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What Are Weapons Forms For?
Written by Sensei Toni   
Thursday, 25 June 2009 02:25

At the Tournament for Christ this past Saturday I ran into a top tournament promoter.  Didn’t hurt him much, but we were talking about ‘live’ weapons after my students had (again!) scandalized judges by showing up with  kukri and  katana that were ‘real’.

This gentleman said that it is fast becoming law that live weapons will not be allowed in tournaments.  His reasoning is that a live ninja-to could easily kill a number of people in the hands of some crazed terrorist-type person, and that tournaments, by their nature, involved hundreds of innocent people in the stands.

I understand that point of view, but I disagree with it.  Don’t talk to me about removing my right to carry or use a weapon based on the idea that a) I’m likely to loose my mind and start killing people or b) I am incompetent about preventing someone else from taking my weapon from me and doing likewise.  As a bystander, please don’t assume that I am unable to protect myself or others from someone else who is crazed and has a weapon.  And anything can be used as a weapon: someone could pick up a trophy and bash a couple of skulls and those folks would be just as dead.  

These objections aside, what are the practical steps to accomplish this anti-terrorism threat?  A judge does not know if a weapon is live until he or she inspects it at the ring.  So how do we prevent live weapons from coming in?  Will we soon have to endure a search at the door before we enter the tournament area?

If the powers-that-be want to ban these weapons, here are the only possible reasons:

1.  A competitor can accidentally slip in the ring, loose his weapon and hurt a bystander.
2.  A valuable weapon worth thousands of dollars could be stolen, and its owner could sue the promoter.

Okay, that I can kind of understand, but not this ‘terrorism’ idea.  I am so tired of the government trying to protect me by making me helpless that I am ready to pack my bags and move into the mountains and live in a cave!  The only people that really believe that a population can be made safer by making it softer are the ones wanting to form a new kind of KGB.  I know, that sounds ridiculous, but think about the ramifications.  If we can’t have edged blades at a tournament, how soon do you think it will be before we are unable to teach with them?  Or even to have them anywhere?  If not in  class, then also not in the car to and from class,  or perhaps even not in our own homes? When does the ban on kitchen knives happen?  Will a father not be able to give his son a pocket knife and teach him how to use it?

And don’t forget the gardening tools!  Better just go ahead and turn in the shears, pitchforks, axes and, oh yeah, the chainsaws!

We are encouraged to live in fear and weakness.  We can’t know how to take care of ourselves, we have to do what the doctor says because authority knows what to do.  We can’t know what to eat because we need the FDA to tell us that insecticide, antibiotic and hormone laden foods are safe but watch out for ‘natural’ things that people have eaten for thousands of years.

When did we, as a population, become so stupid?  Why do we need authority to tell us how to live?

It's easier to have someone else take care of us.  But I do not believe that these folks in authority can do so.  I think if someone was bent on murder and went into a tournament, there are no police around that can stop them.  That is something we, as citizens, must be prepared to do.  And we can’t do it with an imitation weapon.  If we are deprived of real weapons, guess who will end up having them?  We simply cannot be made safe by taking away our own abilities: we have to, instead, concentrate on making our population stronger and more capable of keeping ourselves safe.

If we want to continue to do weapons competition at tournaments, we are going to be faced soon with the choice of using fake ones, or not competing.  Is it a tragedy in itself?  No, its really not any trouble for us to use useless weapons.  But if we do this, like we do in class, to improve our mental discipline, train our muscles and our reflexes to  operate properly in stressful conditions, it will lose that meaning in competition.  We might get careless because we know we can be, and that isn’t a good thing for us to get used to.

Learning a live weapon in class is to develop the skills that would allow us to use anything in our environment to survive an attack.  It fine-tunes our body, keeps us alert and focused, reduces our fear and extends our versatility.  Performing kata at a tournament increases and heightens these abilities under stress in the same way we would need abilities extended under attack.  We’ve never competed for the metal and plastic, and always for the learning experience.  I wonder how we will learn to apply the same lessons with a fake weapon.  Perhaps I have turned into one of those  old martial artists that just don’t want to change.  But I doubt it.  Rinkiohen

Martial Arts Tournament Lessons Learned
Written by David Martin   
Monday, 01 June 2009 02:53

My tournament experience in martial arts has been colorful, if not spectacular, beginning with the now-legendary Chicken Leg Kata. Out of all this, I have gleaned a few insights that may prove helpful.

