Coming full circle with an inside swing kick

An analogy that has been used to describe training in the martial arts is that of climbing up a spiral staircase.  The point of this comparison is that martial arts training will often circle back to previous basic techniques; however, the martial artist continues to move higher and higher up the stairs of growth and achievement each time they return to those techniques.  You don’t learn the techniques and then advance past them to new things, but instead you build upon the foundation of these basic kicks, punches, and blocks to make them stronger, faster, more precise, and more efficient.  You may circle back to these basics regularly, but each time you are always climbing higher and reaching new heights.

The downside to this “circular staircase” of advancement is that it might lead to some students feeling bored from the repetitive nature of practicing the same things over and over.  As students reach higher levels, the amount of new techniques to learn may get smaller and smaller and some of the excitement and joy from learning that next special new move may fade away as they become few and far between.  The lack of new techniques may also lead some students to assume they have learned everything they need to know and may result in some complacency in their training.  They may assume that they have practiced the techniques enough that they know them now and do not need to think about them anymore.  This can lead to mindless practice that feels like work, rather than a fun, challenging expression of their art.

I was thinking about this idea the other day when I recalled an early memory I had about starting tae kwon do almost 25 years ago.  It was an outdoor class at a park in early summer.  I had only been in the class for a couple of months and was wearing my brand new uniform (somehow it always seemed like we would go outdoors to train whenever I got a brand new, clean uniform).  I remember there were a small group of 5 or 6 of us, and my instructor wanted me to train on my own with inside swing kick, which I had just recently learned.  I kept practicing it over and over in front of a bush while the high belts worked on more advanced techniques.  I was still pretty out-of-shape and uncoordinated at the time, so I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t seem to get the hang of the kick.  My balance was off, the kick didn’t swing across smoothly in a high arc like I had seen my instructor do it.  However, despite my difficulties, I clearly remember a strong feeling of joy that I experienced trying to figure it all out.  It was like receiving a puzzle as a gift and I was enjoying the challenge of working through my new puzzle piece by piece.

Eventually I put it all together and learned that kick, along with many other basic kicks, which I have practiced over and over again thousands of times over the last few decades.  After a while the kick just became something that I would do as a warm up and not think too much about.  Recently I have been researching and reviewing many of these basic kicks to explore some of their nuances.  I’ve been reading various books and watching different videos on basic kicks and their many variations, and I have enjoyed finding small nuggets of information that offer insight into applications or provide useful training cues that can enhance my kicks.   I also tried to change things up a few weeks ago when I was training in my garage and randomly decided to do a spinning inside swing kick as fast as I could ten times continuously.  It was fun and challenging, and at the end it put a smile on my face.  It reminded me of that same sense of enjoyment at practicing the inside swing for the first time at that park so many years ago.

It is not always easy to keep finding joy in your training.  Training can sometimes be a tiring, boring slog that just feels more like a job than something that you love to do.  My advice is to take a step back every so often and find something new to explore to elicit that sense of joy and wonder that you experienced at the start.  Maybe you break down and analyze techniques you already know and look for details you can appreciate and improve on.  Maybe you investigate and attempt variations on your techniques that come from other martial arts styles.  Maybe you take something you already know how to do and add personal challenges to it (e.g. kicking higher, faster, stronger, or with better control).  Each time you go around the staircase to return to what you’ve learned before, look for a new challenge or nuance in those basic techniques that can bring you joy, inspire your training, and keep you moving up step by step to your next level.

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Adjust, alter, adapt

The other day I started a self-defense class with a discussion of the differences between martial arts and real-world self-defense.  One difference I highlighted is that a competitive sparring match in martial arts is generally in a controlled setting with protective gear, appropriate clothing, mats, open space, established rules, referees, one opponent, no weapons, and a selection of likely techniques that will be used.   Conversely, real-world self-defense is completely unpredictable.  A person might be attacked by one or more assailants, possibly with weapons, in an environment that might be dangerous and hard to maneuver in.  The defender might be wearing clothes that are restrictive and cumbersome, they certainly have no protective gear on, they most likely be attacked with “dirty fighting” moves, and there is certainly no one available to stop the fight once it starts.

