This article was written by Steve Chriscole, who was the editor of a superb publication called Kata Unlimited (now sadly no longer published).
I'm sure you'll enjoy Steve's article and I'm very grateful to him for letting us post it here.
The Learning Curve
by Steve Chriscole
In this article, I would like to look briefly at learning to be a martial artist. How does it happen? How long does it take? Are there any explanations as to how it happens the way it does? Is it different for different people? As we go along, there might be other questions that pop up as well. In this article I will use karate as the martial art concerned, although probably any Japanese or Okinawan art could be substituted, with some variances due to technique and weapon type.
I'd like to begin by taking a look at human learning abilities in general, from a psychological point of view. Over the last century or more a wide variety of explanations have been offered to try to explain how we humans learn. The various theories are usually offered from researchers who have a specific viewpoint in their understanding of human personality. They are after all, scientists and they like things to be proven or not, as the case may be. There's nothing wrong with science and I do believe that it is necessary, but it worries me a bit when common sense is laid aside in favour of conforming to a particular way of thinking.
There are the Behaviourists with various conditioning theories; the Social Learning theory; Insight learning; Humanistic introjection and combinations of the above and lots more!
So what I'm getting at is that rather than stick to one scientist's view of human personality theory, I'd like to take a broader, more common sense approach. Besides, you could always get a book on psychology and spend a couple of years trying to figure out whose theory makes most or least sense. For me, the theory that makes the most sense is, yes you guessed it, my own.
I want to talk about my own experiences of learning. Let me say right away that I'm not just talking about my own learning experiences, but those of many other people, having being in the privileged position to be able to experience their learning processes.
Let's have a quick look at children. By the time they've reached the age of 5, they have already been through an enormous learning process, given that they started out with a fairly clean "sheet". Up to now their learning has been based on a totally self-centred attitude. They have not yet got a sophisticated understanding of very much, but specifically, no real ability to experience thinking abilities and emotive reasoning outside of the concept of "me". That means that everything they do and think is oriented around some form or self gratification. This attitude is of paramount importance to the child, as it is an internal survival mechanism, which is fostered by the nurturing parent who do all they can to ensure the child's survival.
The child moves in age towards adolescence, and the "me" concept is constantly challenged and starts to get something of a hammering, as their social circle grows and the child comes up against the hundreds of other "me's" that they know. Something has to give somewhere. In a lot of cases, this is where the "nightmare adolescent from hell" is born. (Those who have children of the age 13 to 18 will know what I mean!).
So far, this aspect of learning is merely touching on the subject, by taking a look at the start of the socialisation of the human, their attempts to integrate into their ever growing social circle. Gradually, the child will, through many trials and error, learn the skills necessary to mix with other people. This is a very hit and miss affair, as growing up is a difficult thing and has no hand-book or help guide. The child gradually comes to realise that the totally self-centred attitude he/she has lived with thus far, is in fact not socially acceptable. This causes great confusion and conflict until finally, after many encounters with the parents and others, the child begins to recognise that in order to survive now, they must change their thinking processes to encompass the feelings of others.
What I hope the discussion highlights so far, is that humans begin life totally helpless and requires constant one on one attention. Their first years teach and re-enforce that the child is the "centre of the universe" and as a consequence they have no idea of the importance of others. This is a kind of exclusion of others by default which has initially come from the instinct to survive.
Only when the child begins to recognise that there is growing external pressure from the social group will they gradually begin to varyingly conform to the concept of "group" or "social environment" rather than solely "me". We could pick out a great deal from all this. I just want to highlight that one aspect for our purposes, that humans have an instinctive ability to make extraordinary adjustments in their attitudes and thinking. The initial motivating force behind that is the survival instinct.
Now let's move on to another aspect of learning. Development is a key word when discussing learning, simply because that is what learning is. It is a process whereby the various experiences of the person are assimilated into the mind and are organised in some way so as to make some sense out of the world. As a result, personality development and learning are very closely linked when it comes to the overall development of the person over an entire lifetime.