Protective Gear
Unless not having teeth is an actual goal, do not settle for a two-dollar mouth guard. A mouth guard that comes with a $10,000 guarantee to fix your teeth if they are damaged while wearing it is the way to go. As an additional benefit these are engineered to allow you to breathe better than you can with a cheap mouth guard. What is it your sensei tells you to do, like a million times? Oh yeah, “breathe.”

Another worthwhile investment, particularly for males, is the groin protector, or cup. The kind that comes with form-fitting underpants is the way to go. The wrap around protector that you put on as an after thought on the outside of your dogi (karate uniform) is better than nothing…barely.

Sparring Events
Problems with sparring are generally of two varieties, what I call an internal struggle within yourself, and also an environmental struggle.

Internal struggles that you may have to contend with include your own level of physical fitness, forgetting to breathe, and the control of aggression required to operate within the rules while still making a good account of yourself:

  1. Your own level of physical fitness cannot be helped on tournament day. This is a classic case of “the more you sweat during training, the less you bleed during combat.” If you take the stairs instead of the elevator, for example, your stamina will improve. If you sprint the stairs your endurance will improve more. If your sensei asks for thirty pushups on class day and you do an extra 300 (or 3000?) pushups by the next class, it is all good, and even better if you do the pushups one-handed–either hand equally.
  2. Everyone forgets to breathe sometime. That is why your sensei is always saying “breathe!” because this very simple thing is the very first thing to go when you are pushed. So stack the deck in your favor: buy the $20 dollar mouth guard, and practice being aware of your breathing in class, when you are climbing stairs or just walking around, and when you are at rest. The person who figures this one thing out has a pretty good start on everything else in martial arts.
  3. Tournament sparring is all about control over oneself. If you can tag the opponent, not get tagged yourself, and stay out of trouble with the judges, you win. The berserker guy who busts up his opponent, gets disqualified or deserves to be disqualified misses the whole point. If you can modulate your aggression so that you can give the other guy a nightmare for a few minutes and then turn it off after the match, you have learned well.
One of the most infuriating things about tournament sparring is when you are out there with your yellow belt or whatever you have, and the other guy is out there with his yellow belt, too, but he has a brown or even a black belt hanging up someplace because he has been in martial arts forever already. This is actually an environmental struggle, and there may not be a darned thing you can do about it. Here is something to consider: There is a lot of individual variation at every rank, including black belts. If you are lucky, the black belt you are sparring with is quite good and you will learn something useful for the next opponent. This is even more lucky, because the really dangerous guy to spar with is the beginner who kicks like a mule but has no targeting let alone control. If you are really unlucky, the guy is just sand-bagging, or he is afraid to compete at whatever level he should have been competing. Doom on him. If he keeps it up you will outrank him someday.

Another environmental struggle is when the judges see every time your opponent hits you, but every time you tag him the judges are blissfully unaware. The solution? Rotate the fight to your advantage so the judges can see your stuff better than your opponent’s stuff. Do not react when he hits you, but kiai like a madman when you hit him. Judges are only human, and they will sometimes give benefit of the doubt to whoever they perceive as the more aggressive fighter.

Perhaps the worst beastie in a martial arts tournament is your own complacency. Complacency is a vice that will get you seriously damaged in a tournament, and it all involves E.A., Environmental Awareness. Or as I like to put it, “Environmental something-or-other.” Suppose you are standing in the middle of the sparring ring, waiting on the judges to figure out if anybody got a point, and your opponent for some unknown reason decides to kick you in the mouth while your guard is down. Goodbye, teeth, especially if you were silly enough to not only remove your mouth guard but also naive enough not to keep up with what your opponent is doing with his or her spare time just now. Pay attention to what is going on around you.

Tournament Kata
Kata are supposed to be judged by these criteria: Focus, Technique, Balance, Power, and Rhythm. It is not supposed to matter if the judge knows the kata you are performing or not. You can use this to advantage by simply brazening out whatever kata it is you said you were doing. Forgot half of the kata? Fear not! Just keep going, it will all work out. Do not screw your face up or pause if you screw up the kata and chances are no one will be the wiser. No matter what happens, your kata will still be better than the Chicken Leg Kata!

Experience Wins
What is the thing that makes kata at black belt level different than kata at the under-belt level? This is a two-dollar question. During most of the time I have done martial arts, the struggle has always been remembering any kata well enough to just do it and not get bogged down in “do this, then this, then this other thing.” At some point you realize that for all the trouble of trying to remember kata, it starts getting plausible about the time that you forget how to do the kata and you just do it as one thing rather than as a daisy chain of forty-two things. Compare it to reading a sentence because you have learned to read, not because you can identify all the letters in the words. Want to read well? Read a lot. Experience wins.

