Attributes, Techniques, and Skills

One thing I think is essential in training is understanding what each part of your practice is for. What is the goal? Being vague here doesn’t help. For example, doing 1000 punches in shiko dachi to “make you more powerful” is fine, but it might be helpful to define exactly what “more powerful” means. Better able to stay in shiko dachi? It will do that. Better able to hit hard? It might do that, but probably won’t. Better lactate tolerance? Probably better ways to do that. Stronger legs? Ok but again there are better ways to do that. Increased mental endurance. Sure. You get the point. Being clear about what your goals are and how you define them is essential. When I look at elements of my training I tend to put them into one of three categories, based on what their primary goal is: Attributes, Techniques, and Skills. 

Attributes are intrinsic elements of the practitioner. They might include speed, aerobic endurance, physical strength, flexibility, ability to generate martial power (fajiang or atifa), ability to take a hit/body conditioning, fundamental mechanics, use of peripheral vision, and so on. They may also include understanding of the principles of the system (theory), knowledge of where to hit and how things like joints work, and other non-physical attributes like fudoshin. These attributes can often be trained alone, as solo drills. They help form the “engine” as it were, or the martial body-mind appropriate for the art you practice. Training like calisthenics, basic movements, bag or makiwara work, hojo undo, paired conditioning drills, meditation, reading and other study, and so on are some methods for developing your attributes.

Techniques are exactly that. Specific martial applications. For example a kote gaeshi, or seio nage. This category would also include things like tenshin, interactive blocks and strikes, ukemi, throws, kansetsu or shime waza, or how to resist, absorb, or apply specific pressures. Training technique usually requires a partner, as the point is learning how to do specific things with an opponent. Some aspects of technique can also be trained in solo kata or on a bag, training dummy or with other training tools. Drills like any sort of pre-set bunkai, uchikomi, yakusoku kumite, various “lock flow” drills, many types of kakie, and so on are primarily technique training.

Skills are the means by which attributes are used to apply techniques. These are things like understanding timing, controlling space, and taking and maintaining the opponent’s balance, hitting with power on target on a resisting opponent while moving. Things like being aggressive (in intent, not emotionally), controlling fear, zanshin, ability to observe, and so on are also skills. For example, being strong and able to do a perfect kataguruma isn’t helpful unless you can take a resistant opponent, protect yourself from their attacks, feel openings and options, and get them and you in a position where you can use that strength to apply the kataguruma. Training skills requires a partner, someone who also understands what you are doing in training and why. You have to know what skills you are working on and what aspects of the training methods you are using are the “fiction” that allows you to train that skill, or set of skills, safely but thoroughly. Training methods like some forms of pushing hands practice/kakie or sensitivity training, many forms of randori, and other free or semi-free practice are often skill training. Pre-set two person work can also be skill training if it is designed and done that way (harder than it sounds and somewhat rare in the Okinawan arts).

Of course there is overlap between these categories, and many training methods will cover more than just one. The important thing, I believe, is understanding your goals, and then understanding how what you are training helps you meet them. If you don’t really understand what your practices are supposed to do, you can’t monitor and adjust when you are doing them incorrectly. For example, if  you think the purpose of a bunkai is to teach you to do a certain technique but don’t know what skills it is reinforcing you might not notice if you are starting out of range, not attacking into range, or waiting with your arms out for  your partner to apply the technique. These might actually be OK ways to train, if you understand what is happening and why- for example it is silly to try to learn a throw with a partner who is always resisting you- but if you don’t clearly know why you are doing what you are doing it might just feel fast and strong and be reinforcing mistakes. And you may not be balancing with other methods that correct for these issues.

Creating a balance between these three categories is essential. You can’t use your skills if you are too weak, or don’t understand why they work. Your strength will be overwhelmed if you don’t have a good mastery of technique (just watch a good grappler dominate a physically strong beginner). Your speed and techniques will be useless if your opponent is constantly keeping you off balance, physically or mentally, or if you don’t have the engine or technical vocabulary to put them into effect. In my opinion one reason Kano’s students did so well against classical jujutsu players is that he took the excellent attribute and technique training from the classical systems and added a better approach to controlled skill development. Sure, his guys probably lost something in the process, perhaps a toolbox that included the more damaging techniques, but since they were working in an environment where killing or maiming the opponent was a negative result, this didn’t matter. And the skills developed worked. (It definitely helped that many of his guys also already had a strong background in classical jujutsu, a case of adding to not instead of…)

