Thoughts on Philosophy: Perfecting all things

This one should probably be filed as “thoughts on attitude”, but then again, it’s a rather philosophical point, isn’t it? Guess we could call it “applied philosophy”,… but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain.

A couple of days ago, I was discussing some of my thoughts with [Ronny]. Our little talks tend to frustrate me, mostly because I often leave with more questions than I initially had when I thought of an answer… Ronny just has the ability of asking the right questions. Right, of course, usually means “devastating”. Whenever I think I‘ve figured something out, there tends to be that one nasty little detail I haven’t considered. Discovering such flaws is essential – for one, it might turn out that the whole solution is just plain wrong. They say that “the devil lies in the details”. Hence, a single detail might contradict an otherwise sound theory. Even if it doesn’t – this brings me to point number two –, the knowledge that all details are covered offers a certain degree of confidence. Of course, some details just might be troublesome under certain circumstances… in any case, it’s good to know those in advance. I believe the business world calls that “front loading”.

Anyhow, recently I had one of the seldom moments when Ronny basically agreed with every aspect of my brand new, great theory… there was that little, nasty detail, though. A caveat so to say. After carefully listening to me, Ronny reminded me that I didn’t come up with that particular theory. The martial arts have known this for ages… In the moment he said so, I remembered having heard it before, on more than one occasion. Guess I was lucky – had I published this as my idea, some thousand-year-old martial arts master might have sued me for copyright infringement.
Now that I (hopefully) have your attention, behold, here comes my theory:

If you can move well, you can move well.

Idiot Zen, huh? Well, there’s actually quite a thought process behind this one. Also, practical training

principles can be derived after some analysis. First things first, though – what do I mean at all?
You see, most people move like thrash when they first set foot into a dojo. Uncoordinated, stiff, slow… all over, terrible. This is not meant to insult anyone. Trust me, I certainly wasn’t an exception to this rule – quite the contrary, I probably was the worst of the bunch. Whether you choose to talk about “movement aesthetics”, “grace”, or “efficiency”… I had none. Just as most beginners. It’s not their fault, either (neither was it mine). Some people are born with better coordination than others. No one said the genetic lottery was fair. As a matter of fact, I was one of the losers of that gruesome gamble. No need to go into detail here (if you know me, you probably know my story anyways), suffice to say I was “that one kid”. You know, the one who gets picked the least in PE classes. When soccer was on, I was the one to guard the goal. Not because I was good at that – it was just that I was so bad at everything else. Most of the time, I tried not to take part in soccer games in the first place…

Fast forward some twenty years. I’m a TKD world champion, compete in full-contact bouts in kickboxing and teach martial arts classes. This is not meant as a way of showing off. I’m probably not the most humble guy in the world – neither do I believe that’s necessarily a good thing –, but this point only serves to illustrate the result of a process. A process that took hard work, sweat and even blood (more than I care to say, actually… but then again, I really was a bad case).What was that process, you might want to ask? Well…

I learned to move.

Simple, huh? Maybe so. Important nevertheless. If you’ve been involved with the martial arts (or any sport, really), you have most likely seen your fair share of “talents”, “prodigies“ and “naturals”. Usually, they don’t last long, but that’s a different story. A more important question to ask is: “where does the difference in movement quality come from?”. Sure, some picked the right parents. To be truthful, though, I believe that’s only half of the equation (probably less). Today, I strongly believe, that apart from sheer luck, the reason some people move better than others is simply because somewhere, at some point,

they learned to move.

The martial arts demand a very specific skill set from their practitioners. Still, most of those skill can – at least up to a certain degree – be broken down into simpler components. Components that might look just the same or at least very similar in other physical activities. [Gottlob] speaks of “differentiated training”, you could probably call just call it “coordination”… I don’t know. Let’s coin the term “principle based learning”. Sounds nerdy, huh?

