Monday, April 23, 2012

Developing The Curriculum: The Basics, or All Circles are Straight Lines and All Straight Lines are Circles

     “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking
 new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
                                                                      -Marcel Proust

We can theorize endlessly about what a new Black Belt Curriculum might contain, but at some point we must go beyond mere theory. We must begin to develop useful teaching tools for the prospective instructor.  Our analysis of the low block may be an excellent place to start, but it simply does not yield enough information from which to develop a truly meaningful and satisfying Black Belt Curriculum.  What it does do is show us where to begin.  The answer is obvious once we give it some thought.  We must do what we should always do when confronted with a crossroads in our training: we must go back to the basics. In fact, Grandmaster Jae C. Shin tells us, “Mastering correct basic techniques is the most important step in reaching higher levels of achievement.”[i]  We need to do more than repeat rote executions of our basic techniques, however. While this repetition of basics is extremely important, we must begin to look at our basics with a whole new set of eyes.  While we must remain true to our existing curriculum and our traditions, we must at the same time shed some of our former beliefs and misconceptions and develop our “black belt eyes.”  More importantly, we must teach our students to see with these eyes as well. In seeing with these eyes, we will begin to realize that instead of leading our black belts one step at a time towards an inevitable conclusion, it is at times actually preferable to start with the conclusion and help our black belts deconstruct its meaning.

Step 1: Identify an Advanced Concept

            If we accept the premise put forward in the previous chapter that we should teach concepts rather than specific techniques, then it is important that we are able to identify a concept from which we can begin.  This should be an Advanced Concept, which we are now able to define as an idea of _____ formed by mentally combining several of its defining characteristics.  In this case, if we insert “basics” or “basic drill” into the blank, we know that we must first identify some of the defining characteristics of our basics, and then combine them to form an Advanced Concept. The number of Advanced Concepts that can be identified in this manner is staggering, and therefore attempting to document them is both beyond the scope of this document and counterproductive to its purpose, which is to assist others in developing their own curricula, rather than simply copying one that already exists.  Instead, it is important to identify how we develop an Advanced Concept and move towards development of specific drills to fit this concept. Whenever we desire to identify the defining characteristics of a component part of Tang Soo Do, we should look beyond the merely physical, and examine how the subject in question can be categorized using one of the core principals of not only martial arts, but of Asian thought in general: that of um and yang. In quickly defining um and yang as “opposites that work together”, we can begin to isolate several defining characteristics of our basic that work within this method of categorization:

·         Push and Pull
·         Hands and Feet
·         Defensive and Offensive
·         Soft and Hard
·         Linear and Circular

            While it is possible to continue this list, let us assume for the purposes of this document that we have chosen to explore the characteristics of linear and circular techniques.   There is much discussion and disagreement over whether circular or linear techniques are better, or and even about exactly what constitutes a circular or linear technique, but generally speaking, these methods of classification are extremely prevalent, and will continue to be so for some time to come.  The problem arises in that there is really no great benefit in continuing these classifications beyond a certain point.  Once a student understands the basic movement patterns of a given technique and is able to understand why it is traditionally classified as either “linear” or “circular”, it is time to challenge this perception.  Remembering that as we get closer to approaching the Ideal Concept “it’s all the same”, we can begin to combine these generally accepted characteristics in order to form an Advanced Concept:

All circles are straight lines and all straight lines are circles.

Interestingly enough, this concept is not a new one, and is a matter of debate between mathematicians, physicists, and even theologists.  While all this is beyond the scope of this document, it is interesting to contemplate how the concepts in martial arts and the concepts that govern the nature of the universe are often one and the same.

