Kill the Sensei

Rory Miller's Blog - Tue, 2014-10-21 22:01
Generally, martial arts are taught very poorly. For the so-called "traditional" Japanese and Okinawan arts, they way they are taught is not traditional at all. For many systems, the first generation of US and European instructors learned just after WWII, from an occupied people who hated them and through shitty translators in large regimented groups. Somehow, this unnatural bastard idea of training got called "traditional" and since it set the standards for training, people assumed it was good. Get this, 'Standard' and 'Good" are not the same thing.

One of the details of this teaching method is correction. The instructor's job is to tell the student what the student did wrong. Even on the rare occasion when the sensei starts with, "Very good..." there is always a "...but" to follow.

We know micromanaging makes for unproductive and unhappy employees. How and why did it become the norm in a field that should be about survival? If you get corrected no matter what you do, it creates a condition called "learned helplessness" in which the best strategy is to do as little as possible. Why waste energy when you will just be corrected anyway? If you're going to be punished, why be tired, too?

We had a great crew at the MNVD seminar. A week of intense fun, learning. For me it was a chance to tighten up on teaching methods and compare and contrast with others.

Dealing with violence, there aren't a lot of good answers. The usual issue is choosing the option that sucks the least. At this venue, all the instructors were on the same page for this: "That's not what I would have done but you did it and it worked. If I were to tell you something that worked was wrong, that doesn't make it wrong, that just means I'm an asshole."

The student's got the sentiment, they got the words. They actually seemed to revel in and they really grew with the freedom. But even on the last day, there were a few questions about whether someone achieved success 'correctly.' And throughout the week, almost everyone had been so brainwashed that when they were not being criticized by the instructors, they were criticizing themselves. One used the Dracula's Cape technique to evade simultaneous attacks from three people. Get this-- at a signal you can't see, three people, all within arm's reach, launch at you simultaneously. And you knock one back and successfully get off the X for the other two, who collide. That's a good day right there.

And you could see the guy who pulled it off listening to an imaginary sensei on his shoulder, telling him it wasn't perfect. Beating himself up over a success.

We all know, or at least should know, that efficient teaching involves rewarding improvement. Punishing imperfection might keep skills from degrading, but it does nothing to show the way forward. Constant criticism is not good teaching. It rewards passivity and creates victims. Knock it off. In the end, it will brainwash the students so badly that they will create and maintain little imaginary sensei that sit on their shoulders and whisper the criticism even when you aren't there.

Don't create that voice in your head, don't create that voice in your student's heads, and if you have an imaginary critical sensei perched on your shoulder, kill it.

What If...

Rory Miller's Blog - Mon, 2014-10-20 18:05
Minnesota was a big experience with a lot of learning. I'll debrief it when the lessons have had some time to settle.

In the meantime, Jaime Clubb from the UK sent me a review copy of his book, "Mordred's Victory" I'm about halfway through. I knew Jaime from the now-defunct Cyberkwoon website. It was the place I went to ask questions about Chinese arts, and where I first met Mauricio, Theo, Ffab, Dave Jamieson, Steve Pascoe and a few other valuable friends.

 Jaime is someone I know on line only, and he's struck me as a good thinker, good writer. He's grown up with the RBSD movement in the UK.

There's a section in his book about teaching RBSD to kids. I don't teach kids, they don't need to know the things in my head and _if_ they can grasp the concept, they pretty much aren't kids anymore. But that's my perspective, not the truth. And one of his chapters talks about kids asking "why."

I haven't finished the chapter. I wanted to get this written before I finished Jaime's thoughts. Really good insight is often too influential, and when I'm around a good writer or a good instructor with good insights, like all humans I have a tendency to follow instead of think for myself. So a few paragraphs triggered a thought process and I want to get it down before I finish.

So, hat tip to Jaime for making me think.

If you have kids, you know some of the stages. The "no" stage and the "mine" stage. And the why stage. The why stage can be infuriating and there is always a sneaky suspicion that the kid is playing a game, pulling you to the end of your rope: Why is the sky blue? "Because the gasses in the atmosphere absorb more yellow and red light?" Why? "All substances reflect and absorb different electromagnetic wavelengths differently." If I'm very, very lucky here, the kid will switch from the "why" to the "what question: "Whats electromagnetic?"

