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Monday, August 28, 2017

Motivation, Martial Arts and Video Games

Remember in that last post when I said I once wrote and lost an essay about what martial arts has to do with video games?  Well, I found it.  I wasn't even looking for it.  But here it is, cleaned up a bit from its original form.  Enjoy!


Teaching Martial Arts and Making Video Games Aren’t All That Different (2011 Essay)

In 2005, I signed up at a new martial arts school shortly after starting a new job as a scripter and gameplay programmer at a video game company.  I spent my days crafting engaging gameplay experiences among young, eccentric and irreverent creative minds, and I spent my evenings sweating in the reserved structure of the taekwondo school.  At work I went out of my way to be just as irreverent as my coworkers, making sure use some spicy language for the benefit of a few coworkers who felt it necessary to curb their language and expression in my presence.  After work, I had to flip a switch and turn it all off to be respectful of the martial art and the dojang where I trained.  In the mornings, everything revolved around creativity and discarding old ideas just because they had been done before, but in the evenings old ideas were revered because they were traditional.  I felt like every day I was living in two separate worlds that couldn’t be more different.

Several years later, I find myself thinking the opposite.

The project I was working on at the time.

Despite the many and obvious differences, teaching a martial arts class and scripting a video game level are both done with a goal of providing a fun and rewarding experience.

What most people outside of the game industry don’t realize is that like martial arts classes, video game levels are also learning environments.  For each game on the shelves, the rules are slightly different.  Those rules need to be taught to the player, or the player cannot enjoy the game.  It must be obvious to the player that doing A will result in B. Since lengthy tutorials can be tedious and not fun, game developers find themselves in the same situation as martial arts instructors.  Material needs to be taught, and it has to be rewarding or the student/player will not continue.

The first game I ever worked on.  Let's just say it would be an example of something.

Immersyve, a consulting company that works with game developers (among other things), explains the psychology of what makes good games so engaging.  They point to three key factors:  autonomy, competence, and relatedness.  They argue that when players can direct themselves and make meaningful decisions (autonomy), play the game with a high degree of skill as taught by their earlier experience with the game (competence), and enjoy interaction beyond themselves either socially or within the fictional world (relatedness), the game is engaging and players will return again and again.

In Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink argues that whether we are in the workplace, at school, or in a recreational environment, we are most motivated when we have three key components:  autonomy, mastery and purpose.  He explains that when people are given the freedom to pursue things the way that they see fit (autonomy), can work toward being better at doing it (mastery), and are able to work toward something larger than themselves (purpose), they are most motivated and most productive.

Either that, or maybe it's cheesy corporate posters that motivate us.

While reading Drive, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity.  (It was no surprise to me when later I found that the minds behind Immersyve and Daniel Pink both cite the same sources in psychological literature.)  Moreover, I couldn’t help but think that it very accurately reflects my martial arts experience.

Autonomy is emphasized with every new open-world game that hits the shelves.  But when we think about martial arts, we usually think about discipline and rigid compliance over autonomy.  Even so, autonomy is successful in the dojang.  Allowing students to choose their own goals, whether it is a rank, or a trophy, or a fitness level, or whatever else, is much more motivating than goals that are imposed by an instructor. (Or a parent!  Great example of that here.)

On the other hand, mastery/competence is easy to see in both venues.  Doing something well, or even just getting better at doing it, is rewarding.  It’s true in practically every recreational activity in the world, but in martial arts, it’s not only true, it’s also often considered a particularly noble goal to do something well purely for the sake of doing it well.

Of course, getting a new belt is usually pretty cool, too.

As for purpose/relatedness, that is equally important to game developers and martial arts instructors.  Players and students want to feel like they have gained something for their efforts.  They want to be part of a community.  They want to believe that their time was well spent and the result has value.  This is much, much easier for martial arts instructors than it is for game developers, who are confined to virtual worlds.  But the idea is the same.

