Skill versus Exercise

One of the things that I really like about martial art training is that is doesn’t always seem like exercise. It’s interesting and challenging, but fun at the same time. I hated gym class in school because there was always a (seemingly) endless list of exercises to do, push-ups, sit-ups, etc. with no real payoff. It was actually a lot like math class in that respect. Lots of work with no tangible benefit.

Developing martial art skills is different. We have clearly defined goals that keep us moving forward. Still, working on the basics can get…boring. Most martial art students practice kicking in the air for long periods, working on the form of their kicks, getting the angles just right, paying attention to posture and alignment. It seems necessary, but not exciting.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this over the weekend. I saw a lot of martial artists perform at the Midwest Kuk Sool Won Tournament in St. Louis. I judged lots of divisions with a variety of ages, skill levels, and belt ranks. Obviously the ones who do the best are the ones who practice the most. But what motivates some students to practice more?

I woke up on Monday morning with a plan in mind to rework my teaching and training programs. Rather than teaching martial arts like an exercise class, which is a very popular and pervasive model, my goal is to teach it as a set of skills to master.

As I write this, it seems like it should be self-evident. Of course it is a set of skills. What I’m talking about though is the way that we learn and approached those skills. Think of a child learning to climb a tree, or ride a bike, or juggle, or whatever. They don’t break it down and think, “Okay, I’m going to start with learning to grab the bottom branch, and then do that in five sets of five repetitions until I get it right.”

Right? They just try to climb until they can finally do it. I remember learning to cross the monkey bars on the playground when I was a kid. Time after time, I tried, just shooting for one more rung until I finally made it all the way across. It was play, not exercise. I was learning a skill that had a built-in goal.

My motivations are selfish in a way. I am not easily bored, but standing and practicing kicking will do it for me in a heartbeat. It doesn’t interest me at all. Like doing endless algebra problems, I will put off that kind of practice until I absolutely have to do it.

But, put a ball on a string and tell me that I have to learn to kick it in a certain way, and I’ll spend hours trying to make it happen. Stack up a bunch of foam block and try to kick one out of the middle without knocking the others over? Yeah, I can spend an afternoon trying to make that happen.

Creativity is the key. Looking at things in a different way than we usually do. I’m very much a creature of habit. I like my routines. But I like being a martial artist and want to be the best one that I can. I’m willing to break out of my routines, develop new methods of training myself and my students if it means that we’ll be better for it.

So, my students will see some new skills being introduced in class. I’m working with my Dahnbo Nims and Jokyo Nims to tap their creativity as well. My hope is that we’ll look forward to practicing on our own more, and develop those skills that might otherwise be tedious to practice.


Agree? Disagree? Want more information? Let me know.

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