Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The power of example

From the afterword of an outstanding book by scientist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard:
The good fortune of meeting with remarkable people who were both wise and compassionate was decisive in my case, because the power of example speaks more forcefully than any other communication.
There is something deeply affecting about such people. As I work to follow the example of my own role-models I find that my admiration for them doubles (and re-doubles) as I begin to better appreciate the scale of their achievements and -- by inference -- of their sustained effort.

The more you know, and the further you get, the more there is to learn and to do. This should inspire both humility and dedication.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Wise words

The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget. -- Thomas Szasz

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Kata of Possibility (December 2008)

Last night my class worked on our (somewhat) original self-defence kata. Members of the class present it later this month as part of a kata competition. Amongst other things, it shows how a particular initial response to an attack can lead into more than one possible continuation. Hence the name: The Kata of Possibility.

Please don't try this at home; self-defence should only be practiced under the supervision of a qualified instructor. I am posting the summary as an aid to help my students memorize the sequence, and for my own future reference.

1aOne-hand outside wrist grabGrab with other handSpin to inside / wristlock comealongCorkscrew
1b""Spin to outside / shoulder-lock takedown variationStrike + kiai
2aAggressive handshakeMiddle knuckle strike to the back of the handForward finger throwFinger-lock
2b""Lever and arm-braceOverhead wrist lever
3aRight palm push to chestAttack arm at elbow (right hand) and wrist (left hand)Comealong forearm hammer-lockSubmission
3b"" (but hands reversed)Armlock comealongSubmission
4aFront choke (arms straight)Raise shoulders / drop chin / strike down with left forearm / up with right forearmComealong forearm hammerlockSubmission
4b""3rd hip throwStrike + kiai
5aArm around shouldersNear hand grabs hand / elbow to ribsWristlock comealongCorkscrew
5b""Lever and arm-braceProjection throw

Here are some images to help make sense of the chart (thanks to Prateek and Sempai Owen):

Attack 1: One-hand outside wrist grab

Response 1: Grab with other hand

Control 1a & 5a: Wristlock comealong

Attack 2: Aggressive handshake

Response 2: Strike the back of the hand

Control 2a: Forward finger throw

Control 2b & 5b: Lever and arm-brace

Finish 2c: Overhead wrist-lever

Attack 3: Right palm push to chest

Response 3a: Hands to elbow and wrist

Control 3a & 4a: Comealong forearm hammer-lock

Response 3b: Hands to elbow and wrist (reversed)

Control 3c: Armlock comealong

Attack 4: Front choke (arms straight)

Attack 5: Arm around shoulder

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Mastery and Practice

When Pablo Casals, the cellist, was ninety-one years old, he was approached by a student who asked, "Master, why do you continue to practice?" Casals replied, "Because I am making progress." [1]
As we learn it is natural to hit plateaus from time to time. Through mindful practice we can progress through the plateaus, and onwards up the mountain.

The Master brings patience, consistency and perceptiveness to the journey.

[1] Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself, page 258, my favorite non-fiction book for 2008.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What appeals to you about Jiu-Jitsu?

Here is a blurb that I have submitted for the Monash University Club Handbook. Let me know which bits appeal to you, what you think is missing, and whatanything jars:

About the Monash University Jiu-jitsu Club

The Jiu-Jitsu club offers weekly classes at both Caulfield and Clayton emphasizing:

  • Acquisition and perfection of martial art technique
  • Realistic self-defence skills
  • Development of all-round fitness
  • Personal and social development

in a safe and supportive environment. It is open to the Monash and local communities and is suitable for both women and men, small and large.

About Jiu-Jitsu
Jiu-jitsu was the unarmed fighting art of the Japanese Samurai – the warriors of medieval Japan. If a Samurai lost or broke his sword in battle, he resorted to the striking and grappling techniques of Jiu-jitsu to defeat his enemy.

The term Jiu-jitsu literally means 'gentle art'. Jiu-jitsu emphasizes the efficient use of one's body. Good technique rather than brute strength is used to deliver effective self-defence.

The core elements of our style of Jiu-Jitsu are:

  • Throwing techniques
  • Restraint and control: Joint-locking and other arresting techniques
  • Ground-fighting
  • Pressure point striking
  • Practice against realistic common attacks

Club web-site




  • Sensei Tony Papenfuss, 4th dan black belt, and head instructor
  • papenfuss@gmail.com
  • 0419 894 449


Friday, October 17, 2008

Evening up

In sports a constant problem is the mismatch. One competitor is stronger, bigger, faster, or more skillful than the other. To make things interesting sex, weight, and/or age and experience categories are often used, and sometimes a handicapping system is introduced.

