What are some examples of clear ways to describe martial techniques in writing?

I often take notes during and after classes, and occasionally find that I haven't described a particular technique clearly enough to fully understand it when reviewing my notes months later.

Are there any established shorthands or notation systems that make recording and understanding techniques easier when videos, photos, and diagrams are not available?

I am interested in written systems to describe solo forms as well as techniques involving a single attacker and defender.

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    Not going to provide this as an answer since I have no experience with it (I use a customized notation that's very art-specific), but you could try to find references for EWMN: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eshkol-Wachman_Movement_Notation to see if it might work. They evidently wrote a book using it for Tai Chi. – David H. Clements Feb 1 '12 at 4:36
  • @DavidH.Clements, wow that looks absolutely worth experimenting with! I think I even have some graph paper lying around... – Anon Feb 1 '12 at 5:50
  • If you do play with it and it works well, let me know how it turns out ^_^ I'd be interested to see. – David H. Clements Feb 2 '12 at 0:07
  • @DavidH.Clements That actually would be a pretty good format, especially since it's been used to describe taijiquan and feldenkrais already. +1 to you sir! – stslavik Feb 9 '12 at 23:01
  • I use various home-brew, art-specific notations. I can get away with some similar notations for gross movements, but everything else is so specialized, and so personal, I'm not convinced a "universal" language would be doable. – Dave Newton Sep 18 '12 at 1:44
up vote 6 down vote accepted

If you have some artistic skills you could try to draw sketches/stick figures of the different movements in order (I've tried it). You won't be able to teach using them but you probably shouldn't do that anyway. They are however a very good memory aid (e.g. "What comes after ...?" or "How should i place my feet while doing ...?") and can be used to communicate between teachers within the same style when only teaching parts of a longer routine. We've used sketches to communicate what parts of longer routines we teach (e.g. "From this movement until these three") and it works well as a communication tool between teachers.

Otherwise, If you are allowed in your style, it CAN be very good to take some time for yourself and film yourself doing certain techniques after someone has showed them to you. That way you will catch a lot of small details in the movements (although you may catch some wrong details as well so be sure to understand the movements and do them well and slowly when filming.

  • I know that its technically not writing but they are ways of "describing techniques" – David Rönnqvist Feb 1 '12 at 7:13
  • Thanks for this, David. I'd never filmed a class before, but I asked permission and have shot two classes since reading your suggestion. It's making a big difference in my own practise and I'd recommend it to everyone. – Nick Feb 11 '12 at 9:16

Maybe it's a style thing (I practice Chow Gar kung fu) but movement of weight is at least as important as angles of feet. I keep a recorder (nowadays a phone) in my car and make detailed verbal notes on corrections and insights from class as I leave.

Verbal notes have the benefit that you can play them back as you make the movements, often at reduced speed which is useful practice in itself. I imagine I'm coaching someone.

As you progress through an art, it's not the gross combinations of moves that matter so much as these fine details. If you want to get really detailed, you could even go down to where to distribute tension and effort throughout a movement.

I've been intrigued by the idea of notation for a long time but not got around to doing much study. I've been partly waiting for computer animations to get to the point where detailed hand shapes and movements could be tracked. One big benefit of having an animated rendering is that you could not only represent external changes in position but use colour to show weight shifts or muscle tension.

A paper I found, following up on the recommendation above, that has promise describes the use of notations to drive computer animation - Choreography-driven Characters [pdf].

I also recently saw the Martial Codex site, which has some great animation stuff. It would be awesome to have generation of movement of such characters from a notation, which would be an ultimate test of how comprehensively a notation covered movement.

It recently occurred to me that games character Rigging and motion-capture data formats might help in this area. There's an interesting overview from 2013 in this article which covers using Blender to reformat and cleanup files.

Update 2018-11-10

I've been thinking about this a lot more and considering writing an app to help document things.

This occasional background idea has acquired a lot more urgency because we sadly lost our beloved Sifu suddenly earlier this year and want to ensure recording more of our school's knowledge before his older relatives are unable to clarify or add details for us.

I've bought some books on Laban notation but it may not be a great fit so have been doing my own design. Whilst it includes some description of weight carrying it seems to lack weight distribution notation.

(Somewhat abusing this answer to record some thoughts in public) I think we need a way to document things more as variations on basic stances and transitions between them. It may be that Laban notation could be used for detailed bits but a recording of a form would use a simpler summary. There is a lot more repetition of standard positions and moves in most martial arts forms compared to free-form dance.

I'm doing some paper prototyping of having multiple columns indicating:

  • Stance (allowing use of a simple symbol or letter code)
  • Stance facing direction
  • Eye facing direction
  • Feet positions and turns (starting position of feet implied by the stance)
  • Complex arm movements
  • Complex foot movements eg when kicking
  • Movement of weight - I think a simple bar with gradient or Sparkline would summarise this.

I haven't heard anything about martial arts notation per se; however, there is dance notation that is used by ballet that might be useful for if you wanted to develop your own system. Also, some hunting around can also lead you to some limited information on fight notation, but such systems tend to apply to a specific style and may or may not also only apply to sword fighting.

If you do some hunting around on the internet you can find some blog entries (1, 2) that discuss the concepts for martial arts specifically but one thing that I've noticed is that such discussions tend to highlight the fact that the notations are useful as reminders if you already know what you are doing and aren't really that useful to attempting to demonstrate new information to someone that is not already familiar with it.

I have thought about his myself at an earlier point. The plan was to develop a system of forms across different Taekwondo styles, possibly even across arts. My idea was to establish a notation that is abstract enough so that every art / every style can interpret it individually.

