Always a step ahead.

Robert Barton 

            We have all experienced that feeling when we are fighting one of our instructors or some master on the tatami he or she just seems to know what we are going to do and is always just one step ahead. It is as though the person has some kind of sixth sense going on and it leaves us with the impression that we are dealing with someone who is psychic. It can also be a very frustrating thing to go through. And when we ask we often get vague and esoteric answers and told to train. The idea that our instructors seem unwilling or unable to explain to us what is happening is even more frustrating. 

            The fact is that a lot of people who are teaching have not been taught this and so their answers are going to be vague because they just don’t understand what is actually happening. To make matters worse many of the people who seem to have this special power or ability are not sure what happened and how it developed and one day they just started to ‘know’ and things seemed to slow down. I have even met ‘masters’ who are convinced that they have developed a psychic ability and are reading minds, and even more students who are convinced that this is what the ‘master’ is doing. The simple problem is that in many schools of martial instruction the understanding of this skill and how to intentionally develop it has been lost. Though, it being a natural faculty it still can develop haphazardly in nearly any school just by shear repetition over a long period of time.  Good fighters can do this naturally, good martial artists understand what is happening and can achieve it intentionally while those few good instructors out there can actually teach it.

            I’m not going to get into debates about mystical powers and abilities, each person is going to believe what he or she wants to believe. I do feel that this skill can be explained and intentionally developed and in Shorin Goju we train our students from the first day with the intention of developing skill in this area. This ability is simply a natural awareness that develops and becomes more refined with practice and instruction and we include this development in our training. We have some training techniques designed to develop this and we clearly explain what is happening here. Because of this I have seen numerous students through the years reach an effective level with this skill earlier in their training career than in most schools. In this essay I will explain what is happening and how it develops naturally along with how one may speed up this process and how many modern schools have hindered this process and slowed it down in their students. 

            When this is experienced what is happening is a very simple thing in that the brain is doing what the brain does best and that is pattern recognition. Any movement has a pattern to it and there are thousands of tiny details to any technique details of the finest movements and of eyes etc. Too many to explain for a particular technique but the whole body is engaged in a whole series of movements. As we see a movement we start to memorize the pattern including the tiny precursor movements and physical telegraphing. When we see a movement thousands of times we start to be able to identify it earlier and earlier because of this subtle level of pattern recognition. If we can see these movements thousands of times while in a relaxed state rather than a stressed state we learn more effectively. Simply put after a person has seen the same move for twenty years he or she can just recognize the pattern in the earliest stages and often pick up the subtle cues as the student decides what to throw. The development of this skill increases in those who are teaching because they are actually now observing the techniques over and over again in a relaxed frame of mind. By the time this person becomes a master of the art he or she may have developed this ability to a high state and not even understand what has been happening.

            Some earlier instructors knew how to develop this skill intentionally and did so in their students. This was facilitated by what was once a traditional reliance on one step sparring and forms application training known in Okinawa as bunkai practice and in the two person forms that we see in some schools of martial training. This prearranged sparring allowed students to practice techniques but it also allowed students to see techniques repeatedly and because of the prearranged nature, these exercises were low stress without the presence of the feeling of threat or danger. So students regularly saw attacks being thrown at them from fighting range and did so without a sense of the danger of being injured or of losing a match. This removed the feeling of it being a fight and allowed the brain to do what it does best and study the movements and recognize the patterns. The student knew the whole time what was being thrown at them and this allowed for them to mentally catalogue the patterns from the moment the partner imagines it until the moment that it ends. Many more traditional schools of martial art used these training modalities a century ago.

            For various reasons these specific training strategies have become rare in many modern schools. This does not mean the one cannot develop this skill set in most modern training halls. What it does mean is that this skill set is not being taught in an intentional fashion and that it is not being articulated to students by their teachers. And so the skill is slow to develop. Unfortunately the current state of affairs is that the number of instructors who understand this and teach it is very small. These instructors are usually scattered here and there and at this point there are very few schools or styles which have this happening intentionally with a few notable exceptions such as many Hun Gar schools and the Uechi Ryu and similar schools.

