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Capoeira – Current Teaching Methods and Non-Linear Pedagogy Part 4: Skill

In this section I’ll take a look at skill development within Capoeira. Obviously the research in this area is vast, and ever growing, but I’ll look at a couple of the key names in motor learning field, and then some thoughts on applying the ideas introduced

For me this is the most interesting aspect of this review of Capoeira teaching, and where there is most to learn.

Skill Acquisition – Key Concepts

Nikolai Bernstein

It’s hard to talk about research in skill acquisition without referring to the ideas of Bernstein. He was a Russian scientist, who began undertaking research on skill development in the 1920s, initially looking at metal workers. It was here that he understood movements as containing lots of small movements, each impacting one another in the kinetic chain. At the time, movement was seen as being controlled solely by the brain, as if a set of commands were being sent to muscles in order to perform certain actions. Bernstein challenged this notion, arguing that movement was too complex for this theory to be right, as the body had too many ‘degrees of freedom’ for it to be controlled so accurately. He observed that each swing of a hammer made by the workers was different, as even this movement was too complex to repeat perfectly each time. He argued that it was ‘repetition without repetition’.

A further key observation he made against the thinking of the time was the impact of environmental conditions or constraints on movement. If the brain is controlling all muscular contractions for the body to exhibit movement, then how are external factors taken in to account, such as gravity or friction of surfaces or the weather. Though this may seem logical and rational in today’s thinking, a lot of movement and sports coaching still represents the ideas he argued against, as practitioners search for a consistent, ‘perfect’ technique in movement, often ignoring the environment it needs to be adapted to.

Bernstein’s other key insight was to view movement not as formulas being calculated by the brain, but as problem solving activities. So when individuals are learning, Bernstein argued they are learning to solve problems, not a technique which may only be useful in certain situations. As children we are constantly solving problems, how to reach for food, how to colour a painting, how to climb the stairs etc, and it’s this mentality that enables us to gain skill. To quote the great scientist directly:

“Practice, when properly undertaken, does not consist in repeating the means of solution of a motor problem time after time, but in the process of solving this problem again and again by techniques which we changed and perfected from repetition to repetition.”

Bernstein’s ideas only became available to the west after his death in the 1960’s, but applying his thinking clearly has ramifications for Capoeira development. Before we look at those, let’s take a look at the ideas of another important researcher, JJ Gibson.

James Gibson

Where Bernstein’s focus of research was on motor learning, JJ Gibson was a psychologist who specialized in visual perception. Over his career, which began in the 1950’s, he developed the theory of direct realism. At the time it was thought that the brain would perceive the outside world, and then have models or formulas to act. Gibson challenged this thinking, and when considered in the world of movement and sport, you can understand why. Do humans really have time to compute such models in such time compressed environments?

Instead Gibson proposed that we ascertain what information is available in the given environment, and behave accordingly. He therefore suggested a constant relationship between the environment and the organism. We perceive and we act.

The perception of the information is personal, and Gibson looked at how we see objects and surfaces differently. In my garden I see a space to cartwheel, and my wife see’s a space to plant flowers. I may see a small table as somewhere to place a coffee cup, where as others see it as a place to rest their feet, or sit on. The important point here is that it’s an ecological approach to understanding, with the organism’s behaviours intertwined with their environment.

A further aspect to this is that as information is personal, the opportunities afforded by this information are also personal, and linked to our abilities. Gibson called these ‘affordances’. So individuals perceive information in the environment, and then understand what affordances are available at that given time. For example in the chaos of a Capoeira roda, I may perceive a kick coming towards me, and I may see this as an opportunity to do an esquiva, but my teacher may see this as an opportunity to counter attack.

Note that information can be bad as well as good, so possibly mis-information – especially within Capoeira. Maybe that kick wasn’t a kick, but a fake, and I may have acted inefficiently!

Using this idea, the way to develop our abilities is to closely couple affordances and action capabilities. To calibrate perception and action, so we can attune our behaviours in the way we desire. We must also remember that perceiving and acting is a constant cyclical process, particular in a Capoeira game. To quote Gibson:

‘we must perceive in order to move, but we also move in order to perceive’

Skill Acquisition for Capoeira

Firstly let’s summarise some of the key takeaways from Bernstein and Gibson’s research.