I brought this up to the class to emphasize the importance of being able to deal with a surprising, unpredictable attack.  A lot of what gets practiced safely within a self-defense or martial arts class sounds good in theory until you try to apply it in a real situation while wearing tight jeans in a narrow hallway against an attacker with a broken beer bottle.  You have to quickly assess the situation and then adapt to it as best you can.  If the techniques you want to use or attempt to use don’t work, you need to quickly alter or adjust them.  If the attacker is very tall, don’t try to palm strike to the face; kick to the groin or knee.  If you were going to kick but then got pulled into a clinch, quickly switch to close range attacks with knees and elbows.

Interestingly enough, later on at that same class I was demonstrating a finger jab eye poke to the Body Opponent Bag’s face and I snapped the tendon in my middle finger.  The finger looked all crooked and disjointed and certainly freaked out the students.  I was a bit concerned, but it didn’t hurt too much so I just finished the remaining 40 minutes of class and then splinted it back at my office.  After visiting the doctor, it looks like I have another 6 weeks of keeping it in a special splint, followed by some therapy to get the hand working properly again.

The reason that I bring this up is that it certainly fits in with the lesson I just discussed.  I have spent the last 6 months healing up from a frustrating inner thigh muscle tear that keep me from stretching, high kicking, and squatting/deadlifting.  I just went to a physical therapist a few days before the finger injury and she gave me the okay to start deadlifting, stretching, and kicking again; so I was looking forward to being injury free finally.  Three days later, and now I am looking at 2 months of protecting my finger with no punching, limited (no-hands) sparring, and very limited weight training.  While frustrating, I have been through enough injuries to know that I just need to sit down and figure out what I will need to do to adjust, alter, and adapt in terms of my training.  For example, I brainstormed a serious of alternative weight training exercises that do not involve gripping a bar, but still maintain most of my training goals.  I have been using a spearfinger or palm strike instead of closed fist punches in my tae kwon do classes and have done the challenging “hands behind the back” all-kicking version of sparring with my students.  I also ran across a video last week before the injury on the “Art of High Impact Kicking” that had inspired me to work on my kicking more now that my inner thigh muscle was healed.  Now that my hand is out of commission, it presents a perfect opportunity to really challenge my kicking ability to reach some new goals and try some new techniques.

Real life rarely goes the way we hope it will go.  Plans for the future can often get derailed by unforeseen circumstances.  Just when things look like they are headed on a smooth trajectory, a new obstacle blocks the way and presents a new challenge we hadn’t anticipated.  In these cases you must assess the situation, alter your approach, adjust your goals and strategy, and adapt to the new circumstances as best you can.

Exercise should not be punishment

Years ago I worked briefly as a personal trainer and part of the job was to interview new clients to find out what types of activity or exercise they might enjoy to help me plan out our training sessions.  I remember meeting with one middle age woman and cheerfully asking her, “What types of exercise do you enjoy?”  She just stared at me enthusiastically and said, “None, I hate exercise!”

As a fitness professional I see this attitude regarding exercise all the time.  Many people equate the word “exercise” with work, torture, discomfort, and pain.  I can certainly understand that many people may see exercise this way.  The whole point of exercise and training in general is to push your limits and get you outside of your comfort zone so that your body will adapt to the stress or demand of training and become better, faster, and stronger.  Exercise is by definition uncomfortable since it involves overloading or stressing your body (and mind) in ways that it may not be accustomed to.

I can also understand why some people develop such a negative attitude of exercise, since we have a tendency to teach people from a young age that food is a reward and exercise is a punishment.  As a physical education instructor, it frustrates me to no end when I see kids punished with exercise.  I remember teachers from the past saying things like, “You misbehaved during recess, do wall sits until your legs buckle!”  “You are late for gym class, go run laps until I tell you to stop!”  I have also seen this in the martial arts world as well.  I took a weapons class where students were required to drop and do 10 push-ups every time they accidentally dropped their weapon.  I’ve seen classes where students had to hold horse stances for lengths of time if they did something incorrectly.

