Monday, 6 November 2017

John & Tommy


John walked into the gym, the receptionist smiled to him as he came up to the desk, a nod of acknowledgement and a slight trace of sadness in her smile. John didn’t say anything, just walked through the open turnstile. He was dressed as normal in workout clothes, trainers. His hair the usual regimented short trim that he had cut once a week. As he moved past the guys using the weights and running machines one of the other staff saw him. “Hi John” the man said brightly but John again didn’t respond. The man looked over at the receptionist confused and she slowly shook her head. The man shrugged and carried on with the induction he was leading. An old lady who wanted to know how the cycling machines worked and if they’d be good for her before she went up to the Lake District to stay with her son.

John walked past the main workout area and into a side corridor, the office he wanted was on the left. The door was open and he knocked lightly, hearing voices inside.

“Come in” a deep voice replied and he pushed the door to find Max the gym manager and another guy in there.

“John” Max said grinning. “Good to see you”. He turned to the other man. “So that’s basically what we need, if you can email me back with a template then we’ll take it from there.”

The other guy shook Max’s hand and nodded to John before walking out, closing the door softly behind him.

Max gestured to the empty chair in front of his desk. “Take a seat. It’s good to see you again.”

As John sat down, his bulky frame barely fitting in the chair, Max looked at his face. He was still the same from a superficial glance, clean shaven, hair kept trimmed with almost military precision but his eyes held a sadness that looked like it was taking him over. There were dark patches under his eyes and Max guessed John wasn’t sleeping. He sat down in his own chair.

“Can I get you a coffee, tea?” he asked, pointing to the kettle behind him. 

“No, I’m fine”. Johns’ voice was croaky, like he hadn’t spoken for a while. Max guessed he had been spending a lot of time on his own, too much isolation is a bad thing. It means you think too much.

“So what can I do for you? You coming back? The kids miss you, you know. Little Julie asks where you are every time. Nathan’s been doing a good job but we need him back on the pilates group. He’s not qualified for self defence. As a gap fill it’s OK but…”

John held up his hand and Max trailed off. “I think it’s best if I don’t come back…not ever”.

Max sighed. Worst case scenario, he’d thought this might happen. He leaned forward slightly “Look, no one blames you. For chrissakes, how on Earth could you ever think you were to blame for what happened?”

John’s face remained stoic but his eyes briefly flashed with anger and he exhaled slowly. 

“I tried to keep those kids safe.”

“Which you have done, and very well I might add.”

John glared at him and then replied “So safe that someone died?”

Max knew this would be like walking on eggshells, he’d expected this conversation to come but actually dealing with it was another matter.

“John, Tommy stood up for his friend at school. When he fell he hit his head. It’s literally that simple. Even the lad who hit him didn’t mean to hurt him that badly. He’s having counselling himself about this. This wasn't at the club it was at school. Tommy’s mum and dad don’t blame you. The police don’t blame you and I don’t blame you. Why do you blame yourself?”

John paused and Max could see the conflict behind his eyes, keeping his emotions in check. John cleared his throat then spoke again.

“I started the class so those kids could feel safe. So they would be able to stand up to bullies, not walk around scared like I did when I was their age. We do this for a year and we have gradings and then Tommy thinks he’s Superman and….”. He trailed off, looking away.

Max sat back in his seat. “You know Tommy idolised you?”

John’s face turned to look at Max and his calm demeanour slipped. “That was the fucking problem wasn’t it?! He idolised me, he worshipped me. John the big tough guy. Look how much good that did him. All I ever did was put him in a place where he thought he could be a superhero and now he’s dead”. John turned away again, his lips pursing and Max could see his fists were clenched. 

Max looked at him for a few moments and then asked “Is stopping this going to bring him back?”

“Don’t patronise me you arsehole!” John snapped back, the fury clear on his face.

Max sighed and then stood up, moving to the filing cabinet beneath the kettle and teacups. He opened the top drawer and slid out a large book. Turning he placed it on the desk facing John.

“Tommy’s mother gave me this” he said tapping the cover. “She asked me to show it to you when I told her you might not come back”.

