Category Archives: Diary entry

You put your whole self in: part 1

You put your whole self in,
Your whole self out:
In, out, in, out.
You shake it all about.
You do the hokey cokey,
And you turn around.
That’s what it’s all about!

Despite a year passing since my last entry, I’m pleased to announce, to greater or lesser indifference, that Phaseshifting is still here! I could talk about how life continues without the need for online validation, or how actions that aren’t commemorated in a status update or tweet are still worth taking, but all that may have to wait for another time. In the meantime, it’s a New Year, with cobwebs to be cleared and rust to be oiled. I’ll start with a diary entry, as this week saw our first VT session of the year at Combat Science 101. For now, this is still a self-defence and martial arts blog, so those of you who may want a larger lesson from this, such as it is, will have to wait for part two.

The session was simple enough, starting with a vigorous warm up based around sudden changes of direction, diagonal sprints and lateral steps. Moving through a collection of mobility drills, unearthed from my browser bookmarks and which built on previous drills the class had been practicing, we moved on to some crude stand up wrestling inspired, in true Vagabond Warrior magpie style, by a blog I’d read earlier in the day. One partner hooked his arms under the other’s and took a gable grip or similar at his back, with the second partner having to take the gable grip over the other’s arms. “Under arm” was designated Number One and the brief was for Number One to attempt to drive back Number Two, with the latter providing just enough resistance to make that task difficult and all this for thirty seconds at a time before we swapped roles. Much harder than it sounded – especially given free interpretation of ‘just enough’ – and while we entertained a new-found respect for wrestlers and caught our breath (with one student gasping “my tank is empty”), I debriefed the group.

Now, I know next to nothing about wrestling but it wasn’t wrestling skill I was hoping to develop. My aim was to show how a relatively simple exercise can develop and highlight many ostensibly disparate attributes. In this case, mindful of where we were, the one who had the under arm grip had a better chance of using “power from the ground”, a key VT principle, to unseat and move his opponent. Thirty seconds of moderately aggressive and physical work exhausted the group just enough to emphasise the need for us, as VT practitioners, to seek to avoid such a style of fight or nullify attacks before it became that kind of fight: the need to take the initiative, attack the attack and not let an attacker gain or maintain the advantage of surprise is paramount to effective VT. Finally, the key observation and learning point for me was how everyone put their all, physically, mentally and emotionally into such a simple exercise.

First through the judicious administration of a few pushups, squat thrusts, burpees and crunches – to reveal to the students that their tanks were not quite empty – and then via the subsequent analysis of fundamental VT concepts, this was the theme that we carried with us through the rest of the lesson. After a brief examination of VT’s basic structure and posture (2), we cast a similarly concise eye over the detail of the main VT vertical punch before bringing it all together in pad drills. What is often a throwaway drill or an excuse for exhibiting one’s ego, in the commonly accepted sense of the term, became an intensely demanding drill, even when performed with reduced intent or aggression. The intensity came from having to engage and distil all of one’s learning – about posture, structure, alignment, triangulation, aim, extension and more – to produce a repeatable, “right first time”, punch (3). Reducing the distance to the focus mitt to between six inches and a forearm’s length increased the demand on the student, by limiting the space available to develop speed and power.

As the VT punch trades off power for speed and closer range, the practitioner must bring all that he or she has to the punch, working on and developing the ABMVT idea of “full body geometry”. The ability to utilise full body skeletal and muscular engagement is, as my chief VT coach Ged Kennerk teaches, a skill to be learned, not something to be left to chance, so a quick full body plank helped bring that to the forefront of our attention before we returned to the punching practice. In the context of the VT punch, all the elements had already been taught in class before; the challenge now was to bring all those elements to bear at the right time, then repeat. In short, the student has to put everything into what he or she does to make their Ving Tsun work. (4)

In part 2: “You already possess everything necessary to become great”


(1) Ving Tsun, also known as Wing Chun

(2) Ving Tsun is, very roughly speaking, a structure-based, rather than a torque-based, striking system.

