Thursday, August 5, 2010

Martial Analysis: Learning at All Costs

One of the unfortunate phenomena that have plagued the traditional martial arts has been the obsession with secrecy. I understand and appreciate the need to present sensitive, potentially deadly information to students in a responsible manner. If a student is not mature enough to be trusted with certain information because he might use it without proper restraint, that makes perfect sense.
I also understand that historically many techniques were kept secret to preserve the tactical advantage (real or perceived) of one art over a rival system. That also makes sense.

However, passing on a system—or a purposeful subset of a system—and leading a student to believe that he has received the entire package when he really hasn’t doesn’t make sense. And when that “tradition” is formalized, you’ve got a recipe for misunderstanding and misinformation.

The process of withholding information has, over time, seriously diluted some martial arts. In simple terms, the arts were passed down without the “secrets,” so the knowledge base of the senior practitioners and legacy holders of the systems has become institutionally incomplete. Even though they might be performing the physical techniques of the system properly, the deeper meaning, underlying structure, and core concepts that power those techniques has been lost. In many cases, instructors will “parrot” key phrases that they heard during their training without having the ability to explain the meaning of those phrases. These phrases hint at the deeper understanding that should be part of the system, but when the students press for an explanation, there is no substance to deliver.

One excellent example of this is the triangular footwork of Indonesian pencak silat. When I first saw really good silat in action, I was blown away by the dynamic use of angles and leverages. Skilled practitioners—even those of smaller stature—used their power and the drive of their entire bodies, as well as a highly tuned sense of angles, to quickly off-balance their opponents in ways that seemed magical.

As I looked deeper into silat and had the opportunity to befriend a number of senior practitioners, I asked them about the angles and leverages of the systems and the concepts behind them. I also began compiling a library of instructional videos on the silat family of arts to try to quantify the principles that made them so effective. Despite my efforts to understand what made silat’s angles “tick,” I could not find a clear, logical explanation.

I had noticed a phenomenon in the silat community that, in many cases, its best instructors were not the senior lineage holders from the art’s motherland, but the second-generation Americans who had invested years of study to codify the non-linear teachings of their instructors. I had the good fortune of working with people like Stevan Plinck, Bob Orlando, and, most closely, Joseph Simonet, and seeing how they had absorbed, distilled, and organized the material they had learned. Over time, I also had the ability to compare their teaching methodology with that of their traditional instructors—mostly through Joseph Simonet’s extensive video library of “closed door” silat training sessions. Although it was clear that these highly skilled second-generation practitioners had achieved a quantum leap in the organization of their teaching, the real details of the silat triangle, or tiga, still were not clear.

During my military career, I worked in the signals intelligence field as a linguist and transcriber. I also earned a secondary MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) as an intelligence analyst and worked in that capacity for several years at the National Security Agency (NSA). That experience taught me a lot about the analytical process—how to take seemingly disjointed and unrelated bits of information and correlate them. Over time, that process allows you to identify patterns and relationships. And ultimately, it enables you to identify organizational structures, understand how and why things really work, and project that understanding into something useful.

Since my ability to learn what I wanted from the teaching of others had hit a wall, I decided it was time to learn by analysis of what they were doing. I began with my best resource, Joseph Simonet, with whom I worked closely when I served as Paladin Press’ Video Production Manager. In Joseph’s expression of silat, he used a footwork platform called a pantjar that consisted of a series of geometric patterns characterized by 45 and 90-degree angles. The pantjar also had an equilateral triangle with bisecting lines (tiga) attached to one end and a square (sliwa) at the other end. Joseph explained that the pantjar was the foundation of all silat footwork and angles and the secret of its effectiveness. However, he also faithfully repeated a key phrase taught by his instructor: that “everything learned on the pantjar ultimately ended up on the tiga. The triangle was the secret of silat footwork.”

Joseph is incredibly talented and physically very strong. When he demonstrated techniques using the angles of the pantjar for reference, he had no problem making them “work.” However, when his partner Addy Hernandez, who is also extremely skilled but had less physical strength, tried the same techniques with the same angles, they were much less effective.

When I compared the angles of the pantjar to the angles of movement of other skilled silat practitioners—particularly Paul deThouars and the legendary Dan Inosanto—I noticed a subtle but very significant difference. Rather than 45 and 90-degree angles, their movements seemed to follow more acute angles—like 30s and 60’s. Their techniques were extremely polished and appeared almost effortless. Although much of that was certainly due to the masterful levels of skill they developed over a lifetime of practice, I was convinced that a significant part of their ability was also based on the fact that their methods—based on their angles—were structurally superior. They were fighting smarter because they were applying the “secrets” and, in the process, lending credence to the phrase that the tiga was the key to silat.

I shared some of my insights with Joseph and he was surprised that I was able to draw so much from my observations and analysis. Intrigued by my analytical process, Joseph gave me access to his entire silat video collection, which included dozens of tapes containing rare archival footage and obscure video of noted silat players. Ultimately, I made copies of all the videos for myself and numbered the titles for reference. Every week for nearly a year, Joseph and I would each watch one of the videos, analyze it, and take notes (actually, I did all the note taking; Joseph mostly offered his comments). Every Sunday morning, I called him and we “debriefed” the video. He shared his comments and I offered my analysis. After about a year, we had worked our way through his entire library and the other silat videos I had purchased. Through that process, I formulated my personal analysis of silat’s triangular footwork and the principles that powered it.

Based on my analysis, I debunked the commonly taught concept of off-balancing a person by simply drawing a line between his feet and applying pressure on a vector that is perpendicular to that line. Although he will lose his balance, he will not fall down. Instead, he steps to compensate and “catch” his balance. I refer to this as “putting your opponent on the triangle.” There are several other ways of doing this, including weighting him, spreading his base, and applying foot traps.

Understanding where your opponent’s feet will end up once he’s “on the triangle,” learning how to put him there effectively, and having technique that immediately takes advantage of that weakness collectively constitute half the secret of the secret of the silat triangle.

The other half of the equation is “using the triangle,” which is a logical, quantifiable process of using angles, vectors, and footwork to off-balance and throw an opponent with great force, while ensuring the opportunity for an immediate and fight-ending follow-up on the ground. This process also reveals the principles of using the tiga on a vertical plane as a template for applying pressure in three dimensions to decisively control and throw an opponent.

Whether my analytical process “rediscovered” any secrets of traditional silat or not is a matter of opinion. Traditional silat stylists will claim that it’s been there all along (I agree) and that they’ve been teaching it that way forever (not so much). Others will simply dismiss my approach as uninformed conjecture. That’s fine too. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to apply the concepts identified in my analysis over several years of training, I know that when I do it properly, people fall down. When I teach it logically, my students understand it and they make people fall down. If someone doesn’t believe our approach is valid, ask the guys on the ground.

The best way to learn is obviously with the guidance of a skilled instructor who has thorough knowledge and understanding of the topic and the ability to present that information in a logical, progressive manner. Sadly, the structure of the traditional martial arts and the egos of some instructors do not always support that process. When that happens, the power to learn lies in your desire to learn and your willingness to analyze and make sense of what you see.

For those curious about learning more about the silat triangle and my “take” on it, I have quantified the information gained through my analysis and documented it in my instructional DVD Practical Unarmed Combatives: Volume 3 from Stay Safe Media. That DVD has already found an audience with silat practitioners around the world and the feedback I have received on it has been overwhelmingly positive. Does that DVD teach “secrets?” That’s a matter of opinion. What it does do is teach and demonstrate extremely effectively, sharing information openly and allowing the viewer to learn and understand the material very readily—just the way a good instructor should.

Stay safe,