Step 2: Uncover Basic Concepts

            Now that we have an Advanced Concept, we must deconstruct its meaning through the creation of drills that will, in the end, begin to uncover some more Basic Concepts, and, in so doing, will begin to open the “black belt eyes” of our students.  If we are going to start with circular and linear characteristics of our basic techniques, then we must first identify a technique that is traditionally viewed as circular, and one that is traditionally viewed as linear.  While there are large numbers of techniques typically categorized within either of these labels, perhaps it is best in this paper if we stick with techniques that are familiar to most martial artists, so we will stick to “the basics”.
            First, we will identify a technique that is traditionally viewed as linear.  This is a good place to start in that when martial artists attempt to classify Tang Soo Do, they usually identify it as a “hard” or “linear” style.  While these are actually false labels when any art is examined completely, they nonetheless serve as a place to start. So, let’s start with a basic technique usually classified as linear: the center punch. It is safe to say that most casual observers, if asked to identify the characteristics of a center punch as circular or linear by merely watching the execution of the technique, would pick the latter.  Even most students would classify the technique in this way, most likely insisting that the punch travels in a straight line from the chamber position at the ribcage directly to the intended target. This classification would ignore the multitude of circles present in this technique. First, there is the twisting motion of the hand and arm as the punch travels from the chamber to the target. Not only does the hand rotate in a circular motion, but the entire forearm does so as well. In addition, the hips, and therefore the entire body itself moves in a circular path, rather than linear, through the entire execution of the technique. Finally, if we actually view the path of the arms as they execute a center punch from directly above that practitioner, and not from the side, we will see that the punching hand moves from the side of the body towards the center, while the chambering hand moves from the center toward the opposite side.  The path followed is not a line, but again is circular in nature. So, in one technique that is usually classified as linear, we have easily identified three different circular motions:

1. Hand and forearm circular movement


 2. Center punch: circular movement of hips and body

3. Path of travel for punch – circular movement

This all tells us that yes, the technique is actually circular AND linear, but what are really uncovering and understanding here? As we begin to get our black belt students to concentrate more and more on the circular aspects of a technique that they had long viewed as linear, there is one key concept that is unlocked:

Circular motion adds power to a technique.

This is a Basic Concept that every black belt should know, but all too often they are absorbed in punching as quickly as possible, with as much muscular force as possible, that they begin to neglect the circular motions contained in the technique that actually generate the greatest power: hand rotation, hip twist, and chambering arm retraction. Grandmaster tells us this in his second book, The Basics:

Regarding hand and forearm rotation:

For striking, the twisting action creates greater penetration power along with the impact power (this can be seen from the principles of a working drill). [ii]

Regarding hip twist:

Keep the waist loose and flexible. Twist the trunk slightly in the opposite direction of the target just before executing a technique. At the moment of impact, forcefully twist back into a natural position to create maximum power.[iii] 

Regarding chambering arm retraction:

Punch with equal strength on both sides. The stronger the pull back on the non-punching arm, the stronger the punch will be.[iv]   

While the mathematics are difficult to comprehend, they actually hold this concept to be true. This why levers, pulleys, and wheels work.  It is also observed in the principles used in weapons such as a whip, a sling, or a catapult.  In fact, in nature, true linear motion doesn’t exist.  All objects, even those that seem to be moving in a straight line, are actually moving in circles.  This is again difficult to understand, but let’s look at the science, in relatively simple terms.

According to one physics lesson:

Uniform linear motion is the reflection of the inherent natural tendency of all natural bodies. This motion by itself is the statement of Newton’s first law of motion: an object keeps moving with its velocity unless there is net external force. Thus, uniform linear motion indicates “absence” of force.

On the other hand, uniform circular motion involves continuous change in the direction of velocity without any change in its magnitude (v). A change in the direction of velocity is a change in velocity (v). It means that an uniform circular motion is associated with an acceleration and hence force. Thus, uniform circular motion indicates “presence” of force.

However, a true “absence of force” acting upon anything is extremely unlikely.  Therefore:

Motion of natural bodies and sub-atomic particles are always under certain force system. Absence of force in the observable neighborhood is rare. Thus, uniform linear motion is rare, while uniform circular motion abounds in nature.[v]

Thus we have observed the second part of our Advanced Concept:

All straight lines are circles.

What of the first part of our Advanced Concept, though?  If linear motion doesn’t actually exist, how can we say that all circles are straight lines?  The answer actually lies in the analysis of circular motion, and how we use it in the martial arts.  Assuming we are referring to offensive, or striking techniques, our goal is to maximize the speed of our technique to both increase the likelihood of it hitting our target as well as increasing the force at the moment of impact.  When we examine these ideas in terms of circular motion, we discover that in order to decrease the amount of time a technique takes to reach its target we can do one of two things: either increase the speed at which the technique travels (requiring much additional effort), or decrease the distance between the hand or foot executing the technique and the target itself.  Decreasing the distance actually takes much less effort, and can be done by decreasing or shortening the radius of the circular path to be traveled.  Note that the radius of a circle is actually a straight line.  Let’s examine this further by looking at a technique that is almost always viewed as a circle, and in fact one in which the very name implies circular motion: the wheel kick.  
            A wheel kick is actually executing by performing two separate circular motions.  First the upper body (above the hips) starts the circular motion of the kick, and then the kicker allows the leg to extend straight out from the body, generating a whipping motion that quickly accelerates the kick in a larger outside circle:
  Progression of wheel kick, points 1-9, point 5 is impact

