For centuries, being the uke of a skilled instructor has caused cold sweat and second thoughts in students. There’s something about bowing and walking toward your impending doom that seems like a bad idea.
Times have changed somewhat, and with the increase in school sizes and seminars students are more likely to watch techniques from an expert rather than experience them. In fact, a lot of students get good at melding into the background when the instructor gazes around the room for viable volunteers.
This begs the question – what do you get out of watching a technique vs experiencing it?
Back in the ‘ooool days, teachers didn’t do a lot of active discussion. They mostly demanded repetition from students and then tossed them around to demonstrate technique. There’s something intangibly effective about this method (just watch the old masters for proof).
However, we’ve learned a lot more about pedagogy since then and the ways in which we can maximize human learning.
It’s silly to ignore the value of discussion, explanation, and cognitive science. That’s why western style teaching has ultimately influenced martial arts all over the world. A dominant part of the western teaching philosophy is watching and listening (just imagine any given classroom).
When you watch a martial art technique performed, you get a big picture sense of what’s happening. You can observe the distance between the two opponents, the way the engagement occurs, and the way it concludes.
A detail-oriented teacher can explain the ways in which he/she is using physics to maximize force or leverage. They can show how and why they are disrupting their opponent’s timing or balance.
This is all very valuable input, but not a complete learning experience. Think of it this way: You could watch Xgames skateboarders every day for ten years, including every instructional video made. Armed with all that knowledge, what do you think is STILL going to happen the first time you step onto a skateboard?
You might think to yourself…well yea Matt, your point is obvious – a student has to train to get better. That’s why we do partner drills after an explanation, so that we can try the technique!
Not so fast.
Two people that don’t know the technique can help each other improve…but are either truly doing what the instructor is doing? Is it as good? How do you know?
Being the uke for an experienced instructor, while often regrettably painful, offers a unique learning experience. You get to feel exactly where the pain is supposed to focus, how the body’s balance is broken, where the points of relaxation and emphasis are placed, and what rhythm is needed to optimize effectiveness.
In addition, you get to feel the energy and spirit pressure placed upon you by someone at a higher skill level.
Of course, there’s a flipside. When acting as uke during intense techniques, your mind is often narrowed and sometimes blanked by the intensity of the event. You can certainly feel things, but recalling exactly how it happened (and why) is another story. There have been many occasions where I’ve been uke for an instructor and shortly after their demonstration I’ve walked back to my training partner in order to ask what happened.
Receiving high level technique is critically important…but not independently ideal.
The Best of Both Worlds
Maximizing your learning potential requires a little bravery. First, you have to take your best blending-in-with-the-crowd tactics and stuff them in a box under your bed. Get up there and experience the real thing. On top of that, you can’t be afraid to ask questions, even if it means going through another round of demonstration.
On the other hand, you don’t want to get too caught up in the action. Give yourself a chance to slow down and really look at what’s going on. Analyze the science in order to get to the art.
Remember: technique speed and physical strength are the go-to methods of students who are trying to breeze over the finer details of a technique. Do things slow and relaxed until you get it right. Pay attention to the small things like foot placement, body movement, angle, timing, etc.
If you have a teacher who tends to discuss technique while relying on partner pairing, politely wait for him or her to become available and ask to see the technique a bit closer. Every teacher I know is happy to oblige such requests.
There’s no question that caution and common sense should always guide your training, and I’m not suggesting you throw yourself headlong at every teacher you see (that would be impolite, and some teachers should genuinely be avoided because they lack control). But if you are with a good, kind teacher that also happens to be very skilled…it’s in your best interest to experience what they can do first hand.
There’s nothing more valuable to a martial arts teacher than good questions. When someone asks me a great one (and even shows the patience to listen to my answer) it just makes my day.
When I have some insight to a question, I enjoy sharing relevant stories and details that I think might help the student’s progress.
When I’m stumped, I get to say to myself: “Oh sh**………I dunno!” (also known as OSID moments).
OSID moments are worth their weight in gold and can be more helpful in a teacher’s development than any secret scroll found in the mountains of Japan guarded by the Tengu. The more experience you gain, the more knowledge you gain. But an OSID moment is a brief glimpse into an area of your study that you have either overlooked or shortchanged during your research. Furthermore, an OSID moment invites you to peek outside of your own box, which can become rather thick and opaque if you’re not careful.
