My first 25 years of martial arts training, an overview, Part 3

I left things in part Two with the different arts I trained in. In this part, I’ll cover some other stuff and wrap it up.

 

Shifting focus

After I finished competing, I shifted my focus mostly towards self defense.  Self defense had always been one of the reasons why I trained and it was continuously on my mind. But when you’re a competitor, you don’t focus on it as much. So once those days were over, I had more time to study the issue in depth. I’d had my own share of violent encounters of course: a lot compared to some, peanuts compared to others. Regardless, I delved deeply into things like scenario training, the effects of stress-induced adrenaline, the psychological effects of living a life of violence, etc. In other words, all the things traditional martial arts routinely don’t or can’t offer.  I had already been reading up on it for a long time but intensified those studies big time.

Some of the information I found was impressive in its practical use. Other sources were nothing but blahblahblah to make the author or expert look important. But I learned the most from talking to and training with people who lived a life of violence. Some of them were LEOs, bouncers and soldiers. Others were just people who lived in a bad part of town and faced violence every day. Still others were the kind of people you wanted out of your life as soon as you discovered on which part of the line they really stood. But all the information was good, regardless of who it came from.

The one thing I got out of it the most is that there is no such thing as a one-stop shop as far as violence is concerned. The topic is just way too complex. For example: violence in the slums of Bogota is not the same as a a fight at a frat-boy party on a California college campus. The consequences can be the same, but the parameters and dynamics are totally different.

What’s more, the unique common denominator of all the violence in your life is you. What you bring to the table, your skills and knowledge, are just as much a determining factor than the other dynamics involved. Case in point:

  • I once threw a high roundhouse kick to the face to knock somebody out. His buddy was bent over in front of him after I punched him in the gut and he was busy trying to get around him. He had no time to react and it was all over in the blink of an eye. Kind of a JC Vandammit moment right there. I would never teach anybody that kick as a smart self-defense move, nor would I do it again today. But it worked that day.
  • I knew a guy who knocked somebody out who was sitting in a booth. He put his hands on the table, leaned forward and went into a full split as he nailed the other guy with a kick for an instant KO. Not something everybody can do, not should  you consider this a viable technique. But it worked that time.
  • Loren once mentioned he had a guy come at him with a knife. He grabbed him and did a wrist lock he would tell his students to never try like that. But it worked for him.

I could go on ad nauseam about this. The point is that, thanks to people like Marc, I came to the conclusion very early on in my training that no one system has it all. No one teacher or expert knows everything about self defense either. This implies it is exceedingly difficult to teach self defense in a one-size fits all approach. I think such an approach is the wrong way to go.

Having a beer with Marc "Animal" MacYoung in Leuven, back in 2001

It also shaped my way of looking at other arts and systems, something you’ll come across a lot in my posts here or in my reviews. In short, I’ll always try to find something worthwhile to take away even if I don’t like or disagree with most of it. And if that’s the case, I’ll usually say “It isn’t for me.” For instance: Karate isn’t for me. A lot of it just goes against the grain of how I see things. But I know tons of people who can and have made their Karate work for self defense. So how on earth can I dismiss it as useless? All I can say is that of the entire set of parameters involved in the equation, the ones revolving around what I bring to the table don’t agree with the specifics of Karate. I have the same issue with a lot of the Arnis or Kali I see. Some parts, I think are pure genius. Other parts make me run away screaming my lungs out. And so on for a bunch of other arts.

This is also why I cross train in very different arts. Sanshou and Muay Thai give me things the Tai Chi Chuan and Kuntao I practice can’t. And vice versa. This is about much more than just techniques. It’s also about mindset, tactics and strategy, concepts, etc. The whole “A punch is just a punch” thing is way off the mark in my opinion.

I continue to study self-defense to this day. It’s an ugly beast with many heads and it keeps on evolving throughout the years. But I don’t see how you can study martial arts without looking deeply into it.

 

Writing

Perhaps the biggest influence on my life in the last 25 years was starting to write. Writing scratched an itch I didn’t even know I had. It’s perhaps the most fun you can have spending time in your own head, sorting out your thoughts to create something out of thin air. At least, that’s what it is like for me; it helps me structure all the thoughts and ideas that float around in my head.

