Thursday, September 27, 2007

Finding the complex within the simple.

Remember the slogan for the Mattel version of Othello? "A minute to learn, a lifetime to master."

Martial arts have a similar motto. All the stories of the great masters tell of unwavering dedication to basic techniques. My instructor was an advocate of constantly refining the basic techniques, and strongly believed that this is what makes you a stronger martial artist.

Before he moved, he was kind enough to give me a copy of his Master's thesis (in the WTSDA all candidates for 4th Dan and above are expected to complete a 10000 thesis on a topic that is near and dear to them. My instructor chose staff - i.e. bong -- techniques.) As I re-read his thesis, I picked up on something that I'd missed in his absence: his dedication to the basics.

You see, despite the fact that his essay is well over 100 pages, very few techniques are shown or analyzed. In many ways, his essay speaks more towards integrating the staff more into the TSD syllabus and using it to teach the basics: hip rotation, directions of movement, distancing, intent, etc. There are no fancy aerials, releases, or xtreme techniques.
It is simple, but carries with it lessons that build towards Mastery instead of Collecting.

I never consciously picked up on that before in his writing, probably because it was fed into me every day. Re-reading it gave me some perspective and focus, and made me realize how much of this I was already doing on some level.

You see, the academic quarter just began at Ohio State. With fall quarter comes a ton of recruitment opportunities for my club as all the freshmen try to find some way to "get involved." We've literally spoken to hundreds of potential students over the last week, and given a "trial class" to about 20 students total. More and more, we are getting students with previous training even black belts. Occasionally then even outrank me!

I teach them the same "first class" that I do to a raw beginner: front stance, low block, center punch, fighter stance, front kick.

I do this for several reasons. Anyone who can be humble enough to work the basics is much more likely to fit into our way of doing things. People who want to do the fancy stuff will join the wushu class, and everyone will be happy. (Not a knock on wushu, just saying they do more acrobatic techniques. It ain't my thing.)

The most important reason though, is I want to see how they respond to doing the basics. It's not just a humility test; I want to see how they think about basics. Do they just crank them out, or are they willing to go over the little details that truly make the advanced martial artist?

As I cover low block and front stance, I can suit the lesson to everyone in the room. The complete newbies are just trying to grossly imitate me. Great! Green belts are starting to move comfortably, and can be a little more precise with their transitional movements. Brown belts are working on power, red belts are working on speed. Black belts should be trying to own the technique, making it work best for them. I can feed each rank different tips (red belts work on this, brown belts fix your stance, etc) or I can give the same tip to everyone. "Think about how you use your hips" will click different light bulbs in the head of an orange belt and blue belt.

In this way, I can teach a very advanced class using basic techniques. I can go over high level concepts without having to resort to 10 technique combinations or "advanced" techniques. From there, I have the expectation that my black belts can apply the lesson to every other applicable technique.

Except for the guy who wanted to learn jump 720 split kick, no one is bored. And the new students get to see how the expectations change as they progress in rank.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Do you keep secrets?

Martial arts have traditionally been a very secretive affair. The keys of a system seen as a matter of life and death, many secrets were only transmitted to a small handful of students. Many schools have "inner students" who are trusted with key components of the art deemed too deadly or secret for average students. Some arts, at a certain degree begin to teach a completely different style of movements.
sorry, the real secrets are behind this door.
Imagine, working for 20-30 years, only to have your instructor tell you that you'd been putting your life in the hands of ineffective techniques and methods, and that you would now start "really learning." Wouldn't you be angry?

My instructor was very good about sharing his knowledge with us. He may not have always told us how to do something, but he would give us pieces and sit back to watch us figure out how to put it together in our own way. More often than not, the results were off the mark. But throughout that time, I was able to really learn something in depth about how I was supposed to me moving rather than if I'd spent time just making it look good.

Take, for example, low block. In class, when I demonstrate and teach low block, it has a very different feel than when I perform it at full speed. Why? Because I'm using low block to teach key concepts: hip rotation, circular versus linear movement, weight transfer, relaxation/tension, reaction hand, etc. The result is a big, slow low block.

What if, instead, I started from day one trying to teach my students this smaller, compact version of low block? Would it come out the same over time, or would my students be missing something?

Is it the difference between creating an aesthetically pleasing movement and adding the substance later versus the opposite? I'm not sure.

