Monday, May 24, 2010

The Magical Mastery Tour

This is a subject I have spoken to before, but now and then, I get a notion that is either new to me, or comes at the subject slightly aslant of where I was before, so ...

In any serious activity in your life, sooner or later you might want to think about what your goals involving it are. You might have a vague idea when you get into it; it might not get sharper or clearer for a long time, but eventually, I think it helps to consider it in the light of short- or long-term goals, or both. Least that has been my experience.

This most often comes up for me in those activities in which I have invested the most time -- writing, music, martial arts. I have, in all of those, set short-term goals and achieved many of them. I have a pretty good idea of where I want to go with them long-term and work toward those. My ambitions are measured, based on what time I have to spend on them, and what joy they bring, and on reality. Time narrows one's choices in some arenas.

For instance, my most recent art of silat began with a much different desire than the first karate class I took. Then, I was strictly looking for self-confidence and self-defense. Now, I am much more interested in mastering -- or however close I can come to that -- a system. I started late and don't have the time I'd like, but it is what it is. Candles. Cursing, Darkness, etc.

This does not speak to simply being able to beat people up or slice and dice them like rump roast, though those abilities are useful skills. It's that, over the years, I tried wide and shallow and while that has its uses and I'm not denigrating the path eclectic, I never learned deep and narrow, and I want to give that a shot. The goals of the eighteen-year-old Steve are different than those of the sixty-two-year-old Steve. (And how sad would my life be if my goals hadn't shifted at least a little along the way?)

Yes, basics are are what you are most likely to use, come the need, but still, I short-stopped myself plenty of times over the years when I thought I knew enough, and that doesn't call to me any more. And I didn't know as much as I thought I did, which was somewhat sobering later.

As I expect it will be sobering again. Been around long enough, you start to see patterns in how things work. Mark Twain's story about how, when he was sixteen, he thought his father was the stupidest man alive. And how, when we was twenty, he was amazed at how much his old man had learned in just four short years ...

Basics are necessary -- but for me, basics are no longer enough.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you have a sudden burning desire to learn how to play the cello. Never touched one before, but it washes over you like a firestorm, and you gotta do it. And also for the sake of argument, let's say that Yo Yo Ma has an opening in his schedule and is willing to take you on as a student. He's a world-class player, and from what I've heard, also a world-class masterclass teacher, so you are set.

After a relatively short time, I imagine Yo Yo would have given you the basics of the instrument. Tuning, how to finger the strings, music theory, bowing, like that. There aren't that many notes, are there? This isn't a chordal instrument, so you are mostly playing single notes, and if you are willing to put in a couple-three hours of hard practice a day, in a year or so, I'd expect you'd have some decent skills. Drop round the local pub and if there happened to be a cello propped against a wall, you might be able to play some tunes well enough to get somebody to buy you a beer. Maybe do the bass line in a small band well enough to do paying gigs at local venues.

After a year or so, you figure you could stand up on the stage at Carnegie Hall with Yo Yo and play a two-hour dueling Bach concert?

Not even in your dreams, Bubba. That situation, the basics just ain't gonna cut it. No way you are going to look like anything but a dweeb playing cello next to Yo Yo Ma.

Some things are better fresh: Potato chips. Coffee. Some things are better aged: Cheese. Wine. Some skills take time to ingrain enough to use well. You can probably learn everything you are apt need in a bar fight in a few days, but you won't have the ability to use it. No real value without an investment of sweat-equity.

You can learn the rules and moves for chess in a few minutes, too, but you won't be able to play with anybody who has any skill at it without feeling the fool. The game requires training and practice. Basics aren't enough.

There's a man I greatly respect who teaches fighting, but he sometimes says things that make me scratch my head in wonder. Recently, he allowed as how once you got the basics from a teacher you were better off moving along, because part of your brain didn't light up unless you started working on something without a teacher's voice in your ear.

I could hear that.

But then he said, if he were teaching a student how to fight and that student couldn't hurt him after a year, he'd be disappointed.

Straight up? With him paying attention, seeing the guy coming?

As a teacher, I can understand the desire -- your goal is to produce students who are better than you are. But as a player? Sheeit. I'd be passing unhappy if a newbie could come back a year later and kick my ass using what I showed him. This is not simply ego, though certainly that's in there, but what that would say about my own practical ability? That would be depressing. Either I stood still and he leapt ahead in seven league boots, or I regressed. Nothing about that speaks well of me as a player, though it might make me at the top of the charts as a teacher.

