Monday, November 21, 2005

Excellent Experience This Weekend - Edmonds Martial Arts Academy

I've talked to Bobbe Edmonds on the phone a few times. He seemed like a really worthwhile guy, and we always said that he would have to drive down or we'd drive up to Seattle and meet in real life some time, maybe Thanksgiving weekend. Early this week we found out that work would take him out of the area for a few weeks. So Tiel and I said "Well, why not go and meet him this weekend?"

I'm really glad we did.

First off, Bobbe and his wife are really wonderful people, the kind who you feel like you've known your whole life. Their warmth and hospitality would do credit to the Middle East or an old-fashioned Southern household.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Bobbe, take a look at his website - He's been a training demon since his teens. Lots of really solid work under a variety of very good teachers, enough certificates to wallpaper an apartment and enough "been there, done that" to give what he teaches real world credibility.

His school, like many of the best, is crammed into in a tiny garage. It's not how he makes a living, so he can be selective about his students and teach the way he likes. It shows. I was very impressed with his students. They worked hard and picked up things quickly. Many of them surprised me. They moved better than people with a couple year's more experience. They had their basics and fundamentals burned in. It's a real testament to their teacher. It's obvious that Bobbe spends a lot of time figuring out what to teach and how to teach it. He's done an excellent job of taking a lot of material and organizing it in ways that make sense. And if one explanation or demonstration doesn't work for a student he will keep trying until he finds a way that clicks.

The atmosphere was informal. There was a lot of joking and friendly kidding, but when it was time to work, everyone worked. One of the things I've always liked about the good Southeast Asian MA teachers I've met is that they understand that mutual trust is necessary if the students are going to learn. To really trust people who are doing potentially lethal things with or to you in class it helps to be relaxed, not grim or on edge. We didn't see formal shows of respect. We saw an awful lot of the real thing. The students might joke about their teacher's baldness. They would jump in front of hungry lions for him. And they know he'd do the same for them.

We spent a good part of the night looking through his library. There were lots of martial arts books, of course. There was a huge amount of material on teaching in general and teaching martial arts in particular. It's rare for a martial artist to do that much outside work to improve his skills as an instructor.

We attended two classes, one eskrima, one silat.

The eskrima class taught us a lot we didn't know or had forgotten. The drills made sense. They had practical application. We've taken home some of his stuff on changing lines and passing the weapon that was a huge gap in our training. The work on changing ranges was very well thought out. The teaching progression was well integrated with other parts of the curriculum.

After lunch we went to the silat class. Bobbe has obviously learned an awful lot of silat from many gurus over the years. He's made an excellent stab at taking a lot of technique, drills and curriculum and reworking it as principle-based and systematic. A lot of it isn't exactly as we learned it, of course. We had different teachers. It all made sense and was efficient and effective.

If you are in the Seattle area and looking for top-flight instruction from a genuinely good person in Filipino and Indonesian martial arts you couldn't do much better than the Edmonds Martial Arts Academy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Difference Between Teaching Martial Arts and Women's Self Defense Part III: Answer a Question With a Question. And What's Wrong With That?

Now that the waters have been completely muddied and the distinctions between combatives, martial arts, self defense, defensive tactics and martial sports are blurred it's time to pull back and revisit the reasons why I don't recommend "martial arts" as a basis for women's self defense. At first glance this seems strange. Martial arts teach you to fight. They use training methods that are designed to take a novice and turn out someone who can kick serious booty. Well, no. Not really. Not for the most part. When they do they aren't always appropriate for the short term needs of many of the women who want to be able to defend themselves relatively quickly.