I think this is a shame, because I view exercise in such a positive light.  That doesn’t mean I’m always gung ho to do it though; I sometimes feel tired or lazy and it is daunting to think of getting all sweaty lifting weights or kicking the bag for an hour or so.  However, I generally see exercise as something to look forward to because I know the incredible benefits it has to offer.  I am a person who constantly feels anxious and I know that the one thing that truly keeps that anxiety at bay is exercise.  Not only does exercise help me control my anxiety, but it relieves stress, protects me from depression, and puts me in a better mood.  Physically, exercise helps me stay fit and healthy, allows me to enjoy the ability to move without pain or restriction, enhances my physical performance in martial arts and daily life, and helps me look better and feel better about myself.

In my roles as a physical education instructor and a martial arts instructor, I do my best to promote the beauty of physical movement, the growth that comes from training, and the benefits to the mind, body, and spirit that exercise has to offer.  When I ask students to do push-ups or sit-ups during my tae kwon do class, they understand that it is something that is meant to help them reach their goals and become better, not something that we do as punishment or torture.  Every time we punch, kick, or jump in the class we are challenging ourselves mentally and physically to adapt to become better at what we do.  In fact, to me the real punishment would be not being able to participate in training or exercise at all.  When I have to stay out of training for an injury, I feel bad; like I am not myself.  I feel like something is missing from my life and I can feel things like anxiety, stress, and doubt creep in.

Exercise was never meant to be easy, but that doesn’t mean it should be seen as something negative.  If you find yourself avoiding exercise because you are focused on the discomfort, try instead to look forward to the joy of movement, the sense of personal accomplishment from a tough physical challenge, and the benefits of strength, capability, growth, and emotional stability that it has to offer.  If you stick with it, you may even start seeing that martial arts class or exercise session as a nice reward that you look forward to during the day.

Stillness vs. action

I just spend the better part of the weekend binge-watching the second season of Netflix’s “Luke Cage” series.  On one of the episodes, the superhero martial artist known as Iron Fist shows up to help out Luke, whose anger has driven him to use his super strength in ways that have caused a lot of trouble.  Iron Fist takes Luke to a calm, scenic viewpoint over Harlem and tells him that he needs to find stillness so that he can find focus and control his anger.  Later they are walking down a street and Iron Fist says “Power comes from stillness”.  Luke smiles and says, “No, power comes from getting sh*t done”.

I liked this interaction between the characters, because I think they both had a point.  Sometimes we are wrapped up by so much anxiety, anger, or doubt that we have no idea what to do next.  This may cause confusion or impulsiveness in our actions that result in bad decisions, further distress, or other negative consequences.  We may need to take the time to find stillness, so that we can be clear and focused in our thoughts and our actions.  Lao Tzu said “Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear”.  This means sometimes we need to stop stirring things up to let them settle a bit, so that in stillness things might become more clear.

However, Luke Cage did have a point too.  Sometimes it is important to act and take care of business.  Stillness may be useful for finding the way, but sometimes it is important to take action rather than spending too much time contemplating what to do next.  Bruce Lee often spoke of the danger of “paralysis through analysis”, which happens when a person spends so much time over-thinking a situation that a decision is never made and action is never taken.  A person might spend time researching, analyzing, and pondering in hopes that the perfect solution presents itself, only to end up being fearful of making the wrong choice and then making no choice at all.  Bruce Lee was quoted as saying “If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done”.  Whether it is a personal goal you hope to accomplish or a cause that you firmly believe in, sometimes fear and doubt must be put aside so that you can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

So it turns out that both characters were right; sometimes we must find stillness so that we are clear on what we should do, and sometimes we just need to take action swiftly and decisively.  Like many things in life it may depend on the situation at hand.  It may also depend on your state of mind.  The key is knowing when you need to be still and when you need to act.

