Molar Equations And The Plastic Brain

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I wanted to be a science nerd really bad in high school. There was a problem with that for me. With my family’s frequent moves and the differing school systems I’d been exposed to, as well as some issues with no one noticing I needed glasses for many years, my math skills sucked.

And math is really important in physics and chemistry. So chemistry in particular was a massive drag for me. Physics I could get by in because the teacher was sort of taking it easy on everyone, but the chem teacher was a martinet. Probably because the students were damn close to immolating themselves a few times. So my scores were abysmal.

Until we got to molar equations. The rest of the class fell apart for this subject and couldn’t keep up, but to me it was childishly simple. Same when we covered ion rings and energy state changes in physics. I soared through those parts of class like a champion. I couldn’t understand my classmates who saw the whole thing as complex. To me it was simple and clear as day. But then, I learned how to do all this stuff in grade 3.

In grade 3 we moved to one of the wealthier neighborhoods in Canada…scratch that, THE wealthiest city in Canada, and education was a little different there. During one of our classes, we moved into the kindergarten wing of the school which was built in the experimental Pod fashion. In this case, a literal pea pod shapes area. The main building in the pod area was large and circular, and had ringed coliseum style seating all around the central floor.

One enterprising teacher had some students cluster about in the center, and some on the rings. She explained that we were an atom, and explained the parts. Then she had one kid jump down a ring, and explained how that meant some energy had to be given off, and that energy would be a photon. Photons in alignment is what made up a laser. Neat. She made us form into different atoms and we had fun for a bit and that was that, never thought about it again.

Until high school when we hit molar equations and I realize it’s just a bunch of kids moving up and down steps and how easy is that? Molecules are just a bunch of pods of kids with some kids swapping from one pod to another and how easy it that? So simple. Couldn’t see the complication at all.

So of course bringing this into the martial art discussion we may be tempted to say that gosh, we should have started training earlier. And that’s the wrong message. It’s as wrong as the message that success only comes from lots and lots of boring reps…which is true but not the way you think. Or rather I should say it’s true but only for some kinds of success.

The adult mind is an interesting thing. Molar equations are hard because we are taught that they are hard. We expect that they are hard. Gosh darned it, that’s why you have to learn things in a set order. You have to lay down all the educational foundations first before a brain is prepared to work on the awesome complexity of more difficult subjects!

And after enough years of this stodgy correct layering, we have nicely organized minds that have to be correctly prepared before they learn anything. Want to learn a new language? Gosh, better get all the grammar down first, in helpful little drabs.

Want to learn a martial art? Well let’s start you off with the basic simple things so you don’t get confused. You have an adult brain now and that thing is fragile and easily confused, don’t you know? Gotta hold your hands and give you basic tidbits, one after the other. Don’t rush or you will mess up the holy writ of Ten Thousand Reps by doing incorrect reps!

I learned to do molar equations not because I was young and had a plastic mind, but because some bold young teacher didn’t see the point of waiting for the correct time to teach something. She either ignored the apparent difficulty of the subject matter or just didn’t see it as all that hard of thing to teach. I am fairly certain she was an alien visitor from another planet, honestly.

So the point of all of this is that difficult things may be difficult because you expect them to be difficult. You expect them to be difficult because you’ve been told they are difficult. And when you go to learn them you will damned well find them difficult because that’s how life works.

And that’s a level of bullshit that I absolutely hate.

Plasticity in the brain is habit you must develop. I am a firm believer in throwing out all your internal structures once in a while and starting all over again from scratch.

As I’ve written time and again, I think it’s necessary for martial arts development. As if I didn’t have enough reasons to deplore bigotry in all it’s forms, it’s a sign of a brain fixed in place. It’s rigidity is not crystalline and pure, but more of the nature of plastic that has been left out in the sun too long, after a lifetime in dish washer. It’s clouded with millions of tiny fracture and ready to shatter at the first blow. The plastic of our minds should be frequently kneaded, strong enough to hold the shape we need it to, but neither so rigid as to break nor so soft that it can hold no form.

We start that by getting rid of our expectations of difficulty. If a child can learn molar equations in a short session, so can an adult as long as that adult is willing to let go of the dross in their mind.

