Berlin Marathon 2007

Berlin Marathon 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Martial arts is a marathon, not a sprint”

For many people entering the martial arts arena one of the early questions I usually hear is “when will I become a master”. How do you define a master I ask them? The responses I receive run the range of answers from “being able to beat up 100 people like Steven Segal in the movies” all the way to “being able to perform blindfolded, upside down, under water, and being attacked by mutant zombie rabbit monsters.” Lets step back from the martial arts for a moment and think about what mastery means in other settings. How do you define arithmetical mastery? Being able to compute with single digits, double digits, more, without using a calculator? A lot of people fail at math in the later grades because they simply haven’t spent enough time and effort building up their basic mastery of arithmetic – and thus become “not good at math”. You look at something like Luminosity, and its program, and it focuses heavily on mastery of arithmetical questions and people who use the site report increasing their overall confidence and ability to do other math problems.

Malcolm Gladwell mentions 10,000 hours as the magic number for reaching mastery in something. However, looking at his research and thesis, we find that 10,000 is not some magic number, but was the average amount of time “prodigies” in their field (musicians) spent practicing. What this means is that for 50% of those of you out there its going to take longer than 10,000 hours to reach mastery, while others are going to take far fewer. Instead of focusing on the 10,000 hours, the research pointed at deliberate practice as being the key for achieving mastery in something. Those who actively and continuously used deliberate practice as their method of improvement, showed significant gains in a much shorter time period than those who just “went through the motions.” So what does all this mean for the study of a Martial Art?

Reviewing

I had the great privilege of being able to study Arnis and Kali in the Philippines many years ago. I went through the system, studied all the anyos, and became proficient enough in them so that I could call myself a ranked Arnis practitioner (talk to me about chicken blood one day). Every now and then I’ll go to an Arnis seminar, or will review my forms, but if you asked me, today, to go out there and perform the Blade Anyo #4, I’d most likely go out there and after a few attempts, finally get through it. Would you consider me a master of Arnis? Probably not. But if you gave me 6 months to review and practice Arnis, I would come back and blow you away with the performance. On the other hand, for almost 22 years now I’ve been studying American Kenpo and practicing it on a daily basis. If you asked me to perform long form 8, blindfolded, in a tank full of sharks – first I’d call you crazy for suggesting something so silly, then go get my kenpo blades and perform the form blindfolded for you to watch. So whats the difference?

With Kenpo I’ve practiced daily, reviewing, learning, and improving – with Arnis, I studied it, became proficient in it, and then let the skills slide into disuse. One of the major issues that many Kenpoists have with the systems is that they become overwhelmed with all the material. Ed Parker’s Kenpo system has 153 moves, 12 forms, and another dozen sets to add onto numerous kicks, blocks (defensive strikes), and strikes. The problem is that many approach the learning of Kenpo as this huge mountain to climb, and fail along the way because they try and rush things to quickly. Those that succeed aren’t necessarily the students to pick up the techniques the fastest in the class, but they are the ones who are in class, rain or shine, 52 weeks a year, for years and years and years (in addition to their independent practices at home). We talked about math earlier. What sets apart the “math persons” from the “non-math persons?” the amount of time they spent going over and over and over the basic arithmetic. I remember (not fondly) struggling with all those stupid worksheets of adding over and over and over again for the longest time. But eventually things clicked, and math started to become exceedingly easy for me, and has stuck with me ever since.

In order to succeed in Kenpo you have to be willing to go back and review the basics over and over and over again – not just to get right, but to drill the techniques into your muscle memory so much that performing becomes like second nature to you. In order to get there, it means that you need to be constantly going over your previous material. It’s why all advanced belts, also require performance of all previous material, and that you show an improvement and level of proficiency of the previous material much higher than you did when you first tested for the lower belt. What this means, is that by the time you get to the 8th degree black belt, your best techniques will be those you learned at white belt, while your worst material will be that you just learned at the 8th degree level.

Maintaining

In addition to reviewing your previous material, you need to maintain your proficiency in performance of your previous material. This means practice of your old material. There are lots of different ways to practice that we teach and talk about throughout the CMATOS system, choose a method, practice, then practice again with a different method. Maybe focus on your forms for one month, then techniques another month, or just a specific belt level at a time. Whatever you do, you should be striving to improve your previous material as you progress through the ranks. It is important, especially at this level, to get into this habit so that at later belts you won’t be left in the dust.

The beautiful thing about kenpo is that there is so much you can do with the system – each movement and technique has dozens of hidden techniques and meanings. Through constant practice and advancement you will start to be able to pick out these movements, and be able to start expanding on your ability to defend yourself. At a bare minimum, you need to maintain your skill with your previous material so that you can utilize it when needed. The techniques are not fire and forget, learn and start something new – but rather designed to be bases to be built upon as you rank up through the system. If you will notice with the curriculum, the first 4 belt levels have the same techniques repeated for the next 4 belt levels – this time with extensions. So not only will you be reviewing your techniques as you progress, but you will be relying on a solid base once you get to the purple belt level so that you can easily learn the new intricacies of the movements rather than having to focus on the gross motor skills that were originally developed in the first 4 belt ranks.

Moving Forward

There is a corollary to this, you don’t want to focus so much on review that you leave little time for learning and practicing new material. Your goals in your practice should be specific and look to focus on a specific skill each practice session – it might seem boring or repetitive, but focusing on specific goals you have for your practice sessions will allow you to better gauge and track your progress as well as ensure you are keeping on track to your next belt level. As you practice and as you review, record in your log book your sessions so you become much more aware of what you need to review and what you have gotten to a sufficient level of proficiency for your current belt level. Once you get the material down pat, can do it forwards and backward, and blindfolded, at an appropriate pace with 0 mistakes, and can do it consistently over a period of 1-2 months, then move onto the next thing you need to learn.

Concluding Thoughts

Practice makes perfect – the more you practice the better you will become. But not all practice is created equal – just practicing for practice sake will not progress you any more faster than practicing only rarely. You need to not only be consistent with your practices, but you also need to be focused in your practice. For each practice session pick a skill, technique, form, something to focus on during that session – it can be multiple skills, or multiple sections of a form. Let’s say you want to focus on the first section of short 1. So you practice the kenpo bow, practice good horse stances, and practice your inward blocks. You then practice the foot work, and practice the section in slow tension. You do it forwards and backwards and facing multiple directions. By the end of the practice session you record what you practiced and your thoughts on what you just practiced. The next time you go to practice short 1, you can review what you did before, and see if there is anything else in the first section you need to work on. This same technique will be used all the way throughout your kenpo practice. Start doing this now and start progressing towards Mastery!

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