According to my research, it is not time practicing or repetitions that form muscle memory. It is two things: Taking enough time to do it right, and making sure you train every day.
That doesn’t mean I’m not going to put in time or reps. I’ve wrung four hours a day out of every schedule to make sure that, even if my theory is wrong, I’m still doing all I can to get ‘er done.
Also according to my research, muscle memory takes about three weeks to finish putting all the neural connections together. While I will have spent more than three weeks on the form before my test comes around (barely), I have less than two weeks to ensure that it snaps together like a Lego speed-building competition.
So, here’s the plan: flash Cards.
Yes, flash cards.
I’ve made flash cards of every pair of moves. The first is the draw and then pull back to chihasae. The second is the pull back to chihasae and the flick. The third is the flick and the falling cut. Then the falling cut and the turnaround.
This is more art than science. In haidong, it’s often hard to tell where one move ends and another begins. A flowy single move may be almost a combo; a combo almost a single move. But the actual breakdown doesn’t matter half so much as the fact that I have a breakdown.
Remember: memorization is faster and more efficient (and harder) if you rely on testing instead of review. With my cards, I can shuffle them, and learn them out of order. Each time I learn a card, I immediately test it, and then do something else. Then I test it again. Once I get it right, I get a scooby snack, put it at the back of the stack, and I move on to the next random card.
All told, because I do every pair of moves, I will ‘learn’ every move twice except the draw and put away.
But how can I test myself on a pair of moves? Aren’t they written right on the cards?
Well, in order to ensure that I’m testing the combo and not reviewing it, I need something for the other side of the card.
So I’m naming each combo.
Here’s the opening of Form Seven: Seizing the Charge becomes The Ebbing Tide. The Ebbing Tide becomes In the Shadow of the Mountain. In the Shadow of the Mountain becomes Unwinding the Clock. And so on.
That’s right. I’m turning my martial art into a parody of the epic series of novels starring Fantasy’s Whiniest Protagonist.
Studies on motor memory seem to agree that a physical technique should be learned in a ‘blocked’ environment. That is, same location, facing the same direction, and as little variation of stimuli as possible. This gets the moves wired into the brain much faster. Then, once you can replicate the move reliably, subsequent refinement works best in volatile environments. Practice in new locations, facing new directions, and with new distractions. This causes your brain to cut out the connections based on location and refine the techniques themselves. Accordingly, when I learn a combo, I try to do it and test it and do it and test it in one spot. Namely, my yard, at sunset.
Then, the next morning, after my brain has been given a chance to build the neural scaffolding via sleep, I take a walk to the park and test myself on each card in a couple of different locations.
There are even more tricks I use to reinforce the memories. On the back of each card, I have a simple discription of the combo, as well as notes on what I need to work on. But I also have a description of that section of a fight…
I’m up against a bunch of orcs. The first one charges me with his spear like he’s some kind of tumor-laden unicorn. I give him something to think about with my draw cut, and then ride his ebbing momentum back as if he’s pushing me with an imaginary bubble. My sword drops to chihasei because thats the closest ready I can get it to, and his surprised slow down isn’t going to last very long.
I bat his spear out of line as the tide of my stance rolls forward, past his spear tip, and into a short stance as I open his guts and seperate his pecks and deltoids from his left arm. He staggers back.
Yeesh. I thought he smelled bad before.
My moment of victory is all too short, as a shadow falls across me. I look behind me to get my bearings.
Holy… that thing is at least half troll! Is there anything orcs won’t futter?
The creature before me stands a good seven feet tall, and has gray-green skin. His tusks are cracked, and have yellow and rust-brown stains. Scars criss-cross his torso and arms. The arms are easily as thick as my torso, and he’s casually twirling a mace with a head bigger than my head in one hand.
I spin about just in time as Mount Orc twirls his mace at me. Even though he’s holding the thing one-handed, when it hits my parry I can feel it in my bones. It’s not fair! I definitely don’t want to block that thing again.
Too late. He’s using the momentum from the impact to bring his mace around to the other side. There’s no real time to dodge this one. Fortunately, the impact imparted some momentum to my weapon too. Lucky me, I guess. I step back, throwing some force into my next block. The spiked, watermelon sized ball of the mace, stops inches away from my cheek.
The orc decides he’s done with momentum and twirling and decides to try economy of motion intead. His mace plunges down at my foot. I pull the foot back and try to ignore the the resulting chips of stone, which fly from the impact crater and shower my torso.
His mace is down, but I can’t ignore it to go after it, so I scoop up his weapon on my own blade, heave it up and try to toss it over his head.
In retrospect, that was probably a bad plan. But it works: He’s thrown off balance by the weight of his weapon. Before tall, dark, and ugly gets a chance to recover, I scoot forward, aiming to give him a new scar for his collection. Hopefully, his last…
Violent, lurid imagery helps with memorization. Even if I can’t get to the point of seeing the fight in time for my demonstration, every time I look at a card and visualize the fight in my minds eye, I reinforce the nueural connections I need to lock the motions in.
Okay, so we’ve come to the final point of this post. Why use flash cards anyway? Why not just work the whole fight, move by move? And for heaven’s sakes, why learn the moves out of order?
Remember, I’m trying to beat research that shows that even with optimal training, I may only, if I’m incredibly lucky, just barely make the connections in time for my demo. There are many things working in my favor, though: first, most of the moves are things we practice elsewhere, so the process of learning the form is really the process of chunking (that is, when your brain, in order to keep things simple, turns multiple related bits of memory into a single chunk).
See, the average human, regardless of other intelligence measures like I.Q., can only hold about four things in active memory at one time. In order to hold more than four, your brain has to say, “this group of things always go together, so I’m going to keep them all in the same slot.”
By doing the moves and transitions seperately, I allow myself to slow down. Do the move right. get it right every time, instead of rushing through, desperately trying to call up the next move. get the moves right to form the right connections. I do it in small pieces because I’m taking three things at a time: Move 1, Transition, Move 2. By taking things three at a time, I reserve space in active memory, (so my theory goes) for the brain to build that combo into a chunk.
I have the sequence of moves itself down, though my recall on it is still a bit herky-jerky. Each combo I practice in a ‘blocked’ situation, and then in increasingly volatile situations, is simultaneously practicing the whole of the form in a volatile situation.
Finally, the brain learns best when you alternate between different things, allowing your diffuse thinking to form intuitive connections while your focused thinking is on something else. I’m trying to cheat the process by turning a single thing into different things, so that while I’m doing Unwinding the Clock, my brain is tightening up the screws on The Ebbing Tide, thereby engaging the most efficient neural systems while taking on an intrinsically inefficient task.