Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Possessing a Bag of Tricks verses possessing and building a Skill Set

I'm sure we have all seen the competitor that makes the same move, throws the same punch or relies on the "go to" trick that has made him/her successful. These competitors exist in every sport. Some of them make a career out of it and some of them just hang on until a much more skilled athlete comes along and takes their place or reviles them as a "one trick pony". This is the difference of someone who has mastered a number of tricks and someone who has a skill set or skill sets. Although these differences exist in every sport, we are going to examine those differences in the striking game (stand up fighting).

A simple example of a fighter that only possesses a 'bag of tricks' is someone who always; throws that over hand right, attempts the superman punch over and over, constantly throwing the crazy loopy hooks hoping that one will land. The fighter may do a mix of those or just one or two. Those are just some examples so that you can picture what I am sure you have seen many times. This fighter doesn't dance with his/her opponent, meaning they don't react off of what their opponent is doing or control them. Rather, they just do only the moves that are in their 'bag of tricks'. There are a few examples of strikers who have made it to the biggest stages in the world working with only a bag of tricks but most of them have never won the fights that mattered against the fighters that possessed a deep skill set. Sure the fighters that rely on their bag of tricks have upset some great fighters but its typically done with one punch, one kick or a single flurry. The "bag of tricks" fighters wont flat out beat the fighters who boast a deep skill set. Its one thing to win by a single strike or combo and its another to beat your opponent throughout the fight because you own a superior set of skills. Competitors that rely on a bag of tricks are not fighters in my opinion, they have not learned the ins and outs of fighting. Instead, they have become good at a hand full of movements and rely on chance to help them win. There is always chance in striking but there are many things a fighter can practice to improve the odds and even tilt the odds to such a degree that its almost a guarantee they will win.

"Skill set", thats the term I learned from Maurice Smith. He uses this term when speaking about learning and getting better at technique and tactics. Its a simple term that reflects a building of skills to become a better fighter. Its not about improving on a few movements or "tricks" to fight. I teach striking as any world class coach or instructor would teach any other athlete; from the ground up. Fundamentals is key to building a strong and deep skill set and working up from there will only make a practitioner better over time. Time is the thing that sets the elite apart from the mediocre. Most people don't want to spend the time needed to build a strong skill set so they tend to grasp onto a few things/tricks they do well, then they improve on using those tricks to win. Does it work? It does work until they meet the opponent with a strong and deep skill set. Thats when the smoke and mirrors fade and the skilled fighter stands head and shoulders above the one with a bag of tricks. Thats when all the hours of learning how to throw a simple jab and how to throw it for a 100 different reasons and situations come in. The years it took to master distance and timing prevail over the years of doing the same, tired tricks over and over again. Building a skill set is an approach used in other sports by top athletes but for some reason is skipped in the combat sports by many athletes. The greatest tennis players in the world don't rely on a bag of tricks to win, they have a solution for almost every problem and when there is not a solution they somehow make an amazing shot or save using the skills they have mastered throughout the years. Taking the time to learn a set of skills as perfect as you can will only set you up for success. My opinion is that there are many skill sets to learn and you can make those sets deeper and deeper as you work on them. You may learn a certain set and you should try to perfect that set, then move on to another set and perfect that one as well. While perfecting sets you will build on them to enlarge them or add to them. Thats the way I teach and its a slow process that only the strong minded can pursue. A set of tricks is not the same as a set of skills.

My fighters usually don't do well early in their careers against wild or "bag of tricks" type fighters because they don't train like that. They may lose a few fights to those types of opponents. I tell them all that they should lose to those guy/girls because they are learning how to fight for the long run, not to win now by only relying on a bag of tricks or because they are sloppy and wild. A fighter must learn over time how to handle a wild or one trick pony fighter. The fighters that take the time to build the strong skill sets will have a longer and more illustrious career then those who won on a bag of tricks.

In the end, at the elite level, it takes real skill and time to be a champion. A bag of tricks will only help you win until you must face the truly skilled and proficient fighters.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Importance of stance, footwork, finding balance and center

I've been training for over 17 years now and have been trained by one of the greatest fighters to ever walk this earth, Maurice Smith. I have also trained with many world class fighters from around the world and in that time I learned a great deal. Moreover, I have been teaching for 11 years now and in that time I have learned even more. Among all the things I have learned everything relies on the fundamental basics which is the foundation of every sport and even everyday life.

