Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Lessons from Mr McIntosh

My previous article got me thinking about another issue that runs to the core of good vs. bad teaching. I think it is best illustrated by giving you an example from my past:

When I was just 10 years old I moved to a new school in a new country. For the first time in my life I was subjected to a very rigorous discipline – smart uniforms, hair-length regulations, shined shoes and the threat of the cane if anything was amiss. In addition to this we had twice yearly sets of formal examinations and regular marked assignments in all the distinct subjects (namely two languages, mathematics, history, geography, science, as well as sundry subjects like art and woodwork).

For whatever reason, I thrived. Perhaps I was searching for some sort of structure that my previous "New Age" schools had not provided. Whatever the cause, it seemed that overnight I went from being the kid who had to repeat year 5 (and for whom "special schooling" had been suggested – I'm not kidding either) to being the top of my class in every subject.

For that first year things went very well. Then the following year our school employed a new woodwork teacher – Mr McIntosh – and everything started to go downhill again. In a big way.

Let me start by saying that Mr McIntosh was, at first glance, a genial old fellow: he presented as a neatly moustachioed working-class Englishman with a lilting Geordie/Border accent. He was passionate about carpentry and certainly knew his way around the workshop. And passion is certainly one of the most important ingredients in the makeup of any successful teacher.

But successful teacher he was not. In fact, he was an appalling teacher – perhaps the worst I've ever had. He should never have been left to teach anyone, never mind children. Well I suppose he might have cut the mustard with some 17-20 year old chippy apprentices who could have borne his poorly-conceived "educational methods" without too much scarring. But why anyone would ever have thought it prudent to give him a class of 11 year old boys is beyond me.

Today the only kind thing I can really say about him other than his enviable carpentry and general neatness/organisation is that his name, but for one letter, is like the famous Apple computer (he was a "Mc" not a "Mac"). The rest of his operating system was worse than a fragmented copy of Windows 95.

So what was so bad about Mr McIntosh? Essentially it was his insistence on making a rather "old-world" discipline (of which my school was rather fond, in principle anyway) the centrepiece of his teaching method. However instead of basing his practices on a 1960s English public school worldview (which the rest of the school had), he appeared to take his cue from one of Dickens' novels.

Forgotten your apron? That'll be 2 "tonks" (his euphemism for strokes from a cane, pronounced "taunks") to the "posterior". Didn't sweep up every wood shaving? That'll be 2 more tonks. Put your equipment away in the wrong order? One more tonk. Forgotten completely to put away your equipment? Well, that's serious now. "A right hazarrrd!" At least 2 tonks.

Okay, so how bad were these "tonks"? Let's put it this way: getting 4 didn't just cause bruising and blood blisters; it was sometimes bad enough to break the skin. Sometimes Mr McIntosh also had the "charming" idea of making the offender put his head under a bench (so when the cane struck, the offender would bang his head as he straightened up with pain). Sometimes (just to switch things around) he would use a metal ruler and "slice" downwards with the edge.

I never set out to be a "bad" student. In fact, I was revelling in my status as the "smart" kid for the first time in my life. I was also conscientious in every other respect. But I did suffer from something that plagues me to the present day; a chronic absent-mindedness. So inevitably I would realise, with mounting horror and only minutes before woodwork class, that I had forgotten to bring my apron to school. After receiving the obligatory tonks, I might forget a chisel on my workbench... In fact, the more nervous I became, the more accident-prone and absent-minded I seemed to be.

It rapidly became a bit of a "running joke": the woodwork class was practically guaranteed to include multiple tonks for yours truly. I began to feel physically ill before each class and eventually for the entire Tuesday leading up to our woodwork session. Afterwards it was commonplace for me (as well as the other boys who had been disciplined) to find it painful to sit for at least the rest of the day. My only comfort lay in commiserating with my best friend Harry, who also bore the brunt of Mr McIntosh's punishments in another class (he and I recently compared notes and reminisced about those days).

This continued for some months, making my school days a nightmare. Until one day my brother chanced to see me getting into the shower and noticed that I had been not only bruised deeply, but cut. I recall that on that particular day I had received a total of 4 cuts from Mr McIntosh. Considering that the statutory maximum allowed for school headmasters (and headmasters only!) was 6, this was really quite remarkable. Add to that my relatively young age and the (mostly trivial) misdeeds and it becomes even more remarkable. My brother went to my father and my father, enraged by what he saw, went straight to the school the very next morning.

The school was deeply apologetic but suggested to my father that we cut Mr McIntosh some slack. His wife was dying from cancer, after all.

So come next Tuesday, I went back to woodwork with some trepidation. Yet Mr McIntosh seemed to be in a particularly good mood, smiling broadly and telling jokes. As we lined up at our benches, he paused and said quietly: "Boys... Ye musn' tell on meh. I only give ye tonks – like this. Come here Danneh."

And he proceeded to give me two more tonks. Good old Mr McIntosh.

Later, as additional punishment, he made me tidy up the store room on my own. As I was busy with this he came in to talk. I recall that he sighed, sat down on a dusty wooden stool and observed me for a while beneath his peppercorn eyebrows, his similarly coloured moustache drawn down in a grimace of sadness. "Ah don' understand ye Danneh. Ye jes' won' listen will ye? Ye keep on makin' mistakes no matter wa' ah do to ye."

He let me go after extracting a promise that I would try harder in the future to pay attention.

