Learning the Right Way

We all want the quick fix, the silver bullet, the one thing we can do to skip practice and still become the best. I loved that scene in Captain America where Steve Rogers is injected with the formula and grows several sizes in strength. Never mind that we have all learned we cannot have our cake and eat it too.

This week Sensei Mae shared with me a video on self-defense. We are not commenting on the quality of the technique. We have not tried the technique used in this video, and it is not part of our teaching. We are open to learning new things, however, we are not recommending anything other than our proven system.

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At the dojo we practice modeling a technique.

We all know that the internet is full of videos like this one. The basic appeal is to get us to buy something. The marketing appeals to our instinct that if we watch the video, we will be safe. Just remember the technique and you will be able to overcome any obstacle. I do want to believe that I can have my cake and eat it too!

I am sorry to say that we cannot determine if a technique will work simply by watching a video on Facebook. As a kid, when I learned in biology class about osmosis, I set my biology book under my pillow in hopes of the material leaching through the pillow and into my brain for an effortless, unconscious assimilation of the knowledge from the book. All I received was a sore neck and no additional knowledge about biology. We will not have the time to search the web for the correct technique to learn when we require our self-defense skills, let alone be able to evaluate their validity.

At the dojo we teach self-defense, often from the very first class. This is one of the many reasons people take up karate. We do not think we will get into a lot of fights. Most of us believe we are possible victims requiring some self-defense training.

At the dojo we practice modeling a technique to our students and then letting them experiment with it. In a recent class, I taught several of our basic techniques. It was important that the students get hands on experience with it working and not working for them. We also ensure they take notes and practice the techniques. On the black belt test the candidates must show it working on black belt attackers. As an attacker, the student only passed if they knew the technique. We would not fall for improper technique.

In class, we start with the most basic self-defense techniques to ensure all white belts have enough to save themselves from basic situations. We cannot cover every experience in class as time is always limited. We do know that we have a proven method for our teaching. As the students progress in training, we add techniques that people are less likely to encounter and are more difficult to learn. Of course, our best advice is always to avoid the situation and be aware of your surroundings. We only incorporate techniques that work all of the time. Even these techniques will only work if they are practiced and worked on by the students. It is great to have passed the black belt test. However, unless I am still practicing the techniques, I will not be able to call upon them when needed as my skills will have diminished.

We are working on teaching our students that to master the technique, they must train hard. This is similar to the work that psychologist Robert Eisenberger, at the University of Houston, is working on with his experiments. He has noted that when we learn to work for our reward, we perform better than those who do not have to work as hard for their reward (See his work [1992]. Learned industriousness. Psychological Review, 99, 248-267).

Dr. Eisenberger’s conclusion implies that we are more likely to learn new things when our initial learning experience was hard. Our push then for learning something new, like a cool new self-defense technique, is something we can struggle with and learn. My theory is that by struggling to learn a technique, we are more likely to recall and use the technique because we were forced to master that technique during training.  So, just watching the technique will not help. Pairing up and working the technique is a great start to our journey toward mastery. Working hard for the goal is an effective way to learn. Maybe Sensei Mae and I will need to watch some videos and try them out.

We need to put in the hard work to achieve our goals and improve ourselves. What are you doing to ensure you are practicing hard (and not hardly practicing!) in order to achieve your goals? Keep in mind that you cannot learn self-defense from a video or a blog post. This is the time of year to review and reflect on what worked in the past and what should change in the future.

See you in the dojo soon.

Suit Up, Show Up

To progress, most of what you need is to suit up and show up to the dojo on a consistent basis. If you fail to suit up and show up, your skills become stagnant and you are no longer growing on your karate journey.

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Suit up, show-up consistently!

When we signed up for karate, we looked for three things, probably the same as you:

  1. Location, a dojo near the house
  2. Classes that fit our timing, day of the week and times we could regularly attend
  3. An initial fee and ongoing cost that fit our budget.

As good shoppers, we had the kids attend a week long karate camp in the summer. We were interested in ensuring they could learn and wanted to attend. We also discussed with some of our friends where they sent their kids.

