is what provides everything but technique.

And, no matter what those fight-scene books infer, technique is not mindset.

In Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee, you'll find a martial artist whose fight training seeps into every aspect of life.  The main character has been trained to be aware of every detail of his body and physical responses during a fight, and has been taught by example to be an example to others.  Lee extends that natural awareness into every scene.  She gives the reader an authentic fighter whose mindset is fully expressed and incorporated into the character's life.

In Gemini Cell by Myke Cole, you'll meet a highly trained military man who must endure impossible circumstances, and yet even his humor is that of a fighter determined to win.  There is one moment, when the character chooses reading material, that encompasses everything about the character's fighting mindset.  His choice not only sticks it to his primary opponent, but connects him with his past and underscores the balance of his strength.  It is a fabulous moment of deft craft that you'll recognize the moment you read it.

So if you're writing about people who fight—who have supposedly trained to injure, maim, and kill others—you'd best understand and determine how training and perspective will affect every single other incident, interaction, reaction, and decision.

The driving priority might be kill the enemy or it might be defend the weak.  The ability to harm another human being might be taught in the context of attaining power or preventing harm.  Personal achievement is a reason to expect the deference of others, or an opportunity to share something new.  The world is presented as filled with dangerous people in need of constant vigilance, or a mostly peaceful place with occasional eruptions of violence.

Or all those principles, abilities, achievements and assumptions might be presented as opportunities to find the balance between what you expect from yourself and what you expect to teach others.

In light of all that, you'll understand why "sits with the back to the wall" is an incredibly simplistic storytelling tool.

**

On November 21, Shihan made a decision to once more train the character of his highest ranking students, and members of his own family, who'd come to demand excellence, endurance, and determination from those who sought to be honored with a black belt.  In doing so, he offered everyone present an opportunity to learn and understand a way to deal with personal loss when others are depending upon you.

Certainly many of the younger students and newer families would understand the outward reason, the stated reason, for dedicating their test to Hanshi's memory.  And they wouldn't be wrong to accept honoring his memory as the reason to move forward with the testing of all their skill and might.  That is indeed what fighters are expected to do for those who have passed on.

But the older students, the ones who'd been around long enough to understand the cultural priorities of our style and dojo, knew the reasons tucked beneath the surface and understood the day's black belt test was a reinforcement of the purpose that connects past with future.  They understood that continuing with the test despite their own shock, hurt, and wonderings of why was only in part about honoring the dead.

It was also about the students and families who'd worked hard, planned for the event, and were ready to prove themselves part of an unfolding lineage built on martial excellence and inclusive humanity.

Because we don't fight for the past, and we fight just as much as we must for the present.  What we truly train for, what we believe is worth risk and sacrifice, is the fight for the future.

And that mindset matters far more to a fighter's choices than how well they can throw a punch.

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)

uSince I’ve just gutted the middle of Stone because the plot was moving with all the grace of a square-wheeled locomotive chugging over the Rockies, you get a Sunday blog post so I can clear my head before I resume stitching the innards back together.*

So here it is: As I mentioned on Twitter, discussion forums for MMA and other fighting sports are a goldmine of writerly information.

There are bunches of little guides out there on how fantasy writers can realistically and vibrantly portray combat.  Information on everything from edged weapons and individual duels to archery and battle formations is fairly easy to find.  But not as much hoopla surrounds the aftermath of those fights—the small injuries, the crippling injuries, and the physical/emotional life-long consequences.  It’s simple to Google for “broken leg” and come up with a pile of guidance from modern medical sites.  But that’s only part of the story.

From a storytelling perspective, it’s a mere sliver of the story.

The fun part—the part that makes plot and character development real—is what happens after the injury is sustained.

Modern medical sites will give you extensive information on trauma, treatments, and expected outcomes.  But they are based on modern interventions coupled with assumed accessibility to food, water, shelter, cleanliness, temperature control, and rest.  In my stories, it isn’t unusual for some, most, or all of those things to be missing.  And that, my darlings, changes everything.

These days, most folks head to the doctor when they or their kids are injured.  Bumps on the head, twisted ankles, sprained wrists, possibly broken bones, blistering burns, busted noses—all prompt immediate doctor visits, extensive testing, and scheduled follow-ups with specialists.

But for a number of present-day fighters—especially those who love it but aren’t making a circuit/tournament career out of it— the doctor’s office isn’t the immediate stop.  Unless the pain from an injury is debilitating—and sometimes, not even that is enough—some fighters take a ton of convincing and failed self-care before they’ll show up in an emergency room or urgent care center.  I’ve gone days with a dislocated elbow and partially torn ligaments.  A friend ended up with stress fractures in both feet.  A training partner waited out the pain of a dislocated shoulder.  And I’ve seen folks finish belt tests with a blown-out knee, or a broken hand, or busted ribs, or a swollen-shut eye.

For a few, it’s a matter of ego, certainly.  But in my personal experience fighting and being around fighters for more than a decade, ego is secondary to expectation and experience.

