Thursday, January 31, 2013

What's In a Test? Part 1: Failure

          Some time ago now, I found myself for the first time having to write an extended thesis in order to fulfill my requirements for advancement to 4th Dan. While this blog isn't the place to share that particular document in its entirety, I do think it is appropriate for me to share pieces of it here.  The basic topic of the the thesis was testing, and here I would like to share my thoughts on what too often seems to be a taboo word and a taboo subject in the realms of martial arts tests: Failure.

Fear of Failure

            The possibility of failure must be present in any test, or it cannot truly be called a test.  Beyond the possibility of failure, however, a good test includes the fear of failure as well.  Fear in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It can, in fact, be a powerful motivator towards positive change.  We become stronger through facing our fears, not by ignoring or attempting to remove them.  The trend today, however, seems to be towards removing any perceived unpleasantness from our young people’s experiences. Columnist Tucker Carlson writes:

Not all of life’s experiences are positive.  Many are downright unpleasant, even painful, and always have been.  What’s new is the attempt to prohibit those experiences.1

In so doing, we are doing our children harm.  One of the established needs for testing to fill is the need to confront and understand our weaknesses.  If we do not confront our fears, and in particular the fear of failure, we can never truly face or come to terms with these weaknesses.  In short, fear is a necessary human motivator, and the fear of failure is a necessary component of a good test.
            The fear of failure has been a trait common to all people throughout history.  It stems from the life and death experiences of our distant ancestors, the so called ‘dangers of the hunt’, in which failing meant serious injury or even death.Later, as Rites of Passage became more formalized and controlled, failure to succeed in meeting the objective of the rite meant denial of acceptance into the adult community.  With failure came consequences, and it was these consequences of which people were fearful.  Today there is a trend towards lessening or complete removal of consequences.  At one time, failure at tests in schools meant a dire combination of consequences for the child.  At school, the failure would, at the least, result in a loss of points toward an overall score, lowering the student’s chance of passing a subject overall.  At home, parental disapproval was virtually guaranteed.  These and other consequences worked together to ensure that the student would not want to repeat the process.  Today, however, the consequences are often removed or lessened.  Parents more and more often confront teachers over failing grades, rather than support them. Schools themselves allow students to take tests as many times as they need to in order to pass, where the end result is no consequence for the initial failure, and in fact a reward of a passing grade in the end.  With waning support from the community and families, schools are beginning to find out that the consequences they do try to implement have little effect on the students.  The fear of consequences is not reinforced outside of the schools, and the fear of failure is beginning to disappear. Attempts to combat this trend are not working as planned.
            We have discussed the fact that with failure must come consequences.  Removal of these consequences is a problem.  It is, however, only half of the problem.  Attempts to recreate some sense of a fear of failure have been centered solely on consequences, making them consistently harsher. So-called ‘zero tolerance’ policies are being put in place in schools and places of employment throughout society, in which failure is automatically coupled with harsh consequences, and repeated failure is accompanied with immediate removal. In these situations, failure is the end of the road. Consequences must be in place, true, but they must serve as motivators towards positive change.  This cannot happen if the consequences of failure are not coupled with opportunity. Failure must not be viewed as the end of the road, but the beginning.  We often will learn more from our failures than from our successes, but only if the opportunity for future success exists.
People who fail to succeed at a test, life experience, or other situation, must be actively encouraged to face, understand, and accept the consequences of their failure, rather than simply be left to those consequences without further assistance.  In this way, and only in this way, can we fully prepare them to face the test again, hopefully with a different result. Testing a second time without first facing the initial consequences accomplishes little or nothing in the long run.  We do not encourage success by removing the consequences of failure, nor do we encourage success by forcing people to deal with those consequences unaided.  Lao Tzu tells us: “In pursuing their affairs, people often fail when they are close to success.”This occurs when people are left to face the consequences of failure with no help and do not recognize the chance to correct the initial mistakes they made.  Aikido instructor and author Kensho Furuya states:

We do not fail because we make mistakes, we fail because we do not make mistakes correctly.