In competitive training in the martial arts the mismatch is also a problem, for identical reasons, but it can also be an asset. In competitive practice -- such as judo's groundwork randori -- you can gain much more if your main objective is to learn rather than to win at all costs.

Let's say that you are big and strong, and your opponent is not. You have the option of using all your strength and weight to literally crush your opponent. That is the short road to victory, but a very long road to learning. So don't do it! Put away that advantage; wind it back to the same level (or just above) that of your partner and work on other aspects: Movement, technique, sensitivity.

In this way, when you go up against someone bigger and stronger than you (for example), you will have developed other sides to your game. The size and strength will still be there, but overall you will be more even.

The same advice applies to mis-matches in knowledge. If your arsenal of techniques is vastly greater than your opponent's, you should limit your repertoire of techniques. Concentrate on delivering a few techniques with finesse (for example), rather than relying heavily on the surprise factor of a technique that your opponent has never seen.

* * *

Even when I have the opportunity to evenly match students I still like to mix things up, creating mis-matches as well as even matches between partners. Why? Because having experienced people work with beginners is safer than beginner v. beginner, provides better learning for the beginner, and gives the more experienced partner freedom to experiment; smaller people should be exposed to larger partners as preparation for self-defence; brutes need to learn to be gentler, etc. And we all should practice with lots of different people.

In actual self-defence don't hold anything back, but in training learn today so that you can win (or survive) tomorrow.

To summarize: In competitive practice we need to even things up, and by doing so in a creative we can create opportunities for significant learning and development.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Smile, breathe, and go slowly

I have been exploring my breathing. This is a huge area, so consider this article an introduction.

Breathing methods and practices are widespread and varied. Breathing can be automatic or controlled, and is widely believed to connect the body and the mind: Many people take a few deep breaths to help calm themselves; counting breaths is a popular meditative practice, as is observing one's breathing; Pranayama -- breath control -- is a significant part of yoga. Going in the other direction: If you start to panic you may find yourself taking shallower breaths, and possibly hyperventilating.

Specialized breathing techniques are also widespread in the martial arts. There are many different -- and conflicting! -- approaches to training and becoming aware of your breathing.

Caution: You do not want to mess up your breathing. Becoming aware of your breathing patterns in different situations would seem to be a reasonably benign step to take; forcing significant changes on yourself, more risky. Take care.

My approach to this topic consists of background reading, asking questions, and a degree of observation of myself and others.

Modes of breathing
There is more to breathing than inhalation and exhalation. Let's look at some of the different aspects.

I am aware of two very natural modes of breathing:
  1. Abdominal breathing: This is what babies and young children do when they rest on their backs. As they inhale, the abdomen expands; as they exhale, it contracts. By comparison, the chest does not rise and fall noticeably.
  2. Reverse breathing: When I cough -- or growl or kiai or sing (loudly) -- my abdomen expands during the accompanying exhalation. This is the exhalation part of reverse breathing. On the inhalation the lower abdomen contracts, but as with abdominal breathing, the chest does not dramatically inflate.
These are by no means the only possibilities. To take another example, if you always keep you stomach pulled in, neither of these modes will be available to you, and the expansion / contraction will be largely confined to your chest.

My take is that abdominal breathing is good and natural for relaxation, and reverse breathing for exertion.

Rather than consciously controlling these patterns, I simply try to be aware of them during training.

For example: In jiu-jitsu and judo classes we recover on our backs between warm-ups in a position similar to yoga's corpse pose, but with our eyes open and arms at right-angles to the torso. You can tell if you are doing abdominal breathing by feeling your belt tighten on the inhalation and loosen on the exhalation.

Nose or mouth?
A normal person can inhale and exhale through both the nose and mouth. Surely there is a situation in which each combination is appropriate. However, in the martial art styles that I practice we advocate inhalation through the nose and exhalation through the mouth, for training and self-defence. The question is why? I cannot be definitive, but
  • In-through-the-nose is generally slower and steadier than in-through-the-mouth, and the nasal hairs and passages provide a degree of filtering and warming of the incoming air.
  • Although out-through-the-nose is slow and steady -- hence good for relaxation -- out-through-the-mouth can also be slow and steady when you touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, and I find that it is easier for the body to switch to reverse breathing when exhaling through the mouth. Certainly a kiai demands a mouth exhalation.
This is what I do in training, but at other times I find myself reverting to nasal inhalation while relaxing, and mouth inhalation during periods of intense exertion, and when I have a blocked nose!

