Sunday, April 21, 2013

Job Well Done

Today was very rewarding.

Today, I took my daughter, my elder son, and one of my other ju-jitsu students to an open Tae Kwon Do competition in Launceston.

Ju-jitsu -- traditional style ju-jitsu, notable for eye-gouging, groin-kicking, biting, and the creative use of just about anything as an improvised weapon -- falls into the Does Not Play Well With Others category. Oh, sure: the Brazilian ju-jitsu folks are nice chaps who can compete rather handily by virtue of their concentration on the ground game, but those of us who study the art for its defensive qualities are... ummm... notoriously not popular in competitive circles.

Nor should we be. I've always argued that training to compete under most rules systems is the same as training to get your ass handed to you in a street situation. But I understand that sparring, grappling, randori and all the other competitive elements have considerable value as training tools, and it has long bothered me that in my isolated little corner of Tassie, it's hard for me to offer the students a chance to tangle with other styles and other rules. Thus, when I found out about this open competition, I made sure that the kids (for it was aimed at youngsters) were told.

It was a fairly light rule-set. They wore headgear and body-plates, and only the body was allowed as a target for strikes. I figured that would be okay for most of my students. In the end, only the three I mentioned above actually took part. But that's okay too. Competition is far from mandatory.

I expected my three players to get tagged out on points fairly early. After all, the ruleset actually precluded about eighty percent of what they know how to do: no grappling, no locks, no throws, no ground-fighting, no strangling, no knees, no elbows, etc. In the Scottsdale dojo, I break it up for them, of course. Sometimes they practice judo-style, trying to throw. Other times they wrestle on the ground. Sometimes they practice the standing/striking stuff. And there are games: with padded foam "swords"; games where they try to push one another out of a designated square. Learning games. And sometimes, for the fun of it, I ask them to put it all together: stand and strike until someone grapples. Then struggle for the throw. Then keep going on the ground for a submission of some sort.

That's what they think of when someone talks about "fighting" on the mat.

In other words, they went into this competition at something of a disadvantage. Not only were they barred from most of what they know, but they were competing with kids for whom the standing/striking stuff was all they did.

So as I said, I expected them to get tagged out on points quite early. But I wanted them to see how it was done, and I wanted them to watch, and learn. In particular, I wanted the boys to think about how to fight disruptively while remaining within the rules. Quite obviously, if they played the stand-and-kick game that the Tae Kwon Do people are justly famous for, they'd get their arses handed to them. So I said they needed to watch, and think of ways to change the situation to their advantage.

And it is at this point that the grin begins to spread across my face.

My daffy daughter the Mau-Mau was initially under the impression she was only allowed to kick. For the first couple of rounds, she played the game, exchanging kicks, and losing on points even though she was setting the pace and pursuing her opponent. But then in one of the breaks, young Dylan Double-Banger found out she didn't know she could punch, and he told her to change her game.

Bingo. Next two rounds she wins on points, chasing her partners around the mat, and even telling one boy to stop moving away. According to her, he needed to get closer to score points... but the subtext was basically stop running away so I can punch you!

I couldn't have been prouder.

The boys did even better. Dylan gave away considerable height and reach in both his matches. His response was to come out fast, and go straight up the centre with a flurry of open-hand strikes. Of course, that was when we found out that open-hand strikes didn't count, but that's okay. By then he'd figured out that he could stay inside the reach of his tall opponent's powerful kicks, and swap punches on a very effective basis. He was actually told that he was "too aggressive".


Jake did better still. He fought five or six times. He managed a draw or a win for each, and quickly learned to adapt on the fly. Discovering that back-fist strikes didn't count, he swapped to straight up punches. And when the floor judge failed to notice two or three punches in succession, he changed up and scored with a kick. Meanwhile, he kept moving into his opponents, and refusing to be drawn into the kick/counterkick rhythm that they tended to use on each other. He too was told that he was a bit too aggressive.

Very cool.

Neither of the boys threw any foul strikes: nothing to face, groin, or any other illegal target. And yes, they did use open-hand and back-fist stuff, but they got no points for it, and as soon as they were informed of that, they shifted to more acceptable tactics.

Too aggressive? I disagree. What was going on there was a fundamental test of the philosophy of ju-jitsu. The boys had to play within a strict ruleset laid down to someone else's advantage. In ju-jitsu, we aim to control the situation. If we are at a disadvantage, it is axiomatic -- absolutely basic -- to effect changes to our advantage.

The boys were not too aggressive. To the best of my knowledge, there was nothing at all in the rules about how many strikes you're supposed to throw. What they did was assess the situation, and show that they understood it. They didn't stand at kick-distance and trade kicks with people who were prepared for that, and who were better at kicking. Instead, they moved in, moved out, threw unexpected punches, changed the distance, changed the rhythm and the pattern -- and thank you very much, they did just fine.

True: they didn't "fence". They didn't "read" their partners, and engage in tricky games of feint and counterfeint. But to be fair, neither did most of the TKD folks. Mostly, they just danced in and out, and swapped kicks. So no, the boys didn't try to outplay their partners at the game, but that's because they knew perfectly well there was no percentage in it. Why would you try to outdo someone in an area where they're much better practiced and much more confident?

That's just silly. What the boys did was throw the system out of kilter, refusing to be drawn into the comfort zone of their opponents. Too aggressive? No. I'm sorry. That's just a way of saying that the TKD lads were too comfortable with the game as they knew it, and they weren't prepared to handle opponents who set out to change things.

Both of Dylan's partners came up to him afterwards, wide-eyed, to say how surprised they were. They were very nice about it, and I'd say all three boys had respect for each other.  And Jake's mob? Well, let's just say that they probably felt a bit embarrassed about warning him beforehand that he was "going to be hammered".  (Okay. Yes. I admit it. I sniggered. Quietly, though. I don't think anybody noticed.)

And me?

What can I say? I took three students into a foreign system. Eighty percent of their technique was forbidden them. It was the first time that any of the three had ever fought competitively. The people they were fighting were age-matched, and of similar training level, but they specialised in this kind of work, and most if not all had competed often.

No. My three students did not "kick butt". But they fought hard, and they fought well, and they surprised the hell out of their competitors, and they enjoyed themselves tremendously, and they gave a very good account of their abilities. Most of all, they demonstrated their ability to adapt to a difficult situation, and change it to their advantage: the essential heart of ju-jitsu.

I am very pleased with them, and yes, with myself too.

And who knows? Maybe sometime we can set up a friendly match that includes grappling, throwing, ground-fighting, strangling, and all those other nice little added extras. That could be fun!