Information Density

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I had an epiphany the other night.

My son and I were early for Kenpo class and took a bit of time to practice a few things on the empty secondary deck. He hasn’t gotten into any fights, but as he gets older he’s seen people doing some specious things at school like getting rougher with each other. While he doesn’t want to get involved with that kind of thing – he gets plenty of time punching me in class – he wanted to know if there were any techniques we could come up with in case someone decided to put the moves on him.

School in his day is very different from school in my day. Back in my day (a phrase I never thought I’d use unironically), shoving matches turned into fist fights and usually both parties walked away with no serious problems from the school. At the very worst, you’d get an afternoon’s detention unless someone got seriously injured, which they almost never did. While I’m not condoning the behavior, it was kids establishing their own place in the world and we all had our own set of rules about how to do that.

In my son’s school, both parties in the fight – whether they started it or not – are subject to detention or expulsion. It’s that beautiful zero tolerance policy that schools have adopted that frees them from things like critical thinking or assessing the incident. As a result, even throwing a mock punch can get a kid in serious trouble. For better or worse, that’s the way it is now. So, my son was curious to know if I could come up with anything where he could defend himself without fighting should the need arise.

My first thought was, if someone throws a punch at you, clobber him. After several years of Kenpo training (he’s almost a Black Belt), my kiddo should be able to knock the snot out of anyone who decides to push his buttons. Unfortunately, as my son pointed out, fighting is a serious no-no on school grounds. Fighting in general is usually frowned up and even in the real world, both parties can wind up facing serious consequences.

This left us with things like motion and soft blocking. Basically, getting out of the way and hoping that’s enough. So, guess what we practiced? Moving. My old teacher had a philosophy he liked to call “guarding the area that’s not being attacked”. While our version of Kenpo doesn’t explicitly call that out, the information is there if you dig deep enough.

That’s where my epiphany came in. I’ve never been a big fan of kata. For the unitiated, kata are those pre-programmed movements you see martial artists do. Block, move, kick, punch, and so on, all against imaginary opponents. They can go from simple to complex, a handful of movements to a few dozen movement. In some schools, the entire martial system is taught through kata. The idea being, if you know the kata and understand the kata, you know and understand the system.

Understanding is the rub. It’s easy to learn some movements and regurgitate them as an almost dancelike routine. Understanding the individual components – and why they’re being done – is the tricky part. As I said earlier, I’ve never really liked kata, but when my son and I were working out, I realized everything we were doing was in some kata somewhere and I had just glanced over it. So, I guess you could say the teaching mechanism worked to a point. Like any other kind of teaching, martial arts are dependent on the student to explore and attempt to understand the material in their own way.

So, how do I feel about kata now? Well, I still don’t care for them, but I’m looking at them in a new light. There’s a lot of information packed into those movements, but it requires examination to pull it out. And then it requires more examination to come to grips with it. Each one to three minute kata has a density of information you simple can’t get through basics or techniques. Show, don’t tell as the writing world calls it.

At the very least, doing kata correctly is a hell of a good workout and, apparently, even if I’m not fully paying attention, some of the information is leaking into my head.

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11 thoughts on “Information Density

  1. How awesome that you and your son practice together. What a special bond you are forming. Also love the bit about protecting the area not under attack. I should apply that to my life. It may help me avoid what seems like a constant battle ground out there in the world these days.

    1. He’s getting really good, too. We practice sticky hands every now and then and I used to be able to tap him with ease, now he can block almost everything I throw at him. Defending the area that’s not being attacked was one of Phil Gilbert’s favorite sayings. He really emphasized movement in a fight and it’s a good philosophy of life.

      1. Our current instructor calls kata moving meditation. It’s a pretty apt description when you know the form well enough that you can let yourself fall into it.

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