Other pointers
Holding your breath is a good idea while diving, but not while taking impact. For example, in jiu-jitsu and judo we train to exhale when executing a breakfall. This is only natural: The air will be driven out anyway, so you do not want to fight it.

You really do not want to be struck while inhaling or holding your breath, so by extension having very apparent breathing is not good in combat against a sophisticated opponent.

Breathe through your feet!?

A helpful tip that I picked up from Philip Starr's book, Martial Mechanics, is handy when practicing stance training -- such as holding a horse stance -- for an extended period:

As you breathe, imagine that you are inhaling up from your feet into your abdomen, and exhaling the same way. More specifically, the point on your foot to focus on is the yongquan point (see left).

I find that this helps me to gently relax into the stance, helping me to release tension and sit more solidly. It also hints at the potential power of combining visualization techniques with breathing.

Other places to look
For self-exploration and observation:
  • Place your hands on various parts of your torso -- stomach, chest, front, back, sides -- while engaging in different activities and motions.
  • How does your breathing in-flow and out-flow coordinate with different physical actions?
Further reading:
  1. Philip Starr's Martial Mechanics (mentioned above) has a good chapter on reverse breathing and some of its applications in the Martial Arts.
  2. There are many Feldenkrais lessons that include gently explorations of breathing, and there practice should lead to breathing that adapts well to the situation. I would start with Feldenkrais's Awareness Through Movement or Shafarman's more accessible Awareness Heals.
  3. Systema, the Russian martial art, is built on explicit breathing practices. See Vasiliev's Let Every Breath... Secrets of the Russian Breath Masters.
  4. Lastly but not leastly, for a book that explores the function, practice and anatomical basis of breathing, look no further than Calais-Germain's amazing Anatomy of Breathing.
The title of this post -- Smile, breathe, and go slowly -- is a quote from the highly quotable (and readable) Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. Words to live by.

And remember, keep breathing!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

There's more to it than that

Quick, think of a particular martial arts movement. Picture it. Is it:
  1. A throw
  2. A lock
  3. An escape
  4. A strike to a vital point
  5. A block
  6. A trap
  7. An exercise to enhance your health
Hopefully, it will be most of those things. The obvious application of a technique -- at least in a sophisticated martial art -- is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is good to learn the choreography.
It is good to figure out additional applications.
It is good to identify connections to other techniques.
It is very good to continue looking.

Most importantly: Keep practicing.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Some Notes on Come-along Techniques

The come-along techniques of Jiu-Jitsu form part of the Restraint and Control syllabus. The come-alongs allow you to not only restrain and control an attacker, but also to escort him out the door: "come-along", "come-along".

A certain amount of pain leads to compliance, but part of the beauty of these techniques is that the pain goes away once they are released: We take the recipient into the region of pain that precedes injury, but work towards a level of skill where effectiveness does not require damage.

The various come-along techniques have different characteristics, leading to their suitability in different situations.

A come-along armbar

For example: The come-along armbar (pictured) targets the elbow joint, requires two hands to apply, and obliges you to stand to the side of the recipient. As well as subduing in place and leading the recipient along, this technique leads nicely into throws and takedowns.

As another example: The pistol grip technique (not pictured) allows you to not only compel the recipient to go to the ground, but also to stand up again.

Comparing the 14 come-alongs (not all of which are labeled explicitly) of the restraint-and-control syllabus I noticed certain patterns emerging:
  • 3 primarily target the elbow joint, 7 the wrist, 3 the shoulder, 1 pure pressure point
  • 11 comealongs are applied from the side; 3 from behind
  • Although "two-hands for beginners" is sound advice, several of the come-alongs can be sustained with one hand
Having learned the basis of a family of techniques, a good way to deepen your knowledge is to then make both an in-depth study of each technique and also examine commonalities and differences. For each technique:
  • How can it be effectively modified for use against attackers of different shapes and sizes?
  • Against which common attacks can it be used as part of a realistic self-defense response?
  • If I fail on an attempt to apply it, what back-up techniques can I easily flow into?
  • How does the technique interfere with my partner's balance and alignment?
  • What are the particular advantages and disadvantages of this technique?
I could list some more of my findings, but you will learn far far more if you make your own notes.