We have stayed suited up and showing up for three main reasons:

  1. We are always learning.
    • Every class we attend at the dojo, we learn something to include in our notebooks or to pass along to others.
    • I helped teach today and learned several great new drills and ways to teach—and I only helped for the first couple of classes.
  2. We have tested our skills and found them excellent.
    • We have both competed in the AAU karate national tournaments and found that the instruction we receive from our sensei at the dojo is equal to or better than other dojos. It is because our competition teams routinely win top honors in competitions that we know how well our instruction methods stand up nationally.
    • We have put the program to the test, and the program has come out on top. Other dojos can also make that claim. See if yours does.
  3. We are growing and progressing in our martial arts journey. I have learned that preparation determines outcomes.
    • We are prepared and follow a planned progression of ever building skills as we advance in the ranks.
    • We believe in showing up and suiting up. Our instructor challenges us each class. I showed up to class consistently as a part of the program to pass the second degree black belt test. The test was more to show to the panel that I paid attention and practiced. Suit up and show up consistently to pass the test.

All of this is to say that if you find yourself in a dojo and you are not consistently learning and growing as well as advancing, you may want to look around for a different instructor in martial arts. My guess is this is a rare occurrence when we are in our first few years of training.

The point about testing our skills is to do so in structured ways, not going out to fight random strangers on the street. Our recommendation is to go to clinics and tournaments. At clinics and tournaments you will be able to see your training in action against students outside of your dojo. In a clinic, you will learn from other masters. I would not say that losing a fight is due to poor teaching. I have lost fights and know I have a very good sensei.  It is looking at the whole work being performed at the dojo.

As a white belt, my son encountered some different fighting skills and lost a few rounds early in a tournament. Was our teaching bad? No it was not. We did not know how much work or effort was needed to become a champion at our first competition. We had never been tested outside of our classmates.  So, the next time we encountered students from the same school we did better and won more rounds as we worked on new skills. On the whole, our dojo students win more than they lose. Of course we have never been 100% in the win column. I lost the gold medal fight in the AAU national tournament. It was my lack of skill and not the coaching from our sensei. It was a close fight, and a loss. I was able to learn from that experience to become a better fighter.

Your preparation does indeed determine what you will achieve from any program, and karate is no exception. You will continue to learn and grow as long as you continue to suit up and show up at the dojo door. See you in the dojo soon.

 

Three Steps You Can Take to Overcome America’s Biggest Obstacle

Americans watch on average more than 5 hours of TV per day. Our biggest obstacle to living healthy lifestyles appears to be the chair or couch we sit in to enjoy our leisure time.

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Are you on the sideline or active?

It takes effort to do something other than to come home from work and relax in front of the TV or your favorite video game. When my favorite teams are playing, I will often watch to see how they are doing and because I get up early in the morning, I generally have to watch the highlights the next day as I cannot stay awake to see the entire game. I have also missed several games because I am at the dojo or somewhere else being active and not glued to my seat, like I am now while I am writing this blog.

Here are three steps to overcome our biggest obstacle:

  1. Make a commitment to do something more than you are today. Coming home and being entertained prevents us from becoming happier with our lives.
    • Getting up and trying something will actually improve our lives.
    • According to the studies, teenagers actually spend more time investigating life and being active than adults.
    • Retirement age adults spend the most time avoiding activity and watching TV.
  2. Learn something new daily.
    • Karate exposes you to opportunities to learn. In class we are constantly being challenged to perfect ourselves and get in shape.
    • I hope to daily reclaim time from inactivity by cutting down on the time I spend idle and committing to the next belt and the karate program.
  3. Apply the learning to change your world.
    • All change begins with us, the one in the mirror in the morning.
    • All of us are going to fall at some point in our lives. The older we are when we fall, the harder it is to get back up. One of the fundamental skills we teach is how to fall and get back up.
    • As we age, we need to get back on our feet and shut out the negative influences in our lives.

How about you? The next time you sit down at the TV or computer take note of the time you sat down and the time you got up. This blog writing has taken me 45 minutes to complete. Track that time for a week and let us know in the comment section how long you are idle on average each day. Can you reduce that time?

A friend of mine who recently retired is planning on joining me at the dojo for a first class in the next week. I am looking forward to helping him keep in shape while he sharpens his body and mind. When we are training, we no longer have time to sit and be inactive. I am looking forward to seeing you in the dojo soon!

 

Can You Really Do That Thing You’re Scared Of?

Like me, any other perfectly normal person feels weak and powerless when we are in new situations. When I joined karate, I knew I had seen martial arts movies and well, how hard could it be to become the next Bruce Lee?

