kitchen table math, the sequel: Independent George on learning the martial arts

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Independent George on learning the martial arts

I started taking martial arts classes over the summer. Before doing anything fun, we spent the first couple weeks entirely on footwork. Two weeks teaching educated adults how to walk. It was not only boring as heck, it was sometimes painful and exhausting.

Nevertheless, everyone stuck it out because it was well understood that we had to master these basics - how to advance, retreat, and sidestep without falling on your face - before we could get to the fun stuff. Moreover, we kept practicing footwork drills even as we moved to the more advanced techniques - because it wasn't enough to simply know how to move, it needs to be automatic.

Even after it's automatic, you continue to practice the fundamentals constantly because it's really easy to get lazy. When you get good at throwing punches, you tend to think only about the punch, and not about returning to your guard position afterwards. You learn to guard against a takedown, and you forget to protect your head.

The importance of fundamentals became obvious when my work schedule eventually prevented me from attending class regularly - and my performance dropped precipitously. The things which had once been automatic now required my conscious attention. Instead of learning new skills - or applying them in new combinations - I had to spend twice as much time re-learning the old ones that I "understood", but clearly hadn't mastered.

But, of course, all of this is totally different from academic subjects.

I began tennis lessons last summer, and did not have my first "fun" lesson until just a few weeks ago. That's around 7 months of distinctly not-fun weekly lessons and practice before I experienced the slightest feeling of fluidity and simple enjoyment. Up to that point it was a challenge keeping myself going to lessons, in fact. I felt trepidatious before each one.

Knowing what I do now, I'm happy we had the wit to force C. to carry on with his tennis lessons. He's now quite a good player, and has tremendous fun playing with friends and classmates. That has happened only because we forced him to keep going to lessons during periods when he would have preferred to stay home and pursue the sport he's (apparently) great at: video games.

I wish to heck I'd figured this out where music lessons are concerned.

Somehow I thought it was right to be your child's frontal lobes for academics but not for hobbies and leisure activities. I didn't think it through. Not sure why I managed to put my foot down on sticking with tennis. It just came to me one summer day, picking C. up from the local tennis camp, that this was it: he liked tennis, he was capable of playing tennis, so tennis it was going to be.


ElizabethB said...

That's how I learned Judo, too!

And, we had 4 people compete at Nationals on a very small team, 3 of whom had not done Judo more than 4 years, most of us not quite 2 years. (We all got crushed at Nationals, but still!)

We did the footwork slow at first, then faster and faster until you were doing 10 or 20 reps a minute automatically. You were not allowed to go faster than you were capable of doing correctly, however.

This is how I teach phonics, as well. No stories, just sounding out words slowly but accurately, speed increases naturally as they progress but is not forced. I focus on drill--and isolated, removed from reading drill as well, nonsense words and syllables and words in isolation. I also like to use sports analogies to explain to my students why they're doing such boring, simple drills. I generally use football analogies, however, comparing the drills we do to the drills even NFL football players practice.

RMD said...

I strongly believe that ski school is the ultimate school model:

1. Skills are taught in small increments

2. Everyone is placed in class according to their ability level

3. Everyone must master specific skills (e.g., the wedge) before they are allowed to move to the next level

4. Intermediate steps (i.e., wedge skiing) sometimes don't look like the final steps (i.e., parallel skiing). (this reminds me of 100 Easy Steps orthography)

5. Every instructor went through the same process, so they understand it.

6. Because the process is standardized, teachers have been able to develop a "bag of tricks" to help individual students in each group advance. Many of these tricks are thoughts or things to look for while you're skiing.

SteveH said...

"I strongly believe that ski school is the ultimate school model:"

Another good model is music or band class. They focus on skills, but the goal is to make music. Everyone knows the difference between the two. You can fake it in art, but not in music. The teacher has to make sure that everyone achieves mastery. The band is only as good as the weakest link. There are opportunities for individual solos for the more skilled students, and you can have smaller chamber groups or jazz ensembles that set higher standards. Many schools encourage students to participate in All-State competitions. There are lots of opportunities for road trips to adjudications and concerts.

In terms of other classes, like math, the question is whether you want students prepared for the stage or the audience. Band and chorus force schools and teachers to not only lead their horses to water, but make sure they drink it.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever watched an elite (youth) soccer player juggle? just walking along, not looking at the ball, but the ball moves in the air from foot to foot, with excursions to the head and thighs. It takes years of practice, concentration, discipline and frustration to develop that touch on the ball and there are no shortcuts.

The educrat mentality seems to focus on shortcuts and seems to have no appreciation of concentration, discipline or frustration; that "understanding" just magically appears without effort. It's not good preparation for life, let alone education.

Independent George said...

Elizabeth - You judo/jiu-jitsu people scare the crap out of me. I did Krav Maga, which includes some jiu-jitsu, and the jiu-jitsu sessions always freaked me out ("let's warm up with the arm bar - just remember to press hard enough that they feel it, but not so hard that you actually pop their elbow..."). Just another reason practice counts...

Incidentally, I think that spotlights a key difference here: if you don't learn judo/skiing/band/soccer properly, the results of your lack of practice are immediate, embarassing, and (in the case of judo and skiing, at least) painful and sometimes dangerous. On the other hand, hyperextending my knee will only put me out of commission for 12 weeks, but a 10 year-old who can't read will pay the price for the next 67 years.

ElizabethB said...

Judo is a great sport for a small woman to learn! The combination of throws and choke holds and arm bars teach a number of effective defenses.

When I was in the military, at times when we were out at night in places like Bulgaria or Berlin and we saw questionable looking people out, I used to tell the guys I was with jokingly that I would protect them!

Independent George said...

Oh, no doubt. I'm only 5'6", so judo holds a lot of appeal for me.

Unfortunately, these days, the big guys study it, too.