An Argument for Online Learning in the Martial Arts or
Why I like GEM’s Virtual Dojo
by Chris McKaskell Family Karate
Regardless of one’s chosen style, the study of Martial arts requires at its core an understanding of the physical vocabulary required to master a human body. Different disciplines require different physical vocabularies: Sports, for instance, uses techniques which have to do with the goals associated with a particular sport.
Typically winning is the goal, and winning often requires the control of other human bodies. For instance, hockey requires skill in skating and stick handling as they relate to maneuvering a puck around opponents, and, more often than not, potentially damaging body slams, called checks, are employed to control opposing team members. To be effective, hockey requires ways of moving with equipment, ways of managing a puck with a stick and ways of understanding how an opponent moves – all these elements form the physical vocabulary of hockey.
The goal of hockey is simply to shoot the puck into the other team’s net and, conversely, to prevent them from shooting it into yours. Like martial artists, hockey players train to control bodies. Unlike martial artists, damaging bodies is a risk, but it is not a goal. I had seen George Mattson’s webpage and had read his blurb about his ‘virtual dojo’, but the notion of a virtual dojo sounded slightly absurd given we study a physical vocabulary which requires us to actually cross hands in our training.
Still, I was active on the IUKF forum and on Rick Wilson’s practical defence site, and I had seen a great many very helpful videos along with useful commentary on each. Training online is not so far-fetched: thinking back, how many of us have figured things out for ourselves by watching and re-watching videos or old martial arts movies? Or by videotaping ourselves to catch the angles we can’t see watching our reflection in the mirror? Indeed, anyone who has used a video camera as a training tool knows that raw video doesn’t lie. I use my video camera in class often to show students what they are actually doing versus what they think they are doing. The exercise usually gets a light turning on somewhere and a sound not of exasperation, but one more of wonder as in, “Ahhhh, that’s not what it felt like I was doing!” Besides, video is one of the ways sports professional s hone their trade – why should martial artists be any different? With these thoughts in mind I decided to give George’s Virtual Dojo a try.
My student, Jim Siverns, was also interested so we both joined. Our first assignment was to send video recordings of ourselves performing Sanchin kata. Anyone reading here will likely have already performed Sanchin countless times alone and in groups receiving instruction under the supervision of teachers and senior students – and we all practice it pretty well, right? How could any of us improve our kata over the internet? Ha! At our first online meeting George played my kata fast and slow and with stop motion and he drew directions on the screen using a program designed for golfers (perhaps another sport) to help improve their swing and, by golly, he was able to break the entire thing down to show me quite clearly areas which really needed improvement.
It was fascinating! He would move through the footage (we had to send one recording from the front and one from the side) stopping it during transitions to show how out of balance we were on our turns and discussing how to improve; stopping it at the apex of a strike to show how much Jim’s arm was hyper-extending and discussing what that could do, over time, to the elbow joint; stopping partway through a step to show where the vulnerability was and discussing sweeps as they relate to footwork. We received a full hour of visual analysis in conversation with a man with more than fifty-five years’ experience teaching the style.
I admit I was taken aback by how much that first hour changed what we did. The next step was to run through a core course by watching four video ‘books’ and responding with our own videos depicting what we learned in the books. The books are focussed on basics – what George calls “core Uechi” and all looked pretty simple, but following the experience we had watching our Sanchin kata dissected, we weren’t fooled.
This took a few months, but George has everyone go through this four book process just to ensure we are all coming from the same basic foundation. After that things become customized to the individual.
There are two levels of membership in the virtual Dojo: one which gives access to George’s vast collection of videos, and one which also allows one monthly, online meeting with George. There is a blogging area as well, which is like a journal that allows the student to describe their training experience and understanding. George monitors these blogs and offers comments, often leading to lengthy conversations. He takes his work and the study of Uechi-ryu very seriously; he is supportive and generous with his time.
Many online students are Black belts and many are dojo owners themselves. Each enjoys personal access to the head of IUKF as well as their own customized training regimen. However, it’s still the beginning student George seems most interested in supporting. It is for these students that he recently re-launched the Virtual Dojo as www.athomekarate.com.
In a recent message to membership, George explained: “I created the website primarily for new students, although everyone should use the site as part of their training. New students will progress in a similar manner to the way they would progress in a physical dojo, using the courses offered in the left frame of the website as their guide.”
George Mattson has a pioneer’s work ethic and the instincts of a visionary. He is a fascinating man and his drive and generous nature has given us a number of things I think we may sometimes take for granted including our Uechi community. Contributions which stand out most:
1) The annual Summerfest is the oldest and for many years the largest gathering of its kind and still welcomes martial artists from all backgrounds;
2) uechi-ryu.com was the first website of its kind and still acts as a forum for martial artists from other styles to discuss….well, anything;
3) The Virtual dojo was the first of its kind also – growing out of a program from the 1980’s where George sent out monthly video tapes. These are just a few examples of the pioneering efforts which both created and today deepen the organization and study of Uechi-ryu. We benefit from these efforts as members of IUKF and its affiliates. Having visited some of the dojo I encountered on the website, I think I can safely say the organization acts as an anchor giving us all a foundation regardless of our views, beliefs or training focus.
I really enjoy being part of the Virtual Dojo because of the personalized instruction I receive, because of the conversation and camaraderie which arise and because I support the exploration of new ways of doing things.
The Virtual Dojo has students in Japan, Puerto Rico, England, Australia, Canada and The United States. It is a relatively simple and inexpensive way to gain access to the IUKF Grand Master without the expense of travel. The new frontier online is about testing and George has been experimenting with a variety of online platforms. One of Bill Glasheen’s students recently had three Black Belt candidates pass what is probably the first online Dan test. George has another one coming up with an isolated Virtual Dojo student who lacks a partner to train with. When asked about it George said, “it should be interesting.” I believe he enjoys the challenge new ventures present.
There has been much discussion about the efficacy of testing a student who lacks a partner and I can hardly wait to see how it turns out. And if anyone doubts the process, just remember that scouts often use video to select players, dancers use video to audition, engineers use it to study efficiency, police use video to solve crimes; and really, does anyone of us question Uechi Kanei’s mastery when they see him performing kata on the old film reels?