Equality. Transparency. Trust. Fairness.
These are all qualities one would expect to find in a good Chinese martial arts school. Expecting the modern American cultural interpretation of these ideals, however, can lead to confusion and disappointment.
The traditional distinction between indoor and outdoor disciples tends to bother American martial artists. Following this tradition, a master selects a subset of his students for special attention and secret information.
The skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one’s own or anyone else’s. Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition, metacomprehension, or self-monitoring skills. These terms refer to the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error.
Several lines of research are consistent with the notion that incompetent individuals lack the metacognitive skills necessary for accurate self-assessment. Work on the nature of expertise, for instance, has revealed that novices possess poorer metacognitive skills than do experts. In physics, novices are less accurate than experts in judging the difficulty of physics problems. In chess, novices are less calibrated than experts about how many times they need to see a given chessboard position before they are able to reproduce it correctly. In tennis, novices are less likely than experts to successfully gauge whether specific play attempts were successful.
We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.
~ From “Unskilled and Unaware” by Justin Kruger and David Dunning
Learning a martial art is inevitably a process of trial and error. To a limited degree, we are all inventors of our own unique style of martial arts.
Some ambitious individuals choose to go further. Rather than building on the experiential framework provided by a living martial arts expert, these innovators attempt to create a superior new system from first principles.
Is it harmless creative expression, or dangerous folly?
Last weekend, I attended the third annual World of Martial Arts demonstration in Seattle. The event featured local Karate, Hapkido, Iaido, Tai Chi, and other groups.
As in previous years, the show had some positive qualities, and a few negative ones. In the spirit of constructive criticism, I would like to offer some suggestions to participants in future demonstrations.
- Every spectator should have an unobstructed view of the action. Seating your audience in chairs where they cannot actually see the demonstration is obscene. If you are performing in a flat gymnasium or some other ad hoc arena, pay special attention to the seating arrangements.
Born without the gift of sight, Raymond Thiberge’s disability proved to be one of his greatest strengths.
During his lessons with expert pianists, Raymond used his refined senses of touch and hearing to compensate for his blindness. Listening to his teachers’ instructions and following their hands, he made a critical observation that his fellow students missed.
The experts did not follow their own advice.
In How To Choose a Bad Martial Arts Instructor, I provided a quick and easy guide to finding an inappropriate school. John W. McKenna’s recent call for thoughts on leadership reminded me to follow up on that guide, with more helpful advice.
John asked, does most leadership suck? My answer: none of your business. You don’t need to follow every leader; one qualified sensei is enough. A more useful question is, how do you find that sensei?
(Credit: Patrick J. Lynch)
As a professional software developer, I often ponder the similarities and correspondences between programming and martial arts. A style of martial arts is ultimately just an algorithm—executed in wetware rather than with integrated computer circuits—and there are many interesting correlations to be found between these two outwardly distinct disciplines.
Within both fields, the need for testing is widely acknowledged.
Push hands is an accessible abstraction of fighting. Whereas mortal combat follows no pattern and honors no rules, the push hands exercise is relatively limited in scope. Push hands practice alone will not make a top fighter, nor is it intended to do so; it focuses on specific characteristics, such as sticking and following, in order to provide a consistent and effective learning environment.
Yang Jwing-Ming demonstrates Press (Ji
Abstractions such as the fixed step tui shou exercise are often misused, by students who do not fully understand their context within the larger Tai Chi curriculum. These students shape the exercise into something more or less than it is intended to be, diminishing its relevance and benefits, and shortchanging themselves and their training partners.
What should the pushing hands drill include, and what should it exclude?
In 1966, the Chinese government began a violent purge of traditional culture. Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong called for the abolishment of all things old, and enlisted a youth militia to perform the destruction. Local police were forbidden to interfere.
Mao’s regime criminalized the practice of traditional wushu. Threatened by harassment, imprisonment or torture at the hands of the Red Guard, some martial arts experts went underground. Other unfortunate practitioners were “re-educated” to death.
The first Cultural Revolution has ended, but wushu now faces a new peril. This second revolution transcends national boundaries, and there is little hope of escaping its reach.
Why are the vast majority of Karate instructors below average? George Akerlof’s research on information asymmetry explains this apparent mathematical impossibility.