I wanted to name this the "Art of Learning" but that title has already been taken. Besides I'm not sure what I've been doing for the last six months could be considered art. Back in November I wrote about taking a trial Tae Kwon Do class, and then signing up for a year's program. I'm into my sixth month, and it's been an interesting journey. I have not only learned something about an entirely new sport, I've also learned something about learning, and more specifically, how I learn. At times it's been overwhelming and frustrating, but when it clicks it's been exciting. Soon I hope I can take all of these experiences and transfer them to the process of regaining much of what I feel I've lost from chess.
This foray into Tae Kwon Do is the first time in over 25 years that I have attempted to learn something that is totally new, and totally unrelated to anything else I already have experience in. All my years as an athlete did not prepare me for this because the sports I already do have no movements or components that transfer over to the martial arts. Probably the closest thing would be my experiences doing modern dance in high school. The forms we learn in class remind me of a choreographed piece of dance. Though I think all those years of turning my toes outward in dance had a bad influence on me in Tae Kwon Do.
I don't remember what it was like when I first learned how to play chess. That was 40 years ago. I don't remember if I had difficulty learning the names and movements of the different pieces. I do remember that I lost many games before I won my first game. Perhaps being a teenager I picked up the movements quickly even if I had no clue what to do with the pieces. Though if learning how the pieces move was anything like my first night in Tae Kwon Do class I may never had taken to chess like I did.
At the Tae Kwon Do school (do jang) I attend, a newbie starts as a no belt. One has to earn the right to even wear a white belt with their uniform. Newbies stick out like a sore thumb. Their uniforms are crisp and clean, and have no patches on them. As soon as the warm up and stretching part is over the class goes into a routine called Kam Sa Hyung (Appreciation Form). It's a 10 step form which includes the most basic stances and punches in it. So if it's your first day of class you get pulled to the side to learn the 10 steps to it. Most people learn the 10 steps in their first class. In my first class I barely got past number one.
Number one involves simply moving your left foot to the left so your feet are shoulder width apart. At the same time your hands go from being flat and straight at your side to fists resting above your hips. For what ever reason I could not get the hang of that movement. I'd move the wrong foot and my toes would being pointing out instead of my feet being perfectly parallel. My stance would be too wide and my hands would be in the wrong spot and not in a proper fist. I couldn't understand a word the master was saying to me because his English was so heavily accented. While I'm in the back of the room trying to do this one motion there are people moving about the room. Depending on what color belt they are they're all doing something different. Many of the things they're doing are accompanied by loud yells of kihop! For someone like me who is easily distracted all of this motion and noise was difficult to contend with.
When I'm trying to process something I try to visualize it my mind. That first class I spent a lot of time staring at myself in the mirror and trying to get my feet and hands to move in a coordinated manner. The master kept prodding me to keep practicing, but I was trying to picture it first and then do it. I kind of got the hang of it so he added step number two which simply involved moving the fists from my hips to pointing downward with a slight bend in the arms. I would figure out later that number two is simply the ready stance. (joombi)
Every time he fussed about how I was making a fist or where my left foot was I'd get flustered and pace around and shake my head. It's similar to what I've done sitting at the chess board after making some horrible move that my opponent has exploited. There were a few times that first night as I practiced those two steps by myself I was on the verge of tears. I was frustrated and and embarrassed as people walking past the do jang would be looking in the window at the class. The do jang is in a small shopping mall and the main classroom has large windows facing towards the other stores. Being closest to the window I felt like the runt of the litter in the pet shop window. "Mommy how come that little puppy isn't playing with the other puppies?"
It took me around 4 classes to learn those 10 steps and do it well enough to earn my first uniform patch. One thing that helped was a handout with pictures of Grandmaster Kim in each of the stances. I needed the cheat sheet to assist me when practicing at home. At the same I was getting the hang of that they started teaching me 4 basic blocks. These were confusing to me because I never could remember which arm should up or down, and which way my hands should be facing. There was no "cheat sheet" for that sequence and it was frustrating for me to try to practice that at home. Often the moment I walked out of class I didn't remember what I had learned. Hell there were days as soon as the master told me to practice on my own while he worked with somebody else, I'd totally forget what he had told me. On the one hand they want you to practice, but if you don't remember what they taught you it's hard to practice.
