Tuesday, March 5, 2013


I find myself defending an interesting position when I teach FMA, and one that I have known was a challenge since the day it was given to me by my Eskrima teacher - One that has thrown out teaching preset patterns or forms of any kind.

[Definition: A preset pattern, as I see it, is not the same as repeating a move or series of transitions to try to get it smooth and relaxed, like rolling and cutting angles for instance. A pre set pattern is a choreographed series of moves that does not vary for that particular set, and it usually has a name or a number by which it is known - 'Heaven Six' for instance. I count preset counters to preset attacks as choreographed patterns also]

Most people will argue with me that patterns are the only way to teach, especially beginners, that you can't get 'random' too soon or it will be confusing ....
I don't think this is true .... but it may be true that the 'Random' approach only suits people of a certain temperament or aptitude .... It is certainly the most efficient way to gain tactical skills that I have experienced.

This method obviously came from training with Sonny, and he had come to believe that preset patterns at their most basic level contained too many tactical errors to make them worth doing, and even at the higher levels, that they conditioned behaviors that were not only undesirable, but harder and harder to get rid of as time went on.

He separated out blade manipulation exercises, which he used as 'warm ups', from partner practice. This meant that tactical considerations (range, timing, tempo) were not confused with dexterity exercises, but in all honesty even these never stayed the same from day to day, or even minute to minute.
He used hanging and swinging targets of various descriptions to work these finesse drills and practices, and in the videos to right of this post you can see some of these in the Sandung video, and the double ended target video.

All partner practice was random, never choreographed, and forever evolving and changing throughout the lesson. Sometimes they were done with limited parameters, different roles for each person, or limited strikes, but even limited to 2 strikes, the randomness was maintained by never know which of the two strikes would come next, or perhaps when it would come.

So, does one need patterns?
Do they cause more problems than they help with?
Are patterns the only way to keep the interest of beginners?
Should one give people what they find comforting rather than what is most efficient?
Does it matter if only a handful of people can make it through the training because there are NO patterns?
Aren't they the people that you would want anyway?
What about the students you lose?

People LOVE patterns and forms, keeps them entertained for hours, I know it!  ... And there's no denying that working from continual uncertainty, without the eye to see the subtle NATURAL patterns derived from human nature and physics, is much less relaxing, and possibly only fun to those that enjoy puzzles, dares, and being lost.

Is that OK? Or should it be more 'accessible' at the expense of efficiency?

Before he died, Sonny looked me right in the eye and said point blank "Don't teach patterns". So I don't, and I won't, but it's certainly a challenge not to.


Rory said...

"Don't teach patterns." Absolutely agree. But you knew that already.
I know this is the toughest part of teaching for you. It's not just the students but the teachers that find comfort and solidity in patterns. Both of us have spent some nights staring at the ceiling wondering, "What is this that I am teaching?"
The proof is in the students.
The ,ost important thing I noticed about you is that I could throw you into a completely unfamiliar situation and you had no fear. You were confidant in your ability to adapt. That skill will trump every pattern and technique ever taught.
Sonny was a genius. It is scary to walk in those shoes but you do it well.

Jake said...

Definitely a more difficult way of teaching. And for some, a more difficult way of learning.

Good on you for keeping it going.

Have you read any of Matt Thornton's writings? Some of his ideas about "aliveness" seem like they would line up with what you're talking about.

Unknown said...

I tend to be a “Both / And” kind of person rather than an “Either / Or” when it comes to drills, patterns etc. I've seen great (by that I mean functional) practitioners of both methods and others that were not so much. I believe that the essential model of each method can produce great skill and of course each have their pathologies as well. Some students, teachers, learning situations etc. seem to be better suited to one or the other. Of course, with Sonny saying what he said to you – I can see why you will never teach with pre-set drills and patterns. Such as it should be. As an aside – how do you square your feelings about pre-set patterns and drills with your practice of Ba Gua (and possibly Xing Yi as I'm not sure you practice that as well)? Do you feel that perhaps those arts have a different telos than your Eskrima?

Unknown said...

Second what Jake says about Thorton's talks on "aliveness" but see the need to use patterns only long enough until the student gets the concept and then stop the pattern. Seems a lot of people learn within structures that they can relate to, then show them that they innately grasp the concept/technique, and move on by imbedding the concept in open play.

Mike Panian said...

I agree with the value you place on random flow and on learning through chaotic experiences.

For several reasons I see the value in patterns. I am not sure that the study of patterns per se is a limitation to adaptability. I have met too many formidable people who engage in doing patterns. Your teacher Lou de xiu is one of them. I have also met many people who blindly follow patterns and I do not like what I see. Its very easy to lose it in forms.

I spent a lot of time in isolated situations. When there was no one around, I used the forms to practice and at times intensely. I would get ideas and then go test them in sparring and in other situations.

I was taught to question everything. Never for one moment did I think that going through a kata taught me enough about application nor did I think that the forms were un-adulterated. In fact in most cases I think that the forms were extremely altered over time and by slow misunderstandings of teachers as they were passed on.

I have watched several teachers, old seniors, try to create forms as a way to try to pass on something to students. Watching that, I became aware of just how difficult it is to capture the essence of what the teacher was trying to impart. That stuff, the same stuff that I think you got from Sonny is not something that can be manifested in a pattern. To try to capture that in a form almost doesn't make sense.

It has to be about questioning everything in it. The myths, the history, the presumed applications, the structure, the context, the timing. Its nothing like a real fight nor do forms alone do much to develop adaptability or other things that real fighting requires.

But I think they inspired me when I didn't have anyone around to do so. I think they got me thinking. I think they honed my body and helped me develop suppleness.

