Whether you are a beginner or a long term student of Filipino Kali, you want the same thing: You want to improve your skills. Knowing the right path to follow for that purpose is very important. No matter what level you intend to reach, the path towards mastery is the best approach to improve your skills.
With the right effort, mastery is available for anyone who is dedicated. There are no special tricks, shortcuts, amulets or magic spells that will get you there. You just have to do the work. If you do the work long enough, and do it properly, you will first start to see glimpses of mastery. You will have moments of clarity and synchronicity that bring a sense of freedom from the intensity of concentration normally needed during your practice or application.
When you have reached mastery, you will no longer think about the specific mechanics of performing your techniques, you will think to use them, and they will simply happen. You will move cleanly, yet organically from technique to technique without leaving gaps in your transitions. You will know the strengths and weaknesses of your techniques and be prepared for any attack or counter. You will be able to anticipate the movements and responses of your opponents.
Mastery comes when you begin to synthesize your skills. Much of the initial work beforehand is fundamental. A strong foundation in the basics is the only way to really make progress to any level. After the fundamentals have been firmly developed, intermediate skills have are cultivated. After that, the advanced training that leads to mastery includes processing the many individual skills you have learned before into a cohesive network of skills. This network is a mental framework that serves to organize your knowledge in a war so that it is accessible. It is strengthened by the continued study and practice that you give to it.
This network of skills is supported by a few major categories or pillars of skills. These pillars can be thought of as meta skills. They are actually higher level skills that are above single techniques and tactics. These meta skills are comprised of many skills, some of which are largely physical and many of which are skills that rely more on astute observation, keen evaluation, and rapid decision making. Each represents an entire sub-network of skills that must be developed individually, then unified into the complete network you build over many years of training.
The concept of the categories discussed below come from Grand Tuhon Leo T. Gaje, Jr. of Pekiti Tirsia Kali. Grand Tuhon’s creativity with the English language surpasses mine, so for this article, I chose to use the words he uses, but define them in my own words, as I understand them. The three pillars are in the words of Grand Tuhon - functionality, operability, and non-counterability.
Pillar I - Functionality
Become technically functional. You must be able to perform the art and understand how the art works.
Become proficient in the physical skills needed to successfully perform Kali. Learn to function using the technical skills of the art. Develop the technical aspects that are necessary to physically do the techniques. Especially when you are first learning the art, you need to focus on developing functional skills in the art. This starts with body mechanics and movement.
Get the coordination down. Without that you cannot get anywhere. You will need to spend a great amount of time initially to develop your coordination. As you progress, you will spend less time on coordination and more time on other skill development. However, you cannot stop working on coordination. Your coordination will atrophy and lose it’s precision if you do not continue to tune and refresh it.
Practice until you move beyond needing conscious effort to hold together the proper form for your techniques. If you need to think about the details when you perform a movement in order to get it right, then it will not withstand the pressure needed to make it a reaction. Practice until having a conversation, answering questions or thinking of another topic will not interfere with your ability to properly perform your movements. Get those mechanics down. You will have to put a lot of concentration into your practice in order to get there, but it will come.
Understand and be able to perform the techniques and tactics of the art. Understand what each of your techniques do and when it is best to use them. Know the critical conditions required for success when applying each technique. Break down each of the techniques and practice each component with focus. Reassemble the components and practice the entire technique until any seams in the movement and pauses among the parts are removed. Drill the techniques until they feel very familiar and easy to recall, then keep drilling more.
Practice the primary techniques until they are automatic. In your training, you should more frequently have the experience of performing the right technique perfectly while not consciously thinking directly of the name, number, or sequence related to it. It should simply “come out.” This is not a state of blindness like your first time sparring. It is a reflection of the skills and techniques being so ingrained in your mind, that you can focus on your higher level tactics and strategy without needing bandwidth in your conscious mind for thinking about the specifics of the technique.
Be focused in your efforts to test, remediate and reinforce your technical skills. Test your skills under speed and pressure by using sparring and fragment drills that allow for chaos and pressure, but also allow you to focus on developing specific skills sets. Keep pushing to improve your technical ability. Find nuances in your techniques to enhance them. A slight change in grip or angle may make a huge difference in execution of the technique. You have to practice enough with focused attention to see that detail. Keep working to make your skills functional. Focus on application.
Pillar II - Operability
Internalize and connect your knowledge into a cohesive system. You must be able to access the skills and knowledge you have in an instant. You must be able to use the many tactics and techniques together.
Become seamless in your understanding and application of what you know. When your technical skills have developed to a high enough level, then you should learn to bridge all of your tactics and techniques together. You did not learn the techniques just to know and remember them individually, you must know how to pull them all together. You must coordinate your use of them together so that you can operate on a higher level. This means you should learn to connect your knowledge into a working system that will allow you to move from one tactic or technique to another without any gaps in the transition. When you do this, you become like a pianist or guitarist who no longer thinks about what his fingers are doing, he is focused on the music.
