Friday, July 31, 2009

Invested in a Way

Martial arts stuff. Those of you who aren't familiar with the way such things are taught, a quick hit on the most common methods:

1) Ongoing group class.
2) Private lessons.
3) Seminars.

There are other ways -- couple buddies get together and exchange techniques and share philosophy. There are how-to books, videos, and people who can learn something simply by watching. There are stories, probably apocryphal, about this system or that which came to be because a student not allowed to train peeped through the blinds then went off and practiced on his own. The classic depictions offer somebody who watched a crane fishing, or a monkey given fermented coconut juice and copied what they thought they saw. Or somebody just had some kind of epiphany one warm summer evening and the vision led to a new art.

(There are people who create their own systems, though seldom, I expect, without some kind of prior experience.)

But back to the three. Each method has its merits and down sides.

Group classes are the most common, and they tend to be limited by the newer students. If you have an advanced class where everybody is at the same level, you learn differently than if you have a group ranging from years in training to a newbie just showed up. Nature of the information flow -- kid can't add or subtract, then multiplication is beyond him, and calculus right out. Not to say the advanced students aren't getting something out of it -- going over the basics is never a bad idea, and each time you return to them, you can see something new, but it will be a slower process.

Private lessons get you personal attention, learning is faster, but can be spendy, and sooner or later, you have to dance with more than one person to see how the stuff will work against different players. Height, weight, speed, power, these things matter enough that you need a range of experience. A fighter who is six-four has more reach than one who is five-two. Heavyweights tend not to move like flyweights. You need to see that up close and personal.

Seminars tend to offer a whole lot of information delivered in a short time, over a day or three, and often the attendees are students of something else, so the teacher must consider that. If you study, say, kung fu, and you spend the weekend learning eskrima, for instance, then most of what you will see will likely be new to you. Retention of the material is harder, because the teacher may be gone on Monday, never to be seen again, and if you come away with a couple of things that are useful you can remember, then that's about as good as you can expect.

One of the problems experienced students have in the seminar-realm is what they bring with them. If you are a stand-up puncher and you seminar (like that for a verb?) a grappling art that goes to the ground, you are looking for stuff your art may not address, and it is relatively easy to listen to the teacher. He's got something you don't, and you want it.

If, however, the art you study is too similar to the seminar curriculum, then the problem of conflicting input will almost certainly arise. Sometimes, a different way isn't better or worse, just different and it will work, but it won't fit into what you have.

I saw this at the most recent seminar I attended, last year in Las Vegas. There were a handful of high-level teachers, rotating sessions through a ballroom full of students. All of these teachers were experts in something; several in multiple arts, but none of them were teaching the same thing, and in several cases, what they taught was a direct contradiction to stuff I already knew. And what the last three guys all showed me.

Proper seminar etiquette says you are to put that aside and do what the new teacher demonstrates, his way, and if you don't want to do that, better if you step off.

Obligatory aside here: I know this will make Rory smile, but if you knock the instructor sprawling, while that makes a valid point, such will often lead to an escalation in force that blows past friendly training into ugly. Such an event happened at Vegas because a teacher demonstrating knife techniques made seven major errors.

Mistake #2, was assuming he could show a bunch of guys who play with knives as much or more than he did something that would impress them.

If you are going to play your guitar in front of an audience of professional guitar players, best you have the chops.

Mistake #3: The teacher picked a move that was risky in the extreme. It required a precision you probably wouldn't be able to summon against a knife thrust with adrenaline babbling in your ear. Even if you could, it might work against somebody shorter who didn't know squat, but absolutely would not work against a guy eight inches taller, even if he didn't know squat.

For those of you who have some knowledge about such things, the first basic defense was to kick your hips straight back, sucking in your gut, while bending at the waist and leaning forward, reaching for the knife arm with both hands to grab it. Assuming you got that much right, there was some kind of follow-up, takedown, disarm, I don't really recall, because it never got that far ...

Mistake #4: Teacher picked the tallest guy in the class to come at him.

Mistake #5: Tall Guy was the most experienced knife player in the session. Three-quarters of his life deep in knife arts, knew more than the teacher. This was a man who had twelve practice blades in his gym bag. And who, when elected, allowed that maybe the teacher might want to let somebody else do the attack, because of the size and experience disparity.

Mistake #6: The teacher declined the offer to use somebody his own size.

Mistake #7: He could have changed the defense, and limited Tall Guy to a move that he could have intercepted. Said, "Wait, no, this won't work against a tall guy, so let me show you a variation. Stab like this." He didn't. He was intent on proving his point.

