Starting 2013 On The Right Footing

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 30th Dec)

As we leave 2012 and enter 2013, I know people’s minds turn to improving and bettering themselves on the mats, so I thought I’d jot down a few ideas on how to help people up their game this year.

Each training session set yourself a goal; some particular area of your game that you want to improve on. Be honest with yourself about the importance of these individual goals e.g. we all want to be able to hit harder but if in reality our biggest area of concern, or weakness, is movement then this probably deserves attention first. Train with and surround yourself with people who have the “right” attitude. This doesn’t mean the toughest, strongest or most physical people but those who train in a way that will help you develop your skills and abilities. Training with people who hit hard, are overly competitive and want to demonstrate their own ability is good at times but if you are only able to “test” yourself at this level, you won’t be able to “learn” and improve at the same time.  It is also your responsibility to be that partner who can help others – you need to train in a way that people want you to be one of the training partners they surround themselves with. It cuts both ways.

Take strength from being part of the school. When the Allied Generals planned the Normandy Landings of the 2nd World War, they knew that as soon as the landing boats came in to range of enemy machine gun fire and their doors open, their soldiers would be walking into a solid wall of bullets. The task to wade through the water and get on to the beach itself would be almost impossible, let alone to fight up the beach to the enemy gun emplacements. Their belief that this was achievable was not based on superior technology etc but on two premises – one taken from Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”: 1. if you put people on “Killing Ground” where they have no choice but to fight or die, they will fight with added determination and zeal and 2. If those people have something that is common and shared, they will support each other to incredible lengths – it is no coincidence that regiments and companies are based on localities, with soldiers from the same towns, cities and areas being grouped together. This common bond that joins people together increases the strength of the unit. When I competed in Judo during the 90’s I drew a lot of support from being part of a team, I didn’t want to let fellow members down and I willed them to do their best; I drew strength and I hope I gave strength to the unit. When you step out on to the mats, give yourself no choice but to train with the most effort you can and draw from the strength of the people around you giving the same.  

Think whilst you are at the studio. To many people get caught up simply with “doing”, without understanding, or taking the time to make sense of what they are doing e.g. our system teaches every escape from a hold or similar in steps and stages – when you are listening to instruction make a mental note of each step, not just the first and the last, which is the most common method. Don’t simply try and copy the complete movement, so you end up with something that looks like the technique, take the time to register all the components and pieces that make it up. I remember the first time I was taught to apply chokes and that I at first only squeezed in one direction – it looked like a choke and felt like a choke but it was extremely ineffectual; when I slowed down and dissected the choke (and listened to my instructors complete list of instructions) and looked at all the components I realized that I needed to squeeze in three directions at once. What I had before “looked” like a choke without really being one. There is a reason why our instruction is so detailed – we should not just be looking to be good, we should be looking to be excellent, or as Jim Collins put it, “Good is the enemy of Great”. You should not be on the mats to acquire belts but to master everything you learn.

At the same time understand when it is not your day and accept it – this is one of the keys to doing well in training. I lose count of the number of Krav Maga courses and camps I’ve been on, most of these have lasted at least a week, or 9 days (my first Krav Maga instructor course lasted 29 days – which is the standard in Israel). It took me a while to realize that at the start of the course, on my first few days I would be useless, not really getting any of the techniques etc. I used to spend those days questioning my ability, if I was working out of my depth etc. It took me a while to realize that for these first few days, they would not be “my day”. Depressing and disheartening as they were I had to accept them, work through them and keep going, understanding that eventually everything would click and I’d be able to perform as I should expect to. I have never been a natural athlete and I have to accept that, along with the fact that I’ll have bad days, when everything I do goes wrong. Learn to accept that you have these and move on. Don’t put pressure on yourself for the next training session – just step out on to the mats and enjoy yourself.

Training is serious but it should be enjoyable and rewarding. This year set yourself some realistic goals e.g. I want to improve my movement, I want to get more powerful in my kicking or punching or both. Make them specific, not general. Just having a desire to be better overall will be hard to achieve but working on some specifics will give you something to judge your progress by as well as the ability to ask for specific instruction and advice. Set these goals and don’t change them for others, that mat seem more important, only to change them again as others seem more important etc. Consistency in desire is the most best way to achieve your goals. Have a great year of training in 2013.   

