Physical Training Jan 2013
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From the Teacher's Corner 27:
A Little Pregnant

copyright © 2013 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

BUD (whispering)

Mr. Mannheim, got a sure thing. Anacott Steel.


No such thing, Bud - except death and taxes. Not a good company anymore, no fundamentals. What's going on, Bud? Do you know something?

(Bud looks uncomfortable, Lou reads it)

Remember, there're no short cuts, son. Quick buck artists come and go with every bull market but the steady players make it through the bear markets.

(Bud looks anxious to go)

You're part of something here, Bud. The money you make for people creates science and research jobs. Don't sell that out.

BUD You're right, Mr. Mannheim, but you gotta get to the big time first. Then you can be a pillar and do good things.

MANNHEIM You can't get a little pregnant, Bud.

From the movie: Wall Street (1987)

Lou Mannheim is so right. That is great advice. You can’t get a little pregnant. You either are not pregnant or you are. Why did I include this quote, you might wonder?

Let me tell you a story. There once was a teacher who decided to simplify his art. The art as he learned it was very complex, very sophisticated; maybe too complex, too sophisticated. He saw that the vast majority of students would never get there. He would make it easier for them by boiling things down into the fundamentals and simplifying techniques. Flamboyant movements became cut and dried, simple robotic movements. Up, down. Like the simplest way from Point A to Point B: the straight line. All techniques, transitions, movements became linear, stark, elemental, rigid, robotic. Lines and angles precise. No variation, no deviation. No personal flavour to the execution of the techniques was permitted. Everyone must do it like this. There, that is simple. Now, everyone can learn it well. It is so simple, everyone can do it the same. Everyone must do it the same.

Some of the senior students asked cautiously, will it ever go back to the way it was? They liked the flamboyant, the stylish, the individual expression in the execution of the techniques that was present in the old way of doing things.

“Eventually…”, he told them. Evidently, he reasoned that the students would move onto making the movements and techniques more sophisticated later on, once they mastered what he believed were the fundamental movements, the base essentials. The flair and the fluidity would come later, maybe after 10 years or so in the art. What was most important right now were the base fundamentals. Those have to be nailed down and the best way is the simplest, most direct, most elemental way. When you reach the highest levels, then we can make it more fluid.

So, what happened? He changed the style. It became very robotic. The senior students still practice in the hope and the faith that the way they did it before would one day come back.

Question: can you become more fluid later after having done it in this stark, simple way for decades?

It is a good question. Here are some interesting analogies.

A golfer has swung this way for decades, can he switch to another way?

Like Arnold Palmer or Tiger Woods switching to a totally different way of swinging.

A karate person has been doing karate for a decade (his first art), can he switch to kung fu? Karate is stiff, rigid, basic in its movements and techniques. Kung Fu is pliable, fluid, sophisticated and complex in its movements and techniques.

What am I getting at? Changing a style’s style is not just a matter of altering the techniques of the style. You are also changing what it is, fundamentally. A style is not just its techniques; it’s also a mind-set, a philosophy. You can change the technique but you also have to change the mind-set behind the techniques.

The karate guy who only knows rigidity and stiffness, which they value and believe in because as I said it is a mind-set, is going to have trouble becoming super fluid and flamboyant. It will take a lot of learning (and un-learning) to change his body to that and that’s just the physical aspect. He will also need to change his mind-set, his philosophy, about fighting and combat distance, timing, responding to attacks, etc…

Question: can you become more fluid later after having done it in this robotic way for decades?

My contention is that no, it can’t work. You can’t get a little pregnant. You can’t go down this road and then turn around and expect people to be able to go back and go down another road and be proficient in that new road, that new way.

If you’re going to go down that road, there’s no turning back. In the case that we are talking about here, we see it in the new students. They are robotic, stilted. It doesn’t flow anymore. And if we extrapolate, after 10 more years doing this robotic way, they will not be able to become fluid. They will be robots. Even better robots than now, because they will have perfected roboticism.