As I exited the woodwork room into the adjacent gymansium, I spied him through the store room window, still seated on that stool, his eyes focussed wearily in the middle distance. At that moment I realised that he wasn't a frightening figure. He was a sad one. No doubt he was stressed by his wife's terminal illness. And no doubt he was totally out of his depth in the classroom. Because it occurred to me then and there, at the age of 11, that something was seriously amiss with his teaching system: If he couldn't "teach" me – a bright and conscientious student who thrived on structure and discipline – wasn't he doing something very wrong? Couldn't the proverbial "Blind Freddy" tell him that whatever he was doing just wasn't working? That the answer didn't lie in "upping the ante"?

I never mentioned to my father those "extra" tonks I was given courtesy of "dobbing". And I successfully completed the year without warranting, never mind receiving, even one more. Ironically it was my realisation of Mr McIntosh's appalling failure as a teacher, role model – in fact as a human being – that made me more attentive before, during and after his class. For me, pity was a far more potent educator than fear.

Fast forward to the present day, and I see my puppy, Timmy, happily chewing away at my kung fu slipper despite having been scolded numerous times before for doing so. All I can do is smile. I know what Mr McIntosh would have done: raised the stakes continually until the poor dog was being whipped to within an inch of its life. Ye jes' won' listen, will ye Timmeh! So instead I reach for his pig's ear and gently substitute it for my slipper. Problem solved.

Teaching is always about positive reinforcement. The moment you have to resort to punishment (however necessarily), you know you're not "teaching" anything. At best, you're just playing catch-up. At worst, you're just losing your temper.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Effective teaching: finding the right key

Many years ago, I recall my teacher Bob Davies saying the following to me:

"What sparks a revelation in one student won't in another. Something that motivates or inspires a particular student might have no effect on anyone else in your class. In each case there is a key. If a student can't do a particular technique or isn't progressing generally, look first to yourself as the cause of the problem. Have you found the right key? If not, keep trying until you do."

Now it's true that there is a limit on how much an instructor can beat him/herself up. But that doesn't mean he/she should stop trying either. A good example was a class I held last week:

I was pouring heart and soul into teaching a group of taiji beginners: I was amiably and patiently going through the movements, being careful not to over-correct or over-explain while ensuring that they had the requisite information. However I could see that, despite my best efforts, they were still struggling. They simply couldn't get a "feel" for any of the movements – even remotely.

No matter how I slowed things down and broke things up, no matter what analogy I used, no matter that I praised even the smallest improvement - every time I had a look behind to see what they were doing, I saw carnage: limbs everywhere, bodies contorted like in a game of Twister. All from an instruction to step forward and do a single hand movement. They had moved wrong leg, the wrong arm, at the wrong angle, in the wrong direction, along the wrong circle: you name it, it was wrong.

I remembered my teacher's words and put the blame on myself. I hadn't found the "key" to these students' learning. They weren't failing – I was. People are different, and you can't rely on explanations and methods of instructions just because they have worked before.

So I went right back to the movement and started again, choosing a different tack (being careful not to make them feel discouraged).

I was part way through demonstrating the movement when I looked up and saw that one woman had, without warning, simply walked off the floor. She was grabbing her bag and towel and walking out of the door.

Now at some point you have to let it go. There are some people who have insufficient interest in the activity to continue. Yes, they came along to try out the class but perhaps they found out that it just wasn't for them (whether it was because they were after something more physical and less cerebral, because it is too physical, because the nature of the movement isn't to their taste, etc.). Heck, not everyone is going to like taiji or karate or whatever else you might be teaching! This doesn't mean they shouldn't try it but it also doesn't mean that you should, in every case, take the blame for their disinclination towards your particular activity.

Thankfully "walk-outs" have been a very rare event in my teaching history. I've taught over 1,000 people and I think it's only ever happened to me twice. Yes, I've had the usual "once only" tryouts, but even these occupy a minority of the students I teach in a year. Nevertheless, every time a student walks off, doesn't come back the next class or is just left scratching their head, I see it as something for me to address. Or at least do my best to address. You have to keep trying. You have to keep looking for that key.

I've been doing this for long enough to know that sometimes the most unlikely tack results in an "Aha!" moment; the strangest analogy or (what is to me) the most counter-intuitive approach taps into their subconscious. Sometimes it is because I've been working on an incorrect assumption as to what will engage the student, sometimes because the student has a particularly unique way of looking at things. Either way, there is no "blame". The only "blame" arises if the instructor stops trying.

I recall my students coming back from Taiwan and I noted that their heng quan had suddenly improved. Master Chen had described it to them as a kind of "inward brushing action". Armed with this description the pieces suddenly fell into place. Master Chen had achieved what I had not been able to; he had found the key. But then again, that is part of why he is a master...

So what should we look for in a "key"?

Well for starters it is worth remembering that martial arts is about motor learning. And, as I've previously discussed, motor learning is something that requires us to tap into our "autopilot"; it requires us to do things without logically and consciously thinking them through.

Most adult beginners will attempt to apply logic to their learning – I see it all the time (I'm "guilty" of it often enough). This process is easy to understand; logical analysis is an approach that serves us well in problem solving or at work or learning a new computer task, etc. But your job as a martial arts teacher is to wean them off this "conscious" thought process. They have to learn to do things subconsciously. If they don't, they will simply take too long. Even if they can do the relevant movement slowly, logical or mechanistic thought processes have a tendency to result in staccato or mechanistic movements. Just as with music or calligraphy, you must flow - in other words, move without hesitation. You can't keep stopping and restarting as you second-guess every step you make.