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School And Airport Safety/Security Etc & How We Address Security Issues In Our Personal Lives

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 24th Dec)

An extra-ordinary event often causes us to focus on our day-to-day security and safety. An event such as that in Connecticut has had many schools, including my 6 year old son’s, looking to do something – anything – that increases, or has the appearance, of increasing school security. I always understand the need to do something in light of a serious security breach (and disaster); however often the procedure, process or measure put in place does little to address the actual dangers and threats that may be faced.

Whilst my son’s school has implemented some procedures that look to identify unwanted person’s trying to gain access to the school, especially during morning drop-off, the relative chaos in front of the school, which would make it relatively easy for a pedophile to abduct a child hasn’t been recognized or addressed. Many parents/guardians still text or talk to other parents when dropping off their children, without having them in their eye line at all times, relying on harassed school staff to ensure their safety.

The focus of unwanted shooters in the school has meant that looking at overall security has taken second place to one particular threat/risk. If a child is ever abducted from the front of school I am sure the focus will shift on to this particular danger – till then it will all be about unwanted persons (armed/unarmed) within the school, not outside it.

After 9/11, much of airport security was stepped up – to prevent unwanted people from getting aboard a plane however “overall” airport security was addressed in only a few locations, Boston not being one of them.

On one occasion around 2009 when I was flying back to the UK with my family, we used a porter to get our luggage from the taxi to the check in desk. Our luggage was left in one place, near to the check-in desks, whilst we were told by the porter to join the winding queue that would move us away from our luggage. I asked him, what would stop me leaving the queue and the airport, and my luggage e.g. that I was a terrorist who had filled my luggage with explosives, who would drop them off, join the queue and then leave it and the airport. There was no process that informed the check-in staff of who in the queue had luggage left to pick up or that associated me to my left luggage – I also wasn’t sure how I could honestly answer the question, “has your luggage been with you at all times?” (As obviously it hadn’t).

Although it hasn’t happened for a while Arab Terrorists have often attacked airline check-in desks and those people waiting to be served. Whilst unaccompanied luggage in airports is as a matter of course identified and if necessary destroyed, that which is seen to be accompanied – even if it has no one in attendance – is built in to the processes that airports use. It will unfortunately take a tragedy to address this particular issue.

Security and safety is an afterthought for most of us (and most institutions) and something that we look at in light of certain events and perceived risks. Schools in the US at the moment are understandably looking at the risk of mass-shootings and terrorist acts – yes, the Connecticut shootings were an act of terrorism, despite not being committed by a named organization and/or foreign group (it would be positive and progressive for US News Agencies to categorize and name such incidents this way). Unfortunately this may well take their focus and attention away from other real and possible more likely dangers and threats.

Schools, Airports and Ourselves etc should take a look at the way we view and address risk from an overall and complete perspective. This will help us predict and prevent future violence rather than simply implement specific and singular measures against one particular type of violence. We must be honest in our approach to this and accept the need for processes and procedures that may inconvenience us and carry a cost. When everything is going great, this cost/inconvenience may seem too high and time consuming but in light of a disaster such as a school shooting or similar terrorist act any safety procedure however costly will be seen as worthwhile.

Now may be the time for us all to revise the way we live our lives from an overall rather than specific personal safety perspective. 

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UK/US Gun Culture & Connecticut Shootings

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 17th Dec)

I’m always dismayed at people’s first reaction to the events involving school shootings. The gun lobby, immediately go on the defensive and say, “this has nothing to do with guns”, and the anti-gun lobby straight away state that the only solution is to ban or restrict gun ownership etc. Firstly, and I’m aware I’m taking a patronizing, moral high ground approach etc, no event of this nature should have anyone rushing to their keyboard to make a Facebook post or twitter tweet to try and make their case or argument. Sometimes the best and most dignified response is to say nothing – especially till all the facts are clear.

