The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Myth of Perfect Practice in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from yet another great article at Kung Fu Tea. The whole post may be read here.


The Problem with Perfect Practice

Vince Lombardie is far from alone in his admiration of “perfect practice.”  While reading threads on a private lightsaber combat facebook group I noticed that the merits of a similar quote (this time delivered by an olympic fencing instructor) were being vigorously debated.  A couple of the students (one drawing on his own background as a firearms instructor) believed it was vastly better to have students who never practiced rather than those who practiced poorly.  As far as they were concerned, the first group was superior as they possessed “no bad habits” and would therefore be easier to teach.

I experienced a mixture of emotions as I read this thread.  Darth Nihilus, the instructor at the Central Lightsaber Academy (the location of my current ethnographic research) has a lot to say on the topic.  I recorded an instance in my field notes where, after watching the performance of one of his students, he shouted that it was not enough to just practice daily, you actually had to strive to practice perfectly.

Nihilus’ was a professional musician before becoming a full time martial arts instructor.  The approach to practice and personal study that you see in the musical world has certainly influenced how he approaches training within the martial arts.  As he went on discussing what our practice sessions should look like (a topic that he decided that the class needed some ersatz instruction on) he ended up doing a hilarious imitation of his high school keyboard teacher who would sagely appraise his performances and tell him, “if your practice is garbage, it doesn’t matter if you do it a thousand times, you are still getting garbage.”  Which makes perfect sense.

And yet, there are some difficult truths that haunt this entire conversation.  The most obvious would be that perfection is a moving target.  At least in the martial arts.  It is not a thing or a singular point.  It is more of an aspirational philosophy.  No one ever reaches perfection.  As one gains technical mastery in a single area, other horizons of possible improvement suddenly appear that you were not even aware of.

All of which brings me back to Wing Chun.  One of the best pieces of advice on teaching that I got from my Sifu was that when introducing new material to students I should demonstrate, explain, answer questions, and then step back and let them work on the problem themselves.  It is so easy to smother someone acquiring a new skill with well intentioned, but ultimately incomprehensible, advice.  Sometimes what students need is not more explanation, but a structured opportunity for practice.

As I have watched teachers that I admire, I noticed that they all encourage (and even demand) that their students practice.  But none of them are all that insistent that their students be “perfect” or practice perfectly.  Not that their students usually realize this.  Learning any new, sufficiently complex, embodied skill can (and often does) feel overwhelming.  Yet from where I am now, I can look back on them supervising the mastery of a complex task (say, the dummy form) and appreciate the way in which they would give their students one task to work on at a time rather than simply listing all 53 of the major mistakes that were made the last time the student did the form.  This is how progress is made, one correction at a time.  And that means that none of our practice is “perfect.”

Practice as Research

The strangely shifting and fungible nature of perfection is not the only difficulty that such conversations pose.  The more we think about the topic the more questions arise about both the nature of the thing being practiced, as well as the act of practice itself.   Indeed, scholarly research into both areas may be helpful.

Readers interested in delving deeper into the question of what ‘practice’ is, as well as its relationship to the mastering of technique and the production of knowledge, might be well served by picking up a copy of Ban Spatz’s book What a Body Can Do (Routledge, 2015).  This book has become something of a hit in martial arts studies circles because it directly speaks to a number of questions that lay at the heart of the turn towards the exploration of “embodiment” and “practice as research” rather than historical or social modes of inquiry.

A more traditional discussion of “practice” might start by supposing the existence of a self-contained, coherent and unchanging body of technique called a style.  Techniques might be derived from conceptual first principals (the fastest point between any two points is a straight line) or inherited from a more traditional form of transmission (Ng Moy invented the art that would become Wing Chun after watching a snake fight a crane).  These bodies of techniques, and a conceptual understanding of how to use them, are then transmitted directly from one generation of teachers to the next generation of students through the process of diligent, dare I say perfect, practice.  Only in this way can a student’s fundamental dispositions be changed, and can the genetic purity of the next generation of the art be maintained.

Yet, as Spatz might point out, it is not clear that any teachers are actually up to the task of revealing the full depth of insight about a given technique that years of diligent practice can reveal.  Any martial artist can tell you that more goes into our punches, kicks, locks and throws than just gross motor movements.  There are a myriad of small adjustments that can alter the nature of a technique, and another myriad of insights that might be gained (or not) as to when and how to employ them.  Nor do students approach the learning process as a blank slate, or an empty vessel ready to be filled with some sort of genetic transmission of pure knowledge.

Each of us brings our own assortment of bodily predispositions to the learning process.  Some of these are physical, others are cultural.  My wife’s approach to, and understanding of, Wing Chun will never be the same as mine.  I will never experience a punch or laup the same way that she does.  How could it be otherwise?

Yet one of the biggest determinants of how easy or difficult it will be to master a technique is what prior bodily dispositions you already have.  Or to put it slightly differently, there is no such thing as a student that comes to a problem with no “bad habits.”  We all have many idiosyncratic bodily dispositions.  Some of them will push our development in one direction, while others might give us a shove in the other.

There is sometimes a suggestion that when Ip Man (or any other kung fu instructor of his generation) tailored his teaching to a given individual’s background or nature he was only passing on the “technique” and not the “true system” of Wing Chun which would be reserved for a handful of close disciples.  Yet by placing the student at the center of the learning process, and allowing Wing Chun to be conceptually rather than technically driven, there were aspects of his pedagogy that can be thought of as ahead of their time.

Rather than seeing “techniques” as simply closed bodies of movement and knowledge, Spatz (capturing the intuitive understanding of most of the martial artists I know) describes them as akin to onions, each level of technical mastery reveals a new layer of questions and nuance.  Nor depending on our background and nature, is it clear that we are all headed in the same direction on this journey of exploration.  And beyond a certain point in our training, most of the new knowledge that we acquire will not come from classes and seminars (though that route never vanishes), but from the process of practice itself.

Practice is not just the acquisition of a finite skill.  It’s a powerful research tool.  As we practice we make discoveries.  Spats notes that at first many of these will focus on how we can improve our own performance.  As we become more advanced they may include insights into the application and nature of a given technique.  Later, more original discoveries might open the way to creating new techniques and insights into how to better structure the process of practice.  When reading the biographies of individuals like Kano Jigoro or Morihei Ueshiba, it becomes clear that this is the way that at least some martial arts are born. Yet at all of these levels of research martial artists are engaged with the age old question, articulated by Spinoza, of asking “what can a body can do?”  This is such a simple question, and yet the answers always manage to surprise.

The idea of a direct transmission of knowledge from the mind/hands of the master to the mind/hands of the apprentice is mostly an illusion.  (And I say this as someone with great love and respect for my teachers).  The nature of practice itself suggests that the learning of technique, beyond its basic stages, is a rhizomic and ever evolving process.  As our practice becomes better, our research into the nature of techniques becomes more profound.


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