Tiger Woods & Roger Federer.
As a follow on to my 10,000 hours post
in which I looked at the amount of time and effort needed to build a high level of expertise, I came across an article which set out an interesting addition to the debate; something I hadn’t really thought about.
The article was headed, ‘Generalise, don’t specialise: why focusing too narrowly is bad for us’ and was a condensed version of a larger work by David Epstein.
Epstein set up two very different examples by giving the back story of two of this century’s most stellar sportsmen; Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Essentially this was the story of ‘push’ and ‘pull’.
Tiger Woods was famously hothoused by his ambitious father; while Roger Federer, as a youngster, was given the freedom to access all kinds of sports and generally ball-based activities.
Woods was an example of hyperspecialisation, he was ‘pushed’ while Federer was risking what’s sometimes categorised being a ‘late developer’ and frowned upon by the establishments in whose interests it is to keep this mythology alive – for, as the article shows, it is a myth that a single focus specialisation is the only way to achieve success. Hence Federer was ‘pulled’ by the opportunities and enjoyment of tennis.
Epstein was able to draw upon multiple examples where athletes bounced from one sport to another before crucially moving into their specialised field. Federer was able to draw upon a broad base of physical skills to enhance his approach to tennis; his mother was a tennis coach and she found herself having to resist the urge to check his unorthodox approach to specific techniques and problems found within a tennis match; he was liberated from ‘textbook tennis’ and as such was allowed to flourish. Federer’s mother was worried that her son was becoming too obsessed with tennis. I couldn’t imagine that Tiger’s father Earl would have thought such a thing about his son.
Specialisation has a number of negative aspects, Epstein said, “I came across more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range – and that there are benefits to doing so. I discovered research showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination).”
Epstein’s conclusions were that although the generalised approach appears slower it has a greater shelf life than the specialising approach.
To give the other slant to this argument – very much drawing on the ‘mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice’ – read Matthew Syed’s book ‘Bounce’. Or read this neat summary by Paul Arnold, here.
As a postscript (and returning this back to being about martial arts) I wouldn’t be in a rush to go running around randomly ‘cross-training’ with other sports or other martial arts, particularly if you are at a point where you have clearly decided what your life’s focus will be.
I always think about a story of two men prospecting for gold. One just runs around digging lots of little shallow holes hoping to strike it lucky; the other does his research, locates his prime spot and invests time and money and digs one shaft really deep.
As I am a big fan of metaphors and also enjoy when the essence of one metaphor contradicts or reinforces another. On this theme, and to maybe complicate things, I would add one more; a quote from Thomas Merton.
“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall”.
*Recommended reading: ‘Range – why generalists triumph in a specialized world’, David Epstein.
I wanted to share a particular approach I use to explaining an aspect of taisabaki.
For any non-Wado person reading this, the Wado understanding of ‘taisabaki’ is very distinctive from how other schools of Japanese karate interpret it.
‘Taisabaki’ is most conveniently translated as ‘body management’. Shotokan have their way of using taisabaki, but it is a very broad brush approach – in Shotokan anything that gets you out of the way or/and in position to counterstrike, can be classified as taisabaki.
But Wado’s approach is to sail dangerously close to the wind, to dice with danger and evade by the narrowest of margins. Some might say by no margin whatsoever; because what is often viewed from the outside looks so completely suicidal; like two forces seemingly competing for the same space. But that is Wado taisabaki – body management that allows you to flow.
There are some useful ways of into working with Wado taisabaki.
I have two analogies I use when teaching.
One is to say that you must become like water; if you foolishly try to punch water it just yields, and in your efforts you end up getting splashed.
Another model I use is that you should try to become like the human revolving door; like a Charlie Chaplin comedy classic; as one side is pushed the other side swings round and slaps you in the chops. Clearly this is the physical model of In-Yo, Yin Yang, positive negative working to harmonise, all mutually cooperative.
A simple exercise.
Stand square with a partner, both in natural stance facing each other; have one side place the right hand on the partner’s left shoulder and push. The person being pushed absorbs the energy so that the solidity that the person pushing was expecting to meet just disappears – the result may well be that with the resistance gone they will be over-extended and could lurch forward, which is a good result in itself.
Next, the person being pushed could try harnessing the energy that is being supplied by their partner and feed off it by activating the other side of their body, the right side using the fist and arm and also causing the other person to lurch into it, thus requiring even less energy because the forward momentum amplifies the impact.
