We want to get the most out of our training. We look up to people who train hard and constantly push themselves. It seems obvious that the harder you train the better you will be. In judo we respect the people who train harder, with more intensity than anyone else. All that sweat dripping on the mat has to mean something, doesn’t it?
I was practicing piano and one of my weaknesses there struck me as identical to problems most of us have in the dojo practicing budo. All practice is not equal. Some kinds of practice give far superior returns on the time and effort invested than other types of training. Poor training habits and techniques waste time. Worse, they can lead to ingraining bad habits and techniques which actually make us worse at what we are studying than we were before the training
I was practicing some etudes (French for, get this, kata) that are fundamental exercises for training the fingers on the piano. These are the boring exercises everyone rushes through so they can get to the good stuff, the real music, the real budo. Music etudes are like kihon waza practice in budo. These are the fundamental movements that you have to practice beyond the ability to do them properly, beyond the ability to do them properly without thinking about them, to the point where you can’t do them incorrectly.
The tricky part is practicing them correctly in the first place so you don’t develop bad habits that slow you down later. The first, most common, and biggest mistake with etudes and kihon waza is to treat them as mindless, boring exercises. These exercises teach your body and mind the most critical foundations of everything else you will do. If you try to rush them, or try to avoid thinking about them by thinking about your laundry or your job or your friends while doing them, you will likely be doing them wrong, and drilling this wrongness into your bones.
To do basics correctly as a beginner, you have to think about how you are doing them. When you have stopped being a beginner, you probably don’t have to think about the basics when you are doing more advanced things, but when you are practicing the basics you still need to think about them. If you don’t, you risk letting mistakes and poor technique slip in. You also miss all the benefits that come from mindful practice. Be aware of what you’re doing. As you are practicing basic techniques, look for things that can be improved. In 100 repetitions you’ll be lucky if you have 10 that you love. You’ll also be lucky if you only have 10 that you hate. The rest will be somewhere in between. The goal is to be aware of every repetition and to try and drag your worst reps up to the quality of your mediocre ones, and the mediocre reps up to the level of the best. Like all of budo, this is a never ending activity, since as soon as you improve, you’ll start trying to reach a higher level.
Another pitfall on the practice path is rushing. If you’ve ever heard a young (or in my case not so young) musician rush through a section of piece, you’ve heard how wrong rushing can be. Don’t rush your practice, even if you don’t have much time. Rushing through things is worse than not practicing. If you don’t practice, you don’t improve, but you also don’t pick up bad habits. If you rush something you are doing it at the wrong speed, which is just wrong. If you don’t have a lot of time, just do what you have time to do properly. When you rush, correct form is only the first thing that is lost. You also sacrifice the rhythm and feel of proper technique, and you lose the awareness of what you are doing. In this sort of situation, you’re training can only move backward as you reinforce bad form, bad timing and poor thought.
One of the most popular parts of Judo practice is also one of Judo practice’s biggest weaknesses. Randori, or Judo style sparring, is fun, so much fun that often students would rather do this than work on their basics. There are lot of things that can go wrong with randori though. The first problem is all that fun. We are all susceptible to this one. It’s easy to spend all our time doing the fun parts of training, whatever it is, and neglect the parts that don’t grab our attention and gratify our hearts. This is true in all arts, even in koryu budo where there is very little sparring type practice. There are some kata that are just more interesting, and others that frustrate me until I am ready to scream because I just never seem to get them right.
One particular form this trap takes is practicing what we are good at. We enjoy practicing things we are good at much more than the parts that we haven’t mastered yet. I love doing harai goshi and tai otoshi in judo because I do them better than anything else. That’s exactly why should limit my practice of them though. The fact that I can do them better than anything else should tell me how much more I need to be practicing everything else. Spend most of your time practicing what you aren’t good at. That’s where you’ll improve the most.
The second problem with randori and other sparring practices is the tendency for people to go faster and faster as the randori session continues. Randori is a form of practice, not a competition to see who is better. People usually forget this point within 10 seconds of the start of a session. As soon as you stop thinking about randori or sparring as practice and start treating it as another sort of competition, it’s practice value plummets. You stop trying your weaker techniques that you should be polishing, and switch to your favorite techniques. People also start getting defensive because they don’t want to lose. In judo this means all sorts of bad postures and muscling to prevent throws. Instead they should be working on ingraining good posture and movement which will allow them to execute good, effective technique.
The third problem I see is that people don’t go into randori with a plan to use it to get better. Go into a randori session with a plan for what you want to practice and improve. Don’t worry about winning and losing. It’s practice, so you getting better is what constitutes winning, not beating the other guy. If all you do is worry about winning, you’ve already lost the chance to improve, and worse, you’re likely to pick up bad habits in the effort to win. PIck a technique you need to work on and focus on finding where that technique fits in the movement. Or just work on how you move and sense your partner. Take the time to develop an understanding how people move and react. These sorts of practices will make your budo much better, polish your skills and improve your fundamentals.
PIck a speed and intensity for your practice that suits the points you want to work on. Slow is great for some things. Fast and light might work better for polishing something like foot sweeps. Think about what you want to get out of a randori or sparring session, and how you will have to train to get that. Don’t just rush in and throw everything you are working on to the floor.
When you go all out to win during practice, the best you can hope for is that you win without developing any bad habits. You don’t get any better. The worst that can happen is that you develop and ingrain bad habits from trying to win and not lose, while developing a counterproductive attitude about winning and losing.
Training at less than 100% intensity is tough, because we associate training hard with effective training. This is true when you are working on cardio or strength development. You only improve your physical condition when you push the limits of what you can do. The more you sweat, the harder you work, the stronger you get and the more your stamina increases.
When you are working on technique however, hard training gets in the way of good training and can turn into bad training. Adding muscle, as I keep rediscovering, does not improve technique. Oddly though, adding technical skill does make muscle more effective. Interesting how that works. In order to make your physical strength as useful and effective as possible, you have to work at practicing without it. Once the technique is smooth and fluid, then you can try adding a little speed and strength at the proper moment for those to be useful. Strength and speed are not always benefits. Using them at the wrong time is a waste of energy and can destroy the effectiveness of a technique. I have lots experience at finding ways to blow a perfectly good technique, and adding strength or speed at the wrong moment is one of the best.
There’s one other area where the temptation to practice too hard is too frequently succumbed to. That’s when practicing “real” techniques, like self-defense techniques. The allure of doing the technique as hard and as fast as we can because this is for self-defense and we want to be sure it will work is a powerful one. It’s even more irresistible than my wife’s cookies fresh out of the oven on the cooling rack when she’s left the room. The problem with this is the same as in randori and sparring. We can start relying on bad techniques and too much muscle and speed to get by. This is fine until you run into someone with good technique, or even just someone faster or stronger.
A better method is to practice the technique at a very low intensity. As you get more comfortable at it, have your partner increase the intensity slightly. When you can do the technique calmly and smoothly at the new intensity, have your partner step it up again. Eventually you’ll be able to do the technique calmly and smoothly with your partner attacking as intensely as they can. You’ll have good technique, and you’ll be accustomed to maintaining calm and relaxed, effective technique even under intense, strong attacks. If you jump straight into working at high intensity levels it will take much longer to master the technique, if you ever do. More likely you will develop bad habits to compensate for the skill you don’t have yet, which will just make developing the skill that much more difficult.
Train slow and work up to it. It’s easy to practice things wrong. The temptation is always there to start practicing harder, faster and more intensely than your technique is ready for. Don’t give in. Practice right so you truly learn how to do the techniques and master you art.
This site had a very nice article about practicing from a musical perspective.