Not very many years ago, leading psychological scientists actually believed that human personality was set and immovable by a certain age. I suspect that some still do. I personally believe that this statement is only partially true. Certainly we become who we are by the time we are around 20 years old, and without a therapist's intervention, we continue to change and develop in personality, based on our continued experiences over the rest of our lives. There may have been a foundation of certain personality principles set during youth, but people have shown time and time again that they are more than able to fundamentally turn around and change a large part of their personality.
As we get older, changing in this way is guided not just by the crude "survival instinct" but more sophisticated intellectual reasoning, based on the various individual wants and needs. All this is fed by our learning.
I hope you can begin to see by now, that a discussion on learning could (and probably should) extend to a PhD thesis, because there are such vast complexities in the creation of human personality. My task here and now is to try and find out what learning is involved in the creation of a martial artist. So please bear in mind that I can't possibly cover all the areas in this subject.
So far we have seen that in a crude way, humans are motivated to change often by the need to survive and that change is brought about by a learning process. We've also seen something of the direct link between human personality development and the learning process. If we bring these two major concepts together, then we see just why a person might turn towards martial arts in the first instance. You might already have guessed that bullying is a common cause.
Being bullied has the eventual effect (usually) of the victim wanting it to stop. Because of the learning experience thus far and its effect on the personality (causes emotional pain, and affects lifestyle etc.) the individual will want to change the circumstances. The intellectual and reasoning skills come to play and one likely answer that comes up is the thought, "I'm soddin' sick of being beaten up. Maybe if I could be a bit handier with my fists, it might stop". The survival instinct (now veiled in sophisticated reasoning) motivates the individual towards trying to overcome the situation.
So far, it is the cumulative effects of learning processes that has got our student to the dojo door. Now that training has started there are a number of aspects to the specific learning process of becoming a martial artist. In all probability, our student has no idea what "martial artist" actually means. He (excuse the use of single sex reference) might have seen Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan films and got the idea that being like them would help. All he wants to learn is to defend himself and stop getting bashed by the local slime. So he goes in with a few unrealistic ideas and puts himself at the mercy of the "sensei".
At this point, I'll link you to another of my articles "Karate: Yesterday and Today" which will talk about certain aspects of training and what is disclosed by teachers and what is not. I don't want to discuss that here. What I do want to look at is the learning process our hypothetical student goes through in this "typical" dojo (if there is such a thing). The whole experience begins with having to learn to move in a very unusual way. Whether Japanese or English (or whatever country of origin) there is no other activity that teaches the student of any nationality to move in this particular way. I'm thinking of the very awkward so called "walking" or "front" stance (zenkutsudachi) as a prime example. It is very odd indeed and seems to be at odds with current experience (being beaten up by local slime) in which our student has never seen such a peculiar way of standing or moving.
The first hurdle in the learning curve then might be to have to come to terms with these very new and odd movements. This will be aided significantly by having a good teacher, who can explain clearly, encourage and have good technique themselves. The student gets through his first lesson and feels good about it. Nothing seems to bear any relation to real fighting, but this is just the beginning, and he realises that it's only his first lesson.
Let's take a break from our hypothetical student and begin to consider just how it is that he can learn in this new environment. We've already talked about the instinctive and social aspects of human learning and development. Now let's move on to the more physiological and psychological aspects.
As we've already seen there are different "types" of learning and so it should come as no surprise that there are more to discuss. Now, learning is dependant upon the task being faced. For example the brain will learn a list of French verbs differently than learning to walk in zenkutsudachi, just as it will learn not to "upset" their mother (the latter having greater emotional content). There is learning which depends upon memory and recall, intellectual reasoning & the cognitive and emotional functions, and then there is the body. It really would be convenient if they all worked independently, but they don't!