Martial art is the hardest kind of equation, the most difficult thing some people will ever approach in their lives and it’s necessary that we work on our minds in order to prepare ourselves for what our bodies might be capable of. We need to do this because martial art isn’t a skill, despite what you will be told over and over again. Martial arts is not a skill. It’s an equation that no one has written out yet, nor will they ever. You have to work it out and understand it for yourself uniquely in ever single situation. There is no single tool or skill that can always be relied on, aside from the ability to rapidly understand the problem and divine a solution.

The brain must be malleable enough at all times that we are able to create a solution on the fly for the problems that we are presented with. In my last little set-to with an angry martial artist from another style that was losing his shit on me, this was very apparent. He exploded out at me, throwing all sorts of techniques, chaining together responses with great speed to react to everything I was doing. And I just sort of floated through all of it. It was easy to see the patterns in his responses…patterns he’d built with loads of reps under stress. They were easy to see and to trigger, which gave me plenty of room to move between the angles and land shot after shot. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good bit of a tussle, but even well-trained reflexes aren’t going to work so well with an opponent who is comfortable with chaos.

Find your molar equation.

 

 

Balancing Skill

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Conlan, who is going to be running what looks like another fantastic workshop at Valkyrie weekend after next, asked me a question on facebook today.

I’d posted one of my favourite handstand progression videos to my wall and Conlan asked about what my interest was in handbalancing. What was the benefit to working on it for us? He commented that handbalancing is very skill-specific, just like martial arts, and wondered how I would balance training in both.

Which is a great question, and gives me an opportunity to talk about some of the things that make our training at Valkyrie unique.

For a little bit of clarity, and to answer the obvious question, handbalancing skill is not very important to us. If it was, we’d spend far more time working on it in class. I posted the video because I believe students should pursue training opportunities outside of class as often as possible. Handstands are great for that because not only are they good strength building exercises for the shoulders that are very vulnerable in students of sword arts, but also because handstands make you go upside down.

Being upside down a lot is one of the core drivers of the Valkryie method. Mostly because being upside down goes against almost everything other martial arts train for. And also because it goes against almost everything we as adult humans consider normal. I’m not a fan of normal. Disrupting normal is martial arts tactic number one, so I want dis-normal to be a comfortable place for my students. Additionally, I have a pet theory that proprioceptors in the inner ear can have a positive effect on overall athleticism when activated.

Handstands and cartwheels are convenient things that people can work on that push these buttons. Other balance activities can work, and we use them at later stages. We could do a simple teddy bear stand to start that would give us a gentle and safe introduction and let us gradually build up skill in balance…but that has no value to me as a teacher. Challenge and possibility are important things.

When you are being crushed or beaten by a bigger, stronger, more violent  and better trained human being…comfort, normalcy, and working only with what you believe is possible can be a death sentence. You must be able to push yourself into the impossible. You must believe you can do things you can’t imagine. I’m not talking about superhuman powers, but rather about breaking out of a freeze state, or the goofy loop of “give up” that the head can get stuck in. You need to be comfortable moving with no balance, embracing the fall and absolute chaos and using it, not trying to get back to equilibrium.

So, yes. Handbalancing practice is of benefit to us, but skill is also of benefit as far as it allows us to pursue greater challenges and discomforts.

Of course I have to balance this out a little by also stating that the martial arts skillset is also not very important to us. Manipulating chaos and understanding it’s parameters in the current engagement is our primary skillset goal. Obviously we train in physical skills that give us better channels to express our understanding, but it’s not very important that we be good at any particular skill or skillset.

For example, we train in groundwork, but our goal is not to have students polish and learn a set of skills to use in that arena, but rather to have students understand how to create an exploit for the situation on the fly. In any given arena of skill, we will always have less skill than a specialist. Odds are we are never going to produce a champion grappler! It’s not our goal. That said I still want students to compete in grappling because it’s more exposure for them, and some may choose to develop specific skills. But our goal in this case is to produce a student who can find themselves on the ground and think outside the box for a solution suited to the exact circumstance.