Y’see, fighters expect to get hurt in a fight, they expect to hurt for awhile after the fight, and they’d really rather not be treated as fragile or stupid or both.  Experience tells them they can work through most hurts, and many of those hurts can be treated without professional medical intervention.

Why go to the doctor for bruised ribs?  Wrap ’em up, take it easy, deal with the pain, watch out for secondary infections, and move on.  They’ll be better in a couple months either way.  Why rush out to have a sprained wrist checked when you know the answer will be, “Rest it, ice it, elevate it, come see me in a week if it isn’t better?”  Yes, there will be times more serious injuries are missed.  But most fighters learn to tell the difference between something that hurts badly and something that’s badly hurt.

This is where those discussion forums come in.

Sure, I can look up all sorts of technical information on tissue damage done when a person is strangled, or the recovery prospects for a person with torn quads, or the lasting effects of a concussion, and all of that is useful to me. But understand those medical sources exist to provide information on how best to care for and heal an injury. That's not always the most pressing goal in the story, though. That's... not always what the writer wants, either.

It’s the discussion forums that’ll tell me the experience and consequences of those injuries when limited (or no) medical attention is gained, and what it feels like to keep training and fighting despite those injuries.  I learn how different people describe the sensation of being choked out, how the throat felt while eating and drinking over the next few days, how it felt and sounded to speak after the injury, and at what point those symptoms shifted from getting better to better see a doctor.

If you’re not a fighter, or have limited martial arts experience, you’ll also gain a glimpse into a different mindset.  Spend a little time, you’ll be able to tell the difference between the “indestructible” youths and the more wise and experienced by the way an injury is described.  Dig a bit more, you’ll read a few journeys undertaken by fantastic and powerful fighters who come to terms with injuries that forever change how—and sometimes if—they can continue doing what they love.

For some things, I can call on my personal experience: broken nose, torn tendons, dislocations, foot fractures, bruised ribs… even the experience of giving up a large part of my training due to ongoing physical challenges that can’t be mended.  The forums, though, expand knowledge and understanding, and give insight into injuries I’d rather not experience myself.  I’ve been choked to gray-out, but I don’t want to discover first-hand what it feels like to have my throat punched, thank you.  And I really don’t want to find out how long it takes for one’s ability to breathe and swallow without pain, or what my voice would sound like once scar tissue hardens.

But the knowledge is good for stories we want to stick in the mind and heart of a reader.

So.  There’s your writerly tip for the day.  I suppose I’ll now resume the revisions that simply shouldn’t be this difficult, yet are somehow even more difficult than difficult.  Alas, I’ve vented my frustration on as many characters as I can without killing them off.

I promise I won’t kill them all.

But no one is reaching the end without scars.

*Next time I mention squishing two very long novels into one long-ish novel under the assumption it’ll be easier, just smack me, mmkay?  I mean, it had to be done, and the story will be better for it, but there has been nothing “easy” about the squishing process.

#SFWApro

blairmacg: (FeatherFlow)
If you talk about martial arts long enough, someone will eventually say, "What's the point of kata? You can't use it in a real fight. The only thing kata is good for is tournaments."

I mightily disagree.

Kata is, in simple terms, a series of choreographed movements -- punches and kicks, stances and turns, blocks and attacks and evasions. From the outside, it looks as if one fighter is taking on multiple attackers coming at her, one at a time, from different directions. Many martial arts use them as a training tool, with some arts and schools putting greater emphasis on them than others.

A friend recently asked me about the purpose of kata. I gave a short answer, then realized how different today's answer was from the answer I might have given ten years ago, or even five years ago. My understanding has changed -- not only because of my training, but because of my teaching experience.

At first, kata serves to instill rudimentary body awareness and muscle function. We're talking very rudimentary here. The student must learn, at the bare minimum, to be aware of and in control of what her body and all its parts are doing at any given moment. Most people can stand up and throw a punch with their left hand, but will not be able to say what the right hand was doing without looking at their right hand. Ask if the knees were bent or straight, or if the chin was lifted or tucked, and she will have no clue. Ask her to keep track of all those things while moving from one technique to the next with at least a smidgeon of intensity, and things quickly fall apart.

Taught properly, kata teaches such total body awareness. In my experience as an instructor, it takes most students six to twelve months to perform a basic kata with something approaching body awareness. Even my most athletically gifted kids will take awhile to reach awareness. Certainly they can perform the techniques sooner than other students, but unless they can connect the mind to identify and verbalize, they've essentially learned only half of the kata's first lesson. Body awareness, you see, is another way of saying "focus," and an athlete who can't think through what the body is doing is like a general who knows the best tactics but has no strategy. Deadly, perhaps, but pointless unless someone else tells them what to do.

That first level is where some instructors stop. The student memorizes a pattern, puts effort into throwing techniques that look good and works up a sweat, and the instructor calls it good. That's both the cause and result of all the "Kata is useless!" cries that come up. Let me go deeper into what kata is intended to accomplish, and you'll see why stopping there misses so much.

