Sunday, 28 November 2010

How to become a martial arts master!

OK, let me start this blog post by telling you something you might not know: if you're into martial arts and you're following a specific training program for more than few months [1], what you're after is a form of expertise. Even if you have never dreamed of becoming the king of the ring, the mat or the octagon, even if you only want to learn how to protect yourself, or aspire to gain better control and awareness of your body, your goal is, in a way or another, superior performance, so... expertise it is! People are somewhat afraid to use this word in connection to their personal goals, because they seem to think that expertise is the realm of the naturally talented, a do-not-enter zone reserved exclusively for the Michael Jordans, the Mohamed Alis, the Bobby Fischers and the Tiger Woods’ of this world, the ones also known as the “naturally gifted”.

Well, I personally find the idea of any type of expertise quite fascinating and for the past year I’ve read a few books on the subject, most of them easy-to-read popularized science best sellers plus one quite stiff university textbook. From the stuff I’ve read, one thing you might find interesting is that scientists a) considerably disagree on a technical definition of what giftedness is (except for physical characteristics, such as height, body type or muscle composition) and on the methods by which it can be measured and b) have, after considerable research, all but abandoned the idea that innate giftedness and talent can fully account for expert performance. The two prominent scientific views on the subject of expertise today are the “nurturist” perspective (claiming that expertise is obtainable by virtually anyone, and expert performance, irrespective of innate ‘talent’ will inevitably emerge through an extended period of ‘deliberate practice’, typically either 10 years or 10.000 hours) and the “interactionist” approach that attributes expertise to a combination of environmental factors AND an extended period of deliberate practice. In a few words, the Michael Jordans, Mohamed Alis etc of this world became the greatest either because they simply practiced too much or because they had some talent and realized its potential by, once again, practicing too much [2].

We cannot of course rule out the possibility that scientists might someday get to prove that innate giftedness can exclusively account for expert performance, but for now, I’d rather bet my money on the 10.000 hours of deliberate practice. Now, I hope you noticed, both now and earlier, the adjective “deliberate” before the noun “practice”. Yes, I am sorry to say, it is quite true that not all practice makes perfect, or as psychologist K. Anders Ericsson puts it, living in a cave does not make you a geologist. You need much more than just going through the movements for ten years in order to play with the big boys, whatever your choice of field (music, dance, sports, sciences etc). So, what is deliberate practice? Once again according to Ericsson, “it entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do, that you turn into the expert you want to become” [3]. Doesn’t sound like much fun, huh?

In order to give an example of what deliberate practice is people who write on the subject of expertise – scientists and journalists alike – very often use the example of Benjamin Franklin and how he became the extraordinary writer he was. That is exactly what I will do right now – the following excerpt comes from the book Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, a well-respected American journalist. I guess the European readers of this blog will not know much about Benjamin Franklin, just like I did before I read the afore-mentioned book, and I hope they will find the story as fascinating as I did. My American readers most probably have studied the work of “America’s first great man of letters” in school, so I’ll just ask them to bear with me, because after the excerpt I’d like to make a few comments on how we can benefit from Franklin’s example to make our training in martial arts more substantial. Anyway, here’s the excerpt: “As a teenager, Franklin seemed to think he wrote well enough, but then one day his father found an exchange of letters between Ben and a friend, John Collins, arguing a point back and forth. […] Ben’s father first told his son what was good about his letters; they were better than Collins’s in spelling and punctuation. Then he told him and showed him specifically how they were inferior: ‘in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances’, as Franklin recalled. […] Ben responded to his father’s observations in many ways. First he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would ever have thought of. It began with his reading a Spectator article and making brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, ‘discovered some of my faults and corrected them’.One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required and extensive ‘stock of words’ because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. Then, after he had forgotten them, he would take his versified essays, and rewrite them in prose, again comparing his efforts with the original. Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original. Again, he ‘discovered many faults and amended them’” [4].

Video: I believe we can all agree that this person here must have practiced his juggling in general and this routine specifically for a significant amount of time. It seems to me that learning how to manipulate a human body that - unlike those three little balls - is resisting, might requite even more training,. What do you think?

So, here’s the outline of a deliberate practice program for you, and I believe there is no doubt that the program was successful. But how does Ben Franklin’s method relate to martial arts training? As I was reading the above text, some thoughts came to my mind, and I would like to share them, so here they are:

