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Beyond Rote Memorization: Conceptual Training

In the world of martial arts, where the unexpected is the only constant, the need for adaptability reigns supreme. Traditional approaches often advocate memorizing techniques by following a rigid “if they do this, then you do that” script. 

A good example of this can be found in Shorinji Kempo, an art that I achieved 3rd degree black belt in. I remember going into the Doin and looking up at the curriculum board to see what the techniques of the week were going to be, anxious to learn something new. These techniques were extremely technical with many steps and nuances that would change depending on the angle, speed, and body of the opponent. Every week the techniques were laid out for each rank and we would pair up and practice trying to memorize and perfect them through an endless number of repetitions. 

I loved learning those techniques and believed I would be unconquerable with each new move I learned in class. The majority of our time was spent in practicing those techniques over and over, with just a small amount of time spent in sparring. 

What became very interesting to me was that 90% of those practiced techniques would go out the window whenever we would spar. In the heat of the moment we all would revert back to the very basics of striking, grabbing, throwing, pinning, and submitting.  

Comparatively, the majority of my time in Judo was spent sparring which is called randori. This was live, free-form sparring in which we would battle to throw and pin each other to the mat. Training in competition Judo randori is about using your “tokui waza”, specialty move, and working to hone that technique on as many people as possible. 

When I was a beginner in judo my coach had me get good at a couple of combinations against varying sizes of people. For a while that served me well in competitions against competitors of the same rank. However, there were a lot of times where I would find myself grasping at straws when higher ranked judoka did something unexpected in practice. Sure, I was a beginner and didn’t have a whole lot of experience. But something really clicked when my coach then started teaching me more about the concepts of judo and why those techniques were, and weren’t, working for me. I took a deep dive into those concepts related to the entire game of judo and boy was I hooked. I found that I was seeing things completely differently and needless to say, by applying those concepts in my practice, my judo improved considerably. 

Traditional Teaching Is Flawed

Traditionally you will see a heavy emphasis on rote memorization of techniques at the core of all martial arts. Originally, those techniques were based on natural movement patterns and a specific response to a threat that a person encountered in that style of martial art. 

I’m sure you’ve been witness to this style of teaching.

The teacher shows a technique with 10 different things to focus on within that one technique. After a 10 minute explanation, the instructor has the students drill it 1000 times in a specific way. The students spends 5 to 10 minutes drilling in that way and it’s time to spar. But when tried out in sparring, the opponent doesn’t move the same way it was drilled earlier and bye-bye technique. Now it’s time to learn the next technique for when they move in that particular way. So the student goes back to drill the new technique, it doesn’t work out in sparring the exact way they drilled…and it becomes this endless circle of learning and drilling hundreds of techniques. 

The thing about trying to replicate a technique perfectly each time when drilling is that it can NEVER be performed the same exact way twice. The path, pressure, resistance, etc is in constant flux. Especially when under pressure in sparring, competition, and real-life encounters.   

Technique Collectors

The problem that I see with the majority of martial arts students is that they get caught up in chasing new techniques. Each week they want something new, a counter to this, a new attack for this. Their toolbox might be filled with a lot of moves, yet without a solid understanding of what makes those techniques work, things will fall apart under pressure when there is a deviation to the technique they drilled. 

I feel that we would be better off focusing on training less techniques, and instead focus on an overarching concept-based system that allows us to simplify how we process our opponent’s movements. Therefore making us faster and more efficient in our own movements. 

“Grab my arm. The other arm. MY other arm.”

Focus On The Concept First

Rather than trying to replicate a specific technique in the beginning by focusing on every tiny little detail, we would be better off first focusing on the concepts of why something works.

If you are an instructor, quit trying to show how much you know and instead give your students a single concept and a single cue to focus on. Then turn them loose to practice under pressure using *task-based and *constraints-led learning. Later on, once they get the gist of the movement, you can add an additional cue. 

*This style of training is something I plan on covering in upcoming articles.

Don’t get me wrong. Technical instruction in the sense of positional concepts is necessary to start out. For example, showing a position to work from and a position that we want to work towards. However, for the most part I believe that techniques are overly taught, dragging on with too many steps, and taking up precious class time that could be used to actually practice the movement pattern in depth. 

Sure, I could show you every single little step to a particular technique and work with you to make sure each part of that is performed flawlessly. But if you don’t know the concept behind why we’re doing it, you will miss out on seeing how various techniques relate to each other. 

When you have the concept down you will see the similarity in all movement and how a simple reframe can free you from getting tunnel vision. 

Conceptual learning will not only transform how you react in the heat of the moment, but will also shape you into a more versatile, resilient practitioner on the path to staying On The Mat Forever. 

P.S. I’ll have specific concepts and training methods for various martial arts in upcoming articles so leave a comment letting me know what martial art you train. 

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