What's so special about my low block, you may ask? Can't tell, it's a secret. :)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Black Belt Bag of Tricks

As a gup student, and to this day, I always kept a close eye and ear on senior black belts and Master instructors to see if I could pick up something interesting from them. The one thing I truly enjoyed was getting an opportunity to see them demonstrate a special skill. Over the years, I've had the chance to catch a few things that stick out in my mind: Grandmaster Shin teaching diagonal kick, Master Strong demonstrating Oh Sip Sa Bo, Master Wick escaping 5 people holding knives to his body without being touched, my own instructor's interpretation of Bassai, and many more.

There are many folks in our Association who are "known" for a particular ability that they have especially mastered over the years. Name a facet of Tang Soo Do training, and I can give a name of someone who exemplifies that skill.

It is my goal that one day, my students will be able to inspire their junior students in similar ways. To get to that point, it takes a fair amount of practice. Not only practicing the skill, but also taking the center stage and sharing it with others.

I try to view black belt management as being somewhat different from managing gup students. Yes, occasionally classes are structured in the same way but focusing on more advanced material. Black belts also need opportunities to develop leadership abilities and receive feedback as well. Without a upcoming belt test on the horizon, goals are more open ended. New material isn't introduced nearly as often, but rather new concepts based on previously learned material.

Using this method of teaching, black belts become more and more independent and begin to specialize in certain aspects of the art. Some may find a passion for breaking, interpreting a hyung, teaching self-defense, kigong or flexibility. This is great, as no one person can really master all of these aspects. Teaching black belts becomes a matter of helping each student find the thing (or things) that inspire them and giving them the opportunity to develop that skill.

Sometimes giving them the opportunity isn't enough, and it's more appropriate to force the issue. :)

That's why I've decided to work black belt demonstrations back into our gup testings. Partially, it is a treat for our students who have worked hard to be at testing and gives them something to continue to train towards. For my black belts, it gets them off the testing panel and makes them show their chops.

Of course, if they don't have any chops, maybe this will provide the impetus to build some.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

My Pipe Dream: WTSDA Internet Exhibition

If you've read my previous blog entries, you know that I'm a big fan of YouTube and other video sharing sites. It is truly amazing to see how people, especially martial artists, are beginning to embrace the medium and are uploading their old videos and even converting old VHS over to the digital format.

What's even more interesting to me are that more and more martial artists are developing content specifically for sharing on YouTube. Many people are using Youtube as a training tool to post challenges to their online community. Many of these are good natured, such as the Freestyle Nunchaku forum. FN posters will often create a new stunt, or string together a combination, and encourage fellow forum members to try the same thing. This can be seen as a way to help push a person beyond their limits and take them to new heights.

Challenges can be answered using the "respond" feature in YouTube. In this case, someone directly uploads their video as a response the original. In a friendly context, this could be interpreted as sharing with the community and good natured competition. Unfortunately, posting a response to a video could also been seen as a more hostile challenge.

To avoid that, a group could simply use a set of tags to identify their group challenge. Say I wanted to get people to share their version of a form. I could tag my video as "TomsFormChallenge" and encourage others to use the same tag. A search would then bring back all of the results.

Walking to work this morning, I began to think about how such a concept could be brought to my own group. Think of it, if you will, as a friendly online exhibition. Take a hyung that is familiar to everyone such as Bassai, and encourage people to share their version online! A common tag, such as wtsdabassai could be used by all entries to allow for easy comparison and browsing.

What would be the benefit of such a project? Imagine being able to compare dozens of versions of Bassai from around the world, seeing the common foundation that makes us a strong organization, as well as the variations that make us all unique as well! I'd be interested to see what kind of trends or speculations one could gather from enough data. Would we be able to trace back practitioners through their lineages based on the idiosyncrasies of their technique? What could an E Dan, with a few years of experience in Bassai, learn by watching the Bassai shared by a 5th or 6th Dan? As you can see from above, there is enough going on in the first movement to give anyone thought.

I'm quick to realize that this idea could be very unpopular with some people. "Why would I want to post my video?" Some people may think that posting their video online is an ego trip, an opportunity to show off. Others may feel very insecure about leaving themselves open to criticism (which can often be quite nasty online.) To those people, I would say that none of us are perfect, and an error can be found in almost anyone's performance. Think instead of the potential learning opportunity!

Anyone with me?