  1. Movement cannot be repeated perfectly, and depends on the kinematic sequence of the body, and it’s environment

  2. Movements are learned as a problem solving activity

  3. We perceive information from the environment around us, and act according to our capabilities. Action and perception are intertwined.

Extending these thoughts to Capoeira, any movement we train should not be de-coupled from its environment. If we are training to play Capoeira in a Roda, then we have to respect the information provided by this environment. Let’s take an example, a simple Meia Lua de Compasso.

Firstly Bernstein argues that no two of these kicks will ever be the same. The co-ordination of the body in doing the kick is simply impossible to replicate. It will also change depending on the environment, so is the floor wooden or stone? Is it slippy? Are you wearing shoes? Is it hot or cold? Are you being watched by 25 teachers you admire or just a few friends? Also the kinematic sequence will change each time. Are you throwing the kick whilst avoiding another? Are you instigating an attack? What is your intention in the attack? Is it to make your partner react in a certain direction, or is it playful in nature, or aggressive? These are just some factors, and there are thousands more. We cannot possibly predict, or control, them all.

Further to this we have to look at the problem the player is trying to solve. The Capoeira Roda is rich in problems. The ever evolving mix of Dance, Fight and Game, means the problem firstly has to be defined, before it can be ‘solved’. Let’s take the problem of a kick coming my way, which I think we can agree is a problem that needs a solution! How should I decide what to do? Thinking of Gibson’s work, I’ll perceive the information given to me by the environment. Do the hips or arms of my partner indicate that this is truly a kick at all, or is this an illusion? How fast is the kick? Which direction is it coming from? Is my partner in a position to move in a different direction? Does my partner hold a grudge from a game several years ago? Is that song being sung at the Berimbau ‘Quebra Gerebra’, and therefore this kick may be trying to hurt me?!!?

It’s with all the information presented that I will perceive affordances, opportunities to act according to my capabilities at the time. Hopefully I am well trained, and perceive that the kick is coming quickly, but maybe off balance, and I can counter my partner with a sweep, or maybe I am tired, and the only affordance I can attune to is a basic esquiva. Hopefully I don’t interpret mis-information, thinking it’s a fake and then taking a blow!

Hopefully these simple examples demonstrate the complexity in the environment, and in movement. This is especially true in the case of Capoeira, which is an open activity. Where some activities are relatively closed, think of indoor shot put for example, a Capoeira roda is chaotic. There is music, singing and clapping, mixed with the vast array of movements, styles and intentions. There isn’t even a rulebook to use, simply a fine balance of game and fight that only makes sense in that given moment. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense.

So how should we teach in such a chaotic landscape? This is the question I was asking myself back in the introduction, and in the next section we’ll look at this more. However what Capoeira teachers have largely tried to do does not relate well to the chaos and decision making outlined above. Let’s reflect upon the typical Capoeira lesson we looked at in Part 2, which largely contains:

  1. Copying a teacher at the front of the class

  2. Individual work on kicks or esquivas

  3. Choreographed sequences in pairs

These are highly constrained and de-contextualised practices, which is common across sports and movement coaching. As teachers we often attempt to make sense of the chaos, by eliminating it as much as possible. Working on movements individually may improve the technique of the individual when that student has no partner and no chaos, but according to Bernstein we cannot replicate these, especially when the environment changes.

The commonly seen paired choreographed sequences introduces a partner in to the environment. However the kicks and movements are sequenced, often to the degree of where to start the sequence from (eg kick from the back), and mirrored steps. Here the coupling of perception and action is dismantled. The students become good at the sequence, but in the Roda they need to find opportunities presented to them, or create them. We haven’t touched on developing creativity as yet, but it’s clear that by defining solutions for students, there is limited or no allowance for this. A common observation of older Masters is the decline of creativity and game play in modern Capoeira, with too much movement done without intention or regard for the partner. Could the training methods we use be the cause of this?

Following teachers, or instructions from teachers, does not allow for movement solutions to be solved by students. Instead it provides the test, and the answers, for them to blindly copy. Individual work allows students to increase their capabilities, but again, without the attunement to information from the environment where those capabilities are required to be performed. A common phrase heard from students, including myself over the years, is ‘I can do this movement really well, but I never do it in the Roda’. Through their research, I think Gibson and Bernstein have provided their responses to this problem.

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