Similarly with swordwork we look for students to grow skill in movement and finding a way to make more chaos for the opponent, more than having students who come into a bout feeling like they have all the answers to all of the problems that can occur. We want to be the source of new and unexpected problems for our opponents.

Training to be this way is going to be extremely difficult and I expect I won’t really see the results I want until the 3rd or even 4th generation students have put some serious time in. The first two generations are shaping up remarkably well but life is no fun if you don’t dream big.

So our approach is physical discomfort like we find in basic handbalancing, and psychological discomfort like we found in John’s remarkable knife workshop from last weekend. Layered on top of that is a solid training program we have built to guide students through all of this towards our goal for them.

We try to take the benefits from learning skills without necessarily working to improve the skill. I do believe that a competent martial artist should be able to see nearly any physical skill performed and make a fair go at attempting it. If you see something done and immediately think that it’s impossible to do, you are not a martial artist the way I think of one. A technician most likely, but anything the human body can do should be something a martial artist sees as a possibility if enough practice is put in. That awareness should come from constantly pushing our boundaries of our own performance, and learning from the inside how the body works.

Stripping Down To The Real Basics

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I was looking over an old notebook about a month ago, from back when I started rapier fencing. One day I had taken a bunch of notes after talking to a bunch of the really senior fencers, and watching them bout against younger and newer fighters. One of the things I wrote down stuck in my head, and this weekend I saw even more examples of it.

We just wrapped a lovely weekend workshop run by Cst. John Irving on knife fighting. It was a good opportunity to expose some of our newer students to shock knife work, and a chance for everyone to get exposed to John’s finely tuned stress environment training.

The thing I had written down in my notebook years ago, was that experienced fighter tend to be very still, while new fighters are all over the place. At first I thought that must have been a bit of  mistake on my part to note that, since Valkyrie’s focus is almost entirely movement based. But over the last few weeks, I’ve been observing students learning and sparring, and seeing a little better what I meant by that.

New fighters are unsure about what they are doing, and are constantly evaluating their own decisions as they make them. This tends to result in frequent twitches and movements that go nowhere…the physical expressions of the thoughts that die in the mind before being acted on. The experienced fighters tend to either choose a technique and then patiently wait for an opportunity to use it, or simply relax and trust that they will do the right thing when the time comes.

Now how this actually plays out doesn’t translate to literal stillness on the part of the experienced fighters. Watching closely, I see that they are never really still…there is always motion taking place. It’s a truism in fencing that you should always strike at a still point. Good fencers never present that still point, so they are always idly moving in arcs that tend to not repeat. It just appears still because they are not making sudden or quick motions.

The idea for the experienced fighter is to never have even a split second where you cannot instantly launch an attack, and because of that requirement the movements tend to be restrained to opportunistic arcs.

The new fighter always moves, and it contrasts because the character of their motion is frantic and sudden, which means a tremendous amount of effort is spent in recovering from bad positions that you have put yourself into with wide or sudden motions. Footwork tends to be reactive and instinctive, which means it’s almost always backwards, which is a tactically poor choice. Instinct has no place in sword work. At least not at this level.

So watching the knife work this weekend, as John ramped up the stress levels and the shock knives continued to provide some hefty reinforcement of why bad choices are bad, I watched a change come over all the students.

They moved more like experienced fighters. As the weekend wore on, they moved more like accomplished and experienced fighters. When they chose to attack, it was often with exceptionally smooth mechanics, with a recovery and escape built in. Their out of contact movement was refined and showed their focus on the consequences of not paying attention. It was clear that their minds had been stripped of extraneous concerns and decisions. They were intent on not being hit, and finding a way out of the situation…which generally meant doing great harm to the other person. As a result, their movement was athletic and almost animalistic. Fantastic to see.

I’m looking forward to working with the students that were there this last weekend, and seeing how that movement pattern continues and whether it can be sustained during more normal blade work.

 

Fixes and Changes

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We’re coming to the end of another cycle of teaching at Valkyrie, and we’ve already started rolling out a new curriculum. For the coaches, it offers less strict guidelines on what to teach, but more strict goals of what students should achieve. So less direction on what specific drills to do, and more emphasis on working through a given topic in a way that makes sense to particular group of students we see on any given night.

