Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Frog at the Bottom of the Well

The Frog. Sato Shizuya (Chief Director of Kokusai Budoin, IMAF) sometimes tells the story of the frog at the bottom of the well. The frog, it seems, thinks that the sky he sees is the entire universe. He has no idea that anything exists outside what he can see. The point of the story, of course, is that we must always guard against thinking we know everything. In martial arts, we must always recognize that there is more we can learn about a technique, more room to perfect our skills. While most martial artists recognize this in theory, it can sometimes be difficult to approach a skills we already "know" with the kind of open-mindedness and keen interest that is required.

I learned it, so I know it. Kids often demonstrate this approach to training. Show them a judo throw, a karate kata, or a waza from aikido - they practice it once - and then say, "what's next?" These are often the same kids who come back from a judo tournament and ask, "Sensei, why can't I throw anybody?" It's funny when it applies to kids - they are unable to perceive the relationship between dedicated hard work and success on the mat - but adult thinking can have some similar drawbacks.

I've got the checkpoints. Adults often seem to believe that an intellectual understanding of a technique is equivalent to the ability to perform it well. A student may have mastered the stated checkpoints of a wrist lock and takedown in jujutsu, be able to describe the entire technique, and even be able to correct others who make technical mistakes. Being able to perform a technique well, however, is a different matter. A good martial arts technique involves balance, timing, distancing, angles or circles, and many other factors. To be able to perform a technique well, demonstrating control over one's own body as well as that of the opponent, usually requires years of practice.

What's next? Another common hurdle faced by adult students, especially those who are accustomed to using their brains at work or at school, is that they start thinking of what comes next even before fully grasping the technique at hand. Show them a kote (wrist) strike in kendo, and before they've practiced it ten times, they are already asking about how to apply the principle to a strike to the do (chest protector). Needless to say, this approach does not lead to expertise in the kote strike.

Is that okay? Students who try a technique a few times will turn to the Sensei and ask, "Is that okay?" Our answer is usually, "Yes, and no." Yes, we're delighted that you are practicing the technique we've taught, and that you've remembered the basics. No, it's not good enough, unless you want to be mediocre. How much more refreshing (from a teacher's point of view), to have a student ask, "Sensei, can we practice this more?" The goal is excellence, and that's what we hope you'll strive for.

Getting really good at martial arts requires long term dedication, focused concentration, and a deep commitment to improvement. Koga Toshihiko, who arguably had the best seoi-nage (shoulder throw) the judo world has ever seen, was rumored to be trying to improve his skill long after he retired from competition. If you make the decision to be the best you can possibly be at a martial arts technique, and keep at it for as many years as your body can tolerate the movements, you will find that a whole world of benefits opens to you. A total lifetime commitment to excellence in martial arts training can help you become a more stable, healthier, happier person, and you can have a lot of fun along the way!