After a long lay off and a serious injury doing kata brought me back. They have helped me get my mind straight and provided a small answer for what to do to stay in the game when you get way too old to roll around.

You can make an argument that there are ideas in the forms. I think that's true but I do not know if trying to pick martial tricks and paradigms out of culturally and teacher modified forms is all that efficient. They are a way to record movements though and within them there seems to be interesting stuff. And you know, there are some forms that seem to convey martial intent much better than others.

I have heard forms described as martial dance though some people who like them would maybe take that the wrong way, I do not mean that as a slight. I think they convey the culture, their own history, and the interpretation of the person doing them. That makes them interesting to me in that way alone. I like to dance.

FSD said...

I'll "third" Matt Thornton's aliveness approach, along with what he calls the "I Method". Actually, all of Matt's material is outstanding. Without alive/random training, it's highly unlikely a person will be able to deal with the chaos of a real attack.

However, I see great value in some use of prearranged patterns if (and this if is essential) they are composed of functional, realistic techniques and done at a realistic distance (normally dynamic). In my experience, in unattached "fighting", prearranged patterns are one of the only training methods that allow practitioners to go at 100% speed and power with very little chance of injury. When you train free flow, limited free flow, sparring, etc., you CANNOT train at 100% intensity without limiting techniques, using padded weapons, or constrictive training gear.

It could be Maija, that this was less important in what you trained with Sonny because with blade vs. blade the need for full intensity sparing is lessened. You don't need to strike with full power to cut someone. The importance of power is minimized in blade vs. blade, as you have noted previously.

This type of training is also unnecessary/unproductive in grappling based systems, as you can train clinch/ground at 100% or near that in sparring.

But again, with unattached "striking" based systems, and that includes "stick", prearranged patterns (and they can be of short duration) allow you to do something you can't safely do with random training. And that something, 100% intensity, is in my opinion a necessary experience, as a serious "fight" will be at 100% intensity.

Maija said...

Thanks for all the comments! I think I am going to write another blog post to address some of the things that have come up.
But for now, my question to those of you that think that pre arranged partner practices can be useful - Apart for FSD's thoughts that they allow 100% power/speed and intensity, any other potential reasons for them?

I have heard many times that they are "useful for beginners", and "they have their uses until the student gets the concept ..."

But what kinds of concepts are they getting? And why is it that the pattern is necessary to learn them?

FSD said...

I'd just like to add, that prearranged patterns are "dead patterns", as Matt Thornton would say. I think they are important, but of limited use.

I do not think they are ideal for beginners in the vast majority of cases. In my experience, people get stuck on the patterns, and they mistake the patterns for reality, when they should be done only to develop particular qualities.

For a beginner, I think it's much more important that they get a feel for the random, live, dynamic nature of "fighting", as quickly and early as possible.

Other than for 100% speed/power training in a safe way, I can't imagine a good case being made for prearranged patterns imparting concepts better than "live" training.

shugyosha said...


My "head instructor" structures his levels with a handful of techniques each, about 7 per colour. At least in my group, we basically only learn those techniques for the test. This does *not* mean that they're test-specific, it means that's a way to have something in common. Properly done, any technique will have the same principles. Having them in common is simply a way to have a movement standard and a principles guide.

*However*, it seems to be extraordinarily difficult for some people to "break" the technique. The only moment when you have to do it "exactly" as taught (if that), is during test. And then you'll have him teach something at a seminar, use that technique, or a variant, and people will start asking about the "choreography" [his words] instead of looking at the delivery mechanisms.

It seems to be extraordinarily diffcult for some people to flow, to adapt, to improvise. Techniques are a structure to ensure that you're teaching them the physics, that you embed them with something that, broken up, is still solid.

I'm not sure it works so much; I have the feeling that people either learn to deal with chaos or they don't learn the art, no matter how much they study those techniques. But... But maybe that "lower chaos" makes it easier for them to assimilate, little by little.

I still think some chaos should be introduced, even if separate from techniques, but... We're way too used to routine.

Unknown said...

As for what concepts do drills / patterns teach I would frame that within the overall idea that in any combative discipline practitioners are seeking the best answer to any given situation as it unfolds in symmetrical encounters (dueling) or asymmetrical ones (scenario type training). With that being said – I believe that drills / patterns teach key 'answers' to both certain situations as well as the way to answer how to get through ranges. Two caveats here: 1) My opinions are based on how I practice and teach the drills within Pekiti Tirsia and 2) I do not in any way believe that drill / pattern work is necessary. I believe that they are one method that people may prefer over a more 'free' approach.

Within single stick training as an example there are drills that teach very specific 'ideas' of both what to do in a certain situation as well as how to transition in and out of ranges. Once the pattern is learned an ever increasing element of 'play' is injected to cover as many variables as can occur. This same process is carried out over 6 major drills and then they are linked. Once this happens it's pretty much as free-form as one can get within the fixed ranges and meta-principles of the drill (i.e. - how do you close from medio to corto and get back out, how to deal with arcing and straight line thrusts, etc.).

Then we spar. What I've found is that people's reactions etc. are much 'cleaner' as they spar and they have some pretty solid skills in the free environment of sparring. I've never seen anyone try to do the whole drill or glitch because of an “ingrained” reaction due to drills in sparring.

Again, I do not think they are necessary. I believe both methods have merits and drawbacks and it comes down to individual proclivities and situations as to which method is best. The question of what concepts is a tough one to answer in a general idea of the method without dissecting one of the drills as an example of specific concepts. I apologize if this is scattered and may need some fleshing out as I've not really put my ideas about this method into some kind of coherent (I hope...) format other than general outlines etc.