Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Positive Visualization for Martial Artists

I don't get to practice nearly as much as I want to. I have a day job that makes it hard to just randomly do a form in the hallway, and punching or kicking my coworkers violates many HR policies. When I get to class, I'm teaching. Before and after class, people ask me questions. Home is for sleeping and grabbing a clean dobohk before the next day.

A long time ago, I was reading a story about a famous grandmaster in a Chinese system. A student was charged the intimidating task of picking him up at the airport and bringing him to the school. During the car ride, he tried to start some small talk despite the language gap and asked "Sir, you are constantly traveling from school to school; when do you find time to train?" The master looked up and said to him "I'm training right now."

At first, the student thought he was being blown off, but came to realize an important lesson from that discussion. You don't have to be sweating or moving to be training.

I often review forms in my head. It is not as easy as it sounds, because I am as close to ADD as one can be. To get through an entire form without distraction takes serious focus on my part.

Of course, I occasionally just walk through the moves to keep it fresh in my head, but that is very different than practicing it in my head. What would you do if your students walked half-heartedly through a form in class? Probably yell at them or swing a stick!

Same goes for practicing in one's head. When doing so, I try to employ positive visualization techniques. Before competing or demonstrating, I take the week up to that point to visualize my performance. I focus on what I know to be my weaker points, such as eye contact, posture, use of the off hand, and see myself doing the form perfectly. If I'm competing in sword, I visualize my step and cut ending in time, I feel the swing and step in my mind. I hear the blade cut the air.

The convenient part about using visualization is that time doesn't always work in the same way. Mid technique, I can stop, correct myself and move towards success. Sometimes, doing a hyung "correctly" can take me up to 15 minutes.

When I practice for real, I can focus more on those weak points, remembering the feeling from earlier visualizations. I'm not sure how to explain it better, but it honestly works.

Has anyone else tried this method with success?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Successful Martial Arts Online Communities

DSC_4983 Eazy Bar Koh Tao
Originally uploaded by mureena
Over the last 10 years, I've been a member of several online martial arts discussion forums and websites. Some, such as Warrior-Scholar, are specifically dedicated to the discussion of Tang Soo Do/Soo Bahk Do/Moo Duk Kwan. Others, such as TotalProtectionInteractive
are more concerned with pure self-defense issues and tend to strip away the art and take what works. Over the years, I've learned a great deal from them all. The only downside was that we were often limited to describing what we did with words. Few people had the means or technical ability to post photos and videos. Unfortunately, martial skill does not always go hand in hand with computer skills, usually because we spend too much time developing one at the expense of the other. (note to self, practice your forms when you get home.)

One particular forum has taken an interesting approach to sharing techniques. FreestyleForum is a community dedicated to the freestyle use of nunchaku. As you can imagine, the community is an interesting mix of martial artists, jugglers, and people who are definitely focusing on the "art" aspect rather than the "martial." FSF, as I've decided to call it for the duration of this post, has embraced youtube as a means of sharing their skills and building off each other.

Moves are shared, and challenges are frequently posted to keep member's working on their chops. Someone posts an "aerial challenge" and other forumites can post their responses, using Youtube's handy response feature.

As you can see from the above video, even the beginners are quite talented. One day I hope I can make the time to move beyond lurking in that forum and actually post something.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Training Outdoors

In his books on Tang Soo Do, Grandmaster Shin wrote that the ultimate goal of the Tang Soo Do practitioner was to become one with nature. "The ultimate goal of Tang Soo Do is to live in perfect harmony with the laws of nature. To become one with nature is what we strive to attain. To understand, appreciate, and apply these laws is our goal." For me, training outdoors is a small step towards this goal. Training in all elements, on different surfaces and terrains and avoiding natural obstacles gives me a better feeling for the art, forcing me to think and rethink about what I know.

My instructor instilled this way of thinking in me very early in my training. In fact, my first outdoor training class was in my first month of training. In January. Barefoot.

What I remember most of the experience was how badly I tried to fight it. My feet were cold and sore as there was a thick layer of ice above the snow. Once you cracked that, my already sensitive feet were treated to being poked by sticks and rocks on the ground. It was all I could really think about at the time. My instructor insisted that we continue our training, repeating the same basic form over and over.

Then something interesting happened: my instructor yelled at us. Actually, that happened all the time, especially in the early days. The yelling wasn't so important, but what he yelled. "You guys are lucky" he said "you can distract yourself with the form; I'm the one standing still in the same ice and snow watching you."

At that point I noticed that he wasn't shivering, not jumping up and down, just standing perfectly calm outside the University Library at 8:30 on a Thursday night, barefoot in the snow and ice, watching a bunch of misfits in pajamas stumble through a basic hyung. We did a few more forms, and it was a little easier. I won't pretend that I was able to magically block everything out.

About a year or 2 later the club went camping. In an eerie reminder of my Scouting days, it rained most of the weekend. While hiking in a gorge, we came across a stream with a felled tree laying across it. It was on that log that I first learned Naihanchi Cho Dan. While most of us wobbled like newborn deer learning to walk, none of us fell into the water. My instructor demonstrated the form with little to no adjustment, moving full speed across this wet log in the rain.