Later this year I plan to explore some of these questions with my students, and together devise a kata of come-alongs.

Introductory Self-Defence Class: September 10 2008

I have been invited to conduct an introductory self-defence class at Monash Caulfield on Wednesday, September 10. I have accepted the invitation.
  • If you are a Federation coloured belt and are available in the early evening and are interested in acting as an assistant, please send me an email.
  • This event is already over-subscribed, so if it sounds great, why not come along to one of my weekly classes instead?
Here is an edited version of the draft promotional material:

[Host Organization] and
Monash University Jiu-Jitsu Club


Self-Defence Night

Come along and learn the basics of self-defence in a safe, friendly and fun class.

Where and when:
[Time and location]

What to wear

Loose comfortable clothing: T-shirt and tracksuit pants are ideal.

What to expect
The class will consist of:
* A short talk about basic self-defence
* Warm exercises (including games)
* Instruction and practice in some escapes from simple holds and grabs
* Q&A and demonstration of some more advanced Jiu-Jitsu techniques
* Cool-down

About Jiu-Jitsu
Jiu-jitsu was the unarmed fighting art of the Japanese Samurai -- the warriors of medieval Japan. If a Samurai lost or broke his sword in battle, he resorted to the striking and grappling techniques of Jiu-jitsu to defeat his enemy.

The term Jiu-jitsu literally means 'gentle art'. Jiu-jitsu emphasizes the efficient use of one's body. Good technique rather than brute strength is used to deliver effective self-defence.

About the Monash University Jiu-jitsu Club
The Jiu-Jitsu club offers weekly classes at both Caulfield and Clayton emphasising:
  • Acquisition and perfection of martial art technique
  • Realistic self-defence skills
  • Development of all-round fitness
  • Personal and social development
in a safe and supportive environment. It is open to the Monash and local communities.

About the instructor
Sensei Dan Prager is a 2nd degree black belt with over 15 years experience in Jiu-Jitsu
as well as other martial arts. Dan is the founding instructor of the Caulfield branch of the Monash University Jiu-Jitsu Club. He blogs about Martial Arts and Modern Life.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

They come; they go

One of the distinctive things about teaching at a university martial arts club is that there are students who -- having completed their studies -- move away to continue onto the next phase of their lives.

Many of the members of the Monash Jiu-jitsu Club stay with the club following graduation, but a significant proportion of oversea students choose (or are obliged) to return home. One of the nice aspects of this is that one gains friends in other countries. On the other hand I miss seeing them in class.

Here is a message of appeciation from Leonard, who will be returning to his native Singapore in a few weeks:
Hello Sensei,

... I have been very fortunate to have stumbled upon a federation with such good methods of instruction and active participants. It will be hard to find another association that can compare, it has definitely enlightened me on the journey that is martial arts, and given me a finer appreciation of finding a discipline that one can relate to.
Best of luck to Leonard on his journey in the martial arts and in life.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Creating a Kata: Part I

At the end of each year the Australian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo and Chinese Boxing Federation of Instructors holds a Presentation Day which traditionally includes a kata competition.

A kata -- sometimes referred to as a form or set -- consists of one or more participants performing a pre-arranged of movements drawn from a martial art. Kata is:
  • An instructional method
  • A training and practice method
  • A repository and source of techniques
  • A performing art
and more besides. On Presentation Day katas are performed and judged, so they should be comprehensible and entertaining for the audience. But that does not mean that they are purely about entertainment value. They should at the same time showcase technique, spirit and cooperation.

This is the first year that I will be entering a student kata from my club at Monash Caulfield, and I am looking forward to the process of getting it ready.

My first choice is whether to prepare a traditional kata, or choreograph an original one. As the title of this article suggests, I will be opting for the latter option. While traditional kata are wonderful, their level of difficulty makes them better suited to a more experienced group. I look forward to training my students in traditional kata in the future.

My second choice is how to go about creating this new kata and preparing my students. My approach will be to first introduce a particular theme into training in the coming weeks, and then work with the students to create our own kata around this theme. I expect that:
  • My beginning students will focus primarily on learning the techniques,
  • The more experienced ones will gain from the exploration of connections and have some scope to contribute creatively
  • This will allow me to
    • take a themed slice through our curriculum
    • set the scene for piecing together the actual kata.
Working title for the kata? The Kata of Come-Alongs (arresting techniques)

Monday, August 04, 2008

Monash Open Day

Yesterday the Caulfield branch of the Monash Jiu-Jitsu club put in a few hours to help promote Monash University to prospective students in 2009, and at the same time raise awareness about our club.

