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Capoeira – Current Teaching Methods and Non-Linear Pedagogy Part 5: Skil

Hopefully the previous section gave a solid understanding of some of the key ideas behind Skill Acquisition, and how we can view modern Capoeira training methods through this lens. It is clear however that the skill level of elite Capoeiristas today is phenomenal compared to the past. So before we look at some ideas at improving Capoeira teaching, let’s try and understand this.

Firstly, as previously mentioned, many modern Capoeira teachers are now professional, dedicating their lives to learning and teaching the art form. This has led to a significant increase in training hours, whether in movement or physical conditioning. They’re increasing their capabilities.

An important addition to this though, is that those teachers play in the Roda a lot. Importantly this is not the same Roda with the same students each week. When they travel, students want to see them play, and maybe play them too. This is tremendous exposure in the Roda, where they can attune their perception and action coupling with a variety of different partners. Through the lens of Bernstein, they are experiencing tremendous amounts of repetition without repetition; different students, different Rodas, atmospheres and environments. The travelling Capoeirista playing at different events each week is living in a highly contextual learning environment, with variety on tap.

The challenge for teachers of students without this exposure is therefore how to replicate this as well as possible.

Constraints Led Approach

The constraints led approach (CLA) to teaching was popularized in the late 1980s, and is a method which can be used to accelerate skill acquisition. The method is best described with the following image.

The triangle represents 3 types of constraints:

  1. Individual – this could be structural such as height or length of a student’s legs, or functional, such as attention or motivation

  2. Environmental – these constraints are from the world around us, so surface, gravity or maybe cultural

  3. Task – related to a specific goal, this could mean rules, or equipment

The coach should aim to manipulate these constraints to construct movement challenges for the student to solve. This will mean the student will have to perceive and act accordingly to achieve the goal. It should be noted that the aim of constructing such challenges is not to force the student in to a ‘perfect’ technique, but for them to organize themselves to find the solution.

A classic example of a constraints led approach to coaching is the Brazilian game of Futsal. The game uses fewer players than football, a smaller pitch and a heavy ball which has little bounce. With these changes in environmental and task constraints, the players receive more touches of the ball than with normal football matches, and are forced in to more decision making situations. In Gibson’s terminology, they are forced to use constantly changing information in the environment (the players and ball are moving all the time) to find affordances, opportunities to create or make a play.

The key to Fustal’s success is it’s transferability of skills from its format to actual football. The successful exporting of Brazilian footballers is testament to this development tool, and their technique, quick footedness and decision making abilities are often credited to their years playing the game as juniors.

Capoeira certainly has its own version of this type of training. Jogo de Dentro is a rhythm that was designed for players to play close together, and the Roda is often closed to change the space. The environment and task are amended to encourage a type of game.

The Miudinho game of Mestre Suassuna is another example. Though there are set sequences trained by his students, the game of Miudinho is played spontaneously. The environment was expertly created as a teaching tool to enable players to play closer together (Mestre was concerned at the time at the players playing Capoeira too far apart), and also uses movements which he felt needed to come back to Capoeira from the past (and were soon developed on top of by talented movers). Even the rhythm of Miudinho invites the players to play under intensity, but in a playful manner, and when I first watched this played in both Sao Paulo and Fortaleza, I loved the way the Roda became such an exuberant and intense atmosphere, with whoops and shouts from those watching. This encouraged players to move more outrageously in relation to their partner, and the creativity spawned in these moments is inspiring.

The success of Miudinho is not just in the joy of the game itself, but how the careful manipulation of constraints by a Masterful teacher, then transferred to wider games of Capoeira. Mestre Suassuna’s students were able to use the practice and take the skills learned to their other rhythms of Capoeira, ensuring they are always some of the most creative and interactive players on the scene.

So if a CLA to learning Capoeira can be so successful why isn’t it used more, and where do the challenges lie?

I would argue that the examples of Jogo de Dentro and Miudinho (Mestre Bimba’s Iuna is another example) are largely used with more experience players, and usually do not form part of regular training. Despite them being excellent training tools, they are often part of the Roda experience or demonstrations, or taken out of context and used as individual sequences at times.

Using the CLA, we should be looking at these tools and looking to see how we can develop Capoeira players in a similar way, irrespective of level.

Game Based Learning

Game Based Learning is another idea that is worthy of mention. This method uses the human desire for play, as a basis of learning. Challenges are designed within games that enhance motivation and attention, whilst providing a learning environment. Despite Capoeira being a game, a learning environment of repetitive movements is often devoid of this aspect.