Mastery is an inexact term, insofar as most skill sets. You can be the best there is and considered a master, but you will probably believe that there is so much more you don't know. Stop, and the moss will start to grow on you.

Unless you are talking about some kind of musical genius, a cellist with a year's experience isn't going to be able to hold a candle to Yo Yo Ma's sun-mastery of his instrument, no way, no how, un uh, don't believe it. Like getting into a marathon race and the guy you are running against has a twenty-two-mile head start. Good luck catching him. A guy that far ahead is likely to always have something he can teach you, if you know how to listen and how to absorb it ...


Anonymous said...

And does Yo Yo Ma rely only on gross motor movements when he gives a concert in front of a large crowd? Or is there a lot of fine motor skill involved?

Steve Perry said...

I'm not sure where you are going with this, Anon. What's your drift?

Scott said...

But then he said, if he were teaching a student how to fight and that student couldn't hurt him after a year, he'd be disappointed.

Straight up? With him paying attention, seeing the guy coming?

As a teacher, I can understand the desire -- your goal is to produce students who are better than you are. But as a player? Sheeit. I'd be passing unhappy if a newbie could come back a year later and kick my ass using what I showed him. "

Let us here distinguish between hurting you and winning. I can leave marks on purples and browns while they're methodically winning. Or the same example as last time, Maximum Tyson: when he was in his prime, he got marked up some in matches, but nobody came close to winning against him.

jks9199 said...

If a student of mine practices diligently and overcomes the "the teacher is so good!" crap... After a year, they are certainly dangerous. And have the potential to hurt me. That doesn't mean that they'll beat me every time, nor does it mean that there's not more I can teach them.

But I think I know who you're referring to, and I think the point they were after in the statement about moving on is that we do have to recognize the point when we no longer need the teacher spoon feeding us. Today, I see my teacher perhaps a couple of times a year. He can say a dozen words to me -- and influence my training for months. And I can occasionally surprise him with an insight or two, as well... (I hope.)

Steve Perry said...

There are guys out there with no kind of formal training who could wad me up like an old chewing gum wrapper. And plenty more with other kinds of training who could do worse. But not using the skill I taught them after a year's practice, I just don't believe it.

Of course, our stuff takes a while to get down, and there does come a point wherein a player has enough to handle him- or herself against somebody with more time in grade. Even when I was in Okinawa-te, I could keep the brown and black belts from thumping me too hard when I was a green belt -- but that was almost three years in to get to green. I couldn't beat them, but I could protect myself to the level of a draw pretty often. I considered that a victory.

There are guys in my silat class who haven't been there as long as I have who can certainly give me fits. But they have all been there long enough to internalize many of the motions. I don't think you can really do that in what we study after a year unless you are an extraordinary kind of person.

Which is why it's not something we tout as a system for folks who are in a hurry. Somebody who wants to spend a few months and get something he can use in a dust-up has other choices. Krav maga, say. Or grappling, boxing, or judo will give you effective tools quicker. A year practicing three or four basic techniques assiduously will probably be all you need in most places most of the time. Straight punch, jab, cross, hook, overhand, uppercut -- how many more punches do you need? A couple grappling moves and a few strikes will be probably cover 95% of what you are ever likely to use.

But that's not what most people come to Sera to find.

Steve Perry said...

Expertise is variable, but pick any other complex endeavor:

How do you figure a one-year rookie cop stacks up against a fifteen-year veteran officer, if the vet has continued to train and improve his craft?

Yo Yo Ma against any one-year cellist in the world?

Lance Armstrong against your neighbor's nephew who has been riding a bike for a year?

Kobe Bryant and Lebron James playing two-on-two against, well, pretty much anybody -- much less a copule kids with a year in the league?

Where I run into a problem is the notion that training and experience are so easily put aside. Sure, anybody can hurt anybody if the gods are bored, but the smart money doesn't bet on the newbie taking out the pro at the top of his game and there's a good reason for that, isn't there?

Shit happens. But chance favors the prepared mind -- and body ...

Master Plan said...

I thought his point was more along the lines of: "If I can't train somebody to be a threat in a year I'm probably not teaching well".

I don't think it was meant to imply they would be 'as good' as him. Just able to offer credible threat.

Which seems pretty reasonable to me. Put it another way, if you study any martial art\combative with any teacher and you can't use it effectively after a year....are they any good?

I was pretty sure he'd offered a "no, I just mean hurt, not defeat easily" type coda as well didn't he?

