Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Year in Review

Hard to believe it's almost 2012. Seems like we were just saying "Happy New Year!" and it's almost time to do it again.

This year has been an interesting one for me in the martial arts. Quite a few highs - including our first promotion at the Salvation Army dojo, adventures in cross training, seminars and workshops, tournaments, thoughts on nidan grading - as well as a few lows. But some of the best parts about 2011 were the lessons learned, venturing out and stepping out of my comfort zone.

Sharing it here with all of you has been the bestest part of all. Thanks for your ears and supporting shoulders, fellow artists. All the best to you and yours in 2012 - and here's to another amazing year!

Book Review: "How to Win a Fight"

For all the martial artists out there who have friends, partners, neighbors or significant others who have no desire to train at all, I may have found THE perfect gift for them.

Lawrence Kane and Kris Wilder's "How to Win a Fight" has just about everything you always wanted to tell them but haven't yet. Complete with comic book-esque illustrations by Matt Haley, it is filled with practical information about winning a fight by avoiding it at all costs and knowing what to do, where/how to strike, when to stop if you absolutely have no choice other than to put up your dukes and defend yourself.

The standard martial arts fare is here: awareness, avoidance and de-escalation - but in simple, non-martial terms that are easy to digest and understand. Using their combined 37-years of experience in goju-ryu, judo, tae kwon do and working security, they detail personal stories and scenarios they either observed or experienced. Broken into three sections - "Before Violence Occurs," "During a Violent Encounter" and "Aftermath of Violence" - it is designed for folks who may think they know how a bar or street confrontation would go down (thanks in part to the colorful representations on television and movie theaters, mayhaps), but who have never actually dealt with the speed and ferocity a real, live violent situation might entail.

But just because it's not written specifically for martial artists doesn't mean you, dear blog reader, won't find it useful. You may train to use some potentially lethal techniques, but would you really ever use them to protect a stranger? Against a child with a weapon? Against a family member? The "How Far Am I Willing to Go" quiz in the introduction makes you think about that. The authors suggest it be taken after the last chapter is read to see if and how your answers changed (a few of mine did).

Aside from being an extremely easy read, the thing I found the most interesting about the book is the chapter on dealing with what happens after you survive that violent confrontation. How should you chat with police? When do you call an attorney? How could your claim of self-defense possibly be viewed by the legal system and why? If you've never thought about that part, you should.

"How to Win a Fight" is a good addition to any martial artist's library, too. Glad I have my copy (signed by the authors, I must say :-). Find yours at your favorite brick and mortar bookstore, Amazon and iTunes.

The Sais Have It

<---Look what Santa bought me! My school is on end-of-year break (no classes at all since 12/20), but guess what I've been playing with for the last week?

Sensei introduced us to the sai about a year ago during a session on empty-hand version of kata Saifa's bunkai. We saw how the weapon could be used to rake, pull and impale if the practitioner were to place a pair of sais in those empty hands. Suffice to say that Saifa can be a nasty, nasty kata without weapons, but it's even nastier with a pair of sais. Saifa is a bit advanced to start with, so we're working on much more basic form to learn how the sais are supposed to move and function.

But before we could even get to those basics, learning how to hold and "open" the sai - moving the weapon from a non-offensive hold against the forearm to a ready-to-strike/block/trap position - was the first course of business.

When Sensei handed me his 21.5" long chrome-plated octagonal sais, I was totally scared to touch them. Unlike my bo, they were shiny, pokey and designed to be used with only one hand. They were beautiful, but also looked very heavy and kinda slippery. As Sensei spun them around slowly and demonstrated a few very basic techniques, all I could think about was having one slip out of my hand and either fly across the room or land on a training partner's foot. Nothing interrupts the flow of a great training session like a trip to the emergency room.

Let me back up and give a bit of history about the sai: these Okinawan weapons were originally used as farm tools for planting crops - and they also measured the distance between planted seeds. A multi-pronged rod, the sai was pushed into the ground where it would leave three holes. The farmer would use the third hole as a reference point and push the sai into the ground again so the holes would be evenly spaced. After many crops had been planted this way - with the farmer repetitively thrusting the sai into the ground and flipping it over to plant the seeds - it's not hard to see how he or she could build quite a bit of dexterity, strength and accuracy with these blunt instruments. Later, sais were used to fight against swords, bo staffs and tonfa. The size of your sais should be about the length of your forearm from balled fist to elbow.

Before I ever really examined a sai up close, I thought they were sharp and pointed, but the shaft (monouchi) and the side prongs (yoko) are actually blunt. The shaft can be round, heptagonal or octagonal and the thumb rests on the mid-point between the two side-prongs (moto) and pinkie, ring and middle fingers hold the handle (tsuka - which is usually wrapped in some sort of material - like leather or plastic - for easier gripping). The forefinger is usually extended along the shaft. Each weapon actually has many parts that can hurt you, including the monouchi (used to block or strike), the butt end (tsukagashira - which is used to poke) tips of the yoko (tsume - used for ripping and trapping) and the tip of the monouchi (saki - used for impaling, striking and poking). Here's a very pixelated illustration:

Back in class, after I finally worked up the nerve to hold one, I played around with Sensei's sais for a few moments, thinking the whole time that I would never, ever get used to flinging these monstrous things around. After a few tries, my forearms were killing me and I thought I must look a lot like Popeye - but I had a whole new respect for golfers, tennis and ping-pong players.