Mark Twain said “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” So we can thank Mark Twain for allowing us to remain with fear and still overcome that fear. I am not suggesting that we are doing anything heroic. Just that when we overcome fear or something that scares us we are exhibiting courage.

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I am getting older. This is a birthday card I received. Aging requires courage.

When I am looking to prepare myself to do something that scares me, I work at thinking back to things I’ve already done that took guts like fighting another adult for an AAU karate medal, stepping in the ring twice on my black belt test fighting two black belts at the same time. If could be easier items such as moving to a new city or a new house. Whatever the case is for me, it will be different for you. What is it that has you scared?

 

Most people are flexible and adaptable much more so than they may give themselves credit for.  To prepare yourself when you are scared, I will ask you to think of times when you exhibit flexibility. Do you speak to your sensei the same way you do your friends or others at the dojo? Do your interactions with your in-laws take the same form as those with your friends from school? Probably not. That means you can adapt to new situations and overcome your fear with a variety of people. This does not mean you can fly or have super human strength or stop bullets. That is Superman and we are not Superman. Also, we are not advocating or encouraging reckless or dangerous tasks.

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Class participation = courage and overcoming fears to get on the floor with a black belt!

In karate, if we focus on the skills and strengths we already have, it can give us the courage to do new things.  Just stepping onto the dojo floor is a testimony to your courage. As we grow older and become smarter, we develop knowledge and “expertise” that can serve us well as well as cause our minds to become closed to new ideas and information. Karate is a new input and one that I did not take up until I was over 50. I had a lot to learn and more to un-learn prior to moving up in the ranks.

As a self-professed expert, the fear I had was couched in “I do not need to learn karate.” My son was taking karate and loving the time spent. When he asked me to join, my only response was yes. I know that much. I needed to unlearn more than I initially learned. I was afraid and still have fear in certain moves and being in a fight. I need to pay attention to the fear and have the courage to overcome it, and even on the second degree test I can tell you it never goes away.

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We did it! A courageous group!

Nike would say, “Just do it.” And we know it is not that simple. Here are a few thoughts to help us on our journey.

  1. We are not as smart as we think we are. We all have fear and it is hard to get in the ring. Courage is not for the weak. We need to realize that others know more than we do, and we should be always open to the teaching.
  2. Asking questions and listening is a good way to discover what is going on. When we speak up in class that this or that is how it is done, we would be good to say “tell me more about…” I have described techniques incorrectly, I am human. When we ask questions and listen for the answer, we often learn and grow.
  3. We should observe the process and imitate the Sensei. When we learn we are over 80% visual. When our youngest white belts learn, they watch much more than they listen. We should be no different as we strive to improve ourselves.

How about it then? Are you ready to face your fears and join me in the next class? Yes, I will have fear as well. I am looking to you for courage as well as within myself. Let’s become the master of fear and not allow it to master us.

See you in class soon.

 

 

 

Small Steps = Big Improvements

Our family is moving to a new house soon. We are downsizing. Not to worry, we are still near the dojo.  We are losing some of our at home training space and gaining a right sized house for us. One of the first things I did prior to putting an offer on the house was to run our white belt kata in the finished basement. Our rule of thumb is that if we have enough room for that kata, we have enough room for all of the others and can move into the house. Do you have a similar measurement or wish you did prior to moving?

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Practicing kata while house hunting. This one fits!

As we are getting ready to leave our current house, we are taking a critical look at what we possess and asking if it comes to the new house.  We have looked and included some items as transitional, meaning they are coming until we purchase a replacement. Other items are being restored. My grandfather was a carpenter and put together a night stand for me when I was a child. That one is being restored and coming to the new home. Other pieces are being sold on Craig’s list or eBay.

As you look at your kata, does it need the same critical eye applied? In studying for my second degree black belt test, I found that the kata sometimes spoke to me and some of the technique I thought I knew needed abandoning and other techniques needed restoration to their correct form. Of course it was a constant question at the dojo the week prior to the test…”Where is the kiai in this kata and tell me again how does that move go?”

The week prior to the test, our Sensei was focused on our technique. In performing an opening move for one of our advanced katas, our Sensei took 10 minutes to explain the first several moves. We had looked at them as the opening sequence and it turned out that there was more to the story. When we went to the test, I participated in a bunki exhibition with another candidate on the same opening moves and he had yet another interpretation of the same sequence. Wow, that was fun and opened us up to a better kata performance during our test.