The common person turns his mistake into a bigger mistake.  The wise man turns his mistake into an advantage.4

We must encourage students to accept the consequences of their failure, but never to accept the failure itself.  We must help them to see that failure is not the end of the road, but merely a step along the longer road to success.
            A good test is one that has consequences for failure.  A complete test, however, includes a mechanism for the test-taker to come to acceptance of the consequences of failure and confront the test again. We must recreate a sense of danger associated with failure.  Without that sense, without that fear, there is ultimately nothing learned from failure.  It becomes an acceptable result.  This cannot be allowed.  We must push students beyond their failures.  By forcing them to confront the consequences of their failures, we force them to accept the fear of a second failure, but also to now work through that fear to a point where failure is no longer an acceptable outcome.  We must force today’s students to confront their fear of failure.  
          In some instances, the fear of failure has been too far removed from the martial arts tests of today.  This happens when students see everyone pass every test and assume that passing the test is automatic.  The basic concept is that no one who is not ready to be tested should be allowed to test, and therefore everyone passes.  There is nothing wrong with this idea as a concept, but many time ideal concepts are difficult to translate into the "real world",  and when instructors do not warn students and parents that the possibility of failure is very real, or when they allow unprepared students to ‘slide by,’ problems begin to appear.  Martial arts instructors today have been accused of ‘giving away’ and even ‘selling’ belts.  These phrases imply that the belts given to students were never actually earned through passing a challenging test.  We must strive never to allow ourselves to do this, or we remove a critical component of a complete test.
          The martial arts test must remain a test with clear and tangible consequences for failure. Rather than serving as a method of punishment, these consequences exist in order to drive students towards positive changes.  Failure in a martial arts test will result from a lack of mental, physical, or spiritual preparation and development.  Any one of these can cause the failure, but all failures of the martial arts test result in one major consequence: no promotion to the next level.  This consequence has a tangible component in that the student who fails the test does not receive a new belt, stripe, or certification, but perhaps it is the more intangible results that really make the difference.  As martial artists advance in rank, new levels of authority, status, privilege, and responsibility are (or at least should be) conferred.  The student who fails his or her test will find that his or her own levels in each of these areas remain the same.  Nothing is taken away from the student, but nothing is gained either.  It is the lack of advancement in these intangible areas that students should fear most, and this then becomes the driving force for positive development.  Instructors will fuel this motivation by helping students learn from their failures, thereby teaching the next generation to confront these failures and use them as motivation rather than to simply accept them.  Students learn to have a healthy amount of fear of failure, but are constantly encouraged to confront and overcome that fear.  Only once they have done so can it be said that they have truly earned the status that comes with advancement in rank.

Kick. Punch.  Easy Stuff.

1.      Carlson, Tucker. (2002). “Go Ahead, Hurt My Feelings,” Reader’s Digest, August, p. 46.

2.      ‘Dangers of the Hunt’ concept taken from Pinnock, Don. (1996). “Gangs Guns, and Rites of Passage,” Conflict Resolution Notes, Fall p. 8.

3.      Lao Tzu, trans. by Victor H. Mair. (1990). Tao Te Ching New York: Bantam Book), p. 35.

4.      Furuya, Kensho. (1996). Kodo: Ancient Ways Santa Clarita, CA: Ohara Publications, Inc., p. 139, and  p. 144.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

