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Martial Lessons – Form Before Function

How 4 simple steps can help you break down how to prepare for; training, performance, work & life!

Making shapes with my Chill'Asana Tribe!

Martial Arts legend and instructor Guro Dan Inosanto teaches kids and adults these 4 steps when learning a new skill, drill or technique. He uses the steps to show the importance of not rushing into something without first understanding its base components, focusing on the why and getting comfortable before going all out. Lessons we can translate to many aspects of life;

Guro Dan’s 4 steps are; 

– Memorize (learn the specific steps before jumping ahead!) 

– Form (focus on the elements that guide efficiency and success)

– Speed & Power (ramp up production so that its more effective!) 

– Application (ensure that your preparations match your end goal!)  

As with any concepts, these are not set in stone and anyone could produce 2 more or 4 others with the same idea. Thats why they are conceptual, take what is needed from them, ignore what you don’t need and add in your expert life experience to enhance the message from them;

Memorize; 

For a simple movement combination, memorizing what comes next is key, if you don’t have that down you will spend vital cognitive load on figuring out what comes next, instead of being able to focus on the other three vital steps. This applies to anyone attempting to learn a motor skill, whether it be dance, martial arts, music, sports etc… and can apply to project management, creative thinking, executive decisions etc…Our short term memory can only hold around 7 pieces of information for about 20-30 seconds at a time, the conversion to long term memory has many different theories and pathways which I won’t go into here, but essentially it involves repetition and accuracy of feedback. Spending time on memorizing steps or the structure of whatever it is you are trying to learn applies to academic learning also, the repetition allows your brain to flow around the information and get to know it better. Whenever you practice anything do it deliberately, rather than just trying to memorize word by word or move by move and regurgitate it, it is far more beneficial to be able to understand the concept then break down and build again in your own way. Re-writing a short story in your own words, interpreting a dance in your own way or performing a technique slightly differently to adjust for your height/weight/ability lets you own the movement/writing/dance instead of borrowing it from someone else and this will lead to a deeper learning of it.  When you practice this way, at some point (as long as feedback is happening) you stop focusing on the memorization but start focusing on the ‘form’

Form; 

By form I mean ‘how’ you do something as oppose to just doing it. Bruce Lee is famous for saying “Before I learned the art a punch was just a punch” but martial artists know that you can punch from the hip (like in many traditional arts), from the center of the body (like in Wing Chun), or from the head (like Boxing/Muay Thai) and everywhere in between depending on style. You can throw straight punches, round punches, short punches and long punches, jumping punches and over head punches. The form for each of these are different and depending on the art you are studying and the instructor who is providing feedback, the form will be different also. Just like performing a jump shot in basketball, the foot position taught will differ coach to coach, so will hand position on the ball, when to release and how much backspin is needed etc…what is important is that there are certain elements that need to be refined to do a jump shot for it to be successful. 

Most elements associated with form are to make the technique more efficient or more successful. Many elements of form in martial arts are designed to achieve an aim without expending too much energy, many are designed so that your ‘attack’ is successful and your opponents is not. Some elements come from how the technique was taught in the past because of some environmental factor that made is necessary to do it that way. Whether in sports, martial arts, architecture, human resources or any vocation, we are all familiar with the term ‘thats how we have always done it’ and how frustrating it can be sometimes. When we get to ‘application’ its important to recognize elements that are necessary for the aim of the technique vs. elements that are there from historical context, sometimes they match but not always. Per Bruce Lee’s philosophy its very important to constantly research to find out what works in a particular situation, something that businesses, sports teams, combat athletes, military, police or anyone learning a topic should take to heart very seriously! Sometimes form is necessary just to identify of the nature of something, two dancers could dance very differently to the same piece of music because of their dance backgrounds, one dancers form could be very classical and one very modern. A round kick in Muay Thai is very different to a round kick in Savate, both are highly effective in the right situation. Stick fighting in Kali is very different to using a stick to fight in Kendo or learning Le Canne, but all are highly effective forms of weapon combat. The type of form used often differentiates and identifies mode and context and its important to explore those when looking at ‘how’ you do something.

*Check out all the underline links to watch videos of these cool martial arts and more!

Speed & Power; 

We all want to be able to do things fast and powerful. But for motor skills and many other aspects of life starting slow and becoming smooth first is the best pathway to the greatest speed and power possible. Memorization and Form are the best ways to generate ‘smoothness’, for me this translates to ‘efficient movement’ which in turn creates a faster technique which in turn can create more power. If we have the patience to truly master a movement slowly and smoothly first then it will allow for greater speed and power in the long run. Anyone can kick hard and relatively fast at first and will increase them incrementally by just doing it over and over, but those who take the time to understand the movement, condition the specific muscles needed to achieve the movement, perform various functional methods of learning the motor skills better and work within a framework based in feedback and improvement will always come out faster and stronger than just doing it fast and hard. There are many examples in sport and war of individuals getting outside the “we have always done it this way” box and changing the game. From the high jump with the Fosbury flop, which demonstrated that technique was vital to gaining jump height, to maritime war and Admiral Nelsons charge at the Battle of Trafalgar which demonstrated that superior numbers and firepower does not always win. This is directly where application comes into play, its imperative that you understand the goal prior to beginning the training, so often we jump into something without truly understanding what and why we are doing it. A lot of the time doing something  really fast and hard does not translate to being faster or more powerful.

Application; 

Applying any form of training to ‘reality’ is always going to be off, especially in martial arts/combat where you cannot train 100% realistically, because then it becomes the real thing and no longer training! When it comes to non combat activities then just doing it is often the best way to learn. Dive in at the deep end and learn from your failures. I discovered this in teaching, you could have 4 academic degrees and know everything there is to know about teaching, but then completely fail in the real classroom. Guro Dan has always said that knowledge is stagnant and unmoving, and doing it for real in live time is more about what is true and this applies to so many aspects of our lives. In BJJ its easy to learn and roll within your academy or group but the real learning will happen in competition or in self defense, against someone you don’t know, with more adrenalin, cortisol and nerves than any regular training session. You can practice for your public speaking event, but nothing prepares you like….speaking in public! Find ways to practice the truth of what you are learning as early and as much as possible. 

Just doing it is not enough though, application goes past any reality based test of what you are learning, application means learning from the test and applying what you learn to the next 3-6-9 months of learning or whatever period of time you have between ‘tests’. Sometimes experts learn on the fly; either in-between rounds with less than a minute break or in seconds that go from punch to punch and kick to kick, this is where the adaptation and application of knowledge to truth has to be far quicker! The more we stick to what we ‘know’ in dynamic fast paced environments the more likely it is that we will fail since knowledge is stagnant. The skill of problem solving, creativity, analytical thinking, adaptation etc…is something that should be constantly worked on, applying everything you have ever learned to that one situation and being able to make the executive decision to pick a tool and use it there and then effectively, smoothly with the necessary speed and power etc…There is no predicting or preparing for what tool is needed in any given moment, whether you are talking about sport, combat, business or performance. But, you can absolutely prepare for fast paced environments, high levels of stress, quick thinking and problem solving via training, this is where application becomes a true tool….not the test, but in the learning from the test. 

Have fun learning, practicing and living! – The British Ninja

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