No practice is perfect

There is a common saying that states that “practice makes perfect”.  In the martial arts world I have often heard a modified, more specific version of this quote that says “perfect practice makes perfect”.  The idea is that simply practicing something will not perfect the skill; instead it is essential to practice the technique or skill with focus, precision, spirit, and intent if you want to master it.  If you simply go through the motions practicing sloppy, half-hearted, or incorrect techniques, you will program yourself to perform these skills in a sloppy, half-hearted, incorrect manner.  The old saying in computer programming is “garbage in, garbage out” meaning that you can’t expect to enter in poor quality code with errors and expect to have anything but faulty output be the result.  The same goes for martial arts training; if you want expertly performed forms for example, you need to practice each move correctly with precision and focus.

While I agree with this idea, I do think it is worth considering that unfortunately life is rarely perfect and many times it is hard for practice to be perfect as well.  Many times you may come to the dojang tired from a long day at work, sick from a cold, distracted by a stressor or problem weighing heavily on your mind, or incapacitated by an injury.  Although these situations will limit your ability to perform the techniques to perfection, there is much to be gained in each situation.

When you are tired, keep in mind that you can gain energy from those around you in class.  The spirit of the instructor and class as a group can be very inspiring and uplifting to help you to boost your mental and physical energy.  Practicing when you are tired also teaches you more about how you perform when you are pushed to your limits.  Learning to keep pushing yourself when you feel too tired to go on can be an excellent lesson in perseverance.

If you are sick, you should always take care of yourself first and foremost, and you should also be considerate to your fellow students to make sure they do not get sick from being exposed to you.  However, if you pass a “neck check” (meaning that the symptoms are above the neck like a headache or slight congestion) you should try to challenge yourself to train despite the illness.  You will likely feel better once you get the blood flowing and you may even clear your airways or fix your headache.  As with working out when tired, you will also learn what you are capable of doing when you are at less than 100% and will find ways to persevere.

Training while distracted presents another challenge.  When you have problems and stressors stealing away some of your limited attention it is hard to fully concentrate on what you are doing.  Car accidents, relationship issues, workplace conflicts, deadlines and so on can often take up all our mental focus when we start training.  The key is to realize that the all those things can be left at the door of the training hall.  You can put your whole focus into kicking, punching, and sparring for 1-2 hours and distract yourself from those many concerns.  By necessity a martial artist needs to keep focused to avoid the kick coming toward their head or to make sure they punch the target and not the target holder’s face.  Then after practice, when the wonderful cocktail of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins and other brain chemicals have elevated your mood and lessened your anxiety, you will be better equipped to pick up the emotional baggage you left by the dojang door.  You’ll even realize that you now feel more confident, focused, and calm to cope with these stressors.

Of course, probably no issue gets in the way of training at your best like an injury.  The pain of the actual injury combined with the need to protect yourself from further damage and the fear of getting hurt again make training a unique challenge.  My experience with injuries has been that you must first take the time to heal properly and then get back to training in whatever way you are capable as soon as possible.  Be smart about it and do not do anything that risks prolonging or exacerbating the injury, but at the same time, do not let an injury become an excuse to give up.  If you are creative and have indomitable spirit, an injury can actually provide a nice challenge to learn from.  If you hurt your foot, work on upper body techniques and conditioning.  If you hurt your shoulder or arm, focus on kicks, balance drills and leg and core conditioning.  If you hurt your back (the worst in my opinion), find ways to strengthen your arms, walk slowly through your forms, and practice rehab exercises to strengthen and stretch your back and core when you are ready.  In any case, you will learn how to work around an injury, which can be a valuable skill to learn for a real-world self-defense context.  You kick toward an opponent and they crack your 5th metatarsal in your foot with an elbow strike, now what?  You get your shoulder dislocated when an assailant puts you into an arm lock, how will you defend yourself and fight back with just one arm?  Use your injured condition as a way to train and mentally prepare for these possibilities to strengthen your self-defense skills.

As you can see there are always obstacles that can get in the way of achieving a perfect training session.  The key thing to keep in mind for any of these conditions is to keep training with the intention to persevere and to be willing to learn what you can from the experience.  If you approach your training with this mindset even a less than perfect practice will be well worth the effort.

