There are stages of learning. Whether you are studying To-Shin Do, oil painting, or guitar playing, there is a natural progression to how skills develop. An-Shu Hayes and others have talked about stages in personal growth before, but it’s always worth revisiting the process for how to effectively gain skills. There are ways to grow skill safely in martial arts. Skip steps and you can become dangerously lost or even injured.
Here are steps I focus on while learning a skill, technique, or principle:
Imitate the kata or technique from a teacher you trust. You can ask questions, of course, but the most important thing is to imitate right now. (Who is making this work? Do it the way they do!) … Know the steps well? Then:
Delve into the details. (What makes this work? Practice those skills!) … Confident with the details? Then:
Work in some decision making. (When does this work, and when do I need to do something else? Getting it wrong at this stage is just as important as getting it right!) … Do you really own this skill? Then it may be time to:
Explore the principle. (How does the skill change as the situation changes? Where else does this principle work?)
These stages are like anchors in your training. While it’s been years since I’ve had the opportunity to go rock climbing, I remember those lessons. As you climb, you need to clip your rope into an anchor every so often. The longer and higher you climb without clipping in, the farther you will fall if you slip up. And if you fall far enough, it is disastrous. I’ve seen instructors in other martial arts who encourage their students to jump to that fourth step far too soon. Beginners who are told, “As a part of your test, make your own kata.” Or, “Create your own variation.” Or any number of versions of this theme. Ack! This is important training in To-Shin Do, of course, but dangerous without a strong foundation. Without very solid anchors in those ‘lower’ stages, you risk a great fall. You risk losing touch with the principle. You risk losing touch with the fight reality. You risk losing touch with the martial art itself.
You also need to check in with your teacher often (The person spotting you and arresting your fall when needed, if I may stretch the rock climbing analogy further). While it’s not a problem in To-Shin Do, if a martial arts teacher isn’t skilled enough or caring enough to politely let you know you’ve strayed from the principle than they (your spotter) aren’t doing their job! You also need an authentic martial art (The safety rope, to complete the analogy) which thankfully we also have.
Of course those steps aren’t always linear. You might imitate, practice details, imitate more, back and forth a few times before going on to decision making. Often after decision making, you find things that fell apart and want to discover why they did. Which tends to lead you back to imitate and detail work. It should take a while before you reach that fourth step. And even then, you might be exploring principles and find you drifted too far from essence of the technique and have to go back and spend more time in steps one through three. But if you keep using these anchors, and keep checking in with your teacher, you won’t get lost, instead you’ll keep climbing higher and higher.