The kid asking why is NOT trying to punk you out, not trying to dominate you, not trying to humiliate you with how shallow your knowledge really is. The kid doesn't know and desperately wants to know. More than that, kids want to understand, and you can't understand jack shit with just surface knowledge. So they push deeper, and "why" is a question that pushes deeper. If you can honestly track why to the source, you will find the principles that underly everything you do. The principles of the physical art that you study or the principles of your own ethics. All same/same. You just have to keep asking the question and answer honestly.

It's not the "what if" game. Every instructor knows the "what if monkey." For every situation or technique, there's the, "What if he counter attacks with the right hand?" "What if he has a knife concealed in his boot?" "What if he has a friend?" "What if the guy attacking you is a midget with a BJJ background?" "What if you're suddenly attacked by 37 ninjas?"

Because it follows a similar pattern (the same question repeated over and over, always based on the last answer) and because both patterns can be annoying and because both patterns inevitably lead beyond your ability to answer* it is possible to see these as related. But they aren't They absolutely aren't.

The questioning of "why" uses the wisdom of a child to get deeper, to understand things, to get the principles out in the open. The questioning of "what if" makes things more technical, more about the surface. If you understand a deep why, you can use that understanding in a thousand different situations. If you get a great answer on a what if question, you have one thing that you can only use in one ridiculously specific situation.

* Inevitably. All "what if" questions eventually grow into situations that can't be handled. And all why questions eventually dig down to physics so esoteric that no one knows the real answer. Our knowledge is limited, own that.

Creating and delivering self defence courses for women

John Titchen's Blog - Thu, 2014-10-16 14:49

Every year I deliver a number of single sex and mixed sex personal safety and self defence courses or lectures. A moderator on the online forum Martial Arts Planet recently approached me to write a short article about how I approach the subject of female self defence. The subject is far too large to sum up in a single article, but what I can do is give my opinions on the starting points for creating a worthwhile course.


Planning and Preparation

  1. Know your audience.

This is crucial for creating course content. The age group (or groups), ethnic mix and general social background will determine both content and approach. Regrettably there is a high probability that within your group you may have women that have suffered some form of violence or abuse, and while the participants will normally have opted to take part, they have not done so to get traumatised by off the cuff remarks or generalisations, nor may they wish to share any experience. The audience determines both the content and teaching style of the course.

  1. Trainers and the elephants in the room.

(i) Experience. I believe that honesty is the best policy. A trainer should give a very short summation of their background to help put things in context. A trainer should be open about their experience (or lack of experience) and knowledge and the basis on which the course is designed.

(ii) Gender. Can a man deliver a self defence course to women, as he is not a woman? Yes. I know some exceptional self defence trainers both in the UK and abroad of both genders. Their knowledge, experience and ability to empathise and teach are far more important than their gender. Some men will only listen to men talking about self defence and some women will only pay attention to a woman (or have suffered a degree of trauma that makes a same-sex instructor a better option for participation and engagement), but that does not mean that a trainer of your own gender is always the best teacher on this subject.

  1. Teaching style.

Teaching style is a very individual thing and I have seen a range of different styles used effectively. Although self defence is a very serious subject, humour can be used, although I would advise against poking fun at students that you barely know. A good self defence course should be driven and paced by the instructor but provide the opportunity to include the students as what you say may encourage them to share something that has been weighing on their mind and such sharing may benefit both them, the other attendees and you.

Regrettably the length of the course (and each session) is often decided by the host rather than the trainer. Most trainers still take on constrained courses on the basis that providing some training is better than no training, but in doing so there will always be compromises on both teaching style and content. As a result it is important to prioritise. The mental aspects of self defence are more important, more useful and more permanent than any form of physical training and should be prioritised.


Personal Safety and Self Defence – the mental framework

The mental side of self defence is about empowering your audience through knowledge and personal motivation. What needs to be covered will depend upon the age and social background of your group. The following list and order is flexible as in forming a course certain elements will naturally tie together and cross-pollinate.

  1. Use of force and the law.
  2. Accurate crime picture (including risk) based on government, police and ED data (where available).
  3. Natural human reactions to actual or potential abuse, aggression and violence, both in anticipation of, during and after events.
  4. Rationales and motivation for action or inaction in self defence both before, during and after events.
  5. Avoidance strategies.
  6. Deterrence strategies.
  7. Awareness – common tactics and patterns in abuse, sexual crime and violent crime.
  8. De-escalation and no contact escape strategies – body language, use of voice, phrasing.

The list above is very much tied in with your credentials as a trainer. Being a martial artist or having personal experience is not enough. There is a huge body of high quality literature available for research (too much to recommend one single text) based on the experiences of large numbers of people.


