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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More cotton, less polyester

ICP Monitor

By Jason Smith

In looking back the time seems to have flown, and it’s hard to believe what has come to pass. What’s more, I know it’s just the beginning.

I’m in my 4th year of treatment for intracranial hypertension an enigmatic condition at the best of times, let alone in relatively healthy men. However when the doctors told me that my condition was serious and that I should be prepared for the worst, I guess that’s where it really started.

I always considered myself to be quite fit and healthy, so when the head aches started I put it down to the usual lack of water intake, or not eating enough of the right foods. Maybe I needed to see my chiropractor, or have a good massage, Hell! Let’s just do both. But 12 months later things are not showing any signs of improvement, in fact they took a turn for the worse as I started to go blind.

So what has this to do with martial training? The precarious situation I found myself in had gifted me the opportunity to ask several questions of myself, which in turn has made me question much of what we do as an industry.

The Questions:

Given the severity of my condition how relative was my training or my black belt? Who and or what is a black belt?.

What are the attributes and attitudes of what we consider worthy of a – black belt?

Why are these questions so hard to answer? When did the answers become so illusive?

and why should we care?

And after all this self diagnosis, can we find it in ourselves to restore or better yet, improve upon the old foundations of what we believe we stand for in the martial arts.

All important questions to face, and yet our tendency to over look or simply take the easiest way out has led us in a direction that may be financially lucrative but not ethically or morally sound. Furthermore it’s this same attitude that is leading us dollar over dollar further away from the true values of martial training.

I’m only 40 years old and in my 30th year of training, a relative green eyed beginner in the eyes of many, and yet even for me it’s easy to see the ever increasing gap between where we started and where we are now.

Please don’t misunderstand me, many of the developments that have taken place in martial arts industry could, or would not have happened if not for many of the developments that have aided it over the past 30 years, however we must make sure that we do not allow the shiny finish and bright lights of these developments to distract us from our true martial purpose – Service.

I doubt you’ll find a martial arts school out there regardless of style or system that recognise the importance of effective combative skills and the ability to fight with intent, speed, accuracy, power and control, control of your body as well that that of your opponent. But what about those other unspoken qualities? Values like virtue, patience, kindness, self control under immense pressure to name but a few.

Over the years I’ve had numerous discussions regarding the practice and implementation of principles in martial training, and wether they help or hinder us in a real life self defence situation.

As an industry largely fuelled by kids activities we know the commercial value of spouting the high values tag line in pitching your school to parents and educational institutions, however how relative is it to a truly combative situation.

To be honest I feel these values have little to offer us in the face of real gratuitous violence, the birth place of martial arts, so how is it relevant to what we practice?

As martial arts teachers we have the perfect avenue and ability to teach Not just combative skills, but real world self defence.

I’m not talking Krav Maga or the Kaysi fighting methods, I’m talking “REAL EVERYDAY SELF DEFENCE”.

To put this in context, we first need to ask ” What are we fighting against?”.

I was listening to Master Tom Callos, a martial artist who I’ve come to respect and whom I consider to be of high moral value.

He raised this same question “Do you teach real self defence?”, to which most would reply a confident “yes”, and yet when I followed his lead and sought confirmation from the ABS ( The Australian Bureau of Statistics) and the AIHW ( Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) the list was not surprising but still slightly discomforting.

When it comes to martial arts, the top 20 causes of death in Australia have got very little to do with combative skills.

The fact is you have a less than 5% chance of being physically assaulted, with 31% of assaults these taking place in the victims own home, with 63% of the victims knowing their offender.

You have a 4 – 5% chance of being Diabetic, of which 58% is preventable. Of those effected by Diabetes half will be overweight or obese.

You have a 33% chance of dyeing from cardiovascular disease, and a 30% chance of having to deal with Cancer, of which 55% will be within men.

These are but 2 areas highly featured in the Australian causes of death index, but I’ve listed the top 20 results of the Australian 2012 causes of death index.

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So as graphic, glossy and perversely attractive as combative self defence is, the world of Real Self Defence is much closer than many are aware. What more our combative armour doesn’t help us in these real life circumstances, in fact in many ways it cages us, seeing us eroding ourselves whilst trapped in an armour many of us have invested a lifetime crafting.

I can only say this as I sit on my hospital bed grateful for the broad road I’ve been able to travel on, enabling me to invest in myself not just physically, but also mentally and philosophically.

Sitting in a hospital bed affords me a perspective far from that of the bright red and blue mats of my Dojang, and the skills needed to navigate its challenges require a trained mind and a strong spirit.

Many of the people on my ward no longer have their physicality, so their mental strength and Spirit keep them going. What Tony Robbins refers to as emotional fitness and psychological stamina.

