May 10, 2011

The Taijutsu Primer

Subject: Beginners training again

Hi Jim!

Recently I had the opportunity to take the beginners training at our dojo again (I'd stopped recently due to baby-related activities), and this time I was taking the class by myself. I was hugely inspired by your recent posts on training methodology (Ode to a warhammer, the girl who learned taijutsu in 10 mins, etc.) and I think that the classes went very well as a result. Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me for really enjoyable and educational training.

It was especially nice to hear from one woman who had literally just started that she found the way I taught to be much more "fundamental" or "basic" than the other instructors and so she could get a grip much more easily on the training. Having trained with Steve in London and attending your seminars plus discussions, blogs, etc. I think that you guys have a really great way of training, especially for beginners who have no context to begin with.

One thing I noticed is that it's very easy (at least for me) to slip into teaching techniques as it is much, much easier than teaching principles. Coming up with a good drill to illustrate distance/balance/timing is a lot harder than "hey, here is my version of Ichimonji which I picked up from a DVD". Also, teaching techniques conditions the students to "win" when they are tori. A really valuable thing that I picked up from training with Steve was "get hit!". I find myself constantly reminding the students that getting hit or making mistakes is perfectly fine and that this is how you learn. As my instructor says: "it's always frustrating to do something that you can't do!". I think (I hope!) that the students are responding to this and finding the training ultimately more rewarding as a result.

So, this is a long-winded way of saying "Thanks!" for all the inspiration! If you have any fun drills that you've been doing recently, I'd love to hear about them.

il Colosseo, 80 AD
Always great to hear from you! Very happy these ideas are working - we've been having much success with them and are planning to take them even further. In fact, we've created a 'Taijutsu primer.' Much like our 'Ukemi primer,' it is geared to transfer physical understanding through contextual movement. Its elements are Taijutsu principles, position (re-positioning), leverage, and initiative (which is like timing, but not exactly); they are introduced solely as waypoints during the primer and are usually only confirmed to the student once they are actually doing them.

The idea is to coach the student to navigate through their movement with a partner with only as much information as is absolutely necessary, which, it turns out, is hardly any at all. In fact, in this case, less is not just more, it is way more - I've gotten people moving with just a sentence or two and (here's the weird part) without showing them any kind of physical example, forcing them to do it on their own and make sense of it.

The Pantheon, 126 AD
Remember, people are up against their biases - waiting to be taught, which seems to shut off their own cognitive skills, and waiting for permission to become able, appealing to us as 'expert' for confirmation and approval of what they are doing. Therefore, one of the jobs in context training is to eliminate those biases and reactivate the student's own 'common sense,' thus empowering the student to own their movement. The way this is done is by allowing the student to discover it for themselves, so the last thing they need is a lot of yakking from us and multiple technical examples. Just let them do it. They will.

Oculus of the Pantheon
It is difficult to describe the primer because as we move through it I am gauging comprehension, making points as needed. I was thinking of writing it out to create some sort of checklist, but decided otherwise, concerned it would simply become a technique in and of itself, which it is not. However, I think it might be helpful to at least have a framework.

The key is to use two principles to illuminate a third. For instance, if talking about leverage - balance - then show it through re-positioning and initiative. If describing re-positioning, show it through leverage and initiative and so on - two will always get you the third. Think of Pythagoras and his theorem.

First, set the tone - this is important. Tell students this is easy. Tell them martial arts are natural and they can already do this, you're simply going to coach them through it. Psychologically, this eases their mind.

So, here we go: Take their hands. Then move and take their balance. Show them that re-positioning breaks their balance and gives you leverage. Let them do it to you. Get their feet moving and allow them to connect re-positioning with breaking the balance. Once they've gained leverage, show them this is the time to keep moving, but in a new direction that places their partner into an even worse state of balance and they fall over.

Piazza del Popolo
I usually emphasize only a few things throughout all of this: breaking/taking balance and downing partners to their back or stomach, because it's a solid outcome everyone can get. Also, make sure they 'give way to gravity' and let it work for them - this has to do with having enough space/position. The last bit is to emphasize 'leading' the opponent - think 'leading' in dancing - instead of waiting for the opponent's attack and reacting to it (more on this below).

Now, increase the distance between partners - make them reach for each other. Same drill, same outcome, same feeling - re-position, break the balance, gain leverage, change direction, re-position and so on.