I eventually gave up on such a notation because it's pretty much impossible to determine the right level of abstraction. I'll give an example.

A common technique in Taekwondo is Bakat-Palmok-Bakat-Makki (Kukkiwon-Terminology, but the ITF-terminology is similar), a mid-section outward block using the outside of the lower arm, see the upper right picture in this form diagram). Basically the elements you have here are:

  1. direction of movement (outward)
    depending on the style, this may be a horizontal or upward movement, the arms may be crossed or chambered or moved in a parallel axis
  2. weapon (outside of the lower arm)
    depending on the style, this may be close to the wrist, close to the elbow, on the outside or on the top side of the arm
  3. type of movement (block)
    depending on the style, this may be an offensive or defensive, pushing or breaking block

And that's just one technique.

Now who is to decide which level of abstraction is needed for which notation? As an example: I originally learned traditional Taekwondo forms in the 80s from a book (the "Choi bible") that didn't have many pictures and only vague descriptions (at least in the german translation). Explanations were often something like "Execute a kick in direction L". A kick? Gosh, we have a few of those in TKD, now which one will I use? Here, obviously the abstraction level was way to high.

On the other hand, a low level of abstraction means a very verbose text which is a nightmare for both author and reader (very error-prone and an awful signal-to-noise ratio).

I think, for a formal notation to be effective, you need an established common ground. A Grandmaster may just say something is a a Front kick and abbreviate it as FK, because his students will know his individual interpretation of the technique. But in an exchange with another master from another system, he will have to go into a lot more depth, the same technique will probably need at least two sentences of explanation.

Borrowing notations from non-martial arts (or from Sign Language notation) does not seem helpful to me, because martial arts techniques have purposes, not just movements, and these purposes are pretty unique to martial arts, I'm afraid. So, no, I don't think there is or ever will be such a notation that is powerful enough to give a common ground for many or all martial arts but still simple enough to actually be useable (and readable).

I don't know - and have never seen - martial notation systems out in the wild. Here are a few small things that I've used that were helpful, to get started:

  • RFF - Right Foot Forward
  • LFF - Left Foot Forward
  • FFK - Front leg Front Kick
  • RFK - Rear leg Front Kick
  • FRK - Front Roundhouse Kick
  • RRK - Rear Roundhouse Kick

Now for more complex things like, say, the following movement:

You are in stance A facing direction X, left hand down block, right hand on hip. Look over right shoulder, right foot steps behind left foot to stance B facing direction Y, both hands come up in double head block.

I have no idea, but using the notation above as a guide, I would suggest: - A -> X, LH DB, RH 0 (zero, meaning the initial position, base position, whatever) - Look RS (right shoulder, as opposed to just to your right) - RF behind LF - B -> Y - LH+RH double high block

Now, this looks all neat out of context, but the key will be to be really consistent with this otherwise it's going to become unreadable REALLY QUICKLY. I never used this because my memory is excellent -- and I know one form that I'm still not sure, after five years or so of studying it, how I would write down.

This was the direct answer to your question. You can use this to describe two-person drills as well by prepending a number.

Truth be told, you probably ought to review your notes more often, and ask questions within one week at the most if you don't remember clearly. It's a lot of work, but it just has to be done in chunks - not all at once.

Over the last several days, I've been personally working feverishly on just such a system, although admittedly for my own use. Not because I don't believe that it could benefit others, but because I don't expect wide adoption due to the splintered nature of the martial arts "community", especially the ITF for example.

What I'm developing is a system of notation similar to music notation. It developed that way fairly organically, given that I'm a musician as well as a Tae Kwon-Do practitioner.

Without getting into too much detail, it seemed elementary to me that such a thing should exist. Music, sciences, language...anything that enjoys world-wide contribution and advancement adheres to some system of communicating its elements and appointments. I hope to develop this notation system to the extent that it can express techniques while still leaving some room for style differences and interpretation, like any similar system of notation in other disciplines.

I'm still working on it, but as an example of how a pattern (Hyeong, Tul, Poomse) like Chon-Ji would like as a score, check the PDF I've uploaded here: http://duaneneveu.com/notation/Chon-Ji.pdf

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    It's been two years. How is the notation system coming? I want to know more about it. – The Wudang Kid Mar 5 '14 at 17:37

Looks like it's been another four or five years. Since this thread started. It's still got SEO dominance. I've found some stuff at U of M and researched the links in this thread. I've been skimming orthography and language philosophy. I think most (not all) concerns can be addressed through the development of a pictorial character development on a staff like the music developed in the thread example above.

There seems to be a collapse around orientation. Perhaps the language should be heliocentric rather than person oriented? Maybe that should be addressed by the author - like music is written in a key..

When I practice Tai Chi, the orientation seems more grounded in union, Ju jitsu the same, boxing seems less related.. But maybe I'm doing it wrong. I'd need to consult Grandmasters in those areas.

There are linguists who could help design this..

And there seems to be pieces missing. When Grandmaster says, "White Crane Spreads it's Wings," he relates differently. His first language is not English. I'm hearing it as a process. He's speaking it as an event resulting from a depth of something I can't access yet. Maybe historical context? I still see myself as me born in this time. He sees himself as part of a continuation stretching behind and in front of him beyond and including his reach.

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    Please take the tour. Your answer does not seem to really answer the question. Also, "U of M" is quite ambiguous. – mattm Oct 22 at 20:55
  • >Perhaps the language should be heliocentric rather than person oriented? When I record my audio notes, and transcribe them, I use NSEW directions to say which way I move or face, rather than relative turns. Sometimes I use both just to clarify. – Andy Dent Nov 10 at 21:18

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