Finding Fresh Ways to Learn…Or, I Geek Out at a Forms Seminar

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This past weekend I attended a poomsae (forms) referee seminar sponsored by USA Taekonwdo, the national governing body for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and is a member of the World Taekwondo Federation. I’m not really interested in judging or refereeing at tournaments, but since forms are one of my favorite aspects of practicing taekwondo, I was curious enough to sign up.

I figured it would be good to know what judges were looking for so I could prepare our students (and myself) to compete in forms at the next tournament and just improve our daily practice in the dojang. Plus I get a little tired of always being on the facilitator side of training, so once in a while I like to be a participant and learn something new.

Oh my, the math and the details! I knew when we were handed a sample of the official scoring sheet that our brains were going to be spinning. We discussed accuracy and presentation (and the sub-categories of each), major deductions versus minor deductions, disqualifications, and rules for recognized forms versus freestyle forms. I didn’t realize how much and quickly forms judges need to react, calculate, and recalculate all within about a minute of a competitor performing a form.

The fun part began when the instructor began demonstrating details (both mistakes and what judges want to see) of kicks, blocks, strikes, and stances. “Is that a major or minor mistake?” he’d frequently ask. As the morning went on our answers were more confident, and we’d nod and smile in recognition. He then began performing combinations of forms and asked us to critique through the lenses of accuracy and presentation.

While the instructor used Taegeuk forms for most of the examples, which I am not familiar with (we practice the older, more traditional Palgwe forms at my dojang), he did make several references to the black belt forms Koryo and Keumgang, so I had light bulbs exploding over my head during those moments…if anyone saw me nodding and whispering “Ah-haaaa” while scribbling down notes it was probably during the Keumgang examples.

Did I not have a clue about accuracy or presentation during the Taegeuk combinations? Of course not. It turns out that technique is technique is technique, which I suspected all along. It’s not like the Taegeuk forms have completely different movements. A low block is a low block no matter where it falls in the form. Alignment, accuracy, tempo and rhythm, power…those are key elements we teach as well with our Palgwe forms.

And lest anyone think I’m cheating on my own home dojang instructors, I still defer to their teaching methods when I’m practicing my own forms or coaching another student. However, it’s nice to get an outsider’s perspective once in a while, even when I disagreed on some of the finer details. For a poomsae nerd like me, talking about nothing but forms for four hours was heaven.

Now to truly prove that one can use transferrable knowledge to a new situation (meaning, I can perform and judge a form blindly) I probably should have stayed for the second part of the day when the class was going to perform several Taegeuk forms. Technique is technique, right? I should just be able to learn and perform the form on the spot since I’m supposedly good at forms and pay a lot of attention to detail, right?

Well…yeah…but I opted out, mostly because I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time since I’d just slow down the process (everyone else knew the forms). I also knew my Koryo and Keumgang were different enough stylistically that I’d stand out if we did the black belt forms, and I happen to prefer my ways of doing Koryo and Keumgang. And…well…I had company coming that afternoon and figured opening a fresh bottle of wine would be a better use of my time.

I thanked the instructor, told him the lecture and demonstration portion was fabulous, and assured him that I could apply everything I learned that morning back in my home dojang. The seminar inspired me to refine my own forms practice even more, and it gave me some language and talking points to use when I give feedback to other students.

The moral of the story: seek out continuing education in whatever it is you love to do whether you’re feeling stale, looking for a new perspective, wanting to learn a new skill, or simply want to enhance and revitalize your practice.

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Learning Theory and Hook Kicks…or…Sweat and the 70/20/10 Principle

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Training is useless without application…and it looks like Hannibal Lecter found this guy before we did.

As I was leaving taekwondo practice Monday night I mentioned to my instructor that I liked the sparring drills he added at the end of class. Monday is typically cardio and conditioning night, but lately we’ve been doing some no contact sparring (i.e., we’re not wearing protective gear so we try not to kill each other), reaction drills, and fighting techniques during the latter half of the class. That night we had done a simple drill during which one partner attacked with a roundhouse kick, which is a very typical (and predictable) attack during free sparring, and the defending partner would counter with a low block and a hook kick to the chest. Fun, simple, but surprisingly difficult for some students to do intuitively.

My instructor’s concern was that students, myself included, hadn’t developed the habit of countering. We strike…hop around…wait for the other person to strike…then we strike again…hop around…and the cycle continues. Ideally a sparring match would be a continuous flow of attacks and counter-attacks from both partners. Sparring skill is a combination of training, technique, strategy, and intuition, and unless a student is naturally gifted, it requires a great deal of practice to master. It’s not like we weren’t practicing; maybe our problem was that we weren’t practicing “smart.”

As I walked out to my car I thought, “Wait a minute! This is theory and application! This is the same thing we’re trying to get our employees to do in the workplace!” I thought about that night’s drill. Hook kick is my favorite kick. It looks cool, it’s fun to do, but all I’ve ever really used it for in sparring is a stalling tactic: swiping a hook kick at someone’s face distracts them and keeps them at a distance, but I’ve never made contact. I wasn’t using it in any context. I do a hook kick just because I want to do a hook kick, but that doesn’t mean I was using it effectively. Incidentally, two days later in sparring class, I got a few good shots to my opponents’ chest with hook kicks because I was using it as a counter technique, not a “just because I want to” technique. Point!