If that is the goal, then fine. More power to you. The art of the robot. If that is what you are after, I have no problem with that. But if you are doing that and then hoping that somewhere, sometime down the road, that the students will somehow naturally become more fluid and flamboyant after doing Robot Ryu for a decade, then that is a different story. I hate to rain on your parade but…

You can't get a little pregnant, Bud.”

There is a school of thinking that we start as a robot, and master the fundamentals. And the most fundamental way is the stark view of things. Simple movements stripped down to bare essentials. No flash, no fluid. Eventually, though, it will become more fluid. That’s what they believe.

Here’s a real example of some techniques from the kata of a real style:

I am going to cut your wrist (kote-giri or kote-uchi). I make my cut directed at your wrist. You wait there in your stance, frozen, arms extended with your wrist exposed. I stop my cut at your wrist. After a slight 1-2 second delay (one-thousand, two-thousand, …), you retract your hand to avoid the cut. The kata moves onto the next encounter, the next cut, and process repeats itself, delayed reactions and all.

Believe it or not, this is a real example of a piece of kata from this style. As the theory goes, both participants can see the target being targeted, they both see the cut, how it is to be delivered, and how precise it is. They both see the reaction to it, which is an evasion of the cut. Robotic. Very artificial. Very wooden and unrealistic. But its virtue is that it is teaching you exactly what is happening, why it is happening. There is no argument when it is broken up into such disjointed segments. It is like watching a movie frame-by-frame. It is in super- slow motion. But it is correct, painstakingly so, no doubt about it.

The teacher is probably rationalizing it like this: slowly year after year, I will mold them gradually and alter them slightly each year that I visit them at my annual seminar with them to make them become more and more fluid. So that by the tenth year, they will be fluid. But the most important thing is that I have gotten them to clean up their fundamentals.

Great plan. Let’s look at it.

Cohort #1 starts in the year 2000, let’s say for argument’s sake. They start learning Robot Ryu. In year 2001 when you visit them, you change it slightly, a little less robot-ish, round out the rough edges a bit. In year 2002, you round it out a little again. Every year, you smooth it out a little bit. Hey, the students remark, it’s becoming more fluid, little by little. Eventually, it will be like it was before, they surmise.

A few issues need to be carefully considered however.

1. Cohort #2 starts in 2001. What are they starting off with? Not Robot Ryu, Year 1 version. No. They are starting with Robot Ryu, Year 2 version. Cohort #3 starts in 2002 and what are they starting off with? That’s right. Robot Ryu, Year 3 version. Each cohort starts with a different version. You can see where this is headed. The master plan is great for Cohort #1. But we forgot about the successive cohorts. With each cohort learning a different way, it’s going to be pandemonium down the line. Cohort #10 will start the fluid way (if everything goes according to the master plan).

So why the big change and upsetting the entire order of things and turning things upside down if eventually you are going to start them off on the fluid way in year 10? I have a sneaking suspicion that things have not been thought through carefully enough. But who am I to question? I am just a lowly grunt.

Anyway, mark my words. This is exactly what will happen. I feel sorry for Cohort #1. I also feel for the older, previous cohorts, the old generation before Cohort #1. Their world has been turned upside down and they now have to travel down this merry road to the supposed Promised Land ten years or more down the line (which they were already at to begin with!).

2. If it is changing each year, and each version looks different than the previous version, where is the consistency? Each annual seminar, they are taught that this is the way it is this year. This is this year’s version. What you know was last year’s version. Our cut has now changed to this. The angle of this blocking technique has now changed this year. You have to adapt, sure. That’s your job as a student of the art. But each year is different. And when the foreign students don’t see you for an entire year, that’s a lot of changes to absorb all at once. It’s great if you’re at the hombu dojo in Japan and absorbing little changes, class by class, every week. But if you only see the teacher once a year, all those little incremental changes become one big monstrous change when you do see him that one time during the year.