Be able to fluidly and seamlessly transition to and from the various techniques and tactics you have learned. Not only do you need to know the techniques, and understand the grammar of how they fit together, but also you need to be able to move from one to another smoothly. This starts with recognizing how the different techniques have connections, similarities and congruencies. You need to examine how you can mix and match the many setups, entries, and follow up attacks you know.
Study how the various parts connect. Practice the material and look for associations. There should be a logical relationship between the techniques you learn and what they are designed to address. Find reference positions or situations that recur frequently. Use these to help you chunk techniques that are related to each other through associations with that reference position.
Anytime you learn something new, find a way to assimilate it into what you already know. You will be able to assemble your system more quickly if you try to connect the material as soon as you learn it. The more you do this, the easier that process will be.
By training with the methods above, your mind will build a web of associations among all of your tactics and techniques that will allow you to access them on the fly. The number of situations that you may encounter in sparring or in a self defense encounter can be endless. Because of this, you need to be able navigate through a constantly changing scenario, while adapting to the situation as it unfolds. To do this, you need to have your system of methods, tactics, techniques mentally in order. When you have thoroughly cultivated this internal system or web, you will have access to the many techniques at your fingertips. You will be able to access them easily and in multiple situations. This is a result of repeatedly and deeply analyzing and practicing your techniques. The more connections you have in your web, the more efficient your access and use of them will be.
Organizing your thoughts in writing can help you internalize and organize your mental network of techniques better. Though much of your understanding will come from experimenting during sparring, flow drills and technical drills, you can help define your understanding by committing your thoughts to language. Even if you never read your notes again, start a log to help you organize and think.
Pillar III - Non-counterability
Become impenetrable through proactive application and deep understanding of your techniques. Understand the weaknesses of your techniques, and be prepared to respond to counter attacks at the most probable failure points. Know what your opponent can do and close the doors that would allow him access as soon as possible. If you are aware of the failure points in your techniques, you can take measure to minimize your exposure to them. Do this by analyzing your techniques as you train them.
Learn to see the many options available to you and your opponent. Don’t just look for what you already know, think differently. Think outside of your art. When you apply your thought this way, you will break free of limits created by your own knowledge. Instead of having a hard time finding an answer for a problem, you will see many possibilities. Instead of focusing your thinking on the problem, think about a solution that is beyond the parameters of the problem.
Get inside the mind of your opponent. Imagine what your opponent may do to counter your technique. Imagine that they are smart, courageous and well trained. Imagine they have experience. You must be prepared for someone who knows what they are doing, not just someone who is untrained. Try to imagine how they may evaluate your weaknesses and determine a plan of attack against you. Also, understand that your various opponents may have different temperaments and therefore may take different approaches than you. One may be aggressive and forceful, whereas another may keep more distance and try to bait you into overextending. If you can see things from your opponent’s mind, you will be able to find more significant details in your analysis.
Avoid an endless "what if" scenario. Start with most likely to happen and go from there. Your study must have substance and follow logical thought. Your chosen art may already provide many of these counters in your curriculum. Use those as a head start, and look for the logic behind them.
Apply the techniques that you know best. Use the techniques you have trained the most and know the best. Being really good at a few techniques is usually better than being average at many. By sticking to what you know best, you will be less likely to fail. You should have a set of techniques that you have identified as those that will give you the best chance of success.
Confound your opponent when there is a possible weakness in the execution of your technique for him to exploit. When you know there is a weakness, then you can do something to minimize the danger of it leading to a counter. Imagine you are taking your opponent down with a technique you have studied well. Because of your familiarity of the technique, you know that at a certain point during your execution of it, there is a potential window for him to escape or counter you. Be ready for that, and undermine that opportunity. Stun him right at or just before that time. Position yourself to make the escape or counter harder for him to do. Quickly push past that window where you are exposed, so the opportunity your opponent has to use it will not last. When you know your techniques well, you can minimize the possibility of your opponent countering you.
Vigilance in the study and planned execution of your techniques will make you hard to beat. Being proactive in preparing for possible counters will give you the closest thing to being untouchable. Do this and your defenses will be virtually impenetrable.
Prerequisites to mastery include receiving good instruction, actively seeking to learn, and dedicating time to development. Though there are otherwise many factors that go into mastering Filipino Kali, but the three categories above are some of the most significant.
Mastery is not a finish line, but a new beginning wherein you will transcend the very formulaic patterns you have used to get you there. You will sense a freedom that allows a new type of intelligence wherein rational analysis merges with informed intuition. Upon getting the first taste of mastery, you find that the interest and dedication to your chosen art will explode into a passion that will carry you for many years. This new appreciation will keep you motivated and therefore push you to continue to improve your capabilities. Not everyone has to master the art of Kali to benefit from it. However, following a path directed towards mastery will lead to the best rewards from the art.
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