What I learnt from teaching martial arts

Picture Copyright Duncan Grisby 2010There is an old saying that goes: “if you can’t do teach”; for me teaching has actually improved my doing.  In fact my knowledge about martial arts practice has dramatically improved since I started teaching.  When I first learnt martial arts I was in my early teens; I remember struggling initially with coordination and fitness but, with continuous and consistent training, I reached a good standard within months.  By all means my technique and proficiency kept improving for years; as most movements and techniques were quite natural for me, I never had to analyse too hard how I was doing things.

Years later, when I started teaching, I realised that people from all walks of life were approaching martial arts and, as it happens, some of them were terrific, some hopeless and the majority in the middle.  By teaching martial arts to people who are not naturally talented and/or fit and/or coordinated I realised that many of them require much more explanation than showing the technique a few times and hoping they learn it.  Many people need the technique to be deconstructed and explained; in same cases a clear description of the muscles involved is necessary to fully achieve the expected result.  By analysing each technique in detail, including what muscle groups are working how and when, I forced my mind to grasp every single aspect of each movement and by improving my awareness about them it has greatly improved my technique.

Hello 2017, good bye 2016

Happy new year to everyone; 2017 starts with its first lesson today, 3 January, keeping our regular schedule of 4 lessons per week for the next 51 weeks.

We are already planning our usual Town vs. Gown fight in February where members of all clubs we are training (CARISMA, CUKBS and ARUKBC) will fight members of the other clubs.  This is a great opportunity for all beginners to have a go at sport fighting in a friendly and controlled environment, before trying other tournaments.  Later in the year several members of the club will take part in various regional fights, both light and full contact.  CUKBS will be fighting Varsity in Oxford this year and their training regime has been under tight control since the beginning of Michaelmas term in October.

As usual we will be having 4 grading sessions in March, June, September and December.  On the second Saturday of June we’ll have the annual CARISMA BBQ and on the first Sunday in December, after grading, we’ll have the Christmas dinner.  These events are already on the club’s calendar for your perusal.

As our aim is keeping a critical mass of at least 60 paying members at any given time we will be recruiting beginners any time we need more members but pausing when membership is in line with our expectations.  Our first beginners’ course for the year will start on 19 January and, as usual listed on our calendar.

2016 was another good year for CARISMA, with a large number of new interesting people who joined us, and classes consistently larger than previous years.  We found ourselves with a reduced percentage of undergrads students, from both University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin; good news is that we replaced them with high school and post grad students as well as young professionals both male and female.  This change has increased the retention of our members and the consistency of their attendance as undergrads students are around for about 6 months per year and their attendance tends to be not as regular as we would like.

An individual achievement which is definitively worth mentioning is Meitar Blumenfeld as our first winner for a full contact fight; it has to be said that our whole full contact team to date had a total of 4 people, over a long period of time.

For a number of personal reasons we lost, within a short time, 3 of our instructors; fortunately we were working, in the meantime, to train some of our most promising senior students to be their replacement so it all happened smoothly and according to plans.

Whether you are a regular member or a casual reader interested in joining us we hope to see you soon and looking forward to train with you during 2017.

Slow start after long breaks

With 15+ years of history CARISMA has trained thousands of people which joined us, trained with us for some time and then, for various reasons, left us. It happens once in a while that somebody who left months or years before decides to come back which is always appreciated from our side.

I decided to write this post about prescribing a slow start for people who rejoin a martial arts club in general, CARISMA specifically. It was inspired by four former members of our club that during the last year have decided to re-join us and, not following my suggestions, gave up within a few weeks. The idea of slow start after long breaks is something that everybody should apply, whether you have been on a long holiday, took a sabbatical or moved temporarily away from training.

Let’s start from the beginning of someone’s training history, which might be similar to yours; you were feeling unfit or looking for a new challenge and decided to join our club. At CARISMA we welcome beginners from all walks of life, within a very broad range of ages and backgrounds. The majority of people joining us are not as fit as they would like; most of them are not as fit as they should be in order to perform at our average level of expected speed, power and accuracy. Upon joining most people experience a more or less steady progress toward fitness and proficiency which may be eventually reaching a peak or a plateau within a few years.

