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Training Ahead of Rank

Posted in martial arts, philosophy, teaching, training with tags , , , , , , on August 10, 2009 by serpentstaff

Traditional martial arts typically follow a curriculum within which students are expected to pass a test on one set of forms and techniques before beginning to learn the next. Instructors can be quite strict about this, with students getting in trouble (whatever that might mean in a particular school) for trying to study ahead of rank, or for teaching techniques to their juniors ahead of rank.

Let’s all admit that a graduated curriculum makes a lot of sense. It’s as obvious as “crawl before you walk; walk before you run.” In some cases, it just comes down to the fact that you can’t learn everything at once, so some things need to wait. Your instructors, or their instructors before them, have made decisions about what to practice and when, based on reasonable principles. Different instructors might apply different principles, but when you sign on with one, you should expect to go along with their decisions.

Still, questions come up. Westerners want to learn cool stuff, and they want to do it now. They often feel they’re capable of taking on more, or at least trying to do more, than they’re offered in a traditional class. They see others practicing interesting things; they feel they can just copy them, or try to join in. They tire of repeating what they feel they’ve already mastered. This can be magnified by the fact that traditional schools often have time-in-rank requirements. A student may feel they’ve got something down by the end of the first month, but they’re looking at two more months minimum of repetitive practice before they’ll start on a new set of techniques.

There are many ways to look at this problem; I’ll mention three. Number Three is the one that interests me right now, so let me get One and Two out of the way:

First (and most obviously to a traditional instructor), students are not the best judges of what they have and haven’t mastered. Whether they feel it or not, they truly need all that repetition before moving up. And good students need to accept outside guidance on their readiness to approach new material. If they cannot respect their instructor’s judgment on that basic decision, they should either look for a new instructor—which they’re always free to do—or engage in some self-examination on their need to rebel.

Secondly, traditional training is not primarily about collecting cool techniques. And it’s not about superficial competence. It’s about physical practice as a path toward true mastery—deep mastery—which happens to require endless patience and humility to achieve. Beginners understandably use a superficial yardstick to measure themselves; they don’t know any better. Traditional training asks them to take a deeper approach, meet higher standards. That is what will enable students, ultimately, to master all those cool techniques—if they choose to stick it out. So the enforced waiting, the required patience, the endless repetition of basics—these are not incidental to training, they’re central to it. In fact they’re the heart of the program.

Now let’s try a third way of looking at it. Often, students really can take on more than the strict curriculum offers. True, they haven’t yet mastered their basics—but they won’t master anything for years! Meanwhile, their enthusiasm compels them to watch advanced class, then go off trying things with each other behind the gym. As bad as this may be for safety and good technique, it keeps up spirits and shows dedication. Most of all, it’s human nature—unavoidable. The real enthusiasts will be out there no matter what, and they are the future of our schools and styles. As instructors, we must warn sternly against it, pound home our lessons about patience and humility, and then perhaps turn a blind eye. After all, as I’ve said before, we all did it; we’ve all been there. And haven’t we turned out just fine?

Keep in mind I’m not talking about children, but capable adults. Nor am I suggesting we should turn a blind eye if people are doing things that are unsafe or causing injury. But a bit of “training ahead of rank” can be a very healthy thing among good students who are keeping up their traditional basics in class.

I suspect most styles nowadays build some of this in—for example, through camps and seminars where advanced topics are open to all. My style does this. And now we come to what prompted me to write this piece. Not long ago I had occasion to watch two different students practicing kata they learned ahead of rank. Both cases made me wonder whether this is such a good idea. One student was struggling to remember the sequence, but he couldn’t even perform the basic movements adequately (an advanced weapons kata). The other remembered the complex sequence admirably well—but performed the movements very, very awkwardly (in this case, empty hand). Each of them asked for my help, and I just wanted to say “Go back and work on the kata for your rank.”

I have taught some of these special seminars. Should I have barred such students from the class? I did impose a minimum limit on rank, but rank was not the best predictor of how a person did. The best predictor, interestingly enough, was how dedicated the student was to mastering the building blocks, as opposed to memorizing the whole kata. The best students set about drilling the basic movements, and put a low value on trying to learn the whole sequence by seminar’s end. The worst students set their sights on memorizing the sequence, figuring (I suppose) to get better at the movements by practicing the kata over time. They did badly, and, ironically, the others were more likely to get the sequence down by the end—all the while vowing to drill the component basics and not the kata for the upcoming year, before trying to learn it again.

There we have it: Humility and patience, and dedication to drilling the basics— The virtues we teach when we bar students from training ahead of rank are what make students better at training ahead of rank. More evidence in favor of the traditional approach to training, and a free lesson in making all-ranks seminars more effective.

How does your school handle training ahead of rank?

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