Cross training is something I strongly support. It’s also something I think I do every week, but what I consider to be cross-training may differ from what you think.
Last weekend I held a Shotokan Sandan grading. I was grading an instructor I consider to be one of ‘my’ Shotokan students (although he gained his other grades in another association) because he’s trained with me twice a week for almost 3 years (he also trains with another association each week too). To assist in the grading, I brought in two of my DART Dan grades to act as uke and two Shotokan Yondans from two different associations whom I know from their attendance at my seminars and courses.
The majority of the grading was focused on kata based HAOV related sparring with participants mainly using approaches I had taught them. The successful Sandan candidate also taught a kata-based lesson and we sparred using his approaches. When we looked at our solo kata performance however, there were definitely different flavours of Shotokan on display: no two kata were identical even though we traced very similar lineages.
I know where I’ve changed my Shotokan kata. My base template when I began training was Hirokazu Kanazawa’s kata as recorded in his 1980s videos. As time went on, I saw alternative versions in use in other groups and was able to see in books elements that had been adjusted or discarded. Over time I’ve mainly kept my ‘original’ template, but in some instances have made the conscious decision for practical reasons to tweak some elements back to Funakoshi’s recorded 1920s or 1930s versions. This means that you probably won’t find other associations that teach Shotokan kata exactly the way I teach them.
When I first began Karate, the mobility of my education and home life meant that while I would do sustained training, I would often be working with at least two different associations of the same Shotokan style throughout the year. Moving a few times meant that I might stay with one while switching another. It was immediately noticeable that everything was different wherever I went. The kata was the least changeable element, but even then, if you looked closely, each association did the kata slightly differently. What I was doing by going to more than one Shotokan association was cross training. Occasionally I would learn new material, but mainly I would experience a different perspective on the same thing: varied fundamentals combinations, distinct sparring work, alternative takes on stances and even differing ways of doing the same kata.
That is what cross training means to me. Gaining a different perspective.
As a kyu grade I learned from the different karate instructors in the various karate associations in which I concurrently trained, but I would also learn from instructors in other arts through books and magazines. I would also travel to seminars, training with Kung Fu instructors and Karate Instructors from other styles. I would often learn new material, but more importantly I gained a different perspective that enabled me to look differently at what I was already doing and gain a better understanding of it.
My over-arching purpose then was the same as now: to learn more and to have fun.
There have been times when I have been far more specific in my cross training. I studied Aikido on a regular basis for eight years with a view to improving my stand-up limb control, unbalancing and using angles of attack rather than strength to achieve my aims. I’d be a beginner now if I stepped into an Aikido class, but the perspectives that I gained from that training has been so integrated into my own practice that it’s all Karate to me now.
I am always cross training.
Going to another instructor’s club, going to a seminar, having a guest teach me and my students: these things are all cross training. Watching another instructor from a different background doing different things, whether in person or in video, I regard as cross training when I take elements of what I’ve seen and physically try it. It’s a rare week indeed when I am not working through something different from the direct influence of someone else, or that is inspired at a tangent from something that has cropped up while experimenting from cross training. I’ll do this in class, in mental rehearsal through movement and tactile imagination in my dojo, or through bag work. It may be months or even years since I had the original lesson in person or online; I work on things over long periods of time and I revisit lessons when current stimuli bring greater relevance. It ceases to be cross training when it is so ingrained in my practice and integrated into my approaches that it is part of my Karate.
For me the point of cross training is exposure to an alternative perspective to further my understanding. That can be my understanding of things I know, things that I only think I know, things that I know that I don’t know and things that I didn’t know existed. It can be with another instructor from the same ‘style’ but different background or current approaches, it can be from a separate system with a similar focus, or a discipline with a completely alternative emphasis. For me doing that is fun, and that alone is reason enough to do it.
Beyond the value of perspective and fun you may have particular goals. I chose to take up Aikido to develop a particular skillset and incorporated that into my own Karate. With far less direct coaching but for roughly the same number of years I have been drip-feeding myself cross training in two other disciplines with the express purpose of refining and expanding another part of my repertoire. That’s an ongoing process and I anticipate that that cross-training and integration project will last at least another decade. Over the last few decades, I’ve benefitted a great deal from numerous focused cross training dips into other approaches through seminars, videos and books. You do not have to stick with cross training in one thing only for years to gain insights, especially if it is closely related in form or focus to your own experience. Sometimes a single seminar or book can open the door to decades of study if you are observant.
How accurate and sustained your visual and tactile memory is will affect how much you may benefit from cross training and what form might best suit you. For those that need multiple repetitions to learn or understand or integrate an element, attending or watching regular classes may be best. For some this may mean having to attend a class every week, for others with an established relatable visual, physical or tactile memory set, observing a video or referencing a text book may serve the same purpose. Anything relatively close to my knowledge base I can see or experience once and have enough ‘memory’ to work on that for a long time (on my own or with partners) without further reference, like attending a seminar which uses the same movements as me but for a different purpose. With things that are on the fringes of my experience or completely outside my knowledge I’ll need to revisit the source again and again. That almost always means dedicated repetitions with a training partner and access to the source material (so regularly attending a class or training with a video or book with a good training partner).
For me cross training is when I am working on material from an external source or a different perspective to my current training.
I find it invaluable. Even when I make the decision not to attempt to trial what I have seen or experienced, even when I discard something after a trial rather than choosing to integrate it, I think the exposure to different approaches makes that choice to continue on my own path a more educated one.
I believe that cross training is a form of expanding your knowledge and ability that is accessible to everyone. It could be attending a seminar, having a guest instructor, visiting another class, working from concepts from a book or from an online video. It does not have to be ‘outside’ your own style: instructors vary enough within any system to give you valuable alternative perspectives. There is a wealth of material out there and the more you access it and cross train with it to your chosen purposes, the less easily will you be misled by lower quality choices.
Now go and cross train.