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Tuesday, July 22, 2014


This was inspired by a different source than my dabbling post, but it feels connected. 

On the wall outside the weight room at my local Y, there's a gallery of the various personal trainers who work there. You know the deal: each trainer has a framed picture with a list of their credentials, experience, and a little quote on their training philosophy. Each trainer has a list of specialties--usually a couple of things like "fat loss" and "senior fitness" or whatever.

But there is one who has, I swear, about twenty separate "specialties" listed. Fat loss, athletic performance, powerlifting, olympic lifting, injury rehab...the list just keeps going.

I don't doubt that this trainer knows something about each of these subjects, but seriously? That is not a list of specialties. That is a list of dabbles.

A specialty is an area where one has concentrated their efforts. By implication, if not direct definition, there is a greater effort put into this study than is normally reserved for that study.

Just because you've studied something doesn't mean you specialized in it.

To draw an example from the medical profession: all specialists (in that context) are doctors, but not all doctors are specialists. And the idea of having multiple specializations is ludicrous. (One of my wife's frequent complains when watching TV is that "doctors", particularly in sci-fi shows, are trauma surgeons, brain surgeons, infections disease docs...they are every specialty that the plot requires. She can handle wormholes and aliens, but that stretches suspension of disbelief too far.)

I've seen this in martial arts as well---people who purport to specialize in five different art forms, or whatever.

It's ridiculous, and should stop.

Look, I get it. Specialists are cool. But you don't need to be a specialist in order to be a good fighter, or a good teacher. There's a reason not every doctor is a specialist. Sometimes you need a brain surgeon, but sometimes you just need a general practitioner to tell you "no, it's just a headache."

If you want to specialize, that's cool, but be prepared to put time and effort in far above and beyond that of most other practitioners.

And remember that "specialization" is not a synonym for "thing I like".

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Stick Grappler commented on this post

"I find I have too broad a focus in my training, and should just narrow it down to 1 or 2 aspects/styles. Too many choices, not enough time to train them all."

Edited to add: Stick Grappler's comment got me thinking. This post isn't directed at him, particularly. The comment just made me think of this stuff.

Martial arts instructors often look down on the dabbler. The person who studies a number of different arts, often with great enthusiasm, but who is trying to learn so much that they are hindering their own path toward mastery. The disdain, on a certain level, is understandable. Most instructors have found a system, or small set of systems, that they have devoted themselves to mastering. And those on the path to mastery are rarely satisfied with just being okay, or even pretty good, at their chosen discipline. They want to be the best they can possibly be at it.

I get that line of thinking. But, in thinking about the dabbler, I have to wonder...are they so awful?

Will someone who spreads their training out amongst four or five different arts ever be as good at any one of those arts as someone who devotes themselves solely to one of those arts? No, probably not.

As a concrete example of this: I have watched good MMA fighters box with good boxers. The boxers always win, hands down. It's not that the MMA fighters aren't good, or tough, but they are in the boxers' world, and in that world, the boxer is king.

As I think of that, that's actually a very illustrative example.

The MMA fighter will not be as good at any single discipline as the boxer, Nak Muay, BJJ specialist, or Judoka. The MMA fighter can't be. For every hour they box, the boxer will box for five. If it's a race, the MMA fighter is losing.

But it's not a race: the MMA fighter doesn't need to be able to out box the boxer. That's not his sport. The MMA fighter needs to be able to fight in MMA, not boxing.

(Of course, MMA is a specialization of it's own at this point. The example isn't perfect. Still, it sort of works, especially if you take it out of the realm of the competitive athlete and just look at the average trainee.)

If you have two hobbyists: one spends a year doing nothing but boxing. The other spreads his training time between boxing, Muay Thai, and BJJ, with an occasional self-defense class. At the end of the year, the one who devoted all of his time to boxing will be a better boxer. Both, however, will probably be in better shape than when they were sitting on the couch. Both will be more competent than the average, untrained person in hand-to-hand combat. And both, presumably, are having fun.

So...what's the big deal? Really? That the dabbler will never be a master? If the dabbler doesn't care, why should the coach? Not every student can be a master. We know this.

If the dabbler is meeting their goals, having fun, and being a good student when they're in class, I'm having a hard time finding much fault with them.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Follow the Plan

Had two interesting events that coincided to illustrate a valuable point.

Event One

I've been prepping for the StrongFirst Barbell Instructor Certification (SFL) for a few months now, following a program given to me by Mike Perry. I was following the program to a T, and making decent progress...until my bench press just flat-lined. Not only could I not complete the workout the program called for, I couldn't even come close.

So I emailed Mike (in a slight panic), and we met, cleaned some stuff up, and changed my program. Lo and behold, my bench press started going back up, and is now progressing rather nicely.
Event Two

A student of mine came to me and told me that his bench had stalled out. When I asked him if he had been following the plan I gave him, his answer was "yeah...sort of..." It turns out that where the plan called for him to alternate between four different rep schemes, he had just been doing the same one over and over again.

He didn't follow the plan, and wasn't getting results.

What's the lesson? If your coach gives you a plan...follow the plan. If you follow it and it doesn't work, then you can reassess why it didn't work. If you follow it and it works, great. But if you don't follow it, then you have no way of knowing how well the plan worked.

The corollary to this: if you have gone to someone for coaching, you ought to trust and respect them enough to follow whatever plans they give you. If you don't want to follow someone else's advice, why are you seeking it out?

[Note: This applies to martial arts, self-defense, and combat sport just as much. While "the plan" in fighting is rarely as concrete as "do five sets of five reps", there is a plan to the order and structure of training, and there certainly can be a plan in competition. If you don't want to follow won't get far.]

Follow the plan.