Insights and Training Tips from Tactical Arts


Insights from the Tactical Arts Academy
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Failing to Learn - How to Focus your Filipino Kali and Indonesian Silat Training for Success


Risk is required for learning. It is unavoidable. When practicing anything new, you must attempt to perform a movement before you have any experience with it. You repeatedly take the risk of making mistakes as you practice a technique. When you test a combination, a takedown or a disarming technique in sparring, you risk failing. Failing could mean you get hit, you lose a match or you just feel like an idiot when you mess up in front of everyone. The truth is, taking risks and learning through failure is the only path to mastering your skills.

Risk, Failure and Learning

You must focus on taking risk and making mistakes in training in order to learn and grow. If you do not attempt anything that challenges you, then you will miss the chance to expand your skills beyond your current level.

Failures are just as valuable as successes for increasing understanding. A scientist must test his theories and formulas to see what works and what fails. Through repeated experiments, he will learn what not to do and what to do to get the desired results. The same is true in your everyday Kali or Silat practice. You must test the boundaries of your skills and the limits of your techniques in order to gain a deeper knowledge of them.

Failures must be part of mindful practice and deliberate experimentation to have value. If you are not actively engaged in your practice sessions, you will miss many opportunities to learn and advance your skills. In order to learn, you must analyze what you are doing, reflect on it, and makes changes next time based on what you understand from that previous experience. If you do not observe the results and relate them to the changes you make, then you will have a hard time knowing what is working and what is not. Knowing the reason you failed will lead you to a solution.

Some people develop skills or achieve position through hard work and opportunity, but once they master those skills, they stop learning. They coast through the rest of their lives on those skills. To really excel, you must continue to take risks, meet failure, and work through it in order to learn and continue to grow.

How much Risk and Failure is needed for for Optimal Learning?

Authors Daniel Coyle and Chris Davidson present concepts for structuring learning that include practicing while in one of three psychological states or zones - the comfort zone, the challenge zone, and the panic zone. Those zones can be used to help you determine just how much risk and failure is needed for you to boost your learning curve, rather than tanking it.

comfort zone - In this zone, everything you practice feels easy. You are not practicing any skills that are outside or on the boundaries of your current abilities. You are not taking risks and you are not making many mistakes, if any. You know you are in this zone when you can perform a skill without paying attention to it.

challenge zone - In this zone, also known as the learning zone, you are performing correctly the majority of the time, but you are also regularly making mistakes. You are actively engaged in making corrections and you have to stay attentive to your performance in order to keep it from falling apart. You are having to reach to improve your performance, but you are not so overwhelmed that you cannot address your weaknesses.

panic zone - In this zone, you are failing the majority of the time. You are overwhelmed and possibly unable to figure out what is going wrong or how to address it. Perhaps the pace is faster than you can follow or you just do not have enough fundamental practice with the components involved to perform them correctly.

The challenge zone is the one in which you want to spend the majority of your time. Remember, the need to take risk and make corrections based on failed attempts is important to learning. Because of this, the challenge zone is best suited for learning, whereas the others are less conducive to promoting growth.

Training in the comfort zone may be good for a warmup or refresher, but it does not give you the opportunity to gain new insight or develop new skill. You are simply repeating something that you can already do well. The panic zone offers you plenty of mistakes, but you are not in a state where you can analyze and learn from them. Training in the panic zone can also lead to frustration and disappointment, both of which can hinder learning.

The three states are defined by the relative degree of challenge. Added intensity, pressure or difficulty can move you from the comfort zone to the challenge zone to the panic zone. As your skill develops, the amount of challenge required to get you out of your comfort zone may change, but all three states still exist. For an absolute beginner, the panic zone may come easy. Remember the first time you sparred? You just want enough challenge to get you out of your comfort zone, but not so much that you are in a panic, unable to respond or comprehend what is going on.

Imagine the three states as if they are measured by a meter that resembles a speedometer. As you accelerate from 0 MPH to 60 MPH, you are in the comfort zone. As you drive from 60 MPH to 80 MPH or so, you are in the challenge zone. Once you start hitting speeds like 95 MPH to 100 MPH you are in the panic zone.


How to Structure your Practice

You want to optimize your practice for learning, by spending the majority of your time in the challenge zone.

In your personal (solo) training, this means that you may practice a combination a little faster until you see where the coordination or fundamentals start to break down. You may speed up or hit harder while working on dummy targeting drill to see where your aim is off. You can then make corrections then push the speed or power further to see where you start having trouble again. When practicing, break your combination into small parts, fix any mistakes, then recombine the parts into the whole combination. Spend more time on your weaknesses and keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.

If you are coaching students or your training partners, you can gradually increase the difficulty of a feed or attack so that they stay challenged. In a reaction drill, you may start by making your feed obvious by loading a strike or exaggerating a movement so they see it early. As they improve, you can remove your preparatory or telegraphed movements, abbreviate the feeds, and / or strike faster and harder.

A rule of thumb for determining whether your partner is in the challenge zone, is that they are successful 60% to 80% of the time. If they are successful more often then that, then make it harder. If they are not successful at least 60% of the time, then make it easier. The level of challenge will change, but the percentage of challenge needed to stay in the zone will stay the same. This approach is especially useful for timing, speed and reaction drills.

How it Works

Since reaching is necessary to promote growth and understanding, you must constantly push yourself to struggle in order to get beyond your current capabilities. You must keep yourself challenged and operating at the threshold of your abilities. This is the point just before things completely break down. If you go to far past that threshold, you will enter the panic zone and have a lot of difficulty progressing. Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje calls this "training up to your level of incompetence." Once you reach it, you keep pushing it higher up.

As the intensity of your training is increased, the quality of your technique will break down. This is normal, but once your skill improves, then your performance catches up. After that, you add more intensity and continue. This is a process, and it takes time. However, the more you embrace the process and pay attention to your mistakes while making corrections, the faster it will go.

Final Thoughts

To really master Filipino Kali, Pencak Silat or any given art, you must remain a student for life. In doing so, you must focus on your weaknesses rather than your strengths. By addressing those weaknesses you will become much stronger overall and you will continue to progress.

There is no room for ego or fear in this method. Let go of being embarrassed by your mistakes. That will only hinder your growth. You are, in fact, brave if you are willing to fail in front of your peers, get up, and try again.

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