karate

Different ways of looking at building skills.

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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.

Tim Shaw

 

Rear View Mirror.

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You can’t take your life forward if you are continually looking in the rear view mirror.

Writer and public speaker Eckhart Tolle advocates the idea of ‘living in the now’, it’s nothing new; deep down everyone knows that your individual personal past is a history that has gone, never to be replayed, and that your future is fiction yet to be written. We know this yet seldom stop to dwell on it. Really, all we can connect with is our current ‘now’; what some call ‘living in the moment’.

At one level Tolle sees the past as baggage and a burden we should try to shed, because much of it just drags us down. Tolle’s views are a little too extreme for me – there is value in the past because it is accumulated knowledge and lessons learned (in some cases not to be repeated). Projections into the future about what might happen can be a whole big waste of psychic energy; but these projections have their uses; we do need to consider our future and project forward as a kind of directional map as well as giving us meaningful targets – although ‘directions’ can have greater flexibility than targets and are better at coping with the problems of unrealistic objectives and the associated disappointments.

Somebody once said to me that your attitude changes once it dawns on you that you have more past behind you than future in front of you; which can be a really sobering and depressing thought.

Personally I try my best to avoid the rear view mirror. I don’t just mean in life in general but also my approach to my training in Wado. This is not particularly about my teaching in the Dojo, (I know that changes constantly and I’m happy with that), but about my own personal practice, technical development and understanding.

I recently looked at some old film of me practicing kata when I was in my mid 20’s and I came to the conclusion that I had no desire to work in that way ever again – it contradicted everything I now know.

I think that all martial artists who have accumulated a lot of mileage in their training and still have some fuel in the tank should be in a constant state of moving forwards; of reviewing and building on their accumulated experience and certainly not harping on about the past.

For additional thoughts; here is link to a poem by Brenda Shaughnessy called, ‘I Have a Time Machine’.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/91496/i-have-a-time-machine

“The past is always tense, the future perfect”.
Zadie Smith.

Tim Shaw

Know the depths of your own ignorance.

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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.

Tim Shaw

Craft and Craftsmanship.

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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.

Tim Shaw

The Monkey Trap.

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This one has been around for a long time, but it’s a very useful model and can be used in many ways.

The Monkey Trap is supposed to be a real thing, a real trap used by primitive tribes to outsmart monkeys. Traditionally the trap features a narrow necked jar which is either tethered to the ground or weighted down. Scattered around the jar are treats the monkey would like but there are more inside. The monkey reaches inside the jar, closes its fist around one of the treats and, with a closed fist it cannot extract its hand past the neck. The monkey is stuck, because of its unwillingness to relinquish its grip on the treat – its own stubbornness, greed and narrow thinking trap it in position. The story was used by Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’ to describe the French’s unwillingness to discard their loot on the retreat from Moscow. Robert M. Pirsig made use of the same story in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. There’s even an episode of the Simpsons where Homer thinks he can reach inside a vending machine to steal a can of drink, the fire brigade have to free him but a fireman points out to him that all he had to do was let go of the can and his hand would slide out.

Therapists are attracted to this neat little story; it’s a literal example of the pitfalls of not ‘letting go’.

I can think of a number of ways it relates to training. In a way it’s another example of the necessity of ‘emptying your cup’, but, to me, it’s a much more interesting model.

I can see it relating to the problem solving involved in fighting, about the unwillingness to depart from set formulas to solve the problems your opponent is presenting you with. I also see a warning to those of us who have many years behind us in training. I know it’s easy for senior instructors to rest on their laurels and start to believe their own propaganda and particularly to trade upon their association with the stars in the Wado firmament (the ones still with us and the ones departed) but this can have a detrimental effect. In these cases it is possible to get stuck with your hand inside the jar, by being unwilling to let go of perceived status attached to such associations. It’s a matter of judging what’s important to you. By hanging on to such shiny baubles as a form of comfort you miss the opportunity to engage with the wider world and in particular to follow the path of development that got you to where you are in the first place. A monkey stuck in a jar, or a case of wilful arrested development? You decide.

Tim Shaw

Combinations.

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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.

Tim Shaw

 

Autopilot.

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‘Never rely on autopilot, it will always let you down’. In kata training I am always saying this to students; particularly when preparing for grading of competition.

Autopilot in kata is just switching your brain off and letting your body take over and rattling through the moves at top speed. Most of the time you will get through the kata okay, but at what cost? Mindful practice is infinitely more valuable. But all too often autopilot will stall or glitch and then all the wheels will come off. The more kata you know the more it is liable to happen. Many of you will know what can go wrong part way in to Kushanku kata… everything was going well then suddenly you have missed out four shuto uke and slipped into Pinan Yondan!

That is one type of autopilot error. The other one affects the more senior experienced karateka. This is the one where you let your body take over assuming that all the moves are spot-on perfect, even at full throttle! It may not be the case. If you do that be wary of what audience you are putting it in front of. A knowledgeable audience will see all your weaknesses. If you are a senior Dan grade always give the same scrutiny to your own techniques that you give to your students; don’t assume you are getting it right.

There is another aspect that connects with the physical understanding and performance of kata and that is the question; is it possible to depart from the kata while still staying with the kata? Sounds like a contradiction but it’s not; it all depends on how you use the kata. It is possible to go so far into the kata that you come out the other side. The second grandmaster of Wado Ryu gave some methods of departing from the kata while still holding on to its integrity. He had two methods of free-forming within the kata, but to do this demanded supreme confidence and knowledge of the character of the kata. It reminded me of something I had heard which was common to the creative Arts (visual and performing), the concept was; ‘Once you know the rules inside out and every which way, then you are allowed to break them’. This is the same with painters as it is with musicians. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis famously said, “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong”. This example from jazz fits really well with the second grandmaster’s approach to aspects of kata.

Tim Shaw