This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Linda Eskin © 2013, all rights reserved.
During my time at each rank in Aikido I've focused more strongly on or two aspects of my training. When I was at 5th kyu it was being and direct without having to call forth anger to do so. At 4th kyu worked on staying relaxed. Now, having recently been promoted to kyu, one of the things I am focusing on is discovering how I learn, and supplementing my practice accordingly.
A little background…
When I was in school, ages ago, I tried to be a good student. I sat quietly, never ditched class or cheated, and at least tried to do my homework. But generally I hovered on the verge of failing when it came to testing and grades. A common admonition I heard from teachers was "You are one of the smartest kids in the class, you should be doing better than this. Work harder." Funny how that advice never helped.
In college things got worse. Finally, failing out of the Mechanical Engineering program, I switched my major to psychology. Lucky for me, the required classes for the major happened to include Cognitive Psychology, and Principles of Learning and Perception. When I applied what was taught in those classes to my own situation, my experience of school changed completely. Suddenly I was getting all A's, and making the Dean's list every semester!
Instead of just "working harder" I was focusing my efforts on memorizing and understanding both the details and the bigger picture, and working specifically on doing well on tests (which, it turns out, is a distinct skill from comprehending the material). Using effective strategies to assimilate the information made a huge difference in my learning and my success in school.
Preparing for my recent 1st kyu exam…
At the dojo, as in school, I try to be a good student. I show up on time, train with sincere interest, and help out where I can. But during the last few weeks of test preparation I started feeling panicky. There were techniques I just didn't know, and broad areas where I was really off - totally missing the point - like not taking my partner's balance, forgetting an atemi, trying to force a technique. I didn't feel ready.
I trained every day, and got lots of help from my friends and teachers. When we broke things down, looked at them in detail, and examined them step-by-step there were lots of great moments where I finally understood something I'd been doing (or failing to do) before. I improved on some points, but it became increasingly clear that I only had a tenuous grasp on much of it. The pre-exam run-throughs were depressing. I'd been training hard for over a year at 2nd kyu, but I felt like much of it simply hadn't sunk in.
As the day of my exam approached, I asked a friend about a detail of one of the techniques. "Sensei showed that during the workshop a few months ago," he said. I didn't even remember having seen it - it was one of many techniques that day - but he remembered exactly how it went. For his way of learning, that workshop was enough! He can see techniques, do them a few times, and he's got them. I think I was as surprised to hear that he could learn that way as he was to hear that I couldn't. It was an "aha" moment. I realized that I would need to begin "studying" a bit differently to learn as well as I hope to.
Exam day arrives…
At the lower ranks I was OK with thinking "Well, I'm just a beginner. I'll do what I can, and get back to training." But now… testing for the highest kyu rank, and with shodan on the far horizon I was starting to expect more of myself. When test day finally came I was unsure and flustered, and it showed. I did my best, and I passed, but I wasn't happy with my performance.
As Mark Rashid - the horse trainer who got me interested in Aikido in the first place - says, "Now you know how not to do it." Indeed.
I am taking the experience as an opportunity to examine how I learn, to figure out what I can do to get the most from my training, and to see how I can prepare better for future exams.
One of the things I've realized is that being told how to do a technique, seeing it demonstrated, and even trying it myself - even many times - doesn't at all ensure that I will learn it well. It may look familiar next time I see it, and I may be able to do it better each time, after remembering in fits and starts how it goes. I likely won't be able to do it well on the first try, and underlying principles may elude me. Clearly I need to add something to the way I train.
A good analogy is the way I learn song lyrics. Hearing a song, and even singing along with it many times, does not help me learn the lyrics well. I only really know a song after diligently working to learn it, bit by bit. I visualize scenes and the progression of the story (if it's a ballad), memorize meaningful phrases, study which line will be coming up next at the end of each verse, etc. I learn a few lines at a time, going over and over them in my mind, and eventually stringing them together into verses, and finally the whole song. Deeply understanding the meaning helps me, too. I once even took a semester-long course in steam engine operation so I could know what the lyrics of train songs were actually describing. I probably know hundreds of songs, and it's because I have consciously worked to memorize the words well enough to sing them correctly all the way through. It may take a while, but when I finally get it down I don't just kinda-sorta have it, I own it.