(3) Eagle-eyed readers will no doubt identify this as part of the scientific method. Ving Tsun was called Ving Tsun Kuen Hok – “the science of Ving Tsun gung-fu” – by Wong Shun Leung.

(4) For detail freaks, or dear readers who remain awake at this point, the remainder of the lesson was given to basic kicking practice, simple Dan Chi Sau and Lap Sau drills and a brief run through of VT’s first and second hand forms, Siu Nim Tau and Chum Kiu.


Mixing it up, ramping it up

Inspired by talking to Ron Goin about training for chaos – more on which anon – I decided to share a little of that love and inspiration with the Ving Tsun (Wing Chun) class at Combat Science 101 last night. Had I thought about it, I might not have trailed it on the class’s Facebook page in advance as the turnout was modest, but I’m happy to ascribe that to seasonal festivities and a morbid fear of damp weather. My aim was to transition from fundamental, technical Ving Tsun (VT) training through functional, combative exercises to near-exhaustion, then introduce a final pressurised test which would draw on those fundamental skills.

We began the class with a run through of the first two free hand forms of Wong Shun Leung VT, Siu Nim Tau and Cham Kiu. After some free punching practice, static and moving, concentrating on structure and good mechanical advantage we moved on to Dan Chi Sau, a contact reflex exercise where the practitioner learns to punch along advantageous lines of attack when the limbs are in contact with another’s. Setting up good form, base and lines of attack we raised the pace in order to raise the heart rates.

After a round of dynamic stretching exercises followed by a few rounds of press-ups, crunches, squat thrusts and free squats, we arrived at the meat of the session, the Vagabond Warriors inspired functional ‘mental fortitude’ test. Working in pairs for two minute rounds for two circuits, the stations were:

  • Tyre flip and sledgehammer: one partner flipped the tractor tyre, approximately four foot high, jumped in and out of it then repeated the sequence. The other partner then performed five overhead strikes to the tyre with a ten-pound sledgehammer. Partners swapped roles half way.
  • Bag drag and carry: pulling a 30lb bag across the length of the hall, then hoisting it up on the shoulders before running two lengths of the hall with it. Partner repeats. The students added their own variation on the second circuit, namley that one partner sat on the bag while the other pulled. Naturally, this made this exercise hell on earth.
  • Sprawl and barge: a simple exercise which seemed to mainline lactic into the legs! One partner holds a large kick shield, the other performs a sprawl then shoulder barges the shield at full force; this also trains the shield holder to brace and absorb impact. Partners swapped roles half way.
  • Ball smash and sword cuts: this turned out to be the rest station, after a fashion. Using a wooden sword (bokken) cut down then diagonally down left-to-right and right-to-left continuously. Using an 8lb ball, squat, drive up then smash the ball with some gusto into the mat. Partners swapped roles half way. For the second circuit we substituted hitting press ups for the ball smash: press up then hit the mat once with each hand, second press up then hit the mat twice with each hand, working up to the tenth pressup with ten hits with each hand.

Then, it was on to the focus mitts. The brief was to hit full force but attempt to retain some technique despite the rapidly encroaching fatigue; one set of punches was with VT advancing footwork (seung ma), the other was with triangulating tracking step (sam gok ma). The pad holder then crossed his arms on his chest and allowed the puncher to shove him backwards.

Finally, we set up some VT-based milling to burn out (as if we needed it). Both participants wore head guards and light MMA gloves for protection, with the aim of punching continuously at the opponent, constantly attempting to use superior footwork to outflank him and gain the better hitting line. I was extremely please to see that all retained their composure and discipline, sticking to the game plan and driving forward throughout the drill, quickly recovering and adapting when it all started to get a little messy. And, despite the fact that at this point we were all sweat-soaked and exhausted, most wanted to repeat this drill but time ran out.