I always see a pattern in new students, no matter what their athletic background might be. Its something every instructor has seen many times. New students of Muay Thai or Kick-boxing seem to get caught up in the act of punching, kicking, throwing knees and elbows. They get lost in the strikes and forget about what got them to the point where they can strike, footwork. They are over exuberant in their performance that they lose balance and cannot re-center themselves after that thrilling punch and kick combo. Sound familiar? Everyone goes through this stage and some never learn or are taught to get out of that phase. Its the excitement of throwing the punch and students and long time practitioners forget to properly do the things that got them to the point of throwing that punch or strike.

Its trivial to me how I sometimes teach athletes that played a high level or even an elite level in their respected sport and they just cant slow down and learn from the ground up. I ask them if they had to learn from the ground up in their sport and they always say; yes. Then I ask them what makes martial arts or kick-boxing any different and they say; I don't know. My answer is; its not any different and you must slow down and get a firm foundation before everything else. If someone were to take golf lessons, would their instructor just let them swing away at the driving range or would he/she teach the fundamentals of the stance, back stroke, swing, hips and so forth? The answer to that is pretty apparent and there is no need to explain. Same goes for any sport. This old adage is right; you must first learn to crawl before you can walk. We have heard it all the time but how many of us actually follow it? In my time as an instructor, I say; not enough.

The foundation of any striker is their stance and finding their center in that stance. Then comes the rules and balance of footwork. Without proper footwork and balance it is nearly impossible to always be ready to strike, cut proper angles and out maneuver your opponent. How many times have you seen fighters throw combinations or single punches and lose their balance? How many times have you seen fighters stumble instead of return to their stance, ready for another exchange? I can answer that for you; A LOT! Start watching fights closer then just being a fan and you will see bad footwork, terrible stances and almost non-existent center and balance. I always tell my students and fighters; with proper footwork alone, you should be able to fatigue your opponent to some degree. Proper footwork and balance will allow you to strike at any given time and will also enable you to retract into a proper stance during any point in the exchange.

Finding your center is extremely important in the formula for dominating an opponent with footwork, angles, precision strikes and counters. Always being ready to strike, defend, move, and counter are all by-products of great stance, footwork, balance and center. A fighter should know exactly where their center is at all times so that they may move, swivel or strike from that position.

Great striking starts with a superb foundation. Elite level striking can never be reached without the foundation of stance, footwork, balance and center that makes everything possible. There is beauty in honing these skills, not just in what you can do but in what you will see your opponent do. When you really learn these skills, you will then take advantage of your opponent when he/she makes fundamental mistakes. Funny how perfecting the foundation of striking can lead to so many opportunities to dominate an opponent. The heart of striking is not really about the actual strikes, its about controlling your own body so that those strikes can be delivered properly, without prejudice and effortlessly. Everything we physically do in life revolves around body control and balance. The same applies to striking and fighting.

Anyone can get lucky and land a punch and in that sense it is just the strike that matters but in a skilled fight, everything matters and having a loose foundations will only lead to your crumbling demise.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mind over Body

So many fighters, martial arts practitioners and athletes search for the best advice when it comes to strength and conditioning. I'm a professional fighter and fight coach and I do the same thing. Fighters search in magazines, books, online and videos on tips for getting stronger or improving their cardiovascular conditioning. I'm sure if you are reading this, you have done the same thing. How many times have you searched for ways to strengthen your mind? How many trainers, instructors or coaches have you had, that have really put emphasis on having a very strong mind? I'm sure there have been a few that try to "pump you up" or "motivate" you to keep going. There is more to a strong will or being focused then just being "pumped".

I know that my fighters will come from my student base. Every fighter in my gym has to start as a student and earn the right to be a fighter. So, I start everyone in my gym with positive motivation. I always tell them to "never give up", "never let negative thoughts stay in their minds", "focus on the drill or technique", "have self respect", "continue to break those negative thought barriers" and to "expect more out of themselves". I know, I know, you have heard all this before but have you heard it on a daily basis, hourly basis, every round? Having a strong mind isn't something you work on sometimes, its something you work on ALL THE TIME!