It usually takes a few classes before I'd know enough to have something I could practice at home. It took me more then the 7 to 15 repetitions that Tempo refers to in his excellent series of articles. Perhaps for me with my non-dominant hand form of dyslexia, steps that involve precise placement and movement of the left and right legs and arms go beyond the simple things that most people can learn by repeating it 7 to 15 times. The Korean masters work hard to make sure the student's form is correct, but often I don't understand what else they're telling me about what it is I'm actually doing. Sometimes in a large class they will have one of the black belts work with the newbies or junior belts. The four basic blocks began to make more sense when somebody could explain to me in simple English what part of the body I was trying to protect from what type of punch. I have to remind myself this is a form of self defense. Doing the four basic blocks without understanding defensive principles of them is kind of like learning an opening without understanding what you're trying to achieve in that particular opening.
I went through the same sort of process learning 10 elbow strikes. Once again until I learned what part of the body I was aiming for with each strike it didn't make much sense to me. Grandmaster Kim has a DVD with the Poomse (forms) that have to be learned at each level. The first chapter is an introduction and there's a brief clip where he is performing the 10 elbow strikes. I spent a lot of time just looking at that brief clip, stopping and starting it and running it in slow motion. At first my movements in class were big and exaggerated. I remember one evening in class this older woman watching and laughing as I was over exaggerating the movements to the point that I kept pulling a muscle in my back. She wasn't laughing at me. It was more about how the masters were trying to get me to aim to the right spot. It just looked pretty ridiculous at the time. Now as I do this particular exercise I can understand what Josh Waitzkin in his book "The Art of Learning" means by making smaller circles. It's a matter of fine tuning the movements and getting more out of each strike. I think it's similar to what the Knights Errant are doing as they get to later circles.
That took longer because I missed three weeks of classes due to my Spain trip and then being sick. Coming back after a three week absence was hard. I had retained what I had learned for my white belt test, but I had lost much of what I had just started learning in late January and early February.
Each of those colored tapes on my belt represent a required component for promotion. The yellow is for 10 basic motions. The green is for the poomse which at this level is comprised of 20 movements. The blue is for Il Su Shik (one-step sparring). The red is for board breaking and the black is given to you when your ready to test.
The 10 basic motions are almost identical to the 4 basic blocks. The arm movements are similar but the stance and hand positions are different. It was only when I could make the connection to the similarities and differences that I could put them all together. Small things matter in terms of whether your arm is up or down, and whether your hand on the up arm is facing up or down. That drove me nuts trying to figure that out. It took someone explaining that the fist is rotating upward so it starts facing down. I don't process it correctly without understanding what is happening. For me it's not a matter of doing a movement I need to understand the the mechanics so that I'm getting the most from it.
The poomse for yellow is a 20 step form called Tiger 1. It's a combination of blocks, punches and stances that has one moving in 4 different directions. The challenge is remembering which direction one is going, what is being executed and which arm or leg is leading. Depending on the student they break it down into little chunks. I think I may have started with one and two. Then 1-4. Then 5-8 followed by 1-8. Gradually the remaining 12 steps were added in. Most of my progress on this form was made by staying for a second class on Friday evening that would be three teenage boys who were also white belts and me. With just the four of us working on the same thing I was able to concentrate getting the movements down without being distracted by other students working on different things.
I think the Il Su Shik (one-step sparring) was most difficult for me. I think that was because I'm doing it with a partner and I had to learn to respond to what the partner is doing. One partner is the attacker, and the other defends. Then the roles reverse. You do this a total of 6 times. 3 times as defender and 3 as attacker. (High, middle and low punches and blocks.) It was easy for me to get flustered working with a partner who could be my teen aged son if I had kids. I hate messing up as it is. It's worse when I'm messing up and making it hard for my partner to execute his moves correctly. The kids were patient with this lady older then their mother. None of the kids give me the infamous adolescent eye roll of "OMG I can't believe I'm doing this with somebody my parents' age."
Mission accomplished! Yellow belt in hand. Now it's time to go for orange. I'm hoping that my journey to orange will not take another three months. It shouldn't since I'm gaining more understanding of what I'm actually doing. The big overly optimistic goal is to do it in month, but the more doable goal is making it before I leave for Korea of June 30th. Stay tuned.