Here the radius of the circle is represented by the kicker’s outstretched leg.  How can we decrease this radius, if the length of one’s leg is, obviously, a constant?  We do this by both altering the angle of the circle traveled, and also by not straightening the leg until just prior to the point of impact.
            Grandmaster Shin illustrates this point in The Basics:

Regarding the angle of attack, we see that the circle does not travel in a plane that is parallel to the ground, but instead that it travels in an arc that is approximately 45 degrees between the ground and vertical:

Regarding the extension of the leg in the kick:

A common mistake for beginners is to release the kick too early in the turn, thereby expending the kick’s power to the left of the center line, before reaching the target.[vii]

Our first illustration actually depicts this mistake.  By releasing the kick at point 2 in the circle, we have artificially increased the radius of the circle, and expend too much energy keeping it moving.  By the time the point of impact has been reached, the useful power has already been depleted.  However, if we reexamine the kick, we begin to see that a more correctly executed wheel kick, viewed from above, will look something like this:

More correct execution of a wheel kick, demonstrating extension of leg

In this example, we see the proper extension of the leg, just prior to the point of impact (at point 5), as well as the continued leg extension past the point of impact, but at the same time bending the knee where appropriate, thereby decreasing the overall radius of the circle traveled.  The outer circle here shows the original size of the circle, while the inner circle depicts the new, smaller radius.  Thus, the straight line distance to the target has been reduced, and the technique itself is able to move more quickly.
            What then about the force generated at the point of impact?  This is a great question, and one that strengthens our argument further.  It turns out that the force generated by circular motion at any given point along the circle (such as our point of impact) can only truly be measured in terms of a tangent to the circle in question. A tangent is “a line that touches a curve at a point so that it is closer to the curve in the vicinity of the point than any other line drawn through the point.” [viii] Thus, the force at impact is actually moving in a straight line, even if only at the exact point of impact:

So, at last we arrive back at our original Advanced Concept:

All circles are straight lines and all straight lines are circles.

What new basic concepts have we uncovered in this analysis of circular motion?  By concentrating on the more linear aspects of the “circular” wheel kick, we have discovered that we both reduce the distance necessary for our kick to travel, thus reducing the overall effort required to execute the kick, and also that we are able to generate a greater impact in the process. Therefore, we have learned that:

Linear motions help us to reduce unneeded movements, thereby increasing efficiency of techniques and creating overall economy of movement.

We have demonstrating that in deconstructing an Advanced Concept, we learn more about the actual nature of our basic techniques, while at the same time uncovering some Basic Concepts that will serve as principles for a deeper analysis of all our other basic techniques.  We have started to develop a certain level of Understanding in regards to our basics.  It is now time to mover forward with Application and Improvisation.

Step 3: Understand, Apply & Improvise

            We have reached a certain level of Understanding of our basic techniques, but we must explore this stage a bit further before continuing on with the development of our Black Belt Curriculum.  While we have examined only two basic techniques in order to deconstruct our Advanced Concept, it is necessary now for our black belts to begin examining additional basic techniques with the following two Basic Concepts in mind:

1.      Circular motion adds power to a technique.
2.      Linear motions help us to reduce unneeded movements, thereby increasing efficiency of techniques and creating overall economy of movement.

           One of the best ways for black belts to begin to examine a number of techniques and their characteristics simultaneously is through the use of basic combinations. Typically these will consist of no more than four techniques.  Students should drill the selected combinations repeatedly, until they can begin to define the circular and linear aspects of each, and in what ways these motions will assist in the Application of the technique.  This should be reflected upon and discussed between the students and the instructor, but the main focus at this stage should be allowing the black belts to discover on their own, now that they have been led to the path and taught what they should be looking for with their black belt eyes.  For example, they should begin to uncover their own ideas about how a twisting motion of the chambering arm lends itself to a grab, how the circular motion of the hips lend themselves to upsetting an opponent’s balance, or how that more linear movements contained within a “circular” block can become “hidden” strikes. Once they are able to conceptualize and articulate some of these ideas, it is time for them to begin working with a partner on the Application Stage.           At this stage, black belts will be assigned a specific combination (or no more than two in any one lesson) and will be asked to identify as many different applications as possible for these specific applications, while keeping in mind that:

1.      Advanced Concept: A block is a strike is a trap is a lock is a throw.
2.      Basic Concept: If one strike is blocked, the next strike should already be on its way.
3.      Basic Concept: Both hands must be considered when identifying applications for a given technique.

