Martial arts basics

Neil got the ball rolling and asked me to join in. I gave it some thought and here’s my take on it.

His premise was that people often neglect the basics of their art because they either don’t understand the importance or think they’ve already done enough of them. Odds are these two reasons form the bulk of what causes the problem. On the other hand, I think that to a certain degree the main fault is always with the teacher. If his students don’t have good basics, he’s the one who failed to teach them. Though there are exceptions to this.

An example

In my Sanshou class, there is a specific progression when a new student starts:

  1. Fighting stance
  2. Basic footwork: forward, back, left, right.
  3. Straight punches: jab and cross.
  4. Straight knees: left and right.
  5. Hook punches: left and right.
  6. Push kick: back leg and step up with front leg.
  7. Round kick: back leg and step up with front leg.
  8. One basic throw and takedown.

The student starts by working in front of a mirror, doing ten reps before switching to another technique. As he won’t know many techniques in his first couple classes, he’ll do hundreds of straight punches before he even gets to the infamous round kick. Which is the whole point; I want to drill the basic techniques in first.

Back in the “good” old days, we’d do hundreds of reps of the same technique, non-stop. That’s just the way it was. In Asia, this still seems to be the way it is done in many styles. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, on the contrary. I’m a firm believer in doing your reps and the quality of movement in a traditionally trained martial artist is often light years beyond what modern practitioners can show. So this method does work.

The other side of the coin is that in Asia, people seem to accept the fact that you have to train the same thing over and over. And those who don’t aren’t allowed to protest and have to do it anyway. In the West, we want to know why you do things a certain way and want to have our say in the matter. Try the Asian way over here and you usually end up with very, very few students.

Some people say you should never adapt your teachings to your audience in the name of tradition. I think that’s bullshit. I strongly believe you get better results by a combination of ingraining basics with reps but also by adding slight variations as soon as a student performs them well enough.

Back to the example.

It takes about three months before a new student in my sanshou class is ready to join the group. However, that doesn’t mean they can only practice the seven points I listed before. As soon as they have a basic mastery of those, they also practice:

  • Combining the techniques with footwork: stationary striking vs. stepping forward as they strike.
  • Basic 1-2 combinations with those techniques: jab-cross, jab-R knee, etc.
  • One basic defense against each of these techniques.
  • Basic defense plus counter for each technique.
  • Working with a partner who moves around slowly.
  • Working on the heavy bag and other equipment.

It varies from one student to another but most of them can absorb these additions pretty easily.  The goal is to have the students practice each of the 8 points from my basics list non-stop for two to three months. Every class starts with revising everything they learned so far (getting the reps in) and then I add one (or several) of the additions from the second list, always checking to see if they can keep up.

This way, they automatically get their reps in but do so in a way that offers tons of variation. At the same time, it prepares them for what they’ll need to learn after they master the basics. Because as they’re learning these techniques, I start giving them the basic strategies and tactics inherent to the sport and then explain guidelines to learn them:

  • Basic strategy: hit the other guy and don’t get hit.
  • Basic tactic: either you’re attacking, or you’re moving out of range. Don’t be in range and do nothing.
  • Basic training guideline: As soon as you can do so in a technically correct manner, step forward as you attack and step away as you retract the last technique.

Every tactic and strategy they’ll learn after that is built upon their ability to understand and perform these three basic points. It’s only very late in their development as a fighter that I teach them when, why and how to break these rules.

From the get go, the whole process of learning is streamlined to bring them to a point of mastering the basics (at a beginner level) as soon as possible. That means they have to train a certain way, do things in a certain order every single class. As this structure makes them work the basics over and over, though every time from a slightly different angle, progress is usually fast. To avoid messing up this whole process, they are not allowed to improvise unless I explicitly tell them so.

Again, it all fits in a larger whole and as long as they aren’t technically proficient enough, as much fun as it can be, free-wheeling only slows down their progress. Basics come first.

It isn’t always honey and rainbows.

That said, not every student gets it and sometimes, I can’t change that. Some of them see the class as just something else to do in their lives. They’re basically just filling their time and using up oxygen. Most of those don’t last long in my class because they don’t want to put the effort in. That’s OK by me; I changed my approach to teaching a while ago to this:

  • Everybody trains for different reasons. Some of these similar to or the same as mine, others for different ones. As a teacher, I’ll try and help all students, regardless of their motivations to come to class.
  • However, I expect students to do as instructed to the best of their abilities, whatever these may be. If they don’t, then I’ll try to explain them the reasons why. Or at the very least say “It’ll avoid problems later on in your practice of the art.”
  • Students who take instruction well and practice hard get even more material and information to work with. Those who don’t get very little, if any. Each student decides for himself how hard he woks and therefor the pace of his progress is determined by him, not me.