Back to the point. Each year it changes. So what is this year’s version, the students wonder? How are the local teachers supposed to teach, the ones in North America or Europe? It’s like a moving target. The local teachers are confused and have no definitive answers to the rationale behind techniques since they keep changing. So, the students ask, is this technique executed like this? Well, the local teachers reply, this year’s version is like this. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? The local teachers are confused and unsure. The students are wondering what’s going on. There is no consistency. So what is this style we are learning? No one knows because it keeps changing. The teachers are confused. So is everyone else…

3. “Every year, you smooth it out a little bit. Hey, the students remark, it’s becoming more fluid, little by little. Eventually, it will be like it was before, they surmise.”

Well, I don’t think it will ever be super-fluid when all’s said and done. It cannot. The movement to go back to robot way (elementary way) effectively eliminates that possibility. Why? Because robot way will forever permeate the techniques and thinking of the style. It will be a hallmark of the style, a distinguishing feature, a philosophical underpinning, because to switch to robot way, you need to believe in robot way, 100%. You have to live and breathe robot way. You must believe that robot way is the best way to cut, that it is the best way to block, that it is the best way to move and evade. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t drastically change to that way.

4. If Cohort #7 is learning it in a much more fluid manner than Cohort #1, then haven’t you just defeated the entire purpose of forcing Cohort #1 to adopt the new way, namely to clean up their fundamentals or at least, instill this “perfect-world” approach to fundamentals? Cohort #7 will not start with this minimalist approach (the Year 1 version) because Cohort #1 (who by now are your local teachers and are teaching Cohort #7) do not do it the Year 1 way anymore since you have been changing it every year and forcing them to make the changes to their technique every year, to adapt to each new year’s alterations. Cohort #7 will not have to go through the learning curve that Cohort #1 had to. Their learning curve will be different because they are starting at a different place than Cohort #1.

5. On the flip side, if you are consistent and insist that Cohort #1 do Robot Ryu exactly as prescribed (the Year 1 version) and never alter it, they will by Year 10 be super-robots. They cannot possibly change to become super-fluid. There’s the conundrum. But the good thing, if there is any, is that it will be pure. The pure robot. All succeeding cohorts will do it precisely the same way: no variation, no permutation.

A big conundrum, indeed!

If you’ll bear with me, let me summarize the main points. If the style keeps changing every year to becoming more fluid, you have defeated your original intention and design (to be stark and simple in technique – the principle and philosophy of boiling the style down into base movements and execution of technique, perfectly linear, elemental movements forward and backward - no circular movements). Principally, this is because each new generation, each new cohort of students, will learn an entirely different version. Your original intention cannot survive the first few generations, which namely was to have them go back to the fundamentals, clean them up, learn them properly by learning them statically, then gradually become more fluid. Then you have the situation where there is no consistency in methodology. Now you have Confusion Ryu.

If you keep it consistently the same year after year, namely starting at the fundamentals and sticking assiduously to that approach, keeping them pure, learning them properly by learning them statically and do not change it ever, then you have robots. But then, on a good note, you do not have any confusion. It is crystal clear in this scenario. You will have Robot Ryu and nothing else.

So what has happened to this style that I have used as a discussion point for this article? Confusion Ryu and Robot Ryu both. And the word on the street is that they have lost a lot of good people as a result. The proverbial rats leaving a sinking ship. Watch the movie Titanic (1997). Don’t know which way to go? Follow the rats.

You can't get a little pregnant, Bud.”

For our new teachers, here’s both an observation and a note of caution from this tale. Call it the moral of the story. When I read stories to my Grade 2 students, I always find stories with a lesson in them, a moral to think about because stories teach us great lessons that we can apply to our lives.

Technique is ultimately about philosophy, deep down.

And, if you’re a teacher, decisions that you make regarding technique will have lasting influences.

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

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