Leonard, Riandy, Lisa, Prateek and David

The weather was kind, and we set up some mats on the outdoor stage. When we did our break-falls, it sounded like a drum, which was good for attracting attention. Such was our power, we were able to drive the stage a couple of inches into the Earth!

Thanks to David, Lisa, Leonard, Riandy, Prateek, for a fun demonstration, and to all of the above plus Michael (not pictured) for handing out fliers and talking about the club, not to mention set-up, pack-up, photos and video.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Broader Meaning of Kuzushi

The first and most important step in applying a throwing technique [ideally: any technique] is to first employ kuzushi. Usually, I would explain kuzushi as "unbalancing", but delving a little deeper we find that kuzushi derives from the verb kuzusu, meaning "to level, pull down, or demolish".

Looking more broadly at the problem of "leveling" an aggressor, any or all of the following means can contribute to the cause:
  • Unbalancing: Bringing the aggressor's center of gravity beyond his or her base of support
  • Mis-alignment: Moving parts of the aggressor into an awkward configuration
  • Distraction
  • Pain (which can also be a distraction)
All of these measures help to reduce the aggressor's ability to resist the remainder of the technique. However, for subtle kuzushi, it is best when there is neither too much nor too little of the contributing components. Too little, and there is no effect. Too much, and your intentions are telegraphed.

By practicing cooperatively we can learn to sense when our (or our partner's) balance is lost, and where our (or our partner's) alignment is compromised. Developing sensitivity, and an acute feeling for the interplay of these factors can help to make the application of kuzushi elegant and irresistible.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Jiu-jitsu according to Wordle

Wordle is an online tool for creating beautiful word clouds. Here is how it renders a short introduction to jiu-jitsu:
Click on the image to see a larger version

This could be good for a poster or a T-shirt design!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Cooperative combinations

In Jiu-jitsu and Judo, having learned to fall and the rudiments of some throwing techniques it is fun to attempt some free practice (randori): You and your partner take a grip and try to throw each other.

However, there is a tendency for this type of training to degenerate through excessive resistance and defensiveness. There are various means to getting over, through or around this obstacle.

One approach that I have found useful acts as something of a bridge between cooperative practice and free practice, by injecting a smidgen of uncertainty into a basically cooperative exercise...

Note: The usual disclaimers apply. Do not attempt this except under qualified supervision.

Let's say that you and a partner are practicing a combination technique cooperatively. A simple combination consists of an initial attack which is somehow foiled or evaded, and then followed up by a second attack. For example: The 1st leg throw (o soto gari) can be combined with the third leg throw (hiza guruma) as follows: The thrower (tori) attempts o soto gari on the receiver (uke) who evades, preferably through skillful stepping and body movement. Tori then fluidly moves into hiza guruma, and throws uke to the mat.

Two problems almost always crop when this kind of exercise is first practiced:
  1. Tori applies the first technique with insufficient vigour, and/or
  2. Uke evades too early.
Both defects arise because of the pre-arranged nature of the exercise. In the first case tori is over-concerned with the second-part of the combination, so the attack is reduced to a feint, and in the second case uke is able to take advantage of the unrealistic knowledge of what the first attack is going to be.

These can be overcome with practice and good focus, but I would like to offer a variation on the exercise which works well and is lots of fun besides.

Tori is to attempt the first technique with reasonable vigor. If uke evades, (s)he follows up with the second technique. With each repetition uke has the choice of allowing him or herself to be thrown, or to evade. Uke's job is firstly to decide whether to attempt an evasion or not, while the second, should (s)he elect to evade, is to do so as late as possible.

This is not a competitive exercise in the normal sense because -- whatever happens -- uke is the one who gets thrown, if not by the first technique, then by the second. But the element of uncertainty from the thrower's perspective helps to eliminate the original defects: If the first attack is half-hearted, uke can elect not to evade; and, once the attacks are coming fluidly, uke can leave the evasion later and later until (s)he is thrown despite trying to evade.

