photo above, Sifu McInnes breaking ice in Japan last year
For those that don’t follow me closely, in addition to my full time Muay Thai training and fighting, I also train in Karate under Sifu McInnnes at WKO here in Pattaya. My reasons for training in Karate are not really for Karate’s sake, per se, but more because Sifu is an incredible instructor, and nearly every time I train with him I receive some piece of perspective which is extremely helpful, sometimes invaluable, as I try to bring the Muay Thai I have learned to the ring. He teaches striking beyond any particular Martial Art and has trained some of the most elite boxers, Muay Thai fighters and kickboxers in the last decades. Recently I tested for my Orange belt in Shorin Kempo Karate.
The Difference Between Falling and Diving
I hate “breakfalls.” As a kid I never liked to do the adrenaline-pumping stunts my older bothers loved. One time, my oldest brother Gabe was left in charge of the lot of us, sometime in the Autumn. He had us rake up all the leaves in the yard (we had a lot of yard) and pile it all together in a mound nearly 4 feet high on the street. Then, we and the neighborhood boys got on our bikes and raced down the length of our residential street and launched ourselves and the bicycles straight into the giant pile of dead, brown and red leaves. I remember the sound they made, and more importantly the sweetish smell of them. And when I say “we” did this, I really mean that the boys did this and I chickened out and maybe just jumped into the leaves without having to do the death-defying, high-speed bicycle part.
Yeah, so what’s a breakfall? It’s a way to roll with the momentum of a fall, or catch yourself as you land so that you don’t stumble or get the wind knocked out of you, or otherwise hurt yourself. It’s a Karate thing. And why do I hate them? Because I hate launching myself through the air, generally speaking. I’m not even bad at them, I roll pretty well. But the gift my brothers had at feeling exhilaration from the adrenaline of doing something that might get you hurt was not a gift passed on to me. I hate going fast, I hate rollercoasters, I hate all that stuff.
Last night at Karate, the entire class was breakfalls: An hour and a half of the Kancho, Sifu McGinnes, purposefully tripping us, throwing us, or making us leap over insanely high obstacles with the expectation of landing with whisper-quiet rolls to a standing position, rather than a thud and the wind being knocked out us….What I really cross my fingers for when I go to Karate class is that Sifu will work on fight-specific striking. This is where I need to grow and I can easily apply his teaching to my fighting. But here I was, facing a full class of breakfalls…And it was the best class ever. Why? Well, mostly because Sifu is incredible. But specifically because it was an exercise in mental fortitude, not really whether or not we could clear obstacles stacked before us. Me and and my partner “M” are small, significantly shorter than all the men and boys in the class, so Sifu put us on a separate trajectory to try to clear a pile of pads of our own. You’d have to walk at a fast clip up to the pile of pads and then bound over it, almost like how divers get to the end of a diving board and do that one-foot, then two-foot jump up into the air to do all their spins before landing in the water. And same as with diving, you want a small splash – the quiet landing, not a big thud. Control. Sifu instructed me to add one pad, each one about 6 inches thick, every time I was able to clear the pile. Keep increasing the challenge.
At one point, I’d been doing pretty well and Sifu told me that “by next week you’ll be clearing that one,” and pointed to the stack of pads that was felt like it was nearly my own height, that all the tall boys were jumping over. I laughed. And, yes, I laughed out loud because I didn’t believe I could do it. Nice try Sifu, but no. To this laugh, Sifu took issue. “Alright,” he said, “try it now.” My mental dialogue at that moment was something along the lines of, for fuck’s sake, there’s no way I want to go try to leap nearly my own height into the air and try to not break my neck as I land. But I trust Sifu. And he just wanted me to try. I can try. At my first attempt it was looking good. I had a good pace as I trotted up to the obstacle, had a pretty decent distance when I did my two-footed hop, and then as I sprung into the air my mind went…”nope!”… and with that I crashed directly through the center of the pads. I laughed as I pulled myself up off the floor and I heard Sifu’s voice come through the room, “do it again,” he said. So with the pads reassembled I go back to my starting position, I hop around a little bit to clear my head, then I try again. And I clear it; I even cleared it with some extra height, so Sifu made me add another pad.
As you’re running toward the target, your brain is making all of these unconscious adjustments and calculations for you to be able to clear the obstacle. You don’t have to think, you just do it.
