Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mind Over Genes

There's an article in the NY Times this morning about a company offering a test claiming to help determine what kind of athletics would best suit a child - speed/power or endurance. It has to do with a variant of a gene that makes a protein found in fast-twitch muscles.

The article is full of caveats - there is an Olympic long-jumper from Spain who has the "wrong" gene variant for his sport, for instance, and hundreds of genes are probably involved in setting the foundations for successful athletes. And there are lots of cautionary quotes in the story about narrowing down a child's options for sports.

But I'm sure the website of the testing company,, will get a million hits today.

In a way, I'd be curious to know if, by taking up martial arts late in life, I "wasted" a lot of potential - or whether, by contrast, I would have always run into pretty severe limitations.

But I also think it might undermine me psychologically to find out that, say, I don't really have the right gene variants for top fast-twitch muscles. Maybe it would make me work less hard on push-ups, for instance, making it easier to say, "Oh, I'll never be able to do enough."

Saturday, November 15, 2008


I am trying out a new schedule for martial arts. After a stretch where crises at work and home really ate into my time for training, I'm now going four hours a week--an hour Tuesday night, two hours Friday night, and an hour on Saturday.

Last night, I had an hour of intermediate-advance grappling (a new thing for me and my school) and an hour of sparring.

The grappling was fun; I learned a new move, the Darse (Darce? Maybe Steve knows) choke, in which you can use someone's locked arms around your neck against them from side control (I know this is gibberish to traditional martial artists, apologies).

And in sparring, I had an important lesson.

Brandon, a second-degree black belt in my school, is my nemesis. I don't mean that phrase as in he's mean or out to get me or evil or anything. I like Brandon, he's a polite young man in his 20s. He's a great athlete, V-shaped torso, all that. He's really fast, and strong, and he's really, really a challenge for me in sparring.

(A digression: Once I was writing to my friend Wendy about how Brandon was just kicking my tail in an effort to prepare me for a tournament some years back. Her response was classic: "This is great. It's so much more important to get beaten up by a 20-year-old with a V-shaped torso than by paunchy middle-aged men in a meeting at work.")

So anyway, Friday night, Brandon several times would slip my jab, move in and throw a flurry of punches. While he's not throwing as hard as he can, the punches do hurt.

My quite natural reaction was to move - walk - backwards, lean away, do anything to get away from the punches.

What my sensei pointed out to me--and to all the other people in class who had the same reaction to his flurries--that we were just opening ourselves up for even more punishment by moving backwards. We were placing ourselves at the far end of his punches, where they have the most power. We were loosening our bodies instead of tightening them. We were opening up and making ourselves more vulnerable.

You can try to do other things, like move to the side. But what he told us to do was grab the mat with our feet, stand our ground, tuck our chin down, protect our head and torso with our arms, and keep our eyes open. When he's in close, his punches won't have as much power. Our bodies and defenses will be closed and tight. And we will be able to look for an opening. A single return punch, even if it doesn't land well, will tend to stop the flurry and make him instinctually move backwards, giving the defender a chance to breathe again. Also, standing your ground can allow you to lock up the person's arms so he can't keep punching.

This is great theory, it all makes sense. What it takes to put into practice is courage.

The characters above are, according to, kanji for courage.