Sunday, 27 November 2016

Theory versus Practice.

The cycle of learning is an interesting one in Martial Arts training. On the surface, an instructor explains or shows a technique and a student tries his or her best to copy. This sequence is repeated time and time again, over this time the student starts to learn these techniques and perform them without guidance.

Sometimes there is an aspect of the technique that the student simply fails to do correctly. The instructor then patiently explains what he is expecting the student to do. Maybe he uses an analogy to help describe the positioning or movement. The students attempts to do the technique again and is still stuck on the same point. 

Sometimes the student understands what is being asked of him or her but still does the technique incorrectly. They struggle to take what they know and express it with their body. 

This idea of 'knowing' but not 'doing' has occurred with me many times. Even when I am absolutely sure what I am supposed to do, I can't get my body to do it. It can be very frustrating. Eventually, at some point the transition is made where finally after many attempts, hours, days or months later I can finally do the technique the way my instructor wants it done. So what is happening?

Well to start with it could be a neuromuscular phenomenon. I might not yet have the coordination to move those particular muscles in that particular way. So I see my sensei do a technique and I monkey it. However, my version doesn't look the same. I haven't got the same coordination as my sensei so my muscles may fire in a different sequence or even the slightly wrong muscles fire to achieve a similar outcome. 

Some of the biggest changes to the neuromuscular system occur during tasks that require explosive movements or when muscles are put under high loads. This sums up a lot of budo. Neural pathways linking to target muscles become more efficient at transmitting the message. As motor units send the stimulus from nerve to muscle, more and more often, the better they get at it. Messages don't get sent to the wrong muscles en route and messages also get to their target muscles with increasing speed and less delay. 

The martial arts often talk about the mind-body connection and this is what I think they are talking about. You have in your mind the movement (theory) and you attempt to make your body do it (practice). 

The world of theory seeks understanding while the world of practice simply wants to act. If all a martial artist does is sit in his arm chair and reads all about the concepts found in budo then can he call himself a martial artist? On the other hand, if the martial artist simply starts kicking, punching, and throwing without instruction, how does he know he is even doing things correctly?  
We must try and find a balance between the two. 

Discussing these two ideas, theory and practice reminds me of something I read once. This was about the way Japanese teach and learn martial arts and how westerners teach and learn. The traditional Japanese method involves little instruction from the sensei. He will show techniques then ask the students to do them. He may say "No, not like that, like this." and repeat the movement. But no further instruction. A whole lesson may go by with the student being told, "No, not like that, like this." The student diligently repeats a movement over and over, hoping to capture the technique of their sensei. There is not a lot of talking in this kind of dojo.

A western instructor (and student for that matter), talks more. He or she will show the technique, answer questions from the students and talk abut why a technique is done a certain way. Students will try the technique and stop and ask more questions. The sensei will try different ways to explain what is happening. 

Both methods have their value. You could argue that the Western method is more theory-based while the Japanese method is more practice-based. Is one better than the other?  I don't know. I believe that we could talk less in some western dojo and perhaps Japanese instructors could take the time to explain things further. 

The danger for any martial artist is losing the balance between theory and practice. When I am on the mat I am conscious of the amount of time I spend talking about a technique rather than simply getting on and training. You can talk all day about how to place your feet or get the right positioning, but it is sometimes better to just get on with the training and work it out. One thing that can come out of the Japanese style of training is how observant the student becomes. As they cannot rely on the sensei so much for instruction they tend to look very closely at what he is doing. They pick up things that a western mindset might not. 

If you spend too much time trying to make a technique work and not listening to your sensei then you have another problem. Your training will venture off course and what you end up doing is not what your instructor asked you to do. You will lack the understanding behind why the technique is done that way and may hurt yourself or training partners accidentally. I know some stories where good martial artists are asked how they do something and they say "I don't know, I just do what my teacher did." This is no problem for that student but the martial art suffers because that person will struggle to pass on the art in any depth. 

TSYR is a funny beast as it tends to attract intellectuals. I'm not sure why, maybe its the history and culture associated with it, maybe its the complexity of the art itself. What ever the reason it is easy for some people to become too academic on the mat and try to think about the movements too much. Theory creeps in and tries to make a home. 

Even the most accomplished martial artists must continue to put theory into practice. I once asked my past sensei, Robbie Smith what was the key to ongoing training in the martial arts and he said, "Find a source." He was saying that you need a teacher to set the standard by which you can follow and keep training. This avoids your training straying. He was bothered by people who taught martial arts but never trained for themselves anymore. They would run a class, speak at length about the philosophy of the art, demonstrate the technique then let the students train. These teachers had let the balance tip heavily towards theory and had almost given up practice. 

So where do you see yourself on the continuum between theory and practice?

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