To make it more relevant, the person doing the pushing could move their contact point incrementally towards the centre line (much more realistic) forcing the person being pushed to concentrate on their centreline and pivoting subtly around it. Obviously, as a practice this can be developed.
However, an interesting problem occurs when the person being pushed abandons the parallel position of natural stance and adopts a stance with either left leg forward or right leg forward. Suddenly the position of the legs as related to mobility and stability becomes an issue– which way would your legs need to move to support the evasive movement?
One way gives you a neat application of nagashizuki, i.e. the front leg just pivots on the spot while the back leg has to move to support the rotation – to all intents and purposes it is a classical nagashizuki.
But what if you decided to rotate your body the other way? If you respond to that push or punch by rotating only one way you become awfully predictable, so I describe that nagashi movement as ‘heads’ and therefore there must be a ‘tails’.
The ‘tails’ movement is to rotate the other way, but that requires your front leg to do all the movement, which is a movement most Wadoka know, i.e. the second movement of Kihon Gumite Ipponme. In reality the first one is a Jun hip, while the second one is a gyaku hip, this is the best excuse (if you ever needed one) to explore junzuki and gyakuzuki.
Of course there are many ways of exploring taisabaki, and the more you get into it the more complex it can become.
It truly is three-dimensional, involving so many different interconnecting principles, including aspects of creating space, manipulating timings and psychological leading. The exploration goes on and on, but at its heart is something very very simple – like water flowing around a rock, or a primitive rustic Japanese waterwheel – or even a build-up of snow slipping off the branches of a willow tree.
In Ushiro Kenji’s book, ‘Karate and Ki – The Origin of Ki – The Depth of Thought’, he mentions that when your sensei asks you if you understand, you should always be wary of answering it with an emphatic “Yes”. A better answer may be, “Yes, but only to my current level of understanding”. How can you really state that you are fully in the picture of what your Sensei is trying to communicate? It all becomes relative to your current point of development, and (if we are being realistic) we are all existing on a continuum of expanding knowledge – or we should be.
This is nothing new. Socrates (469 – 399 BCE) had worked it out (and was despised by some of his contemporaries for this). Here is a quote from the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [online], “[The] awareness of one’s own absence of knowledge is what is known as Socratic ignorance, … Socratic ignorance is sometimes called simple ignorance, to be distinguished from the double ignorance of the citizens with whom Socrates spoke. Simple ignorance is being aware of one’s own ignorance, whereas double ignorance is not being aware of one’s ignorance while thinking that one knows.”
In my last job I spent many years advising teenagers about to depart for university, and one thing I used to say to them was that one of the worst insults that could ever be thrown at them was for someone to describe them as ‘ignorant’; I also included shallow as well, but ignorance was the most heinous of crimes.
An obvious part of this is to be aware of the lenses you are looking through (check out, ‘observer bias’ and the closely related ‘cognitive dissonance’). Martial artists seem particularly prone to this. We see this when someone has a pet theory, or a favourite concept and feels a need to carve it in stone. Once it’s gone that far down the line there’s really no going back, and even in the light of new evidence which contradicts or turns over the pet theory they are stuck with it and it can become a millstone around their neck.
The error is in not acknowledging your own ignorance; feeling you should set yourself up as the authority in all things.
We are not very good at understanding the limits of our own knowledge. We make an assumption that in all areas of life we are existing on the cutting edge of what is possible – that may be true but we still encounter stuff that is either imperfect, or goes wrong, or breaks down; be that in systems, societies or technology. Deep down we know there is the possibility of improvement and advancement, but that’s always for tomorrow.
Take medical science as an example. Someone recently said to me that there’s never been a better time to be ill. Now, I take issue with that in more than one way; the obvious one being that really there is no ‘better’ time to be ill at all! Another point is that this comment was probably the same one used by an 18th century surgeon when he was just about to saw someone’s leg off without anaesthetic.
I suppose it is the arrogance within humanity that arrives at these rather bizarre conclusions. Perhaps in a way it is a kind of comfort blanket; maybe we are hiding from a much more sobering reality? Sometime in the future will some social historians be looking back at us and marvelling at how primitive and naïve we were? Or perhaps this is already happening within our own lifetime? Maybe my generation has been the first to witness such a dramatic rate of change and advancement. It’s a fact; compared to previous centuries the rate of change has speeded up phenomenally. One factor alone sums it up nicely – the Internet. I think we can talk confidently about ‘Pre-Internet’ and ‘Post-Internet’.
