Alive and Kicking – Martial Arts Over 40
Monday 26 March 2012: Issue #26
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Published by Brett Kraiger. Your comments are always welcome.
Welcome to this week’s Alive and Kicking, the newsletter for martial artists over 40. Today I am going to talk a little about “mindfulness” and “proprioception”, two similar concepts that I believe can really help you improve in your martial art. Now, because I come from Taekwon-Do which is a striking and kicking art, there will no doubt be a bias to those sorts of techniques in what I talk about below, but the principles apply to any martial art. Or indeed any sport or other physical activity.
This weekend I travelled 6 hours by car to attend our national camp. I was alone in the car with nobody to talk to but myself, so of course it was a very stimulating conversation the entire way. And what was amazing was that I agreed with everything that I had to say 🙂
At the camp I was privy to a conversation between one of our Masters (7th Dan) and some 3rd Dan black belts and their instructors. One of my students was in the group, and I was there as his instructor.
In ITF Taekwon-Do, 1st – 3rd Dan is considered a “novice” black belt level. And 4th Dan is when you cross into the “expert” category. Our Master was talking about how important it was for our 4th Dans to be able to understand technique and to perform our techniques accurately.
In New Zealand ITF, many of our instructors are in that “novice” black belt range of 1st to 3rd Dan, so this means that they are more often than not out in front of the class watching their own students, and don’t have someone watching them.
How on Earth are they supposed to learn to master their technique, so that they become “expert” in their performance? Especially since they don’t have an expert on hand to correct their own movements.
On top of this I of course also got to thinking about older martial artists. Because we can lose flexibility and strength as we age, older martial artists just coming to the art may find many of the techniques difficult to perform. But being determined and goal driven they will often try the absolute best they can to kick as high and as fast as the younger students.
Older martial arts practitioners who have been training for an extended period may also notice a decline in their kicking ability, but continue to try and kick as high and fast as they did 20 years ago.
And what this often leads to is sub-optimal technique. Rather than developing faster, stronger and more powerful technique, proper form is being sacrificed in order to achieve higher or faster kicks. But the kicks are poorly executed and have no power or grace.
Where am I going with this?
Well in both of the scenarios I talk about above, and indeed in all stages of martial arts we have to develop the ability to self-correct. Our instructors cannot be everywhere at once, they cannot see everything. They can guide, and point out the things that we do not see, but you mustn’t rely on them to be there to correct every single little thing.
And this is where proprioception and mindfulness come in. To be clear, I’m probably about to stray a little way from the “exact” meanings of these terms, but they serve a purpose to explain what I mean. I’m probably about to describe something that falls somewhere between the two terms, proprioception and mindfulness, but they are the best terms I can think of right now.
So what is Proprioception?
According to Wikipedia it’s “the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement”.
Do this exercise for me… And actually do it, don’t just read it and go “Oh yeah, I get it”. Close your eyes, and bring your finger to the end of your nose. Ta-da… proprioception in action. It’s about knowing, in relation to the rest of your body, where all your individual body parts are.
Part 2 of this exercise… Close your eyes, and touch your nose with your finger. Now do the same thing with your other hand. Do you notice a difference?
For most of us, we will find this task easier to do with our dominant hand. Our proprioception may not be equally developed in all our limbs.
What is Mindfulness?
Well, it’s sort of the same. But completely different!
Mindfulness is a form of meditation which asks you to become very aware of one thing, often the breath. You focus on this one thing, and this one thing only. From Wikipedia: When practicing mindfulness, for instance by watching the breath, one must remember to maintain attention on the chosen object of awareness, “faithfully returning back to refocus on that object whenever the mind wanders away from it.” Thus, mindfulness means not only “moment to moment awareness of present events,” but also, “remembering to be aware of something or to do something at a designated time in the future”
Where I am coming to in a roundabout sort of way is that you really need to become in tune with your body. If you are going to be able to self correct, you need to be able to understand how your body is moving through space and time.
And you also need to have a frame of reference against which to compare that movement. In other words, you have to know what the correct technique is, before you can compare it to your own technique.
When you are practicing your martial art, and I think particularly as an older martial arts practitioner, this “tuning in” or “awareness” is paramount. Don’t just be executing the techniques as an approximation to the proper technique. Understand the proper technique, and strive to perform it.
And while you are performing your kicks, strikes, throws, or any other movement, be fully present in the moment, fully aware of what is happening in your body, and around your body.
Of course when we are doing our techniques, the whole body has to be involved. A punch is not done with just the fist. It’s done with the entire body.
The reason I wanted to talk about this in terms of proprioception, which is a more physical thing, and mindfulness, which is more of a mind/awareness thing, is that I think you have to have both things going on to some degree. And you also have to have the conscious knowledge too of how technique should be performed.
Bring these three thing together in the same place at the same time, and you can really begin to become expert in your martial art.
Just getting back for a second to us older martial artists. We need to balance the desire to perform technique like the 25 year old that our minds still think we are, against the reality of what our 40+ bodies will allow us to be doing. If your syllabus calls for high kicks, then I would suggest to you that you need to consider whether you can really do those kicks.
If you do not have the flexibility or strength required to do those kicks (or whatever technique it is), then I suggest that you do not practice them. You need to be practicing at the level you are cuurently at. Develop devastating low kicks. Develop proper technique and proper use of the entire body, at a level that you can manage.
And only once you have developed and refined that technique, through awareness and mindfulness, and once your body has started to adapt to the demands you are placing on it, only then start to increase the difficulty level.
Throw the ego out of the door. If you cannot perform proper high (or even middle) kicks.. then don’t. Who cares what the 25 year old next to you is doing. (Or what the 25 year old in your head is saying). Forget them… make sure you are developing strong, technical, kicks at a lower level. Create the good habits, the good muscle memory, before allowing the ego to make you attempt those higher kicks.
That’s it from me this week. I hope you are enjoying the newsletter. Issue 26, so I guess that means 6 months has passed since I started the site. Boy time flies!
I really enjoy getting feedback from people about the newsletter, and in particular am very keen on learning what it is that you want to know. So drop me an email or leave your comments on Facebook. You can also comment directly on the website.
All the best!
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Quote of the Day
Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).
– James Baraz