Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Knowledge, Skill and Ability

Today I began thinking of various elements of training and these three words – knowledge, skill and ability – stayed with me. This is another use of the triangle as a concept, keeping in mind that it is still a single integrated structure and why it is commonly shown within the circle to denote wholeness. So why did I choose these three words? They are a reflection of certain memories that surfaced, and so are representative of key concepts.

It is said that knowledge is power, but I think it would be more correct to say that knowledge is a key to power. One can know something without grasping its value or understanding the implications. It takes action to apply knowledge for effect. Nevertheless, knowledge is the foundation, the means from which understanding can grow. Great thinkers like Archimedes and Descartes understood that having a single certain truth enabled them to establish valid and logical principles.

Serrada founder Angel Cabales understood the value of knowing the principle of one. He taught to hold the ground on which you stand because we already know how to move; being immovable is much harder. By not moving, we are the leverage with which to move others. This doesn’t mean we lack mobility, but that we can ground ourselves where and when we need, and this is a great generator of power. Similarly, our defenses use a single point of contact to create a powerful fulcrum. Two points are inherently unstable because balance tends to shift back and forth, but one point simply controls the balance, as it has nowhere else to go.

Skill is application of knowledge. How many of us have trained with people who can explain the how and why of techniques in intricate detail but cannot demonstrate them well enough make the application work? I specifically remember one guy back in my Kenpo days who was an orange belt (the first promotion) back when I was a white belt. By the time he got his next promotion I was already several belts past him, and over a decade that was it for him. Now this guy was a walking encyclopedia of details from the day I met him, a veritable engineering whiz at blueprinting every move in our system. He was also built like a warrior dwarf from “Lord of the Rings” and was one tough punching bag, emulating his hero boxer Tex Cobb, who was known for relying on an iron head to survive his fights. Unfortunately Kenpo is designed for speed, accuracy and mobility, all of which my friend was lacking. Perhaps it was a bad match of body type and the art (he’d have made a good MMA guy) but all his knowledge of this system seemed of little practical value.

The third level is ability, a term I’m using as a catchall to describe a level encompassing and surpassing the previous two. It is how well we exhibit our knowledge and skill, as having those things does not intrinsically qualify our performance. On the one hand we each have natural potential, greater for some than others, but which can be enhanced for any through proper physical conditioning. On the other hand, ability goes beyond the physical to include our willpower. Training can build physical and emotional toughness, but then sometimes athletes leave their game in the locker room. Certain things cannot be coached beyond narrow limits, such as size, speed and desire. Heart is something that is revealed only when it is tested, though it can be nurtured through the learning process as steps are mastered.

Physical strength is always an asset, though perhaps not as vital in weaponry as in other arts such as grappling. Still, one needs to be strong enough to handle pressure and have the endurance to finish a fight. A problem I have in teaching is that I see most students only once a week for a couple of hours. Escrima can be very technical and requires focused attention. When training time is constrained, it is imperative to work on skill, leaving conditioning for the student to pursue elsewhere. Leaving conditioning to chance is a mistake, because hard, grueling practice can reveal character. To excel takes hard work, and as they say in motorsports, the last 10% of performance is 90% of the expense. The mountain is always steepest at the top.

I miss the old days at the Kenpo school because we had access 24/7, and classes ran several hours every day. With that much time, conditioning was well-integrated into training, as opposed to haphazardly hoping students will take it on themselves to get sufficient work in on their own. We had a basic conditioning cycle we used to do, consisting of 100 jumping jacks, 25 pushups, 50 situps (or crunches, done in pairs with our feet interlocked and slapping hands with each other when we came up to add torsion), and then 25 more pushups. We would typically open class with 2-5 cycles, done quickly to get warmed up before bagwork, kick trading or sparring; we always worked up a good sweat quickly.

Another component is stretching, which again is less significant in Escrima than in an art that emphasizes kicking. Current recommendations are to stretch when fully warmed up, better at the end of a vigorous workout because muscles are more pliable when hot. Not only do we not spend time on this in short classes, we rarely get that hot in Escrima, even when sparring hard. Back in the 70’s when I did a little Tai Chi with Master Chiang at the Wen Wu School, I was taught that flexible legs were a key to longevity. In my 20’s this was a distant concern, but now I can feel what a difference it makes. In the last 8 years I’ve gone through graduate school and endured a period of difficult health. During those times my conditioning was neglected, and I can attest that it doesn’t come back as easily as when I was younger.

Many of us take up martial arts to defend ourselves or for sport, health being the third reason people often give. As we get older and our skills become honed, we come to rely on efficiency rather than strength. This is all well and good, but to maintain our health we need to still make room for the less glamorous side of training. As the saying goes, what we do now will show up in our health in 10 years. The work we do today pays off in the future.

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