Friday, June 1, 2012

Producing Better Teachers and Students

I received a couple of comments with regards to my Best of Kojutsukan Posts. They requested that I link the posts referred to in that post to the actual posts. As you can see from my linking of the Best of Kojutsukan Posts, I have learned the technique to do so, and the previous post has been likewise updated.

Number three in the top ten was: What Does a Black Belt Mean? This suggests to me that there is a lot of interest in understanding what a black belt is suppose to signify. I came across the following again while editing my articles to be submitted for publication:

In virtually all martial arts, black belt denotes the highest level of achievement. ... By the time the student attains a black belt his [or her] knowledge and skill are of the highest class. In addition, his [or her] depth of knowledge makes him [or her] a fully qualified teacher. Rather than merely knowing how to perform the moves, the black belt is expected to know why a given move works. That is, he [or she] understands the biomechanical principles that underlie the move. ... The deeper knowledge makes him [or her] a far better than someone who merely recounts a series of moves. Moreover, such knowledge allows him to invent new moves and combinations and so develop a more personalised [martial art].
(Gracie and Gracie, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Theory and Technique, 2001: 17)

The Gracies' principle is sound, however the practice falls far short. If the black belt does understand the why of techniques, the biomechanical principles that underlie techniques, they did not obtain their knowledge from current biomechanical or martial arts texts.

Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan Judo, when explaining his motivation for developing judo lamented that the many eminent jujutsu masters he studied under did not know the underlying principles of there methods and that they just taught a collection of techniques. I'd suggest not a lot has changed from then to today. This is evident when I am greeted with the bemused question, 'why bother,' when discussing the difference between throwing techniques and takedown techniques. The difference goes to the very essence of these techniques, which I'd suggest is not understood by the question raisers.

The Gracies principle that a black belt denotes a qualified teacher, and that the teacher should know the why-to in addition to the how-to is the mission that is crystallising for me and my kojutsukan.

I am writing four (at the moment) articles that I intend to submit for publication in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts (JAMA). JAMA is a semi-academic journal, and my work is designed to be at that level. The purpose of an MBA, as it was explained to us in our first lecture, is to bridge research and practice. To advance practice by applying research and theory. This is my goal. To have theory inform practice so practice is better. As McGinnis writes in Biomechanics of Sport and Exercise, 'the best outcome of studying and using biomechanics will be improved performances by your athletes or the accelerated learning of new skills by your students' (2005: 1).

Carr, in Sport Mechanics for Coaches (2004), suggests that coaches are reluctant to study sports mechanics because it means tackling dry, boring texts loaded with formulas, calculations, and scientific terminology. Further, he suggests that these texts have failed to explain the relationship of good technique to the principles of mechanics in a manner that is meaningful to coaches and sports enthusiasts. All too true and more so when it comes to the martial arts. In fact, in certain instances, those who have attempted to explain the science behind striking and kicking techniques (the article I'm currently working on) have either confused the issue or misdirected the reader.

I am not interested in the science for the sake of the science. I am not interested in using science to support a particular way of doing things. I am not interested in using science to try and differentiate my teachings from others, such as some do in order to sell books in an over saturated market. As a teacher and student of the martial arts, I am only interested in the science in so far at it facilitates the understanding and study of martial arts techniques or those used in violence generally in a practical way.

I have just had one of my articles reviewed by the head of a sports biomechanics faculty at a prestigious university, who will remain nameless for the moment. He commended me on using biomechanics to inform practice for the general public, and more importantly that I had got the science right. Given I am a self taught biomechanist, that was a huge relief.

The four articles cover the science behind stances, movement (footwork), throwing, takedown, striking, kicking, breakfalling, and unbalancing techniques. They also cover the most fundamental principle that applies to all techniques, forces, and this facilitates the understanding and study of joint techniques. Referring to biomechanical principles is looking at the very essence of the techniques; what actually makes them work. As Carr explains, 'all the fundamental actions an athlete makes in technique are founded on mechanical principles. In other words, technique is based on mechanical laws' (155). All the techniques taught in the martial arts or used in violence generally are based on biomechanical laws. Understanding these laws, or principles, allows the teacher and student to focus on what is important from the get go.

The articles provide a few simple biomechancial concepts that can be used to focus on what actually makes the techniques work. They also provide a method of analysing techniques that can facilitate their analysis to improve performance and to teach the techniques. I always say, first teach the student how to learn, then teach them the subject matter. Teaching a student how to learn accelerates their learning, a goal that McGinnis identified when explaining the benefits of studying biomechanics.

These four articles are now forming the basis for a book on the science behind the tactics and techniques of the martial arts or those used in violence generally. What would be added is the information I have gathered on strangulation techniques, our evolved survival mechanism (Beyond Fight-or-Flight), and pain. What is missing is the physiology explaining joint techniques, but that is difficult to obtain authoritative information given that more than 85% of all injuries to the upper arm are as a result of falls on outstretched hands where forces are applied very differently to the forces applied when executing a joint technique.


  1. You've got a pretty full plate John. Good luck with all those articles.

    I found the comment/quote about a black belt being a fully qualified teacher interesting. I know some talented black belts that are not very good teachers, nor do they wish to be. Certain dan rankings only come in my style of Jiu Jitsu once someone has proved their teaching prowess. The skill and mastery must be there, but the titles are as a result of 'giving back' to the arts and to students.

  2. Thank you Journeyman. And yes I do have a pretty full plate.

    I could not agree with you more regarding black belts that are not good teachers nor do they wish to be. De Jong struggled with that in the latter years of his life, toying with the idea of having two different 'types' of black belt. In our basic dan grades, they are pretty much geared around producing teachers. Other's adopt a different approach to developing their teachers. This is why I consider it important to know what a black belt means with each and every martial art, and to understand what went into qualifying a person as a teacher.

    Thanks for commenting.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.