Cartwheel in the park

This morning I’m going through my collected notes on martial arts training. My earliest notes start around 1990, when I started to really teach. Over the years I’ve experimented a lot, tried a lot of things, learned a lot of things.

It all started to click about two years ago, when I had the opportunity to work with a group of new students with no prior martial arts training. I started some new things, and it all fell into place. Sadly, I didn’t have the chance to really build on the that work with the students. Towards the end of that time, I wrote down a grand plan for an ideal way of training students. I’ve briefly shown an outline of that plan to two people, but I haven’t shared the complete method with anyone. Part of the method based on some comparatively new approaches to mental and physical training, part comes from my answers to things about the usual approach that bug me.

One thing that bothers me is progression in martial arts training. I really dislike knowledge-based progression. This is the idea that you learn a set of skills, pass a test on those, and then learn a new set, and repeat. It seems like a common sense idea, and it is. What I don’t like is that it doesn’t make sense in practice. When I studied tradition Japanese arts, the things you learned at an advanced level were not significantly different than what you learned at the beginner level. Indeed, I was taught that some of the advanced kata were formerly taught as beginner kata.

In developing the curriculum at previous schools, progression was a mixed thing. I had statistical data collected over years that demonstrated common plateau’s that students reached, and I devised some strategies at each level of training to guide students through those plateaus. But when it came time to adding breadth the material, such as adding new weapons or the study of historical manuals, the decisions about when to add those materials were either arbitrary or the result of spurious logic.

None of this sat very well with me, but I only had some ideas of how to make things better. I knew how to progress and cycle physical development for peak performance, and I knew how to build people up to learn complex tasks from simple tasks, but… Martial arts is a bit different from other things. Complex physical tasks that would challenge the most developed dancer combined with supreme tactical reasoning and absolute decisiveness. I found rote memorization and principle-based learning failed, no matter how much thought I put into program design.

I found my answer in a challenge-based progression. I defined a series of tasks that a student needs to solve, and the solution to each task requires a level of development be achieved beforehand. The tasks are physically impossible to solve without the physical development achieved at the previous level. The first level, introduction, classes are all workout based. Students learn nothing other than the exercises they will need to pass the first level physical test. Advancing levels include more and more challenging physical activities, and also include tests of increasing tactical prowess. The art I designed is entirely built of exams, with only suggested class content. I created a series of hoops for a student to jump through, and jumping through the hoops will give them each a solid, definable ability at the end of the sequence. How a student gets through those hoops is up to the student. Anything is acceptable, since the hoops are narrowly defined. The art is entirely results-based. If you don’t get the result, the training is wrong for the student and must be adjusted.