Came the attack and defense:

Tall Guy eviscerated the teacher three times in the first five seconds -- or would have, had the knife been real. After another few seconds, he had tagged the guy three more times, and nobody in that class was ever going to try that defense, anytime, anywhere, against anybody.

This is what is known as a failed demonstration. A fubar situation.

Teacher got pissed off, but it was his own fault.

If you can't do it, don't try to show it in front of a room full of experienced folks who have an idea what it ought to look like. Later, I found out the teacher had been warned by a senior in his art that maybe a barehanded knife defense was not a good idea, but elected to do it anyway. Mistake #1 -- not listening to somebody who knows better ...

So I learned from this demonstration. Not what the teacher had intended, but still something useful.

That's how it goes at a seminar. More than a couple times, I was thinking, "Huh. Your way will get me killed trying it against somebody who knows his ass from a hole in the ground."

An example of this is the infamous overhead X-block for a downward ice-pick stab. Yeah, you might make it work against somebody who just picked up a blade the first time this morning and is still puzzling over which end to hold; against anybody who knows that much? As soon as both your hands go up, you turn everything from your neck to your toes into an open target, and you won't be fast enough to get your hands down in time to keep from being disemboweled. If you don't believe this, give somebody a marks-a-lot pen and leave to try a little line drawing upon you after you cross your wrists over your skull. You'll need some OxyClean afterward.

(Our basic knife stuff starts with the simple stuff: Get the fuck out the way. Don't stand there where if you miss the check or block you will get skewered. So if somebody is teaching me that this is the way to go, I'm going to be looking at him askance.)

Now it is true that you might find yourself in a situation where you can't move out of the way, and there are methods to be employed should this happen; however, if you can be elsewhere when the blades flash, it's better. Nobody ever got stabbed by somebody who couldn't reach them.

We strive to cover high-line and low-line at all times -- that's a cardinal rule for us. If what you are showing me involves me ignoring that? It's not just that I will be out of my comfort zone -- it's that I have been doing it that way to good effect for so long that I cringe when I see somebody not doing it.

If a technique violates a basic principle of the art I practice and I can't see immediately how it will be useful, I am going to be leery of it. Especially if I see that it is something I know I can defeat using what I already know. Yeah, that's nice, thanks.

Is this because I have a closed mind? Maybe so. If I have gone down a road and realized that it's not the right one for me, then I'm not likely to want to go down it again. Doesn't mean it's a bad road, but it does mean I've found a route I like better. Unless you can demonstrate that what you offer is better, then why would I trade mine for yours?

On the one hand: If you are so set in your ways that you aren't willing to consider another option, especially when things don't go as planned -- which they never do -- then doesn't that handicap you?


On the other hand: If you have a way that seems to work and somebody shows you one that doesn't seem as if it will work -- not just as well, but at all, would it be smart to abandon what you know and swap?

Not in my book.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure which manner of learning I prefer. I haven't had a lot of private lessons. I think it's best to have a small class with varying skill levels and ambitious students who want to expand their knowledge together. I think it's very important to have at least some formal training under your belt.

It's never fun when you realize you know more than someone who's trying to teach you, or you know they're doing things "wrong." While it's true you can learn something from everyone, and you want to be respectful, it just gives you that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. A martial artist has to be able to empty his cup in order to learn something new, but you want to make sure it gets refilled with something useful.

I'm sure Tall Guy was almost as uncomfortable before the failed demo as teacher was after. In fact, I imagine everyone there felt pretty awkward about the whole situation. This, of course, makes those of us who weren't in attendance a little envious.

Anonymous said...

Mistake #5A: He declined the offer to use someone else three times in a row.

AF1 said...

The way that worked well for me (at a McDojo no less)was to have one private lesson a week along with 2 or 3 of the regular group classes.

You get the personal attention you need along with various different body types to practice the material on.

Steve Perry said...

I've studied in group classes hither and yon over forty-odd years. Been to maybe twelve or fifteen seminars. I took private lessons for a brief time when my teacher started his own business some years back and didn't have the time to teach classes. Not wanting to lose my momentum, I arranged to meet him at his shop after work one day a week for one on one.

Pretty soon, a couple of students who were married started coming the same day, arriving for a private session just after mine.

Then, we overlapped a couple times; they'd get there halfway through my session and join in.

Next thing you know the three of us started showing up at the same time, and pretty soon, we evolved into classes in the back of the shop with more students. Eventually wound up with two classes, beginners and advanced. Just kind of happened through inertia.

