Monday, August 20, 2012

Skills Training and the Brain

Training a child to be broadly competent is useful for the child's confidence and later ability to solve novel problems. But what about more intense training for a deeper mastery? We have learned that it requires at least 10,000 hours of training to master a skill. Sometimes skills mastery requires between 10 to 20 years of intense, wisely directed practise.

Are there precautions we should take to protect the child from overdoing it?
Learning a new skill involves rewiring of the brain, a phenomenon called neural plasticity, the paper notes. For the new skill to persist, those brain changes must be stabilised or consolidated by being transferred from short-term memory and locked into long-term memory.

“If the information and/or neural changes are not adequately consolidated, then learning will be temporary or not occur at all,” the researchers say. Other research has found that lack of sleep, for example, can interfere with the consolidation process, as can trying to train for a second skill before the first one has properly sunk in.

“Many studies have shown that you don’t learn if you don’t sleep after a day of training,” says Dr Pearson. “Likewise, overtraining can reduce learning if you don’t allow time for consolidation.”

The researchers were specifically interested in the role played in learning by “waking consolidation” – that is, taking breaks during the training process. They recruited 31 students to learn a difficult computer task - tracking groups of moving dots disguised amid visual distractions on the screen. The subjects were divided into three groups, each of which was asked to learn the task in different ways.

On the first day, a control group spent one hour training and an overtraining group spent two hours non-stop at the task. A third group also trained for two hours, but with a one-hour break between sessions with subjects choosing their own activities – except sleep.

On the second day, it was found that the control group had mastered the task better than the overtraining group, despite training for only half the time. Likewise the waking consolidation group had also learnt better than the overtrainers, even though the two groups had spent the same total time training. _MedXpress
Study abstract Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences

The findings of the above study should be seen as suggestive rather than definitive. A few days of training on a computer task is not the same as a decade of training in a complex skill the comprises an untold number of sub-tasks which must be learned and integrated together.

But there are dangers in "overtraining." A fascinating neurological disorder known as focal dystonia can affect musicians who train beyond their brain's ability to integrate the training. In such cases, the brain can actually lose the ability to control fine motor movements of the fingers and hands. As one might imagine, this can be immensely frustrating and distressing to the budding young prodigy.

All of this suggests that regular rest periods, and a regular sleep schedule, should be integrated into all serious training regimens. But beyond that common sense advice, it also suggests that coaches, parents, and trainers need to be on the lookout for the analogs of "focal dystonia" in other areas of intense training.

Hard training is necessary for mastery of difficult skills, but so is smart training. Some children may opt for a course of training for reasons other than a genuine suitability and drive. Coaches need to detect when a child is not ready for intense training, or if the child's interest in the training is only superficial.

Besides the real physical and emotional risks of intense training, there is also the risk that a child may be sacrificing other potential avenues of competency or mastery which would be far more rewarding to the child.

That being said, one cannot overstate the inspirational impact of a true master. If the area of mastery is well chosen for the child, and if the regimen of training is wise and measured, the end result can be a lifetime of excellence and satisfaction.

Needless to say, the modern rush to universal psychological neoteny and lifelong incompetence -- as embodied in modern educational systems and child-raising methods -- leads to the opposite of inspiration or satisfaction.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Mind of the Survivor

The material quoted below comes from an article by William C. Prentice, published in Survival Blog. Prentice describes the mindset, attitude, and basic psychology of "a survivor." He is not talking about "survivalists," but rather he is describing people who are more likely to survive a trying situation, regardless of its nature.
I know that no matter what happens, I can cut it. I have a number of skills developed over the years, but that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about that most important of all attributes: the survivor’s mind. This is what enables a person to apply skills to the resources at hand to overcome whatever is thrown at them, and turn those circumstances to their advantage such that surviving looks more like thriving.

A man or woman cannot overcome a substantial survival situation without a conditioned mind. You could parachute all of the necessary supplies right on top of a stranded person and they will fold up and die if not properly conditioned mentally. You could parachute a properly conditioned man or woman into the middle of nowhere with nothing but a knife and a piece of rope and they will come out okay, or at least make a hell of a good show of it.