To make sure we are all together on how this will be done, I’m returning to being head coach for every single night of instruction. I’m taking Saturday mornings off in exchange, and letting the other coaches have a chance to play in Power class.

I’m loving how it’s working out. Getting a chance to personalize classes a little bit is letting me really reach down into the deeps of my knowledge in a way I haven’t been able to do before. The slight change in emphasis turns out to be making a big difference. The structure is easier to see and I think it makes more sense now for all the coaches to relate the current focus of a class to the arc we see ourselves and the students taking over each cycle.

It’s too early tell what effect it’s going to have on our skill development curve, but so far I’m starting to see things I like. It certainly helps solve one of the bigger issues I’ve had teaching. Which is also an issue I know other instructors have. It’s the delicate balancing act that comes out from having a mix of skill and knowledge levels in one class, but having a single skill slated to be taught in that class. How do you keep everyone challenged at their particular level?

If the goal is to have a student land a jab at the end of the class, compared the the goal of having a student learn how to execute a jab, it’s much easier to accommodate the different levels. It’s a seemingly small difference, but from my experience the vast majority of martial arts teach skills with the goal of becoming better at the skill. And I know some people will read that sentence and wondering why that is a problem, but it’s somewhat like going to carpentry school and learning how to swing a hammer. And then learning how to hold a nail. Meanwhile the advanced students are working on slowly and carefully learning to align the hammer and the nail together, so that some day they may be capable of landing the perfect blow and driving the perfect nail.

Meanwhile beautiful houses are being put together with a lot of imperfectly driven nails, but they somehow still do the job.

So going back to the jab, if the goal at the end of the class is to land a jab…the new students can work on the bare mechanics, maybe getting used to making contact to other person’s face instead of just air. Whatever they need to work on. The advanced students can work on timing, flow, deception, power…whatever. And they can do it at the same time and with the newer students because everyone is working to the same goal. And everyone is learning from each other. As a coach, I’m free to toss in a quick note here and there about learning to bob, weave and slip. Or how to get the footwork rhythm down. As long as we are working to the same goal, I can work with the student in groups or as individuals to get them there.

With a more rigid skill-based approach, it’s too easy to fall into the habit of telling students, and ourselves, to ignore some flaws and concentrate on the skill at hand, that we will develop the other skills later in their time.

It’s taken me a long time to figure this out, and I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for the help and fellowship of some truly extraordinary martial arts instructors I’ve had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with in the last 2 or 3 years. Being exposed to different ideals in training as well as seeing different approaches to similar problems of the martial space we specialize in has been deeply rewarding. And getting not just support from my fellow Valkyrie coaches, but constant feedback and useful thought out challenges has been instrumental in forging our school and ourselves into a vision we couldn’t have even imagined a few years ago.

So we make these changes, and the school continues to change me.

Change and Mutation

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Hopping into the shower this morning, I saw a nice big long-legged spider sitting in the tub.

As a life-long arachnophobe, this presented me with a bit of a dilemma. My past response would vary between chucking a number of objects into the tub to try and kill it, gathering my courage and choosing a large object to squish it with, deciding I didn’t need a shower for another week or so, or waiting for my wife to come home and kill it for me.

In an effort to overcome my fear, I’ve been learning about spiders. As a result of that learning, I’ve come to appreciate the function they play in keeping a balanced ecosystem within and without the home. This type of spider feasts on black widows and other spiders that are not so nice to have inside, and also eats silverfish and clothes moths. So…the only real problem with the spider was that I was choosing to let it bother me. That’s not a good reason to kill something useful.

Especially when it only took me a second to throw out my thoughts and reach down, scoop the sucker out of the tub with my bare hands and let him scamper off across the floor to somewhere safer.

In that moment I realized I’ve come to be a new person.

Last night in class I had students working on dealing with some styles of fighting that had caused them problems in tournaments and open sparring times. As part of this process, we were working with rapier and buckler and I taught them some of my favourite tricks.

During sparring one student was trying to use one of the tricks, but was failing because she was trying to apply it backwards…rising instead of dropping.