However, human skill development at a physical level does not increase at the same high speed that technological development can. Athletes can still shave a hundredth of a second off a 100 metre sprint, but it can take years to achieve this comparatively tiny gain. In fact any significant human skill still takes hours of dedicated practice to achieve. A 21st century aspiring pianist still has to put the same amount of hours in that an 18th century one did. Of course we are smarter about how we organise the learning process, this is sometimes supported by technology but the body still has to do the work. Our attitude towards human physical achievement and ambition has changed over the last 100 years. Take the example of Roger Bannister’s breaking of the 4 minute mile; critics at the time claimed that Bannister had cheated because he trained for the event! Their attitude of course was that Bannister should have done it based upon his own innate undeveloped physical attributes; his God given talent.
The acknowledgment of ignorance is inevitably a positive thing; it’s the acceptance that there is a whole big world out there, a boundless uncharted territory which is loaded with amazing possibilities.
It goes without saying Martial Arts can easily be categorised as a human skill (a Craft). It’s a trained activity directed at solving specific problems. Problem solving can be achieved to different levels depending on the competence of the person addressing the problem. It could even be argued that problem solving is binary – either you solve the problem or you don’t. But problem solving is not necessarily an ‘end-stop’ activity, there’s more to this than meets the eye.
Following this ideas that martial arts art are crafts, I would like to explore this further to see if anything can be gained by shifting our perspective and pushing the boundaries and looking at what a ‘craft’ actually is.
Sociologist Richard Sennett has a specific interest in Craft and Craftsmanship. For him ‘Craft’ is just doing the job, probably the same as everyone else, just to get it out of the way; a basic necessity. But ‘Craftsmanship’ is the task done in an expert, masterly fashion (Like the famous story of the master butcher in The Chuang Tzu). But the craftsman’s response to the problems/challenges he faces is not just a mechanical one; it changes according to the situation, and, whether it is master butcher, musician, painter or martial artist, the challenge is fluid, and as such adjustments are made on the spot and new ways of doing the same thing evolve. The craftsman doesn’t ‘master’ his art, because his mastery is ever-moving….or it should be. The skills of the master craftsman becomes a linear on-going project, not an end-stop.
Sennett says that craftsmanship at a basic level involves identifying a problem, then solving that problem; but that it shouldn’t end there. The solving of an individual problem often leads on to new problems that the craftsman may not have known existed prior to engaging with that particular individual problem. A combination of his intellect, his curiosity and his evolving level of mastery leads him towards tackling that next unforeseen problem and the process goes on.
In his research Sennett interviewed ex-Microsoft engineers who lamented the closed system of Microsoft, but lauded the open creative possibilities of Linux – for him this was an example of craftsmanship in progress. I am reminded of the comparison between the old style chess programs and the latest AlphaZero chess program. With the old style programs the moves had to be inputted by human hand; with AlphaZero the only input was the rules of the game; the computer then was free to play millions of games against itself to work out an amazing number of possibilities that just multiplied and multiplied.
It is not a huge leap to apply this way of thinking to Wado. Utilising the skills we develop in a free-flowing scenario engages with many problem solving opportunities that unfold in rapid succession. If we do it well it is all over very quickly, or, if we are working against a very skilled opponent the engagements may be more complicated, for example using an interplay of creating or seizing initiatives (‘Sen’). But to do this your toolkit (your core principles) must have a solid grounding otherwise you might have the ideas in your head but not necessarily the trained physicality to carry them out, and certainly not in the split second often needed.
If we really want to develop our craftsmanship we have to look for the opportunities that are created beyond the basic level of simple problem solving, but without losing the immediacy and economy that underpins Wado. I know that sounds like a contradiction but it is possible to be complex in your simplicity; it’s just a matter of perspective.
Renraku Waza, Renzoku Waza, Renketsu Dosa, whatever we decide to call them Combination Techniques seem to feature on nearly every Wado syllabus.
In my early training I was as guilty as everyone else in treating combinations as a test of memory (as well as speed and power). But there are other ways to look at them. I would urge Wado practitioners to examine them more closely. Is there perhaps something inherent in their design that has more to give us?
