Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bobbe Edmonds - Perception in the Martial Arts

Laugh, if you want to, or say you don’t care.

If you cannot see it, you think it’s not there

…It doesn’t work that way.

- Devo


During WWII, the Germans designed three specially equipped U-Boats to discover what secret weapon the Allies were using to detect & destroy their submarines was. The U-Boats were fitted with wall-to-wall state-of-the-art (for Germany, at that time) seismic and radio receiving equipment capable of detecting any electromagnetic waves in the entire spectrum of generatable frequencies – From 10 kilocycles all the way to 2,000 megacycles. (Supposedly, they were equipped with some kind of stealth technology as well, but upon further research I discovered that it was the exact same stealth technology that all the other U-Boats had…Which is to say, nothing at all.)

All three U-Boats were promptly detected and sunk by the Allies within a couple of weeks of their departure. Ping, skaboom, auf wiedersehen, you imbeciles.

The German researchers, using the last reports sent back from the U-Boats before they were consigned to Davy Jones’ Locker, found no evidence of activity over the entire radio spectrum, so they knew that the Allied system of detection must be dependent on something other than RADAR.

But because German radio detection technology never even came close to the 10,000 megacycles that the Allied airborne RADAR used, they never once suspected that they were being pinged with kilowatts of RF energy at frequencies they – again - knew for certain couldn’t be generated. All they had, after all, were klystrons. They didn’t have magnetrons. Presumably, they didn’t even realize that magnetrons existed.

The point to take home here is that their equipment was inadequate in a way that they didn’t suspect. Because they “knew for certain” that it wasn’t RADAR, they focused their attention elsewhere.

As Indy would say on such an occasion; “They’re digging in the wrong place.”

Where I’m Going With This

You ever think something was true, based on no evidence of fact or presentation of argument, but simply from your own experience and conviction that you must be right…And then discover later that you were further off course than a squadron of gull-wing fighters in the Bermuda Triangle?

What made you think you knew what you were talking about?

I was going to say that perception of reality in the martial arts is dependent on four points, but upon reflection I discovered that perception of anything in life is dependent on four points:

  • What we have experienced, for our age.
  • What we have striven to learn.
  • What lessons life has imposed on us (Whether we learn them or not is another matter)
  • What we have accepted as “real”.

The last one is the most important. We all know someone who has had something bad – or good – happen to them, and it doesn’t sit with their perception of normalcy or everyday occurrences. We ourselves are guilty of this at some time or another, perhaps even now.

I have known women who were victims of domestic abuse, and they gravitated – almost magnetically – to others who were just as abusive towards them as their previous relationship partners were. You can still find people to this day who disbelieve such scientifically factual events as global warming, tectonic plating and the Cambrian period. There is no lack of fools in any aspect of life, but to the willfully ignorant (those who cannot be fed true knowledge even if it was baked into a custard), it's what you don't know that will kill you stone dead.

If enough of your life passes without having your illusions shattered, the tendency to think that you are right and safe in your beliefs arises. This is like a swimmer who has never been bitten by a shark or stung by a jellyfish supposing that the ocean is safe. The attitude of “I know without having to look” holds dangerous sway for the unwary, and is often used as a crutch for those who say; “I’ll believe it when I’m shown”

A person who doesn’t ever look beyond the end of his nose in life can say this with all sincerity and be perfectly safe in his assumptions, since he will never look in the first place. There is no one more confident in his knowledge than a Christian who knows for a fact there is a God, or an Atheist who knows for a fact there isn’t. All this points to one thing: What we accept as real is largely based on what we perceive as true. Ask anyone with faith in religion about divine law, or a monarch about the divine right of kings or any creationist about what Homo Erectus might have kept as a cave pet 2 million years ago and you’ll see what I mean. For something closer to home, ask a 19 year old boy and a 45 year old man what the 3 most important things in the world are. I would be pleasantly surprised if anything from the same species appeared on both lists.

Most people aren’t aware of the severity of life, or how quickly it can be taken from you over the most trivial of circumstances. Even fewer would be capable to achieve some level of security or protection, if they were made aware. If you can’t swim, what commitment & sacrifices would you have to make in order to learn in calm waters? What would it take to survive a boat wreck during a storm?

Now add to that: What if you were afraid of the water in the first place? What sort of courage would you have to muster to take swimming lessons in a private pool?

Just as people never really think of a life raft until the ship is sinking, most people don’t usually consider personal safety until they absolutely need it. And unlike your car keys, it’s not something you can casually afford to lose.

Reality in Training

Punching in the air for four hours every week in Karate class tends to lead one to believe that you are actually learning how to hit things. But it’s a large leap from imagining an opponent crumpling before your mighty hammer blows and making corporeal contact with an actual target. The first time your wrist bends at a sharp angle unexpectedly after you hit a heavy bag for the first time, you are finally learning how to hit things. Only then does your mind and body begin to make the necessary adjustments for future love connections. But ask any third-year greenbelt what he’s doing after a sweaty night of air combat, and he’ll tell you in all sincerity: “Learning how to fight!”

Making the leap between weapons systems and empty hand styles that try to add weaponry to the system is another Herculean task.

Martial arts designed exclusively for empty hand defenses aren’t normally suited for weapon defense, at least not without some drastic alterations to the basic structure of the style. Naysayers will take umbrage to this, and immediately point to the various weaponry and forms contained in their respective systems to prove it. But simply adding a weapons form is not the same as training for proficiency in weapons.

