Mindful Training

The difference between repetitions and mindful practice.

You have heard these terms many times – no pain no gain – sweat is weakness leaving the body – go hard or go home. Motivating yes in a way but hardly an accurate representation of how skill building actually works.

If I hire a carpenter to build my dream home would I want him to work until he was so exhausted he could not even hammer a nail in straight? Why? Because we all know building a home requires skill and know how not repetition. What martial artist has not heard the old maxim to throw 1000 kicks a day to become a great kicker? I was told this as a young 12 year old martial artist and even at the time it did not ring true for me. I had a friend who actually did this and I can remember thinking his kicks are not improving yet mine are. I followed my original instructor’s advice to practice my kicks and make each one perfect. I became very accomplished in my kicking skills not through repetition but by striving to make every kick I threw a little better than the last one.

Gichen Funakoshi gave the advice to practice kata one half hour every day. He usually did this in the morning when he was fresh and it gave him a great start on his day. For a karate master a half hour is probably not even enough time to practice each kata in his system one time. Why not longer? Because Funakoshi understood kata needs to be done mindfully with a desire to perfect the mind body groove.

I was invited to several black belt tests at a local school several years ago. I do not enjoy this type of event especially if I have nothing to do with the training. I feel as though I am endorsing something I have no control over the quality of what is represented. There were many higher ranking black belts there from all over the area all different styles. The test included an endurance test where the candidates did all of their kata in a sequence with no rest between the different kata. They did kata from many different series and most of them were kyu or kup level forms. It seemed their system had about 3 different sets of kyu rank kata as part of their system. The black belts started out fresh but not performing kata at a black belt level. Obviously they were holding back and conserving energy. By the 4th kata they began to fatigue and what little precision they had was gone. I then had to watch two well-intentioned black belt candidates perform 16 more kata so sloppy that I wanted to simply stand up and leave the room.

Unfortunately this was not the end. Then the candidates had to spar many opponents until they were extremely fatigued. It was a demonstration of sparring that was as Sun Tzu would say “utterly unskilled”.

So at the end the instructor passed around a certificate for both candidates and asked the black belt observers to sign the back of the certificate. I just passed it on to the next black belt not signing it. The instructor asked the group of black belts to give their thoughts on the test and for the most part received glowing accolades. When I was asked for my opinion I simply asked him, “What would one have to do to flunk your test?” He said well not be able to perform the kata, self-defense or sparring. I asked him if he saw any mistakes and he replied yes many but they were exhausted. So how do you know if they can actually perform with skill? He was bothered by my questions but in the end I told him I cannot sign the certificate and he was doing a disservice to these candidates by passing them.

A few days later these students came to me at our local YMCA and said they heard what had transpired and why I did not sign their certificates. They were very respectful and obviously wanted my opinion so I simply told them their performance lacked skill. They began training with me that week and 4 years later I tied a real black belt around both of their waists. 5 years they trained mindfully and finally received the black belt. During their test they simply demonstrated several life protection movements did a couple kata and sparred briefly with each other. But they accomplished this with no mistakes and skill. That is what I look for skill and skill only when I tie a black belt on a candidate. Train mindfully my friends.


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