Monday, July 05, 2010


I'm fond of saying, "If I teach this right, you won't learn anything new."  Part of empowering students is to help them realize how much they already know.  Physically, combat is observation and motion, things that everyone has been doing from the cradle.  Most of the mental/spiritual/emotional aspects are just as natural... what blocks them is our training and conditioning.  In that sense, training is not teaching you how to be an animal so much as helping you forget to be a human.  Unlearning.

(You have to be a little bit careful-- some students will take things that they know and jump to believing that they understand and can use it, and that may not be justified.  When I say empowering I am specifically saying increasing power, increasing competence.  You can easily increase confidence without competence.  That rarely ends well.)

After the last seminar, I got the usual batch of questions.  One struck me, because it implied that the person-- a good martial artist-- had learned footwork separate from hand motion and was having trouble integrating the two.

Outside the martial arts, this is rare.  A basketball player doesn't practice dribbling in place and then a specific running step for dribbling and then try to mesh them later with a specific canned rhythm.  Maybe swimmers do practice kicks in isolation from arm strokes.  Do they?  For how long?  In football (American football) slamming into people and running are parts of each other.  With a good coach, so are the vulnerabilities of balance in the other person's run.

Many beginning martial artists separate offense and defense, put them in different boxes in their heads.  Use them as distinct motions with distinct mindsets.  That's often bothered me.  But Jonas pointed out months ago that many learn an attack as a move, and then learn power generation separate from that motion BUT learn the power generation as specific to that attack.  So some never learn to attack with power and some learn to attack powerfully with part of their repertoire but not all and very few ever learn that power generation is a basic that applies in the same way across all of their techniques.

Swinging an axe (or a pick or sledge) the hand slide is pretty much the only thing that need to be taught.  There is foot work in it, and wave-action power generation that exploits gravity... and those don't need to be taught, because pretty much everybody does those naturally.  With an axe or a sledge, we all know how to use momentum, make the weight do our swing for us.  Turn the axe into a weapon and for some reason people complicate everything, break it down into tiny pieces, teach each of those pieces separately... and maybe forget a few of those pieces when it is time to use use the axe.

I'm starting to realize that people do this in martial training.  Maybe I'm overanalyzing, seeing bigger problems than exist.  But I do see people acting as if offense and defense, how they position and move their arms, footwork and how they control their centers of gravity are all separate things.  Things that they must think of individually, do separately, and somehow bring together in the moment.

None of these things are separate when we walk.  Or when we played tag as kids.  You don't think about them climbing or gardening...

I think this may be why so many martial artists, who should be paragons of graceful and efficient motion, move so awkwardly.  They break it down too far and then think about it too much.  It's just motion, something you have done from birth.  You can make it better and more efficient with hints, demonstration, experience.  

We all know how to shut a car door with our hips when we are carrying grocery bags.  It took me five years to truly understand something as a martial artist that I had been doing most of my adult life and that every mom I knew was a master at.  Five years to get to a place that I lived in in my non-martial life.

You don't have to explain structure when someone pushes a car.  All the wrong ways hurt.  I've seen untrained people flinch to something coming at their face with the kind of structured power that internal artists dream of.

When you get a chance, dump isolation for a few sessions.  Move as a unit.  Don't let yourself think about footwork or how your strikes should go.  Just hit the bag.  The wrong ways hurt and, if you've trained for any time, good movement should be internalized (and if internalized movement hurts, it may be bad movement, like the deliberate safety flaw of the pronated fist).  Your body knows how to move.  Let it instead of make it.


Patrick Parker said...

Cool - you managed to work ukigoshi (the hipbump) and "the school of chop wood (a Kurisawa ref) into the same post!

Great post.


Kai Jones said...

Yes, swimmers practice kicks and armstrokes separately. Partly for precision, and partly to strengthen that body part-if you're doing laps with just armstrokes, obviously you're working on upper body/arm strength. For how long? It's part of regular practice, at least it was when I was on swim team. I think ballet dancers do it too--barre work for example.

None of these things are separate when we walk. Or when we played tag as kids. You don't think about them climbing or gardening...

It takes kids months of practicing for hours every day to learn to walk and run and play tag. And there are coordination problems, and sometimes kids need to work on their legs or haven't figured out how to pump their arms to keep their balance yet. Heck, they can't even go where they want to at first--haven't you ever seen a kid start walking or running and go off in some direction without getting to where they wanted?

I think you're underestimating just how much practice goes into all those things you think are easy, like swinging an axe or pushing a car. You are very physical/kinesthetic; you've focused on that for most of your life, so it "comes naturally" to you. How would you teach that to somebody who focuses on a different sense, who learns best in a different way? Maybe they've already learned the pieces but need help putting them together; how do you get them from where they are to where you are?

WING CHUN INCas said...

Great post, very sharp as usual, and of course on the Money, as it happens last night [I am in Australia so it was already Monday and not Sunday] I was teaching this very thing, just as you mentioned the problem that I often find is that people will not act normal once they enter the Training Hall, even though I emphasise that all our movements, I teach Wing Chun, are normal body movements students still adopt some kind of Jackie Chan body shape and attitude, most of my Guys are quite intelligent and understand what I am saying on an intellectual level but have real difficulties trusting the application, as a result I catch them separating the aspects of training into different boxes and training in isolation despite my best efforts to get them to train Holistically, they even counter my instructions by saying that they find it easier to understand it this way,at this point my frustration usually has me just give up on it for that day. I intend to send them all this link, hopefully with this being on the back of last nights training it may sink in.

Master Plan said...

I think Kai's point about kids is interesting, in that the skills mentioned are to some degree self-directed, self-rewarding, and have a constant\consistent feedback\training cycle. You can stand up and fall over and stand up as often as you want until the walking starts working. Being able to move yourself around in the world is clearly its own reward. You don't need an instructor or fellow students. (tho I think kids do learn things observationally so...)

Most of that doesn't apply to martial arts. And of course martial arts, training, often seems...inapplicable except to itself.

So you don't "learn to walk" or "learn to punch" you get taught "the jab" and the jab only works one way, the right way, which is not the way "the hook" works. And since punching\hitting\fighting is generally outside the experience of many martial arts students (or maybe I'm projecting my own experience) these ideas generally only relate to those ideas.

Similarly djuru 1 is djuru 1, it's not just some random sequence of moves that happen to be fully functional, highly efficient, and express good principles. Same in Tai Chi, Single Whip looks like Single Whip so if you're learning Tai Chi you'll have to do it that way.

Then due to safety flaws of various kinds the feedback loop is disrupted.

So. Practicing swimming, as separate movements, on land, and trying to get the form *perfect* in a specific way. And then the idea of "doing swimming" instead of "swimming" seems to start to creep in.

Even sparring and scenario training, which are of course not really real, are pretty fast-paced and chaotic. Requires you be able to do a bunch of stuff w.o. giving it much serious processing time. How much harder is that if you've spent all your training time trying to consciously breakdown, control, or check off a series of specific movements? And what if most of your training reps are accompanied by the thought\knowledge that they are *wrong*? (in that I've seen a fair number of folks, myself included, start a form and then stop and start over if they make a mistake, because you want to do it 'right')

I think the last thing is that often folks need a box (framework, hierarchy) before they can understand a thing, and only then can you start to be aware of the box itself, and from there engage (if you want to) in the process of seeing what the box looks like and what's outside of it.

Steve Perry said...

Kai's point is well-stated. To teach somebody something new on a physical level is a trick. I believe this means that a good teacher should be able to mentally get to the place where s/he can relate to not-knowing-how.

If you are Bruce Lee and you say, "Do it like this!" and then blur by, you are going to lose most folks.

And breaking it down into baby steps is the most accessible way. ABCs, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, you start on the easy end and work your way up, and this method works for most of what we'll ever learn. Start small, work to large, expand from what a student knows to what they don't.

Somebody who has never picked up an axe will probably eventually get to an efficient place using it to split wood, but maybe not for a while trying. Not a lot of folks who get on bicycle for the first time and ride like Lance Armstrong.

Or at all, without falling over.

If you've never shut a car door with your hip, the simile isn't meaningful.

People who have training are going to have a problem when you break something down and make them think about it. It's the nature of thought versus kinetics.

Take any exercise you teach; somebody seeing it for the first time is going to have to intellectualize it, to think about it. That's a way to learn it, but in the doing of that, they aren't going to use the tools they have until they internalize it.

I admire your slo-mo one-technique drill, but I'm not going to be any good at it until I've done it enough to not have to think about it. Which isn't the point, as I understand, to get good at the drill.

(And the whole time I'm doing it, I'm also thinking, I've got a loaded magazine in the gun, I'm not going to shoot once and then wait for you to shoot. That goes against my training. I'm going to shoot until you stop or leave or fall down, or I can safely run away, whichever comes first.)

Of course, that's not the point of the drill, either, and my head knows this, but my body doesn't like it.

I run into this every time we try something new. To allow my opponent to learn the new move, I have to stand there, and more often than not, leave myself unprotected, else he can't perform the move. And vice-versa. Until we can move at some approximation of speed and power and do it almost reflexively, the new toy won't work. And if it is too complicated, come the dill, it still won't work.

If I have enough tools and you say, "I'm coming at you and you have to stop me or I'll get to your wife and kids," then I'll offer something. I won't know what it is until I get there.

If you say, "I'm going to throw a right punch at your nose and I want you use that hip-closing-the-car-door motion to drive your punch, cut the line, and block my strike with a hit of your own." I understand the words, and I can maybe do it, but I have to think about the motion to get it right. It's going to feel awkward and that isn't going to get better until I am comfortable and relaxed with it.

Steve Perry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dunabit said...

Another voice chiming in for what might seem natural to one can be anything but straightforward to another.

I had to learn how to swing a sledge and an axe with power. It was not natural.

I had to learn how to tackle (rugby). NOT natural.

Yes, swimmers practice kicking and arm pulls separately (and together).

Drills and more drills. Breaking down elements into natural sequences, with the complete movement demonstrated in context to support it. Add elements together, half speed, then go faster.

It's incredibly frustrating to watch the teacher get angry with the student simply because her/his knowledge has become so innate that s/he has forgotten what it means to not know.

Master Plan said...

Huh. I had read the post more as "these are training artifacts which I've noticed" rather than "everything should be natural and easy for students".

I don't think it's about instant success the first time (Mr. Perry's bike analogy) so much as ways to improve student performance faster by presenting them w. the big picture first rather than all the little details.

Is Judo about throwing the other guy by disrupting balance? Or is it about the correct position of the arm in morote seoinagi?

Both can be learned and taught but one can be applied in many situations fairly naturally, the other only works in one situation very specifically (or else it would be a different throw).

For this:

"If you say, "I'm going to throw a right punch at your nose and I want you use that hip-closing-the-car-door motion to drive your punch, cut the line, and block my strike with a hit of your own." I understand the words, and I can maybe do it, but I have to think about the motion to get it right. It's going to feel awkward and that isn't going to get better until I am comfortable and relaxed with it."


You really have to think about how to move correctly after X years in the art?
Or you mean in theory a new person will feel awkward because they are trying to move in ways that are unnatural to them because it's a new skill?
And would that be because the *activity* is new to them? Or because the motion itself is unnatural?

At least personally I can say that when a move works, or if I'm shown a good correction, they do feel real easy and natural.

Rory said...

Lot's of comments, but it seems that as is usual, people read what they read. To simplify, I disagree that most movement in the martial arts is 'new'. I think that most reasonably athletic people are already familiar with the motions of combat.

There are, of course, ridiculous motions taught in the martial arts, but they are ridiculous for a reason... but the basic motions of combat, of imparting kinetic energy and lifting and pushing and pulling shouldn't be mysteries.

The motion in martial arts shouldn't be unnatural, and I'll go so far as to say that if the motion is unnatural, if you have to move in a way that your body doesn't like, that motion is wrong. Inefficient for life and suicidal for combat. But that's my opinion.

And I just dislike it when an instructor teaches something the student already knows how to do and then constructs it in such a way that the student is worse at that class of motion than before they began training.

I think that usually comes from breaking the motion down too far, and then teaching the pieces separately.

Maija said...

Steve Morris has some great thoughts on this -
Quote:"Personally, I trust the body. I trust those fundamental patterns that are inherent within me and that have been developed since my early childhood, as well as those innate reflex patterns that support learned movement and provide the dynamics. More importantly as a trainer, I also trust the fundamental patterns within my trainees’ bodies, even though not everybody who walks in my gym has got ideal genetics for fighting nor ideal childhood experiences. Even so, at some level they do have the fundamental locomotive, non-manipulative and manipulative skills that are the basis for all advanced motor skills. It is these basic patterns that I can then address through stimuli-oriented, task-specific situational training. This natural process will serve the trainee far better than the kind of directive instruction that will tell them how to move."
For the rest -

Dunabit said...

"And I just dislike it when an instructor teaches something the student already knows how to do and then constructs it in such a way that the student is worse at that class of motion than before they began training..."

Yes, this is tough to both watch and experience. As a student, that approach can destroy confidence and set back the learning process.

I see that approach most often in new teachers and those who haven't yet learned how to read their students and balance appropriately.

Good thoughts, and interesting to read the different perceptions. More food for thought.

Anonymous said...


I think much of the reason for this is threefold-

1. You're doing the motion under supervision and someone is judging whether you're doing it right. That doesn't promote fluidity IME. I noticed this when I taught foreign language - when people got out in the street and spoke they were much more fluid than in class. It's all about pressure, whether it comes from your instructor or your peers. Pressure is exactly what you feel it is, because it's only in your mind. But pressure is one of the things that impacts performance the most.

2. For some of us, the stakes we play for in training are high. If you don't get it right, you'll pay in blood. That leads to overthinking the issue.

Otherwise, I think you're on to something. Taking any movement and breaking it down too much loses the point of the movement, because the individual movements are not done in a vacuum. I notice this if I overthink doing cleans and jerks. I lose the smoothness that really moves the weight.

Damn, now I'll be pondering this post all day. Ach my poor brain.


Steve Perry said...

I read Rory's comment as saying that one seldom learns motions (outside the martial arts) as bits and pieces that are then cobbled together. He uses the example of dribbling a basketball. You don't learn to dribble, then how to move, he said.

Where he was going -- separating offense from defense --is fine, but the notion that one doesn't learn things in bits and pieces is what leaped out first.

If your readers miss what you wrote, the question arises: Is it them? Is it me? Is it some combination of the two? As a writer, you have to deal with this every time you put pen to paper, or photon to screen.

We all carry our literary axes, but if a bunch of us who are fairly-bright miss or misread a point, doesn't that make you wonder?

My comment is specific to new instruction -- if you lay out a specific way I am supposed to move, that's different than you saying, "Here I come, stop me or I get to your family."

Moving in slow motion and restricting myself in a sparring situation is not something I'd ever done naturally until Rory showed me the drill. It's a great learning tool, but there are plenty of things you can do at speed that don't work in slomo. Falling comes to mind ...

People will consciously or unconsciously adjust differently to something they have plenty of time to see coming than something they can't.

Always that one yahoo in class who sets against the sweep, just to show you he can.

I think Rory is also saying that holographic movement is better than step-by-numbers when it comes to flow. I'm not arguing that. I'm offering that to get to the sweet spot where everything runs like hot oil starts with the baby steps.

And obviously, some ways of movement are more effective and natural than others. But we are patchwork creatures, we humans. What part of our brains were evolved for reading? What gave us the god-gene? Why would I hit you with my hand if I have a rock or sharp stone -- or the modern equivalent, the gun or knife?

My experience is that bad habits are harder to overcome than total ignorance. That a guy who has been shooting for years but never got the fundamentals right will be harder to teach how to shoot well than one who hasn't touched a gun before. So to say, Well, you already know how to shoot, so let's start from there, might not be the best way to go.

Some martial arts are better than others for some things. If I want to shoot a bow, I won't get into taekwondo. If I want to kick an apple off the top of Kevin Garnet's head, I probably won't learn how in kyudo ...

Master Plan said...

"Moving in slow motion and restricting myself in a sparring situation is not something I'd ever done naturally until Rory showed me the drill. It's a great learning tool, but there are plenty of things you can do at speed that don't work in slomo. Falling comes to mind ..."


Hmm, is the *drill* (un)natural? Or the motion used IN the drill?

And aren't sparring situations almost always restrained? Speed, power, targeting, weapons, or just various rules (spoken or unspoken) are usually modified in some way. That's what makes it sparring, isn't it?

"People will consciously or unconsciously adjust differently to something they have plenty of time to see coming than something they can't."


This is a good thing, right?
Isn't part of the purpose of training to learn to see things coming, consciously or unconsciously, so that you have "plenty" (recognizing it might not actually be abundant in situ) to adjust to attacks\etc?

"Always that one yahoo in class who sets against the sweep, just to show you he can."


But if they do that then they are either showing you your sweep doesn't work (and thus needs work) or they are not doing the which case you can adjust to their setting against the sweep they think you are going to perform by sweeping them in a more appropriate\effective way based on their new structure.

"My experience is that bad habits are harder to overcome than total ignorance. That a guy who has been shooting for years but never got the fundamentals right will be harder to teach how to shoot well than one who hasn't touched a gun before. So to say, Well, you already know how to shoot, so let's start from there, might not be the best way to go."


So you are saying that martial artist who have training are indeed harder to make move 'right' than folks who have not been trained.....provided that the training the martial artists have received in their style ingrains bad habits?

Like thousands of reps of X-block versus knife being hard to untrain? Or engaging in thousands of reps of punches which are feeds or targeted to miss?

One thing I think might be getting missed is the idea that things are natural or not to a person, based on some idea of those things being natural to the person doing\teaching them.

Often it seems folks are just unaware of what they are doing. Not just physically either of course. And folks will fixate on things they are made aware of if they are told they are important.

For instance the drop step. Pretty natural, just...falling into ever present gravity. But folks will want to push off the back leg, making them tense up and causing them not to really drop step much at all. I think it's because they are trying to do what they think it looks like, because they don't know what it feels like.

Riding a bike is a feeling. If I don't know that feeling (yet) I might think riding a bike is actually just about peddling my legs in circles as fast as I possibly can.

A lot of this stuff often, to me, seems to come down to pointing things out to people that they don't know they are\aren't doing.

Might not even be a 'solution' per se.

"You seem to be thinking of offense and defense as separate things. Is that true, and if so, why?"

Pointing out the box on their head but leaving them the work of taking it off.

I suspect training inherently produces artifacts and being aware of them is in some ways more important than "correcting" them.

Steve Perry said...

MP --

I'm offering that if you assume as a teacher that the student already knows how to move and all you are going to do it say "Go for it!" you aren't giving him or her anything. So you check to see what they know and if it helps or gets in the way of where you want to take them.

Yep repetition of bad stuff is hard to undo. I've been there. But as a teacher dealing in motion, even if that isn't the primary focus of the lesson over all, you have to see if what the student already has is going to be useful or going to get in the way of what you are trying to offer.

And you need to break stuff down so they can get it.

Rory doesn't teach martial arts seminars -- he's offering lessons in how to deal with violence. He's saying, okay, you have the basic tools, let me show you how I think they can be best used. But I don't think he can assume everybody knows how to split a log just because they are carrying an axe.

jks9199 said...

My two cents...