  1. Franklin taught himself to become a great writer, which basically means he assumed the full responsibility for his practice. He did not search for the ultimate method or some master teacher who possessed ancient secret knowledge on writing, and demanded eternal devotion from his disciples in order to share it. It is my belief that it is the same with martial art: all we need to know is either inside us or out there, hidden in plain sight. All we need to do is work hard enough to bring it to surface and eventually master it. The people whose help we need in order to make our struggle more focused are mentors and coaches, but certainly not “Masters”.
  2. In order to become a great writer, Franklin had already learned the basics of writing in school: the alphabet, a limited vocabulary, the rules of grammar and syntax. Unfortunately, nowadays schools, society and the modern way of life do not provide students with the basics of movement, in order for them to learn how to perform the actions found in martial art. But if your quality of movement is not good, then your actions will always be lacking (speed, power, coordination etc), so, if you are a martial artist, unless you’re very athletic, you are starting your study with a disadvantage. Train generic movement first, until it becomes fluent and effortless. After achieving a good grasp of basics, you need to continuously search for what good movement (martial or other) looks and feels like. Following one system religiously doesn’t quite cut it – it leads to a cultish mentality (the way “we” do it versus the way “they” do it) which makes you blind to a wealth of information that your art or system may not provide but you could absorb otherwise. It doesn’t really matter if you just want to become a Specnaz killing machine – you might find treasures of information on good footwork or power generation (and why yours isn’t so good) by studying the movement of Michael Jordan, Roger Federer, masters of Aikido, MMA or boxing champions, salsa dancers and contact improvisers.
  3. With the Spectator essays as a measuring stick, Franklin had a pretty good idea of what good writing was, i.e. he had a rough template of his goal, in order to compare his work to a standard and assess his weaknesses. How will you get to know what your weaknesses are? As a martial artist who is training in a specific style, first make sure that you understand the dogma, strategies and tactics of your art (the big picture, that is) [5] and then, for each and every drill you practice find out how it is serving the greater scheme of things. Do you drill in pushing people with your fists? Are you performing rolls on a hard floor? Make sure you know the reason why! Only then you will understand if you are practicing the drills correctly and you will be able to assess and coach yourself. Your instructor must provide this information in specific, easy-to-understand terms – if he does not, it means that either he does not know or he does not want to disclose this information to you. In both cases, a mentor who does not help you learn how to coach yourself is not a good mentor.
  4. Franklin did not progress from a mediocre to an exceptional writer overnight. He took the time he needed. It is obvious that becoming an expert takes time and it is not something for the faint-of-heart. 10.000 hours of training is a prerequisite if you aspire to become a world-level martial artist. You can probably become a good instructor at somewhere around 5.000-6.000 hours of training and a decent practitioner at about 3.000 hours. If you are looking for additional short-cuts, there aren’t any. What I would suggest is that you start keeping a training log –today - so that you know where you are at every moment in relation to your goals. You might complain that you are way too busy to practice for so many hours. Well… tough luck. Ben Franklin managed his personal project while having a job that left him little free time – he practiced in the morning before work, at night after work, and during the weekends. But here’s some good news for you: you don’t always have to train with a partner or at a martial arts club, so you can fit part of your training to what your otherwise busy schedule allows you. Solo training can be very productive, as has been proven by Jerry Rice, probably the greatest American football player and definitely the hardest worker in the history of the sport. Rice’s legendary practice sessions included very little actual football playing and tons of strength, speed, and agility work that gave him a distinct advantage over his opponents [6].

Video: There he is - the coolest guy in the world! Does he look like he learned his moves from some "grand master"? Yeah, especially the one he's doing at 1:40:-) And FYI, this guy has got a day job. Check his Youtube channel for the video where he explains that. Where does he find the time to practice?

Well, now you have a rough picture of what it takes. If you have any thoughts to share on the idea of acquiring expertise through deliberate practice, I would be happy to hear them. Otherwise, go make a Ben Franklin out of yourself…

Notes and references:

[1] There is also the category of people who take up martial arts in order to learn “a few easy-to-learn, effective” techniques in order to defend themselves. I believe the military paradigm has shown that this is indeed possible and can be achieved in about 50 hours of training. After that, all the students need to do is occasionally refresh the basic tactics they’ve learned, in order to retain most of the skills acquired. This type of training is primarily tailored to the needs for efficiency of the army as an organism and not to the learning capacity of the students – a great number of recruits have to go through basic training in as short an amount of time as possible, so the idea of them becoming experts is in this case inapplicable. In this sense, the idea of civilians training in “military combat systems” for year after year (and getting graded with belts or levels) seems rather absurd.

[2]Starkes, Janet L., Ericcson, Anders K. (Editors). Expert Performance in Sports. Human Kinetics, 2003. p. 26 – 27.

[3] Ericsson, Anders K.; Prietula, Michael J.; Cokely, Edward T. (2007). "The Making of an Expert". Harvard Business Review (July–August 2007).

[4] Colvin, G. Talent is Overrated. Portfolio, 2008. p. 105.

[5] I recently read in some online forum an instructor claiming that having a strategy and tactics goes against the principles of his art. This claim is absolutely absurd and probably the result of ignorance. The principles of any art (the “how”) are born out of the strategies, i.e. the ways this art chooses to address the problems of combat (the “because”). If there is no “because” there cannot be any type of “how”.

[6] Colvin, G. Talent is Overrated. Portfolio, 2008. p. 52 – 56.

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