When I started training to fight I went about it the same way everyone else does; be tough, try hard and do your best. Yeah, being tough in my opinion isn't something that's hard to learn if you already have it in you, but sometimes it takes time to grow in your heart. Trying hard and doing your best is something you should always do but most people don't do either to their full potential. Why, because most of us listen to that little voice in our mind that tells us when we are done. That little voice that tells you, "this is all you have" or "this is all you have ever done". Well, I'm here to tell you, that little voice is dead WRONG. The first time you hear that little negative bastard tell you to ease up, that's your cue to put it in another gear and focus. That little voice in your head speaks for every time you; only did so many reps, only ran this far, only lasted 3 rounds, couldn't finish the last workout, etc. That little voice in your head is YOU saying; "I'm done". You will always hit that barrier until you learn to control your own mind and believe that you can do more. You may never learn to do that until you really focus or simply "trick" yourself into believing that you are just getting started. It's an inner struggle that you should always fight until you are filled with focus and positive thoughts.

When I train my students and fighters, I like to put them into situations that I know they can handle physically but will test their mind. I never want to break their minds down but give them something I know they can finish so that they are built up and happy with their effort. I try to give them a drill that will push their bodies hard but I know they can finish, IF they have a strong mind. For example, Ill give them five rounds at 5 minutes each round of drills they have done a thousand times. The difference is, I will tell them that they will be punished an extra min if they don't stay sharp throughout every second of the rounds. An extra minute If they; drop their hands below their chins at anytime, start walking instead of using proper footwork, hunch over or look tired, sprawl and not pop back up into a proper stance, etc. Those little things that most people do here and there because they are tired and their coaches let them get away with, will slowly weaken the mind. That's how it all starts, fighters thinking; oh, Ill just rest my arms here or relax my legs for a second. Setting strict rules that they must follow will make them more aware of simple technique but will also make them think more. Thinking more can somehow make you feel more tired and will start a chain of negative thoughts that tell you; "this is harder than last time you did this". Is it really harder than last time? No, you are just not allowed to be weak minded and take your "little breaks". I'm not talking about being efficient so please don't get this confused with that kind of training. This is training for a strong mind.

That was just a single example of how I train my fighters to have a strong mind. I will not allow them to show me with body language or facial expressions that they are tired or have had enough because those two things contribute to feeling sorry for yourself. If you feel sorry for yourself then you don't have a strong mind. There are so many things you can do to strengthen your mind, the most important thing is to ALWAYS be aware of your weakness and overcome that little voice that tells you "you cant do it". That little voice is a habit that formed throughout your life and its going to take a great deal of blocking it out during training to get rid of it.

Start with running, biking or skipping rope. Do any of these and as soon as you find yourself wanting to quit, DON'T. Tell yourself that you are not done, you are better than that and you expect more from yourself. Try thinking of something else or better yet, setting a goal or distance, time or speed. Set reachable goals so that you remain motivated to beat those goals. Understand that you will not always beat your last effort physically but you should always beat your last effort mentally. Meaning, your body may be tired but your mind should ALWAYS be strong. Always be happy if you know you broke those "negative thought" barriers and keep training hard but smart! Never let your mind tell you when you are done, your body will stop functioning properly when it's had enough. Too many people stop because their mind tells them they are tired, only to be just fine physically one minute later.

One of the best fighters I have ever trained with once told me something I will never forget. "Most people suffer from this disease that they cant get rid of, its called 'cant suck it up' disease." - Scott Shaffer

People like Scott not only have the drive but also the will power to do what it takes to be the best. Good luck to everyone on your quest to retrain your mind to open more doors then you ever thought were there.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Current state of Muay Thai and Kickboxing Events in the U.S.

I sometimes wonder what will happen in 10 to 20 years. What will happen to the guys and girls that excel in the striking arts? Where will they go to compete? What will the level of striking be in MMA? I cannot predict the future but I can sense that the future for kick-boxers and Thai boxers in the U.S. looks pretty grim and therefore the future for good striking instruction for MMA fighters has the same outlook.

I am aware that kick-boxing has never been very popular here in the states but today the popularity has gone down a great deal. There are still millions of people that love to train and get a great workout with kick-boxing or Muay Thai but there are fewer and fewer people that want to watch it on TV or even go to a live event. Popularity among your everyday fight fan is only a small part of the problem.