If at the end of the day, a student doesn’t have solid basics then he’s either going to have to keep on working on them in class, not learning much else.  Or he’ll eventually drop out. Not only because he’ll get tired of practicing those basics (regardless of how much variety I put in there), he’ll also be unable to perform any technique that is slightly more difficult than a “mere” basic. While all the other students, the ones who trained as instructed, will have no problem with such techniques..

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Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this! Sooo true! Basics are important…..I guess some people just don’t realize that basics ARE mastery. Its common for some people to want to reach for the lofty skills, all the while thinking their basics are good enough after a mere few days of practice……the “self percieved skill” vs. the “actual skill” . :-)

  2. Thanks for posting this! Sooo true! Basics are important…..I guess some people just don’t realize that basics ARE mastery. Its common for some people to want to reach for the lofty skills, all the while thinking their basics are good enough after a mere few days of practice……the “self percieved skill” vs. the “actual skill” . :-)

  3. Dude, Sanshou? You’ve just described the core and heart of the karate-do that I learned in college. It’s cool to see that the foundations are just that – human biomechanical fighting principles that can’t really be changed from one art to the next. The foundation of Sanshou is the foundation of karate-do is the foundation of good taekwando, etc…

    cool…

  4. Dude, Sanshou? You’ve just described the core and heart of the karate-do that I learned in college. It’s cool to see that the foundations are just that – human biomechanical fighting principles that can’t really be changed from one art to the next. The foundation of Sanshou is the foundation of karate-do is the foundation of good taekwando, etc…

    cool…

  5. Both you and Neil have said it well, from what I have seen and experienced.

    Though not qualified to comment on most of what you’ve said, I have made many of the mistakes you refer to. First, I started teaching classes pretty much exactly the way my teacher teaches – or at least attempted to. That failed miserably.

    Then I tried teaching the same way only offering less on the menu. That, too, failed miserably.

    After several years of chasing off almost every student that showed up, I started studying the situation, hoping to figure out the cause and make some course corrections in terms of whether me teaching was such a good idea. (Good thing I didn’t need to make an income for all this schooling I was getting:-)

    In the end it seemed like to me that maybe things are different here in the U.S. Similar to your comparison of the Asian approach to teaching, which I have actually been ok with as a student: here it just doesn’t seem to work. There is less motivation, less commitment, and very very short attention spans. My teacher once said that students often just want to be entertained. Well, that gets old too.

    But there was more to it for me. Though I don’t train martial artists for competitive application. I am in health care and do feel that what we offer is valuable to my patients and will make a huge difference in their lives. Therefore if my offering is so weak that it doesn’t “sell” well I have a choice: figure out how to offer it in such a way that more folks get what they need; or decide that it doesn’t matter to me, and do it for another reason or stop teaching.

    Like most things, I decided to take it on as a game. I still don’t teach to make an income (though don’t tell that to the IRS), but I do teach to learn. One of the things that is worth learning for me is, what and how can the student be motivated to do what they need to do to have the experience that will impress on them the value of the teaching. In other words, I attempt to use tai chi principles. And I trick them – in the Socratic sense of the term.

    It’s begun to work too. At least I have less of a feeling of being a failure; and I have more students who stay longer, get hurt less, and have more fun.

    The trouble is, that still isn’t doesn’t mean that students practice more – so as you said, they stay right there in the starting blocks always repeating beginner steps. And, I still have trouble repeating myself for the umpteenth time when someone chooses not to do something correctly and clearly understands and could if they wanted to. I tent to just quit mentioning it, and progress ends there. I am working on being totally ok with that.

    It seems the traditional methods (Asian in particular), what little I know of them, are based on sound principles of weeding out those not “fit” to bestow the treasures of the teaching on. Recall the opening scenes of the 1970’s TV series, “Kung Fu.” For a very long time it was just kids sitting on the ground, waiting – rain or shine – and waiting and waiting. Seems the teachers weren’t up for wasting their time on those who were not sufficiently motivated or committed.

    That was then and there; this is here and now:-)

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Dennis, being a teacher is a mixed bag. Personally, I love it and take the “bad” that comes with all the good. but sometimes, you wish you could just slap your students. Wait… I CAN do that! ;-)
      Seriously, it’s a long road and it takes time to mature as a teacher. I remember how crappy I was when I started. but I was fortunate to have excellent teachers along the way and got to copy the best things I learned from their approach to passing on the art.
      As for the Asian method, I think that sometimes, students were left without a choice. Remember the interview with Yang Chen Fu’s son Dan mentioned and how he spoke about his father. Ii looks like the training was harsh and left the son not really appreciative, putting it mildly…

  6. Both you and Neil have said it well, from what I have seen and experienced.

    Though not qualified to comment on most of what you’ve said, I have made many of the mistakes you refer to. First, I started teaching classes pretty much exactly the way my teacher teaches – or at least attempted to. That failed miserably.

