In this week’s blog update I will be discussing competency, reflective practice and how I find training in Jujutsu is equal part exercising my cerebral and physical ability. A model I find is helpful for understanding the process of learning is the ‘Four Stages of Competency” and I will refer to it throughout.

  1. Unconscious Incompetence – You don’t know that you don’t know how to do something
  2. Conscious Incompetence – You know that you don’t know how to do something and it bothers you
  3. Conscious Competence – You know that you know how to do something and it takes effort
  4. Unconscious Competence – You know how to do something and it is second nature; you rock at it!

I am very much a ‘kinaesthetic learner’, which essentially means that with my Martial Arts I mostly prefer to learn by physically attempting the task. Usually, I find that learning this way is to learn from my mistakes; having seen my Sensei/Instructor demonstrate a technique, I eagerly bow to my Uke and get stuck in without going through the motions slowly. It is of note that I’m what some would call ‘lanky’; additionally, no one I know would call me graceful, so as I enter the tatami for training or sparring, I at times tend to stumble my lanky limbs around like a new-born deer…. On ice. So, when I’m ‘getting stuck in’ my execution of the technique involves a lot of unnecessary use of muscle and lots of misplaced limbs.

bambi2
An actual illustration of me on the tatami, courtesy of Walt Disney

As I’m writing, two examples come to mind; firstly, after a grueling Wednesday MMA fitness circuit at Code Combat, the class went on to do some Newaza. During one memorable round of sparring, I found myself underneath a ‘rotund’, bearded training partner, arse in my face in the ‘north/south’ position. He waited there for what felt like an eternity whilst I tried to push him away, gasping for air and stubbornly refusing to submit myself. Secondly, whilst training at Shirindo Jujutsu I was unable to properly execute techniques; frustratingly, I would grab hold of my Uke, move my body in to the ‘correct’ position (more or less) and go for the technique. This would often result in my Uke standing in front of me looking puzzled, barely moved and saying words to the effect of “yeah, that isn’t right”. I’d try again, use more muscle, do the ‘technique’ and think “yup, my job here is done”. I was incompetent, and I didn’t know it! There was a huge part of my game missing and I was completely unaware of what it was; I was blindly assuming that all I needed was more power and more practice. Unconscious Incompetence.

A few weeks ago, I decided to sit down in a quiet room and mentally unwind, exercise a bit of mindfulness. I found that my consciousness became fixated on the fluid body mechanics of Jiu Jitsu; I wasn’t fixated on my own experience or failures as such, I was seeing the execution of technique as they were shown to me; it was through this cerebral exercise that I became aware of what I was doing wrong. I could picture the technique being done properly, and it sure as hell wasn’t the way I was doing it! However, simply knowing the problem wasn’t good enough – I needed an answer, and sure enough I found it in a book recently recommended by my Jujutsu instructor. When I first read the following quote, I had one of those “aha!” moments:

“Balance – The majority of Jiu Jitsu techniques rely on the opponent being off balance to work efficiently. This off-balancing is called ‘Kuzushi’. The Jiu Jitsu principles of maximum effect from minimum effort rely heavily on kuzushi. Kuzushi can be achieved in several ways but generally it follows one of the following: Striking, pushing, pulling, applying pressure to vulnerable areas…” – A Brief Study of Japanese Jiu Jitsu – essential knowledge of the tatami by Jonathan Cussins.

Unfortunately, as we should all know, there is a rather large discrepancy between theory and practice; therefore, I can’t honestly say that upon this grand epiphany I went in to the dojo and all my technique was perfect. Come my next lesson I stepped on to the tatami with my Uke and sure enough rushed through the technique in a messy, forced manner. I could see the technique being done properly by my instructor and could see myself doing it in my mind, but my body wasn’t playing ball. Although I was still struggling with correctly executing the technique, I had taken a step up on the ladder of competency and was now ‘Consciously Incompetent’.

Now knowing my weakness, I persevered and now understanding where I was going wrong I started to slow down my execution and think through each detail of the technique, especially focusing on kuzushi, putting my Uke off balance. Of course, it’s not all been a stoic triumph of mental and physical excellence, I owe a lot to skilled and patient training partners and instructors. A couple of lessons ago at Shirindo Jujutsu the class was drilling a technique called ‘Tenchi Nage’, a simple and effective technique where historically I have used muscle to try and put my Uke to the tatami, often resulting in the aforementioned puzzled face. However, after getting the technique wrong a couple of times, I asked my training partner and my instructor to show me specifically where I was failing to take my Uke off balance. From here, I finally started to ‘get it’ and now feel as though I am entering ‘Conscious Competence’ with some of the techniques that previously had me stumped. This may seem like an over-simplification and throughout my journey I am likely going to take a step down the ladder, having to start again from ‘Unconscious Incompetence’, additionally, I may never reach my goal of being ‘Consciously Competent’ at Jiu Jitsu. However, to help me in reaching higher stages of competence I am going to continue taking my training away from the tatami, utilising reflective practice to see my areas of development. Therefore, I will be keeping a ‘Martial Arts’ journal, where I intend on taking a quick couple of minutes after each class to jot down the date and note each technique we drilled in class. I hope this practice will help me to later know which techniques to focus on during my quiet moments of mindfulness and reflection. I will be sure to update you all on whether this has helped.

Thank you very much for reading.

Next: In my next blog update, I am going to look at perceptions held by those who do not train in Martial Arts and how perceptions may change once a white belt is wrapped around the waist.

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