Friday, 18 February 2011

Gyaku Zuki - odd punch out?

I have been working on individual kihon techniques quite a lot recently as part of my shodan preparations and have come to the conclusion that gyaku zuki (reverse punch) is the odd man out. Gyaku zuki is often considered to be the definitive punch in karate with lots written about it's bio mechanics and its ability to deliver a hard, powerful punch.

If you think about it though the principle of the reverse punch is contra to just about every other technique in karate. Let me explain.....

A while back I wrote an article about nanba aruki which is a principle of moving in which the same arm and leg are moved together so that movement pivots around the centre line of the body. The Japanese people used to walk like this all the time prior to the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century after which they started to adopt all things Western, including walking with opposing arms and legs. However the principle of nanba aruki in inherent in most classical martial arts.

Lets think of a few techniques and examine whether they use nanba aruki principles:
oi zuki (lunge punch) - yes (punching over the leading leg)
sekyaku zuki (half step punch) - yes (punch with same leg that you step with)
maeken zuki (leading hand punch) - yes ( leading hand pulls back and then punches out over leading leg)
empi (elbow) strikes - yes (if you step back into cat stance to strike behind you its same side arm as leg. If you step forward to strike it's also the same side.)

Common combinations of stances and blocks:
Niko ashi dachi (cat stance) with shuto uchi uke (knife hand strike)- yes
Kokutsu dachi (back stance) with gedan barai (downward sweeping block) - yes
Sanchin dachi (hour glass stance) with tsukami uke (2 handed grasping block) - yes

All tai sabaki movements utilise nanba aruki as well - it's quicker and more efficient to move this way.

Then there's gyaku zuki! This punch is generally performed in zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) though it can be performed in cat stance. Whatever the stance, by definition the gyaku zuki contradicts the principle of nanba aruki and is therefore definitely the odd man out!

So where has it come from? I'm not doubting for one moment the effectiveness of this punch, merely the origin. If you examine the kata you find that the gyaku zuki does not appear very often. I could only examine the kata that I know but I have found that the older the kata the less likely you are to see gyaku zuki. In the kyu grade kata of our system the gyaku zuki appears in only 5 out of 13 kata: Pinan shodan, Pinan godan, Annanku, Neiseishi and Matsukazi (Wankan). The Pinans and Annanku are relatively modern kata (late 19th, early 20th Century), Neiseishi has many versions, some of them fairly modern i.e early 20th Century. However all these kata were developed post Meiji restoration and are all Shuri te or Tomari te kata. The exception to the rule is Matsukazi kata which is very ancient (its origin may be 400 years old), its roots are in the Hakkyoku ken system from Northern China.

I initially thought that the gyaku zuki was a modern addition to karate (20th century) but the fact that it is in Matsukazi kata suggests that it has been around a while. However I would suspect that it has been popularised by the rise in sports karate during the mid-late 20th century and by the fact that the Japanese adopted Western principles of movement in sport.

What do you think about gyaku zuki? Old or modern? Odd man out? Do you know any other karate techniques that are contra to the nanba aruki principle?
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Friday, 11 February 2011

Reality Based Systems - whose reality?

If you were to stretch the whole of martial arts out along a continuum so that at one end you had the purely ‘jutsu’ systems (very applied ‘fighting’ systems) and at the other end you had the purely ‘do’ systems (spiritual, self perfecting/actualising systems), then the system of karate that I am learning would probably be about in the middle of that continuum. We spread some tendrils towards the ‘jutsu’ end with our goshin waza techniques and exploration of bunkai; and we spread a few tendrils towards the ‘do’ end with an emphasis on perfecting kihon technique and pushing ourselves to our physical limits to improve mental strength and spirit.

However there is a plethora of new systems developed in recent times that would firmly and proudly put themselves at the ‘jutsu’ end of the scale – they call themselves Reality Based Systems.

Now, I don’t doubt for one minute that many of these systems are highly effective, taught by skilled and experienced instructors and ‘do what they say on the tin’, which seems to be a common phrase in reality martial arts. However, I do have one doubt about them – I’m very dubious about their interpretation of ‘reality’.

Bearing in mind that these systems are targeted at ‘ordinary citizens’; apparently the perils they tell us we all face on a daily basis in our ‘reality’ are: bombings, armed robberies, drive-by shootings, carjacking, gang violence, sniper attacks, multiple attackers, knife attacks, gang rapes….. the list goes on. Okay, these things happen in a modern society but they are not everyday scenarios and they do not accurately represent reality for the vast majority of ‘ordinary citizens’.