At first sight as we advance through the grades the sets of combinations just seem to get more complex with more techniques strung together. Yes, they were physically demanding and you got a great workout and many of the strings of techniques programmed the body well for attacking combinations used within conventional free fighting. It was a good way of reviewing your available range of techniques, but it was impossible for it to be all-encompassing. Hand strikes seemed particularly limited. In the early UK syllabus created in the 1960’s and still used by many organisations, there were only three main strikes used in combinations, as well as only three kicks (albeit deployed to different levels) and there were no explicit blocking or covering techniques, they may have been there in some small way but they weren’t really highlighted. Admittedly, since then organisations have become more creative, either by adding more techniques or completely deconstructing combinations, with varying levels of success.
The lower level combinations give good foundations on how to utilise moving in a formalised fighting guard and how to operate the mechanics of particular movements while being in that guard. But if combinations have been designed well they add another vital component that is often overlooked – transition.
Combinations looked at as a test of ‘transition’ gives a whole new perspective. When you fight you are in transition all of the time; you can either do that well, or you can do it badly. When you do it well it allows for snap changes dictated by the ever fluid physical challenges in combat scenarios and puts you a great position to deliver the necessary payload. An image that comes to mind is of the great French tennis player Jean Rene Lacoste (1904 – 1996), it is no accident that the Crocodile is used as the Lacoste logo, Lacoste’s ability to ‘snap back’ from nowhere when returning the ball was the embodiment of the ferocity of the Crocodile’s movement. For the fighter this type of tenacity and flexibility is a terrific skill to aspire towards. Look within combinations; examine what positions you find yourself in, what techniques demand the most commitment in stance and posture? Where do you feel dangerously close to over-extension and then you find yourself having to move from one extreme to another?
Some combination strings seem to create relatively easy transitions from one attack to another; while these have some value I think they are red herrings; examples being ones where the hip extension from one technique automatically and comfortably flows from that technique to another. But these are not the ones I am referring to.
Within the combinations in the Shikukai Karate-Do International it is no accident that there are numerous examples of these transitional challenges. If instructors are devising their own teaching combinations I would heavily recommend looking at what transitional challenges you are including.
Otsuka Sensei performing Tobikomizuki.
Without a doubt nagashizuki is a hallmark technique of Wado karate; it is also one of the most difficult to teach.
In other styles of karate I have only ever seen techniques that hint at an application that could loosely fall into the area of nagashizuki, with a very rudimentary nod towards something that could be categorised as Taisabaki, but at risk of contradiction nagashizuki in karate is pretty much unique to Wado.
But there is so much to say about nagashizuki as it features in the Wado curriculum as it helps to define what we do.
If you were to explain nagashizuki to another martial artist who has no knowledge of Wado, you could describe it as being very much characteristic of Wado as a style; a technique pared to the bone, without any frills or extra movements. Done properly it is like being on the knife-edge, it is brinksmanship taken to the extreme. I have heard a much used phrase that to my mind gives a picture of the character of nagashizuki, as follows:
‘If he cuts my cloth I cut his skin. If he cuts my skin I cut his bone’.*
Here is a technique that flirts with danger and requires a single-minded, razor sharp commitment, with serious consequences at stake.
Technically, there are so many things that can go wrong with this technique at so many levels. In an active scenario you have to have supreme courage to plunge directly into the line of fire, the timing is devastating if you get it right. Many years ago it was my go-to technique when fighting people outside of Wado, particularly those who took an aggressive line of attack hoping to drive forward and keep you in defensive mode. But I also found out that this technique had added extras, which you must be aware of if you use it in fighting; one of which is the devastating effect of the strike angle.
On two occasions I can think of, to my shame, I knocked opponents unconscious with nagashizuki. When delivered at jodan level the strike comes in from low down, almost underneath the opponent and its angle is such that it will connect with the underneath and side of the jaw. As I found out, it doesn’t need much force to deliver a shockwave to the brain, and, if the opponent is storming in, they supply a significant amount of the impact themselves – they run onto it.
This last point about forward momentum and clashing forces illustrates one of the oddities of the way the energy is delivered through the arm. A standing punch generally has to have some form of preparatory action (chambering), depending where it is coming from; nagashizuki when taught in kihon is deliberately delivered from a ‘natural’ position, and as such the arms should just lift as directly and naturally as possible into the fulling extended punch – my favoured teaching phrase for that is, ‘like raising your arm to put on a light switch’, that’s it. The arm itself acts as a conduit for a relay of connected energy generators that channel through the skeletal and muscular system into and beyond the point of delivery.