It’s true, receiving questions is vital to a teacher. We also know that getting answers is essential to any student (almost goes without saying). Why then do we often find ourselves (both as students and teachers) in situations where question-asking-paranoia kicks in?
What is question-asking-paranoia?
It’s that flutter in your stomach. That cold sweat of uncertainty that takes your half raised hand and slams it back down to your side. The symptoms develop differently at every stage of your martial training, and the internal dialogue often goes like this:
Early stage: “Ohh man, I’m just a noob. I barely know enough to stand on my own two feet let alone ask any relevant questions. The other students are going to think I’m an idiot!”
Middle stage: “Ohh man, I’m in brown belt territory. If I want to test for black belt I better not show any gaps in what I know. I think I’ll clam up until after black belt so I don’t look like an idiot.”
Late stage: “Ohh man, I’m a black belt now and the other students are looking up to me. I better pretend like I know all this stuff already or they might think I’m an idiot!”
Very late stage: “Ohh man, I’m an Nth degree black belt and super guru. I couldn’t possibly ask a question…in fact, they should be asking ME questions. These guys are idiots.”
When you compare these very common mental roadblocks with the true value of questions (as clarified above), you’ll see the incongruity. This is a disease of the ego and of external perceptions which hinders your progress.
During your training you’ll almost inevitably find yourself fall into a trap just like this. I’d like to give you express e-permission to ignore it. Your ability to ask valuable questions should be practiced just as much as any punch, kick, or stance. In fact, your long term growth will depend on it.
Monday was suspiciously nice outside. For those of us in the Northeastern U.S., warm weather has only visited once or twice in the last five months. Therefore, it was with great trepidation that I took a step outside in order to get the mail a block away.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be t-shirt weather, with a slight breeze and hint of Spring in the air. I started off for the mailbox using my “winter speed walk”, but before long slowed down to a leisurely pace. It was midday so there were no cars buzzing through the lot nor children ambling about. All I could hear was the faint clacking of my shoes against the pavement.
After arriving at the mailbox I decided it might be appropriate to take the long route back to my apartment; a winding stretch of macadam that traces the treeline and wraps around a few extra buildings.
While traveling the path I fell into a comfortable rhythm, not mindfully set…just natural. I observed which trees had decided to push toward blooming, and which were still suspicious of impending frost (not unlike myself a few minutes earlier). I also passed my gaze over nearby apartments, decorations, birdhouses….anything that came into view. Not analyzing anything, just recognizing them as they slipped in and away.
I was enjoying this soft no-mind when suddenly I was invaded by an uncomfortable feeling. Guilt. Back at the apartment I had bills waiting, a lunch to make, and dishes to do. Before my walk I had heard about more struggles in Japan and Syria, not to mention a nearby house that had burnt down (as reported by the local news).
All of those misfortunes…and I was out strolling about.
For a moment it seemed unfathomable that I would be so negligent of the world and my responsibilities.
My loss of focus, or perhaps loss of conscientious non-focus, is not surprising. Indeed, the mind is a complex network that can sometimes work against it’s own benefit. We, as modern humans, seem to yearn for simplicity and quiet; yet when those rare moments arrive our minds fight back and remind us of our duties and concerns.
As a society we’ve adapted a few methods to combat this issue, the most prominent being ‘vacation’. A lot of people can temporarily suspend their guilt and give themselves permission to relax. Even so, usually after a few days the ‘real world’ creeps back in steadily. Most parents I know don’t experience much vacation even when on vacation.
On a day to day, week to week basis it can be extremely difficult to find ways to push out the world at large and find time to reset the mind and spirit.
That being said, let me ask: how often do you worry about bills during kata training? What about the kid’s soccer practice while sparring?
My guess is that those external matters rarely creep in on you. In fact, those few training moments are probably your most focused throughout the entire day, or even week.
To perform a kata even remotely well, you need to pay exacting attention to what you’re doing. Eventually you can even experience mushin. But the benefit of kata is that it maintains your focus and consistently draws you back into the moment. If you drift into other emotions (like I allowed myself to do during my walk) your kata will crumble. Naturally you don’t want that to happen so your odds of course correction are much higher.
Good martial arts training can suspend time for you. It’s often said that your training shouldn’t stop at the dojo door, which is true. But it’s certainly permissible to leave your troubles at the door when entering.