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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thornton, Harris, and Me, Part II

Recently, I wrote about a post from Matt Thornton, written in response to an article by Sam Harris on the subject of self-defense. I emailed Mr. Thornton, and I’m delighted to say that he was willing to have a very intelligent dialogue with me regarding many of my concerns. With his permission, I have reprinted his reply below. The only edits I have made were to run a spell-check at his request. I've also included my replies to his replies, as I wrote them at the time. I'm sure that I will have more thoughts on some of these subjects, but I wanted to get this out here.

Before I even get into this, I want to say this. I'm really pleased with the fact that Mr. Thornton was willing to have this dialogue with me. He is the head of a major international martial arts organization, and certainly in a position where he could have chosen to ignore my email, either pleading busy-ness, or simply ignoring me because he felt I wasn't worthy of his time. His willingness to discuss his beliefs and views speaks volumes, in a good way.

I've included his original email, and my responses in italics.

Hello Jake, Thank you for the email. Your questions are well thought out, and good. Here are my replies, feel free to post them publicly if you like.

You stated: "For a variety of personal reasons, one of my big suspicious or alarm bells is often triggered when I see religious or philosophical ideas attached to martial arts training. I believe that the job of a martial arts coach is to teach, well, martial arts. Obviously, that can be a pretty broad-ranging term, and lots of stuff gets wrapped up inside it. But I think there is a point at which a coach can overstep their bounds."

Let me state very clearly that I completely agree with you here. You mentioned, very honestly, later in the piece that having not trained at one of my events personally, you don't know whether I do, or do not, do that. So let me answer that, I do not.

When I am teaching Martial Arts, I am there to teach Martial Arts. Most people pay between $150 to $200 a weekend to attend one of my seminars, and I would feel badly if I spent their time, and money, talking about a subject they were not there for. My Martial Arts seminars are just that, Martial Arts.

Even more to the point, if they are there for MMA, I don't spend my time teaching GI BJJ, anymore then I teach stand up when doing a BJJ seminar. As a professional, I make a point of delivering what the audience came for.

I did not address this in my original emails to Mr. Thornton, but I do want to state that I was really pleased with this part of his response. Too many instructors get caught up in delivering what they want to teach, not what their audience wants (or needs), and do their students a grave disservice as a result.
In addition, I too am cautious when people begin over reaching their level of expertise. I find it disturbing when Martial Arts coaches begin advertising themselves as "life coaches". I think this is irresponsible. Yes, what we do in terms of physical training brings many benefits. It can help people be healthier, more confident, provide a social community, etc; in short, it does change lives. But that is a by product of a good training environment, and I am by no means a therapist. So yes, I agree those lines need to be drawn very clearly. And I don't like to see them crossed.

That said, I am an outspoken atheist, as well as a member of the skeptic community. I do give talks regularly at the university related to critical thinking applied to Martial Arts; and engage in debates on issues related to religion. However, these are completely separate things from my gyms, my classes in my gym, and my seminars on Martial Arts.

I will if asked discuss this, but not on class time.

Which, just to clarify my own position, I think is great. I am a big proponent of the need for critical thinking in the martial arts, and in life in general, and I've been a fan of a lot of your writing precisely because you encourage people to think and test things for themselves. 

Similarly, I'm all for people who wish to engage in debates regarding religion, science, etc doing so. Honest, intelligent debate is healthy and an awesome thing. 

You asked: "I have to wonder if I could show up at one of Mr. Thornton's courses and train without being subjected to the idea that I'm foolishly subscribing to a useless fantasy because I sometimes go Synagogue on Friday nights and don't eat one day a year to somehow make up for being a bad person (yes, I know it's not terribly logical, but I'm okay with that)."

Answer, yes you could. Not only that but if during class time someone started harassing you about such things I would be the first to step up and stop it. There is no room for that on my mat. And you are welcome here anytime to see for yourself. So I hope that is clear.

Very clear, and if I lived in Portland, I'd happily stop by one of your classes (honestly, if I lived in Portland, I probably would have stopped by years ago). I'm actually acquainted with your east coast rep, Steven Whittier (he and I share a coach in Mark Dellagrotte), and I know he's had you out here a few times. I've never managed to make it to one of your events here, but I'd happily show up to one.

That leads to a larger point; if your religion is private, meaning you are not bringing the topic up, not engaging in public policy debates based on theological beliefs you hold, etc, then I don't think anyone should bother you about it, period. Barring of course, close friends or loved ones you may have who you share a relationship with that makes those topics fair game. However, the moment you bring the topic up, or engage in a public debate, then I think you, or anyone else, should expect to have those ideas challenged. This should be done in a respectful way, and the line, which has always been for me crystal clear, between an idea being 'stupid' (some simply are), and a person being 'stupid', is not ambiguous. That is a line I try to not cross.

That is also totally fair. Public debate is, well, public. I'm completely okay with the idea that if I bring up a particular notion, whether religious, martial arts, or other wise in a public forum, people can and should challenge it. One of my repeated admonishments to my students is for them to not take my word as gospel.

And on one final note on this topic, yes, we have religious people of various sects within SBGi. Again, if they keep the Martial Arts training to 'training', they are good people, and they are skilled at coaching methods of 'Alive' training, etc, then they are welcome by me. Every other conversation occurs over beers, and not on class time.

I figured as much, but I appreciate you clarifying.