Steve Perry said...

MP --

As a threat to somebody, yes. As a threat to the teacher? I don't see it.

Master Plan said...

This was an interesting comment:

"You can probably learn everything you are apt need in a bar fight in a few days, but you won't have the ability to use it. No real value without an investment of sweat-equity. "

I am wondering what makes you think this. It *seems* in some ways to be part of your disagreement about this topic.

It takes a long time to get the basics. Why?

I think given the focus on short range flurries as indicative of "real" attacks it's not quite the same argument being made.

No forms, no preset attacks patterns, minimal weapon usage, etc.

Which I think is what Anon was (maybe?) getting at as well in *some* sense. There is a LOT of refinement to fine motor skills or to purely mental skills (Chess) that can go on, this may or may not be true or indicative of the SD\"real violence"\etc type experience.

No need to learn djurus or sambuts for a bar fight. Similarly then the progress curve on learning those things (forms, etc), and learning them right, as opposed to being able to make things function in situ, is a much longer and perhaps steeper as well.

Perhaps some other things to throw in there for consideration.

As I understand it's a non-disagreement. He says after a year of training a student should be a credible threat. I don't think he's saying that a year of training will put on par with 10 or 20 years of training\experience.

I'll go reread the post tho....

Steve Perry said...

It's the stuff inside your head versus the physicality.
I can show you the strokes to use to swim -- there are books with them laid in detail. But if you don't know how to swim, the theory isn't the practice.

Starting from scratch, you ain't gonna learn it from a book sitting on the side of the pool.

Somebody can show you the basic punches and kicks and whatnot, but because you know what they look like doesn't mean you can *do* them effectively.

If you don't practice, you don't have anything.

Take a flat or twisted punch. You can show the motions in a minute, but explaining why you keep your wrist straight isn't really going to sink in until the first time you punch a heavy bag hard and feel what happens to your wrist if it's bent.

Likewise most of the basics -- knowing how it is done because somebody told you is a ways from knowing how it feels when you do it. Taking a seminar and then thinking that it will be there in six months or a year if you need it? Good luck with that.

Real violence also accounts for damage the attacker does to himself, and going all ballistic and smack happy can break your own stuff. So you probably won't teach a punch that is most likely to result in a boxer's fracture, save as a last resort. If a student whacks a guy in the skull and breaks his hand as result, chances are that's gonna hurt him more in both the short and long run than the other guy.
Big bone beats little bone. Another reason to use a tool ...

If you need both hands to do your job and you have a cast on one for six or eight weeks? That could less than a happy victory. If the choice is that or death, sure, but that doesn't have to be the only choice.

MIght not be a right way and a wrong way, though that's debatable, but there are more and less efficient and damaging ways to do things, and that's part of why you learn a martial art, isn't it?

Scott said...

Yo Yo Ma, Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James...

Those are *horrible* examples. Sure a year of practice isn't going to help you against them.

Neither is ten.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Depends on what you mean by help. A summer camper once beat Michael Jordan in a (very tightly constructed) game of one on one. Game was only to 3, but the guy beat Jordan 3-2.

Could I do anything with Lebron James or Kobe Bryant? Depends on what your definition of success is. Beating them at a game of one-on-one that goes beyond 3? Not happening. Scoring on them? I'm pretty sure I could get a skyhook type shot off against either of them -- clear out with left arm, sweep out with right, loft it up. If I knew I were going to be playing one of them, I'd certaily practice that.

Would I win? Well ... I might score on either of them, and man, I'd brag about that for years. That's a win if you're me.

Success can be very circumstance-specific. I once knocked down a serious middleweight contender. He popped back up and beat me like a rug, but 28 years later, I remember knocking him down and I'm sure he doesn't remember me at all.

Steve Perry said...

Sure, you are talking about top-of-the-line guys, but that was my point -- there are top-of-the-line guys all over the place in other fields, and a year of experience isn't going to do you much good against them, either. And if one of them is your teacher?

Well, you tell me how much pain he is apt to be in when the thumping is done ...

Master Plan said...

So, how about this hypothetical (or totally made up example if you like):

You and your instructor go at is with knives. You've both slept w. each other wives (No, I don't know why! It's for example purposes!) and so it's on, for reals.

You are saying that in such a case you expect to do NO damage, at ALL to your instructor?

And if so how much do you think him having spent the last 13+ years watching\teaching you might effect that?