John looked confused but then leaned forward to look. The cover had a newspaper cutting of him sellotaped to the front, the tape had come loose on one side. It was at his MMA fight for the McMillan Cancer Trust about 6 months ago, holding the winner’s trophy and smiling.

What…..?!” he said nonplussed, then opened the first page. It crackled as he turned it over and was full of pictures of him, from newspapers and prints from online websites. As he turned the next page there were photos of him and Tommy from the club, at training and at the gradings. Two were were Tommy’s parents, smiling behind them as they posed for a photo at Tommy’s second junior exam. The boy looked happy and tired.

Turning another page there were drawings Tommy had done, of him and John as masked superheroes. He had been a good artist and the pictures were beautifully drawn in pencil and colours.

John closed the book and looked up at Max, his face seething with anger.

“What the fuck?!!…” He stood up, fists still clenched and said through gritted teeth. “I already feel like shit and now you want to rub my face in it. This just makes the whole thing worse. I knew that boy was obsessed but…”

Max cut him off and gestured for him to sit down. “John please…”

Tears were forming in John’s eyes and he slowly sat again, glaring at Max. Max paused for a long time, his elbows on the desk and his hands under his chin as he looked at John. Then he said slowly. “Tommy had virtually no friends. He lived for comic books and the self defence classes you ran. His dad told me that in the space of six months he went from being isolated and shy, afraid of his own shadow to confident and happy. Every night he’d come home and every conversation was about either Spiderman, The Justice League or you.”

John looked away towards through the half drawn shutters on the window, the people working out in the main gym were visible in the background. He said nothing. Max continued.

“He loved you and you were his hero. Do you know why his mother gave me this to show you? She told me that it wasn’t because of you that Tommy died but through you that he lived.”

John started to cry, the pain and grief finally spilling to the surface. His shoulders heaved and he put his hands over his face.

Max stood up and moved around the desk. He placed his hand on John’s arm and said gently “Think about it. I’ll respect your decision if you decide to give up the classes but no one, and especially not Tommy’s parents want you to stop”.

Max left the office, closing the door behind him quietly. He went outside for a walk, stopping at reception to say that absolutely no one was to enter his office until he got back. 

When he returned, John was gone and so was Tommy’s scrapbook. 

The following week John came back and the kids mobbed him as he came through the door, super pleased to see him again. A new photo of Tommy was on the wall and remained there. 

No one would ever forget him.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

The Master Effect



In Krav Maga, like any self defence or martial arts system, there is a fear factor present. It sits up there on the shelf with fitness (or lack of), exhaustion, anxiety and adrenalin. Fear is ever present to some degree because, to put it bluntly, we are involved in a discipline that teaches the use of brutal, physical force and despite what anyone doing non-contact Karate may try and bluster, it is not normal to put yourself in that situation willingly. Every instinct of human survival screams at you to run away from trouble…but that’s why we train. To override the flinch response and hone our reflexes to deal more appropriately with aggression and violence.

Fear is a good thing in moderation. Fear can kickstart adrenalin and it can “show you where the edge is”. Fear can keep you sharp, keep your muscle memory active and stop you from becoming complacent or even lazy. Multiple attackers drill? I’d be lying if I said that fear didn’t show its face to some degree on that one. How about sparring with someone MUCH bigger than who’s at least a grade higher? Fear could be distilled from my veins from that. And let’s not forget the joys of Being Called To The Front To Help Demonstrate A Technique. Oh, my God! The fear.



In the end though we step forward, face the fear and move past it. Fear in training is normal and it is essential. Jon Bullock, head of KMG UK once said at a seminar that we are not afraid of getting hurt in training as we know that is probably not going to happen. What we are afraid of most of all is looking foolish in front of other people.