Now, sit everyone on the floor. Start over by them holding hands. Same drill - take partners out of balance and to their back or stomach, but they have to stay on the floor, no standing up. You'll be surprised to find how creative some people's movement will become here and with little direction. Just keep telling them to put partners on their back or stomach. Now, increase the distance - make them reach for each other. Same drill. To switch it up, you can have one of them stand up mid-movement to gain leverage on the other.

Trevi Fountain, Bernini design, 1762, Rome
Lastly, stand them all back up and repeat. And that's it. The less talked about the better. You can even add weapons. Done it. It works just as well (I've had newbies using a hanbo successfully inside a few minutes).

Suffice it to say, the student needs to comprehend just three things to begin successful application:
1. Maneuvering begets opportunity
2. Opportunity begets advantage
3. Advantage begets maneuvering

You can think of it as (initiative begets) re-positioning begets leverage begets initiative begets ... and so on. Or think of it like this - where students need to be moving, what or how they need to be moving there, and when to keep moving.

Throne of St. Peter, Bernini, 1666, St.
Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
See, positioning is actually re-positioning, we never really stop moving, ever. I mean, even when we stand still, the body is still shifting itself minutely for balance. So, this re-positioning - moving to a new location - physically places us into new space that may hold opportunity to use against the opponent. Leverage occurs by recognizing the opportunity of that new space to upset the opponent's equilibrium, which grants some advantage against them - we're in balance, they are not, we can strike them, they cannot strike us.

Once we have secured some advantage, however small, we can exploit it by again changing direction and re-positioning. In effect, we can increase our advantage and decrease the opponent's opportunity to gain advantage over us. Like I tell my folks, the more we get the opponent thinking about themselves (by gaining leverage on them), the less time they have to think about us, and that's a good thing.

Now, it may seem like the key to all this is just to keep moving, or breaking balance, or something, but it's more complex than that. It's really initiative, the most obscure of the three, that provides the gravity here, the connectivity, the 'God particle,' if you will, to the scale that balances position and leverage. Students are out to create and control moments, 'lucky' moments, which are by definition, 'in the right place at the right time.'

Michelangelo's Pieta, 1499, St. Peter's Basilica,
Vatican City. He was just 24.
So, 'when' becomes the crucial decider - when students move, when they change direction, etc, which is why this concept of 'leading' the opponent is so very important to any success here. Waiting for the opponent is useful only at the very beginning (allowing them to take hold from a grab, for example), so students can measure balance. But once they've done it, have a sense of it, move away from the idea quickly making sure students are consistently ahead, earlier, than their partner/opponent. This is absolutely vital. Don't let them get grabbed - make sure they are moving with enough space to gain leverage on their partner (this is where partners actually start to contribute to their own demise).

Now, were you to explain all this to a new student, they would jump off a bridge. So, don't. The trick is to allow it to occur on its own, casually - remember, this is something they can already do, they just don't realize it. Our job is to allow them to realize and recognize it. Context is the key - clear away only what they do not need, only what impedes them (generally too much information - like this write up!) and folks can do this on their own.

See, when you dissect it, it really doesn't sound very cool, does it? But, I'm telling you, when it hits, and that person "gets it" - look out, you're in for some awesome. This is powerful medicine because at the end you tell them it is now theirs - they own it - it is their responsibility, it will not improve without continued training, and they should use it only to defend themselves or protect others, thus 'activating' them. The smile alone is worth it.

Michelangelo's The Last Judgement, 1541, the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
The power of context is a funny thing - we usually take it for granted, like this: Tomo and I are invited to dinner by one of her friends - a lovely young couple, with a three-year-old boy, who is adorable. So, we have a nice dinner and the whole time the kid is racing around playing with his toys. I engage him at one point playing with this exaggerated clock, where the dial spins and makes noise and the kid can set the time and all kinds of crap.

The kid's having fun, so I look at my watch - 10:30pm - and I say to him, can you show me on your freaky little clock thingy, what time this is? And I show him my watch. He looks at my watch, looks at the clock, back at the watch, the clock, watch, clock ... And I'm thinking, just move the clock hands, kiddo. And then Dad strolls over, "He's three. He doesn't know time. We're lucky if he shits in the bathroom."

See? What a lesson in context! Forget teaching students to tell time, understand the nature of time, contemplate time - maybe we should first make sure they can shit in the bathroom.

Let me know how it goes. I'd appreciate any insights.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Insightful, and in context of understanding your post then applying the info... I dont think I can make it to the bathroom. Good on ye, thanks.