            Many modern schools lack a comprehensive approach to sparring methods and have come to rely on free sparring almost exclusively.  Free play certainly has its place in martial training but the hyper focus on it has caused other types of sparring and training to fall by the wayside. I see many schools that have students start free sparring during their first week or even first lesson, a practice with which I myself strongly disagree.  In free sparring especially the early stages the mind is not relaxed and so it does not learn as well because it is stressed by the perception of danger. One need only look at the technical mess and ingrained mistakes demonstrated by most fighters in a black belt division of a tournament to see this demonstrated. Free sparring should be part of a martial curriculum as one type of sparring not as the only type. A more comprehensive approach to sparring would benefit students greatly. Progressing through basic one step sparring to self defense training, to combination applications, kata applications, two person kata where available and then to free sparring is a more traditional and more effective approach to developing the ability which we are discussing and general martial arts skill.

            In Shorin Goju we use many of these training methods and our students can expect to start with one step sparring cover the use of basic techniques almost immediately. We also use applied self defense practice immediately. As combinations are learned we use multi-step prearranged sparring and as kata are learned we use applications training in a one step and prearranged fashion. Then we progress to slow motion free play. Full speed free play is next and can become quite intense. Another detail of the training is that our instructors know how to develop this skill and are taught to apply and convey this knowledge intentionally. By working I this method students maintain a high degree of technical integrity and become effective fighters developing this and many other skills and abilities along the way.

            There are some other non-sparring training methods that we employ in our schools that I suggest to instructors of all styles. These training methods have the added benefit of generating some variety especially where basics are concerned.  The instructor can rotate among these approaches during the basic techniques and basic combinations phases of training. This piques a student interest and reduces the feeling of boredom that may be engendered by these repetitive aspects of training.

            Students may be placed in two lines facing one another while they are practicing techniques. Two students may be placed facing one another just outside of contact range with all of the students partnered in this way with different random partners of various skill levels. Four students may be placed in an X shaped position with all of them facing the center while throwing techniques, this has the added benefit of working of peripheral awareness. Students may be placed in small eight person circles. Students may be placed in one large circle, this can put the instructor in the center and he or she can rapidly move from student to student with focus pads etc.  Some students can be paced in an eight person circle facing outward while the other students form a large circle around them facing inward. All of these insure that while students are practicing those basic punches and kicks they are seeing them from lots of different people. Because of the relaxed nature of the mind with no stressors the brain can observe freely. Since different ranks can see one another the junior students will automatically mirror what they see from the senior students and will improve faster in general form. Since these methods can be alternated students are reengaged in the process and it does not seem like the same old thing and this can help to focus attention. These can be varied and made more complex and in fact when I have a large class I do many variations of them.

            Another thing that is happening that keeps seniors ahead of juniors has to do with age. Even while the sensory functions may start to slip with things such as vision decline etc the processing ability of the brain is always improving unless interfered with by illness or injury. Simply put, the brain of a 20 year old process information faster than that of a 10 year old, a 30 year old brain process faster than both with a 40 year old brain still more improved, and so on.  This cannot be changed and cannot be worked around and is a natural advantage of age. Youth certainly has advantages and these should be enjoyed while we have them but as we age our physical function may decline yet if our brain is healthy it will improve in our martial arts.  The only training exercise for this development involves time, train regularly and blow out lots of candles on cakes. And they will be younger, stronger, faster but the older that you get the slower they seem to get.

            This may have once been a far better understood set of skills, or maybe the mystique of the past makes it seem that way. But this skill has always been taught in at least some schools and accidentally developed in most of them. A well trained instructor knows what is happening when we see this skill in action and he or she knows how to develop this ability in students.  This is part of the training of a Shorin Goju instructor and I hope that this essay helps instructors of all schools to become better instructors by understanding what is going on and how to foster that growth. Perhaps more instructors will be able to answer that question when students want to know how some people stay a step ahead. Maybe some master fighters and instructors will better understand what they themselves are doing when things seem to slow down and they have all the time in the world and when they just suddenly feel like they know what the person is about the do. And for those who may have lost some of their treasured ideas of martial arts magic and mysticism, use your head for more than a hat rack.

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