This exercise can be varied and extended in many ways. Examples include:
  1. Use a different pair of techniques
  2. Uke varies the type of evasion
  3. Allowing tori a choice of second-attacks
  4. Allowing uke the option evading the second attack, in which case tori now throws uke with a third technique
As these exercises are pursued the resulting practice starts to look less and less pre-arranged and more like free practice, hopefully of good standard. Adding a bit of uncertainty helps to develop spontaneity within a structured framework.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Cool stuff in the martial arts

Here is my list of impressive-looking things in the martial arts that are of limited interest (to me):
  1. Acrobatics
  2. Super flexibility
  3. Breaking stuff (boards, bricks, etc.)
And here's some non-basic stuff that hold more interest (for me):
  1. Using an assailant's strength against him
  2. Learning to use weapons as a natural extension of your body
  3. Pressure point techniques
  4. "Internal" aspects
  5. Healing methods
Of course the basic stuff is pretty good too:
  1. Self-defence
  2. Technique
  3. All-round fitness
  4. Personal development
  5. Social development
And much broader!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Elite selection or elite training?

It is not long now until the 2008 Olympic games commence on 8/8/8. My feelings are mixed. I love the spectacle and the internationalism, but am disappointed by the over-emphasis on winning which leads to dangerous drug-taking (and other extreme measures). Perhaps nowadays the Paralympics which follow in September are more in line with Baron Pierre de Coubertin's vision:
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern Olympic Games, was born in Paris in 1863 and was personally involved in fencing, rowing, boxing and cycling. His visits to British public schools resulted in a lifelong interest in trying to get the heavily academic French schools to take up more sports-oriented curricula. As an educational theorist, de Coubertin was convinced of the importance of sport for the development of the individual. He believed that the qualities of initiative, teamwork and fair play should be encouraged in young people through participation in school sports and competitive games.*
The modern Olympic games have become the poster-child for an elitist program for developing athletes:
  1. Identify young people with exceptional potential in Olympic and other high-profile sports
  2. Enroll them into national sports institutes for long periods
  3. Train them full-time, often at the expense of other aspects of their education
In contrast to de Coubertin's amateur, generalist ideals this is a professional, specialist model, in which each country endeavors to create an elite for its greater glory. (As for the individual athletes, inclusion in such a training program is -- I guess -- a mixed blessing.)

* * *

In my martial arts experience I have enjoyed what may be termed "elite training" in the sense that it is of exceptional quality, and often demanding, but not restricted to a selected elite (thankfully!).

The overriding objective of the elite institutes is to develop athletes who can win in a narrow field of endeavor. By training in martial arts we can aspire to develop our potential fully and widely, and not just in a way which relies on the external benchmark of winning.

Remember, it is a win for you every time you overcome a limitation, learn a new skill, have an aha moment, or apply what you have learned in one area of your life somewhere else.

Learning a martial art can provide an avenue to train yourself to better meet the challenges of life.

What is Jiu-Jitsu good for?

Please don't assume that Jiu-jitsu is only useful for self-defence, improving your health, increasing strength, developing flexibility, sharpening mental focus, training an army, learning to learn, falling safely, reducing stress, restraining drunken Uncles, improving school grades, developing patience, refining negotiation skills, letting off steam, learning about another culture, getting to know people, avoiding conflict, becoming more reflective, sharpening your reflexes, eliminating back pain, conquering fears, increasing self-esteem, and enhancing your problem-solving abilities just because they are the only things that happened to be on the list.

[Modeled on a quote due to Kent Pitman.]

Monday, April 21, 2008

You can start at any time

When fielding enquiries about my jiu-jitsu club I am often asked,"When does the next beginners' class start?" So I explain, "There is no beginners' class; you can start at any time".

Many people seem to be under the impression that most -- all? -- formal learning follows a stratified model, where there are beginners' classes, and then corresponding classes for each "standard". This approach gets drummed in at school, but it is not the only way.

In the system that I teach, we learn from each other, and we learn by teaching. It is no coincidence that we are part of a "Federation of Instructors"; through our training we learn to teach.

It is an old saying that you never learn something as well as when you have to teach someone else, and we harness this truth through pair practice. After the instructor demonstrates a technique -- for example a throw-- on an assistant, pairs of students -- typically of mixed standards -- practice it. One throws; the other is thrown; then alternation ensues. The raw beginner tries to grasp the basic movements; a more experienced student refines the details; a seasoned practitioner figures out how to apply the technique to partners of all shapes and sizes. The more experienced partner may give the junior partner tips (occasionally vice versa), and they both pick up details from each other.

So it is neither necessary nor desirable to have everybody of uniform standard in our classes.  Variety is the spice of life ... and of training.

Remember: You can start any time. Next step: Keep practicing.