We finished by discussing and emphasising the fact that this kind of training gave us the context to our training, and gave us a small glimpse of the environment in which we would have to ‘go to work’. The smiles told me I may have to ramp it up even further next time …

Thank you to those hardy students of Combat Science 101 who gave their all for this session.

No students or tyres were harmed during training.

A thin list of things

FAST Defence Workshop, Bristol, 13 June 2012

After  a few last minute dropouts, a smaller turnout than normal for the regular FAST Defence Bristol South workshop gave me the opportunity after the opening circle to talk to the group about the significance of escape within one’s self-defence arsenal. It’s very easy, especially for those practicing a dedicated martial art as opposed to complete self-defence system, to forget that this should be the primary goal of all unwanted encounters, whether physically violent or not. We can easily get up in the all too human need to prove or test what we know, especially the male of the species. The drive to escape should be drilled to the same unconsciously competent level as our physical techniques; this is one of the drivers behind the ‘hands up, look around, go get help” coda to FAST Defence drills and scenarios.

“It is better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die. The very essence of self-defense is a thin list of things that might get you out alive when you are already screwed.”

Rory Miller (1)

We then broke off into pairs to work on keeping a working distance of roughly two arms’ lengths between you and your aggressor and, should this not be possible, the need to keep a physical barrier, a fence, between you and the aggressor, protecting one’s personal space. We added some verbal aggression into the mix and the group’s imaginations and creativity were a joy to behold and several members showed a real talent for this! It’s an important part of the method to be able to put yourself in the aggressor’s shoes, both to look at confrontations from the other side and also to help in fostering the ‘switch’, the switch from being an ordinary person to one who has to use the range of skills from assertiveness to violence in order to defend oneself.

After some lively and entertaining multiple verbal aggressor scenarios, breaking just at the point of transition to the physical, we turned our attention to our hard skills for the evening. This time it was dealing with an attack from the rear that would take us to the ground. As usual, we took two or three high percentage techniques to work on, in this case a rear palm strike to the groin, using a hip bump to create space, and the hammer fist strike to use once you’ve managed to turn and face the aggressor. (As the majority of the group were also Wing Chun students, we also considered the similarities between the rear palm strike and hip bump to the space-making rear strike of the second part of the Siu Nim Tao form of that fighting system.)

This is the critical part of the FAST Defence methodology: learn the mechanics of the skill, apply it at various levels of aggression to the pads, then pressure test it against a live attacker at full force.

Following some pad work with these skills we turned to the combat drill, with the defender starting with feet together and eyes closed – one of our favourite pre-stress positions – and me in the Predator Armour coming up behind them and taking them to the ground. This is the critical part of the FAST Defence methodology: learn the mechanics of the skill, apply it at various levels of aggression to the pads, then pressure test it against a live attacker at full force. The goal of the drill was to use the skills we’d just practiced – and any others that appeared in the mix – to escape from the floor, hurt the attacker and effect an escape to the designated safe place, emphasising that the will to live and survive was equally as important as the physical techniques themselves.

And this the group did excellently! We ran through it at about 80% intensity to allow them to make the emotional and mental transition from a training mindset to a survival mindset, then repeated it again at a more intense level. Never have I been happier to be in the Predator Armour with a few of the groin strikes coming within a hair’s breadth, even within the armour, of making my eyes water and the hammer fist strikes making the headpiece creak merrily. It’s worth noting that this month, as in the previous workshop, the new members of the group managed to deliver strikes which almost equalled the power of some of the more seasoned people. I have often found this to be the case and there’s another line of thought to be followed here at some point; is it the lack of preconceptions, the training methodology, or access to the will to survive uncluttered by thought of technique?

As always, we finished with a closing circle, which allows the group to decompress and bring the adrenaline levels down and say as little or as much as they want about the session.

Next FAST Defence Bristol South WorkshopContact me for more details or sign up to the newsletter to be kept informed.


(1) Miller, Rory Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence (YMAA Publication Center, 2008)