Monday, June 24, 2013

Learning and You

I am not going to discus the reams and reams of papers, books and articles available that talk about how humans learn or how to engage different types of learning. That is a subject for an instructor that is setting up a pedagogical approach to providing instruction. It requires feedback from the students and such. No, what I want to talk to here is how a student should comport themselves to enable their own learning.

It is not the instructor's job to make you learn. Let me repeat that: it is not your instructor's job to make you learn. This isn't grade school and you aren't being shown multiplication tables for rote memorization. As an adult, you and you alone are responsible for your learning and your becoming better at whatever it is you have decided to master. Once a certain amount of basics have been acquired you must go beyond. Not only must you diligently put in hours of your own time and energy into mastering various movements, but also you must question those movements. Look outside of your salle at similar disciplines, what is being shown and see how others interpret what is being done. Look outside of your group at similar disciplines to see how they do it. Pour through the manuscripts and history, looking with fresh eyes each time, setting aside any and all preconceptions to see it anew.

To not practice on your own vastly limits your physical ability to master your body. In essence all, martial arts come down to this: the ability to see a technique in your mind, to feel the technique in play, and preform the technique physically. All three parts must act in concordance. You get this primarily though countless hours of solo practice. The solo practice, even if it is just the simplest actions of your art inform your body and link together your physical movement with your ideal thought. This is of course not mindless repetition, this is thoughtful intentioned action. Each action must be formed in your mind. Each part of your body intentionally driven though space and time to conform to that though. The intention and care is key as, without them, you are just exercising. There are more effective methods for getting fit. Without the solo practice you will never get beyond the most basic level of competence.

Your instructor cannot make you learn. This is a hard concept for some people to understand. You are paying good money after all, they should be teaching you! Even the best instructor can only show you a tiny fraction of the things you need to learn. An analogy I have seen is that a good instructor can show you one corner of a darkened room. They can turn on a little night-light for you so you can stand in the corner and see. Then they can point to the darkened room and say go that way to find the rest. Lighting the rest of the room is your job, not theirs. Perhaps with decades of instruction they can show you a bit more of your art, but largely your expression of the art is unknown to them. It is your art to master and they don't know what it looks like ether outside of the broadest of strokes.

You must explore that space. Do this by finding limits to your ability and narrowing in on better. Expose yourself to ideas, even if they seem silly at first. Listen to people who are on the journey talk about their exploration. Begin reading and understanding how to mentor and teach others. Mostly remember that almost all of the effort and learning you must do is yours and yours alone to find and accomplish.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

On Being Uke

Uke: person who receives technique in partnered practice.
Tori: executioner of technique in partnered practice.

Been a while since I put text to blog. I have kinda being waiting for Dan to finish up something he half started. I realise this is a fools errand of course and would be waiting for many, many more moons to come and go. I will probably still be waiting a billion years from now when earth's atmosphere has been rubbed away by drag from the sun's gaseous layer.

So, anyway, moving on. I might devolve into a bit of a rant here as this is a topic near and dear to my heart, how to be a good partner in training (aka Uke). I have spent many, many hours thinking on this as I have been blessed with a live-in training partner that can best be described as "prickly." In the course of trying to help her learn this art, I have fumbled and bumbled all over the place. I stepped in every rat hole and lept on every mine there is to leap on. One particularly memorable training session lasted under 15 seconds before I fucked it up badly enough to get a verbal lambasting.

I, of course, earned every single admonishment by failing to understand the learning process. To understand my part of that process as a mentor, and utter failing at being an Uke. Much and more has been written on this topic by far better instructors, teachers and martial artists than me. You should, if you have not, go forth with Google and read every one of them. It will challenge you to grow. It will change your experience in the salle in a positive way for not only you, but everyone you interact with. I honestly believe that learning to be Uke is one of the most fundamental, if not the most important, learning experience you can undergo in pursuit of a martial art. Being Tori is easy. Being a good Uke is really, really hard.

Every time you have the privilege of partnering with a good Uke you know it. The drill works for starters, and it works exactly as the instructor said it would. It works really well for the first couple of iterations then it gets harder. The drill challenges you to refine flaws, have better timing, judge distance, and narrow in on the key bits of the drill and techniques. When you fail it is clear - without discussion - why it failed simply because the non-verbal feedback loop Uke provides. You find yourself lost in the repetitions of the drill, you stop counting and wondering what the hell your supposed to be doing and just do. You find your self having done 3 or 4 times as many repetitions as you normal would have. Mostly, you realise you just got a little bit better than you were 5 minutes ago. It is an absolute honour to train with someone who is even passably good at being Uke.

Have I sold you yet? No, because that is all about what the other guy gets from all that hard work and effort you put in to being an awesome partner. Well, this is where I tell you what being a good Uke does for you. Your awareness goes up. You gain control over the engagement, time, sensitivity, speed and intensity. You start to gain much deeper understanding of techniques, the hows and whys of it. You can feel things that you can't feel as Tori and, as such, can then start to understand and implement them as Tori. By learning how to feel your partner, how to feel when and how much and how to apply resistance against their technique to maximize there learning experience, you can gain significant improvements on your own performance. You get this depth to understanding that is hard to imagine at first. Suddenly being on the "bad" end of a drill becomes an excellent learning experience. You get to practice making really good attacks and you get to understand things from the other side of the drill.

I think the first step in becoming a good Uke is understanding how learning occurs. I all too often see people trying to correct their partner. This invariably turns into a disaster where no one learns anything and results in frustration. The only person who should be providing correction is the person running the show. That ain't you: you're Uke. You can't learn something by having someone move your hand an inch this way, and neither can your training partner. They find where they are supposed to be and how to do it by working hard, doing lots of repetitions. They aren't you and you can't make a replica of what you do and expect it to work for them.

There is a duty as Uke to shut the fuck up. Your main job is to allow your partner to get as many good repetitions as possible within the allotted time. Your duty is to provide good, committed attacks. Provide proper energy for Tori to work with. You must, to the best of your ability, provide appropriate resistance that creates an environment in which to learn. This means you are aiming at having them succeed with the technique 70-80% of the time. You must adapt to their skill level and try to let their most obvious mistakes cause the failures. This is really hard to do well.

Don't be the dead-fish and flop all over the place.
Don't be the guy that is iron-hard and impossible to work with.
Don't be the interrupting interruptor to fix something in your partner.
Don't be the instructor and change or "fix" the drill.