I used to see grumpy men and women, now I just see frustrated warriors trapped in a shell they used to own with confidence. Honestly ask yourself, Wouldn’t you be a little grumpy too?

It’s these often unspoken skills, these buy products of martial training that develop these essential coping skills, and when we look at the statistics I think even the most hard headed of martial arts instructors and teachers would have to agree that our training focus has to broaden.

So if martial arts schools do not promote mental and emotional values in the same proportion as physical training, much the same way that many academic schools do not favour the creative arts over literacy, mathematics or the sciences, how can we expect our students to develop these attributes. Furthermore what does the future for martial arts hold if we don’t hold ourselves accountable for shaping it.

I don’t believe that mental and spiritual training was an intended development for most martial arts. I believe it to be a buy product of war and combative training, to assist in the resolution and management of mental/emotional trauma and hardship, much like returning soldiers dealing with conditions such as P.S.T.D (Post Traumatic Stress disorder). So in knowing that when the physical battle comes to an end the mental and the emotional battle begins, the physical training on its own is not enough to sustain the individual.

However given that today’s battles are vastly different from those who pioneered our art of choice, I feel we need to teach relevant skills to our people. Therefore I urge all those standing at the front of the class to give your students higher standards to strive too. Not just in their martial training but the way in which they live their lives.

You have the tools, lead by example, and expect more from them in the form of values and community contribution, and I’m sure they’ll surprise you, evolving into the highly skilled, balanced renaissance men and women of tomorrow.

Jung Shin

Martial art’s – a parents guide

The family that trains together...

By Jason Smith

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon and a mother takes her 6 year old son to a local martial arts school for the first time. The child steps through the door and is over come with a feeling of energy and excitement as they see the apparatus, equipment, other students and of course, the master.

Delighted to see her child swept up in this whirlwind of excitement, she is happy to let the child kick off his shoes and take part in his first class, embarking on the magical journey of the martial arts, and yet something is missing.

In over 2 decades of being involved in martial arts I don’t believe I’ve ever heard any body ask for a form of certification, proof of first aid or what more a police check, or child safety notice. It appears that the wearing of pajamas and a belt seem to be qualification enough to many parents to expose their child to the teachings of a stranger.

When your child is approaching school age, there tends to be an intensive period of looking into schooling. Which school is the right one for my child, which school provides the best facilities, echo’s the values you believe in, and of course is the best value for money. However when it comes to after school activities, there appears to be a significant drop in responsibility.

Principles and values:

In the past few years martial arts schools have received some bad press due to issues of street violence, bullying and of course the zero tolerance policies in schools.

There will always be bad apples, but this does not mean that martial arts have little value, in fact it’s quite the opposite.

The general misunderstanding is that martial arts makes kids violent, or provides them with the tools to become more dangerous in physicality. However, if taught correctly the focus in the teaching of martial arts is around core values and principles, such as perseverance, courtesy and self-control. In addition to this it also addresses areas of cognitive development, fine and gross motor skills, and creative thinking.

It’s these values that define a martial art as well as it’s practitioners, and therefore if the parent does not find out what the values of what their child is learning hour after hour each week the results can be confronting. I know of many martial arts school’s who prohibit parents from watching classes, although I know that  not all the reasons for this are negative, it still doesn’t build confidence.

As a parent I strongly recommend watching your child train, not only does this provide you with the skills and knowledge to assist your child in their development in their new activity, but also give you a greater understanding of what your child gains from the training.

For those parents willing to take the extra step, I strongly recommend training along side your child. This not only provides you with first hand experience of what your child is learning, but gives you high quality structured parenting time, as well as provides them with and exemplary role model that few children seem to have today, a parent that leads by example.

I receive many call’s from parents asking what martial art is best for their child, my general response is “it’s doesn’t matter, if it is taught right”. The same analogy can be said in reverse, as you could find the best martial art for your child’s body type, but have a terrible teacher who has questionable values. Much like at school, a great teacher can produce a great student, but you have to find them, and this often involves looking around and seeking references.

We are fortunate to have some great martial arts school’s on offer in the Northern beaches, many offering family classes, so do your research.

As a parent seeking to have your child take part in a martial arts activity or school my advice is the following:

Speak to instructors regarding the values and principles taught.

Talk to parents who have children training at the martial arts school.

Ask if the school is accredited and or certified.

Syllabus structure.

Check that there is a first aid box and trained first aid staff.

Martial art is in essence a way of building character through physical training. Bullies have always been around and do not need to have trained in martial arts to be effective. But “ Good” martial arts training can save your child from being bullied.

As I say to my students, “Wearing a black belt does not make you a good person, but being a black belt does”.

For further information in regard to martial arts school’s and their benefit for your child email info@spirittaekwondo.com.au