The human body is the human body. There just ain't but so many ways to move it efficiently and effectively for any purpose. Most people have more skill with their bodies than they realize because they've been using their body their whole lives. (I've got a 1 and half year old; I'm watching him discover how to move, and learning a lot myself...)

When it comes to teaching combative skills, it's easy to get in our own way. There are two primary ways I see this happen: breaking it down too far, and not breaking it down far enough. If I try to take a new student, and have them move combatively with the same degree of confidence, flow, and competence that I have after a couple of decades of training... they'll fail, and get frustrated. Trying to show them too many elements is as bad as not breaking it down into workable chunks. Sure, a punch is really just a combination of stepping forward and reaching out towards something, then stopping that reach suddenly... which are all motions a new student has done thousands of times. But they've never put it together in quite that way...

And that applies to experienced people learning new skills or exercises, too!

zzrzinn said... strikes me that connected movement is a end goal, not a place you can start from for most.

Different in different systems and learning styles though, internal Chinese arts might emphasize something like this from the beginning, where other arts will start with pieces, and move on to removing the seperation between the pieces.

While I certainly agree with it being an important goal, and I also agree that many martial artists unnecessarily segment, I also think that martial movements are actually quite a bit different than plenty of the movement of daily life...or at least need to learned differently.

There are ceratinly plenty of 'natural movements' that are inherent ion martial arts, there are also plenty of natural movements and reflexes that will get you killed.

stevenson said...

A fascinating topic.

What we are really talking about is efficient learning technique. I see strong parallels with learning a martial art with learning to play a musical instrument (I am a classically trained musician). You practise for endless hours to ready yourself for being put on the spot where everything has to come together perfectly - no mistakes.

How you get there is very similar to how we train in martial arts. Traditionally, musicians spend hours practising scales and arpeggios which are the building blocks of the music they will eventually come to play. But, it takes time to put those building blocks into context once you have learnt them, and the process and attention to technique required to play them fluently could just as easily be learnt by practising a piece of music with scales in it, with the advantage that the context is being learnt at the same time.

But to really refine and perfect the technique, so that when it matters it works flawlessly, or even just well enough to be convincing, means you have to really break it down and understand how to simplify it, so that your body does not get in the way, so that tension or poor posture does not fight what you are trying to do. Sound familiar?

But I recognise Rory's concerns that teachers and students over analyse technique to the point that it's purpose and context are lost in a fog of minutae. It's at the point that you have to accept that at your current skill level, mastery should not be the goal. We would say to a student of a martial art or an instrument, let go and trust your body. Forcing your body to do something it is not ready to do is counter-productive. Go for the essence of it with passion (aka "ki") and free yourself. Use the force, Luke.

Dan Gambiera said...

Lots of complex skills are broken down and then put together. Professional dancers do it all the time. So do boxers and swimmers.

A while back I was lucky enough to sit in on a master class with Glen Velez, one of the best percussionists in the world. He can play complex syncopated rhythms with both hands and both feet. He practices new breaks each hand at a time, then each foot, then two, three and finally all four together.

Doing the basics in isolation, then putting them together, working from the easy to the hard and the simple to the complicated is the only way to master difficult skills. Just jumping in and doing it all at once is a recipe for failure.

Rory said...

I think Dan just put the words I needed out there.

As long as you believe that combatives, taking someone out is complex motion, then breaking it down makes some sense. In my stuff, I believe the problem (surviving violence) is complex and I break it down a lot and in what seems to be new ways.

But the solutions are and must be dead simple. If it is complex, it may or may not be what you think it is, but it's not survival combatives.

Anonymous said...

Simple doesn't always mean easy. Hitting someone is simple. Doing it well is a lot harder.

I'm sure you can hit someone hard enough to get his attention or make him take a short nap. And you can do it without telegraphing, without leaving yourself open, without hurting yourself, moving forwards or backwards against someone who isn't just standing there waiting to get smacked.

That's a lot to be able to pull off. Not everyone is born knowing how to do it. If you want to be good at it you need to practice until it's dialed in. And even then it doesn't hurt to work the bag regularly.