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.
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