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Sunday with Sensei's Journal

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Weekly Reflections on the Traditional Martial Arts
from Hanshi Tony Annesi © 2017

Informal Competence

Two brown belt students were practicing the throws (from Funakoshi’s 9 Throws) needed for their shodan promotions. They were becoming comfortable with the basic techniques and could apply them in the way they had been taught. I felt it was time to take them to the next level: I created a drill in which the receivers (uke-te in karate jargon, tori in aiki jargon) could assign the speed and level of the attack they wanted to defend against, but would be required to employ a blocking/receiving movement that came out of the 10 kata that they knew. My goal was to merge their knowledge of kata, one-step sparring, and throwing informally without overwhelming them with having to receive a fast or free attack.

The first problem we ran into was that their defenses did not appear to come from kata. That would not be a problem in actual self-defense, of course, but I wanted to know how well they actually “knew” their forms. A lunge inside forearm block from a front stance, for example, does not exist in any of the Heian Kata or in the Tekki forms. Although the block does appear early in Bassai-dai and twice in Kanku-dai, the students could not associate that movement with the form.

Okay. No harm done. As much as I would like students to be masters of their kata, I would prefer they use kata movements to educate their bodies for self-defense, not for surprise kata quizzes. Now, block completed, I requested that they perform any of Funakoshi’s nine throws, from the position they were now in. Sometimes they could, sometimes they could not, finding it awkward to go from position A to throw B. They were comfortable with the reception, but wanted to retaliate in a manner to which they had become accustomed. They had been comfortable with the throw, but only from a pre-assigned reception.

I showed them how, with very little modification, they could flow from one posture to another and execute the throw easily. Both of them shook their heads.

“Pick a kata movement you want me to use,” I requested. One student picked the initial movement of Bassai-dai. “Okay, now choose one of the nine throws with which you want me to finish.” The second student made a choice. I had him attack, and smoothly performed first the reception from Bassai and then performed the assigned throw as retaliation. “It is not so difficult as you think. You know how to do one-step sparring, you know your kata, and you know your throws, but you don’t know any of them well enough to merge them informally. Some errant attacker is not going to expect you to adhere to perfect form or identifiable throw, but your ability to gradually merge the aspects of what you know in a relatively formal drill like this is the beginning of breaking free from that formality.”

Sensei Frederick Lovret (aiki-ju-jutsu) once said, “You can’t be free of something unless you are first captured by it.” We study a martial art, at least in part, for self-defense, but we think that when we perform our art well, we must then be able to defend ourselves. If a spectator was watching and you moved into a perfect front stance, snapped out a sharp block, and immediately followed with a smooth throwing retaliation, the spectator might be impressed and come to the conclusion that you can, indeed, defend yourself. You would feel a well-earned pride and perhaps reinforce that same conclusion. However, the conclusion to which you should have come was that you could competently demonstrate the art that you study in order to learn self-defense.

The means of learning is not the knowledge. We all must go through this admittedly frustrating stage of development. We know the parts, but may not be able to integrate them. We can pass the exam (made up of learned parts), but may not be able to informally apply our knowledge competently, informally, and without some learning structure to guide us.

This is not the fault of the traditional martial arts. It is one of the naturally occurring challenges of learning something that we want to internalize. Formal competence is on the road to but has not arrived at informal competence. Another way to say “informal competence” is “second-nature”.

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Hanshi Tony Annesi

• Advisory council, Nippon Kobudo Renmei (NKR)

• Steering Committee, International Society of Okinawan/Japanese Karate-do

• Member of 3 Martial Arts Halls of Fame

A martial artist since 1964

9th dan, Takeshin Aiki

Aiki DVDs, Karate DVDs, Sogo Budo DVDs

8th dan, Takeshin Karate

6th Dan, Shotokan Karate

2nd dan, Judo

Hanshi, International Society of Okinawan/Japanese Karate-do

ISOK Hanshi

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