The dilemma of donuts

Back in my days as a mechanical engineer it was common for contractors or co-workers to bring in copious amounts of donuts to share with everyone in the office.  Despite attempting to stay fit through my tae kwon do training and more disciplined eating habits, I often would crowd around the donut boxes along with the other engineers waiting for a bite of sugary goodness.  I maintained this habit for a while until one day when I stopped to realize that I would typically have a donut in my mouth while I was scanning the variety of donuts for my next choice.  Even though I only needed one donut (okay, no one needs a donut), I would always eat two since there were plenty of them to go around.  The problem was that I was so busy focusing on the next treat, that I barely paid attention to the one I already was munching on.

After this realization I decided to quit eating donuts completely.  Partially because I realized that they weren’t good for me and honestly didn’t taste that great, but mostly because I realized that I was being greedy, overindulgent, and wasn’t getting enough pleasure from the donuts to justify consuming their abundant empty calories.  There is a common saying in Japan (and probably in other countries with a good relationship with food) that the first bite of food is the one that will bring the most pleasure.  Every bite that follows the first will be less vivid and satifying, and as the belly fills up the pleasure will diminish accordingly.  There is something to be said about taking the time to be in the moment to truly enjoy what you are doing at that time, rather than diverting your attention to what comes next.

I went for many years without eating another donut after that day, but eventually I starting having them again rarely and in moderation.  The lesson of the excessive donuts did stick with me and can be extended to other aspects of life.  For example, if you are going to listen to music, really listen to it and enjoy each song.  Don’t always neglect it in the background while you do other things.  Turn off the lights, get away from other distractions, put on your favorite song on a good set of speakers and really appreciate the music at a deeper level.  You might hear technical aspects in the song that you were never aware of, or you may let your mind wander to memories that are connected emotionally with the song.

The donut dilemma can also apply to martial arts training.  When a student is moving up the ranks from lower belt up to higher level techniques, there is often the temptation to quickly learn something new and then focus on what comes next.  “I learned the green belt form, but I can’t wait to start learning the next one.  I just learned the hook kick, but I really want to start working on the jump hook kick.”  This enthusiasm is admirable, but sometimes this focus on what comes next leaves less focus for what is in front of you right now and may disrupt your ability to fully learn and enjoy the technique.

Consider this idea of being in the moment fully to take pleasure in the task at hand.  Whether it is eating a delicious dessert, enjoying a concert, or practicing a new form; take the time to fully absorb what is in front of you before concerning yourself with what comes next.

To learn, one should teach

As I have approached master level, I have thought more about the responsibility of teaching and the need to be effective as an instructor.  I have been teaching martial arts since 1998, and I have certainly made many mistakes; however I have managed to glean a few useful tips on teaching over the years that I’d like to share with any potential instructors out there.

Be an example.  First and foremost, a teacher must model the attitude and behavior they expect from their students.  You must practice what you preach.  Students don’t just learn from what you say; they learn from watching what you do.  Your actions in and out of the dojang set an example of what a martial artist should be, so it is essential to be a good role model.  If you are constantly getting in fights outside the dojang or cussing up a storm inside the dojang, your students will see this as acceptable behavior and mimic it.  However, if you are courteous, organized, and honest in your interactions, you will see students mirror this behavior in their interactions in and out of the training hall.

Allow people to fail.  It is tempting to protect students from failing or making mistakes, just like an overprotective parent who doesn’t let their kid play outside for fear of getting hurt.  Sometimes instructors want to guide students through every move they do and constantly provide all the answers for the students before they can discover them for themselves.  A butterfly that is helped out of a cocoon will miss out on all the struggle that is necessary to strengthen its wings and will instead become too weak to survive.  Let a student make several mistakes when trying to learn a new technique and then ask them some questions that might guide them toward the truth; don’t simply give them the answer.  Sometimes it might be a good idea to have a student test for a new rank, knowing full well that they will not actually pass.  It might provide them with valuable experience, insight into what they need to improve on, and a whole lot of humility that can build their character over time.