Kata teaches muscle memory for fighting techniques, and how the kata is taught -- from breath control to muscle tension to transitions between obvious techniques -- will influence how the student fights under pressure. A basic kata will include an overhead block. It's an extremely versatile technique, able to be used as "just" a block, a block on the way to a strike, or a block after a hidden strike. Or it can be turned into an arm lock, a forward momentum throw, a trip-and-throw, an evasion of a weapon... You get the idea. But none of those can be carried out against a determined opponent making a committed strike if the correct muscle memory isn't there. If small pieces are off -- one foot angled wrong, the hips canted, the arm disengaged from the core muscles -- chances are high the attacker will overwhelm you.

Self-defense drills are fantastic, but speed and form are more difficult to control, and drills are practiced with people who know what you're going to do next. Attackers in the classroom (usually) have no desire to be broken, so will follow the energy-lead of the student they're attacking. It can allow even the best students to get away with less-than-strong techniques. (Very strong students often get away with extremely crappy technique, but that's another post entirely!)

Correct kata doesn't let students cheat. If your stance is incorrect, I'll be able to push you over with my fingertips. If your stance is correct, you'll remain rooted even if I thump you in the shoulder.

And once the student can run kata with proper muscle memory -- as well as strong pacing and intensity -- that memory begins to show up in sparring and self-defense. Progress in self-defense is accelerated by the time invested in kata. The student, especially the student who thinks kata is boring and sparring is most awesome, is usually the last to see the connection, even though she stands to gain so much sparring and self-defense skill.

So: Kata provides body awareness, conditioning, and muscle memory, as well as the components of those skills like balance, coordination, focus, strength, and agility. But there are two other benefits I want to emphasize—things I hear too rarely discussed even among talented fighters.

First, kata conditions ligaments and tendons, which increases strength and power while decreasing incidence of injury. Ligaments and tendons are those connective tissues that create a moveable human out of meat and bones. Alas, they are often forgotten in the quest for strength as measured by muscle-isolating gym machines. The trouble is, muscle strength increases at a faster rate than tendon/ligament strength, which can lead to injuries, plateaued development, and weird situations like very muscle-strong bodybuilders being unable to throw a ball any reasonable distance.

In martial arts, muscle-over-connector emphasis leads to stiff movements (and stiffness is usually just a poor proxy for force), sloppy form (as the student tries to create false momentum through a "wind-up" or some such), and painful injuries at the joints.

The repetition of kata sidesteps the notion of building muscles in isolation of natural movement. It teaches tendons and ligaments and muscles to all work together, to contract and relax in the optimum order, and to support each other to increase strength and reflex while reducing injury. And since constant muscle tension isn't used to generate power, the student's oxygen reserves remain higher. The result is power that seems to be greater than the person's strength and stamina that outlasts the opponent. This is not spiritual magic. It's practiced internal and external coordination.

(PSA: If you're a martial arts student getting injured a great deal, find a different instructor and a different school. Seriously. Unless you're an ass who refuses to follow any and all directions, you're suffering injuries because of the way you're being taught.)

Second, kata teaches you to move with your center, and your center to move with you. Sounds simple, doesn't it? It isn't at all. Without a solid center, forward movement is most often initiated from the shoulders, and rapid changes in direction result in loss of balance, injuries, or falls. In other words, we move our upper body and forget to take our legs along. Kata teaches you how to move from and with your center.

Not only does this make everyday life more comfortable, it's essential in a fight. A fighter who knows how to hold her center won't lunge to the side and leave a leg sticking out, or raise the shoulders before a strike, or lead with the chin (which results in blocking with one's face...). Holding center makes it possible to throw someone bigger and stronger while making it difficult for someone bigger and stronger to throw you. Trust me – if you lose your balance, someone else will find it, and Finders-Keepers rules in a fight.

Sure, there are lots of ways all these lessons can be taught and learned. Fighters learn them all the time from drills, from sparring, from trial and error, from any number of methods that provide the means to feel the difference between stability and rigidity and an opportunity to repeat it endlessly. If your student has innate athletic ability, you can get spectacular results by providing some general guidance, letting the talented student find the "right" posture, then reinforcing it with small corrections and encouragements.

But if your student is clumsy, uncoordinated, and distractible, that's a setup for failure. The student gets frustrated. The instructor gets frustrated. By the time the student hits brown belt (often around two years of training), the difference between athletic and non-athletic become much clearer, and no one is so clear on the difference than the non-athletic brown belt. Many brown belts quit because they don't see any improvement, and are given little instructor guidance other than, "Keep trying!"

So what's the real answer? What's the thing that can keep those students going and growing? What's the super-secret method, developed over decades?

Kata. Not because of its strikes or kicks, or blocks or turns, or any of its component techniques. Not because the student learns choreographed movements in a controlled environment.

And why kata so valuable?

Because everything outlined above--the techniques, balance, coordination, centering, and flow of movement--teaches people with little or no natural athletic ability how to be capable fighters. Armed with those tools, the instructor doesn't have to wait around for the One True Student Of Great Talent. The student doesn't have to give up learning what comes easily to others. Kata is the perfect self-defense training tool for the student who struggles.

That's it, right there. The true and hidden purpose and application of kata.

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