Seize The Day
If you can hold boards for other competitors so that they do well, do it. If another competitor needs help carrying some gear, schlep the gear. This will provide you with a way to stay warm, ingratiate yourself to the instructors from other schools, and build rapport with people you might otherwise not been able to interact with. Contary to popular thought, a tournament is not just about the competition any more than a fishing trip is about the fish.

The Nail Break
Written by David Martin   
Monday, 30 March 2009 16:37

Sometime around Red Belt, possibly Black Belt, you may have the Nail Break presented as part of your test. It is not about breaking a nail. By continuing to read this you implicitly agree never to try it until your sensei puts it before you to do.

What? Still reading? Okay, but I never told you to try this!

Using a pine 10 x 12 inch board, two 10d nails are hammered into the board approximately one hand-width apart, with the center of the board at the center point between the nails. The board will be suspended between two concrete blocks turned on end, properly oriented for breaking. It is a “blind set” meaning that there are no warm-ups, no practice swings: just walk up and hit it.

Functionally, this is exactly the same as every other time you break a board with a shuto (karate “chop”), except that a person’s eyes will naturally be drawn towards the shiny pointy parts of the nail tips, and where your eyes go, your hand wants to follow. Eh, there’s the rub!

My Nail Break
Having promised Sensei Mindi from when I had my orange belt that I would not under any circumstances attempt a nail break without explicit invitation, I put it on the back burner. When I got my brown belt, I remembered that the Nail Break was getting closer, so I began to prepare. The first thing I did was I got a tetanus shot. The nurse asked if I wanted the shot “because of something you did or whether it was just a booster?” I replied, “I want it because of something I might do.” She rolled her eyes as I explained about the nails and the board.

The second thing I did was set up a board with a couple of candles on it at the appropriate places. I figured that if I hit the flame with my hand the worst would happen is I would get hot wax on my hand. It worked fine, and I did not hit the candles. But there had to be a better way.

One morning I walked into the dojo with a board under my arm and a couple of crayons. “What have you got there?” Sensei Toni asked. “A crayon is just as good as a nail if you are not going to hit it with your hand anyway!” I replied. So I spent the next few months breaking 3 or 4 boards a week with either hand (because I trust my sensei implicitly, I just do not advertise what it is I trust her to do!).

As my Red Belt test approached, I bought a whole box of 10d nails and left them in Sensei Toni’s office, complete with board. At that, I had done absolutely everything it was up to me to do to provoke a Nail Break on my test. I was not disappointed. Toni approached me while I was taking the written test, showed me a board with two very real nails sticking out. I tested the width with my fist - my that is close, but I can do it.

At the appointed time during the Red Belt test I walked up to a board suspended between two concrete blocks, got myself in a proper position, and looked towards Sensei Toni to verify that she was not going to miss this much anticipated break. She nodded “go ahead,” and I looked down at the board with the nails in it:  I hit it right between the nails, just as I had practiced for the last several months!

The trick to the Nail Break is to see nails when you practice with crayons, and see crayons when you do it for real with nails.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
One our sempai, a student (now sensei) who came before us, came down upon the nail with her hand, then quickly pulled it away with a spray of blood. On successive attempts blood squished, but she got it.

Another of our sempai (on her Black Belt test) had practiced with crayons, but only a few times. To her everlasting credit, she hesitated not at all when she came up to the board for real. She drove the nail into her hand all the way to down to the board, so that when she raised her hand the board came with it, dangling almost surreally. To this day I call her “Tough as Nails”.

Even if you break the board neatly between the nails, if you do not follow through you may get punctured or scraped by the nail points as the board snaps inwards towards its other half.

Experience Wins
To do the most awesome Nail Break you can possibly do, there is no substitute for practice. I practiced with wooden boards, and you should certainly use real wooden boards to practice this break, but there is no reason you could not offset the expense by using a rebreakable board. I recommend using the toughest rebreakable board you can reliably break, since you do not want to come down perfectly between the nails only to bounce off of the board!

When you first start, just put a couple of pennies at a proper distance from center on the board. When this becomes routine, try drilling the center out of a checker and push a crayon or candle through it to get the crayons to stand up properly. Make a point of putting the crayons (artificial nails) as close together as possible and still complete the break. The nails will look very close together, comes the day.

When preparing for the Nail break, always do the board break with the crayons first rather than breaking a board or two for practice. Since the Nail Break is a blind set, you should always practice it in a realistic setting: practice kata for a while if you want, then try one or two pseudo-Nail Breaks with either hand.