IMG_4861Sipping my coffee in our chilly library this morning, bleary eyed and reading facebook while I slowly came awake, I read a post by Ido Portal talking about his day’s training in Thailand. He talked about it being an integration day. What he meant by this is that it was a day to start letting the body know what it had learned.

Drills and exercises are maximal effort things. We put everything we have into doing something correctly. We push ourselves to our limits. What’s the point of working out, otherwise? We push hard to establish a new upper limit for our abilities.

Those new upper limits don’t immediately show up in our training. And if they do, they can sometimes be counter-productive. At Valkyrie, we work very hard on our strength training. For someone who’s an experienced fighter, a rapid boost in strength can trip you up. Strength makes you fast, and being faster doesn’t instantly equate to more success.

Usually what happens is you keep working your old habits, they just take less time to perform. Seems like a good thing, but your habits have taught you a rhythm to your movement, a rhythm to combat. You know, on an instinctive level, that if you feint a head cut, it takes a beat to stop, a beat to change, and a beat to throw the follow up. You know how much your opponent can do during those beats, so you have reflexes of body and sword movement in place to deal with those.

When you move with new speed, those timings are off. The rhythm is still there, but keyed to a quicker tempo. You no longer move with your partner the way you expect. Practically, this shows in a feint that moves to a follow-up before the opponent has even begun to react to the initial action. The space you have planned to move to is not there yet. The path is blocked by a blade that has remained where you had expected it to be moved from. The blades become fouled in action, and the opponent will usually take the easy counter shot on you. Alternately, you extend a gentle testing shot…and drill your opponent with a stiff shot to the head. Shocking to both of you.

It feels like a plateau. You’ve gotten better, but your practical experience starts teaching you a lesson opposite the truth. It’s easy to get frustrated and want to change things. The worst response I see from students is when they start to blame themselves for not working hard enough. They think they aren’t physically fit enough, or strong enough, or fast enough, so they throw themselves into the workouts harder and harder. They know the exercise is having a result, but they aren’t seeing success so they reason that they must work out harder. Universally, this happens with students who aren’t able to attend regular classes.

What they miss isn’t anything magical, it’s the classes that people tend to gloss over. The easy classes. The laid-back classes, where all we do is slow work and weird exercises for fun. Those are the critical classes, the integration classes. When the body gains new capabilities, it has to re-learn what those mean. When you gain speed, you have to re-work speed into your movements so that they become smooth again. This isn’t a natural process.

One exercise I like to do is have the students fight in slow motion as if they were in a really cheesy action movie. I want them to fight with exaggerated and melodramatic movements. It’s a silly dance, and it makes you giggle more often than not. Serious students will frown a little and worry about wasting precious class time on some nonsense that’s been kicked up into my head, but it’s not madness.

By breaking yourself out of your normal movement patterns, you teach your body about it’s new limits. Subtle and subconscious things happen. With increased mobility, you are able to reach just a little farther. Your body takes note of this. With better balance, you can shift and step with better base. Your body takes note of this. You are better able to resist your opponents strength. You can attain better positions, hold a stronger guard. You can creep lower, twist farther. You play, but your body learns to enjoy it’s new abilities.

You can, or course, just brute through. It slows the process down, but it will still happen. Ido lists a number of stages of training, and the stage after integration is improvisation. In my experience, if you skip the intentional integration step, you never move to improvisation. Without improvisation, you will be a good fighter, but never a great fighter.

You cannot be a one-dimensional fighter, and you can’t train to be a fighter by only working on one kind of fitness. To only want to do the “best” training is to embrace ignorance. You have to reach out beyond your comfort zone and do things that don’t fit your expectations. You have to learn improvisation, and you can’t do that without taking risks in your training, without exposing yourself to your fears and overcoming them.