I was hunting around on youtube the other day and came across a video in which a self-proclaimed expert demonstrated a defense against a choke hold from behind. He deftly disengaged himself from the hold, applied a wrist lock and then threw his opponent into a dramatic roll/fall. Impressive. Spend even a few minutes on youtube and you will find hundreds of such videos. Spend a lot of time, like I have, and you will find thousands. There is more information on martial arts available these days than at any time before in history. And yet, despite all of it, most would agree that the best way to learn is the way we always have; first hand, from an instructor. Martial arts have very high levels of complexity and subtlety, qualities that are hard to convey in books and videos. The longer you train the more subtle and complex things become. But this does not mean that in order to be serious we have to swear off all videos completely. We just need to look at the ways they can be used for the greatest good.

Let’s start with youtube and, for that matter, all video presentations. If the presenter is someone you have worked with personally, such as your sensei, it is reasonable to assume that the video is primarily for reinforcing lessons already taught. However, if the material is by someone you don’t know, here are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, you cannot really learn this way unless you have a framework for understanding what is being shown. For this reason, videos are best watched with an open mind but through the lens of your own art. Do not try and learn a complicated wushu routine from a tape when your primary focus is karate. Do not “add” a jujitsu take-down you saw on youtube to your taekwon-do training. Instead, focus on the fundamentals being presented and look for ways they can be applied in your own martial art.

There are many benefits to viewing video this way. Given that you don’t know the presenter, you also don’t know the depth of their knowledge. No matter how good a technique looks, you cannot judge whether it will work or not by watching a video. Often the uke is complicit in making the movements look effective and if she simply put up a modicum of resistance, the presenter would face difficulty. However, underlying even a badly presented technique may be certain fundamentals that you can recognize. How has the presenter shifted his body weight. How has he manipulated the balance of his opponent.  Consider his timing, speed, and how much he depended on strength or agility. Now look at your own versions of similar exercises. Are there aspects of your training that you can improve based on what you saw? Does the video reinforce fundamentals you already have learned but are not using? And if what is presented lacks fundamentals and cannot be made to work, do you have the skills already to improve on what you saw?

The truth is that we often miss mistakes in our own training because we are not able to step outside ourselves and look in. The movements “feel” right so we do them almost unconsciously. Even when we are training with fellow students in a dojo, these mistakes can be missed. But, when you watch someone entirely different, you see unexpected issues with how they move. The key is not to sit back and judge. The key is to look hard at yourself and recognize when you are making the same mistakes. I have been corrected for the same mistakes many times by my instructors. But in many cases I have made the changes only after they were presented to me in a very different context. Video can be that change of context.

I believe that you can learn from almost anything and anyone if you focus on interpreting what you see through a knowledge-base you trust. I intend to post youtube videos on this blog so that I can demonstrate some of the specifics of this type of interpretation so stay tuned. In the meantime, if you need some inspiration to train, watch some movies.

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