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Mastering the Mechanics - How to Get Results when Learning Filipino Kali - Part 1

Posted by Tuhon Leslie L. Buck, Jr. on

How you approach your training can make a huge difference in the results you get from it. Two people can study the same art and end up with very different skills and results. Know what you want to get out of your training, then adjust your approach to it so that you will get what you want in a reasonable period of time.

If you are simply training for fun, and don’t really have any serious goals associated with your training, then you don’t need to think about your training direction or progression very much. However, if you are primarily concerned about being effective with the Filipino Martial arts, then your training should be focused on application.

When you are focused on application, all the exercises and drills you do should move you closer to being able to apply what you are learning. That training should develop in you, the ability to actually perform the techniques you study. Many of the other benefits that come from training martial arts will still come, but do not let them distract you from following a training progression that will get the results you seek.

This sounds simple, but when an art is deep, it is easy to run off-track and get distracted from focusing on application. When this happens, what results is training that is out of balance and often scattershot in approach. I see this happen to students because they either focus too much on what they enjoy or they get lost in a progression of endless drills.

Sometimes students get distracted from a balanced training progression because they just spend too much of their training time on what they enjoy most, instead of what they actually need to train. Some drills are too much fun.Once we get good at them, it’s even more fun to continue doing them. The pitfall here is that students need to work on their weaknesses, not just their strengths. In a training progression, students may eventually outgrow a drill and no longer need to do it. When this happens, students need to progress to greater challenges that will move their skills further forward rather than spend more training time repeating the drills that they have already mastered.

Sometime students lose their focus on application because they get lost in a sea of drills. As students mature in their skills, they sometimes get stuck in an undertow of endless drills. Rather than advance their skill in a progression, students drift from drill to drill hoping that by practicing a huge variety of drills, everything will come together. Though just by learning a variety of drills, engaged students will glean insights from each one, this is not an effective approach.

A student may learn and master many drills, but if the student is simply not aware of how the drills are advancing his skills, he still will not understand how to apply the techniques that the drills are designed to develop. When this happens, students often focus on getting good at drills themselves, not the skills that the drills are designed to develop. The drills may have value, but without a clearly defined purpose, or a progression that moves forward, they can just become a trap that actually slows the student’s progression, pulling them back instead of pushing them forward.

I cannot read minds, but when students ask me questions, I get an idea of what they are thinking. Sometimes I recognize this lack of understanding described above when students ask questions like:

"When will I know I can do this?"

"Will my techniques just come out when I need them?"

"How can I remember all of these techniques?"

These are good questions. When these questions come from a beginner, I don’t see a problem, but when they come from more experienced students, then I know there is a gap in their understanding that I need to fix.

It is the instructors job to give the student direction and help him understand how to develop his skills. When the student understands the process of developing his skills, then he can take it much further than he would if he simply followed drills and exercises without knowing their function and purpose.

Ultimately, the answers to the questions above must be addressed with a well-planned training progression. A clear and purposeful training progression will allow the student to understand how his training is leading him to the skills that he needs to apply the art. If the student understands each stage of his progression and knows in which stage he is currently training, then he can easily align his expectations and goals for that stage. Doing this will help him get the most out of his training and give him the best insight into his ability to actually apply what he learns.

For this series of articles, I will share a broad outline of the training progression that I use to develop the physical skills needed to apply the Filipino martial arts that I teach. I will simplify the progression into three main stages and explain each stage in a separate article. Each of these stages can be further divided into more stages for a deeper discussion. For this series, I will discuss the technical aspects of the training progression without venturing into topics regarding mindset, which is also a very important part of training, but beyond the scope of this series. I hope these articles will help students learn how to learn, and instructors learn how to teach.

STAGE 1 - Mastering the Mechanics

Understand the Technique

When first learning a new technique, you need to understand it’s purpose. This means you should know what will it do, when to use it, and why to use it. Once you understand the purpose of a technique and what to expect from it, you will be able to evaluate the success of your training by comparing your performance skills to the expected outcome.