I've noticed this difference with children: they don't even try to adopt a "logical" or "structured" approach to a new movement. They just do it. Yes, the movement might not be completely "correct", but it is usually a fair approximation from the get-go and they refine it as they go along.

Children are uninhibited about their learning. And, moreover, they are still engaging in a great deal of other motor learning; learning to stand, then to walk, then to run, then to jump, then to catch a ball, then to kick one, then to hit one with a stick/bat/racket, then to balance on beam/surfboard/horse, then to dance... The list goes on. Their primary neural pathways are still being mapped, so they adopt the same "suck it and see" approach with everything they do. Because they know intuitively that it is the best way to learn anything.

Adults are a whole lot more cautious in their learning. And this is unsurprising. By the time some of them come to a beginner taiji course, they might have dispensed with any significant motor learning for the better part of 2, 3, 4 or even 5 decades. Their primary neural pathways have long been mapped; their memories of "just diving in" almost completely faded.

Does this mean that an adult can't learn martial arts? Of course not! Adults can indeed engage in motor learning. As with learning languages, music or anything else, it is just that little bit harder. We adults have so much in our crowded brains that we have to find a bit of spare space – a sufficiently empty room, if you will. It is the instructor's job to find the key to that room.

And this is where I come back to my opening remarks. Yes, a teacher shouldn't beat him/herself up for everyone who walks out the door or doesn't come back for a repeat lesson. But the teacher should also never give up. The teacher should never stop caring, never stop looking for that key. Because, rest assured, for every student, adult or child, there is a key.

Whether the student lets you try that key is another matter. This might be something over which you have little control. But it doesn't stop you looking for that key. That is not just your challenge – it is your duty. It is part of your job description.

So what did I do when the student walked out? I turned back to the remaining students and kept on searching for their respective keys. To have done otherwise would have been to give up. And to give up would have been a true measure of my failure.

Now none of those beginners came back for this week's lesson. Instead I had an entirely new group. But wouldn't you know, this particular group took on everything I could throw at them - and then some! They were quite possibly the fastest-learning taiji beginners I've ever taught in my career. And just to look at them you wouldn't be able to spot the difference from the preceding week; they comprised the same broad cross-section of ages and backgrounds.

Different students. Different keys. Happily I found the right ones - at least, this time! It did serve to remind me never to give in to discouragement; never to abandon that search. If ever I do, it will be time to step away from the front of the class. Thankfully the fear of that sort of failure is far greater than the fear of another walk-out.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, October 8, 2012

Gauging martial artists by "how they move"

I remember many years ago, sitting on my first grading panel assisting my instructor Bob Davies. I had grading sheets in front of me and was responsible for writing down appropriate, constructive comments on two of the students' performances.

At the conclusion of the grading Bob turned to me and said: "What did you think of student A?" I said that I thought student A had made some sequential mistakes in one of his required forms and clearly did not know it inside out.
    "What about student B?"
I said student B had executed every sequence properly, but the form wasn't very good.
    "Who passes?"
    "Neither?" I guessed.
    "No. In this case student A passes and student B does not."
    "But, with respect Sensei, that doesn't seem entirely fair. Student B fulfilled all the requirements where student A did not."
    "No, student B didn't fulfil all the requirements," he said. Then he pointed to the bottom of the sheet. "It says here that for this level the student should have 'correct form on all techniques'. Student B has clearly not yet achieved this and needs to spend more time at this level until this is achieved to a higher standard – or at least to a point where further study of the material at this level starts to produce diminishing returns."
    "But what about student A?" I said. "Doesn't the mistake in sequence count?"
    "Yes, it might. But we also have to look at how a student is moving generally. Student A is re-orienting from another school. You can clearly see that the lessons from that sequence have already been learned by some other means. So there is no point holding student A back merely because of a sequence. Sequences – forms – are there to teach us things. Once they have taught us those things, they can be abandoned."
    "But won't student A be left with a hole in his knowledge of our syllabus?"
    "No. Student A can always brush up on that particular sequence another time. And I'm sure there will be many opportunities in class for that over the next few years. Right now we want him to be working on something that will advance the way he moves."

My first grading in 1981. My teacher, Bob Davies, is seated and his senior, Johan Steyn Sensei, is demonstrating. In another four years I would start assisting on similar panels, learning the art of teaching and examination.

Over the next 2 decades Bob and I discussed many, many more evaluations of student preformances. In many cases the question of grade would come down to this: "Yes – but how is he or she moving? What mattered wasn't some formal exercise or elaborate sequence. What mattered was the lessons it had to teach – and whether or not those lessons had been learned.

For this reason, when we get people from other systems joining our school, we give them a 6 month re-orientation period. At the end of that we grade them according to "how they are moving" – not strictly according to whether they can do kata X or drill Y. If, say, a student clearly has the kinaesthesia and motor skills of a second dan in our system, it would be pointless to waste the student's time with sequences intended to teach white belt kinaesthesia and motor skills.

Generally speaking, students need to be learning something that advances them – not merely something that satisfies a pedagogic (bureaucratic) criterion. Inevitably, re-orienting students can and do catch up on "missing" forms/drills in class time anyway. And if they don't, I'm not particularly bothered (unless they want to become teachers within our system).

So this raises the question: how important is "good form" in traditional martial arts? And if it important, how does this gel with the fact that what is "good form" can vary so greatly from school to school (see my article "Punching: alignment and conditioning", for example and note the comparison between the karate and wing chun punches)?