My teacher had more work than he could manage, but the cash flow wasn't good, and eventually, he shut the business down, and went back to teaching in the yard after work when the weather was good, and at a student's big garage when it got cold and rainy. Which is how it stands today. Sometimes twelve or fifteen students, varied experience from new to long time.

I got a lot during private sessions, but my slow-learner mindset was such that I did better in a class setting, in that I got to see things repeatedly and from different angles, against different partners. A small mixed class seems to work best for me.

Sometimes teaching a newbie allows me to learn as much or more as being taught. You have to understand the basics to pass them along, and I keep getting these Aha! moments as something I thought I knew gets a little clearer.

Most of the seminars I've attended didn't give me much to take home, save when they were given by my teacher. And then I retained it mostly because I had already seen it.

Mostly, those are the only seminars in which I am interested these days. Crosstraining certainly has value, but if I'm getting what I want in one place, it doesn't call to me much. Why go down the road to get beans when you have steak at home?

Anonymous said...

It's true that seminars aren't very helpful. It's a sampler platter, basically -- to keep on your food analogy path, Steve. It takes muscle memory to even get the basics down, and you just can't do that in a 4-hour intensive. Retention is nil.

It is nice when you're unsure of an art, though. Only took me one time to know I didn't enjoy Wushu. Too artistic and technical; I like to hurt people. :)

Some guy said...

Maybe whether it's good to embrace a new and different approach or not depends on the time frame you're interested in. In a seminar it's probably not realistic to pick up the implications of a contrary approach if they're not immediately obvious. I like both capoeira and tai chi, but in a weekend seminar to the martial eye I think beginning capoeira would seem ridiculously inefficient and tai chi would seem ridiculous period. But if the time frame were months or years, then it might make sense to learn the contrary approach because there'd be time to see why this back-ass-ward thing has value (if it does).

Nataraj Hauser said...

For something completely different: I'm rehearsing for an aerial dance performance in a piece called Bat'Leth. Thanks for that picture!

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, if you can remember the stuff you learn at a seminar long enough to get it home and practice it until you got it wired into your muscles, then that would be useful. It's doable, especially if you can video it, or take detailed notes. Otherwise, the information overload tends, for me, at least, to wash it out.

Come Sunday afternoon late, I am usually exhausted and less concerned about retaining something than I am in just staying on my feet ...

And in a multi-discipline gathering, there is a canceling effect -- this kali teacher says the stick has to be held this way; that escrima teacher says it has to be held that way. Both are adamant that the other guy's method is, um ... okay, but wink-wink, nudge-nudge, not really up to snuff.

jks9199 said...

Multi-art seminars are like going to a smorgashboard or buffet. You can get a taste of a lot of stuff -- but you aren't going to really learn much. Maybe a drill that you can adapt, or a technique that's sharing some principles.

The biggest headache with seminars is that I find three sorts of people there: the ones who are there to see how their art/school/club is superior to the seminar instructor, the ones who already know it and want to show off, and the ones who are actually there to learn what they can in the time available. Unfortunately, a small proportion of the first two can ruin the day for the last group.

I'm not saying that the seminar instructor doesn't have to know his stuff and have a plan -- and be able to adapt that plan. But if the people there are sincerely there to learn (or at least get a workout), it's a good experience. Assuming the material is good, too, of course!

Steve Perry said...

The last couple of seminars I attended were mostly Silat Sera folks and those who have other SE Asian associations -- i.e. some former Sera players who have trained in other arts.

There was one that had some Krabi Krabong Thai grappling in it, and a short knife seminar that had both silat knife and Russian knifework in it.

I pretty much don't go to other kinds of seminars because I want to concentrate on Sera, and it's hard to see how a whole bunch of art can be dovetailed into what I'm doing. Not that they are bad, they are just different enough to screw me up if I try.

I also confess that when I'm training in something that is different but similiar, I tend to default to the notion that what I'm doing works better for me. Not waving that in anybody's face, I'm doing what I am supposed to do they way they tell me, but I certainly do think it -- especially when I see a move I know I can handle with one hand tied behind me. Why would I want to learn that? If I have a sharp steel knife, then a a dull one of bronze might do the job, but I don't see going there ...

joycemocha said...

I think the attitude is pretty consistent across any sport discipline, not just martial arts.

Let's just say that you could substitute equestrian disciplines for martial arts, and you'd have the same issue.

Part of the issue isn't just adhering to the teacher/trainer you're working with; often after many years of training, you tend to select patterns and methods that work best for you physically and mentally.