Today's fighters and wanna be fighters are looking more toward MMA as the go to sport. Although, their approach to fighting sports is all wrong. Most MMA enthusiasts and fighters do not support other fighting sports such as kick-boxing and Muay Thai. They all seem to have the attitude that MMA is "better", it's "tougher", it's in a cage so therefore it's more brutal and "bad ass". Along with the attitude comes a need to shun other fighting sports and look at them as though they are inferior. It's OK to be a hardcore fan or fighter and only support your favorite fight sport, but not when your favorite sport depends on other sports for instruction and growth.

Mixed Martial Arts has come a long way but in one area it still falls very short, striking! It's funny to me how a large majority of "future fighters" take the time to find the right submission instructor and only want to learn from the best but when it comes to striking they are content with either learning from someone who shouldn't be instructing much less training fighters or just hitting the heavy bag and sparring like a bunch of crazed monkeys. I believe there is a reason for this type of thought process and it lies in the history of MMA in the U.S. When MMA was introduced to the masses here in the U.S. it was done to show everyone what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu could do and how it can dominate other styles. Yes MMA has evolved since then but peoples perception of what MMA has not. Talk to friends and friends of friends to see how many of them call BJJ, MMA, many of them do. Listen to them say that BJJ is all you need and striking is not as important. It's a BJJ world now, much like the 80's was a Karate world. A majority of BJJ gyms added 'MMA' to their name and a lot of them didn't care to add a real striking instructor to teach. It's insulting to think that people view striking as simply just a bunch of punches, kicks, elbows and knees. The perception of MMA has been killing the striking arts but that has been changing recently. More gyms are seeking qualified striking instructors for their MMA programs. More students and fighters are understanding that their current striking instructor is just not cutting it and they look elsewhere. So now your asking yourself; if this is true then why is striking slowly dying in the States?

Although more fighters are realizing that a good striking coach is hard to find, most of them still don't support Muay Thai and Kick-boxing events. I know some areas of the U.S. don't have this problem but for the most part it is there and it needs to change. It's sad to hear an MMA fighter say he could care less about the upcoming kick-boxing event or literally bash an event because it is not MMA. Do they not understand that they are slowly lowering the level of striking instruction for future MMA fighters? If someone is practicing Muay Thai or Kick-boxing but cant compete because lack of events, then how can that person grow into a knowledgeable instructor or coach for fighters? Where will MMA fighters turn to learn striking if there are not great instructors to teach? Other parts of the world don't have this problem. Kick-boxing and Muay Thai in Europe are still popular sports and still draw a bigger crowd then MMA for the most part. Japan still has it's events and even Brazil and Mexico have frequent Events.

The fighters are not the only ones to blame, promoters are afraid to slowly build a kick-boxing following because it's just so much easier to sell fights in a cage. The best fights I have seen were hybrid events (MMA and Kick-boxing) in a RING. Better view, more action and you get the best of both worlds in one night. A successful Texas promoter tried to have a mixed event only to sell 1/2 the tickets he normally does simply because it was in a ring. How pathetic are Americans to think that if its not in a cage, it's not going to be good. The worse part of that event was when I asked the promoter where all the hometown MMA gyms were, he said; "they didn't want to buy tickets for a hybrid event and they didn't want to fight in a ring". Wow, fighters and their coaches purposely didn't support an event because there was kick-boxing and it wasn't in a cage. That's the fight society we live in I guess.

Most people think I'm weird for my concerns but I see a pattern. Striking in MMA is still light years away from striking in Muay thai or Kick-boxing. Some people say that striking for MMA doesn't need to be great or that striking for MMA isn't as in depth. I say; then why do MMA fighters work so hard to become black belts in BJJ or the best wrestlers they can be, why cant it be the same for striking? My MMA fighters learn and practice striking to win or at least hold their own against elite level strikers in Muay Thai and Kick-boxing. I turn life long wrestlers into great strikers and my submission instructors turn them into great submission players. We all have our roles and we all know our limitations. My job is to get every fighter on a level of striking that would impress any elite Muay Thai or Kick-boxing champion simply because they know MMA fighters shouldn't be that good at striking.

Support your local Kick-boxing events and fighters. They will be the next instructors for future MMA fighters. Without them, the evolution of MMA will slow down in the next 10 to 20 years in the United States.