In the last few days I have read much about how similar events don’t take place in the UK because we have a ban on handguns and automatic weapons – the only gun ownership allowed is for farmers and those in similar occupations to own a shotgun (a pretty devastating weapon in its own right). An interesting UK statistic, is that Farmers have the highest suicide rate, next to dentists when the stats are viewed from an industry perspective; with the most common method of “attempted suicide” involving a shotgun placed into the mouth – an ironic result being that such a shot rarely kills the person but instead ends up performing a partial lobotomy on them, which often ends up curing the depression which caused the attempted suicide in the first place.

In my mind there is no doubt that giving people an available means to fulfill their innermost desires/dreams is a step in empowering them to act upon them.  In 1987 and 1996 two events occurred in the UK, which lead to the weapons ban that is often referred to and cited as the model for gun control in countries where similar “mass killings” still exist e.g. the US. These two events, which lead up to the ban, are slightly different but give some ideas as to why firearm bans and gun control can seem appealing and can certainly lead to significant reductions in certain types of crime/violence.

In 1987 a 27 year old gunman, Michael Ryan, armed with two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun went on a rampage in the town of Humgerford killing 16 people, including his mother. In 1988 a law went into place restricting the ownership of semi-automatic rifles and restricted the use of certain shotguns. In 1996 43 year Old Thomas Hamilton entered Dunblane Primary School armed with four handguns (not banned in the 1988 law) and shot dead 16 children and an adult. After this, all firearms with a few exceptions (UK farmers etc) were banned.

These acts and laws, from what can be ascertained stopped “Mass” Shooting sprees, in the UK i.e. we have not had such an event since 1996 (17 years) that involved mass/multiple killings. This is despite the fact that firearms are relatively easily obtainable in the UK e.g. I could walk into many pubs in Scotland or England and emerge, for a price, with a suitable weapon. There are however two restrictions that are on me: 1. I have to be tapped in to the community that has access to these weapons, which are normally reactivated weapons in plentiful supply i.e. I have to be a criminal) and 2. I have to have access to ammunition – something that has become in short supply since the weapons ban.  

These things are two obstacles that an enraged and emotionally disturbed individual(s) has to overcome – and the UK Criminal Fraternity are usually pretty good at spotting these individuals in the first place and won’t supply them etc. In essence these two things have become the UK’s legal restrictions on gun carry; plus, there really was no gun culture in the UK in the first place and this s perhaps the most important point – when the weapons ban took place it affected a very small minority of the UK population; something that could not be said if a similar ban were to take place in the US. It is also important to note that the UK citizens never had a “right to carry” their firearms concealed or unconcealed in public. I say this because many Americans believe that the now high rates of violence involving edged weapons (blades, knives etc) in the UK is a direct result of our firearms ban – simply not the case.

The fact that the UK has extremely tough knife laws and yet continues to see the levels of violence involving edged weapons that it does, shows that legislation alone doesn’t prevent or stop violence. The US culture is one where firearms play a defining role (whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is irrelevant), and legislation will do little to change or alter this. The fact that a “disturbed” individual can acquire a large cache of firearms is difficult to legislate against, because such a person is actually hard to distinguish from the responsible citizen who has a wide array of firearms that they use in a safe manner for recreational purposes. Enforcing a weapons ban in the US would penalize these individuals, who make up a large percentage of the US population (something that wasn’t the case in the UK).

One step that could have a positive effect in identifying individuals who may be looking to own and possess firearms that they would use to take life, was if the fire-arms community took a level of responsibility in policing itself. If owners of firearms were required to be “active” members of a local gun club, and pass a vetting procedure to become a member then a level of profiling could be added. In July of this year there was a shooting in a cinema in Colorado by James Eagan Holmes, who had earlier been refused membership/had his application turned down of a gun club he tried to join. I’m not saying that such a requirement would have stopped or prevented the shooting however the identification of a potentially dangerous individual only became apparent after the event. If you own a firearm you should be at a range practicing with it regularly – and I would argue, tested on your proficiency (something required in Israel) – the last thing that would have been wanted was a non-proficient carrier trying to respond to Eagan in a crowded movie theater.