You stated: "Mr. Thornton contends that the BJJ trained student will do better because under assault "her body starts reacting automatically". Human bodies don't work that way. The BJJ student's body won't do anything unless she mentally capable of thinking, moving, and accessing her skills."

Let me clarify, as this is an empirical topic. When the flight or fight response kicks in, and the fight has turned physical, then the athletes 'Alive' training in the core delivery systems is what takes over. That is mind and body, as far as I am concerned mind is body, as mind is simply a word we apply to what the brain does. Post event, it isn't uncommon, be it a cage fight, competition match, street fight, or arrest scenario that turned hairy, for the parties involved to not be able to recount to you exactly what, and how they did what they did. Again, I am painting with a broad brush, as there exceptions, but none of this is theory; this is twenty years of working with combat athletes, as well as law enforcement and military personal and agencies.

Military training, to use another example, is structured to account for this 'affect'. The constant repetition of something like clearing a firearm after a misfire needs to be ingrained in such a way that, should the soldier find themselves in a live firefight, the body responds and clears the jam absent conscious/clear thought. This is no secret.

This is all I mean when I say 'automatically'. The 'automatically' is the entire mind body organism performing its training under a high stress scenario due to hours upon hours of proper training; that is all.

That is fair, and much clearer. I wasn't clear that you were using the term "body" to include the entire organism (mind and body), and from that perspective, I do agree with you. Your initial statement read more like the ones made by some martial artists who seem to think that with sufficient training, their bodies will simply start moving around of their own accord, without any conscious (meaning, brain directed) action of their own. People may not remember everything that happens (except, as you note, those who have had so much exposure to violence as to be desensitized to it), but I do believe that there has to be some level of conscious engagement in order to make those skills work.

To draw a sports examples: I'm sure you've seen plenty of fights in which one fighter, having been rocked, slammed, or suddenly forced into a difficult position, failed to counter or escape something that they "knew" how to stop, but didn't because of the overwhelming mental stress.

Of course, proper training helps teach people how to deal with that fear and stress, and alive training is important for just that. I'm not making the argument that it isn't, or that you are wrong about the value of alive training. I hope that is clear.
You stated: "...just as there are differences between how one prepares for a sport BJJ match vs. an MMA match (you need to account for the presence of strikes, the lack of a GI removes or restricts certain tactics), there are elements in a self-defense curriculum that should be present that are not always addressed in sport training. That is not at all to deny that the sport training is valuable or healthy."

This is one of my ongoing frustrations with some in the RBSD community. Every article I write, and every class I have ever taught related to self-defense (and I have been teaching all over the world now for 20 years), takes into account the differences between things like GI, no-GI, MMA, and self -efense situations. Each has its own emphasis. So you are preaching to the choir on that one. To constantly hear, "the street isn't the same as sport", is a bit frustrating as I know of nobody who thinks it is.

Yeah, and for that, I owe you an apology, because I have read enough of your writing to know that you know this. The last part of that post was hastily written, and could have used some expansion.
However, and this is the point I emphasize, that doesn't change the fact that the delivery systems do not magically change when you find yourself mounted in a Safeway parking Lot, as opposed to the MMA cage. There is no special "street" escape. And no, we don't want to be there. But, that isn't always up to us. And if someone does find themselves in that situation, it will be the hours spent drilling the delivery system of BJJ in an 'Alive' format, that will get them out in the most effective manner possible. And 'that' is the point.

Completely and totally agree. [In retrospect: I would add in here that I think that other systems besides BJJ teach effective mount escapes. Many grappling systems teach ways to escape the mount. I don't think Mr. Thornton would disagree with me on that, though I suspect he'd emphasize that regardless of what the system is called, the escape is going to look more or less the same.]

In my letter to Sam I stated that when it comes to RBSD I was painting with a broad brush, and this was true. There are certainly many exceptions which prove the rule. There would be no argument from me on that point.

As for healthy, what I was presenting Sam with was a very specific situation. In this case, an insecure adolescent who may find themselves picked on in school. My experience has been that contact sports, be it BJJ, Judo, Boxing, Wrestling, etc, can have dramatically healthy results on that child's entire life. As I stated, sports, when done right, are simply good for people.

This is another place where I could have written more, and probably should have.

I WAS the insecure adolescent who got into the martial arts to feel tougher, and my training over the years has run the gamut from the traditional (Aikido), to the fraudulent (a "kung fu" "master" who is the subject of a story far to long for email), to the "alive" (Muay Thai, Boxing, a smattering of Judo/BJJ, and Tony Blauer's PDR system). I now coach Muay Thai and the PDR, and continue to try and train and learn.

I completely agree with you that sports are good for people of all ages, and particularly, for those insecure adolescents.

While I believe that there is tremendous value in self-defense training, I also believe that sport training offers a much healthier, sustainable long-term model for most people. My experience has been that most people prefer to spend the majority of their time focusing on a sport that is fun and enjoyable, rather than spending every training session contemplating potential robberies, rapes, or murders that might occur. I do think it is important to address self-defense issues with those who want it, but for a regular training program, a sport model seems to be more sustainable for most (with some exceptions, as usual).

 That's the discussion, more or less. There's some stuff in there that I'd like to think through a bit more, and probably will write to expand upon a bit.
Again, I want to thank Mr. Thornton for the dialogue. It was very cool, and I really do hope to get to one of his events some day.

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