A simple word of caution, please do not plan on completely gutting and renovating from scratch your kata. It will become overwhelming.  The world has so many options; limit yourself to a one or two so you can make improvements.  When it all feels overwhelming, and it will, stop and just make little choices (see the blog post testing today? and chunking) because one by one added up they will give you a completed and updated kata.

A good sensei will work with you on the frequent, small do-able steps so you not get overwhelmed with the task itself. I am glad my Sensei did not tell me everything to improve, as I would become overwhelmed. Instead, he focused on one or two points to create or restore me back to a great kata.

Our sensei coaching model says that in the beginning, we break down tasks into small improvements. All of the improvements at once, as I just noted, is overwhelming. A coaching session prior to the testing should occur a few months in advance and be followed up with other senseis or the same one in a few weeks so the refinements continue and the practice is sharpened.

Every day we are all “renovating kata,” whether that is in the form or learning a new skill or accomplishing our entire kicking task. We are constantly doing things that can overwhelm us if we let them. If you meet me in the next few months and I look a bit frazzled, it won’t be because I am doing small incremental tasks, it’s going to be because I am trying to renovate an entire kata. I will come back to the advice I’ve received about breaking my kata down, time and time again, it’s what will keep me sane. If you’d like to learn more about preparing for your next test and getting recommendations about breaking down tasks for your kata, we’d be happy to help you at a private session. Ask us after class. We are happy to assist.

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Sensei Glen after passing the second degree test.

Just a note to congratulate Josh, Emily and Cathy who, along with me, passed the test for their second degree black belt last Saturday. Well done! Of course, we applied the little bits together and made big improvements in our kata and techniques. See you in class soon.

Is this your Best?

My dad always said to me, “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing correctly.” So, you must know that I did not always complete my work well, as I was reminded often of this saying. In the same way, Steve Jobs asked his employees, “Is this your best?” and as a result got better work and ideas from his workers. To keep pushing myself, I am hearing my dad and Steve Jobs asking that question of me. “Hey Sensei Glen, was that your best class or your best kata?”

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Is this your best?

Are you now asking that question of yourself?  In order to improve and give our best, we first need to know where we are. To be the “best” at anything, we need to know the standard we are comparing. Competitors in the Olympics know that they are the best when they win the gold medal. This is true for us even when gold medals are not given out during a regular class. When we give our best for ourselves, we can answer that question, “Yes, that was my best today.”

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Yes, that was my best today. National AAU Champions 2013.

We all come to karate as white belts. I freely admit that I almost always compare myself to others. It is something I do to see how I fit in with the other students. As white belts, we soon find out where we are in the ranks of other belts. I am still amazed at what other people in class have learned to do. They know all the moves in the kata I am struggling to learn.  The benefit for my competitive self is that it made the seemingly impossible task appear possible. In karate it is very rewarding to get our first colored belt. At that point we know where we are in our learning journey. We have white belt as a baseline and we sometimes say, “Well, that is a white belt kick, so I should know that kick.”

So, when we are asked, “Is this your best?” we need to remember our best in context. Our best kata may be our only kata. As a white belt, my best kata was my only kata. I was proud of my ability to perform it and did it well for a white belt. In context, the answer to the question can only be given if we know how you have been trained and then practiced that training.  Our senseis have spent hours teaching us and going over material they have long ago learned.

For some of us, we leave the dojo and move right into other areas and have lost our edge in learning the move we were just taught. We have not learned, practiced and re-learned the kata. We often skip the practice part as we are too busy. We learn and re-learn the kata.

In order to demonstrate that this is our best, we need to have time to practice and polish the rough spots in our kata. When we look at a map and see the “you are here” spot, we know where we are.  In that way we know which way to move to get to our destination. When we practice, I can imagine a “your kata is here” mark, and it is only when we continue to practice that we get to our best. Can we become our best without practice?

I agree that we can become better just by regularly showing up at the dojo and going through the floor drills and exercises. I have seen students and have at times been the student who just showed up. As you already know, with that approach we do get better due to the repetition. And we never really become our best with this approach.

Is there a better way? My thought is yes. The answer to the question, “Is this your best?” may be yes at all levels as the best for a beginner is unsatisfactory for the intermediate level. The better question for us to ask of ourselves is, “Are you satisfied with this being your best?” I believe this is why my dad always said to me, “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing correctly.” We should still show up and be present even if we have not had time to work on all of our moves. Of course we are looking to set aside time during the week to practice outside of class. How about you? Do you ever ask yourself “?”