[Shinergy] knows seven fundamental principles of movement, which are practiced at the beginning of each class in a form of a „standing meditation“. They are (in no particular order):

  • Relaxation
  • Tension
  • Energy flow
  • Breath
  • Rooting (in the sense of a low center of gravity)
  • Centralization (in the sense that the body center controls all movement)
  • Posture

Those might be arbitrary chosen buzzwords, but in practice, they really make sense. I guess you could find countless other sets of principles that work just as well, but since movement quality can usually be increased by optimizing one or more of the above principles, I see no reason to deviate from that system.
Consider the example of tension and relaxation. Whether you play soccer, baseball, lift weights (as in olympic weightlifting) or throw a punch, you’ll always be faced with the seamless transition from relaxation into tension and back into relaxation. Might take more than that simple pattern, too – in [Easy Strength], Pavel explains the “double“ peak” in punches and kicks that can be measured with an EMG. Look it up if it interests you, this is beyond the scope of this article. Tension and relaxation are closely coupled. Hence, when your coordination between relaxation and tension improves, most likely so will your breathing patterns. Take some time to observe some athletes from different sports – I bet you’ll some some strong similarities in the way they breathe. I could go on with this and explain how energy flow, breathing and an optimal posture are interconnected…. but again, that’s not the point here.

The point is, that no matter what sport you play, you’ll always come back to certain, universal principles like the ones given above. When you adhere to them, you’ll move “easily”, “gracefully” or “efficiently”. If you don’t, you won’t. End of the story. To cite Pavel and Dan again, they write a lot about how people back in the days used to play lots of different sports, lift weights and at the same time compete in bodybuilding events. Robert Heinlein said that

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I disagree, at least, mostly. Really, I do believe in specialization. However, I believe that specialized skills can greatly be augmented by generalized patterns and training. No rocket science here – this idea is simply called “GPP” and basically involves everything that’s not part of your sport. This generalization can be taken a step further, though, to result in “generalized specialization”. Sounds weird? Let me explain. Assume you’re a martial artists (if not, why not?). Further assume that your style knows 20 techniques, all of which share a fundamental “idea” of movement (i.e., they rely on similar qualities and principles – if your style lacks such a structured framework, it might be time to reconsider what you’re doing. No offense, just sayin’…). This is where I come back to the initial topic and the idea of “principle based learning”: I claim that, depending on the level of attention you pay to what you’re doing, by consciously practicing one single technique, you practice the whole bunch of them. In other words, practicing a jab should improve your spinning hook kicks. Sounds far fetched? I don’t know… At the moment, I believe this to be true. Further, I believe that – and this is where hardliners might start to despise me – improving your deadlifting technique will ultimately lead to better jabs, hooks and whatever. Of course, all of this only holds true if you pay some attention to the principles behind what you’re doing.
Don’t get me wrong here, either – at some point, you’ll just have to step on the mat and hit some pads. After all, you’re a fighter. Going after a highly specialized powerlifting routine won’t teach you the skills of your sport. Still, moderate powerlifting training might teach you a thing or two about moving your body as a whole, breathing correctly, pulling “all through the lift” (i.e., energy flow)… Thus, in addition to your specialized skill training, this might make you a better fighter. Not only conditioning-wise, but also skill-wise. Needless to say, your main focus will still be your martial arts practice. By the way, in the unlikely case you’re not actually a martial artist but play some sport instead: why not take some martial arts classes to improve your movement quality?
As I mentioned before, this concept isn’t really new or innovative – guess there’s little new under the sky… I can’t remember the phrase exactly, but I once read that
he who practices one thing, practices one million things

So or similar. Can’t really remember the exact words, Google doesn’t seem to find this either,… doesn’t matter, I’m fairly sure you get the point. I wonder if this concept can be extended to an even more general level, in such a way that by consciously drinking a cup of coffee, you improve your movement patterns in such a fashion that your strikes get faster and harder…
What are your thoughts on this one? I really look forward to having some nice discussions here – just post to the comments section below!
So long,
take care

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