At that point you feel nicely fit, able to perform most exercises without struggling too much; if you are never struggling you are not pushing hard enough. Some training might be more challenging on power, others on endurance; others might push your skills to their limit. I hope it sounds familiar because that’s the way our training regime is designed to deliver. A continuous challenge that explorers all aspects of training martial arts, with the aim of creating a well round martial artist.

Imagine now that for some reason you stop training martial arts; if you are reasonably active person you might keep running, swimming, cycling or going to the gym. Your physical and cardiovascular fitness perhaps doesn’t drop that much and you still feel you can go back and pick up your martial arts training where you left it; here is where disappointment starts, for three main reasons:

  • Your mind still remembers pretty well most moves as they should be performed. Your muscles might have lost some reactivity or that level of flexibility which allowed you to block a fast attack, punch somebody and surprise them or kick to someone’s head.
  • Some of the people you still know at the club have progressed a great deal; some of them were just beginners when you left a year or so ago and now they are fit, fast and wining fights. You were used to nearly play with them, now they do the same with you and that’s very frustrating.
  • The two above reasons cause you to get hit more than you were used to and when you get hit it hurts more than you remember. That escalates de-motivation and often causes people to leave within weeks.

The simple solution to the problems described above is to manage your expectations and adopt the “slow start after long breaks” approach that is far from super scientific but it helps to avoid the above described situations.

Never mind you were an intermediate or a black belt: accept it will take some time to get back into shape by following these rules:

  • Give yourself 4-8 weeks; during that period you will accept your performance will be suboptimal
  • Approach each exercise at 50%-70% expected performance; don’t even try to achieve full 100% so you won’t be disappointed by the fact that you cannot
  • If you are training with partners try to find people which are either less experienced than you, lighter than you or both; training with them will not push you beyond a threshold that will show your reduced performance

Depending on your specific genetics you might catch up in a shorter time or perhaps a bit longer but managing your expectations and be realistic with your achievements will help you to get back in shape and keep enjoying your training.

Town vs. Gown 2014 – Massimo’s summary

The fourth CARISMA Town vs. Gown that took place yesterday at the North Cambridge Academy Sports Centre and it was, once more, a great success. It surely exceeded my own expectations as well as the ones of the people that took part to it, among fighters, organisers or spectators.

Once more the simple idea of offering the possibility for beginners and first timers to experience fighting in the ring while in a friendly environment proved to be a winning one. Numbers speak by themselves:

  • Over 80 people watching and supporting
  • A great team of organisers and helpers that ensured a smooth running of the event
  • 28 athletes that delivered 14 top great fights (one demo between my 10 years old daughter and myself) and a surely entertaining show: please notice that 15 of them were at their first fighting experience and 9 of them started training kickboxing less than 6 months ago, with no previous experience in martial arts!

I did a lot of thinking during the last 24 hours, between the amazing rush to get everything done on time and last night when I was as tired as if I took part in every single bout and yet I could not sleep because of the adrenaline released… Here are a few random considerations about the whole event:

  • Although each fighter was a student of mine I was surprised about how competitive I felt for the person I was coaching: funny enough several times I found myself giving suggestions to the other fighter as well;
  • One of the greatest achievements of the whole day was having no accidents;
  • The role of a coach is key for the good result of a fight because it offers an extra pair of eyes with a much broader vision as well as a fairly detached view of the fight, not (too much) affected by adrenaline and other chemicals;
  • At the same time the role of the coach is highly facilitated by a fighter that can listen and simply put in practice the strategies suggested by the coach;
  • Learning how to fight is part of learning kickboxing. We usually invite people to sparring classes as soon as they are fit for it.  Techniques must be applied in practice in a dynamic environment where your partner / opponent is no longer collaborating and helping you. The next step is fighting in a competition, even a friendly one like this one brings you to the next level, fighting to win or be beaten; lots of emotions get involved, some people can manage them well while for other it is just overwhelming;
  • Managing energy across the fight is a skill to be learnt and put in practice. Many of yesterday’s fighters are regularly attending to sparring classes where every Monday or Saturday we run 12-15 rounds of 2 minutes: nonetheless we saw energy simply running out for a few people. This was definitely not due to lack of fitness but the emotional involvement in the fight that is draining up all energies;
  • Behind a great organisation there is always a great management team: all instructors of CARISMA yesterday demonstrated this by ensuring the whole event running perfectly and covering all roles and tasks that were required.

