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  • D. Branchaud

Practice for Skill, Not Just Knowledge

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

How we use our mind can have important effects on the results of our practice. We all know that repetition is important for our physical movements but sometimes we forget that we are also training our minds to direct our physical movements.

Our mind is our greatest asset (weapon) since we direct the activities of the body, make decisions, and process threats and opportunities with our mind. And certainly if we get knocked out our ability to defend ourselves comes to an abrupt end. We can fight with a broken bone but not with a broken brain (keep your hands up)!

Palace Hand training is different from some other types of practice. Karate for example, is highly regimented and kata is repeated endlessly. It is a very effective method for karate. But in Palace Hand we do not practice preplanned moves for specific types of attacks. Instead we want to develop an intuitive ability to react with spontaneity.

In our early days of learning Palace Hand a few Kodokai students, well trained in karate, went to Okinawa and they were taken aback at the apparent lack of organization and order in the classes. They were accustomed to the formality and discipline of karate training. But in Palace Hand we do not line up in rows with someone counting our kicks and punches and we spend little time repeating synchronized kata. In a well-run karate class you know exactly where and when to stand or sit and what to do. In a Palace Hand class, however, it is you who often must decide what to do, where you should be, how hard or fast you should go, when you should get out of the way, when you should excuse yourself from an exercise or technique you are not ready for, when you should push ahead, etc… It is a more independent practice.

In a typical class in Takamiyagi Sense’s dojo on Okinawa there were people in various groups working on different techniques and throwing each other in all directions. I remember thinking that it was a bit crazy when I was thrown right at a large mirror that was leaning against the wall or when I was launched directly at someone else who was being thrown. I learned, quickly, that it was up to me to insure my own safety, and that I needed to be in control of myself when being thrown. While it seemed a bit reckless at first it made sense to me since a bad guy might throw me at a window or some other hazard and I needed to develop the wherewithal to keep myself in one piece. I needed to pay attention, prepare myself for the training, and to take responsibility for myself.

The seeming lack of order and the overall relaxed culture of Palace Hand practice is a training tool in the same way the culture in a karate dojo supports the end goal. The regimentation found in karate was initiated in the early 1900's by using military training methods to spread the practice of karate. It is good for teaching larger groups. Palace Hand, however, was a family practice and utilized a more individualized approach to training.

Takamiyagi Sensei instructs us to avoid learning with the analytical left hemisphere of our brain. While we all have a personal preference for how we learn we are capable of learning with either hemisphere (actually both hemispheres work together and I am generalizing). If your default setting is to use your analytical mind you would be encouraged to abandon this approach and to go by feel, gut, or intuition. Sensei often discussed that analysis of technique is an improper way to learn and will cause you to store knowledge in a way that is too slow to recall in practical use. Rather than sorting through several techniques to decide which to use we are simply to respond. There is no time to analyze our options and then search our brain for the best solution.

If you analyze and assess throughout your entire practice (class), you are learning in a way that will be detrimental when things need to be speeded up. Of course there are times for analytical thought, but you mostly must practice without analyzing, evaluating or planning your actions. While I was on Okinawa they had several methods for forcing this, For instance, the most common way of teaching was to have Taira Sensei call me over, demonstrate four or five different techniques and then point and say, ‘You do’. Usually I couldn’t repeat any one of them! Clarification would be given after I actually tried to do something. If I was totally wrong they were okay with that, they weren’t focused on trying to get me to memorize techniques, they were trying to teach me to act even though I wanted more information. They were breaking me from my habit of learning step by step. Taira Sensei also would push me to flow through a technique as I was learning it, without breaking it down. He or Takamiyagi Sensei were not pleased if I hesitated in mid-technique. Fluidity and action were more important than the technique.

Speed is essential, whether in sports, business, or combat, because time is the least forgiving, least recoverable factor in any competitive situation. I learned to prize smooth execution by cohesive teams (those that could adapt swiftly to battlefield shocks) over deliberate, methodical, and synchronized efforts that I saw squelching subordinate initiative.

- General Mattis, USMC

I mentioned kata (forms) as practiced in karate. Palace Hand does have ‘kata’ but they are very different in appearance and practice. They are not old, like karate kata, and they are simply a training tool rather than a core part of training. They are dusted off when they can be useful and put on a shelf when they are no longer the right tool for the job. They may be unvisited for years or completely abandoned once they serve their purpose. When I was taught the five empty hand kata I was taught all of them at once. The person teaching me, Tomaki-san, would run thorough all five, in order, and then ask me to do them. Of course, by the time I followed along through the fifth kata I couldn’t remember anything of the first one! So we would start again and do all five. And he would direct me to demonstrate. And I couldn’t! Anyway, eventually I learned. The point of the method was to force me to think, to try even though I doubted my ability, and to remain clear-headed throughout hours of frustration. It wasn’t an efficient way to teach me the kata but they didn’t want me to pack away the movements into my analytical brain so I could later recall them, they wanted me to trust my gut and just do what comes out.

We are taught to learn Palace Hand by doing and that useful knowledge comes through the experience and sensation of doing rather than through analysis. We are advised not to first figure out ‘what’ or 'how' to do but just ‘to do'. An intellectual understanding of a technique is considered relatively useless since understanding something is not the same as being able to do it. We may prefer to understand before we try to do something but that is seen not only as a wasted step in the learning process, but a detrimental one as well. Learning step by step and memorization may allow you to recall the technique, but later, in daily practice, the constant recalling of a technique further embeds this way of thinking. Memorizing and then remembering can impede the spontaneity that we need for fluid movement with no space between thought and action. Memorizing and recalling are like storing techniques in a file cabinet and then searching for the right technique when posed with a problem, but there is no time to search your mental files for the right technique!

This can be a very challenging way to learn and the biggest enemy to this way of training is the ego. (Takamiyagi Sensei has ways of crushing your ego but we’ll save that for another blog post.) We don’t like to look stupid, we don’t like jumping into something without first understanding what we are supposed to do, and we often are impatient with our perception of progress. Having faith in your training and practicing consistently can help with this.

If you have trouble being spontaneous with live drills or ukemi (being thrown) it may be a reflection of your learning method rather than your knowledge. Speed isn't always about moving fast. It is sometimes about moving at the right time. You may ‘know’ many techniques but your way of learning and practicing may depend on recall rather than feel. Knowing isn't enough. Knowledge can be transmitted to another person, skill cannot. It must be acquired. You acquire skill through practice. Think carefully about 'how' to practice!

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