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How to Learn Forms

Yesterday I was asked an interesting question: what do you think about when learning a new form? I was a little puzzled but also intrigued, having never given that part of the process much thought. The answer seems easy enough: listen carefully, pay attention to details, ask questions when given the opportunity. Practice a lot, then rinse-repeat for the rest of your life. And that’s how you learn a form.

As with most fundamental questions (also known as the best questions) it became more interesting the more I thought about it. What are those steps actually like? The answer probably evolves for most people as they gain experience in martial arts training, but there are also probably many commonalities—much as if you ask ten Zen masters how to become enlightened, more than half might very well say: “Just sit, that’s all.”

In the rest of this post, I’ll skip some of the more obvious steps that many instructors might offer, and share a few more personal observations, in no particular order of importance, about how my individual thought process works at this stage of my martial practice.

    Just as someone who has learned several languages, or has studied the history and science of language, someone who has learned many forms often finds it easier to learn new ones. Because there’s a basic vocabulary of Tae Kwon Do techniques, a big part of learning forms is seeing a) the pattern/shape it makes on the floor, and b) the correct sequence of techniques—most of which are familiar from other forms or drills. It’s like assembling something new out of the same well worn Lego blocks. That said, each form also includes a sequence or signature motion that makes it radically and unforgettably distinctive. Noting where the familiar intersects with the novel can be a good point of entry for remembering the sequences that are the foundation of understanding. Just as it’s easier to learn Spanish and Italian if you already know French, understanding the building blocks of forms helps make remembering the outward motions easier.
    When some people find themselves awake in the middle of the night, they count sheep. If I can’t fall asleep after 15 minutes or so, I often think about doing forms. It’s a win-win. Sometimes I fall asleep from the slow, methodical repetition. If I don’t fall asleep, visualizing the motions as clearly and thoroughly as possible helps them sink deeper into my muscles, nerves, mind, and spirit. This kind of visualization can be almost as useful as actual physical practice in developing an unconscious understanding of the form. I was discussing this with one of our school’s instructors, who is also a PhD candidate in kinesiology, and she said a phenomenon called “neural drive” is partly responsible. 1 Because thinking about doing physical actions triggers some of the neural processes used to actually make muscles move, it’s possible to do some of the components of training on an actual physical/biological level without actually moving. As a secondary but related phenomenon, I remember the first time I realized—with amazement, somewhere around 2:00 in the morning—something that I’ve subsequently experienced several more times: through mindful visualization, I’ve actually noticed flaws that I wasn’t aware of when physically performing the techniques. This seems so strange. . . but it’s true. Through a strong connection between mind and body, this kind of insight is possible while lying flat on one’s back. It’s then a simple matter to address and correct these flaws later when actually training in the dojang.
    When the techniques, footwork, tempo, energy, and other expressive elements of a form are unconscious, that’s when it becomes possible to start really understanding it. How do you know when a form is really becoming unconscious? One test is to deprive yourself of the visual landmarks you’re accustomed to seeing while executing a form. If you always face the front of the dojang, you may find yourself disoriented if you turn to face the left wall. You may not even be aware of this, but when you don’t see a particular brick in the wall, or a space between mirrors, or whatever cue your mind locks onto to let you know you’ve turned 90 degrees, you may suddenly freeze. This is a clear sign that you’re relying on things that are external, and that a form hasn’t fully implanted itself in your mind and spirit. Most people rely heavily on visual cues and stimuli when learning, and this may be helpful over the short term but can be an unreliable crutch later. A few months ago, I attended a Tae Kwon Do seminar in which the instructor taught five different forms over the course of about 3.5 hours of training. I was fairly familiar with one of the forms, had learned a variant of one of the others (just similar enough to be confusing), and had no exposure whatsoever to the other three. My poor brain was overwhelmed by the effort of trying to remember and make sense of that much material. Over the first few weeks, I practiced all of the new forms many times—not even trying to perfect them, but just repeating them again and again to try to make them stick—so I could refine them later. At one point, I realized that every time I got to a certain point in one of the forms, I had a very clear mental image of being in the same dojang in New York where I’d learned the forms. I was in one place, but I could almost see and feel myself in another place. This mental image was oddly useful in serving as a reality check that I’d remembered the techniques correctly. At the same time, I had to admit that it meant I hadn’t internalized the knowledge, and I was relying on external illusions. As I continued to practice, I first made mental notes of all the places where the image flashed into my mind’s eye. With more repetitions of the form, I tried to detach in those moments and defocus my gaze, my thoughts, and simply be aware of my body, breath, and energy. This is a long, slow process, and with each step, true understanding of the form slowly replaces all the things that were only temporarily useful in a moment.

The above aren’t the only, the best, or perhaps even the most obvious steps to learning how to do a form well. What other processes are you aware of when you train, and how do these change over time?


1 I wanted to make sure my memory of the conversation about neural drive was accurate, so I asked our RVTKD instructor, Juli Averill, to fact-check it for me. She’s a doctoral candidate at UMASS Amherst, and she had this to say:

Suppose you want to perform a down block. For that movement to occur the (very simplified) pathway would begin in the neurons in the premotor cortex of the brain (where you think about/decide upon using a down block), the electrical activity would then travel to neurons in the motor cortex (which specifically encodes movement patterns), then the signal would travel down the spinal cord out the long peripheral nerves (like neuron highways) to excite the specific muscles needed to contract or relax, allowing for you to perform down block.

Visualizing the movement while lying down or sitting would cause similar levels of electrical activity in the premotor and motor cortices of brain, and some of that increased electrical activity would make it down to the peripheral nerves causing  muscular excitation/relaxation even without moving. Your brain believes that you are performing the movement, so it will strengthen the neural pathways used to cause down block.

When you begin a workout program (we’ll use weight lifting for this example), in the first 3-4 weeks there is generally no increase in muscle size, even though you are able to increase the weight you can lift. The reason you can lift heavier weights is because of neural drive. Your brain and muscles have to adapt to the increasing weight, so each time a weight is lifted the neural pathways are becoming more effective. Increasing neural drive means that you increase the actual motor neuron diameter (allowing for faster electrical signaling) and are able to more effectively recruit different muscle fibers/muscle groups to work together to produce force. So your brain is always adapting to movement.

The strengthening of neural pathways while visualizing down block occurs over time because you are increasing neural drive.

If you find the above as fascinating as I do, you might want to read this paper from a scientific journal (Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience), which discusses how neural drive could be used to train astronauts in some of the same ways I discuss above. (.pdf version, 188KB) 

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