Basically my take on it is this: I've seen any number of different stylists (traditional and eclectic) who are really quite different – but are all nonetheless very effective. One thing is common to them all: I can see that they are not beginners. I can see it in how they move – not only in punching, kicking or sparring but also more generally in the dojo.

The latter might seem a bit of a cliché, but I nevertheless hold it to be true. And I venture any other instructor or reasonably experienced martial arts practitioner would agree. It's a bit like watching a lead rock guitarist and a violin virtuoso. You can see their advanced kinaesthesia and motor skills in operation, even though they have little in common technically (other than they play stringed instruments).

Now with fighting things are a little different, because brute strength can play a pivotal role. But the relative skill will still be apparent. And if you match two people with roughly equal size, weight and aggression, the one who is more highly skilled prevails. He/she doesn't prevail because of executing "good form" but because he/she has learned vital kinaesthetic/motor lessons from attaining that proper movement - vital lessons the other, less skilled fighter hasn't learned.

So what the "proper movement" is all about isn't "enacting" that movement in reality. I think it is about a means of gaining kinaesthesia and motor skills. It is a means, not an end. Going through the process of trying to match your form to a particular standard is about gaining the muscle control and memory you need to perform at that standard. In other words, it's about gaining the necessary kinaesthesia and motor skills required of that standard - not about the standard itself. The "bar" set by the standard is really quite arbitrary.

For example, in music whether you gain kinaesthesia and motor skills through jazz "noodling" (as my colleague and good friend Daphne calls it) or through formal classical exercises, you still gain it. You might develop a unique "style" that is quite unorthodox, but it might still be effective. Benny Goodman was a master jazz clarinetist who used to play by biting his clarinet and blowing through his teeth – a very unorthodox technique from a classical standpoint. However, at age 40 Goodman went back to basics and "relearned" how to play in the classical manner - by using his top lip. He mastered that too and became a virtuoso classical player (as well as a virtuoso jazz player).

In martial arts this is a bit like that other famous Benny - Benny "The Jet" Urquidez - learning how to grapple from the Machados after many years of success in the kickboxing ring. Or any number of stand-up artists who make a transition from boxing to kickboxing to judo to Muay Thai to BJJ to san shou to MMA - ie. learning to fight under different rules. Every new "style" you master plugs a hole in your kinaesthesia/motor skills, making you more and more adaptable and a better and better martial artist.

On the other hand if you start "swapping styles" prematurely you end up with very little. Why? Because you need "form" – not because you want to effect that form "perfectly" in a fight, but because learning that form is a vehicle to help teach you the kinaesthesia and motor skills necessary for your martial arts development.

So form is there to teach. After it has taught its lesson, it can be abandoned. It is just an exercise.

By way of example, if you had studied clarinet with Benny Goodman when he was 38, he would have shown you a very particular jazz style and insisted your do it that way. If you studied with him when he was 48 he would have shown you a completely different style. Which one was "right"? Both were equally effective as vehicles for learning how to play. They produced different, but equally "sweet" music.

Having mastered one "style" means you've exhausted the usefulness of the "vehicle" which brought you to where you stand (or at least, the vehicle is running slower and slower and producing diminishing returns for the fuel you put in). Mastering more than one "style" means switching vehicles when the old one has started producing those diminishing returns.

But ditching your vehicle after one mile and "going on foot" doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And yes, you could "build your own" vehicle, but that takes a hell of a lot of ingenuity, effort and time - and makes little sense when there are already vehicles out there perfectly suited to the task and that are the product of the hard work and ingenuity of others.

I've seen many a "dreamer" attempt to "build their own vehicle" - and get nowhere. You can see how little they have travelled. I've had people walk into my dojo who say they have a "black belt" or even a "5th dan" but to whom I wouldn't give a green (or sometimes white!) belt. That's because they've "studied" some made up nonsense and been given a grade by some "belt factory". On the other hand, I have seen more than a few "shodans" or "brown belts" who are so highly skilled that I can see they simply haven't been graded – that they are 3rd or 4th dans in reality. When I ask them how long they've been training they might say: "Oh – 20 years." And it shows.

After 27 years of teaching in my own dojo, I can tell a beginner from an experienced student pretty much as soon as they walk onto the floor. I'm not talking about a "karate beginner" but a beginner - period. I know I can work with a "karate beginner" who happens to be an experienced aikidoka, a judoka or a Chinese or Filipino stylist etc. I can throw them "in the deep end" to some extent and they will "swim". I also know I can't do that to a "true beginner". He/she needs to go right back to square one and start learning some fundamentals – any fundamentals!

I don't give a hoot if the student looks offended because I ignored his/her ninja etc. qualifications or years of moving from school to school and doing no more than a few weeks of lessons at each. I don't do it to hurt the student's feelings. It is just a simple fact that the student needs to go off with a personal basics tutor so that I can get him/her to a stage of learning something more than knowing left from right, etc.

And I also don't care if the student is a "man mountain" who could literally throw me against the wall. So what? If the student wants to rely on their brute strength, why come to a martial arts school? And why come with an attitude of not wanting to learn?

By way of contrast, I have an MMA practitioner who trains internal arts with me. He's as tough as nails, yet he diligently learns what I teach him. He wants the kinaesthesia and motor skills of the arts I'm teaching. He has faith that I can teach them to him. In other words, he wants my form – not so that he can use the form itself in combat, but so that the form can teach him certain kinaesthetic and motor skill lessons – so it can help take him even further. [As it happens, he has also been teaching me some excellent ground fighting from his MMA. The street is not "one way".]