Don’t say everything.  One mistake that many new instructors make when they start teaching is that they feel the need to give their students as much information as possible.  They may start out teaching a basic side kick and end up providing the complete history of the kick, a full description of its body mechanics from head to toe, and a lengthy overview of its applications for sparring.  After 10 minutes of lecturing about the kick, the student’s eyes glaze over and they starting to think about what they are going to eat for dinner later after class.  People can only retain so much information in our memory banks at one time.  If a person receives too many details or instructions, they are likely to forget much of what is said, or even worse, may become overwhelmed or frustrated by the chore of trying to process all the information they are receiving.  Sometimes you simply need to set the student on the right path with some basic instruction, a short demonstration, a few easy cues to remember, and some brief follow up feedback later on.

Tell, Show, Do.  Not everyone learns the same way.  Some can hear a verbal explanation and are able to decipher what you are trying to express.  Some can watch a video or a demonstration and pick up all the information they need to learn the technique.  Others might need to physically practice the technique over and over until they build a kinesthetic sense of the proper movement.  To make sure that you reach each and every student, I would suggest teaching by first telling (providing instruction, cues, details), showing (demonstrating the technique yourself or with another student), and doing (having the student actually do the technique to feel it out for themself).

Have the student be a teacher.  I’ve often found that when I teach my students, I end up learning something from the experience.  Offer students at any level the chance to occasionally teach something to another student.  It challenges them to think through the technique for the themselves and to determine what information is vital to pass on.  It is effective because it makes them more aware of their own technique and may also raise questions or observations from their student that they had not even thought of.

Practice empathy.  Understanding who your student is and where they are coming from is essential for teaching.  Empathy helps provide insight into what a student needs or doesn’t need.  It may help an instructor recognize mental roadblocks, hidden strengths and weaknesses, and internal motivations from the student that can be invaluable for reaching them on a deeper level.  Take the time to get to know your students and try to look for signals beneath the surface that will reveal how they are feeling or who they are as a person.  Keep in mind the old teaching adage, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

Give them a “why”.  Students are more likely to embrace and internalize your lessons if they have personal meaning to them.  Try to explain why something you are teaching them is important and meaningful for their growth as a martial artist.  Know their goals and try to relate the skills to their sparring ability, competition performance, self-defense skills or personal growth; whichever area is a focal point for the student.  This will help them take a greater interest in what is being taught, will help increase motivation for continued training, and will improve retention of the skills learned.

Use the “Big Mac approach”.  It is not easy to criticize what another person is doing wrong.  Even the most well-intentioned feedback may sometimes be seen by some students as an admonishment from the instructor or as a critique of failure.  However, honest, useful feedback is essential for a student to improve.  A common way to approach giving feedback comes from the sports coaching world in something referred to as the “Big Mac approach”.  You start with the bun, which is a compliment on what the student or athlete is doing right.  “I really like the way you are snapping your roundhouse kick across.  It is getting faster!”.  Then you provide the “meat” of the sandwich, which is the main point or criticism that you would like the student to remember.  “I’ve noticed that when you throw your roundhouse kick that you tend to lean over too much and lose your balance.  This affects the accuracy of your kick”.  Then you finish the Big Mac with another bun, which involves some form of positive reinforcement.  “I know once you focus on correcting your balance that your kick will be fast and accurate.  Just keep training hard like you have been and you’ll get it in no time!”  All of this gives the student the necessary instruction and feedback they need in a package that is easy-to-digest and leaves them feeling good about their future progress.

Relate training to what lies outside the dojang.  Most people who stick with the martial arts do it because they begin to understand its intrinsic value to their broader lives outside of the dojang.  The actual training occurs in the dojang, but the lessons learned should extend out to all aspects of their lives:  family, career, hobbies, relationships, daily interactions, etc.  Instructors should take the time to connect what is being learned during the training session with the student’s growth as a human being and their experiences out in the real world.  Martial arts can be much more than a system of self-defense or a method of exercise; they are also a mechanism for self-improvement and self-realization.