My classmates and I have spent a lot of time practicing kicks and prescribed, memorized self-defense techniques, but we haven’t given as much effort to putting what we learn into practice other than a weekly free sparring class, which even then is restricted by the polite rules of engagement. It makes perfect sense in theory…but when it’s put into practice it’s evident that we need to spend a lot more time experimenting and applying what we’ve learned. We’re not making the connection between what we learn in theory and what we can put into practice when the opportunity presents itself.

In our weekend bo dan/black belt class we’ve been playing around with more freestyle fighting against weapons or each other’s hands. Last week one of my fellow new black belts and I found ourselves blinking dumbly at each other as we tried to wrap our little minds around some new twists on the hand-to-hand self-defense techniques we had learned as red belts. Some black belts we were! It made sense in theory…but was useless without practice and application. Mimicking our instructor is not enough. We taekwondo practitioners have to be able to think quickly and be able to use anything from our arsenal at any time.

Training of any kind, whether it’s taekwondo or those pesky grown-up professional skills such as having a difficult conversation or running an effective meeting, runs the risk of being futile if it does not include a method of application. The problem is that we often put so much weight and expectation onto the training itself to magically solve whatever issue we’re having without any effort or change on our part. In my professional life as an organizational development (OD) consultant I’ve heard many times from clients the complaint that they took a class on building an accountable culture or having a critical conversation or whatever the problem might be, but “it didn’t do anything.” Amazingly enough they were demanding that same class, as if somehow this time it would be different. “Training” always seems to be the first solution to a problem that is often times not even thoroughly defined.

The issue isn’t the training. It’s how it’s applied. The 70/20/10 model of learning, which has been attributed to the Center for Creative Leadership for pioneering, dictates that for learning to be effective it should follow this ration:
-10% of learning is from traditional education: reading, listening to a lecture, more “passive” learning.
-20% is from coaching and feedback, collaborative learning, mentoring.
-70% is from on-the-job (or in our case, in-the-dojang) application.

We often reverse this ratio and wonder why nothing changes. It’s not surprising since our first experience with learning as a child was being expected to sit quietly while we listened to a lecture from a teacher and would somehow magically absorb and regurgitate the information. For some people that works, but for most learners, especially as they get older, it doesn’t. My best and most memorable teachers in high school in college were the ones that encouraged experimenting, asking questions, working with partners, trial and error, and discovery. The ones who did straight lecture were ineffective and forgettable, although I’m grateful that my grad school finance teacher was so boring because I used his worthless class time to find my current condo on a home finder app. What, I was still practicing finance, it was just personal finance!!

Learners, most notably adult learners, benefit most from instruction that is centered on solving a problem (e.g., What do I do when someone punches at my head?), provides application and experience of what is being learned, allows the adult learner to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction, and is immediately relevant to the adult learner’s life….meaning, if I’m simply told what to do if someone punches at my head, it won’t sink in. I need to see it, kinesthetically experience it, receive feedback on my performance, ask questions, relate it to my current experience and situation, and repeatedly try it over and over.

The beauty of this principle is that it holds the learner accountable even though there is initial responsibility on the person training/coaching/mentoring/supervising the learner to provide information, feedback, and opportunity to practice. I can’t expect my taekwondo instructor to do my work for me any more than we can expect a corporate trainer in a workshop on having difficult conversations to do the work for the person attending the class. They are major influencers and help set the learner up for success, but ultimately the learner is responsible for their own performance. Whatever we’re learning, whether we’re kids in elementary school or adults in a university or a hospital or a corporation, we have to practice, seek feedback, take the initiative to make changes, and continuously evaluate and improve our performance.

My instructor is on to something. He’s been adding more reactionary (i.e., defending against an unpredicted punch or kick) and countering drills (i.e., fighting back when attacked rather than just blocking and waiting for the next thing to happen) to all our classes so we would be better prepared to defend ourselves against any situation in sparring class or in the worst case scenario, a real life attack.

Wednesday night during the advanced class I thought about the 70/20/10 principle as we practiced some more reaction and countering drills. In pairs, we were given simple instructions to attack with a punch and counter with a punch. That was the 10%. Pretty soon my partner and I were adding on more defenses and attacks, asking each other what we thought would work, trying different approaches, and getting feedback from our instructor on whether it was effective or not. That was the 20% (collaborative learning, coaching, and feedback) and a bit of the 70% (practical application). Had we had time to get into more “freestyle” fighting that would force us to think quickly and respond on-the-spot that would have been the 70%. It was the perfect opportunity to be introduced to a concept and experiment with it so we could become more effective taekwondo practitioners.

The moral of the story? Learning is not just listening, which is still the pervasive assumption in many aspects of training for both children and adults. Learning is practicing, experimenting, application, seeking feedback, and making incremental changes. That type of learning leads to mastery.