As you go about your daily life you are much more likely to encounter a bit of road rage, an argumentative or threatening customer/client, an opportunistic bag snatcher, a belligerent drunk, an intimidating beggar, a potential distraction burglar or for some people, a ‘domestic violence’ situation. These types of events are much more a part of reality for people than the former list, and even then they are not encountered every day.

These ‘reality based’ systems are often designed and run by ex-military people, people who seem to think they have a better handle on reality than the ‘ordinary citizens’ they are instructing. But modern society is not a theatre of war. Modern society may have its criminal element and is occasionally (though rarely) subject to an act of terrorism, most people will never be involved in this or even witness it in their entire lives.

The definition of reality is: “the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or may be thought to be.” This is actual reality but of course there is also ‘consensus reality’. Consensus reality is “when two or more individuals agree upon the interpretation and experience of a particular event. This being common to a few individuals or a larger group, then becomes the "truth" as seen and agreed upon by a certain set of people. Thus one particular group may have a certain set of agreed-upon truths, while another group might have a different set. This allows different communities and societies to have very different notions of reality and truth about the external world.”

I would advocate that ex-military people who have seen active service will have a very different notion of reality and truth about the external world than ordinary civilians whose daily self-protection needs are very different. Thus ‘Reality based systems’, or at least the more militaristic ones are only really of any value to people working in situations with a similar consensus reality i.e the military, law enforcement and the security services. They are of very limited practical value to us ordinary citizens. One website I looked at promoting reality based self-defence boasted that it was, “Born in Battle, Christened in Combat” and promised that: “The Self Defense Training System is everything there is to know about man-on-man violence. Once you complete your training you will be an extremely dangerous person, feared and respected by all.” Is this really what ordinary people need? Do I really need to learn ‘counter-terrorism’ techniques or how to avoid a sniper?

I just think that some of these reality systems create a ‘fantasy reality’ that they then design a program to defend against and teach it to a high standard. The whole thing is very internally consistent but it doesn’t represent the actual reality that most people live in. Even reality based systems aimed at women focus on dealing with violent confrontations such as stranger rape or knife attacks. Though these may represent 'common crimes' at a society level, on an individual level a womans life time risk of being raped or attacked by a knifeman is very low, particularly if she learns about avoidance and awareness. However, her chances of feeling threatened by an irrate customer/colleague/boss/neighbour/partner are much more common - how many reality systems deal with this?

No doubt there are many self-defence courses and systems out there that do teach useful, everyday self-protection techniques based on avoidance, common sense and conflict resolution. They probably don’t call themselves ‘reality based’ but actually represent a much more common civilian reality than so called ‘reality systems’ do.

I just wish these macho ‘reality’ based systems would re-brand themselves as ‘situation based’, or ‘contextually based’ self-defence systems and stop marketing themselves to ordinary civilians as they simply do not address their true needs but instead create a fear of violent confrontation when none is warranted. This type of training may be suitable for people working in law-enforcement, security or the military but in my opinion they are not much use to anyone else.

Okay, I’m off my soap box now and awaiting the fall out…….

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Thursday, 3 February 2011

Muscle Memory - it's all in the mind!

Muscle memory is a common phrase associated with the martial arts as well as in other sports, playing a musical instrument, riding a bike or in the acquisition of any other psycho-motor skill for that matter. It is a useful way of trying to understand what is going on: through repetition of a set of muscular actions, that muscle (or group of muscles) will eventually react to a stimulus in a predictable and reliable way. It is as if those muscles have ‘remembered’ what to do and the movements become automatic without the need for conscious control.

Unfortunately the phrase ‘muscle memory’ grates on me a little! It may feel as if your muscles just know what to do all by themselves and you aren’t consciously sending them messages to contract or relax at a given moment but your unconscious brain is working very hard to tell your muscles what to do in any given situation. Clearly memory resides in the brain not the muscles. In my opinion a more accurate phrase to describe what is happening is motor memory.

We control all muscular movements in our bodies through the motor system which basically consists of the brain, neurons (and their synapses) and the somatic muscles. If you want to move a part of your body, your brain sends the signal down the appropriate neurons to the appropriate muscle(s) and the muscle contracts to move the required limb. Repetitive patterns of movement, such as walking or cycling, eventually become unconscious actions, though they are still being continuously controlled by the brain.

