“This feels awkward.” I hear this statement from time to time when teaching. The student sees a technique or drill performed and thinks, “I can do that.” The mind can grasp something much quicker than the body can, though. So, until the physical pathways are built, the student will feel awkward. When I hear someone feeling awkward, it makes me smile because that person is out of his comfort zone, and this is where learning begins.
Fighting is natural to the human body. Humans have been doing it since the first time one caveman cut off another on the morning commute. But fighting well requires study. Some of us might be natural fighters from birth. Most of us, though, are not born knowing how to deliver optimal power with the correct footwork in a strike. We have to learn to fight efficiently. This means being awkward.
Students of other martial arts and of other FMAs, in particular, feel awkward when learning new skill sets because certain skills are close but not exactly the same as ingrained movements. Our bodies are trying to do one thing based on muscle memory but our brains are telling us to do another that we are just learning. There is a disconnect and an interruption in the flow.
Luckily, there is an easy counter to feeling awkward. Have patience. It’s simple but with practice, the martial artist becomes better. She feels the movements become more and more natural. Part of exploring how your body moves and reacts is to find where it is clumsy. Where are you uncomfortable? When you find yourself uncomfortable, it’s good to wonder why. Are you awkward because the skill is new, wrong, or just not part of your body type?
When we feel awkward, we should slow things down and explore what is making us feel clumsy. The natural tendency is to speed up when feeling comfortable because it is fun to work hard at the drill. It is important to speed up the drills as part of the progression towards play. BUT it is also important to make sure that the foundation techniques of the drill are understood and correct before increasing the difficulty level of the drill. Once you are good at the foundation skills, then increasing the difficulty is the next stage of learning. For example, in knife tapping the foundational principles and footwork must be correct before speeding the drill up, or the drill is just teaching bad habits that have deadly consequences.
Allow yourself to be bad at a new skill. Students have apologized to me for messing up a drill they just learned. My response is to assure them that most people mess up the drill first time. Making mistakes does not mean that you are on the wrong path. In fact, I encourage students to make mistakes as they are learning. The training space is a safe space where a mistake will not result in a beating or worse. It will result in a teaching moment; or, at worst, it will be ignored to allow the student to learn on her own.
Finally, don’t discount the feeling either. It is possible that the technique feels awkward because it does not work. I hesitate to write this because I think people are too quick to say something doesn’t work. There are very few people that I trust when they say something won’t work without studying more than just a video of it. I tend to trust the instructor when I think something doesn’t work because the instructor, hopefully, understands the why of what we’re studying. If you’re wondering about a technique, ask the instructor. The teacher should be able to explain the why of the technique. If it can’t be explained, then it is correct to be suspicious. Also, look for the technique during free form drilling. If it doesn’t come out in sparring or during play, it might not work.
Patience is the key to learning new things. Practice is the key to making new movements natural. Allow yourself to feel awkward and then practice some more.