The anti-gun lobby in the US have to accept that blanket bans on weapons or types of weapons will be unsuccessful – the prohibition era should have demonstrated that you can’t change cultures by legislation – and the gun lobby needs to stop making the repetitive argument that it’s people not guns that are to blame; I agree but let’s start to make an effort to look at and identify these individuals and take a level of responsibility for “policing” them.

The UK never had its gun laws right before the ban, and the ban itself was extreme and excessive. It is also a lesson in how individuals can get around such legislation (i.e. Hamilton in 1996 used Handguns, which weren’t banned in the 1988 law). In light of recent events the US would do well to avoid such drastic responses by the anti-gun lobby however those in favor of ownership should start to make pro-active recommendations for how such events could be possibly prevented in the future, rather than make the same tired responses and arguments that have failed to satisfy their critics – the UK hasn’t had a mass shooting since the weapon ban took place and this is a hard argument to counter. If the UK had better laws and requirements around gun ownership in the first place, there may never have been the call for such a ban in the first place. It’s time for the gun lobby to stop responding to mass shootings from a defensive position and make a case for what it can do to police its own community (of which these criminals are part of, whether people like this or not), more efficiently and effectively.

I don’t believe banning ownership of firearms is necessary however I do believe that responsibilities need to be taken and realities accepted. It is impossible not to feel for those parents who lost sons and daughters in the Connecticut School Shooting and not agree that the killers access to the weapons used played a part – if any parent (and I include myself in this) lost their child in this manner I would argue that firearms restrictions and legislation would be a natural first thought. However at the same time it was the mental state of the Killer that drove him to commit this atrocity and had he been forced to be part of a community (a gun club) that could have identified him as a threat then this or another atrocity he may have committed, using explosives etc, could possibly have been prevented.

If it is time to accept that one of the consequences of having a “gun culture” requires armed guards in Schools and Theatres i.e. certain public places this should be accepted and the gun lobby should get behind it. If we have cars that can drive above the speed limit and acknowledge that we have to have police and state troopers to restrict this misuse, then it may be time to acknowledge that we need people/individuals who are trained and able to do this where firearms are concerned.

A large proportion of Israel’s GDP goes on defense. I remember Dennis Hanover making the point that if all of that resource could have been put into construction and education etc what an incredible country Israel would be – more so than it is now. However the reality of Israel’s situation e.g. neighbors who want it pushed into the sea/destroyed, Iran supplying medium range rockets to its aggressors and conducting its own long range missile program against it etc, means that that is where that money has to be spent. If it is time, because of its situation with firearms, for resources in the US to be put into security at the public level (schools, malls, cinemas etc) then that should be accepted and the cost borne. There really is no price that can be put on safety.


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Defense & Attack

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 10th Dec)

In a fight there is no such thing as a “defensive” action; everything has to be offensive in its nature and its attitude: a block has to be an attack and an escape has to be an attack etc. If your intent is not to cause harm and damage in everything you do your head is in the wrong space. There are no passive or neutral actions in a fight.

This week in class we have been looking at defenses against side-headlocks. It should always be remembered that strangles, chokes and controls are things that you should prevent from happening. They are “worst case scenarios” that occur because something has gone wrong e.g. that you have not controlled range, that you have not kept your head over your hips, that you have not been aware of third parties in your environment etc. The fact that 95% of violence starts face-to-face means that when you are dealing with violence, escapes from various controls should not be necessary – you should have dealt with the situation before such attacks and controls can be made.

If you are looking to prevent or deal with a particular attack before it occurs your escape/defense can actually become an offensive maneuver or technique; a setup and control that features as part of an attacking combination etc.

I am continually fascinated by the mindset of people who come to class or attend seminars etc whose goal is to learn how to escape and deal with various situations as opposed to learning how to prevent them. In Seminar situations, where I’m trying to teach broad and universal solutions to violence I’ll often get someone who asks the question, “but what if they’ve pinned me against a wall” etc. My immediate response is, how did you get in that situation? I’m not trying to dodge the question but rather communicate the point that the worst the scenario you face, the more likely you’ve failed in trying to put appropriate defensive measures/tactics in place. We can always imagine the worst, and must have the appropriate skillset in place for when it happens, however we should also recognize that we have the power to stop these situations occurring.

Side Headlock attacks have to be “setup” i.e. there are certain events that precede them – mainly on behalf of the person being attacked. If a person keeps their head over their hips this type of attack is completely nullified comply to the general  principals of Krav Maga) however there are always the situations where this isn’t possible;  which is why there/The system has to have a counter to the attack. If a person recognizes as they’re making their own attacks that an individual may try and counter what they are doing by trying to “side-headlock” them then the technique to deal with such an attack can become offensive rather than defensive e.g. a person can palm off a side headlock attack and continue their assault etc. This same “palm off” being the starting position for dealing with a committed side-headlock defense.

An attack/assault occurs along a timeline. Hopefully you can pick up on this at the earliest opportunity and walk away, if not you should be looking to prevent the assault, and if failing that to deal with it when it is in the attackers infancy – before it’s a fully committed/completed attack.

I’m old school. I grab you you’re thrown or swept, I hit you, you don’t get up (this is how I think), your job is to make sure this doesn’t happen. Understand why we train the way we do. Yes, we will continue to teach escapes, counters and escapes etc but also understand the context (and likelihood of the attack/threat). If you can avoid the threat, control range etc and know how to de-escalate your safe. I’m subject to the same laws as everybody else – give me the chance to be reasonable and I will.

Today we train. Let’s do so with a mind that looks to attack and not just respond to the threat – but rather deal with it I its infancy.  

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The Path To Black Belt

(Gershon Ben Keren - Mon 3rd Dec)

For many people gaining a Black Belt is looked on as the end
goal or pinnacle of martial arts training, just as gaining a Bachelors or
Master’s Degree etc is seen as something conclusive in formal educational
terms. Martial Arts training is a one of the most unique educational systems
around as it uses a system of mentoring, where one person oversees the
development of another; this is why humility is talked about so often in the
martial arts – it requires both the student and the instructor to recognize the
relationship and work within it. In Karate this is referred to as “scared
space”; the unique space on the mats where instructor and student meet and the
real instruction and education takes place.

Every martial art has to be adapted for the individual – if
you look at the variations in the way that different people throw their
roundhouse kick, you will see “self-modifications” e.g. some with a slightly
straighter leg, some who step to turn the supporting foot and spin less etc,
all of these kicks are both valid and effective – they adhere to the concepts
and principles of the kick e.g. turning the body with the kick, moving the knee
past the target etc, but they are all executed slightly differently. There’s
nothing wrong with this. In fact it’s the beauty of Krav Maga – that a
conceptual system allows for such physical variation(s). It is the instructor’s
job to enter this scared space with that understanding and accept the
individuals way of doing something (as long as it is based on sound

Equally the student has to enter that space with the desire
to learn. Gyms are full of individuals who turn up and complete their workout
and wonder why they’re not seeing improvements. During my time as a personal
trainer I have lost clients that never really got it – that I wasn’t the
answer- because they wouldn’t follow the program(s) that were designed, or
somehow believed that they knew better and followed their own path. On the
mats, these are the people who think they can choose their own way to Black Belt
and their rate of progression. I remember as a young Judoka, spending a good
few years at Blue Belt, not particularly caring about the belt (I’m still a 3rd
Dan Black Belt – and have been for years) as I always recognized how much there
was to learn and practice at that level. I will never stop practicing my basic
punches and kick because I know from experience that it is the development of
skills not the accruing of techniques that was the distinction between someone
who is good and one who is bad. My favorite throw at Blue Belt as a Judoka is
still my favorite throw some 20 years later. There should never be a rush to
acquire new techniques just a desire to improve overall e.g. don’t have a
yellow belt front kick as a green belt etc, this is what time on the mats
means. Also in a system such as Krav Maga we are constantly reviewing and
adapting techniques at all level, meaning a green belt may have to re-learn or
adapt their training of such a technique accordingly.

As we come towards a grading in December (a selection of
Green/Black Belts will grade in March for Blue), students should start to look
to work on skill development rather than technique memorization. I look more
towards performances in stress tests and sparring than in rote learning of techniques.
An understanding of the principles coupled with martial arts skills means that
a Krav Maga students can create the solutions they need.

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