I find this stuff fascinating.  I hope some of you do, too.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Drumming Inspired Martial Arts Drills: Martial arts and Drumming Part III

This is the third and final part in the Martial Arts and Drumming series, which began with How to Teach or Learn Any Physical Skill and 11 Ways Drumming Can Improve Your Training.


To wrap up the Martial Arts and Drumming series, I'd like to share some training ideas that came out of this project. Some of these have very specific uses, but mostly you'll probably find the most value in them if your regular training starts to feel like a never-ending chore and you need to shake things up. Keep the fighting spirit! No one is holding you back! Train hard and have fun!

If you don't know how to read sheet music, it may be helpful to introduce yourself to the basics before getting too far into this section. As long as you know what quarter notes and eighth notes are, you should be fine for 90% of this. If those are nonsense terms to you, you may want to click here.

And if you're a drummer and not a martial artist, please, for the love of Lingadua, do not try any of these without an instructor who can teach you the proper technique. Injuries happen, and they are much, much more likely without the supervision of a qualified instructor. It is simply not possible for an online article to include everything you need to know to try it safely.

Ready?  Let's hit stuff.

1.  Kick to a Metronome 

Great for: balance, speed, agility, cardio, making your hip flexors cry.

First you will need a metronome app for your smart phone. This is my new favorite training tool. It is so much more useful than I ever would have guessed. If you want to go really old school, you could get an actual physical metronome, but with the quality free options available on any smart phone, I can't really recommend a physical one. I use Tempo Lite, but there are other good options out there.

Once you have a metronome on your phone, you can adjust the settings however you want, but try this to start. If you picked a different app it might not let you do exactly this, but do the best you can: 4/4 time signature, quarter notes, 130 bpm, with the first and third notes accented. Start with roundhouse kicks. On the accented notes, your kicking foot should touch the bag. On the regular notes, your foot should hit the floor. Adding a little hop between kicks can help you maintain your pace, and also help you stay light on your feet. Make sure your technique is correct (especially your pivot, as I have ranted about in the past), and be sure to do both sides.

One student commented that the metronome helped him stay light on his feet—something he has struggled with since white belt. He also seemed to be sweating a lot more than usual, and having a lot of fun.  For me, it's nice to have the metronome keep me honest when I start unconsciously slowing down, as tends to happen when fatigue sets in.

Metronome kicking drill at 130 beats per minute.

Variation #1: Set the metronome exactly the same except slow it down to about 60. Pivot (but don't hop) in between kicks. This is great for working your balance and control because it’s uncomfortably slow. If you just let your foot drop down to the floor, your foot will hit the floor too early and you'll lose the rhythm.

Metronome kicking drill at 60 beats per minute.

Variation #2: If you've got a good solid pad for this, go ahead and blast it. See if you can make the sound of your kick completely drown out the sound of the metronome.

Other variations on this drill—try different kicks, try adjusting the tempo, try going for longer or shorter amounts of time.  You should be able to go faster than 130 and slower than 60 to make it more challenging.  You can play with the settings on your metronome app to facilitate double kicks or kicking combinations. There are lots of possibilities here.

Technically you could instead kick to music, but the metronome is nice because you can set the tempo to be exactly what you need it to be. Then once you have it down, you can push the speed incrementally to make it more challenging. The other benefit is that with fewer sounds, there's less distraction and it's much easier to match your kick to the rhythm.

2.  Balance Work 

Great for: balance, strengthening your hips, making yourself feel better after how badly that last drill went.

If you're like me, the first time you tried that metronome drill at 130 bpm, you could only make it about 30 seconds before drifting off the beat. I was shocked that I was able to iron out my drumming technique and play to a metronome faster than I was able to reliably kick to a metronome. (I'm not really a drummer, I'm a martial artist who likes hitting things enough that it kind of bled over into owning a pair of drum sticks.) It came down to a balance problem. As I was kicking, when the smaller muscles that control balance became even a little bit fatigued, it took just a fraction of a second longer to push myself upright after kicking. It was subtle enough that I had never noticed it before in all my years of training, and in fact I thought my balance was pretty good. However, it wasn't good enough to do that metronome drill for very long. So I supplemented my training with these drills.

Most balance exercises involve just trying not to fall over from some unstable situation. That is certainly valuable for some things, but I needed balance while I was moving. These drills are modified from Loren W. Christensen's excellent Solo Training book, which really should already be in your library.

Balance work is really just picking a fight with gravity.

Start by lifting your leg into a roundhouse kick chambered position. Do it however your style suggests, but make sure your standing foot is pivoted correctly (please!). While in your chambered position, keep your eyes fixed on something that isn't moving. This will get your brain to help keep you steady, and you're going to need all the help you can get. With your leg off the ground chambered for roundhouse kick, shift your weight back and forth between the ball of the foot and the heel. Practice on both sides, and do each leg for 30 seconds to 1 minute at a time.

Variation #1: Lift your leg into a roundhouse kick chamber. Try to keep your raised leg perfectly still and move only your upper body by bending at the waist. Shift your upper body forward, then back to center, backward, then back to center, left, and back to center, right and back to center. Again, do each leg for 30 seconds to a minute at a time.

Variation #2: If these are too challenging, you can make it easier by putting your hand on the back of a chair or some other steady surface. Be sure not to put any weight onto it, just use it to help you keep your balance. Alternatively, you can just try to hold the position without moving your weight around. This is valuable but the goal here is to work the muscles that will pull you upright after you start to fall away from upright. Those muscles don't work as hard if you don't let your center of gravity move.

3. Experiment with Combinations

Great for... well, it depends.  

Go onto Google and search for "drum stick control combinations." You might get better mileage with an image search, but either way you'll get a dizzying number of results with various patterns of L's and R's written over and over again. Many of them are written with specific rhythms, but you can ignore that. Pick some combination of L's and R's, at random if you like. The nice thing about these combinations is they generally have a good balance of working your right and left side. (If you want to go crazy with it, much ado is made of this book, which consists of nothing but this.)

For this example, I'll use this combination:

R L R R    L R L L

I am told this is called a paradiddle, and I'm also told that there are rudiments called pataflafla and flamacue and sometimes even stranger sounding things, but I'm pretty sure this is just a joke that drummers play on the rest of us. I imagine them snickering to each other, "Heh, I got another one! She thinks a chumbly bumkinsteen is a real thing, and she's even going to put it in her blog!" Nice try, guys. Not falling for it.

But for now, we can work with this paradiddle thing. If you wanted to be a technically proficient drummer, you'd try to play those as evenly as possible, and I'd also recommend using drum sticks, but we're not going to do either of those things. Instead you're going to experiment with combinations that match our pattern of L's and R's. Don't try to match the suggested rhythm. Your rhythm needs to be dictated by the flow of whatever combination you choose.

If you're a beginner, any combination will do. If you're intermediate or advanced, try to choose a combination that makes sense for whatever your training focus is. If you're interested in tournament sparring, choose something that would score in the ring. If your focus is self defense, make sure your combination does damage efficiently. If you're practicing for show, choose something that is technically challenging and looks really cool. And so forth.

Variation #1:  Paradiddle for Light Contact Sparring

There are plenty of options here, but in this example, she uses a right punch, left punch, right kick, right kick. That fulfills the requirements of the drill, to use our R L R R stick combination. For bonus points, she's trying to craft a combination that will score in a light contact sparring match.  The first punch goes to the head, hopefully drawing her opponent's hands up and leaving the body open for the second punch. The two kicks go to the body and to the head in quick succession, since that can be difficult to defend against.

Paradiddle (RLRR) for light contact sparring.

Variation #2:  Paradiddle for Self Defense

Now the goal is to do damage.  The combination she opts for is a right hand palm strike to the face, maintaining contact while the left arm comes in with an elbow to the head. Still maintaining contact (this target doesn't have shoulders so you'll have to use your imagination) she drives two knees into the gut with the right leg.

Paradiddle (RLRR) for self defense.

Variation #3:  Paradiddle Just For Fun

This time she built a combination with no larger training goal in mind. The names of those kicks are different depending what style of martial art you practice, but you can see that she uses the same pattern--right foot, left foot, right foot, right foot.

Paradiddle (RLRR) just for fun.

The goal here is to explore outside of your go-to techniques and combinations (let's be honest, we all have our favorites) and to be more creative in your movement. Have fun with it!

4.  Play a Song

Great for: balance, control, speed, accuracy and timing.

Ready to go really nuts? Pick a song, preferably one where the drums are fairly simple. You'll probably have to slow it down a lot.  I don't care who you are, your hip is not going to be as fast as your wrist. And if your hip is as fast as a professional drummer's wrist, congratulations on medalling in every single event in the 2018 Olympics, and good luck with the PED scandals.  

Once you've got a song and a tempo you like, you can try to "play" it on martial arts equipment. Try to find a few things that sound different when you hit them.  I despise xray paper as a training tool, but I bought some for this project after grudgingly admitting that it makes a pretty cool sound when you hit it, and it's a very different sound than that oh-so-satisfying thump that comes from hitting most training pads. If you're hitting anything that was not designed as martial arts equipment, you probably want to wear shoes. Safety first, martial silliness second.

Insufferably silly drum cover! Stop laughing, it's harder than you think.

You will probably get more mileage out of this drill if you keep your contact light, but it will depend a lot on what you are hitting.  Trying to get a similar volume of sound out of your various targets is an excellent way to practice your control, to make sure you have the precision of movement to hit with the exact amount of force you intend.

Variation:  If trying a song is too intimidating, try a few combinations based on simple rhythms. Practically any sheet music will do.  Pick a measure and assign each note to a target, and strike the targets according to the measure's rhythm. (This would be one of those times where if you can't read sheet music, it might be helpful to get a quick and dirty introduction.) Use your metronome app to make sure you're keeping steady.  My students especially enjoyed this one.  Experiment with it and have fun!

5.  Your Turn

Great for: deeply understanding your art, having fun, crossing things off your bucket list.

This project has been incredibly rewarding on many levels. I learned to play the drums a little bit, and that's cool, but it's the smallest benefit of everything that came out of this. I met new people, challenged myself mentally in ways that helped me grow, came up with some drills that will help me be a better martial artist and a better instructor, and my understanding of rhythm as it pertains to martial arts has expanded so much that I can't believe I ever thought I knew anything about it.

So now it's your turn. Go try something. It can be anything, as long as it has nothing to do with martial arts and you've never done it before. Then look for the areas of overlap. Jesse Enkamp, the original Karate Nerd, says, "Sometimes it's important to look outside of karate to improve your karate. I have this philosophy that karate is like a mountain. … If you want to see your own mountain better, sometimes you have to climb the mountain next to your mountain. Looking from over here gives you perspective, meaning you see karate and its relationship to other stuff more clearly. … I try to connect the dots and see how this relates to what I'm doing, to give me new ideas and try to remix them into the karate mindset."

So what have you been meaning to try someday, but never did? Now you have the perfect excuse because it's part of your training. It really can be anything. I once wrote (and subsequently lost) an essay about how teaching martial arts was similar to making video games. How is martial arts like fishing? Writing a novel? Breeding cats? Juggling geese? I look forward to hearing everyone's adventures in bilingual slam poetry, geriatric skateboarding, aerial cello playing, x-treme crocheting, jetpack snorkeling, and whatever else you ever wanted to try.

How is making Internet memes like martial arts? Photo credit.

Seriously, go try something and tell me about it in the comments. I'd love to hear from you.