It would be quite a task to fully explore each of those areas here, so I'll just try to keep it brief. When learning relies predominantly on memory, then the brain requires constant reminders about the details of what is to be stored. Neurologists tell us that this is because each memory requires new neural pathways to be forged, and unlike the silicon based computer, the memory locations in the brain are not recorded using 64 bit addressing (computer buffs will understand that I'm sure). Being organic, the brain needs the new neural pathways to be "well travelled" before it even has a good chance of finding the information in the future. So relying on memory alone for most of us is quite tricky. We've all experienced the "What on earth did I go upstairs for?" situation, which is simply the brain being distracted from a memory that was probably a bit vague and "not well travelled" in the first place.
So for memory to be used as a resource for learning, then repetition (the more the merrier) is the answer.
Now if we move on to the more thinking and feeling related learning, we find that many doors begin to open, metaphorically speaking. Just to give an example of the uses of cognitive & emotional functions; I'm sure most of you have seen or heard of people who make a living from having "incredible memories". These are the people who can remember impossibly long strings or lists of anything and can do much more than that. Well there's nothing new in this. It is done in a variety of ways and one of the most common methods is the use of the "Peg System", which has been around since the 1950's at least.
The Peg System is a technique where if your task was to remember a long list of totally unrelated objects in order, then by looking at the name of the first object, you make a mental image of it. Then you make a mental image of the second item and then make a mental image (or caricature) of the first item doing something with the second. Make the image as ridiculous as possible and that will stick in your mind. Continue the process right through your list. I've tried this (years ago) and it really works! Of course, you have to use ingenious methods for different tricks, but by and large these visualisation methods are very effective.
This is just one example of the use of the intellect to aid in the memory process. Don't forget (pun intended) that the better our memory, then the more information we have at our disposal from which to learn new things.
Imagine just how many different ways we each use to help us remember something. I put my keys on the er..errrm, oh yes, the key hook! That's what key hooks are for; to help us remember that keys go there! So another important aspect of the intellectual learning "suite" is association. If we make a connection between one thing and another, then we are far more likely to remember than if we don't. To continue with the key allegory, "Key..door. Key unlocks door" (intellectual reasoning used to form a link).
Another aspect of the higher brain functioning aiding memory and learning is the use of emotion. Perhaps not as widely used as others, but there even so. An example of emotion aiding memory would be this:
The first time I rode my motorcycle on the motorway at 70mph after many years of not riding, I experienced a fear. I was very aware of the damage hitting that articulated truck would cause me. I remembered back when I was 20 and I nearly died in a bike crash. Horrible feeling! I'll make sure I don't do that again. As a result, I give motorcycle riding 100% attention, 100% of the time! It's amazing how well I remember all the right things to do on the bike. I'd say I was well motivated to remember, wouldn't you?
Lastly from my earlier list, there is the body. You might wonder, does the body have a memory? Some would argue that it does. I on the other hand take a slightly more technical view rather than an esoteric one. The type of use of body I am referring to is body positioning. You know what I mean. If you sit in a certain way, perhaps with your legs crossed, you just know that is more comfortable than other ways. Perhaps you pick a certain shirt or blouse to wear because you know how it feels when you wear it. You kick a door in a certain way and you know it will bounce open as you go through. If you perform an action in a certain way (backhand volley in tennis?) and it feels just right (or not, and you know it was a bad shot).
I think that just about covers the main areas of just how we learn. Here they are again in short form:
There are others, but these are probably the most commonly used.
Let's now go back to our student of karate. He's been going now for a few weeks and the strange walking in front stance is getting easier. However they complicated it by adding punches & kicks. The sensei must know what he's doing.
Well if you look at the list above and then consider the average karate class (by which I mean those that use kihon, kumite & kata) you will see that the class will draw on all of the methods described. But it's more than drawing on them; the karate lesson is pushing the use of all of those learning tools to the limits, all in the space of a 1 & ½ hour lesson.