A few years later, I was reading the Hagakure and came across this passage:

"There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. By doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to all things.”

Forgive my stumbling nostalgia as I struggle to stay on point. A great deal of training outdoors helps you to cope with struggles. It is much easier to stay in the dojang, preferably one with a polished wood floor, mirrors and a few overhead fans. Take yourself out of that comfort zone, and you begin to learn what you really know about balance, stability and endurance.

Of course, not all aspects of training outdoors are harsh. Obviously there is great beauty to train among, whether a morning fog, along water, near a prairie or the woods in autumn. In his books, David Lowry recalls his instructor would take time before beginning their outdoor training to find a special bit of natural beauty to set his sword alongside.

As the seasons begin to change, take the opportunity to train outdoors: even if just to meditate. Find what there is to learn about yourself.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Sip Sam Seh for Westerners

Master Dan Segarra, formerly of the Moo Duk Kwan and now out on his own, has shared on his Warrior Scholar website his understanding of the Sip Sam Seh.

My way
Originally uploaded by Hobo pd

The major problem, from a Western Perspective, is that a great deal is lost in translation. The "song" is supposed to be a map, keeping you on the right path. Ironically, I think most practitioners cannot understand the Sip Sam Seh in its most popular English translation until they've practiced for several years. Some parts are obvious while others - Stillness embodies motion, motion stillness / Seek stillness in motion -- read like bad stereo instructions to a green belt or beginner.

You can view the Segarra work in progress here.

In many ways, I think this is a superior translation in that it has been re-arranged and broken down for a western audience. And no, I don't mean diluted or that a Chinese mind is more superior, etc. I think it just makes better sense than a more literal translation.

I try to explain to my students that Tang Soo Do is not just "Korean Karate" or "Traditional Tae Kwon Do" because those labels just beg further questions. Instead, I say that Tang Soo Do is a Korean expression of an Okinawan art based soundly on Chinese principles of movement. The Sip Sam Seh goes a long way towards explaining what I mean by that, but I think its often been too inaccessible to the lay student.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

get closer...

A drill I often do with students is to start off doing forms without a count, with the expectation that they move together. Typically, the responsibility for keeping the pace falls on the shoulders of the most senior person. They in turn must take into account the ability of the class and determine the best speed.

From there, what I sometimes do is move everyone together a little closer, so there is less space on all sides of them. Two interesting things happen from here. First, the students need to move together better. Second, the group stops watching each other to stay in time, and starts just moving in time.

When this happens, I put the students together shoulder to shoulder and about 1 foot in front and behind them. The group moves together as one, much like the phalanx formations of olden days or SWAT teams on our modern police forces. The wrong step can kill everyone.

In the dojang, it usually means someone gets punched in the head. But the same lessons are learned. It's an interesting thing about the martial arts. It is one of the few solitary activities that are often done in large groups. We're not a team in the same sense as an intramural soccer team, but I'll bet that my group has far more solidarity, built by a sense of cooperation and looking out for one another.

Monday, October 1, 2007

I have no skills.

At our gup testings, I ask the yudanja on the testing panel to be prepared to do a demonstration at the end of the test. The reasoning for this is two-fold: it is a treat for the gup students to see the leaders of the class in action, and it gives the black belts an opportunity to display what they are focusing their training around.

Each time we do this, it is met with what I can only describe as dread. No one is particularly keen on this concept (except me) and no one ever seems to know what to do.

On one hand, I'm very grateful not to have the opposite problem: a bunch of show-offy black belts who fight over the limelight. The last thing the world needs are more martial arts prima donnas.

On the other hand, it is a difficult line to tow with my students. In traditional martial arts training, humility is constantly ingrained into us. We are always told that there is room for improvement, that we only understand a small amount of what is out there, that Cho Dan is where the "Real Learning Begins." If you follow that premise, what can you possibly have to offer?

In my (humble?) opinion, it is these opportunities to explore and demonstrate that make us real students of the martial arts. Once we reach 1st dan, we should have a good grasp of the "rules" of martial arts. Our career is then spent refining those techniques, making them stronger, and suit them to our working understanding of the art.

These opportunities are those moments for growth. Not the demo itself, but the preparation and the study that goes into a demo. As you learn more, perhaps you are sent in a comletely different direction. Say you wanted to do a "simple" demo and showcase a hyung you are working on. Perhaps you might do some research into that form, learning more about it's history and the intent of the movements. You might look to other arts to see stylistic differences. Maybe you experiment with the tempo, do it backwards, mirror image, turn it into a 2 person fighting drill. Either way, being forced to do the demo led you in directions you may have otherwise not followed.

Master Homschek credits an instructor's demo using a belt as a weapon for the basis of his entire flexible weapons curriculum. It started with a belt, moved into hapkido, filipino arts, chain whips, bullwhips, neck whips, bandanas, etc until he was able to conceptualize it all into a complete system of movement.

That particular instructor, as smart as he is, probably didn't envision the following events. But he inspired a student, which is the eventual outcome I am seeking from these demonstrations.

Note: The pictures featured are from the 2002 WTSDA World Championships. At each world championship, individual Masters present one of their specialties to the audience. They didn't just get to that point, they had to practice - publicly and privately -- a lot.