Too Rigid too soon – Plasticity in combat, flexibility in life.

As a practitioner and teacher of martial arts, I am constantly re-positioning and reviewing my perspective in regards to where and what we do, as I mature and my focus expands as a teacher.

My attitude and approach towards martial arts has changed dramatically over the years.

I guess it all starts with teaching, and not instructing; defined as someone who is constantly reviewing and developing tools for learning, and not just issuing instructions.

As a teacher of students of all ages, genders and cultures I’ve found that the one thing a good teacher is required to possess is the creative capacity to find solutions to our students’ learning needs.

Much like a good stand-up comedian who is able to rapidly respond to a heckle with a hysterically impromptu retort, a good teacher needs to be able to adapt to his / her students’ needs. However the creativity doesn’t stop there.

In looking at my students it becomes clear that irrespective of technical standard, some still apply themselves better in different scenarios. Furthermore, some have the ability to adapt to high pressure combative situations better than others.

It then occurs to me that much of what we practise, as good or powerful as it may be, is also extremely set, rigid and fraught with Do’s and Don’ts, making it increasingly hard to adapt to the constantly evolving conditions of real life; both combative and non-combative.

This throws a very large bone at the entire technical based rank system of structured martial arts, which for many is defined by a level of technical competence, which is different from technical efficiency.

Here’s the thing! It’s easy to teach technique but another thing entirely to develop creative application of technique.

Have you ever watched a game or fight and caught yourself yelling at the screen as a fighter or player missed what you saw as an obvious play or action? Alternatively, have you been struck with awe when a fighter or player pulled a technique or play out of the bag, one that you would never have foreseen? This is creativity, and in order to deal with the organic chaos that is “Life” and combat we need to develop this capacity.

So how can we encourage the development of this type of mental discipline amongst our students? The answer for me is in play and I think most psychologists would agree.

It’s through play that we develop our sense of self as well as perceive options. When we play we are less restricted by the limits imposed by incentives and punishments and are more open to pushing the envelope and thinking outside of the box. Failure is not even considered! We just give it a go.

Kids are undoubtedly the masters of this, but as we all know as we get older we become educated out of this way of thinking, only to wish we could go back many years later.

Now I’m not saying that structured martial arts systems or practice is bad, in fact I personally believe it helps, but it’s not entirely necessary. Why?

Well, if I was to look at Jazz and listen to how a great Jazz musician can just jump into an existing set and play along, shift from lead to back, from musician to musician, he or she must have mastered the basics first. They played scales, notes and chords. They built strength in their arms and hands to hold their instrument as well as play it for long periods without fatigue. Only once these basic skills had been acquired to a sufficient level could they even entertain the idea of being able to creatively and fluidly adapt to what was being played around them, let alone expand upon it.

On the flip side of this coin there are many great musicians who are not classically trained but have an ear for what they want to create. Musicians like George Clinton (P-Funk) and Isaac Hayes (The man behind the Shaft theme) are prime examples.

So in fact it’s not our arts that are failing us but the way in which we think about them and our bodies.

Years of training can be easily undone by a lack of creativity and over-thinking.

How many times have you seen a student beaten as they are trying to process and think about what they are doing, instead of acting in the moment? Yet this is the way many of us train and teach.

So it’s at this point we start to clearly define that there is a difference between refining and developing technique, and the creative application of said technique.

The simple example of this is high level competition, where the players or teams train equally hard and yet one team wins consistently. I’m not saying creativity is the only factor in situations like this but it’s one that is often overlooked, leaving coaches and players resorting to more technical development when technique may not be the issue in the first place.

The fact is the longer we train in our so-called traditional mindset the more rigid in body and mind we become, leaving us finding it extremely hard to adapt to the curve balls that life will inevitably throw our way.

The way most of us teach sees the majority of our student becoming too rigid before they have developed flexibility.

As a martial artist whose foundations are in Taekwondo, it occurs to me that much of the negative attitude about the Korean arts’ lack of functionality stems not from its technique, but from the highly restrictive paradigm most schools create. And yet a kick boxer or K1 fighter would not be viewed in the same light, leading us to the conclusion that the lack of creativity stems from the training.

In a world so immersed in sticky back plastic, fast food and set scenarios we are rapidly losing our ability to think for ourselves, adding merit to the old martial saying ” Whatever technique you plan to throw is always the wrong one”.

Ok! Enough bad talk. So what’s the solution – how do we cross this chasm? Divergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is defined as the thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.

This ability to perceive a kaleidoscope of options and opportunities is essential for combat as well as successful living. Most will simply call it problem solving or even initiative; either way it is an aspect many martial artists have forgone in exchange for further technical development.

In understanding that the ability to adapt, out-think and find effective solutions in any scenario requires divergent thinking, it makes sense to develop this cognitive process in our students. A positive gain in this is that by developing this ability in our students we will not only be enabling them to out-think their training partners or competitors but also better deal with the unexpected events that will occur in one’s lifetime.

This means that as teachers we must allow our students to get things wrong as many times as it takes them to find their own way, whilst at the same time not neglecting technique. Unlike the majority of educational institutions that encourage rote learning (memory) we will encourage our students to problem solve, finding their own solutions and often surprising us along the way.

As teachers it’s vital that we provide room in training drills for interpretation and don’t just force feed what we were fed. One option is to provide a problem and let the students figure their own way around it, then after some time of playing with the dilemma provide them with an answer, remembering to say that it is just “an” answer, NOT “the” answer, inferring that there is only one way to deal with the obstacle.

One training component that I feel is a great tool here are our Poomse/Kata’s or forms. We are taught and accept these form and training routines without question in the pursuit of a higher rank or status, and yet few ever look at them. What’s more, some are given pre-set solutions to what these moments could possibly be, taking away any opportunity for the student to investigate and create an understanding of their own. Maybe next time you teach Poomse or a Kata ask your students to paint the full picture as opposed to painting by numbers.

This strategy can be applied to most aspects of our training, and although long and potentially tedious, it is of great benefit to the practitioner.

By teaching in this manner, not only is training more immersive and fun for the student but we will cultivate a generation of creative thinkers. People who have a broad and open-minded approach to problems are able to perceive a variety of options where many only see one, and have the muscle to do what needs to be done. Right now the world needs them.

By Jason Smith

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