Gauging martial artists by "how they move"

I remember many years ago, sitting on my first grading panel assisting my instructor Bob Davies. I had grading sheets in front of me and was responsible for writing down appropriate, constructive comments on two of the students' performances.

At the conclusion of the grading Bob turned to me and said: "What did you think of student A?" I said that I thought student A had made some sequential mistakes in one of his required forms and clearly did not know it inside out.
    "What about student B?"
I said student B had executed every sequence properly, but the form wasn't very good.
    "Who passes?"
    "Neither?" I guessed.
    "No. In this case student A passes and student B does not."
    "But, with respect Sensei, that doesn't seem entirely fair. Student B fulfilled all the requirements where student A did not."
    "No, student B didn't fulfil all the requirements," he said. Then he pointed to the bottom of the sheet. "It says here that for this level the student should have 'correct form on all techniques'. Student B has clearly not yet achieved this and needs to spend more time at this level until this is achieved to a higher standard – or at least to a point where further study of the material at this level starts to produce diminishing returns."
    "But what about student A?" I said. "Doesn't the mistake in sequence count?"
    "Yes, it might. But we also have to look at how a student is moving generally. Student A is re-orienting from another school. You can clearly see that the lessons from that sequence have already been learned by some other means. So there is no point holding student A back merely because of a sequence. Sequences – forms – are there to teach us things. Once they have taught us those things, they can be abandoned."
    "But won't student A be left with a hole in his knowledge of our syllabus?"
    "No. Student A can always brush up on that particular sequence another time. And I'm sure there will be many opportunities in class for that over the next few years. Right now we want him to be working on something that will advance the way he moves."

My first grading in 1981. My teacher, Bob Davies, is seated and his senior, Johan Steyn Sensei, is demonstrating. In another four years I would start assisting on similar panels, learning the art of teaching and examination.

Over the next 2 decades Bob and I discussed many, many more evaluations of student preformances. In many cases the question of grade would come down to this: "Yes – but how is he or she moving? What mattered wasn't some formal exercise or elaborate sequence. What mattered was the lessons it had to teach – and whether or not those lessons had been learned.

For this reason, when we get people from other systems joining our school, we give them a 6 month re-orientation period. At the end of that we grade them according to "how they are moving" – not strictly according to whether they can do kata X or drill Y. If, say, a student clearly has the kinaesthesia and motor skills of a second dan in our system, it would be pointless to waste the student's time with sequences intended to teach white belt kinaesthesia and motor skills.

Generally speaking, students need to be learning something that advances them – not merely something that satisfies a pedagogic (bureaucratic) criterion. Inevitably, re-orienting students can and do catch up on "missing" forms/drills in class time anyway. And if they don't, I'm not particularly bothered (unless they want to become teachers within our system).

So this raises the question: how important is "good form" in traditional martial arts? And if it important, how does this gel with the fact that what is "good form" can vary so greatly from school to school (see my article "Punching: alignment and conditioning", for example and note the comparison between the karate and wing chun punches)?

Basically my take on it is this: I've seen any number of different stylists (traditional and eclectic) who are really quite different – but are all nonetheless very effective. One thing is common to them all: I can see that they are not beginners. I can see it in how they move – not only in punching, kicking or sparring but also more generally in the dojo.

The latter might seem a bit of a cliché, but I nevertheless hold it to be true. And I venture any other instructor or reasonably experienced martial arts practitioner would agree. It's a bit like watching a lead rock guitarist and a violin virtuoso. You can see their advanced kinaesthesia and motor skills in operation, even though they have little in common technically (other than they play stringed instruments).

Now with fighting things are a little different, because brute strength can play a pivotal role. But the relative skill will still be apparent. And if you match two people with roughly equal size, weight and aggression, the one who is more highly skilled prevails. He/she doesn't prevail because of executing "good form" but because he/she has learned vital kinaesthetic/motor lessons from attaining that proper movement - vital lessons the other, less skilled fighter hasn't learned.

So what the "proper movement" is all about isn't "enacting" that movement in reality. I think it is about a means of gaining kinaesthesia and motor skills. It is a means, not an end. Going through the process of trying to match your form to a particular standard is about gaining the muscle control and memory you need to perform at that standard. In other words, it's about gaining the necessary kinaesthesia and motor skills required of that standard - not about the standard itself. The "bar" set by the standard is really quite arbitrary.