The biggest fear I have EVER faced so far in the 7 years I’ve being doing Krav Maga was in 2014 when I was chosen by Eyal Yanilov to fight what are known as the Bullet Men. Me and 9 others at Eyal’s World Tour seminar in Essex, were selected to go up against TWO guys in Predator suits…one at a time. I was the last to fight and I have seriously never been as scared as I was in the half hour leading up to the fight. Once we went hands on, I was fine though. It was my mind that was frightening me, filling my head with stories and fears and paranoia about what was, looking back on it, an awesome experience and a privilege. To sum up…I was hand picked by the head of Krav Maga Global to fight in front of everyone and over 100 other people in the room weren’t. I still remember very clearly just how scared I was and as Jon said, it was mainly due to fear of how I would be perceived by my peers, instructors and most of all Eyal Yanilov. I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt.


Photo by Anna Surowiec


Fear clouded my mind, got my palms sweaty and made me feel physically nauseous. Fear, that day, was a bit of a bastard.

Fear like that though, is useful. Now I’m not so scared in front of a room full of people. The fear can be dealt with, moved past and adapted to. Fear is a tool, like fire. You can control it but don’t ever get casual or lose sight of what you’re doing with it.

But…there’s another type of fear and it’s what I call the Master Effect. 

The earliest example of this was about 5 years ago when I was training in the UK. The club was fairly new back then and there was only one P5 in the club. We would all look at him with awe as he walked into training, silent and heavily muscled. A P5. Cor! Newbies asked me at least twice in whispered tones “Is he the P5?” and for some reason it seemed necessary to keep our voices down. I mean, what if he heard us talking and wanted to spar with us? Oh my God! The guy in question is actually a really nice bloke and a couple of years ago took the GIC and became an instructor. He’s now a G2 and his classes are well respected. 

In training you will see heaps of P zeros and a lot of P1s and P2s. The herd thins after that and finding a G level in normal training is not a regular occurence in a lot of clubs. The only people with G or even E patches that most students get to see are their instructors. 

And then you go to a grading and you get to meet a guy from the Global Instructor Team. 




Throughout my time doing Krav there are names that have sent shivers down the spine and made throats go dry. Names that make many a practitioner’s pupils dilate and struck fear into the hearts of those who are about to grade.

Stories I heard on hearsay could be summed up like this:

Eyal is the boss. Trained by Imi Lichtenfeld himself. Late 50s and still a badass. Master level 3 and has been doing Krav Maga for over five decades. Fights like a cross between the Terminator and a ballet dancer. Does Yoga every day. 

Zeev is the next most senior. A Master level 1. Invented the Kids Instructor Course. A former career soldier** and disciplinarian. Has failed people at G and E level gradings for being too injured to continue. Once failed an entire P4 grading after spending just 10 minutes watching them. The Gordon Ramsay of Krav Maga. 

Tommy Blom. Scary, with a beard. A man of few words. The first man behind Eyal and Zeev to make E5. Intense stare. Former MMA fighter. Doesn’t smile a lot

Rune Lind. Expert level 4. Smiling yet huge, hulking Viking of a man. Mild mannered yet strict.

Etc.

These images and impressions I had of these guys were based solely on seeing them from across a room, in photos and by heresay reputation.

Then I met them.




Eyal was a nice guy, quietly spoken and very friendly. When he offered me the chance to fight the Bullet Men he smiled and asked “Do you want to do it?” Has a sense of humour and puts people at ease in training. I have interviewed him a few times for my blog and he’s always got time to answer questions.

Zeev was also a nice guy. I did the Kids Instructor Course with him in Israel in 2016 and he was reassuring and supportive the whole way through. When I asked him about the story of the people failed after 10 minutes he simply laughed and said it wasn’t true. Gave me constructive feedback during and after the KIC and was clearly idolised by the kids in his club. 

Tommy was…another nice guy. Met him briefly in Israel and we had a chat about stuff, including his E5 grading. Smiled a few times and was very friendly.

Rune. Took my P1, P3 and GIC part 1. Easy going and…yep! Another nice guy. Reassuring, easy going and a great teacher. 

The ONLY thing that matched up with what I’d heard about these guys was that they expected us to work hard in training. 

In 2015 both Eyal and Zeev were at the P&G camp held in Essex. Being England in Winter the weather was its usual, dreary British drizzle and both of them left training to to back to their hotel wearing light waterproof jackets with the hoods up and looking nothing out of the ordinary. The two most senior Krav Maga teachers IN THE WORLD would have blended in to any crowd. 

Fear in training can be dealt with as it’s something you confront at least once a week if you go regularly. Fear of people you haven’t met yet is another thing entirely. You form images in your mind and kerosene is thrown on the fire by your anxieties. Failing people for being too injured to continue isn’t the actions of a bastard once you think about it. A driving test would be discontinued and rescheduled if another car drove into yours halfway through the exam….regardless of whose fault the accident was. 




The Master Effect is another barrier to being able to concentrate, and it’s only through having met the guys above that I realised that what you hear about people from other people should be taken with a pinch of salt. 

However, I have yet to meet Ilya Dunsky….

----------------

** Can't say just "soldier" as that would include anyone, male or female, over 18 in Israel.



Monday, 21 August 2017

After A While...



As I sit here, my hips aching and bruises in places that I didn’t know I even had places, there’s a temporary reprieve from the last 12 days.

I’ve just finished the final exam for the General Instructors Course, or GIC. This is run by Krav Maga Global and, if you pass it, means you become an instructor for the organisation and obtain at least a Graduate 1 grade (after all, you have to be at least a G1 to teach Practitioners 1 to 5). There are myths, rumours and even substantiated claims of some GIC candidates passing out with a G2 or even a G3 patch, some of which were not even a P5 when they went in.

My body is, to put it politely, completely f**ked. This was the second part of the training. In April up in the Gold Coast of Australia, I did part 1. That was the initial chunk, the first half. The reason that KMG no longer do the course Monday to Saturday with Sundays off, is that 24 days in a row is unsustainable for anyone except badasses who have just come out of the army or those who run ultramarathons for a hobby. 

After 10 weeks off, we then came back to Melbourne and began phase 2. Another 12 days. I have been pushed both physically and emotionally to my absolute frigging limits. I’ve felt like giving up, I’ve taken cocktails of painkillers, I’ve eaten like a pregnant Sumo wrestler and not put on an ounce in fat. Seven to eight hours a day of fighting training. Not just learning HOW to fight but learning how to teach OTHERS to fight….and also how not to.

Having to learn technical skills, then write down the technique, then have to teach it. It’s been beyond hard. This was a course I came into knowing it would be something to test my limits. I nearly didn’t come back for the second part, seriously considering “losing” my passport so I could get my non-refundable, return ticket from London to Melbourne refunded. 

As the days went by, in both phases, I gritted my teeth and marked off little points of victory.

Survived the first day. Whoopee!

Got through the first quarter (3rd day). Awesome!

Got to the end without being injured to the point of having to withdraw! Brilliant!

We also had homework to do almost daily. Lesson plans, theory revision and also a test on Krav that we were obliged to spend a great deal of time doing properly with a pass mark of 75%. I got 88% and momentarily felt immortal. 

Then we had the teaching test. I was assigned “Release from static choke from behind”. I had to teach this to six of my peers. I passed that test too and my hopes were high for the grading on the final day. 

There had been 15 of us but one person had to drop out due to injury. 14 candidates on test day. I shouted “Who else hasn’t got a partner?” and I got the huge Serbian guy. 

We started and it went on and on and on. After 4-ish hours we began sparring and my badass partner virtually handed me my ass. Seriously don’t think I’ve ever been roundhoused in the head in a standing position before. Determined to at the very least, stand my ground, I did exactly that, too tired and too inflexible in the back hips to try and retaliate in kind. As we tumbled to the floor my adrenalin kicked in and I could hear myself yelling “F**K YOU! YOU F**KING C**T!!” before he got me in a choke hold and I had to tap out.

The sparring and ground fighting finally came to a close and with my clothes sodden in sweat and my hair hanging so far over my face that I had about 30% visibility, I joined the other guys for the icing on the cake. 50 push ups, 60 sit ups, 70 squats and 20 brownies (imagine if a burpee decided to become a Satanist…THAT’S a brownie).

Staggering off the mats I gulped down literally about 2 litres of water and forced granola bars and glucose gel into my bruised stomach. The Serbian guy was next to me and I said “Don’t take the swearing personally, I don’t really think you’re a c**t”. 