    Then I tried teaching the same way only offering less on the menu. That, too, failed miserably.

    After several years of chasing off almost every student that showed up, I started studying the situation, hoping to figure out the cause and make some course corrections in terms of whether me teaching was such a good idea. (Good thing I didn’t need to make an income for all this schooling I was getting:-)

    In the end it seemed like to me that maybe things are different here in the U.S. Similar to your comparison of the Asian approach to teaching, which I have actually been ok with as a student: here it just doesn’t seem to work. There is less motivation, less commitment, and very very short attention spans. My teacher once said that students often just want to be entertained. Well, that gets old too.

    But there was more to it for me. Though I don’t train martial artists for competitive application. I am in health care and do feel that what we offer is valuable to my patients and will make a huge difference in their lives. Therefore if my offering is so weak that it doesn’t “sell” well I have a choice: figure out how to offer it in such a way that more folks get what they need; or decide that it doesn’t matter to me, and do it for another reason or stop teaching.

    Like most things, I decided to take it on as a game. I still don’t teach to make an income (though don’t tell that to the IRS), but I do teach to learn. One of the things that is worth learning for me is, what and how can the student be motivated to do what they need to do to have the experience that will impress on them the value of the teaching. In other words, I attempt to use tai chi principles. And I trick them – in the Socratic sense of the term.

    It’s begun to work too. At least I have less of a feeling of being a failure; and I have more students who stay longer, get hurt less, and have more fun.

    The trouble is, that still isn’t doesn’t mean that students practice more – so as you said, they stay right there in the starting blocks always repeating beginner steps. And, I still have trouble repeating myself for the umpteenth time when someone chooses not to do something correctly and clearly understands and could if they wanted to. I tent to just quit mentioning it, and progress ends there. I am working on being totally ok with that.

    It seems the traditional methods (Asian in particular), what little I know of them, are based on sound principles of weeding out those not “fit” to bestow the treasures of the teaching on. Recall the opening scenes of the 1970’s TV series, “Kung Fu.” For a very long time it was just kids sitting on the ground, waiting – rain or shine – and waiting and waiting. Seems the teachers weren’t up for wasting their time on those who were not sufficiently motivated or committed.

    That was then and there; this is here and now:-)

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Dennis, being a teacher is a mixed bag. Personally, I love it and take the “bad” that comes with all the good. but sometimes, you wish you could just slap your students. Wait… I CAN do that! ;-)
      Seriously, it’s a long road and it takes time to mature as a teacher. I remember how crappy I was when I started. but I was fortunate to have excellent teachers along the way and got to copy the best things I learned from their approach to passing on the art.
      As for the Asian method, I think that sometimes, students were left without a choice. Remember the interview with Yang Chen Fu’s son Dan mentioned and how he spoke about his father. Ii looks like the training was harsh and left the son not really appreciative, putting it mildly…

  7. Sure thing, Wim! Use the phrase as you see fit. I use the term a lot, to remind students to not dismiss basics as the “baby stuff”…when that happens, *poof*, the execution of basics goes downhill.

  8. Sure thing, Wim! Use the phrase as you see fit. I use the term a lot, to remind students to not dismiss basics as the “baby stuff”…when that happens, *poof*, the execution of basics goes downhill.

  9. You’ll never really learn martial arts until you know how to do the basics.

  10. You’ll never really learn martial arts until you know how to do the basics.

  11. Hi Wim

    I like your methodical approach to reinforcement and the basic strategy, tactic, guidline example you give is very sensible, productive way of teaching.

    Personally I detest the term basics as it reminds me of a lot of the nonsense I had to put up with when starting to learn. Now don’t get me wrong underlying fundamentals are key to progression, the trouble is that we had far to much emphasis on basic’s over fundamentals.

    Sounds like over fussy semantic’s I guess but there is substance in my rambling. We used to practise very basic technique over and over usually with very little reasoning beyond the ‘it was good enough for them’ type. This approach, basic training was reinforced continuously resulting in basic knowledge.

    If the emphasis is on the fundamentals underpining a system then you are onto something. If it is based around learning how to repeat a movement ‘just so’ it’s basic and pretty much wasted effort.

    For examlpe, in Goju they make you do san dan ge ad infinitum. This teaches you some very basic techniques, blocks and counters with a very basic timing rhythm. Fine for beginners as it’s easy enough to co-ordinate the strange movements. The trouble is that the extended ‘advanced’ versions of these drills while expanding the techniques retain the same 1,2,3 type of timing and distancing. This keeps things basic and provides a poor appreciation of the fundamentals of timing and distancing.

    This is harmful later down the line. When learning my nidan kata years later, we still practised san dan ge and my movement timing was ingrained in that basic way. I remember being on a course and being screamed at to do part of the nidan kata faster. But I didn’t know how to move faster and the instructor didn’t know how to teach me, or didn’t want to.

