Jiu Jitsu Training The new wave

The Wave of Martial Arts Expertise-Dan Phillips

Martial artists’ are most often judged by the colour of their belt or their dan grade. This common misconception that a black belt is “the end” or the “top rank”, as well as the media’s overuse of the term “martial arts expert” often used to describe a person with only limited experience, results in confusion for the non-martial artist. The sheer number of martial arts systems, both hard and soft styles, from regions throughout the world, makes the task of determining expertise at a glace flawed at best. Belt systems within a given style, which are relatively new constructs for most arts, are difficult to compare across art forms and styles. Belts can be awarded for political, or worse illegitimate, reasons. Therefore dan grade or belt colour alone is not an accurate denotation of martial art expertise. Not to say that grading systems do not have their merits. The coloured belt system used in many martial arts today serves as a strong goal symbol and belt testing is an important rite of passage. The use of belt rankings help newer students understand who to approach for help and is a way to recognise a person’s experience and dedication to a given art. A belt should indicate a certain level of skill or proficiency within a given arts form or style and in general, a black belt will display a greater level of understanding then a yellow belt in the same school or style.

What is an Expert?
What then makes a martial arts expert? Are displays of martial skill alone the criteria used to judge an expert? Are timing, speed, power, grace, control, or the pinnacle of martial prowess the “sixth sense” the parts that make up the whole that is the expert?
To determine this perhaps a definition of what is an expert would help. What is it that distinguishes and expert in any area over a novice? In western culture the concept of the “expert” is widely overused and in many cases used to leverage the economy or maintain power through monopolization if resources or knowledge (another topic to be sure). The cognitive physiologist, Gary Klein who has pioneered the area of decision making and intuition describes the expert as someone who perceives situations differently than others:
“Experts see many things that are invisible to everyone else:
Patterns novices don’t see
Anomalies – events that did not happen and other violations of expectations
The big picture (situational awareness)
The way things work
Opportunities and improvisations
Events that have either already happened (past) or are going to happen (future)
Differences that are too small for the novice to detect
Their own limitations”
Gary Klein, Sources of Power

Contrast this definition with the way beginning students are most often taught the martial arts. Concepts are often explained initially to set a context of learning, then techniques or waza are demonstrated and the student is left to practice on their own, often with guidance from the instructor. For the beginner this can be daunting, learning new techniques can be overwhelming, so they most often deconstruct the movement into smaller “chunks”. Even the kanji for the Japanese word for beginner, kyu, means “join together the threads”, or putting together the pieces. Deconstruction of complex problems is a natural tendency, especially in western cultures which follow rational, scientific methods. Almost all methods of teaching will include steps, rules, or tasks, much like a recipe that must be followed in a linear fashion to reach the eventual goal.
So how is the martial artist to move from a series of individual steps to a complete free-flowing technique? The answer is practice. Through practice the steps become more familiar and less thought is needed to perform each step. When less thought is needed, the practitioner’s mind is freed-up to concentrate on small details or subtleties of the technique, thus leading to a greater understanding. The individual steps begin to coalesce into a “whole”. This process is repeated, much like a wave, repeatedly constructing and deconstruction the parts that make up the whole, as the practitioner learns new techniques and continues to refine the old ones. Zen and Martial Arts Master Yagyu Munenori explain the concept of practice.

“Learning is the gate, not the house. When you see the gate, don’t think it is the house. You have to go through the gate to get to the house, which is behind it.
Since learning is the gate, when you read books don’t think this is the Way. This ignorance has made many people remain ignorant of the Way no matter how much they study and how many words they know.”
Yagyu Munenori

It is through practice of the process of training (keiko) that the transition from novice to expert begins. It is essentially a move from the algorithmic, following a set of rules, to the heuristic, following rules of thumb, or guidelines where this transition takes place. As expertise is gained, less thought is required on specific movements and greater emphasis placed on the concepts of the movement. This is the essence of the Japanese concept of “mushin”, no mind, action without thought and an essential element of Zen.

Open Mind
Is that it? Is practice enough then to make the transition from martial arts novice to expert, in a word, no. If practice alone could produce expertise then all people would, in time eventually become experts in their chosen areas of interest. There is another element that leads to expertise and that is patience and having an open mind. The expert level of understanding can never be attained if the person is under the (false) impression that they have already achieved expertise. This closed mindedness often leads to poor instructors and erroneous martial arts comparisons (“my art is better than your art”). The idea that “in martial arts (as in all things) we’re all beginners, some of us have just been at it longer than others” is important to one’s ongoing development. Shunryu Suzki states this best:

“In Japan we have a phrase, (shoshin) which means beginner’s mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an open and ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Shunryu Suzuki (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)

Klein’s final element of what distinguishes an expert, that they recognise their own limitation echoes this. True experts often shy away from the term and consider themselves to have some knowledge, but recognise that the amount of knowledge they have yet to learn far outweighs that which they already achieved. In fact, the literal translation for the kanji for dan (advanced ranking) is “to carve steps up the cliff”. This concept of a never-ending journey is everywhere in eastern martial arts and is in direct opposition to the common understanding that black belt is “the end”. It is the never ending journey that results in many great masters continuing to practice well into what would usually be regarded as “old age”.

Miamoto Musashi outlines his concept for mental development of the individual warrior:
Think of what is right and true
Put the science into practice
Become acquainted with the arts
Become acquainted with the crafts
Understand the negative and positive qualities of everything
Learn to see everything accurately
Become aware of what is not obvious
Be careful even in small matters
Don’t do anything useless

There is a striking similarity between Mushashi’s “rules” (especially 7 to 9) and Klein’s description of mastery and expertise. The kanji for master is made up of two symbols, one represent a hill, the other a growing plant, so while the master has achieved some (crested the hill), he/she is still growing. The term sensei in Japanese, or teacher, can also be translated as “he who has gone before”. These two elements of experience through practice and willingness to continue learning is what leads to true expertise in the martial arts.

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