If I had to choose one thing from engineering to bring over into martial arts in the broader sense it would be a question.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Get that one right and the best way to do things will usually suggest itself. Get it wrong and you can spend a lot of time and effort correcting your aim against the drag of sunk costs and assumption drag. Or worse, you'll keep trying to do more of what failed before in the hope that it will work this time. Teaching people combative skills is like any other problem. You need a good idea of the situation, the goals, the environment your solution will have to work in and the constraints it will operate under. I'm an engineer and a design geek. If you want poetry go talk to my wife. If you're looking for really cool spiritual techniques and esoteric martial arts wisdom go see Mushtaq. If you want the Exotic Secrets of the Mystic Orient (or is it the Mystic Secrets of the Exotic Orient?) find a wall to sit in front of and a bunch of monks to keep you honest about it. From me you'll get engineering.

Here's a handful of questions that will help frame the problem.
  • Who Are the Students?
  • What Are They Looking For?
  • What Do They Need?
  • Who Will They Be Fighting?
  • How Much Time Do They Have?
  • What Environment Do They Operate Under?
  • What Tools Are Available to Them?
  • How Expendable Are They?

Who Are the Students?

You can't have a class without students. What are they like? What do they bring with them? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How homogenous is the group? How many people are in it? How physically skilled are they? What sort of collective identity does the group have? What's the range of ages? Physical fitness? Intelligence? Aggression? The best training methods and techniques in the world won't do any good if they are the wrong ones for the situation.

What Are They Looking For?

Most people who take up martial arts want to be able to fight in one arena or another. It might be friendly sparring against people from the same system. It could be No Holds Barred Mixed Martial Arts. It could be criminals fighting other criminals or assaulting victims. Soldiers war on the battlefield. Police make arrests. Self defense students want to keep from being crime victims.

That isn't the only goal. Some people take up martial arts to have an exotic hobby, to do physical performance art, for cultural conservation, personal growth, or socializing. Some do it as part of religious or philosophical training. Anyone who keeps at it for more than a little while has to enjoy it. Why would a sane person get banged up for years and spend a lot of time and sweat and maybe money at something he or she hated?

There may be more than one answer. They can - and probably should - change over time.

What Do They Need?

This is really two questions. The first is what do they need to get what they want? The second is what do they need as opposed to what they want?

Who Will They Be Fighting?

This should be obvious. It bears some repeating. Will they be going up against people who are physically like them? Bigger? Stronger? Better trained? Better equipped? More or less aggressive? Intent on killing the students, beating them in a competition, getting status or doing a crime with the least amount of risk? Is there one opponent or many? Is it possible that the adversaries are open to some sort of resolution other than fighting?

How Much Time Do They Have?

Some systems achieve their best results in a few dozen hours. Others are open-ended, requiring years to perfect. A few students will come back for refresher courses or further instruction. Others will be taught once and never again.

What Environment Do They Operate Under?

Every confrontation happens somewhere. The physical environment is always important. Harimau Silat evolved in an area where people had strong legs and footing was poor. Mixed Martial Arts competitions assume a slightly padded ring with a fence. A sporting event is governed by rules. A police officer operates under the law and his or her department's policies and procedures. Soldiers have rules of engagement and the UCMJ. In less formal fights the combatants come with socially implanted ideas about proper behavior, even if they are only "All eyeballs sucked out of the other guy's skull must be spat out, not swallowed," and varying degrees of respect for the law.

What Tools Are Available to Them?

Every Colt Revolver used to have the following doggerel engraved on it:

Fear no man,
No matter what his size.
When danger threatens
Call on me and I will equalize.
More than that, what sort of things will the students be able to bring to the fight? This can include weapons, attitudes, technique, friends, mental attributes and any number of others.

How Expendable Are They?

The military expects to lose a certain number of recruits during training. After that every soldier and entire units are expendable as long as the mission is fulfilled. Every police officer hopes and expects to go home at the end of the shift. The job may require her or him to die in the line of duty. Someone who takes up self defense does it precisely because she does not consider her life something that can be thrown away as the result of a cost/benefit analysis. Staying alive and healthy is the mission.

There are some of the important questions. In the next installment let's look at some answers.