    If teaching the fundamentals of timing had included methods of closing distance quickly, I would have been better equipped to move better in the kata.

    of course everything we learnt wasn’t 1,2,3 pace and I did learn some great methods from a great Goju teacher later still. but I’m trying to explain something that was wrong with the general training i was getting.

    If the san dan ge training had incorporated fundamentals of closing the distance witin a the 1,2,3 timing beat it would have had greater value. As it stands IMO san dan ge has no value beyond the very first few lessons to familiarise students with basic techniques.

    Sorry for the ramble, but it’s a bit of a bug bear with me, basics should not be reinforced at the expense of the fundamentals….

    Jon Law

    PS
    Wim whlie you use the term basics I understand that you are referring to fundamentals rather than basic technique. I appreciate that you teach these fundamentals through basic technique execution.

    • Jon,

      When Animal mentioned his differentiation between basics and fundamentals years ago, we talked about it and I agreed with him. Nowadays, I don’t think it’s that simple anymore. Long story but that’s for another day. IMO and IME, how well you learn this depends completely on the teacher. I’ve been fortunate to have had teachers who give the goods right up front, explaining everything you need to know from the first class. If you train hard, you advance well enough and get more skilled. Years later, you see the full depth of what they taught during that first class: the basics/fundamentals.
      Good teachers will not lead you down a dead end street in your training . They’ll teach you how to drive and then give you a GPS, so to speak.

      I don’t practice Goju so I can’t comment. But if you’re looking for good teachers, I can recommend Kris Wilder and Lawrence Kane’s work. Really cool guys with a lot of knowledge.

  12. Hi Wim

    I like your methodical approach to reinforcement and the basic strategy, tactic, guidline example you give is very sensible, productive way of teaching.

    Personally I detest the term basics as it reminds me of a lot of the nonsense I had to put up with when starting to learn. Now don’t get me wrong underlying fundamentals are key to progression, the trouble is that we had far to much emphasis on basic’s over fundamentals.

    Sounds like over fussy semantic’s I guess but there is substance in my rambling. We used to practise very basic technique over and over usually with very little reasoning beyond the ‘it was good enough for them’ type. This approach, basic training was reinforced continuously resulting in basic knowledge.

    If the emphasis is on the fundamentals underpining a system then you are onto something. If it is based around learning how to repeat a movement ‘just so’ it’s basic and pretty much wasted effort.

    For examlpe, in Goju they make you do san dan ge ad infinitum. This teaches you some very basic techniques, blocks and counters with a very basic timing rhythm. Fine for beginners as it’s easy enough to co-ordinate the strange movements. The trouble is that the extended ‘advanced’ versions of these drills while expanding the techniques retain the same 1,2,3 type of timing and distancing. This keeps things basic and provides a poor appreciation of the fundamentals of timing and distancing.

    This is harmful later down the line. When learning my nidan kata years later, we still practised san dan ge and my movement timing was ingrained in that basic way. I remember being on a course and being screamed at to do part of the nidan kata faster. But I didn’t know how to move faster and the instructor didn’t know how to teach me, or didn’t want to.

    If teaching the fundamentals of timing had included methods of closing distance quickly, I would have been better equipped to move better in the kata.

    of course everything we learnt wasn’t 1,2,3 pace and I did learn some great methods from a great Goju teacher later still. but I’m trying to explain something that was wrong with the general training i was getting.

    If the san dan ge training had incorporated fundamentals of closing the distance witin a the 1,2,3 timing beat it would have had greater value. As it stands IMO san dan ge has no value beyond the very first few lessons to familiarise students with basic techniques.

    Sorry for the ramble, but it’s a bit of a bug bear with me, basics should not be reinforced at the expense of the fundamentals….

    Jon Law

    PS
    Wim whlie you use the term basics I understand that you are referring to fundamentals rather than basic technique. I appreciate that you teach these fundamentals through basic technique execution.

    • Jon,

      When Animal mentioned his differentiation between basics and fundamentals years ago, we talked about it and I agreed with him. Nowadays, I don’t think it’s that simple anymore. Long story but that’s for another day. IMO and IME, how well you learn this depends completely on the teacher. I’ve been fortunate to have had teachers who give the goods right up front, explaining everything you need to know from the first class. If you train hard, you advance well enough and get more skilled. Years later, you see the full depth of what they taught during that first class: the basics/fundamentals.
      Good teachers will not lead you down a dead end street in your training . They’ll teach you how to drive and then give you a GPS, so to speak.

      I don’t practice Goju so I can’t comment. But if you’re looking for good teachers, I can recommend Kris Wilder and Lawrence Kane’s work. Really cool guys with a lot of knowledge.

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