In this example, I am going to pick on Wing Chun. Followers of Yip Man, feel free to be offended and throw rotten tomatoes…it won’t be the first time.

Wing Chun has three empty hand forms. There is an additional empty hand training form with a wooden dummy. There are countless empty hand exercises, drills, three-beat combinations and of course, chi sao – arguably the single most practiced exercise in Wing Chun of all time – done with empty hands.

There are exactly TWO weapons in Wing Chun, one of them terribly archaic. There are also exactly two weapons forms, one for each weapon. There are noticeably fewer exercises and drills for the weapons (depending on which school you attend, and the forward-thinking of the instructor) and certainly even less sparring. This must be suspect, since the empty hand training was so obviously important, three different forms and a wooden dummy were created to train them. That's not counting the dozens of drills and patterns thrown into the mix.

Further, consider: No school of Wing Chun will start on weapons until at least five years into the training, many take longer than that. There is no way that the prospective student will see them within the first two.

I was going to leave out the argument of practicality and modern use of the weapons, but on second thought, let’s have it out: Neither one is remotely as practical or useful in today’s world as the empty hand training. In fact, Wing Chun is frequently touted as “The In-Fighter’s Style”. To this I would offer no argument, for it is clearly superior in training to achieve and maintain the inside line of an opponent in the upper body. The sensitivity training is second to none, and Wing Chun players dominate a category of martial arts that has all but been abandoned by most other systems as too difficult to learn.

But the neglect of real-world application, failure to evolve as the empty hand training has and the anachronistic approach to combat of both the pole and eight-chop knives of Wing Chun make them appear to have been just tossed into the pot at some stage like soup bones that once added flavor, but have long since lost their use. The evidence points to one thing; Empty hand training is far more important – and superior – to weapons training, and there is much more material available to develop it.

To take the matter still further, the Wing Chun stance and body support structure are perfectly suited to a particular type of empty hand training, but are particularly suicidal when it comes to knife defense. That rooted, belly-offering, fingers-first stance is a tempting, target-rich environment to a skilled knife player.

As I stated at the commencement of this section, I am picking on Wing Chun as an example. Using the same method of deduction and examination, I could pluck ANY empty hand-based system out of the woodwork, and find similar faults. So, Wing Chun practitioners, take heart; I am an equal-opportunity Martial Arts misanthrope. Next time, it will be someone else’s turn in the barrel.

I should add here that I don’t necessarily consider the Southeast Asian arts without their faults as well. Take for instance, the use of padded armor in training. My philosophy is this: Padding and armor promotes the cultivation of bad habits, especially with poor instruction thrown in for the bargain. You cannot simply let a student suit up and say "Have at it!" and just let him flail away, he needs to be taught some fundamentals in targeting and footwork. But I see many of the good foundations teachers give their students go flying out the window when the gear gets put on, and they do nothing to correct it.

They start leaving their hands out in front of the stick. Why not? It doesn't hurt.

They duck their heads INTO the arc of an incoming attack. Why not? Doesn't hurt.

They don't bother executing advanced footwork and zoning to the rear or the oblique of the opponent, instead they ALWAYS just crash down the middle as if they're friggin' bulletproof.

Because it DOESN'T HURT.

There are a number of other bad habits that are picked up through the armor, and I have found that minimal coverage is a great educator. So usually I only allow a helmet and a pair of hockey gloves, nothing else. This way, if you miss, you pay for it. Not harshly...But still. Enough to remind you.

Swallowing a Bitter Pill

I was having a conversation with a close friend last week, who has been training Pencak Silat since he was a child. We were discussing various knife techniques and the like, when he quipped softly “You know, I’ve been in a few knife altercations…It’s not funny, and there’s nothing macho to it.” Truer words never spoken – I thought of Mohammad and the mountain. Most Asian fighting arts imported into America, although replete with talk about ethics and restraint, really do nothing more than teach a sociopathic love of violence, which is all the more compounded when the true believer wakes up in the middle of a nightmare, after training in a fairy tale.

Something I have discovered is that enlightenment of any sort rarely comes without pain in the learning. Discovery through meditation is a rare thing, and it’s usually punctuated with screams of “Owch, Godammit! That’s hot!” as opposed to “Ah! Eureka! If I put my hand on the stove, my skin shall acquire third degree burns. Best I leave that alone, ‘ere I require medical attention anon!

Something I have tried to instill in my students is to not allow ignorance to be an excuse. This can be trying, since the accepted status quo is to actually employ ignorance as a defense in today’s society, and there are certainly more followers than leaders in Martial Arts. Incredibly, I have seen practitioners in many schools reach for the less-than, strive for the mediocre and beam with pride at their lack of ability.

That’s not to say there has been a shortage of fools in my school either – my expulsion rate is way higher than my retention. But I think I should be ashamed of my time spent as a teacher if the last words from a student of mine were something like; “I didn’t know it would do that”.

To me, that is unacceptable.


My deepest gratitude to Bobbe Edmonds for his kind permission in allowing me to repost his article.

Photo Credit:  Bobbe Edmonds

You can contact Bobbe Edmonds via Facebook or his blog Thick as Thieves and last but not least, please check out his YouTube Channel.



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