What links mediocrity, technique and skill? Simple enough answer I suppose, not having enough technique or skill leads to mediocrity. But that’s not the point of todays article. Today is all about context. I have a very dear friend who, some years ago, was working quite hard to broaden his vocabulary. Every week or two he would add a new word he’d discovered or liked the sound of into everyday use and would make a real effort to use the new word in conversations as appropriate. At this time, I was driving for an hour to and from my club in Tipperary and to pass the time I’d often chat with my fellow coaches by phone on the way home. We’d share experiences, challenges and solutions we’d found, do a bit of moaning and plan big things. At some point, my friend was describing his session and how this student or that was really mediocre when it came to a particular exercise or discipline. I often would make suggestions, “have you tried this, I really think it helps” and he’d say yeah Ive been using that, he’s really mediocre at that too. This continued over a couple of conversations until he was describing a particular student I was familiar with, a guy who’d just won 1st Dan Patterns in the World Cup and was talking about how mediocre his pattern was. Silence on the phone for a moment as I figured out what to say next. “Buddy, either your standards are unattainably high or you’ve got mediocre mixed up with exceptional”.

Turns out, he’d heard the word used in much the same way as our conversation had gone, out of context. Without knowing the context for the use of the word it seemed a perfectly appropriate description, until it wasn’t. This is where I get to the point. Context is the difference between technique and skill. Technique is vocabulary. Skill is knowing when and where to say something, understanding how it will be received and the possible consequences (positive and negative) of saying your piece. Telling someone after a tough training session that they’re mediocre might be factually accurate but might earn you a punch in the nose! 

Let’s look at this through some sparring examples and we’ll see the importance of context in bridging the gap between technique and skill. You have a student who’s been training 6 months and you’re thinking about teaching back leg turning kick. As a technique you can focus on stance, preparation, delivery, tool, recovery, balance, guard etc. but what’s missing? I often tell my beginner students that back leg turning kicks give you a sore nose… By that I mean that they’re easily countered with a punch to the face while stepping in. That’s to discourage beginners from leading with a big swinging back leg shot, but out of context means nothing practical. A back leg turning kick is often a great finish to a combination, especially off a blitz. It’s also a wonderful shot to counter with or to lead an opponent onto as they circle. To explore the SKILL of back leg turning kick we have to focus on the When, Where, Why, Who etc.

So when we introduce a new technique we always put it in context, give it a name and set up the situation. This way, the student always has a mental picture of when the technique will be applied. As soon as the technique is grasped (not refined, not perfect) we create game like scenarios and increase the degrees of freedom or variations that have to be accounted for. This leads to the technique breaking down in the short term, but in the longer term means that the key points of performance are learned at the same time as the when, where, why and against whom/what. Mistakes are opportunities for learning and problem solving. As performance improves and the technique becomes successful more than 60% of the time we start to introduce higher levels of opposition or challenge until the success rate is between 50-60%. We learn best when the level of challenge is high but attainable. Too low and we become bored / complacent, too high and we become dejected / frustrated. 

We continue to layer different scenarios, challenges, psychological training, consequences etc onto the skill, aiming to provide repetition without the feel of repetition. We’re pushing to get the skill to the point where it can be performed under competitive pressure at the appropriate time and place through the application of better decision making. In this way, our athletes learn the language of sparring through immersion. They don’t study vocabulary and grammar for years then try to move to a new country, they learn enough to start a conversation and see where it takes them, adding further vocabulary and phrases, learning social context and culture, what’s funny and what’s offensive and they do it while enjoying the experience. The game is the teacher… start with the game. 





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