Tuesday, March 16, 2010


The Mad Brit's Belly

Got into a discussion about martial arts and how long it takes to learn one, and it jogged some thoughts loose ...

I'm not getting into the argument of what is real street fighting versus McDojo here, only the study and expression of my art.

First, there's a big difference between "useful" and "mastery." Our art is fairly simple, in that there aren't nine million motions. If I did every technique I've learned since I started, assuming I could remember them, I expect if I hurried, I could manage them all in an hour. Maybe two.

The djurus require all of three and a half minutes, if you are poking along. The barehanded defensive and offensive sambuts and sambutans together, maybe five more minutes if you limit them to one side and don't do the mirrors. Some drills -- trapping, pukulan, some knife stuff, rolling around on the ground, a kicking form, the core moments are not complex, nor are there a bunch of them.

Yes, there are myriad variations one can do using the basics, but they aren't root moves and can be learned on the fly, so to speak.

We liken this metaphorically to baking. If you have but eight ingredients -- flour, water, yeast, milk, sugar, butter, eggs, salt, there are thousands of things you can make by mixing these together in various proportions, bread, cake, pie, cookies, bagels, tortillas ...

If somebody wanted to hurry through the teaching of the curriculum, a diligent student could probably learn the gross movements in a year. That's not how we do it, but other branches of our art tend to teach the djurus quickly, and one teacher allows as how he taught an adept student ten djurus in one summer.

These aren't long and complicated dances. All of them together barely number as many moves as any one of the five long katas I learned in Okinawa-te, all of which I got in three years.

(As my correspondent who sparked this discussion pointed out, dancing is not fighting.)

If you spent another year, maybe too, assiduously practicing our silat, I suspect you could use what you learned well enough to protect yourself. Certainly after three or four years, I believed that I could do that.

Most of what you are likely to need in a simple one-on-one dust-up, we believe you can extract from the first two djurus. Nearly of the knife work we have been practicing of late comes right from those, combined with simple pukulan moves.

But being able to ride a bicycle to and from work without falling over or getting run down by a cotton-top in her Caddy is not the same as being Lance Armstrong.

How long does it take to master an art? Depends on the art, I expect, and I'll let you know if I ever master this one. I don't really expect to, but as the moves become more ingrained, I'm certainly more comfortable with expressing what I already have learned. Going to have to learn smaller circles pretty soon, though. Age creeps up on us all, and I'm the oldest guy in the room.

If it takes fifteen years for an art to become useful, that's too long. In most arts, you can learn enough in a few months, basic punches and kicks, to serve you in most situations. Look at Krav Maga. Brutal, to the point, as much as most people are likely to need most of the time. A grounding in Judo or boxing will probably give you the tools you are ever likely to use, if you don't make a practice of putting yourself into peril.

I've been doing Silat Sera for almost fifteen years. But I'm not showing up at class every week because I need to in order to be able to do basic defenses. Part of why has to do with that desire to get the fine details, to go deep and narrow as opposed to wide and shallow, which is what I did in previous arts. Part of it has to do with being able to play with peers, several of whom who have been at it as long as I have, or longer. I don't really need to go, but I need to go, if that makes any sense. And I want to keep doing it.

Just because I had lunch yesterday doesn't mean I don't want lunch today ...

At the risk of offending touchy silat players by not naming names, a small anecdote that happened a couple years after I started training.

One of our students got into an online discussion with a teacher from another branch of the family art. (Sort of. Too complicated to go into.) This teacher took umbrage at a lowly student daring to contradict him, and allowed as how he was going to drop round and teach him a hard and painful lesson.

Feeling somewhat perturbed by what was obviously a threat from somebody who sounded fairly unhinged in his expression of it, I mentioned to my teacher.

My teacher, speaking of my fellow student -- let's call him "Andy" -- smiled. "Don't worry," he said. "Andy can take care of himself."

I believe that his statement meant that even with much less training, the quality of what Andy knew was enough so that if push came to shove, he'd be okay.

And I believe he was right.


Thomas said...

My son studied a family form of Kung Fu for 7 years, starting at age 6. Near the end, he was getting into some pretty advanced stuff, and even managed to compete in a few demonstration tournaments.

But, as you describe, the main focus of the art, the teacher, and the school was not giving him a set of weapons to brandish at an opponent, but giving him the ability to "take care of himself." I never had to worry when he walked into a new situation with kids his age -- even when he was the shortest kid in class, he had a certain level of confidence that didn't allow for kids to pick on him.

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Michael said...

We have a saying in Wing Chun – “Less is More”. When I taught, my students would be boggled by my saying that when they first began training. We concentrate on very few techniques, preferring to use them adaptively. I remember the day I was teaching and explained that the most important techniques that they would learn in the system – they were already being taught. A few who came to me from other styles/systems were confused at that until I gave them my/our explanation. I heard the rhetoric that you don’t really learn the true system until you are black belt, etc. and I replied that was hogwash. What you begin doing on day 1 sets the tone for what you do from that day on.

Assume that it takes 100 hours to ingrain a ‘technique’ into your reflexes, then double that for each side (left hand / right hand). Now divide the hours you are in class and or train at home into that number. If you train in class 1 hour a day and 1 hour at home for about 5 days a week, you are looking at almost 6 months to ingrain a technique. That is 1 technique. Now say a system has 100 techniques – 600 months or 50 years to master each technique while the one before slowly atrophies from lack of training. Now you are a Black Belt and they are going to teach you the real thing? Really? After all that time you just spent making all those techniques actually work? You are going to deprogram yourself and learn the real thing? Nonsense! What they do is teach you how to APPLY those techniques more adaptively.

So how did the masters get so good? They lived and breathed training. Most of us cannot do that. So our answer is – “Less is more”. Train a few techniques – drill them until they are reflexive – learn to apply them adaptively and aggressively. Basically learn to use them first and use them constantly. With that in mind the first thing you are taught is the thing you will work the most during your training. The thing you work the most is the one you will have the most mastery of and thus needs to be the most important in the system.

There are those who know and art – and then there are those who KNOW an art. I have seen guys who can do dozens of forms almost flawlessly, can quote mantras, etc. but could not fight their way out of a wet paper bag. Then there are the guys who may only have a couple of forms, some drills, etc. and they can clean out a bar without working up a sweat. Less is more.

An interesting note: Can you really master an art? Every teacher/master I have trained under, no matter how awesome they seemed to me have always said – “I’m not that good, but MY Teacher …”