Learning Guem Gang in lockdown

I’m a martial artist, a black belt in taekwondo. I can perform the core techniques, from foundation white belt kicks through to complex kicks which require balance, accuracy and power. I can spar up to three opponents simultaneously. I can also repel attacks to any part of my body with different self-defence techniques. My strength and agility is demonstrated through breaking boards with spinning and jumping kicks. I incorporate weapons into different routines, an element of show which calls on our dexterity.

It also means I can perform patterns—the complex dance-like, or choreographed, routines which the sport’s founders incorporated into the art to allow for a mock fight without injuring each other.  They comprise multiple steps of kicks, stances and hand techniques, moving  from left to right, forwards and backwards, turning and twisting. They must be performed perfectly to pass gradings. 

They are also incredibly hard for me to learn. I don’t think visually, or spatially. I have trouble recalling sequences—from street directions to recipes. I still make left and right-hand mistakes under pressure.

I learnt the first two black belt patterns in classes at my school, the Australian Martial Arts Academy, joining up with other students to go over them again. And again. And again. Even when they are embedded, they still require complete concentration—focusing on each turn or technique one by one through the sequence. 

Learning the third dan black belt pattern, Guem Gang, required something different. I, like most of NSW now, am in lockdown. We are supported by videos taking us step by step through the pattern but I didn’t know how hard I would find it translating those remote visuals. I would watch them, pause the video, step again, but it was incredibly frustrating not being able to retain more than a few steps in my head at once. Each move is, in itself, a complex combination of arms, legs, feet, head. I was trying to see the video over my shoulder, or from too far away. It was hard to resume after pausing mid-sequence, the pattern interrupted. I got the first 10 to 15 moves, but then couldn’t progress. 

But I am a writer of, among other things, technical, operational, instructional material. I had to write it out. I watched the videos again, pausing every few seconds to write down each move and its component parts: a stance, a turn, a direction. Then I recorded myself reading out those steps. I put in my AirPods and listened to the exact instructions, moving through the pattern. This helped me learn the intricacies of each step, but I forgot the sequence, the flow, as soon as I tried without the instructions. I needed to commit the moves to memory in a way that made sense to me.

I re-recorded it, this time counting before each move: one through to ten, again one to ten, and finally one to seven: all 27 moves. I practised again and finally, a breakthrough. I found I could remember the move that accompanied the number, for instance, crane stance was 8, 5, 8, and 5 again. We count the moves in class but I could only see how they fitted together when I wrote them down.

There were times I thought I’d never get it, and my ‘aha’ moment was only this afternoon, but I know the pieces have fallen into place. It’s another demonstration of the many different ways there are to learning the same thing and why technical writing is as much about understanding the user, as it is the system we are describing.

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