Create a Mental Model

You need to see, and maybe feel, a demonstration of the technique. That sounds obvious, but the demonstration of the technique is what will allow you to visualize how the technique should be performed. Visualizing the technique is the first step in internalizing the technique, so study the technique closely.

You need to see the technique enough so that you can maintain an image of the technique in your mind without needing to see it again right away. Depending on the complexity of the technique, you may need to see the technique several times to take in all the details. Seeing a technique performed several times will allow you to give attention to various parts of the technique, such as the footwork, body position, and movement of the hands. It’s difficult to observe all of these things at once. Remember: you need to be able to visualize the technique so that you can reproduce it. As you begin to practice the technique, your ability to visualize it will improve.

As you begin to learn the mechanics and movements related to the technique, you will become more familiar with it. In doing so, you will refine and improve your visualization of the technique. In this process of refining your visualization, you will create a mental model of the technique to which you compare each of your successive repetitions in practice. When you have a clear vision of what the technique should look and feel like, then your performance will be better. This is because the more clearly you visualize this model, the better your reproduction of it can be.

Emulate Someone Else

When you are first learning the technique is helpful to follow someone else who is demonstrating the technique. Before your mental model is refined, you can watch then emulate the movements of another in order to more easily observe and translate what you see into movement. Following an instructor or skilled training partner who can give you direct and immediate feedback to you is best, but following video footage of someone performing the technique can also be very helpful. Repeatedly watching, then imitating the movements of another will help you develop your understanding and visualization of the technique.

Get Consistent with your Mechanics

At this point of your training progression, you must improve your ability to perform the technique with quality mechanics. Once you have refined the mechanics to match your mental model, then you must then work on being able to reproduce those movements consistently. This is a process that requires a lot of repetition and commitment - sometimes more than you may realize.

When I see beginner students first practice with repetition, I often see them make the mistake of stopping too soon. They don’t realize that they stopped before they really get enough repetition to make significant progress. They have committed to doing the work, but they do not know when it is done.

Imagine you practice a movement over and over again, refining it a little more on each repetition. Then, after 100 repetitions, you finally got the movement right. It was perfect. You moved just the way you wanted. Now that you did it right, you move on to another technique. Terrible idea! You have practiced the technique wrong 99 times and correctly only once.

Once you get the movement right, you must repeat that correct repetition enough until it is a habit. This means that may you need hundreds of repetitions of the correct movement.

Yes, there was still some value in the 99 incorrect repetitions. They probably were no completely wrong. In fact, you were internally bracketing your feel for the movements as you got closer and closer to the correct mechanics. That process gave you a better understanding of the individual movements that balance each other to create the coordinated technique. However, until you complete many repetitions of the precise movement, you will not yet be consistent in performing the technique correctly every time.

At this point, if you start to add pressure, such as testing the technique as part of a reaction, then you will see the mechanics break down too frequently. This inconsistency, caused by a lack of sufficient practice, will disrupt your attempt to move forward in your training progression.

Practice while continually refining the technique, and be sure to get a lot of repetition of the refined movement that you want to become automatic. In order to be ready to add more pressure, practice until you see that you can repeat the technique in practice, at full speed, with consistent mechanics, accuracy, and precision. Once you are consistent, then you can move on to the next stage of progression.

Tips for Improving at this Stage

  • Emulate the movements of your instructor and other skilled students. Watch demonstrations, watch video, study their mechanics.
  • Get feedback from your instructor and your training partners. Use that feedback to improve.
  • Record yourself on video so that you can evaluate your movement from another perspective.
  • Continue to practice the movement and maintain the coordination you develop, even after moving to the next stage.

NOTE: This article will continue in our next post, part 2. 

If you plan on doing a lot of training, you will benefit from having a good bag to organize and carry your training gear. Check out the bags we have at Kali Gear. We have several choices, ranging from a very simple bag for Filipino martial arts essentials to multi-pocket cases that can carry everything you may need.


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