The Fighting Monkey (see part 2) methods and tools often use game based environments to challenge their participants. Using these to enhance movement capabilities can help with motivation of students, as well as introducing them with the Capoeira aspect of play.

Approach to Teaching Capoeira

If the evidence is strongly suggesting using the CLA to teach Capoeira, what are some key factors to keep in mind, and how can we go about this.

Firstly the ideas of Bernstein and Gibson need to be kept at the forefront. Students should be challenged with problems, and not given solutions. These problems needs to contain variety, and be coupled closely with challenges faced in the Roda. This however does not mean we go back a 100 years and let our students simply observe and play.

Constrained environments are created by sampling parts of the Roda, and to do this takes great understanding of the aspects the teacher wants to develop. Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say I‘d like the students to work on a particular kick, say an Armada. Instead of taking a de-contextualised approach of repeating the kick a number of times, we can take a slice of a Capoeira game and introduce some constraints with the kick. Say one player has to attack first using any kick, and the other player has to counter with an Armada. To make the game more contextual we can add the Roda environment, and have other players clap and sing, and change the players in the middle with other students buying the game. Other players are the best resource we have as teachers, but are often cast aside and replaced with chairs or pads. We could also change the space of the Roda, making it larger or smaller, or amend the tempo of the game.

Another method I have found useful is to simply ask the student to insert the kick somewhere in a constrained game. This way they can learn to lead with the kick, or react with the kick, always from different positions, each time finding when it worked well, and when it didn’t work so well.

So instead of copying a teacher’s kick, I can use the task or environment to progress or regress this training. Note, constraints can make things easier or harder, and as a teacher the aim is not to see perfect results, but for the students to find a solution to each situation. Their own solution, which they have found with a teacher’s invisible guiding hand. The learning in this way is likely to become ‘sticky’ – so the student can recreate this more easily next time.

Variety will be inherent within the game. So an attack might come more quickly/slowly than the previous, or maybe from a different angle, and the first player can begin to fake movements too. All the time the responding player is gathering the information, and learning to act accordingly. Perception and action are coupled. Nothing is sequenced.

These types of games are often called training Rodas, but my argument is that these types of situations should become the large majority of Capoeira training. Put simply, if it looks and smells like Capoeira, then it’s probably going to transfer well to the real Roda, which is the end goal of the training.

An additional benefit of this type of training is the encouragement of individuality and creativity of students. Where this can be stifled in non-contextual, repetitive methods, the CLA allows for students movement signatures to be found. There is a limited amount of copying of the teacher, or leading students, and instead individuals are allowed to find their own solutions and methods. This can be the hardest thing to do. To quote Bruce Lee:

“Honestly expressing is very difficult to do. I mean it is easy for me to put on a show and be cocky and be flooded with a cocky feeling and then feel like pretty cool...or I can make all kind of phony things, you see what I mean, blinded by it or I can show you some really fancy movement. But to express oneself honestly, not lying to that, my friend, is very hard to do.”

Challenges using the CLA

Using the CLA challenges a teacher in different ways than a more traditional approach. Rather than developing sequences of movements, the teacher becomes more of a facilitator of the students, creating problems, challenges and environments that encourage them to find solutions. This requires great analysis and understanding of Capoeira to ensure the problems match what they’ll encounter in the Roda, and the solutions they find are safe and appropriate.

Attempting to individualise training as much as possible also requires time and attention. Watching video to see where students are struggling and then manipulating the constraints of games for different students is complex, and requires great planning and effort. Even choosing the right constraints to amend can be challenging, and unintended consequences are common. By changing the rules in a game to encourage certain aspects, can distort the game in unusual ways, and the teacher has to be pragmatic and open to change.

The teacher also has to show faith in the created environment, resisting the need to over direct the students to particular solutions, or become overly prescriptive. It is often tempting to interrupt students who make mistakes, but if the environment has been well created the students will find good solutions in their own time. Once they do, it will not be easily forgotten.

This is not to say students need to live in a contextual world all the time, as the teacher needs to decide how much context is required for each student at any one time, but the results when used well can be truly beneficial for both the student and teacher. Students can gain a quick understanding of the Capoeira game (often a significant challenge for teachers of non Brazilian students who are not familiar with the art), and as mentioned before become creative with their own solutions, often using previous training to develop their own responses, and begin to feel their own style and movement signature. Possibly the largest benefit is the transferability of skill to the Roda. Players quickly take what they have learned in to the main Roda, and the usual hesitancy seen in beginners is often avoided, as it no longer feels so foreign from the training.

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