Here’s how I got started:

I started a martial arts website in 1999 with mainly reviews and articles on it. At the same time, I was already a part of The Animal List where Loren W. Christensen also hung out. At one point, he asked a detailed question about an Aikido joint lock and I mailed him that I could send him a video that covered it. He accepted and we started talking via email. A bit later, he posted one of my articles on his website because he liked it.  And then out of the blue, he asked if I’d want to write a book together. I went “Whuh? Me?” but quickly decided it would be a great opportunity and jumped on board. About a year later, The Fighter’s Body came out.

Loren and me taking a break in his backyard during the photo shoot for "Timing in the Fighting Arts"

Loren and I would go on to work on several more projects and are still in touch via email. A bit less regular than before but that’s my fault. I’ve been exceedingly busy with other projects and some issues in my personal life also changed my emailing habits. That said, it’s always a blast to receive his emails that rarely fail to crack me up when he blends humor and dead-serious topics in his own unique way.

In many ways, I found not only somebody to show me the ropes as a writer but also a mentor and dear friend. Loren taught me tons about the arts and self-defense, no doubt about it. But he was also there when I went through my divorce and had several failed relationships. Never criticizing my choices and only offering his experience and knowledge by showing me options I hadn’t considered or suggesting an alternative view. I didn’t always follow his advice but I sure benefited from doing so more than once (to put it mildly…) On top of that, in more than ten years  of collaborating, he never once presented me with the “I know best, do as I say” deal. Despite being older, way more experienced and a lot more skilled than me. I’ve been treated a whole lot worse by other authors and experts who haven’t even done half of what Loren did. If anything, that’s the most important thing I learned from working together:

Don’t be an arrogant asshole just because you are a bit further on the path than somebody else. Nobody died and made you the God of War.

I try to emulate him and stay humble when my head swells too much for my own good. I’m far from perfect, but I do try to keep this in mind in daily life.

 

Making videos

A natural progression from writing books was making instructional videos. So I sent a proposal to Paladin Press for a series on Combat Sanshou. They graciously accepted and I soon found myself in a studio for full days of punching, kicking and throwing my demo partner all over the place. The result was a six-disc DVD series with tons of material in there. Though I’d do things slightly different today, overall I’m happy with the results.

Over the years, there have been a lot of misconceptions about Combat Sanshou so I’ll try to set the record straight here.

  • Combat Sanshou is just a name, nothing more. I picked it to avoid confusion with “Sanshou” as a sport, that’s all.
  • I don’t claim to teach anything new or out of the ordinary with that system. However, it is my very own interpretation of things I learned primarily from Chinese systems (more than 90%.)
  • The purpose is to bridge the gap between traditional martial arts and combat sports. Both have value for self defense but also miss important aspects. By blending the parts I think are most important, practitioners from both sides can benefit. That was my goal. Whether I failed or succeeded is up to others to decide. All I can say is that I did my best.
  • There is more to come. I shot a second series with Paladin Press last Summer and have more plans to show the full curriculum.

 

The next few videos I did covered working with the heavy bag and striking equipment. Those came about after always being confronted with people who didn’t know how to use those training tools. Sometimes it was my own students, other times it was from emails I received with specific questions. After some research, I found there were no videos out there that covered these topics in depth. At least, not in the way I had in mind. So I did the research, planning, structuring of the information and went to work. Both videos turned out well enough. Some people complain they’re too long and I agree, there’s a lot of content in there. But I’d rather have complaints that there’s too much information than leave people hanging and grumbling that I should have given more.

In my videos (as well as in my books) I take the same approach as you see me take here: it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about finding options and possibilities.

I’ll obviously give my opinion on those options, good or bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s written in stone. In the end, this approach should allow you to make an informed choice and train the way that is most useful for your specific circumstances. If that means your preferences are different from mine, that’s cool. Nobody has to train like me just because I like things a certain way. As I said before, no one author has it all, including me. That’s why I do my best to give viewers a buffet of possibilities and let them choose for themselves.

In the Paladin Press studio with Dirk, BOB and the wrestling dummy during the Combat Sanshou shoot..

The past and the future.

