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'Marking' Your Work

Imagine the following scenario. In a martial arts class, a female student is moving through a sequence of combative movements the instructor wants all the students to practice and memorize. She runs through the sequence several times, each time slowly and using minimal movement; extending her legs and arms partially for the kicks and punches, her movements small and restrained, executing the actions without full energy behind them. After watching her for a couple of minutes, the instructor walks over to her and reproaches her with, “Don’t be lazy! You must do the sequence with full energy and power,” then saunters off. Later in class, when the instructor has each student perform the sequence, the female student’s performance is superior to all the other students; her actions more fluid, graceful, and exhibiting speed and power. What the instructor didn’t know is that the student had an extensive background in dance and was working the routine using a protocol referred to in dance as “marking.”

In dance, marking is a movement reduction strategy that dancers sometimes apply when learning new movements. It usually involves loosely practicing a routine by “going through the motions” -- running through of the routine, but with a focus on the routine itself rather than making perfect movements. If a dancer has an injury, is conserving energy, or is just trying to get the steps into their muscle memory without actually doing them fully, they will oftentimes mark them. They move, but their movements are restrained, doing the steps halfway as opposed to “full-out.”

Research findings published in various psychological science journals suggests that marking may improve the quality of a dance performance by reducing the mental stress needed to perfect the movements. Expert ballet dancers for example, seem to glide effortlessly across the stage, but learning and rehearsing a dance piece is both physically demanding and mentally demanding. Researchers surmise that practicing at performance speed sometimes doesn’t allow the dancers to memorize and coordinate the steps as a sequence, thus restricting or hindering their performance. One of their conclusions was that always working full-out may actually prevent some people from reaching their potential. By reducing the demands on complex control of the body, marking may alleviate the conflict between the cognitive and physical aspects of dance practice, allowing dancers to learn choreography, memorize and repeat steps more fluidly.

Variations of marking can sometimes be seen in sports. Athletes who play sports such as golf, tennis, basketball, etc., will sometimes run through a “practice shot” (without or without equipment). They won’t do the same complete swing as when they use the club or racquet as when they are actually hitting the ball, or go through the entire motion as when they shoot a jump shot in basketball, but rather an abbreviated low-key version of the movement.

So how might we apply the idea of marking to what we do as martial artists? Marking can be used strategically in a martial artist’s skill training process to enhance memory and integration. It may help them develop more fluid movements, seamless actions, etc.

Let’s look at an example of how it can work. Take a particular compound “offense-defense-offense” combination you want to work on in order to increase your performance of it. Using the idea of marking, run through the combination of movements, but rather than going through it at full-out performance speed and power, run through it at maybe only twenty percent or so, while focusing on the feeling of each movement, and the fluidity and seamless transition from one action to the next. Make the motions small and use body-feel and body-awareness. Do this as many times as you want to or feel like doing it. Then amp up the speed and power to performance speed and see how it feels to you. I’ve personally done this numerous times and it always seems that when I amp things up I move much better; my actions are smoother, my coordination and balance is better, and I can “feel” the movement to a much higher degree.

The neat thing about using marking is that you can literally train anywhere at anytime (within reason that is). You might be waiting for a bus or train, standing in line for a movie, or just hanging out at the park, whatever, it doesn’t matter. Don’t be concerned about what people might think of what you’re doing (but also don’t go bouncing all over the place like you’re shadowboxing against the invisible man, or they might call the police). Move, not full-out, keeping your movements restrained and “close to the vest,” as they say. Most of all, just do it

Marking is a mechanism of thought. It’s about mentally noting how to do the moves, rather than simply physically doing it. And sometimes it’s combined with mental imagery of the movements. However, it is not a chance for a martial artist to be lazy in their training.

The next time you are training some compound movement actions or working on a new movement sequence, give marking a try and see how it turns out for you.