At the end of the night Sifu talked to the group of us for about 10 minutes, explaining the purpose of breakfalls as being mainly a mental exercise. People in the fighting arts are often very concerned with technique. Sifu is very technical, but he is maybe even more concerned with mental capacity. If you don’t have the mind right the technique will not come when you need it. He talked about how important it is to be able to visualize your target. As an illustration, he went over to the tallest pile of pads, measured it against his body, then kicked the whole thing out of the way so there was nothing to jump over. Only the visual marker on his body of how tall it had been. He invited the best jumper, Ford, to try to clear that height without the pads there. Just leap into the air and clear air. Ford jumped but never would have cleared the pile. Then Sifu had me come try and my jump was about my own waist-height. “You need the visual,” he explained. And it makes sense. As you’re running toward the target, your brain is making all of these unconscious adjustments and calculations for you to be able to clear the obstacle. You don’t have to think, you just do it. When you don’t have the visual, your brain doesn’t do the same calculations – instead, it just calculates out what “good enough” is to clear nothing. Which, for me, was waist-height. It’s the same with throwing a punch. You don’t have to figure it all out and, in fact, you shouldn’t overthink it. Instead, as Sifu always says, all you have to believe is, “my fist, his face,” and there you go. Your mind and body will take care of all the details.
Why You Need a Little Fear
Sifu went on to explain the importance of attempting something you aren’t “sure” of, but being sure of it anyway. “If I want something,” he said, “I aim for a little bit more than what I want.” Do a little bit more than what you’re comfortable with. Sifu used the word “adrenaline,” saying that you need it in order to make your mind and body work together to get the job done. It’s a surge. I would choose the word “fear,” because I was afraid of those damn breakfalls over the wall of pads. That fear is what put enough drive into my legs and mind to make it possible. And Sifu said that this little bit of fear, or adrenaline, is what makes you grow and improve. I almost cried at how true that is, because it’s exactly what drove me to start fighting in the first place. You can look great shadowboxing, but can you do any of that under pressure? Does your kick still have power and finesse when you’re scared? When you might fail? That’s why Sifu made me go over that pile of pads that I was afraid of. Because I was afraid of it. And, maybe that’s why I cleared it – that little bit of fear caused a surge.
He often uses the example of breaking ice or bricks as an illustration of the importance of belief. You have to believe that you’re going to break through all of them, because that belief will make your hand into a stone, he says. If you doubt, you’ll pull back at the last moment and, yes, you’ll break your hand. It’s the same with barefist training (which I’ve been practicing now for 4 months) – you fucking believe you will be able to hit with all your power and your mind on the hardest bag in the gym and muscles actually create the stability that you don’t hurt your hand. But if you doubt and pull it at the last moment, there’s a collapse and you’ll pull back or tense up and hurt yourself, break your hand or tweak your wrist. It’s exactly how I ended up ploughing through the pile of pads on that first attempt. Hitting a cement block didn’t break your hand, doubt broke your hand.
Hitting a cement block didn’t break your hand, doubt broke your hand.
And that’s why I didn’t ride my bike into that pile of leaves. Because my doubt was a hindrance rather than my fear being a strength. If you’re afraid, there’s nothing wrong with you. You need it. You shouldิ be uncomfortable, that discomfort and fear and adrenaline will force your mind and body to figure it out. But you have to believe that success is possible. When I was afraid to go into the pile of leaves, my fear was a complete story and it was only hurt and failure. There was no possibility for success. My brothers must have been able to visualize something different – they saw themselves landing safely in the pile of leaves, un-bloodied or broken by the process. And they got a thrill out of it. The adrenaline they felt is exactly the same as the adrenaline I felt, but to them it was a thrill whereas to me it was only fear. Last night, Sifu was forcing me to understand that the difference between those two things is perception by encouraging me to jump over that impossibly high obstacle before I thought it was possible. He believed I could do it, even if I didn’t. And maybe, as the lesson seemed to be, I was able to because of the adrenaline of fear. But only if you use that feeling to propel you. The “gift” my brothers had was not being fearless, it was the gift of harnessing the exact same feeling of fear, the same chemical: adrenaline, and allowing it to be the power that propels, rather than the weight that petrifies.
This is the interesting thing about training Karate. All day long I train Muay Thai, something I’ve increasingly devoted my life to for the last 8 years, especially the last 4 here in Thailand. All day I’m doing something I’m supposed to be good at. I put a lot of mental pressure on myself to be good, even though I’ve gotten better at laughing or shrugging off failure in Muay Thai. As I like to say, I fail all day long. People may wonder why I would add to this big work load, Karate. Aside from the marvels of Sifu’s instruction (which is a big deal) it provides relief to be doing something I’m not supposed to be good at. It’s okay to suck, to fail. I can experiment with myself, I can throw myself into a pile of pads and learn something about myself. It just so happens that my years at Muay Thai does make me pretty good at some of the aspects of Karate, but I have no pressure to be. It gives me room to take a wider perspective on everything I’m mentally and technically trying to accomplish in Muay Thai and in the fight ring. It would be like trying very hard to become a fluent professional orator in Spanish, and deciding to start learning Latin or French too. Add to this that Sifu teaches uniquely, and I’m quite fortunate.