Firstly is the tool of bodily sensation. Karate is primarily a physical activity and so the use of the body is primary. (No body, no karate!) The student is expected to learn various physical moves, which brings in the need to remember names and positions, but not only that, his body needs to remember the positions. He needs to know what it feels like when a technique/position is good and when it is not. This takes a great deal of time, mainly because it usually takes a time before he can actually perform a technique well in the first place! Assuming he gets there with at least one technique, then when he performs it well, his body lets him know, by a set of physically linked sensations, which can be remembered but not in the usual way. It is the experience of the "doing it right" sensation which is remembered. Trying to replicate a good technique relies on making the body replicate the technique and only when the stored sensation is triggered, will the technique be a good one.
On a similar note, once the basics of karate are understood and well learned, the good sensei will be teaching applied techniques (hopefully) these techniques would need to be repeated over and over again. Practiced with a partner at speed, feeling what a real fight might be like (or close to it), until the movements can be repeated almost instinctively. When this level is achieved, it is the body that is sensing the situation (like antennae) and the reaction to perform a technique comes from a place in our memory which is just out of our awareness. It is reactive, but appropriate to the situation. It doesn't require thinking about. It just happens.
This is the body reacting. Of course the brain is in control; it's just that we have trained the brain to not "think" just "do". Now as I mentioned, to get to this level of ability there is the need for repetition (see list above). The more a technique is practiced the more it falls beyond conscious control. It's just like driving the car. You don't think "I must put my hands on the wheel now", you just do it. That comes from a combination of repetition and association (steering wheel, wheels turn, driving).
The next one is visualisation. When practicing basics (kihon), does our student just see the back of the student in front of him? Or does he visualise striking an imaginary opponent? What about practicing kata? Where is the opponent? The answer is in the mind's eye (or it should be). Once he sees where the opponent is and visualises what he is doing, he will have a better "3D" mental picture of how to more effectively perform the technique.
Last on our list are the emotions. The learning that takes place with respect to the emotions is somewhat different to what we have talked about up until now. Here's how I see it. Given that our student is learning a very violent activity, he will be aware of his feelings as he trains. He will think of the slime that beat him up, he will get angry and those feelings may rise from time to time. There's the feeling of satisfaction as he sees himself improving over time. There's the feeling of anger again as his training partner blocks too hard or punches without control. He wants to knock his head off! But stops himself. He's learning that his anger is not at his training partner, but at the slime that hurt him.
Gradually, he finds himself calming down over time, yet his determined application to his techniques grows. Very strange! Or is it? The effort in his technique comes because he knows that only by training hard will he get better. He's learned this fact, as his expertise grows, so does his effort.
The learning that comes from this aspect, takes us back to the beginning of our discussion. If you remember we said that learning and personality development are closely linked. We spoke of how it is possible to continue to forge the personality throughout life? Well hopefully now we can see a little more clearly how this can happen.
I have to say that personality modification doesn't happen in isolation. Much help comes from the teacher, as his or her role is as a guide and mentor, just as much as a physical coach. All the efforts put in by a good and faithful student can be wrecked by a bad teacher.
I've spent all this time discussing possibilities as to how learning takes place in the student. So how long does it take? Simple answer. As long as it takes. The best guess is several years at the very least. This leads us to the other question. Is it different for everyone? Well I believe everyone is an individual and so there will always be extenuating factors based on that person's life experiences to date. That said, we can't ignore that we all use the same tools by which to learn, so it might seem to even things out somewhat. But here's a "spanner in the works". In my experience, everyone's ability to use the various learning tools varies hugely. Some are good at visualisation than others. Some have exceptional memory recall; some do not and so on. The fact is there is no finite time. People progress at different rates.
I realise that this article has been a bit long, so thanks for sticking with me. The subject is quite complex but I feel it important that the learning curve is something that all teachers of martial arts should be aware of. It doesn't need to be a hard subject to grasp. It just needs a bit of thought. Students of martial arts are very vulnerable to the ideas of their teachers and it is our responsibility to be aware of how our students learn and the effects of our words and actions on them in the dojo.