You Keep Wanting That Belt. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

          The movie The Princess Bride may be one of the few great comedic masterpieces ever put on film.  It is not only extremely enjoyable, but also extraordinarily well written, directed, and acted, and if nothing else, is eminently quotable. For the uninitiated: Throughout the beginning portion of the film, after the character Vizzini abducts Princess Buttercup and finds that he is being pursued, he continually exclaims that this is "Inconceivable!", despite all evidence to the contrary. After one "Inconceivable!" too many, Inigo Montoya astutely responds, "You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."
          As a martial arts instructor, I find myself feeling much the same way when it comes to how students seem to feel about achieving new rank.  It appears that somewhere along the line, the goals for many students have shifted away from acquiring knowledge and skill towards merely acquiring rank.  To these students, the belt has become a symbol of only accomplishment, status, and achievement.  It has become a measuring tool to say, "Look at me, and look at what I've done! I've worked hard, and I deserve your admiration!"  Now, I'm not here to deny that it is these things, to a certain degree, but as an instructor, that's really NOT what your belt means to me.  The belt is not a destination, and making it one simply makes it that much easier to end a journey that isn't supposed to end. (See There Is No Karate Season)  Reaching any new rank is not a destination, it is merely another step; another rung on the ladder.  What is it, then, that your belt means to me?  It is not about what you have learned.  It is instead about what you are ready to learn next.  It is not about where you have been, it is about where you are going.  The new belt, quite simply, means that you are ready for more.
          It is this attitude that should be reflected in any desire for advancement, and in any efforts expended during a test for new rank.  I do not want to see a simple regurgitation of required material.  I want to see a true desire to advance, to move forward, and to be ready for the next challenge.  Frankly, it amazes me when the attitude presented is anything less.  All too often, when students realize that achieving a new belt rank doesn't make anything easier, I see the last thing I would expect on their faces: confusion.  I'm not sure why this is such a secret, though.  It seems as if these students, somewhat like Vizzini, find it to be "Inconceivable" that their new belts did not come fully equipped with magical abilities to make training simpler and easier, or at very least seem shocked that they don't now possess all the answers and abilities they will ever need.  Life doesn't work this way, and neither do the martial arts.  Prove proficiency with one thing, or at one job, and the reward, inevitably, is simply the opportunity to prove you can do more, and do it better.  This then, is also your reward upon receiving new rank.  
          Prove you can learn more.  Prove you can do that which you have already learned better.  Prove your belt means what you think it means.  Anything else should be inconceivable.

Kick. Punch. Easy Stuff.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Some Brief Thoughts on Traditional Weapons Training

“Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are
won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow 
            and of the man who leads that gains the victory.

                                                                   -George S. Patton
          The Korean for Weapon is “Moo Ki”, and combines the characters for “martial” and “instrument.”  Thus we know from our previous analysis, a weapon, as defined in Tang Soo Do, is an instrument used to stop conflict.  As we train our black belts in the use of weapons, traditional or otherwise, we must be mindful of this definition.  Much has been written about the weapons of the various martial arts, and this chapter does not serve to inform instructors which weapons they should and should not teach, nor does it hope to instruct any techniques specific to one particular weapon.  Instead, it embraces the idea that we should teach our black belts concepts rather than techniques, and is meant to encompass the use of any weapon, whether it is one of the traditional adopted weapons of the World Tang Soo Do Association (staff, knife, sword, and cane), martial arts weapons primarily used in other arts (nunchaku, tonfa, kama, sai, etc.), or even improvised weapons, which can be, quite literally, anything. Regardless of the weapon used, it is important to recognize that the instructor should first have trained with it extensively in order to understand its characteristics and uses in the realm of the martial arts.  The selected weapon, as Grandmaster Shin tells us, should not be randomly chosen, but instead should be “a tool for daily polishing of the mind, body and spirit.”[i]

Step 1: Identify an Advanced Concept

            In the case of weapons training, identifying an Advanced Concept is not difficult.  Virtually every martial art in existence agrees on one point when it comes to the use of weapons: that the weapon is an extension of the user’s body.  This can be taken to another step, though.  If a weapon is truly an extension of one’s body, then it cannot be considered a separate entity.  It is therefore treated as if it is a living part of oneself.[ii]  As we combine these ideas, then, we arrive at the following Advanced Concept:

A martial artist’s weapon is not separate from the self, but is an extension of the self.

          When we use the term “self” rather than “body”, we better understand the serious nature of training with weapons, and better appreciate the focus required for a martial artist to achieve this state.  How do we guide students toward this?  We cannot simply hand them a particular weapon and expect them to be able to make it an extension of the self.  The basic techniques and principles of usage of the selected weapon must be developed first.  At some point,  they should be able to extrapolate techniques for a new weapon from techniques they already know from using another weapon, or from empty handed techniques.
Step 2: Uncover Basic Concepts

            If we truly want our students to develop the ability to extend a part of themselves into the weapons they use, then they must be able visualize the weapon as a part of themselves at all times, even if they are not using it.  Paradoxically, there is a way to help them do this: by separating them from the weapon.  We remove the weapon itself from the hands of the student, but then have them same student execute both the basic techniques of the weapon, and any associated weapon hyung and dae ryun while remaining empty handed.  Just as an observer should be able to “see” the opponent of a martial artist who properly executes hyung, that same observer should be able to “see” the weapon, even if it is not actually there.