For example, in music whether you gain kinaesthesia and motor skills through jazz "noodling" (as my colleague and good friend Daphne calls it) or through formal classical exercises, you still gain it. You might develop a unique "style" that is quite unorthodox, but it might still be effective. Benny Goodman was a master jazz clarinetist who used to play by biting his clarinet and blowing through his teeth – a very unorthodox technique from a classical standpoint. However, at age 40 Goodman went back to basics and "relearned" how to play in the classical manner - by using his top lip. He mastered that too and became a virtuoso classical player (as well as a virtuoso jazz player).

In martial arts this is a bit like that other famous Benny - Benny "The Jet" Urquidez - learning how to grapple from the Machados after many years of success in the kickboxing ring. Or any number of stand-up artists who make a transition from boxing to kickboxing to judo to Muay Thai to BJJ to san shou to MMA - ie. learning to fight under different rules. Every new "style" you master plugs a hole in your kinaesthesia/motor skills, making you more and more adaptable and a better and better martial artist.

On the other hand if you start "swapping styles" prematurely you end up with very little. Why? Because you need "form" – not because you want to effect that form "perfectly" in a fight, but because learning that form is a vehicle to help teach you the kinaesthesia and motor skills necessary for your martial arts development.

So form is there to teach. After it has taught its lesson, it can be abandoned. It is just an exercise.

By way of example, if you had studied clarinet with Benny Goodman when he was 38, he would have shown you a very particular jazz style and insisted your do it that way. If you studied with him when he was 48 he would have shown you a completely different style. Which one was "right"? Both were equally effective as vehicles for learning how to play. They produced different, but equally "sweet" music.

Having mastered one "style" means you've exhausted the usefulness of the "vehicle" which brought you to where you stand (or at least, the vehicle is running slower and slower and producing diminishing returns for the fuel you put in). Mastering more than one "style" means switching vehicles when the old one has started producing those diminishing returns.

But ditching your vehicle after one mile and "going on foot" doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And yes, you could "build your own" vehicle, but that takes a hell of a lot of ingenuity, effort and time - and makes little sense when there are already vehicles out there perfectly suited to the task and that are the product of the hard work and ingenuity of others.

I've seen many a "dreamer" attempt to "build their own vehicle" - and get nowhere. You can see how little they have travelled. I've had people walk into my dojo who say they have a "black belt" or even a "5th dan" but to whom I wouldn't give a green (or sometimes white!) belt. That's because they've "studied" some made up nonsense and been given a grade by some "belt factory". On the other hand, I have seen more than a few "shodans" or "brown belts" who are so highly skilled that I can see they simply haven't been graded – that they are 3rd or 4th dans in reality. When I ask them how long they've been training they might say: "Oh – 20 years." And it shows.

After 27 years of teaching in my own dojo, I can tell a beginner from an experienced student pretty much as soon as they walk onto the floor. I'm not talking about a "karate beginner" but a beginner - period. I know I can work with a "karate beginner" who happens to be an experienced aikidoka, a judoka or a Chinese or Filipino stylist etc. I can throw them "in the deep end" to some extent and they will "swim". I also know I can't do that to a "true beginner". He/she needs to go right back to square one and start learning some fundamentals – any fundamentals!

I don't give a hoot if the student looks offended because I ignored his/her ninja etc. qualifications or years of moving from school to school and doing no more than a few weeks of lessons at each. I don't do it to hurt the student's feelings. It is just a simple fact that the student needs to go off with a personal basics tutor so that I can get him/her to a stage of learning something more than knowing left from right, etc.

And I also don't care if the student is a "man mountain" who could literally throw me against the wall. So what? If the student wants to rely on their brute strength, why come to a martial arts school? And why come with an attitude of not wanting to learn?

By way of contrast, I have an MMA practitioner who trains internal arts with me. He's as tough as nails, yet he diligently learns what I teach him. He wants the kinaesthesia and motor skills of the arts I'm teaching. He has faith that I can teach them to him. In other words, he wants my form – not so that he can use the form itself in combat, but so that the form can teach him certain kinaesthetic and motor skill lessons – so it can help take him even further. [As it happens, he has also been teaching me some excellent ground fighting from his MMA. The street is not "one way".]

In the end, there is no short cut to experience. And experience can be gained by any number of ways. The important thing is to stick to one method long enough to get it. That is what "good form" is about – sticking to a given method long enough to gain relevant kinaesthetic and motor skill experience. It is not acquiring new "set techniques".

And I hold it to be self-evident that if you have the appropriate experience in the martial arts, you can gauge the level of someone else's – simply by "how they move" (but not by their "killer look"!).

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic