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Screenshot of part of flow drill #5 illustrating a defense against a #5 poke.

There are some in the FMA community who argue against set patterns believing that dynamism does not come out of set patterns, whether it be a form/kata/or anyos or flow drills. The thinking is that time would be better spent giving students problems to solve and figure things out on a trial and error basis.  According to them, you should spend more time on teaching problem solving than on adjusting the student’s stance, hand position, footwork, and structure in order to optimize their technique. This line of thinking has a certain amount of appeal. However, I believe this works only for those who have gained an understanding of basic principles and concepts of the art they are learning and have the requisite skill level to execute any technique at any given time.

How do you become formless?

I think that you need to start with forms in order to become formless and acquire the skill to be able to move and counter without thought. In my case, I teach a series of continuous give and take cane flow drills to my students. They are designed to teach the major concepts of Modern Arnis in a step by step fashion. While they are prearranged flow patterns and not necessarily THE flow itself, they do teach the student the essentials of the flow.

While each student is different, I generally teach a progression when working with them. I start with basics before teaching the flow drills. Once they have a basic understanding of the flow drills, I then start with some basic progressions involving either the basic drills and/or the variations. For example, last week, I taught the 5th flow drill (palis palis against angle #1) to one of my private clients. I then taught the 1st and 2nd variation of this flow drill. Once he got the basic flow drill and the two variations, we then stacked these drills together, first in order, and then in random order but in a continuous flow. Was it random play? Not by a long shot. It was not true random play but it was an introduction to random play within a very tight set of parameters.

On Saturday, I taught the same private client the 6th flow drill (palis palis against angle #2) as well the two variations. Like last week, we then combined the basic drill and the two variations and played only with these three in semi-random fashion. There is enough variety in the three drills to keep you on your toes.

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Palis palis against angle 2 in flow drill #6.

I then combined the 5th flow drill with the 6th flow drill and their variations (for a total of 6). We were then working on palis palis both against angles 1 and 2. The client’s job was to spot the appropriate times to execute the palis palis technique and respond accordingly. The space for randomness expanded due to the increased number and variety of drills but was still within the parameters of the two basic flow drills. With the expansion in the randomness comes an increased number of errors. These errors can range from a momentary freeze, improper body structure, erroneous footwork, lack of relaxation and a whole host of other errors.

As you can see, I like to start with the basic flow drills and then move on to the variations and then, as appropriate, stack the progressions in a variety of ways. In this way, you can really work on your skills with a certain amount of randomness inserted. With twenty basic flow drills and two variations each, there is certainly quite a few possibilities in terms of mixing and matching the drills and the variations for years to come.

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A quick and dirty list of the kinds of progressions that I’m considering. Came up with it last night.

In this way, set patterns slowly dissolve into formlessness and uncertainty as the student gains experience and increase their skill level as they start to understand the flow drills. The prearranged flow then begin to approximate the real flow.

In summary, I believe that it is much more beneficial for a student to start with set patterns before getting into counter for counter random play and learning how to deal with the uncertainty of a partner’s movements. Predictability slowly becomes unpredictable. With practice, that unpredictability hopefully will revert back to predictability as the practitioner begins to recognize patterns in the chaos. I do not think that, unless a student already has substantial experience, that it would be ideal to take a student and expect them to engage in problem solving without an introduction to the basic skills and movement of the art. How do you become formless? I think that you need to start with form or in my case, with the flow drills.

Over to you, what are your thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “Evolving from Set Patterns

  • July 27, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    I’ve always thought that I’m primarily a visual learner, but I’ve had to revise that lately. I’ve been suspecting my kinesthetic preference for the last month as I’ve begun moving beyond what I once learned as a teenager. In the absence of a training buddy I can make do with kata (forms) and drills. I need that physical framework for my foundation. Katas are my “textbooks.” Practicing kata on my own with no one to count for me helps me think about the rhythm and timing of a real fight. Then I take that knowledge and experiment with it during sparring πŸ™‚ Flow (the Karate version of flow, LOL) still eludes me 99% of the time, but that 1% feels wonderful πŸ™‚

    • July 27, 2015 at 1:09 pm

      Awesome! Keep up the hard work and you’re going to get more of that elusive flow! Took me years to get it! πŸ™‚ Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Joelle!

  • April 2, 2019 at 10:10 am

    I agree. A foundation of movements and skills must be established before we can venture out and free flow in any area of martial arts. We all had to learn how to crawl before we learned to walk and then run. Something as simple as block, check and counter, is made up of three distinct parts and each has to be learned separately, then blended into a single continuous pattern of movements. Once the pattern is understood and easily performed, then variations are possible and can be done, even if unepectedly.


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