The students will have to not only be able to execute the combination, but will truly have to be able to visualize each attack in order to apply the techniques contained within the selected combination.  Once they have begin to identify a few different applications, the instructor should ask them to isolate one or two applications that they like, and with which they will be comfortable executing on a repeated basis.  At this point they will begin to move away from static, one-sided Application Drills, and move towards more dynamic, give-and-take Flow Drills.  In a Flow Drill, the motion between partners never stops, and as soon as one side has executed their selected applications/defenses, they will immediately move into the attacks decided upon by their partners, and vice versa. Once they have developed a true sense of flow, and are able to move seamlessly from one technique and one partner to the next, it is time to enter the next stage: Improvisation.
            The Improvisation stage is exactly as it sounds: students must now begin to create not only their own applications for ore-determined techniques, but will now begin to improvise the creation of their own combinations, the corresponding attacks, and the applications generated from each.  Our black belts are going far beyond mimicking and regurgitating information given to them.  They are now actively creating their own drills, and forming a deeper understanding of their basic techniques.  The drill does not end here.  It is time for the instructor to pick one or two students and have them share their improvised combinations with the rest of the class.  At this point, the class will begin to drill these new combinations, will find new partners, and the process comes full circle, in the end looking something like this, once again proving the point about circles and lines:

  Linear Drill Progression                                       Circular Drill Progression 

The Basics: Conclusions

What can we conclude from all of this analysis?  In short, there is nothing truly basic about the “the basics.”  It would be impossible to generate a truly complete Black Belt Curriculum that covers everything there is to learn about this foundation of our art.  Instead, we have tried to develop a method of instruction that will allow qualified martial arts instructors to develop their own varied curricula through the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of concepts rather than individualized techniques.  The method for creating a Black Belt Curriculum then, is as follows:

Step 1: Identify an Advanced Concept: Start with a specific technical or philosophical goal in mind, identify as many characteristic features that comprise the goal as possible, and combine them into one idea.

Step 2: Deconstruct the Advanced Concept to Uncover Basic Concepts: Create drills that emphasize the point of your advanced concept, while at the same time breaking the Advanced idea down into chunks that are easier for students to understand and identify.

Step 3: Use both Advanced and Basic Concepts to Understand, Apply, and Improvise: Once Basic Concepts have been identified, begin using new drills or techniques in order to help students solidify their Understanding of these concepts. Then have students begin to explore Applications of these drills, finally leading them towards Improvisation of their own drills relating back to the initial Advanced Concept.

This may seem a difficult model to comprehend and follow at first glance, but the more we use it, the more we will find it fits both our goals for teaching black belts as well as providing them with challenging opportunities to learn “new” material, and ultimately leading them towards their own discoveries and creations.  This is a model that will increase both retention and comprehension in black belt students, and is one that can be applied across the many different areas of our already existing curriculum.  

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

[i] Shin, Jae Chul. (1994). Traditional Tang Soo Do Volume II: The Basics Philadelphia, PA: Jae C Shin, preface
[ii] Shin, Jae Chul. (1994). Traditional Tang Soo Do Volume II: The Basics Philadelphia, PA: Jae Chul Shin, p.49
[iii] Shin, Jae Chul. (1994). Traditional Tang Soo Do Volume II: The Basics Philadelphia, PA: Jae Chul Shin, p.49
[iv] Shin, Jae Chul. (1994). Traditional Tang Soo Do Volume II: The Basics Philadelphia, PA: Jae Chul Shin, p.51
[v] Singh, Sunil Kumar.
[vi] Shin, Jae Chul. (1994). Traditional Tang Soo Do Volume II: The Basics Philadelphia, PA: Jae Chul Shin, p.95
[vii] Shin, Jae Chul. (1994). Traditional Tang Soo Do Volume II: The Basics Philadelphia, PA: Jae Chul Shin, p.95