Usually when we get new info, Sensei gives us homework and our first official sai lesson was no exception. Our objective was to do 50 "opens" per side per day with strict instructions to only work one sai/hand at a time. He also suggested starting with our non-dominant hand. A natural lefty, he always learns new drills, techniques or weapons on his right side first and wanted us to do the same in reverse so, as he says, our strong side could teach the weak side. It literally took the rest of the class for me to get those first 50 in, but I did it - without any training partners suffering any injuries as a result :-). And believe it or not, this righty was much better on my left side (which was a very odd feeling). Since Santa left me my very own pair under the tree, I've been doing my homework every day and flowing my first form. I must say that manipulating them is getting a little easier every day. OK - they're not so monstrous. I'm actually starting to enjoy my new shiny, pokey and very heavy artillery.

But for the record, my forearms are still killing me.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Customer Service Blues

I run a dojo at a local Salvation Army with my training partner, Ed. I'm the keeper of all things attendance and cirriculum-related and the orderer of gis, sparring gear and equipment.

Since the closest thing resembling a martial arts supply house to our town is about an hour and a half away, 99% of the gis, sparring gear and school equipment I order comes via companies I find online. Usually, all I need is a size and a credit card and the equipment arrives in about a week or so.

I understand that occasionally mistakes happen, but today marks the second time I've had to say goodbye to a company because of their less-than-stellar customer service.

The first company had prices that were managable for the families we service and I happily ordered many, many gis - three and four at a time - from them. But when a large order - one of sparring gear that we needed for an upcoming tournament - took twice as normal to arrive without explanation, I called to find out what the delay was about. The response was that because of the size of our order - an eye-popping five sets of sparring gear - I should have known it would take longer than the eight to 10 days the website said its orders normally arrived within. When I explained the situation - that the gear was needed for the youngsters who would be traveling to their very first tournament ever - they offered to expedite it so it would arrive in time - for an additional $200. And no, the customer service rep who told me that wasn't joking. The very last conversation we had was a request to remove our contact information from their marketing and mailing list because we wouldn't be ordering from them again.

About eight months ago, I stumbled across another martial arts webstore. They offered a wholesale site that enabled karate schools like mine to get even bigger discounts on gear, clothing and equipment. Since our green belts will be starting bo training soon, I ordered their bos and cases via site #2 - and wouldn't you know it - the very first bo order was screwed up (they sent a straight bo instead of the tapered one I ordered for my oldest student). I called the company and the guy who answered was a bit gruff, hinting that the guy who handled the orders worked out of his garage and there was no way he (store guy) could correct it - only the Garage Guy could. So I emailed Garage Guy - who was gracious in apologizing for the mistake made on their end and sent me a new bo without requesting the other back. That, I thought, was customer service. His one attempt to go above and beyond had earned our customer loyalty.

That is until this weekend. Two new, gi-less students' parents ordered uniforms for their children for Christmas. For one parent, I know getting the money together was a struggle, so I made sure I ordered the gi about 30 minutes after she'd proudly pressed those wrinkled bills into my hand. As site #2 had always promised order delivery (and had always made it) within 10 days or less - I felt pretty confident that the order would make it in time for my new guys' parents to have the uniforms under their Christmas trees. A few days before I ordered the gis, I'd ordered 21.5" sais (the newest weapon my sensei is having us tackle) and a heavy-weight gi for myself.

On Saturday, the sais came - but they were only 15" long. I checked the order and saw that the mistake was on the company's end as even the packing slip had the correct size. Today, the gis arrived, but although I ordered two size 3 black student weight uniforms, there were two size 2s in the box. Sigh.

Remembering what happened the last time I called, I went straight to Garage Guy via email. He apologized for sending the wrong size sais but was less than stellar in regards to the gis. He basically said he'd mail out the correct sizes and wanted me to pack up the other gis and the sais and prepare them for pick-up via Fed-Ex tomorrow. Sometime. But I'll be working tomorrow, I wrote back. And since the new stuff wouldn't arrive until after Christmas, coudln't I just schedule the pickup for Tuesday so at least the parents would have some uniform for their kids on Christmas Day, I asked? His reply? "Please have my package ready for pickup tomorrow or I will have to charge you the call tag fees."

The packages were delivered to my home - and I live in a very safe neighborhood - but he didn't know that. Garage Guy had no idea that the address was not our dojo - which is in the middle of an econmically challenged area that I would NOT have felt comfortable leaving a package on the doorstep of AT ALL. You might want to check with your customers about their availability BEFORE you call to schedule a pick-up for an order YOU screwed up next time, dude. I'm just sayin'.

The attitude from Garage Guy was a little too "well - it's your problem" for my tastes. This company - via Garage Guy - made me feel like somehow I had done something wrong, when in fact it was his mistake that caused the need for a re-do - twice in as many orders, I might add. Plus, I've already shelled out money for products I don't yet have. Not cool - which is what I replied to him before I asked him to also remove our contact information from their mailing lists. There are too many other martial arts supply companies out there for me to be feeling like I'm wrong for expceting them to fix their mistake without inconveniencing me too much. They may be able get by with crappy customer service - but it won't be with my student's hard-earned ducats, that's for sure. We'll be taking those ducats elsewhere from now on.

Remember - and other webstores like you: you are only as good as your least satisfied customer, no matter how big or small your company is. That is the only way to keep customers. At least, that's the only way to keep this one.