For people who can just hear a song a few times and remember it, this process must seem ridiculous. But it works for me - very active, deliberate, analytical learning, visualization, and memorization.
On the mat, I know I lose a lot of what's been presented. It's frustrating! I've often had the image in my mind - especially when a lot of information is coming at me at once, like at a seminar, or running through a lot of techniques in a row - of colorful balls of precious information rolling away, bouncing off down the street, rolling under things, out of sight, and out of reach. The more I try to carry in my arms, the more I drop. I had been thinking all along that everyone learned about like that - maybe getting it quicker or more slowly - remembering pieces here and there from each lesson. Eventually, with enough conscious and correct repetition, it would add up to knowing things pretty well. It never really occurred to me until talking to my friend that some others *do* actually grasp most of what was being taught in those situations!
Seeing patterns and connections is challenging for me. I have been known to completely miss seeing connections that may be obvious to others. I don't notice puns (even when I make them), and usually don't recognize symbolism in literature. I tend to see things literally, taking them at face value. Once a deeper meaning is pointed out, or I happen to stumble onto it, I get it. More frequently there is a soft wooshing sound as it soars over my head, unseen. Clearly, I need to put some attention on discovering these connections when I'm training. Why are these techniques being shown together? Is the sequence important? How are these techniques related to others? What is the underlying principle here? What is Sensei really teaching us through these techniques? Where is this applicable elsewhere in life?
I need to do the analytical work. Actually, when I first started training I did a lot of that, and it helped! At first I only went to class a time or two a week, but between classes I was reading, watching videos, writing notes about what we'd done in class, asking questions online, etc. That helped me learn how to see and make sense of what we were doing in class. It helped me understand the principles, biomechanics, perceptual issues, and so on behind the techniques. But in the past couple of years I've felt I had a better grasp on the basics - enough that just watching and doing should be enough. For some people it is. If you're one of them, more power to you. But for me that would be like listening to a CD over and over, and hoping that someday I would know all the songs. "Just train" is, for the way I learn, as useless an admonition as "work harder" was from my school days. I need to dig into the information, play with it, question it, and review it in order to fully understand and assimilate it.
I have said that knowledge gets into my brain via my hand - by writing it down. Taking notes helps me sort out what is important. So right after my 1st kyu exam I started keeping a training journal, and have been writing notes about what I've learned in each class. This has been a huge help so far. It lets me look at the bigger picture. It forces me to listen differently - consciously looking for what's important during class. Sensei might point out a broader meaning or principle behind the technique, and where in the past I would have missed that, now I'm listening for it. I often discover the connections, patterns, and relationships as I'm writing. It amazes me, even two or three days later, how much I can recall when I sit quietly and let it all pour out on paper - one thought leads to the next, and soon I can remember vivid details. I can include sketches or diagrams, and weeks later know exactly what I meant by them. By actively taking steps to remember the work, I find I'm remember and getting more out of each day's training.
Preparing for exams is another issue. In a typical class, Sensei or another instructor demonstrates the technique and mentions a few key points. We take a crack at it with our partners. Maybe after a few tries I will remember something that has clicked for me about the technique in the past. "Oh, right, this is that blend that feels like an aerobatic maneuver. I remember now!" It's like recalling a song only after someone hums the first few bars. But that's not how exams are conducted, and that's not how things work in the "real world." We need to be able to execute a technique or take action correctly the first time. I'm still working out how, maybe something as simple as flashcards and visualization, but I at least I know I need to work on that.
I do a lot of taking Aikido "off the mat," applying it in daily life, outside of the dojo. This experience is sort of the reverse - taking what I know about how I learn and applying that to my training. It's been an awakening of sorts, realizing that what I need may be very different from what someone else needs. What I've done so far has been very satisfying. Because I'm seeing in more detail and more depth, class is a richer experience. I don't have that dreadful feeling of those colorful balls rolling away, and I'm having a lot more fun training. Who knows, maybe I'll even feel ready for my next exam.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.