Looking forward to seeing you in class soon and hearing you say, “This is my best.”

 

Are You Pursuing Mastery?

Are you taking karate to learn a few tricks or are you out to master a skill or technique that will save your life? I recently finished reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and he challenged me to think about my karate. Am I pursuing mastery?  And if so, what should I be doing to achieve that goal? And, what does it mean to become a master at anything?

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Am I pursuing mastery? And if so, what should I be doing to achieve that goal?

To answer the question what is a master, the dictionary has multiple definitions of master for us to ponder.  If you click the link above, one of the definitions in the dictionary is “an artist, performer, or player of consummate skill.” This is the definition that I believe Daniel Pink is discussing in his book.  As a martial artist, I would like to have that consummate skill.

Okay Sensei Glen, so I want to master the back fist. What are the steps to achieve mastery and how will I know when I have arrived?

Great questions. As a practicing martial artist, I have learned that mastery is not something we ever fully achieve. What I mean is we can learn to spell and add numbers. I have mastered “2 + 2 = 4” and I imagine you have as well. In his book Daniel Pink writes that “Mastery is an asymptote”. He says that we learned the word asymptote in algebra.  While that may be true, I did not readily recall the definition and had to look it up to confirm what he wrote. Here is what I found on the website math is fun: “An asymptote is a line that a curve approaches, as it heads towards infinity.”

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An asymptote is a line that a curve approaches, as it heads towards infinity.

So, if you are still following along, we are pursuing becoming a master in karate.   It always eludes our grasp as we get closer and never quite reach the line of mastery. In a prior blog post I wrote that you are not art. As we think about our last roundhouse kick in our last fight we cannot duplicate that like we can “2+2 = 4” and have the same result, even with the same opponent at the same dojo. That is what we mean by pursing becoming a master. We get close to the point of perfection and never attain that point of perfection.

Does this mean we should not practice? Of course not! When we practice we should be deliberate in our practice toward mastering our technique. We discussed practicing in depth in prior posts learn, practice, and apply and then how do you learn that new skill?

This week our focus on practice moves to mastery. We have discussed learning the back fist, applying and using it in a fight or drill. The main focus today is deliberate practice. Our practice works best when we are challenged to learn a technique that is matched with our abilities. Daniel Pink refers to this as “flow”; it works well. He indicates that when we are in flow, we are so in the moment we can lose track of time. That is one stop on the journey to mastery.

The second area from the book Drive in the discussion of mastery is the concept of hard work or grit. He tells the story of what separated the students that finish the first year at West Point from those who dropped out. It was not academics or physical abilities, it was grit. Daniel Pink defined grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” The determination to see the task through to the end, like moving from white belt to black, requires grit.

The final area from Drive for mastery is the concept of a growth mindset. At the dojo, we believe that you can learn new techniques and memorize forms. We do not just take students who show an aptitude for karate. We do not require our white belts to pass a coordination test. We have the mindset that the abilities can be learned and the skill level improved through the concepts on practice we have discussed.

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Our practice works best when we are challenged to learn a technique that is matched with our abilities.

The Harvard Business Review published this in July, 2007 from the article The Making of an Expert by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely: “When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.”

Did you catch that? Deliberate practice works on the uncomfortable aspects. The article goes on to explain how when you learn to play golf, you improve a lot. Once you learn the game, just playing the same course does nothing to improve your golf game as you are at the same skill level. No growth is happening.

The article related this story of Ben Hogan, a golf master who worked to improve his shots and his powers of concentration. He sounds like he could have been a karate sensei. The authors make the point our Sensei makes about practicing. Physical practice is just one aspect. We also need the mental practice that comes with concentration.  And of course this article articulates that it takes time. The authors pick the 10,000 hours in ten years with intense training to become an international champion.

Just showing up for class for ten years and not deliberately practicing will not get you on the path to master. It is the deliberate practice that sets apart the individual on the path to mastery. The Harvard article ends with a nod to our culture in thinking about genius. Many know some of the story of the talented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. What we forget was his teaching (learn, practice and apply) began before the age of 4 from his father who was a composer and music teacher. Mozart had deliberate, supervised practice.

I am looking now to pursue mastery in my practice. I know our students look to the senseis as masters of technique. How about you? Are you on the road to mastery?

See you in class soon.