The key elements of this capability seem easy to identify. Above all it consists of a consistent determination to be self reliant. When something happens, you are not likely to sit around waiting for someone to tell you what to do or take care of the problem for you. I suspect that anyone who is a regular on SurvivalBlog.Com has a good start on this one. Another key attribute is the ability to adapt and overcome changing circumstances, without an initial emotional breakdown...Thirdly, you must be able to instantly size up a strategic situation, evaluate its potential lethality, and recognize a true survival matter when it arises. Part of this is recognizing threats when they arise, which requires awareness of your environment and how it can interact with you. Some people go through their entire life in Condition White, never knowing that they were at risk until they have already become a casualty. A fourth key element is just “guts” – the refusal to give up and accept defeat.

...Where do the mental attributes of a survivor come from? How can you become hardy in a nation that is going through an era that history will probably call the Age of the Wimp?

... My father structured my education and training, and that of my older brother, to stress not only survival skills, but to promote the development of what he called the combat mindset. The training included horsemanship, woodsmanship, hunting, climbing, martial arts, wilderness travel, wilderness medicine, and general problem solving. In an act that would probably result in his being jailed if it happened today, both my brother and I spent a week on our own in the Mojave Desert when in our early teens, followed by several repeat performances in the Eastern Sierra and Mojave throughout our teen years.

We were encouraged to participate in sports, but my father demanded that we understand the limitations of team sports as a foundation for developing individual self-reliance. My father coached my brother’s little league and pony league teams, but he was never happier than when we were with him in the mountains or the desert hunting, climbing, or working through some survival situation that he had concocted.

I don’t think that it is necessary to be a survival expert to properly nurture a youngster so that they will be able to handle whatever is thrown at them. As described below, the training and experience for skill development is available for anyone to acquire if the desire is there. The minimum required of a parent is to teach the philosophy of personal responsibility and self-reliance, refrain from coddling the little darlings into becoming wimps, and support the acquisition of skill and knowledge as a lifelong endeavor. _Survivorblog
Much more at the link above.

In The Dangerous Child movement, we emphasise the development of a wide range of skills and competencies. We believe that as a child experiences the mastery of a number of skills through planning, hard work and smart, determined practise, his level of confidence will grow.

Confident children who have already solved a wide range of problems on their own, are more likely to be able to solve a wide range of problems in the future.

Chance favours the prepared mind. That is true for invention and innovation, as well as for survival.

To develop a child's mind into "the mind of the survivor," parents, mentors, and teachers must begin early in development. Problem-solving and skills mastery come naturally to young humans, if given the chance. Early problem-solving such as learning to walk, talk, manage bowel and bladder control, climbing, etc. will merge seamlessly into the learning of more advanced skills -- if the child is given the chance.

Such skills training and valid confidence building is a much neglected part of child rearing and education in modern societies. But it is far more important than most of the things which parents do to "take care of the child."

It is never too late to have a dangerous childhood. But if you want your children to make the most of their own lives, it is better to start sooner rather than later.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What About Martial Arts for Children?

Modern children are typically pampered and sheltered from most of the harsher realities of life. This is a good thing for infants, toddlers, and most kindergartners. But as a child grows older and more independent, he will spend more and more of his time outside of direct adult supervision. If he does not learn to develop situational awareness and to protect himself as he gets older, he becomes a sitting duck for bullies, predators, and accidentally stumbling into bad situations.

What are the best martial arts to teach children in the beginning? In our opinion, Aikido, Judo, Jiu Jitsu, and wrestling. Here are a few ideas for teaching martial arts to children:

I think if I were to teach a class of kids aikido, here's some of what I'd do to avoid chokes, joint locks, and etc...

Mobility games
Ukemi - lots and lots of ukemi [ed: the art of falling safely and smoothly]
Walking kata
Evasion drills with partners
Brush-off and escape
Wrist releases
... Cool ki tricks (mind games, concentration, etc…)
Talk about how to deal with interpersonal conflict
Situational self defense
... So, there's still a lot of aikido and pre-aikido that we could do. Much of the pre-aikido stuff is identical to the pre-judo stuff we do in kiddie judo. _Aikido for kids

For a while, young kids should play a games-based judo approach. Fun preparations that build strength and coordination and familiarity with judo. But then at some point they have to move to "real judo." I'm not talking about adult judo - we start kids in regular adult classes at about age 13, depending on their physical size and maturity. I'm talking about an intermediate level between games-based judo and actual judo technique.

. One indicator that they are ready to step it up a level from games to real judo, is that they understand and can abide by the gentleman's agreement at the heart of judo. I've mentioned this Judo gentleman's rule before.

. The most central rule to judo practice is that if I am going to allow you to use my body to learn to throw hard and fast then you must save me at the end. You can throw with force, but you must support me and help me get into the proper landing position. .

