Friday, February 10, 2012

Frustrations of learning from books and videos

As so many other websites out there, this one too features some video and book reviews, so relevant to that fact is my take on the widespread question of whether it actually possibly to learn martial arts from a book or video. Well, the only right, but also unsatisfactory answer is – it depends! In order to make this conundrum somewhat clearer, what follows is my criteria on what makes a good “media carrier” of martial art information.

As always, when it comes to my views and opinions, there is the issue of context. With regards to evaluating an educational media product, we can look at it either from the standpoint of the product in itself, or its worth to a particular customer.

User-related criteria

  I believe the first and foremost element of importance in the tough task of teaching/learning any physical activity from a book or a video is the “student”, i.e. the end user of the product. From that perspective, let us divide those as belonging to one of the three possible groups – a beginner, an intermediate or advanced practitioner of fighting studies. Each of those should first try to define and understand what are they looking for in a product.

So, we might as well begin with beginners. In case of a row novice, or more precisely someone deciding to take up a study of some martial system and still choosing the right one, they should look at videos and books as kind of a review, to see what is out there and if something appeals to them especially. For this purpose it is obvious that videos have advantage over books, but the latter will offer more details once our budding practitioner narrows his or her choice to three or four potential approaches to fighting. The problem here is the lack of proper perspective on the quality of movement demonstrated by the author of the product, so it is completely possible that some people will reject certain systems simply due to the dislike for the particular instructor on video. Fortunately, today we have within easy reach the overabundant resources of Youtube, so the search is much faster, wider in scope and cheaper…and time consuming, yes. As the matter of fact, there are downsides to it as well, but let’s leave that for another time.

Choices, choices

Once the prospect martial artist has finally picked his thing, he should actually refrain from using videos as the source of information in their training and rely on a qualified instructor. Books however, can and should be used as the source of information regarding the historical and philosophical background, so your training time with an instructor will be spent more efficiently, and potential questions (maybe) more pertinent and be less of time-wasters.

Of course, some people will reach for these forms of instruction for the lack of qualified instructors in their area. That one is really tough…still if you decide to go for it, make sure to also have a training partner (or a couple of them) who are as enthusiastic about it and then try to practice the material as closely as possible and with as much diligence as you can muster. Be aware that it is long and difficult path, especially undertaken like that, so the progress will be slow and irregular, comparing to training under an instructor. Also, whenever possible, take the opportunity to partake in a seminar or take a private lesson, for the reality check on what you have achieved thus far.

As you reach some level of training, certain books and/or videos are really handy as reminders of the curriculum requirements within your art or school. For those, you are well advised to ask your instructors for recommendation.

For the intermediate student, the media could be of much different use and value. Namely, with some serious training under your belt (or sweat on your shorts if you do not wear a belt :-) you will probably have achieved some understanding of the core principles and tenets of your chosen martial art, so the media products could provide a couple of useful things. First, how some other people within the same system approach their training. It will hopefully offer a fresh perspective on some already familiar things and further increase your understanding of those, maybe also add some new fire to your training sessions. Second, if looking at another style of fighting, you could expand your horizons on the coherence of your own system (would it hold on just as good against various other schools as it does against your fellow practitioners), or even see something that fits in nicely with your work to address the areas your style does not.

Context and coherence

However, be honest here – do not approach looking at other schools with preconceptions. Be aware of both their good and bad features (same goes for your own stuff) and how that fits with your thing structurally. Do not add some moves just because they look cool, but only if they can be embedded with your already existing method, as seamlessly as possible. To see the wrong way to look at it, just read some of the stupid comments and flame wars under any of the videos on the abovementioned Youtube.

The advanced practitioner should already be at the level to understand and appreciate the quality of movement, instead of getting lost in canonical technical minutia (yes, it means that spending 30 years growing more and more dogmatic and biased does not make you an advanced practitioner). With such understanding of principles, one can glean something of use from any other martial art, related or unrelated. It could be a drilling tool, training method, teaching progression, tactical consideration…whatever. 

Teaching perspective

Also, the advanced practitioners have already established a good filter to sift the observed information through, so it is easier to take what is useful and discard the irrelevant. For these people, the next link in the evaluating criteria of a product becomes more important.

Self-contained criteria

Now, all that said, all books and videos are not created equal either. Two primary measures that make an instructional product are its contents and presentation. Both are rather important, so it is hard to tell which one takes precedence. However, there can be no presentation without something to present, so…

The content, in order to be valuable, needs to be first and foremost relevant and in accordance with the advertised features. In other words, if a video is advertised as the “street solutions for self defense” it should not then spend 90% of instruction time (if any) on teaching the “hidden pressure points application of karate kata”. Also, there should be at least some amount of the pertinent material included. Please note, however, it does not necessarily mean dozens of different techniques, and at least 90 minutes, or 200 pages (certainly, 15 minutes does not qualify as a full-feature instructional video either). I am perfectly satisfied with a book or video that focuses on a single technique/tactic/method but then offers a comprehensive treatment of the subject, in-depth and thorough. Of course, copious material is no bad, but in that case the next point becomes all the more important.

With products that have valuable content to offer, it is the presentation that will make it or break it. Essentially, it means that no matter how relevant and maybe innovative the material is, it needs to be presented in a coherent manner and logical order, so that the end user could benefit most from watching or reading it.

There are a few ways to achieving that goal, all good and acceptable, so in the end the customer will decide, based on their own affinities, what videos and/or authors they tend to like most in a particular field. Of course, some people just have naturally good on-screen appearance or “literary” style and it will only help them if they have a good product, sometimes even make an average one come out as better. On the other hand, I have seen some examples of good material and solid organization, but with somewhat bland “personal touch”, which in turn made the product not as well received as it could and should have been.

Maybe you will ask for some more specific pointers regarding what is a good presentation. Fair question, but due to the limits of this post, here are just a few broad strokes:

-         chronological approach starts with what the practitioner will need to have grasp of first, in order to attain a good command of the material, and then move in successive steps from there. For example, a knife method would start with weapon carry and deployment, followed by stance and footwork, distance management etc. A grappling package could start with closing the distance, placing a takedown, taking the dominant position…

-         lexicon approach will divide the material in more or less rounded categories/chapters/ (maybe even volumes) and then offer the instruction in each, for easier reference. Some pointers on how to integrate the material are certainly welcome (training methods and progressions, drills etc).

-         flowchart approach opens up with some technique or method and then discusses possible reactions/counters to it, followed by possible solutions to those counters and so on.

There are other possibilities and combinations, but hopefully by now you get the idea. Of course, certain types of material or martial arts may have the built-in inclination towards one of the above presentation methods, so going for it would make for a more certain outcome.

Partially relating to the presentation are the technical production values, like lighting, sound, visual and graphic effects etc. Personally, I do not care much about the fancy package, as long as the image is clear enough and sound intelligible enough that I don’t have to physically strain to receive the intended information.

In conclusion, when reviewing the instructional products for this blog, I have in mind predominantly the “self-contained” criteria relating to the books and videos themselves, but in hope of providing some useful reference points so that you, the reader, could decide if they fit well enough with your personal “user-criteria”.

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