He chuckled and said, wiping sweat from his forehead, “It’s OK, you needed the adrenalin rush”.

Now…about half an hour after the final test has ended, we are sat facing the examiner. Franklyn Hartkamp. Expert level 4 in KMG and a part of the Global Instructor Team. A nice guy, with a sense of humour but I have no illusions about any one of us being given the GIC unless we deserve it. 

He starts with my Serbian partner and after brief feedback tells him he passed and we all clap and smile at the guy, pleased for him yet still cacking it for ourselves. Franklyn then moves to another guy, feedback given, constructive criticism forthcoming and he too has passed. Then it’s the guy’s partner and yet another pass. As Franklyn moves around the candidates, he is giving the feedback to the partners who trained and fought together in the test. This sets off my internal alarm bells. I was bypassed after my Serbian roundhouser buddy. I think maybe I haven’t made it after all.

The feedback moves on and on, each person being told they’ve passed and all of us clapping and offering words of congratulations. Then finally someone has failed. The feedback is fair, the tone level and friendly but Franklyn says that some more time is needed before this person can retest. I see the crestfallen look in their eyes and the hurt and pain and realise that feeling is something I’m going to be getting soon. But I hold out hope that maybe….maybe not.

Finally everyone else has had their feedback. 13 passes, 1 fail. Franklyn says “Is there anybody else?” and I raise my hand.

He looks at me and after a slight pause says, “After a while I stopped writing”.

I know in that moment that it’s over.

I had kind of guessed this would happen. I’ve been backpacking for the last 8 months and my training has been, to put it mildly, sporadic. While travelling in Australia and New Zealand I trained now and then. While in Greece with my father I would travel once a week-ish to a club 57 miles away  to train. I hadn’t done enough and deep down I knew that. I decided to go for it anyway though, determined not to be Schrodinger’s Pussy.

I feel calm, not upset or bitter like I imagined I might. Franklyn compliments me on my theory and teaching results and says that he’d like me to wait at least a year before trying again for the grading. You are allowed 3 fails of techniques on a GIC grading. I clearly hurtled past that number if he stopped taking notes or evaluating me. I thank him for his feedback and say that I accept 100% responsibility for failing. I also add that I’ll be back. Franklyn smiles and puts on a Schwarzenegger accent, repeating “I’ll be back!!”

We all then stand up and those who passed get their T-shirts, G1 patches and certificates. Excitedly they rip open the packaging and pull the shirts on. It reminds me of Christmas morning. I feel a little sad but resigned to the situation, knowing that this isn’t personal and with enough work I can come back, try again and pass.

Then the guys start posing for photos and me and the other failee are stood at the side. I have to turn away at this point, the disappointment and the realisation of what I’ve failed to achieve hitting me hard. 

I move to the changing room and a few minutes later a couple of guys join me, both saying they’re sorry and shaking my hand. I tell them I’m pleased for them and I mean it. I’ve trained with them for just shy of a month and they deserve what they’ve achieved.

After a few goodbyes I make my way back to my lodgings. My friends there initially refuse to believe I failed but cheer me up with hugs and reassurances about the future. 

I get a shower and change and then head back out for the final dinner with my fellow trainees. The mood is good, and although Franklyn couldn’t make it we send him some photos via WhatsApp and wolf down steak and ice cream in a great, riverside restaurant. The Serbian guy sits next to me and grinning, points to a cut on his lower lip. “You did that”, he says.

“Seriously? I actually landed one on you?”

He smiles again and replies “Yes, you fought well”.

After a few hours I say my final goodbyes to the guys and go home. I sleep until about 12pm the next day and the day after I’m on a plane home. 13 hours to Abu Dhabi, 7 hour stopover then a further 7 hours to London. 

Hubba! Hubba!

My body aches all over, my hips feel like they are at least 20 degrees out of alignment. My appetite is still raging and now I have about a 30 hour journey ahead of me to get home. 

I took GIC and I failed it. Of the initial 15, one guy had to stop due to injury. Me and one other failed the final test.

Was it worth it?


Of course it was!