Again I think the statement is more equivalent to "LeBron James, in a year of teaching you, should be able to get you to the point you can shoot, dunk, dribble, etc" not "In a year you should be able to school any NBA star like a chump every time".

Master Plan said...

So my only personal anecdotal data (which is always such an issue in these situations...we really are never talking about "generic average student" but always specific generic ideas of ourselves and our training partners\instructors, at least LEO\etc types have an 'interesting' selection of random real world threats) is the RMCAT\FAST material, which does, purportedly (and having myself been hit by returning students who did no formalized structured training between classes (I think it was about 2-3 years between) I can say this is true, but that's just a training experience again) help students retain those capabilities over time.

We taught open-handed striking there generally and saw few injuries, but's training.

Anyway. I have no way to verify the stories told, but given I know\trust the folks involved I consider them reasonable enough. Stories of students indeed retaining and applying those skills in real world violent incidents. Of course these are hard to find, hard to verify, and then somebody will say "Yah...but he was just a skinny crackhead anyway!" and we go around again.

Like you've said previously...fighting isn't particularly hard, we've been doing it for..uh...forever. More it seemed to me it was about training students to give themselves permission to really try to hurt somebody.

Generally speaking that seemed a lot more important in getting results than did even several years of formal instruction.

I would happily put one of those 3 day students up against a generic-average karate blackbelt in a non-sparring fight.

I don't what any of that means in the grand scheme of things, but it is at least some real world data I can offer.

Again this topic leaves me thinking that martial arts and self-defense\violence are often orthogonal to each other. Which seems to confuse things. Not that I really know anything about I could be wrong about that too. ;-)

Steve Perry said...

After fifteen years, I expect that I would be able to give my instructor something to remember.

Certainly if you are willing to absorb punishment and you have any skill, you can mount a decent attack. The longer you train in something, the narrower the gap gets. With three or four years, you can give a good account yourself against a guy with six or eight years.

The difference, if you use belts as an example, between a 2nd dan and a 4th dan black belt is considerably less than that between a 1st dan and one of the brighter colors you'd have about a year in -- blue or purple, depending on your system.

After one year? I flat out couldn't have done it using the skills I'd gotten during that period. I was still trying to overcome earlier training that had me stepping back, blocking, and countering against every attack that came in. I didn't unlearn that stuff for a long time.

(And to complicated it, what I learned the first year was the stripped-down gateway art you used to have to get past to get to the good stuff. That's no longer the case, but it was then.)

One of the things that drew me to the art was when I saw a demo. I had a fair amount of training in several arts, brown belt in one, black in another, rainbow hues in others. I didn't know the guy, I wasn't particularly prepared to be impressed, I had a really healthy ego and was pretty sure I was a bad ass.

And I was impressed enough after I saw him move that I had no doubt that he could wipe the floor up with me without breaking a sweat. I had some stand-up jujitsu, but no groundwork, and no infighting to speak of. If I could stand back and kick, I was fine, long-range punching, but what this guy was showing wasn't going to let me do that.

Nose-to-nose, the kicks aren't there.

No, it's not the be-all, end-all, but it had tools I didn't have, and I wanted them. And it looked like the art I imagined for my matadors.

Sure, if we lived in the village and trained every morning before breakfast and every afternoon after work, a talented beginner could dial it in tight after eighteen months, maybe two years. There's not that much to it, it's no really complicated. But once or twice a week for class, and then training an hour or so a day on my own? I'm not the guy who can do it in a year.

Steve Perry said...

For the record, here's the comment from Rory's blog, about which I was blathering:

"But anyone I have trained for a year should present a serious physical threat to me. If we were to close without safety rules, I would be in serious danger.

If I can't get someone to that point in a year or at most two, I'm either 1) a shitty teacher; 2) don't understand what I know well enough to teach it or; 3) I'm holding the student back, denying them power (which they may need in the real world to keep breathing) to maintain my own power in the little bullshit world of the training hall."

"Serious danger" is not the same as "getting hurt," and while the latter is possible, I'm not convinced that the former is a real worry.

Not even to go to the "little bullshit world of the training hall," the idea that a teacher with eight million fights against felons in the real world is going to be in serious danger from somebody with a year's training FROM THAT GUY? Sorry. I don't buy it. The way I see it, he'd be 1) The world's greatest teacher; 2) He doesn't understand what he's teaching well enough to do it himself; and 3) the student is some kind of martial arts' prodigy.

My opinion, based on my experience, such that it is.

Scott said...

I'd believe it armed, I guess; maybe blades, guns for sure.