This is where further things can go wrong; the energy can be hijacked by an over-emphasis on the arm muscles or the ‘Intent’ to punch. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Intent’ can be a good thing, but when it dominates your technique to such a degree that it becomes a hindrance this can cause all kinds of problems.
The building blocks to nagashizuki could be said to begin with junzuki, then on to junzuki-no-tsukomi and then to tobikomizuki and finally to nagashizuki. Lessons learned properly at each of those stages gives you all the information you need, but it is important to go back to those earlier lessons as well. Junzuki-no-tsukomi for its structure is the template for your nagashizuki, but not just for its static position, but how it is delivered through motion; it is an amplified version of things you learned in junzuki – it is junzuki with the volume turned up.
Nagashizuki is a good technique to pressure-test; from a straight punch (at any level) to a maegeri, even to a descending bokken; this is very useful because it emphasises the slipping/yielding side of the technique; a very determined extension of one half of the body is augmented by a very sharpened retraction of the other half, the movements feed off each other, but essentially they are One. In fact everything is One, in that wonderful Wado way. And here is the conundrum that we all have to face when doing Wado technique; you always have a huge agenda of items that make up one single technique BUT…. They all have to be done AS ONE.
*I am reminded of a line from the 1987 movie ‘The Untouchables’, where the Sean Connery character says, “If he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue”.
What information is your body giving you? Are you truly your own best critic?
When we are desperately trying to improve our technique we tend to rely on instruction and then practice augmented by helpful feedback, usually from our Sensei.
But perhaps there are other ways to gain even better quality feedback and perhaps ‘feedback’ is not as simple as it first appears.
If we were to just look at it from the area of kata performance; if you are fortunate enough to have mirrors in your training space (as we do at Shikukai Chelmsford) then reviewing your technique in a mirror can be really helpful. But there are some down sides. One is that I am certain when we use the mirror we do a lot of self-editing, we choose to see what we want to see; viewpoint angle etc.
The other down-side is that we externalise the kata, instead of internalising it. When referring to a mirror we are projecting ourselves and observing the projection; this creates a tiny but significant reality gap. It is possible that in reviewing the information we get from the mirror we get useful information about our external form (our ability to make shapes, or our speed – or lack of speed.) but we lose sight of our internal connections, such as our lines of tension, connectivity and relays. We shift our focus away from the inner feel of what we are doing at the expense of a particular kind of visual aesthetic.
You can test this for yourself: take a small section of a kata, perform the section once normally (observe yourself in a mirror if you like) then do the same section with your eyes closed. If you are in tune with your body you will find the difference quite shocking.
Another product of this ‘externalising’ in kata worth examining is how easy it is to rely on visual external cues to keep you on track throughout the performance; usually this is about orientation. I will give an example from Pinan Nidan: if I tell myself that near the beginning of the kata is a run of three Jodan Nagashi Uke and near the end a similar run of three techniques but this time Junzuki AND that on the first run of three I am always going towards the Kamidana, but on the second run of three I will be heading in the direction of the Dojo door, I come to rely almost entirely on these landmarks for orientation, thus I have gone too deeply into externalising my kata; it happens in a landscape instead of in my body. Where this can seriously mess you up is if you have to perform in a high pressure environment (e.g. contest, grading or demonstration) your familiar ‘landscape’ that you relied heavily upon has disappeared, only to be replaced by a very different, often much harsher landscape, one frequently inhabited by a much more critical audience. A partial antidote to this is to always try and face different directions in your home Dojo; but really this is just a sticking plaster.
Another quirky odd anomaly I have discovered when working in a Dojo with mirrors is that during sparring I sometimes find myself using the mirror to gain an almost split-screen stereoscopic view of what my opponent is up to, tiny visual clues coming from a different viewpoint, but it’s dangerous splitting your attention like that and on more than one occasion I have been caught out, so much so that I now try and stay with my back to the mirror when fighting.
Another visual feedback method is video. This can be helpful in kata and individual kihon. In kihon try filming two students side by side to compare their technical differences or similarities. If you have the set-up you could film techniques from above (flaws in Nagashizuki show up particularly well).
There are some subtle and profound issues surrounding this idea of ‘internalising’ ‘externalising’, some of it to do with the origin of movement and the direction (and state) of the mind, but short blog posts like this are perhaps not the place for exploring these issues – the real place for exploring them is in your body.