Monday, September 29, 2008

Teaching concentration

I was reading a local newspaper the other day and came across an advertisement for the chain of karate schools in which I train and teach. Once specific word caught my eye and caused me to re-examine our program. The ad mentioned that martial arts training will improve concentration. Given the number of kids we hear about that have difficulty staying focused, this alone could justify the cost of tuition.

So how does one teach concentration? One could imagine a circle of students sitting cross-legged on the floor peering intently at a flame, hypnotized by the dance of heat and light. Alas, that's not what we do, and I'm pretty sure some of our newbies would be more interested pyromania than karate.

From the outside view looking in, I suppose the most obvious learn-to-concentrate technique is breaking boards. Clearly, if one looses focus while striking a solid piece of wood (ours are one inch thick and approximately one foot square) with your fist, palm, or elbow then one is likely going to be concentrating on "colorful metaphors." But, this is backwards. You don't learn concentration by breaking boards, breaking boards is itself a demonstration of concentration. So from where does the concentration come?

In the traditional martial art of Tang Soo Do, we emphasize our hyung (forms/patterns/kata). A hyung is a pretend fight against multiple opponents. These consist of a series of movements, some defensive some offensive, in a prescribed pattern. The hyung performed by the junior belts are relatively simple (don't tell them that!), and the hyung become increasingly more complex (and longer) as one progresses in rank.

The act of memorizing a single hyung is, in and of itself, a challenging task that requires a great deal of concentration. Our very first hyung, called Motion One or Hyung Il Bu, consists of twenty moves, eight turns, and two yells. Motion Two, Hyung E Bu, consists of twenty almost identical moves, eight turns, and two yells. They are so similar in fact that to the untrained eye, the first five moves are identical (they aren't).

As the student learns Motion One they are challenged to learn, remember, and demonstrate the twenty moves correctly. They need to remember their place as they progress through the hyung so that they will turn in the correct direction; sometimes right, sometimes left, sometimes backwards.

When they learn Motion Two, everything is nearly identical. I mean very, very nearly identical. It is in this similarity that concentration is required. If motion two were completely different from Motion One, there would be little chance of the student confusing them. Because they are so similar, the practitioner must stay alert through the whole routine or else they will unconsciously slip into the other routine.

This technique of using the same movements, turns, strikes, kicks, and combinations of moves throughout the various hyung (as a 4th Degree Master I am expected to know 18 different hyung) not only requires, but actually causes the artist to practice concentration. That which you practice you will execute as well as you practice.

The same is true of One Step Sparring, another process we use where the various techniques are just similar enough to build concentration, yet different enough to provide many defensive options. There are a total of 30 One Step Sparring techniques to learn to become a Red Belt, another fifteen to become Black Belt, and another 16 combinations to learn after that. By practicing and practicing and practicing these hynug and One Step Sparring combinations, the student develops a higher level of concentration.

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