           The movements of the body should not change, whether the martial artist is actually wielding the weapon or not.  In practicing separation, we are actually working towards union, and we uncover the following Basic Concept:

After proficiency is achieved with the basics of a given weapon, a martial artist does not need to hold that weapon in order to train with it.

            Obviously, at some point, the black belt must again train while holding the weapon in his or her hands.  At this point, the student should begin to engage in both pre-arranged sparring and free sparring techniques with a safe training weapon that simulates the actual weapon as closely as possible.  The student will begin to learn to apply the basic techniques and principles of the weapon with a partner, and will achieve a greater level of comprehension regarding how the weapon is used in scenarios that involve single attackers, multiple attackers, and even attacks with weapons other than the one they are currently using.  Students will quickly learn whether their actions with the weapon are instinctive, intuitive, and effective, as they should be if the weapon has truly become an extension of the self. This idea is the key to another Basic Concept:

When a weapon becomes an extension of the self, it can be used in an instinctual, intuitive, and effective manner against an attack.

            Finally, the student must begin to link the use of the weapon to techniques he or she already knows how to perform without a weapon. At this level, a student should be able to perform the techniques of empty handed drill and hyung while holding a given weapon, deducing the application of that weapon that most closely reflects the movement, intent, and meaning of the given empty handed technique.  In other words, “it’s all the same,” and:

If one can execute a technique empty handed, one can execute the same technique with a weapon. 

Step 3: Understand, Apply & Improvise

            Once again, the previous section in this chapter correlates directly to the ideas of Understanding, Application, and Improvisation.  When we separate students from the weapon, but ask them to still “use” it, they are forced to concentrate on every specific movement of the body that occurs when holding the weapon.  They begin to Understand why the body moves as it does while using the given weapon, and at the same time develop a greater Understanding of the weapon itself.
            When students are asked to use the weapon in scenarios that involve a partner, or attacker, or even multiple attackers, they enter the stage of Application, and must deduce how to use the selected weapon in an effective manner.  Initially, these scenarios should be pre-arranged and repeatable, but over time, they should progress closer to the “free” state, in which neither attack nor response are predetermined, and instinctual use of the selected weapon is tested. 
            When students are asked to perform empty handed techniques or hyung with a weapon, this is Improvisation.  They must learn when a specific motion or technique with the weapon matches the empty handed technique in question, and must choose their own interpretations for each, sacrificing neither the intent of the original empty handed technique nor the effectiveness of the weapon technique.  When we realize that it took many years to become proficient with the basic empty handed techniques, and we consider that there are a myriad of weapons from which to choose, this practice can easily fill a second lifetime when taken seriously.

Moo Ki: Conclusions

            Training with weapons is not something to be taken lightly by instructors or students.  To do so is to ignore everything we have learned about the martial arts prior to attaining black belt.  Weapons training should only be undertaken with a serious attitude, under the supervision of a qualified instructor, and should only be taught if one has developed proficiency with the weapon to be taught, by learning from a qualified instructor, or through years of extensive independent research, study, and training.  When we train with a weapon, we are actually refining our own spirit.  We will learn through this training that:

1.      A martial artist’s weapon is not separate from the self, but is an extension of the self.
2.      After proficiency is achieved with the basics of a given weapon, a martial artist does not need to hold that weapon in order to train with it.
3.      When a weapon becomes an extension of the self, it can be used in an instinctual, intuitive, and effective manner against an attack.
4.      If one can execute a technique empty handed, one can execute the same technique with a weapon.

[i] Shin, Jae Chul. (2000). Traditional Tang Soo Do Volume IV: The Advanced Hyung Philadelphia, PA: Jae Chul Shin, p.89
[ii] Shin, Jae Chul. (2000). Traditional Tang Soo Do Volume IV: The Advanced Hyung Philadelphia, PA: Jae Chul Shin, p.89