In the end, there is no short cut to experience. And experience can be gained by any number of ways. The important thing is to stick to one method long enough to get it. That is what "good form" is about – sticking to a given method long enough to gain relevant kinaesthetic and motor skill experience. It is not acquiring new "set techniques".

And I hold it to be self-evident that if you have the appropriate experience in the martial arts, you can gauge the level of someone else's – simply by "how they move" (but not by their "killer look"!).

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Kata, kinaesthesia, proprioception and motor learning

Nowadays it is common to hear martial artists say: "Kata teaches principles – not techniques." And many of us will sagely nod in agreement. But what does this expression really mean? We might have an intuitive understanding that this is a true statement, but how does it manifest? Put another way, how does kata teach "principles" and not "techniques"? What is the process by which this occurs and what are some examples?

I have shelved writing an article about this for some time. I knew that the answer lay in an analysis of kinaesthesia and proprioception and their role in motor learning. But that is a big topic, requiring some considered thought and planning. And I am inherently lazy. However a recent exchange with a correspondent made me realise just how little incisive, accessible information there is about this topic. Sadly, it seems "proprioception" and "kinaesthesia" are often just "big words" thrown into a mix of complex jargon to add "scholarly gravitas" to an otherwise banal essay. Often the best we can hope for is a "cut and paste" from some news or science report that touches briefly on the topic.

So today I decided I'd try to give this subject the attention it deserves. Here goes:

Basically, teaching "principles" involves teaching movements that provide a medium for the comprehensive development of "kinaesthesia" (ie. the accurate perception of your body's movement in time and space).

Kinaesthesia is developed through a related process called "proprioception". In a martial context, this involves the use of a number of senses in concert (principally touch, but also sight and hearing) to create a kind of mental "map" of your surroundings.

"Motor learning" (ie. the process of making complicated movements smooth and accurate) relies extensively on kinaesthesis and proprioception - whether you are walking, surfing or playing the piano; your muscles learn to fire appropriately and subconsciously in response to the feedback you get as to your body position and movement.

So if you observe a baby learning to walk, or someone who has suffered brain damage re-learning to walk, you will see slow, halting, deliberate and conscious effort going into every single movement. This is "motor learning" in action; a sufficient kinaesthesis has not yet developed and neither do the muscles know how to "work". Over time the movements become more relaxed and fluid – with much less conscious thought apparent; your motor neurons are firing appropriately and in response to the "mental map" that is being created. Over a longer time you'll notice that the conscious thought has absented itself altogether and the movements are done automatically.

Imagine for a moment if this were not the case: imagine if you had to calculate every single movement in advance consciously – say, as you climbed a flight of stairs. This was precisely the basis for early robot rover designs. They were made to make elaborate calculations based on data for the simplest tasks. So if the robot encountered an obstacle, data from cameras and other sensory instruments was relayed to the CPU and calculations were then made as to all the available options for circumnavigating the obstacle. Every option was then compared and a probability calculated for which option offered the best prospect for success.

This seemed like a sound methodology. However it had one big problem: it was soon discovered that even with our fastest computers, simple tasks like obstacle avoidance would take minutes, hours or even days to compute. Scientists knew something was amiss when they considered that, say, a fly, powered by a much, much smaller "computer" could make such a determination in a split second. There simply had to be a better way for robots to make such "routine" decisions. The "logical brain" model of making exhaustive calculations for each permutation just didn't cut it.

Going back to the stair example, you can now appreciate that we don't calculate every single step consciously. We might, if we're learning or relearning to walk. But mostly, we climb stairs subconsciously. In fact, we do so many things like this on "autopilot" that large tracts of our day are "lost" to us. Can you remember walking out the door this morning? Maybe. But do you remember every single detail: turning the handle, opening the door, stepping out, turning around, closing the door, pulling out your keys, etc.? Almost certainly not.

I have previously noted that our propensity to go through daily life mainly "on autopilot" is precisely what is exploited by mentalists; they anticipate our implicit trust in this process and use it to manipulate us.

On the other hand, it is a breakdown in trust of this "autopilot function" that powers many obsessive compulsive disorders, like relocking the door 3 times or washing your hands over and over again; in those cases the sufferer only feels he or she can trust the "automatic pilot" after a set (usually arbitrary) number of "confirmations" (which number varies from person to person).

So it should come as no surprise to you that you might not recall a single detail of your journey home from school or work. Perhaps you will remember what you were thinking of during your journey: the argument you just had with a friend, the "to do" list waiting at home, a pending assignment, exam or work presentation due the next day, etc. But there is a good chance you won't remember anything about the journey itself.

There were many times that I got home from school (a half hour walk) where I could honestly not recall a single detail from my journey: whether I'd taken route A or B (both equal in distance), whether I'd crossed at a particular corner or a bit further up the road, etc. In fact, people "lose" so much "time" in this way from their daily lives that some are convinced that they have been subject to an alien abduction!

A episode of Penn and Teller where they discuss how "lost time" is assumed by some to be due to an alien abduction, where in fact the former is just an everyday psychological experience common to us all. (Set to start at the relevant point.)

Now this sort of "autopilot" is, as I foreshadowed with the staircase and robot rover examples, necessary for most daily functions. In fact, it is mandatory in these cases. In others, you have to be a bit more careful.

"Autopilot mode" might be okay for something benign like walking home from school (although even there, you have to be careful not to daydream when crossing roads, for example) but you really shouldn't do it when you're driving a car or motorcycle – or at least, you should do such things in "full autopilot mode".