When we are learning a new skill, say for instance a new kata or a new type of kick, your movements may be clumsy and jerky – not at all like your instructors movements. This is because your brain has not yet laid down a memory pattern for this movement. It hasn’t recruited the appropriate motor units in the muscle and developed new neuronal and synaptic connections that enhance communication between the muscle and the brain.

With repetitive training of the required skill, the necessary motor units in the muscles are recruited, neurons and synapses are created to control these motor units and a ‘memory map’ becomes laid down in the brain which enables the required movement to be evoked quickly and accurately when a stimulus is received. For example, you see a punch coming towards your head (stimulus) and before you know it you have evaded and blocked it. You didn’t think about it, it just seemed to happen automatically! Well it probably did happen automatically because it’s a technique you’ve practiced over and over again, your brain just executed the move below your conscious control – but rest assured it was still your brain controlling it.

As a new ‘memory map’ is developed in the brain your execution of a particular technique, let’s say that new kata or kick, becomes more fluid and natural, more precise and predictable. This is because your brain has better, more precise control of the necessary muscles needed to carry out that movement.

So, how do we create these ‘memory maps’ in our brains (motor memory)?
There are three phases to motor learning, i.e. learning a new skill.

Cognitive phase: learning a skill for the first time requires a great deal of thinking. You have to be consciously aware of every single movement you have to perform. Think how mentally taxing learning a new kata is. Not only do you have to learn and remember the sequence of steps, you have to think about coordinating hand and foot positions, which way to look, which leg to place your weight on, which direction to turn…. there’s just so much to think about. During this phase you go through a process of trial and error to determine which strategies help make the movement work better. Initial progress can be quite quick.

Associative phase: You’ve worked out the best way to do the actions, so during this phase you fine tune adjustments to make the performance better. Improvements are more gradual and this phase may take a long time, still requiring a lot of conscious effort. We often perceive this as a long plateau phase in our training.

Autonomous phase: This the phase where the ‘memory map’ is complete and the actions become automatic and unconscious. It can take months or years of training to achieve this. This is why martial arts take such a long time to get good at.

During the first two phases a process of memory encoding is taking place. New neurons are being created and motor units in the muscles recruited. These new neurons are fragile and susceptible to damage. This is why we tend to keep forgetting steps and movements we are learning and need reminding a lot when we first start. Several areas of the brain are active during this phase. During the final phase the process of memory consolidation occurs. This is much more stable and less likely to degrade. Long term structural modifications are made to the motor map which prevents degradation. This is why once we have learned a skill well we tend not to forget it even if we don’t practice it for years, for example, riding a bike.

How can we enhance motor learning and motor memory?

Feedback: there are two types of feedback occurring during learning:

  • Inherent feedback: you constantly give yourself positive and negative feedback about your performance and make corrections. For example, you notice that you lean forward to hit the pad so you correct this by stepping forward a little. You learn to correct a wobble when you turn by placing your feet further apart. We can enhance our use of inherent feedback by having a clear picture of what we are aiming for so that we can compare our performance to an ideal one. Inherent feedback is a very active process – you have to think critically about what you are doing. Videotaping can be a good way of helping us to improve our inherent feedback.

  • Augmented feedback: this is when someone else gives you feedback about your performance. Our instructors regularly critique and correct our performance. This is good – it speeds up our learning, listen!

Endurance and Strength training: Endurance training helps to protect the newly forming neurons that make up the developing memory map in the brain by up-regulating the production of neurotropic factors which prevent the degradation of the delicate new cells. The effects of strength training are seen in the development of new neurons in the spinal cord well before there are any noticeable changes in the muscles being exercised. This suggests that endurance, strength and skills training are synergistic; enhancing the rate of motor memory encoding and consolidation.

Visualisation: just visualising yourself doing the techniques you are learning has been shown to help induce new neuronal activity that enhances your real performance of the skill. Day dreaming isn’t a waste of time if it is focussed on learning those skills you want to perfect!

However you like to think about it, muscle memory or motor memory, it’s all in the brain! If you think about skills learning as something that is happening in your brain rather than your muscles then you can focus on things that enhance the process such as visualisation and inherent feedback. Of course though, your skill level is going to be limited if your muscles aren’t in good condition so some endurance and strength training are also important, particularly as they have a synergistic effect on producing those all important motor memory maps in your brain!

Happy training.

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