Why a Kung Fu Master is Like an Infant Learning to Walk
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
by: Patricia Buchanan, PhD, ATC, PT, GCFT

Section: Introduction

I ventured to Portland, Oregon this June to attend the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA) Annual Conference. Despite the tongue-twisting name, it’s one of my favorite meetings because it brings together an interdisciplinary array of scholars and researchers in movement sciences for collegial exchanges. I also get to reunite with my motor development colleagues, including many who knew developmental psychologist and Feldenkrais teacher Esther Thelen and are part of her academic family.
Two of the main presentations at this year’s conference reminded me of an old joke that expert performers in the performing arts might be familiar with. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. The first presentation considered how a Kung Fu master is able to perform his form while perched on a mountainous boulder. The second lecture described the process of infants learning to walk.
Jesus Ilundain-Agurruza is a professor at Linfield College in Portland with expertise in philosophy and sport sociology. In addition, he is a serious cyclist and accomplished martial artist. Like his philosophy colleague Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (see "A Phenomenal Dance Together," SenseAbility #65), his direct experience with physical activity explicitly informs and shapes his professional perspective. In his keynote lecture at NASPSPA, he shared his particular interest in highly skilled athletes, particularly those who participate in high risk sports like rock climbing without ropes, jumping off cliffs, deep diving without breathing support, and practicing kung fu on mountain tops. One misstep, lost handhold, slight error in estimating trajectory or depth or speed can result in death. While others, myself included, might wonder why these people choose their dangerous activities, his focus was on how these athletes develop their skill and how those skills are held in the mind, in memory in the brain—or not.
Within the brain, electrical and chemical interactions occur among millions of cells. Those cells in turn interact energetically with millions of cells throughout other areas of the body. Collectively, our cells and entire bodies detect other sources of energy in our environments, such as light and texture. Many people conceive of these electrochemical patterns of activity within the brain as forming so-called models, schemas, representations, or memories that guide behavior—from the extreme to the everyday. But some people aren’t satisfied with this commonly held view. One reason comes from contemporary neuroscience that demonstrates the changing plastic nature of brain activity throughout life. Another rests with alternative views, such as ecological psychology or direct perception, that argue that information or structure in the environment exists to guide our actions. Our whole beings contribute to our ability to detect and make use of this information when we interact with it, when we move through the world. This information that is “out there” allows dogs to catch Frisbees, humans to catch fly balls, and my cat to catch the yarn ball I toss his way without the need for computations or comparisons housed within the brain.
Which brings us back to Carnegie Hall. It takes practice, lots of attentive practice, lots of practice in varying contexts and conditions to tune up our abilities to detect and make use of information at the intersection of our selves and our environments. From the perspective of people like Ilundain-Agurruza, we develop our attention, awareness, mindfulness and act optimally in the moment, in the “emptiness” of now. Top athletes are really good at this. As Ilundain-Agurruza states, reflecting his martial arts perspective, “expert performers… act mindfully and spontaneously.” He continues:
Superb performers are not encumbered at any moment with re-presentations, rules, calculations, or any kind of content; they ‘simply’ exercise their capacities to effect spontaneous action. Risk activities, where rapid response to challenges is vital, best show this. There we see how ‘knowledge’ disappears in the legs and arms. This does not mean that there is no room for deliberation, articulation, and representation. But these come later, built atop basic, empty minds (a holistic, situated, and scaffolded model underlies this). In short, the argument is that experts’ full-bodied sport smarts are built on empty minds.
Expert performers are extremely proficient at being fully attentive and present in the moment and so are able to optimally engage with their environment. It takes considerable motivation and practice to develop this proficiency, just as it does to make one’s way to the stage of Carnegie Hall.
Not too far from Carnegie Hall are New York University and the infant development laboratory of Karen Adolph. She’s spent her career studying how babies learn to walk and gave an overview of her insights in her senior lecture at the NASPSPA conference. Her developmental psychologist’s perspective on how to make sense of her detailed and longitudinal observations of infants has common ground with Ilundain-Agurruza’s philosophical perspective on expert sport behavior. Both recognize an essential role of a brain within a body that interacts with the environment that includes cultural influences. In her abstract, Adolph summarized her key points:
Children learn to move in the context of continual development. I argue that a fruitful way to study this process is to consider learning as embodied in the reality of children’s growing and changing bodies, embedded in the practical exigencies of an ever- expanding physical environment, and enculturated by social interactions and culturally determined childrearing practices.
Adolph reminds us that infants’ whole bodies are changing, not just their brains. It’s true for each of us, although as adults the changes are not as rapid and dramatic as they are for infants and children. These bodily changes mesh with shifts in environment, including the dimensions of the space we move in and the types of objects we encounter in that space. Both body and environment interact within the guidelines of cultural expectations (from shoes to seats, diapers to desks).
What is amazing to understand about infants learning to walk that is relevant to adults developing expert performance is the importance of persistence and, yes, practice, practice, practice. With careful observation by Adolph and her colleagues, we now know how committed infants are to learning to walk.
Although most people would assume that infants walk and fall a lot, few would guess that the average toddler takes 2,368 steps, travels 701 m—the length of 7.7 American football fields—and falls seventeen times per hour. Hourly rates provide only a tantalizing window into the amounts of practice that likely accumulate over a day. For example, a multiplier of six hr (approximately half of infants’ waking day) would indicate that infants take 14,000 steps daily, travel the length of 46 football fields, and incur 100 falls….
From the Kung Fu master displaying his form on the top of a mountainside boulder to the infant learning to walk, people who are highly motivated to develop their expertise embody the punch line of this old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. The Feldenkrais Method can be an integral component of this learning process. Fine tuning the perceptual-motor system is one outcome of regular engagement with Feldenkrais lessons. Feldenkrais Teachers guide students through explorations that invite them to be aware of and attentive to their sensations, feelings or emotions, thoughts and movements. Over time, with lots of variable practice in lots of changing contexts, students become more skillful and masterful. They become more expert.

Pat Buchanan, PhD, ATC, PT, GCFT helps female athletes create powerful performance. Her unique, holistic approach is based on expertise developed through over thirty years in movement science, education, and healthcare. Pat loves guiding girls and women to master their movement, get rid of pain, and play at the top of their game.
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Comments (1)
11/5/2015 1:07:47 AM
I am 73 yrs young and broke my elbow two yrs ago. Surgeons bolted my elbow together and I used with limited weight for quite a while. As I was healing I would experience these sharp pains and think oh there is another nerve netting
it's way back to health. I wellcome these little reminders of my experience and play racketball three times a week with that arm.
Lifes great and god bless the Surgeons and the bolts holding my arm together..
I also used Felds method on a skiing injury 15 years on both shoulders out of wack. movement is where it's at. live laugh love Al

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