But you shouldn't try to do these things in "full manual mode" either. In fact, you couldn't even if you tried.

Instead, complex, dangerous or delicate tasks are usually accomplished successfully on partial autopilot: you let your autopilot negotiate routine movements while your conscious mind keeps a careful watch over things just to make sure any potential issues for the autopilot are spotted well in advance, and appropriate adjustments can be made.

Now it is also true that some aspects of activities, as dangerous, delicate or complex as they might be, can realistically be achieved using only "autopilot".


Well consider an MMA fighter in the midst of a cage exchange: punches, kicks, elbows etc. are thrown at speeds that are totally and utterly inconsistent with any kind of logical thought. Yes, you should have your logical mind switched "on" just before you enter in this exchange (ie. you should be using at least some part of your logical thought processes in the "pre-engagement" phase). But the truth of the matter is, once you are in the melee range, all hell breaks loose and you have no choice but to switch to "full autopilot". Your conscious, "manual" processes can't hope to keep up. You don't have time for logical computation of every possible variable, like some computer running through mathematical permutations.

In other words, for the heat of an exchange in the melee – ie. when the real action is taking place – you don't have any choice but to rely fully on your "autopilot". You won't have the luxury of using any part of your conscious, logical thought processes. If you try, you'll simply get clobbered/submitted/defeated. You just can't "think" your way through a melee exchange. It's impossible.

And this is why I call it the "melee range" and not "close range" or "middle range". I call it "melee" because that term conjures a mad, panicked, automatic/subconscious frenzy of movement. I can't think of a more fitting term.

So does this mean we should abandon all hope of "intelligent" approaches to combat? After all, if we can't think our way through a melee exchange, what is the point of learning any "technique"?

Indeed. Here is where we're finally getting close to answering the opening questions. We don't actually want "techniques" (if by "technique" we mean "set responses"). We want something "deeper" – something we can pass on to our "automatic pilot". You can't pass "set responses" onto that automatic pilot (at least, I've never seen it done: "He punches, you block and counter, yadda, yadda.").

It is at this point that many will throw their hands up in despair and go back to the punching bag. After all, is there any point learning martial arts at all when what we do in the heat of combat is just "automatic"? Don't we just default, as I was once told, to "fighting like our grandfathers fought"? Well yes and no. Yes, if you're untrained. But no, if you are trained.

You see, to answer this conundrum we need only examine some of the other issues I raised as suitable for "full autopilot mode". Danger was just one. What about delicate and complex tasks?

For example, you can't play an advanced musical piece at a concert if you're trying to "think things through". You can't dance complex choreography or even sing a opera piece by such a method; the "thinking" will show and interfere with your emotional expression.

Rather, you need to "own" the material you are performing, and this means shifting the actual physical movement more or less completely to the autopilot so that you can concentrate on things like emotional content (to borrow one of Bruce Lee's sayings).

But the arts offer only one type of example. You can't surf a wave, compete in a tennis match or play a fast video game in "manual" or "partly manual" mode. All of these things must be done on "autopilot" – and "autopilot" alone.

It is clear that some individuals are much more accomplished than others in these tasks. Some are lauded for their exceptional skill. What is it that they have done to make their "automatic" movement so much better than others? How can Roger Federer play an "intelligent" shot – one that seems to have been pre-planned like some chess game – all at breakneck speed and with constantly shifting variables that make any kind of "pre-planning" impossible? Moreover, why does someone like him outperform others time and time again?

Some people would say that the answer lies in his superior "reflexes". And I've certainly argued that "situational" reflex development is important: it is important to develop reflexes that are pertinent, perhaps even optimal, in a given situation. But all this is still skirting the issue: how can "dumb" reflexes (reactions that are not consciously pre-planned) manifest in such an "intelligent" way? How is it that commentators will praise Federer's gameplay as "intelligent", or laud the "genius" of a performance artist? How can such split-second actions occur so decisively, so optimally, that we continue to class them as "intelligent decisions" even when we know that no conscious, never mind "intelligent" thought process, could possibly have taken place?

Well I think that we do make a kind of "decision" at these moments. Understanding the sort of "decision" requires a deeper understanding of the processes of kinaesthesia and proprioception.

We are accustomed to thinking of the frontal lobe, which is the seat of our logical thought processes, as the centre of all our decision-making – the "overlord" of the human body. And it is, to some extent. But we don't just "think" with our frontal lobes. We "think" with our whole brains. Moreover, it is probably correct to say that we "think" with our whole nervous system. The brain is not one organ distantly connected to limbs, organs and other body parts. Rather it is totally and utterly integrated with the body via the neural system.

In this sense, one can think of intelligence as something that doesn't just emanate from your skull, but rather from an organ that stretches out from your skull into the rest of your body, sending it's extensions – neural fibres – into every nook and cranny of your body. And in a way, your "autopilot" uses this broader network to do it's "thinking" – not just your frontal lobe or neocortex.

So if we go back to that a fly avoiding an obstacle in a split second, we realise that it doesn't require a massive CPU. Rather than computing every single possible permutation, it uses an algorithm based on simpler, "fuzzy" logic. Its body is making "calculations" that are greatly abbreviated – ones that are based around only the essential data, and that follow simple algorithms tried and tested by evolution. This is how the nervous system of such a simple organism can make the necessary calculations, and make the necessary body movements, in a split second.