Self Defence – the physical framework

Once again what can be delivered will depend upon the age and ability of the group and the time allocated. In my opinion the mental training is the key to unlocking the maximum potential of the physical training.

There is an elephant in the room when it comes to physical training. Realistically not everything works all the time, no matter how good a technique is. Skill, motivation, adrenaline and the element of surprise give an edge but so do aggression, experience and strength. With that said it is important that what is taught is material appropriate to the context of real scenarios and relative positions, is simple to do (even under pressure) and has been shown (to the training deliverer at the very least) to be reliable under pressure.

The following elements should form the basis of the physical part of the course.

  1. Biomechanics and weak points of the human body.
  2. Gross motor strikes that utilise otherwise natural and everyday movements.
  3. Impact training.
  4. Paired or group work based on HAOV (habitual acts of violence) to build confidence.
  5. Optional participation in scenario training.

Conscious incompetence

John Titchen's Blog - Wed, 2014-10-15 08:28

Conscious incompetence. It could be viewed as a pretty harsh term. After all it sounds pretty nasty. Without the right attitude and support it is a discovery that can end martial arts training for many people. I would argue though that conscious incompetence is the driver that distinguishes between the average, the good and the great.

When we begin training we do so with mixed amount of conscious incompetence and unconscious incompetence. We know there’s a lot that we don’t know and we also don’t know how much we don’t know (known unknowns and unknown unknowns). After a short time most students pass into a state of unconscious incompetence, they continue to progress and refine their skills but they don’t really recognise or understand how imperfect their performance is or how it can be improved.

Conscious incompetence is the personal revelation that whatever you are doing is not ‘right’, that it could be done better. This does not necessarily mean that a person’s skill level is low or bad, simply that they recognise little (and large) flaws and areas for improvement. This is not the same as having flaws identified externally by others which we may or may not understand and which we are often coached through whether we ask for help or not.

Seeing fault in our own skill level in a large part of what we do in the martial arts can be extremely frustrating and demoralising. How we respond can determine whether we continue to enjoy our training, stay training in the same discipline or switch to another believing that we have wasted time, or quit the martial arts completely. Which route is taken depends on both the student and the instructor. In my experience a student that takes responsibility for their own learning, looks to their own effort to improve their own technique rather than relying heavily on their coach, and is prepared to put in the time to refine skills and correct faults is far more likely to see conscious incompetence as an interesting and motivating challenge. A student that relies heavily on their instructor for guidance, or who is used to achieving what they believe or have perceived to be a high skill level with ease, is far more like to be dissatisfied and look to blame the technique, the art or the instructor.

I believe that it is important that instructors continuously make students aware that there are levels within levels of techniques and skill sets, and that while they may be able to ‘do’ something, there is always room for an improvement. In such a learning environment, with students always encouraged to seek to polish their skills, conscious incompetence should be highlighted as a learning stage and a sign of improvement. If students are taught to see it as a sign of achievement and an impetus to develop it is less likely to have a negative effect. As a result students will probably be far more likely to come to their instructors for practical advice on how to improve.

The advice we give or take will depend very much on the problem we believe that we are trying to solve. The most important thing is that whether it is a plan for ourselves or for someone else, we should focus on small steps. Objectives should always be SMART, that is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Rewarding and Time limited.

Specific: We must make clear and unambiguous statements about what it is we are going to achieve.

Measurable: There must be some way to determine when the objective has been met. We therefore make a statement that describes how we will measure success or failure of the objective.

Achievable: It must be possible to reach the objective. It is important to understand in advance whether or not the objective is achievable. It is important to remember, however, that many tasks when first approached seem insurmountable, so it is important to be optimistic and to take on a challenge.

Rewarding: The objective should bring sufficient reward that it is worth undertaking. There is always a cost / benefit ratio to consider. It is always important to consider what the cost and benefit will be before initiating a task.

Time limited: There should be a clear time frame set out for when the objective will be met. Many things of worth are not achieved quickly and it is important to approach tasks consistently rather than sporadically. Breaking the task down into sub-tasks and estimating time frames is essential if we are to understand the cost of the task.

Unconscious incompetence, conscious competence and conscious incompetence are a continuous cycle in our development. We approach something knowing we don’t know it, we then believe that we do know it and then discover that we don’t know it as well as we could. This engenders training to attempt to regain that feeling of conscious competence, but in doing so we also gain conscious incompetence of related skill sets and a realisation that we had unconscious incompetence of other things, and so our growth continues. It can be overwhelming or it can be seen as an exciting challenge. I like to view it as the latter and that is one of the main reasons why I’m still training.

Next Project

Rory Miller's Blog - Sat, 2014-10-11 16:25
The writing project for the end of the year will begin in November. It won't be a novel, but I'll do it as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge, to complete a full book in one month, November. I'm excited about it but just as worried. The subject is pretty big, and I'm not aware of anyone who has hit it at this level.

The idea is how to train for emergencies. What teaching methods have the best chance when the skills must be used out of the box, under stress and with no time to think? Most of our current idea about teaching and learning are classroom based. Gordon Graham's High Risk-Low Frequency category is rarely addressed. When it is addressed, too often it is a magical handwave past the messy parts and an opportunity for administrators to check a box.

Military and police do it, sometimes well, often not. But professional units have a huge advantage and it may be the single most important component to making the skills functional. They do everything in their power to make sure that no one goes through their first several real encounters alone. You will have an FTO or be assigned to a squad. You try to make sure never to make a new unit out of rookies and if you must (say, because there is a new technology and therefor new and untested techniques) you put the most grizzled old veteran you can find in charge. If you want the unit to succeed.

This opportunity doesn't exist for civilians. You won't get the chance to go through your first home invasion with a partner who has been through dozens. And that modeling of someone else who knows how to deal with it may be the critical thing. So how can you train without it?

Have to cover teaching methods, adult learning, curriculum development. But I also want to get into the mysteries. Why do some very advanced techniques come out of nowhere with untrained people sometimes? There are a very few people who with minimal training and no experience did ridiculously complex things exactly as trained... but no one else with the same training did it. And statistically it appears to be so rare it might as well never happen. But it does. And some "perishable" skills seem to lock in under circumstances and pop up when needed decades after the last event or training. For all people? For some? Lots of mysteries.

Likely a section on acquiring the skills that will make you valuable to other people. Everybody can teach, but not everybody can teach something useful.

And even sections on the paperwork necessary if you want to teach pros.

Big project. Eager to get started and worried it won't be enough. I know this feeling.


Rory Miller's Blog - Thu, 2014-10-09 00:22

I have lesson plans. I have lesson plans coming out of my ears. I've written lesson plans for SAR, the Sheriff's Office, the National Guard, the Iraqi Corrections Service... but, sometimes, damn.
So I'm in Germany. Some evening classes for civilians, cool. The regular Ambushes and Thugs/Intro to Violence seminar over the weekend. Cool. Conflict Communications on the campus of the Mainz riot police, cool. Conflict Communications is always cool since it doesn't matter what the problem is. Bad guys? Clueless bosses? Family? ConCom explains it pretty well. Tuesday was ConCom.
Wednesday was scheduled for physical control. I had been led to believe that this group needed some skills in arrest and control tactics. Perfectly cool, I'm relatively good at that. But no. Sigh. 37 people. Maybe fifteen agencies. None of them had the same policies or tools.
My normal arrest and control lesson plan is pretty practical. In eight hours we cover:
  • 1-step
  • Joint locks
  • Take downs
  • Leverage and leverage points
  • Stance integrity
  • Ground movement
  • Pain (ethics and application)
  • Lock transition to cuffing
  • Momentum
  • Using the Environment
All useful, all intuitive...Tuesday I found out some of the students weren't allowed to arrest, so they didn't need cuffing. Most carried weapons ("waffen") --pepperspray and batons-- but not firearms. I had 10-15 agencies with different policies and equipment.
Turns out I'm relatively good at this. Yeah, international trainer and all that jazz, blah, blah, blah... but I have never felt like I'm a good teacher, which probably has a lot to do with the tendency to improve...
Fighting organizes.  It can organize in several ways. So I made the most appropriate organization for this group and let them vote on what they needed. We can talk about why later. The thing that I got excited about is that, as much as I train and think about conflict, I'd never organized it this way. Three levels: Escape, Control, Survival.
Completely different in every aspect. Only the Principles (things that made everything else work) crossed all three categories. And some became awesome insight. Power generation (one of my building blocks) is entirely different in "escape mode" and "damage mode" and doesn't apply (as I define it) at all in control mode. So I put the building blocks under the categories in which they were important. And let the students vote.
Okay, that's good teaching, let the adult students take control, blah blah blah...But I don't think i have ever once looked at my personal lost  of critical skills (the BUILDING BLOCKS) and tied the to the basic goals--escape, control, disable. And it was easy. And powerful. And empowered the students.
Good day.


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