When I talked to her about it afterwards she remarked that she knew what she wanted to do, but her body wouldn’t do it. She said she was having a hard time breaking out of her patterns.

I laughed, and told her that she’d gotten comfortable, and that you can’t learn when you are comfortable. Change only comes when you put yourself at risk.

Becoming a better martial artists is a continual process of moving out of comfort zones and braving changes that will usually result in a net increase of failure in the short term. It takes time to break out of the comfortable that has brought you success to a certain level. Time and courage.

Courage is a funny thing. The stoics use examples of heroism to explain courage, but expect it to be a daily virtue. Something we practice in the small moments in our life.

We just wrapped up another eight hour self-defense workshop, and again we noticed a consistent response, a pattern of change that happens in students.

A big part of the course is learning to observe the world around you in new ways, to categorize baseline behavior and recognize aberrant behavior. Coupled tightly with that we teach students to make decisions. We present a simple decision tree to use when a threshold of behavior is breached. One of the decisions is to report, and we make sure students not just know local police non-emergency numbers and 911, but also become familiar with how the process works once your start the call. The first time you call 911 it can feel like the scariest commitment in the world, and we want students to not have to feel like it’s such a hurdle. Knowing that there is the non-emerg number to call helps you feel like there are tiers, and the choice becomes easier.

The consistent thing we find happening is that we send out students overnight to go a find a busy spot and observe, and record their observations. And it’s an absolute given that every time we teach this segment, someone is calling non-emerg or 911 that night. Every single time.

It’s not that they are suddenly winding up in bad places, but more that the small act of becoming observant and feeling empowered to report means you are more involved in the world around you. Things you might have shrugged off or walked past or assumed someone else would deal with or maybe just tried to justify as not that big a deal…suddenly become something you can usefully act upon.

Small bits of courage lead to change, to new patterns of behaviour, and to becoming a new person.

 

500 Blows

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I’m reminded today that it was eight years ago that I fought 500 passes in two hours.

I didn’t do it as a personal challenge.

I didn’t do it to prove a point.

I did it because my best friend had just died, and I needed to process my feelings.

You can sob your eyes out behind a fencing mask, wrench all the grief out of your heart, and pretend no one notices.

And despite all that rage, tears, and sorrow…you can still fight with all your heart.

And that’s why I chose to fight all those passes against everyone I could convince to show up and fight me. The lesson Yvonne taught me was that you always fight with all your heart in life. No matter how bleak and hard and pointless things seem…you fight.

Because fighting is joy. It’s happiness. It’s a dance we get to share with another human being, and it should make us both better for the experience when we are done. There is no other point to the fighting we do, or at least no greater point.

In the last eight years, my life has been in absolute turmoil. When I met Yvonne, my life was a rocket that seemed only to be going up. When she fought her second bout with cancer, and my life was feeling hard to me, she taught me not to be tough in the face of adversity, but to embrace it and find my own strength.

When she fought her third battle with cancer, my life was in freefall. She kept me focussed, kept reminding that as long as I lived, change was inevitable and good was as likely as bad. She taught me not to try and change or plan or hope for better, but instead to accept who I was and where I was, and accept that to be alive in the moment was the best possible thing.

After she died, my life crashed into ruin. Since then it’s been a gradual return to steadiness. There have been notable successes as well as failures, but I have never stopped growing as a person.

I am constantly using Yvonne’s lessons as a guide for my life. It’s very hard to accept yourself sometimes, to not plan to be better. If I am a better person tomorrow it will be because I accept who I am today, flaws and all. It will be because I accept where I am today for being the best place I can be, and appreciate it for all that it is worth.

Sometimes that means fighting to your absolute limit and beyond. Sometimes it means reaching deep inside and teaching people to survive the worst that can happen to them. Sometimes it means drinking a cup of coffee, looking out the window, and accepting that you aren’t leaving the couch today.

Today I’m helping teach a workshop on self-defense with two incredibly talented ladies.

When it’s over, I’m going to drink some whisky and toast Yvonne, because her and her lessons still live on in me and everything I teach my students.

Here’s to you, Yvonne. Thanks for all the fights, and for all that I have learned to enjoy in life.