We aren't all that different. Most of our "autopilot" function is much the same as some of our simpler animal ancestors. We climb a flight of stairs subconsciously, barely giving it a thought unless/until we notice something odd, like a very slippery surface, a broken tile or missing step.

Which brings me back to the issue at hand: how can we develop this "fuzzy logic" so that it becomes "more intelligent" – so that it can make "smarter" algorithms for "split-second decisions"? The answer is no different to that which applied when you first learned to walk. Or when you first picked up the guitar and haltingly tried to press your clumsy fingers onto the strings in between the frets in the right order and without deadening the rest of the strings. Initially you must learn by using your "conscious" or logical mind. You will have to go through the task laboriously, waiting impatiently for the moment where you can "let loose" the "inner autopilot". There is no "short cut".

And yet, it seems to me that many people who gravitate to the martial arts want a "short cut"; they want to start bouncing around like Muhammad Ali or Bruce Lee, throwing fancy kicks and punches from day one. They want to climb into a ring/cage and start sparring. But that is a bit like wanting to pick up a guitar and start playing a Van Halen solo. It just ain't gonna happen. They have neither the motor skill nor kinaesthetic awareness.

Now with fighting, brute force plays a big role. So many people can mask lack of motor skill and kinaesthetic awareness with brute force. But when facing an opponent who is equal in size, strength and aggression, that poor skill/awareness is instantly evident. Just like the budding musician, tennis player or surfer, the first time walker or person recovering from a brain injury, etc. you must go through certain formal exercises before you have sufficient motor skill and kinaesthetic awareness to perform your activity fluidly and subconsciously.

What these exercises do is "teach" that part of your nervous system that operates on "autopilot". This is the "motor learning" of which I previously spoke. How do these exercises accomplish this? They start you off on certain "core" movements – basic, central movements that form the foundation of far more complex movements and combinations of movements (I'll expand on these "core" movements in a future article).

These "core" movements are the key to effective motor learning. They operate by working your body along the lines and planes of relevant movement, exploring those lines and planes and giving vital proprioceptive feedback. It is this feedback that develops kinaesthetic awareness – that "fuzzy logic". That feedback simultaneously educates your motor neurons to fire appropriately and accurately. Just as you learn natural, fluid walking through those first few awkward, hesitant, and "forced" steps as a baby, so you can learn natural, fluid and effective martial techniques through what are initially awkward, hesitant and "forced" movements.

But this raises the question: what sort of movements do you need for motor learning appropriate to martial arts? Why can't you just hit bags and do 2 person drills? Why ever would you need to do solo work, like a kata?

Well you need to stand before you can walk, and walk before you can run.

With martial arts, you need to be able to move efficiently on your own before you can start worrying about interplay with a partner. Yes, you can start working with a partner fairly early on as well. But if you plan to develop a high level of skill (especially the "standup" kind) you can't neglect fundamental solo movement. You need to be able to move fluidly on your own and "understand" thoroughly your own place in time and space before you start worrying about someone else. And this is done via motor learning – through countless repetitions that isolate and groove certain fundamental patterns of movement.

I keep going back to music. When you start piano playing everyone wants to be able to play a proper tune from day one. Instead, you will do nothing of the sort. Initially you learn to move up and down scales. You do finger exercises like the Hanon ones, where you lift alternate fingers. You do these things because they are necessary (but not sufficient) for playing pieces (which comes later). They are precursor steps through which every pianist must pass to acquire the right muscular control – the right kinaesthetic skill. Only then will you move to very simple children's pieces. Then to "Fur Elise", and so on.

A basic "hanon" exercise for learning to play the piano. It teaches relevant kinaesthetics by getting you to move your fingers through essential movements. Note what the player says at about 1:40: "I've been playing this exercise since I was 4 ½ years old and I continue to do it. No one talks about this. This is the reality – I'm giving you truth."

With traditional martial arts strategy involving such things as a modified flinch reflex with evasion, deflection and counter, you also need certain underlying skills. You need certain strength and endurance in core muscle groups – ie. you need martial-specific conditioning.

So, for example, I think it is no accident that all traditional martial arts, from East to West, armed and unarmed, all use the same stances: horse stance, cat stance, forward stance. Take your pick – they all have them. Why? Because there are only so many ways in which the body can move efficiently in combat. Convergent evolution means that if you watch two broadsword practitioners in "freeplay" you'll see any number of forward stances (during lunges), cat stances (during withdrawals/evasions) – just as you would in Eastern fencing.

Scott Rodell's video on 5 elements of Chinese swordsmanship is equally applicable to all traditional martial arts in terms of its general message. You'll note that basics lead to two person drills which lead to solo forms which lead to freeplay which leads to target practice, etc. Note that you can't just skip to freeplay and target practice. Having correct kinaesthetics for the relevant system requires some grounding in basics, two person drills and solo forms. In the case of arts like karate, the forms (kata) play a vital role in "packaging" the basics and two person drills (in the form of applications) as a mnemonic, so they are especially important to motor learning.

You'll see horse stances in grappling disciplines from Indian wrestling to sumo. Why? Because it is the most biomechanically efficient way to brace and balance yourself against certain forces.

As I've previously noted, these stances don't occur statically; they are "snapshots" of a continuum. They occur in a dynamic context of contraction expansion, stepping, lunging, ducking, withdrawing. The stances are formal manifestations of extreme points in movement – expansion, retraction, etc. Between all of them you can cover every conceivable human martial position and movement during combat. Yes, the stances will seem a bit "formal". But round the edges off and guess what? You get natural movement. "Square up" your sparring movements and you get traditional stances (as well as other formal traditional techniques).