I would like to thank, personally and on behalf of a very successful Town vs. Gown 2014, in random order:

  • Judging and refereeing: Luca, Jarek, James
  • Assistance and supervision on filming and audio: Georgios
  • Photography: Duncan
  • Coaching: Phil, Georgios
  • Door: Trixi and Mila
  • Round boards girl (can’t think of a better definition at the moment): Ekaterina
  • Fighters: Wu, Cindy, Kaya, Beth, Rachel, Alexey, Felix, Ryan, Lirane, Max, Cenan, Mark, Jethro, Anna G., Theo, Chris, Dominik, Tim, Hugo, Matt, Anna L., Navy, Francesca, Giulia, Konstantin, Ollie

Results, pictures and videos of the show will be available as the various people involved will be in the position to supply them: just keep following the TG2014 tag on this blog for any further development.

If you were there I would like to know your impressions: please leave a comment to this post.

A dignified approach to sparring beginners

Image Copyright and courtesy of Duncan Grisby

Image Copyright and courtesy of Duncan Grisby

A couple of weeks ago I was having a chat with a friend who started white collar boxing in a local Cambridge club late last year.  He described his first day in that club in a way that many would depict as a horrifying experience. He was asked to enter the ring to spar with 5 established, fit and trained athletes from that gym, just to see “what he’s got”.  Result was, unsurprisingly, that he had a black eye and bruised nose.  In my opinion the above described event could indeed be a good approach to check who really has the guts to step into a ring without necessarily being prepared for that kind of confrontation; it’s also a great way of losing, by the dozens, potentially good students and future promising fighters, by discouraging them to continue training.

As a martial artist and a coach I find this kind of attitude very much old school and outdated; I like to teach, instil and apply what we could define as a dignified approach to sparring beginners, a methodology that encourages a novice student to starts her first steps into sparring without unnecessary risks of getting hurt.

Sparring is about putting in practice what technical lessons are teaching: techniques, combinations, foot work, attacking, defending and blocking; it all gets mixed together at fast pace and without precise order.  At first this is all very confusing and often overwhelming; for some people sparring triggers nearly irrational violent instincts while others simply freeze and get frustrated, feeling incapable of delivering decent performance.

We must assume that any decent martial arts club will have a bunch of senior students and members who are skilled in sparring and fit for fighting.  Some of them are perhaps competing at local, regional or national level.  These people have both the skill and the fitness to potentially hurt, seriously hurt, a beginner if just they wanted to.  However it makes very little sense to do that; I educate all of my students to avoid exploiting the advantage they have on beginners.

A dignified approach to sparring beginners is simply about setting your skills at a level that is slightly better than the beginner you are training with and showing her how you can score on them starting from a fairly soft level of contact.  Pressure of contact can and should be increased as and when applicable.  This methodology ensures that the advanced student is winning the round and maintains its technical superiority while it offers a list of advantages to both people sparring:

  • Better control of the fight
  • Reduced risk of injuries from both sides
  • Fostering an increasing self confidence for the beginners that ultimately helps to improve her technique and sparring skills

In some cases the dignified approach to sparring beginners becomes difficult to maintain because:

  • The beginner is learning and progressing a lot faster than expected and her techniques from one session to the other improves to a much better point
  • The beginner builds up a false illusion that her sparring skills are now sufficient to put in difficulty the advance student
  • The beginner gets enraged and starts hitting without any control

In the above cases we usually approach the problem with a few words of advice; if the beginners still misbehaves out of logical control we suggest increasing the pressure until it is enough to win the round and educate her.

So if you are a beginner you can be assured that your first sparring sessions will not be traumatic and testing what “you have got” but be aware that there are usually many people in the club that can potentially harm you so respect for your opponent is always a must.