It is easy to focus too much on one category of training. You might like it more. It might be easier. It might be more fun. And for an instructor, you might want to work on your weaknesses, not realizing your students need more focus on other things, or just have something you are into. In my experience attribute and technique training are usually the biggest emphasis in most “traditional” dojo. Physical training (calesthenics, weight training, hojo or junbi undo, etc.), basics, kata, pre-set bunkai and various things of this sort. They are easier to control and generate clearer results. What results? Fitness, some basic skills, and memorization of the curriculum. But an over emphasis on attributes can also lead to demanding training that results in possibly strong/fit people with mediocre mechanics or limited skills. Since physical attributes can cover for some of this, people training might not even notice. An over focus on technique on the other hand can easily result in people in poor shape or unable to take a hit doing lots of forms and “cool” applications like throws, striking combinations, or joint locks, often against unresisting usually out of range opponents. Plus, of course, having a curriculum down. Feels cool but lacks meat, as it were.

Skill training is a little harder to measure sometimes. You have to be clear what you are measuring before you start, create a metric as it were. Competition can create a way to judge who in that environment is developing, depending on how it is done. However in competitive environments I often see an emphasis on specific attributes and very specific skills, the ones most pertinent to that particular brand of competition. (I also see selection for those attributes, instead of skill development, but that is a different discussion.) Attributes can often make up for technique and skill- if you are strong and fast enough that throw is likely to work even if you are not quite lined up properly. They also are essential- if you don’t have the necessary endurance you will lose. At the same time certain specific skills are really useful in specific environments but can be detrimental in others (think about the overextension and lack of ability to take a hit often seen in point fighting; that would get you crushed if your opponent could grapple). An overemphasis on skills is like coming out to spar or roll but not spending time training techniques or working out- you might get good at what you know but may not know why, probably have a pretty limited repertoire, may not know what to do against someone with equal skill, and might lack the engine to get things to work. And over focus on skills can lead to my favorite martial trap, the technique of no technique- being able to move easily through a lot of somewhat fuzzy applications but not really knowing why they work, and not knowing when to stop and finish. It is like an OODA loop stuck in D.

Everyone has their problems. My training needs work, constantly. There are lots of way to break down your practice, and if you are paying attention it is likely you will have to constantly re-adjust to work on whatever you have been lacking lately. I have found that in doing so having a better sense of what I am training when I am training, what the precise result of that practice is, is one way to keep myself on track. This is very different to a subject list. That might be there as well, but doing xx kata or bunkai doesn’t, by itself, tell me anything about what attributes, techniques, or skills doing that is developing (if any). And in the end it is being able to use the system that is important, not just if you have it memorized, so it seems important to me to know just what it is I’m doing with my time.

2 thoughts on “Attributes, Techniques, and Skills

  1. Ha puesto nombre a mi forma de entrenar y enseñar. Cree que su tesis podría definir la diferencia entre do y jutsu?

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    • Hello Angel, my apologies for not replying in Spanish! While I know that the do/jutsu comparison is pretty popular in the West, I think Donn Draeger did us all a disservice to make it seem so clear a distinction in his writings. My experience is that many people use the words interchangeably in Japan/Okinawa, or even more often apply personal or dojo-based meanings to them. For example, amongst many of Matayoshi sensei’s students I have heard it described as “jutsu is a single skill, so for example someone can be a master of bojutsu, but kobuDO is mastery of all the weapons and how they interact, not just of one or two”. The implication is that real combative ability is kobu do, not kobu jutsu. And then other times I have heard different definitions. 🙂 Of course the “traditional” idea that the difference is combative vs. sportive or social or spiritual focus is the most common, but while it has become popular for some to define their practice as, for example, karate jutsu, a somehow better or more ancient or more combative approach I simply think that is a distinction without a difference. It is a word, and I have seen equal variation in practice between groups using do and jutsu suffixes in Japan and Okinawa. So while it is possible this thesis could form one distinction between do and jutsu, I am not sure exactly how I would define those terms to then define the distinction. I would be more likely to try to define differences in training due to a sportive vs. PE vs. combative vs. social focus, but honestly I think most people and most dojo (and most teachers) go through different phases of these things, and that (perhaps sportive aside) that has always been a feature of the Okinawan arts, so again I find the do/jutsu dichotomy not very useful in describing most practice, historical or current. Was that wordy enough? 🙂 Not so helpful, but I think looking at what your drills/kata/exercises are doing on a variety of levels is essential in your training. How they are done will shape your practice and ability, and not understanding them well will mean that process of shaping will be at least somewhat random.

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