Why bother with "squaring up" stances? Because in this form they manifest as "ideal" points of balance and structure. You'll never manage an ideal in reality. But you don't want your "autopilot" to learn something less than ideal. Because you need to be assured that you have explored and mapped the full extent of your kinaesthetic awareness. If you haven't, some of the proprioceptive feedback will be false or missing. Ditto with your motor skills; they will be incompletely formed.

Full, deep, basic stances explore the full range of movement in the most balanced way – so your body knows where it is strongest and where it is weakest. Anything less and you're trying a shortcut again. And your autopilot doesn't learn as much when you take such a shortcut. He/she/it wants as much "driving experience" as possible.

Okay – so you need stances. Why put them in kata? Why not practise them separately? Well you could... but that would be missing the point. The stances are, in themselves, not relevant to training your motor skills and kinaesthetic awareness. Remember, this is about awareness and control of your own body in motion – not your body at rest.

So the stances are less important than the transition between them. In other words, it is the movement that matters. The stances just enable that full range of movement by providing extreme points between which the movement is made.

And we're not just talking about moving in one stance. In order to provide the right (complete) proprioceptive feedback, you need a dynamic context in which to experience shifting between all the stances. Accordingly, a good syllabus will feature kata that offer a comprehensive catalogue of different permutations of movement.

[On this subject, every time I encounter a new form that has something I can't do, I know I'm going to learn; because I'm filling in a blank hole in my motor skills and kinaesthetic awareness.]

Of course motor skill/kinaesthesia is not just about stances; they merely serve to provide one technical example. Your arm and other techniques must also coordinate with stepping in those stances – counterbalancing each other and agreeing with your footwork. Just as your brain cannot be divorced from your body, your arm and leg techniques cannot be divorced. In fact, a good kata gives your "autopilot" proprioceptive feedback about the positioning of your whole body – arms, legs, torso, head, you name it – during martial movement.

In a nutshell, kata give you opportunities for motor learning fundamental skills in martial movement, much like the Hanon exercises do in the case of piano playing. In so doing they teach your "peripheral" neural system about your location in time and space use this information to let you establish a fluid, accurate control.

Yes, they feature "techniques". But the techniques are not what kata is about. You're never going to remember a set response to a particular attack. Ever. So what can you learn?

Well your "subconscious" can "learn" to make "intelligent" choices in a split-second; choices you could never make consciously. And what will those choices be? They will follow broad principles of "ideal" movement – rounded off under pressure and because nothing your subconscious reproduces ever has perfect fidelity. In other words, you'll withdraw, lunge, side-step, slip, deflect, punch, kick – you'll do all these things; things you learned from your kata. Yes these things will have the "edges rounded off". And they won't occur in the standard sequences of your kata. But they will follow the same principles.

So it is true: kata won't teach you technique. It will have you execute technique in the form, but it won't "teach you to use it". You were never meant to re-enact a kata during self-defence. What the kata will teach you is certain principles – principles that shape your kinaesthetic awareness so as to enable a subconscious, reflex response under pressure – one that is effective and, dare I say it "intelligent".

In conclusion, many people on the net talk about proprioception and kinaesthetics. Some bandy these terms around, perhaps smothering them in jargon and pseudo-scientific babble. But rarely do people actually explore what these terms actually mean – and how these issues affect martial arts training and tactics.

Yet the role of kinaesthetics and proprioception is vital to motor learning in martial arts. In turn, motor learning underpins every element of traditional (and modern or eclectic) training.

This explains exactly why we need forms – be they kata or some other drill that achieves the same function.

Kata (forms or patterns) provide a patchwork of fixed reference points that your body can use to map its position and surroundings, and make useful predictions about movement in that context. Simultaneously they teach you the core motor skills necessary to move in those surroundings in a way that is safe, efficient and effective.

Proprioception, gained through repeatedly moving through these reference points, is the process by which these points become known and "fixed" in your nervous system.

Kinaesthesia is the process by which your subconscious triangulates and extrapolates from these points, fleshing out your mental map to a more detailed picture.

Motor learning is the process by which you learn to use the data from that mental map in synch with your motor skills so as to produce accurate, fluid movement.

"Situationally" appropriate reflexes are such learned movements, generated automatically by subconscious in response to certain stimuli. Again, kata is one of the tools that helps create these associations.

I'm no scientist and it has been 30 odd years since I studied perception at university (including kinaesthetic awareness and proprioception). But what I do know, I've tried to present usefully, in lay terms; a "potted account", if you will.

I know that there will inevitably be some disagreement with the "licence" I've taken here and there with my terminology or the analogies I've made. But I believe that taking such "liberties" is ultimately of greater benefit than a lot of what is presently "out there" in the martial arts world (eg. articles filled with "big words", trademarked jargon and unnecessary acronyms, but which frankly fail to advance one's thinking one iota).

I hope this article achieves the more informative discussion I was seeking.

I also hope that this article will serve as a useful introduction to a forthcoming essay in which I hope to explore, in specific detail, how kata (in particular, basic kata) drill essential or "core" movements; movements that are "embryonic" in the sense that they provide proprioceptive feedback for a comprehensive variety of situations. I will also detail how this feedback can, to some extent, "future-proof" the student so that the essential/core movements provide a kind of scaffold, enabling him/her to continue to draw more and more lessons from it the more experienced and advanced the student becomes. But that is for another time!

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic