Physical Training Aug 2010
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From the Teacher's Corner 9:
Absolute Versus Relative

copyright 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

Case #1: A Matter of Geometry

“What happened?”
“This kata is not working right.”
“Really? Why?”
“I have moved 45 degrees back and I’m still too close.”
“Then maybe you need to adjust the angle more.”
“But that’s not what the kata says to do. Isn’t that right, Sensei? The kata prescribes 45 degrees.”
“But look at where your partner is. In this case, if you just move back 45 degrees, you will still be too close. You need to re-adjust it.”
“But Sensei, the kata prescribes 45 degrees.”

Case #2: A Matter of Proximity

“Jacob, what happened?”
“I’m doing everything right but he’s still getting in too close.”
“Let’s see it done, one more time.”

“See, he gets in too close to me. It’s like he’s running in.”
“No, he’s just got longer legs. Hence, a longer stride than you, so naturally he covers more ground in one step than you. So, readjust your footwork to compensate.”
“But doesn’t the kata say to only take one step back?”
“Yes, it does. But...”
“Then, if I take two steps, then it will screw up the rest of the footwork for the rest of the kata, won’t it?”
“But if you only take one step back, this is what happens.”
“But Sensei, the kata says to take only one step back, doesn’t it?”

Case #3: A Matter of Perception

“OK, Kevin, let’s analyze how the kata went. How do you feel about it?”
“I guess it went OK.”
“Really? Why do you think so?”
“I did all the moves correctly.”
“Yes, you did. But let me ask you a question. What was your partner doing after the second move?”
“The second move?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, he did something. Did you see it?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I’m curious. Why not?”
“I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”

Case #4: A Matter of Time

“So, Christopher, what went wrong?”
“I don’t know. I got killed.”
“Yes, you did. But why?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s think for a second. How did you get killed?”
“I walked right into his sword.”
“Correct. Why did you walk right into it?”
“I guess because he hadn’t withdrawn it into gedan yet, like he’s supposed to.”
“Yes, he is supposed to withdraw it into gedan. You are right. But why hadn’t he withdrawn it yet?”
“Because he was still in the previous position.”
“Correct. And when are YOU supposed to move?”
“When he… withdraws his sword into gedan?”
“Correct. Did you wait for him to withdraw his sword into gedan?”
“No, I suppose I didn’t.”


Four interesting cases. Let’s look at each one.

Case #1 deals with angles, lines, geometry. But the issue is one where the student wants to stick assiduously to the precise wording of the kata, irregardless of the tactical situation.

Case #2 concerns distance. The student is reluctant to re-adjust the footwork to compensate for this particular circumstance, which in this case is an attacker who is taller. Consequently, he is over-run.

Case #3 is about awareness of one’s opponent. The student is so engrossed in his own movements and performing them, that he has completely forgotten that there is an opponent.

Case #4 talks about timing. The student is rushing ahead in the kata, performing the kata robotically. The moves are done in sequence, yes. The student knows what to do. But there is no attention paid to when to do it.

Why do I bring these up? Because in this article, I would like to talk about a concept that constantly comes up in teaching martial arts that involve the practice of partnered kata: the issue of “absolute versus relative”.

Here’s an interesting story about this very issue:

One day, I was driving with my wife down the 400, one of the big highways in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). I was driving well and was busily engaged in talking to her. All of a sudden, she remarks: “You’re speeding.”
I say, “No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not. Look at the car ahead of us. I am still the same distance from him that I was 5 minutes ago.”
“He’s speeding too.”
I look at the speedometer. I guess I am, slightly. Going 120 on a 100 highway.
“But look at this guy!” (a car goes whizzing past which is not uncommon on the 400 where it seems 100 kph really in secret means 140 to some people. Go figure.).
“Doesn’t matter. You’re speeding.”

Undaunted and convinced I am right, I propose:
“I AM going with the flow of traffic.”
“Doesn’t matter.”
“Of course, it matters. Some people drive 80 on this highway and cause accidents because they are going too slow and causing people to slow down and it’s like a chain reaction. They are not going with the flow of traffic.”
“But they aren’t speeding.”
“Yes, I know that. But if you don’t go with the flow of traffic, relative to what everyone else is doing, you’ll cause problems.”
“But you’re still speeding.”

I’m getting exasperated.
“Look, in my mind, there’s two ways of driving. Absolute and relative. Absolute is driving with no regard to anyone else. As long as I go that speed, I am doing fine. Like the 80 kph driver I was talking about. Like a robot. I don’t believe in that. You’ve got to drive relative to others, relative to what everyone else is doing.”

Well, I won’t belabour the point. I did not win that argument. She remained unconvinced. But that conversation turned a light on inside my head.

Absolute versus relative.

How does it apply to partnered kata? Like our examples.
In Case #1, absolute thinking is 45 degrees only. No permutation allowed. Doesn’t matter what my opponent does. I must do 45 degrees.
In Case #2, absolute thinking is one step back only. Regardless of my opponent’s footwork, I will do one step only. Reminds me of Hunt For Red October. One ping only, Vasily. One ping only…
In Case #3, absolute thinking is I focus on my own moves. Is there an opponent? Who knows? Who cares?
In Case #4, absolute thinking is I do this, then I do this, then I do this. Timing? What’s that? Waiting for my opponent? Why on earth would I do that?

Absolutely! (no pun intended, of course…)

Movements have to be relative to what your opponent does. If he changes the angle, you have to change yours. If he changes the distance, you have to change yours. If he changes the timing, you have to change yours.

It’s like the old argument of the letter of the Law versus the spirit of the Law. Same issue: absolutism versus relativism. Look here: . Literal interpretation of exact wording versus the intent of the creators of the Law.

Literal interpretation of exact wording gets us into trouble if there is no flexibility in interpretation, no accounting for circumstances.

How does this apply to teaching?

We have to be careful that we don’t become so rigid that we see things in absolute terms. Students reflect their teachers. If you become inflexible and absolute, the same attitudes will be mirrored in your students; in their approach to kata, in their approach to martial arts, in their approach to life.

When I was in Japan, I frequently asked my sempai and teachers about issues in swordsmanship. Is it this way or this way? What’s the right way? What’s the correct way?

The answer was always the same, no matter who answered, even from different dojos and styles. They would say it in what English they knew, simple enough that I could understand it. They all said:

“Ke-su bai ke-su…”

Well for those of you who are not experienced in Japanese language, it is a Japanese approximation of the English phrase: “Case by case.”

I appreciated those words of wisdom and I continue to appreciate them more and more, as I become increasingly more experienced in teaching. It is deeply philosophical, without seeming to be philosophical at all.

Case by case…

In other words, nothing is absolute. It’s all relative….

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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