Looking back at those last 25 years, I can honestly say I’ve had a blast. I learned so much, met so many amazing people and have reaped countless benefits from my training. I have regrets, sure. Like not taking care enough of my body, for which I now pay an ever increasing price. But barring that, I’m pretty happy with how it all went.

As I approach 40, I face the fact that I’m about half-way through with my life. Along with that perspective come a lot of thoughts and another change in focus:

  • I plan to continue training until I die. The arts still fascinate me and I still have so much more to learn.
  • Good health becomes increasingly important. I no longer compete, nor do I have to do stupid shit to prove myself anymore. I’ve made many mistakes in my training and pain is a constant reminder of my folly from those days. A part of my training now is managing those issues while training smarter instead of just harder. That said, there’s a place for intense physical conditioning at any age. Like Loren and I were talking about the other day, you just have to be smart about it.
  • I don’t want to do things that I don’t enjoy or agree with. Life’s too short to spend it dealing with things you hate. This goes for certain aspects of training as well as for writing and making videos. I’ll only do projects that really inspire me to go after them. If they don’t turn into bestsellers, that’s fine. I don’t have any illusions anymore in that department either. Like Stephen King said: I write about what I like to read and what I know. If you don’t like it then I’m sorry; it’s what I have. 
  • I care less and less about what others say. I care about what my teachers, friends and loved ones think of me, that’s it. People who post crap on the internet about me can knock themselves out with that stuff. Life’s too short to take them seriously. Though I have to admit they sometimes make me laugh out loud. My friends and students never fail to send me the “best” of what the haters post online. Some of their dribble is truly hilarious so I guess I really should thank them for entertaining me.
  • I’ll continue teaching for as long as I can. It gives me tremendous joy and satisfaction when I can help people make the arts their own. There’s nothing like it.
  • I like blogging a lot and will keep on posting. My blog here is pretty much my virtual home. Like I said, it’s the place where I air my thoughts and share stuff I think is cool with you all. In all the years I’ve been doing this, your support has been amazing and inspiring. So a heartfelt “Thanks!” to each and every one of you.

 

That’s pretty much it for my recap of 25 years of training. I had tons of fun going down memory lane while writing these posts and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.  I look forward to the next 25 years and beyond…

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Comments

  1. John Coughlan says

    Always lucid and you have the temerity to be interesting and write intelligently bilingually. Very interesting read, projecting a mix of honesty, candour and experience.

  2. Impressive and inspiring Wim. I appreciate you sharing the key insights of your discoveries during your studies and progression as a trainer, teacher, writer and honest human being.

    Have to say it’s refreshing to hear life as it is, rather than a promo piece spotlighting achievements. Sobering too, especially when my own bad choices are kicking my can right now and any choice is a hard one. Now it’s down to measuring the level of pain I’m willing to endure to get from A to B.

    Funny, over the years I’ve gotten a bit pissed at myself, specifically because of one of your emails. You tried to help me with my weight struggles after my mom died…and for a few weeks I did what you suggested. You know what? It all worked for me. Then depression set in so hard, I lost track of my whole bloody life. I stopped doing everything I was supposed to. That was more than 5 years ago.

    Now I’m 100lbs heavier and I read your life’s work in…well, envy, I guess is the truth. This was hard and beneficial for me to read Wim. Time to get off my ass and make the decisions to make the “other half” of my life the *better* part.

    I’d tip my hat if I was wearing one.

    Your friend,
    Jaime

    • Thanks Jaime. I try to avoid telling bullshit because life is already hard enough as is. That said, I’m an island of one so anything I say is just my opinion or experience. Doesn’t mean it’s gospel.

      And I hear you about depression. Having been through one myself, I know how it sneaks up on you and beats you down. If I had had my own shit wired tight 8 years ago, I wouldn’t have lost a lot of time staring at my own navel. I’d be a lot further down the road than now. So it’s not like I haven’t screwed up or anything.

      That said, it’s never too late. That’s the most important lesson I’ve had to learn. It’s never too late to live, love, get healthy, whatever. The only real alternative is doing nothing, which is not even keeping the status quo because things always get worse with age. So if you don’t make a move, you steadily get worse. But like I said, it’s never too late to change. I hope you find some comfort in that.

      Good luck!

      Wim

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