Friday, 4 May 2012

The Foundation and Structure of Learning

Years ago I sat in the audience at a brown belt test for a friend's dojo. It was towards the end and the guy going up for his brown belt had done all of his kata and one step sparring and all that stuff. Now it was time for the actual sparring. As they bowed and began to spar it became painfully clear this kid had no idea what he was doing. A much lower belt rank was just picking him off at will and he seemed to be just looking for a spinning backfist because he couldn't think of anything else. He had done all of his kata correctly and his one step spars and demonstrations went fine. So what happened?

This is something that is all too common that we will revisit later in the article. For those that haven't read my other articles I've been involved in martial arts since I was 4 years old back in 1977. For the last several years I've developed programs for Law Enforcement here in the United States. This gave me a greatly different perspective as a teacher and really changed the way I look at curriculums and structure.

You see with law enforcement I don't get the luxury of giving long term training. I have to teach in a way that they can learn and retain in a very short time span. If I can't break things down to a strong foundation within a couple days then I've honestly wasted their time. I think being forced into doing this made me a much better teacher and gave me so much more of an understanding of what I need to do.

As I’ve visited departments over the years and seen other programs out there I've noticed some striking similarities between defensive tactics training and martial arts that was both disturbing and enlightening at the same time. The problems I found in the short two day programs seemed to be a microcosm for the problems that plague martial arts programs everywhere. I was asked to develop a specific outline for a department that wanted to fully adopt our program and had difficulty doing it. It was at this time that I figured out the problem and I want to share with you all what I’ve learned.

You see, in these courses a lot of time there's a lot of material to get through. So the instructors come in with an outline and work straight down it like a checklist. If they get behind they may even speed up a little to make sure all the material gets covered.

This causes a very specific problem. The students memorize the techniques but they never learn them and that's a big difference. This is what happened to our brown belt at the beginning of the article. He got in a hurry and he memorized the belt requirements but never actually learned how to apply them under real conditions. This is a bad curriculum.

I'm not going to get into certain techniques being better or worse than others long term that isn't the point of the article.  The point is that the student lacked a proper foundation and the curriculum didn't have a structure that was conducive to learning. When the minimum time in grade came around the instructor was too worried about the student's feelings and wanted to give him a sense of accomplishment so he rushed the test. However it goes much deeper than that. This student had been let down by this instructor the whole time. These errors didn't just start with this belt test it had been ongoing since white belt and it was obvious. Now the type of martial art being practiced doesn't matter in this case because with a proper foundation and structure you can produce high quality students in any art form so it isn't really about tossing or bashing an art so let's look at some solutions to these problems.

The first thing is concepts over techniques. For the purpose of this article a concept is basically a general principle such as breaking balance that anyone can perform in one way or another. A technique is a specific task that must be performed a specific way. Now we all come in all shapes and sizes. The simple fact is that not every technique is going to work for everyone. When dealing with a beginner you should never force them to perform techniques that you know are going to be problematic. They often get frustrated and leave then never come back and it reflects badly on you and your dojo because now these people are going to go around and tell people your stuff doesn't work or even worse blame themselves and damage their own self confidence.

In the beginning concepts should be the part that matters most. Not everyone can do the exact same technique but they can execute the same concept. I'll give you an example. Let's say you want the student to begin learning how to break a person's balance. Now a big guy might be able to grab someone's head and control it breaking the balance that way. A smaller person may not be able to reach the head but they can attack the legs with knees, kicks, etc. Both break the balance by upsetting the person's structure. Both are correct in the big scheme of things. Later on in their development, because of this, the student will be able to adapt new techniques easier and make them work for themselves at a faster rate.

Now of course a technique is the execution of the concepts so of course there are techniques but the concepts must be fully understood before learning a bunch of techniques. There's a program here in the U.S. where police officers learn 165 techniques in 5 days. Under stress very few of them work and they can't even remember most of them when they leave. There will be plenty of time for teaching your student techniques but they will be understood much better when they are taught as an extension of a concept.

People retain things better when they can relate to them. Sure you may want them to try different techniques to find out which ones work for them and which ones don't. After that however don't force a technique on someone when it's useless to them it will only bog them down and confuse them as well as hurt their development.

I'm going to skip over the techniques in the middle for now and go to strategy. Strategy is a part of a good foundation and is what keeps you from basically being hung out on an island like our poor brown belt. Direction would be another way of saying it. There's nothing worse than being in the middle of something and having no idea what you’re supposed to be doing.

This goes right into learning instead of memorizing. It's about being goal focused. If you’re a judo guy your goal is to put that attacker on the ground. If someone is choking you then you don't just grab their thumbs and jerk their hands away and stop. You follow up and put them on the ground. This is an idea that needs to be established from the beginning. If your just memorizing techniques you will stop after you've gotten the hands pulled away and that is bad training and bad structure.

When you’re working on executing a strategy from the beginning it teaches the student how to think and adapt. It also teaches efficiency. It teaches you how to deal with problems instead of just symptoms and is a great metaphor for leadership in daily life. In the beginning you never want to teach a technique that isn't moving towards executing your ultimate goal. An example of this in law enforcement courses would be that the ultimate goal is to get the guy in cuffs and in the car. Well if you have to do a takedown and don't have some control over the guy beforehand then you lose contact. Now you have to get on the ground and fight with his hands to get control, but if you hand an arm control and maintained it then it would be much easier to get them in cuffs. When you’re dealing with your beginners they will appreciate this. It instils confidence in them because they are able to accomplish something that's real and substantial right away instead of something hollow.

When you do this it establishes a great foundation and your students are already learning something useful. Now you can plug in techniques. Since your students have a full understand of what they are ultimately trying to accomplish and good sound concepts to always fall back on they can now adapt and deal with random changes. They understand the purpose of the techniques they are learning and they learn them faster. You never have students that don't know what to do. I've seen students invent techniques out of nowhere and make them work because when something failed they understood the concept so they made something else work. It's a great thing to see. They can take techniques and modify them to their needs. At this point it starts to become a real art because they are now expressing themselves.

My only caution would be when teaching new techniques you must protect the foundation. People have a tendency when learning something new of tossing out the old and you can't let them crack the foundation. Even if they are going up for black belt make sure they focus on the core techniques that they learned in the beginning. Everyone likes the new cool thing just make sure their foundation doesn't crack while they are playing with it.

In developing these ideas about structure we also developed a new program for the public called KONBATTO (Stonewall Tactical Jujutsu). In this program you not only learn some very simple, direct, and vicious combatives you will also learn how to implement this structure into your curriculum at your school that we discussed in this article as part of that two day course. We are happily launching this program in England and Ireland this summer. If you like these ideas and find them useful I'd be more than happy to show each of you how to apply them to your martial art in person. I thank you for your time and remember. Learn don't memorize.

To find out more about Stonewall Tactical Defense Systems visit