Without people abiding by this rule, judo falls apart and cannot be practiced. When kids are progressively demonstrating that they can take better and better care of their ukes, they can be taught progressively more vigorous judo. _Judo for kids

Jiu Jitsu:
After teaching my own children and many others basic self-defense, I realized that children should first concentrate on a safe foundation system of self-defense based solely on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Only given solid aptitude of this system, at an intermediate level, would I then teach the striking techniques of Thai Boxing. The rationale for this is manifold:

Only a more advanced student will learn techniques that are inherently more dangerous (striking). This way, I will assure that only children who are mature enough to understand the safety issues will learn the technique.
In a fight, position is more important than pure striking ability. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gives a greater ability to control the position of your opponent than Thai Boxing. So, I want the student to know how to control their opponent long before they learn how to punch, elbow, or kick them. With positional control, punching and kicking can happen with relative leisure!
Beginners may get confused if they have too many techniques to focus on. After they have the fundamentals of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu "wired in," they won't get their mind as cluttered with dramatically different techniques of Thai Boxing.

Core Concepts

Safety first.
Understand the difference between causing pain and causing harm. Never attempt to harm a fellow student.
Avoid physical conflict.
Work out conflict with words. If you can escape a situation without physical harm to you or a family member, don't fight.
Words are never a reason to fight. Children are rewarded for avoiding fights.
Because of legal and school disciplinary issues involved in fights, the children are taught that in a situation where a fight is unavoidable, the words spoken and attempts made to dispel and avoid the situation beforehand can make a great difference.
Challenge the student to work hard.
The only true rewards in life come from hard work, dedication, and consistent practice.
Fitness through aerobic conditioning
Self defense in realistic situations
Have fun, but be serious enough to make solid progress every class!
Share techniques and learning with fellow students only.
It is important that they understand that this is a fighting system that should not be casually shared or demonstrated anywhere but in class with the instructor, unless self-defense calls for it. In other words, it would be very bad if they demonstrated a choke on a friend at the playground or kicked the family dog!
Don't advertise yourself as a martial arts expert! Many children take a few classes and think they are Bruce Lee reincarnated. A bigger bully will go out of his way to pick a fight with someone like this. Sun Tsu said, "All warfare is based on deception." Don't let them know what you know. More importantly, as a beginner, you don't know much, so don't pretend to know more than you do! _Jiu Jitsu for kids

Find a Team

Depending on your child’s age, there are several different options for the types of teams you want to sign him up with. The most popular choice for parents with children under the age of 10 is to start them in a freestyle/Greco-Roman wrestling club. These clubs typically practice folkstyle, the same style of wrestling contested in high schools and colleges across the United States.

Wrestling clubs are typically not affiliated with any specific school or organization. Rather, they are private organizations geared towards teaching children the sport of wrestling. However, many clubs may practice at a school and have the same coaching staff as a school’s regular team — but the club will not be related to the school in any other way.

Essentially, you want to look for a team that focuses on fitness and technical development, rather than competition. This is especially important for younger wrestlers. For more information on what to look for when choosing a wrestling club, check out iSport’s guide, _Wrestling for kids
Wrestling has traditionally been a male sport, but it is becoming more popular among females. It can be extremely strenuous, so children should have good health and fitness levels before beginning training. Most of all, choose a coach who is skilled, patient, a good teacher, and emotionally mature.

Martial arts training for children can be useful for many reasons, but the training needs to be age appropriate, and geared to the individual child's needs and maturity level. Basic training to develop respect for instructors and classmates as well as disciplined habits of practise, should precede more difficult and complex skills training. Early training should focus on fitness, mobility, escape, releases, balance, situational awareness and response, and the mental aspects of physical training and confrontation.

Training in strikes, kicks, weapons, choke holds, joint locks, etc. should be withheld until the child is mature enough to learn and practise them with proper restraint and respect for classmates and instructors. This should usually only occur after significant time (years) in training, under close observation, and only with other students who are prepared for such training.

Every dangerous child should be able to sense potentially dangerous situations and avoid them when possible. But he should also be physically and mentally prepared to deal with situations which occur outside of his ability to predict or prevent.

Dangerous children are by definition not helpless. This should be true physically, mentally, emotionally, and in virtually every aspect of his life.

So ideally, martial arts training will be just one aspect of a dangerous child's training in not being helpless. This is a different attitude toward child raising than one typically finds, but it is necessary.