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Virtuosity and Martial Arts

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Virtuosity

Virtuosity means simply “to perform the common uncommonly well”. In my 30+ years of martial arts training I have the pleasure of training with a number of people who have displayed this quality admirably – some were teachers, some were combat sports athletes and some were simply students like me.

In sports like gymnastics and diving, the perfect 10 is a rare achievement as it requires more than perfect technical ability. It requires risk. Completing a routine without error will only get you a maximum 9.7. To achieve the last three tenths of a point, you must demonstrate “risk, originality, and virtuosity” in addition to making no mistakes in execution of the dive or routine.

Risk is simply executing a rarer, more complex movement that is more likely to be missed or botched; originality is a movement or combination of movements unique to the athlete, a move or sequence not seen before.

As stated above, virtuosity is defined as “performing the common uncommonly well,” and this hold true regardless of arena Unlike risk and originality, virtuosity is elusive, extremely elusive. It is, however, readily recognised by the audience as well as teacher, coach and athlete. Virtuosity is more than the requirement for that last tenth of a point; it is always the mark of true mastery (and of genius and beauty).

There is a compelling tendency among novices developing any skill or art, whether learning to play the violin, write poetry, or competing in martial arts, to quickly move past the fundamentals and on to more elaborate, more sophisticated movements, skills, or techniques. This compulsion is the novice’s curse; the rush to originality and risk.

The novice’s curse is manifested as excessive adornment, silly creativity, weak fundamentals and, ultimately, a marked lack of virtuosity and delayed mastery. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to be taught by the very best in any field you’ve likely been surprised at how simple, how fundamental, how basic the instruction was. The novice’s curse afflicts learner and teacher alike. Physical training is no different.

What will inevitably doom our martial arts training and dilute a teacher’s efficacy is a lack of commitment to fundamentals. We see this increasingly in both training delivery, solo practice and in execution. Rarely now do we see prescribed the fundamental stances, footwork and strikes and an era of Youtube and XMA. Rarely do teacher really nitpick the mechanics of fundamental movements in the fear that they will ‘bore’ the student with the necessary repetition.

It is easy to understand how this occurs. It is natural to want to teach people advanced and fancy movements. The urge to quickly move away from the basics and toward advanced movements arises out of the natural desire to entertain and retain your student and impress them with your vast skills and knowledge. But make no mistake: it is a noob’s move. For example, teaching a hook where there is not yet a jab, teaching spinning kick when there’s not even a front kick, is a major mistake. This rush to advancement increases the chance of injury, delays advancement and progress, and blunts the student’s rate of return on effort. In short, it retards their development.

If you insist on basics, really insist on them, your clients will immediately recognise that you are a master instructor. Focus on fine tuning fundamentals the way a formula one race car mechanic is constantly fine tuning a vehicle, little and often and right down to the angle of the bolts. I assure you they will not be bored; they will be awed. They will quickly come to recognise the potency of fundamentals; the value of high probability techniques. They will also advance in every measurable way past those not blessed to have a teacher so grounded and committed to basics.

In short, fundamentals work. It’s how they made it to being fundamentals in the first place! Train your students until they cannot fail to execute their basics properly, then tune them some more.

After all, shouldn’t the teacher strive to make their students better than they are?



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