5 Martial Arts Conference Survival Strategies

This coming weekend is the Vancouver International Swordplay Symposium in Vancouver. This is a three day weekend of martial arts workshops, intensives, sparring, socializing, and more. Over the past 20 years I have attended my fair share of conferences as a student and as a teacher across disciplines both eastern and western. These events are amazing opportunities for learning and inspiration. They also tend to be super-packed events with more goodness than one human being can effectively cram into their brains and bodies. So here are a few tips to make the most of your time without burning yourself out:

Take Notes

You may believe that you will remember everything that is relevant, but you won’t. Even if you have a good memory it will be improved through the process of documenting and summarizing. If you want to get the most value for your time, you’ll take notes.
Simplest form of note-taking is with a pen and notebook or three ring binder. I personally prefer to use some form of media that lets me move pages around if I decide that I want to insert some new content into a given area.
I also recommend using software like Evernote or OneNote to do mixed-media note taking. With these apps, which you can load onto your phone or tablet, you can quickly type in notes, record video, and shoot photos. I particularly like the ability of OneNote to mix all of these different forms together, write on top of images, and have in-line text and captioning. Another nice thing is that you can tag, catalog, and search your notes later.
Taking expansive notes can be difficult in a workshop. Make capturing the course outline your first priority. Capture a short title for each lesson and bullet point a few pertinent notes that will help you remember it (and other key points) later.
At the end of your day use these headings to help you flesh out with greater detail what occurred in class. I find that having a recorded flow of how the material was presented is the most useful tool for recalling, practicing, and transmitting what you learned to others later. If you can use a video function to capture lessons as they’re taught or a summary at the end, do it—but make sure you ask your instructor for permission first!
At the end of a workshop, don’t be shy about asking your instructor to help you fill in gaps in your notes. Most instructors are thrilled to have students that take notes at all!

Work in Teams

If the workshop that you are in is particularly fast-paced I recommend working in note-taking teams with other practitioners from your group. In this way, one person can step out and take notes while the other continues learning in the class. Afterward the one who stayed behind can catch up the note-taking partner.
In a group of three consider organizing in this way:
For exercise 1
Partner 1: Pays attention to the exercise at hand.
Partner 2: Drills and supports.
Partner 3: Observes
For exercise 2
Partner 1: Documents exercise 1
Partner 2: Pays attention to the exercise at hand.
Partner 3: Drills and supports.
For exercise 3
Partner 1: Drills and supports
Partner 2: Documents exercise 2
Partner 3: Pays full attention to the exercise at hand.
The three person group also allows two people to be taking notes and still have a third who is in the action. Remember the goal here is to document for practice later, not to become proficient in the moment.

Share the Load

Another way to work as a team is to each go to different sessions. Work with the program in advance, divide up your group, and plan a sharing session for when you get home. This will allow you to take in the absolute maximum amount of content from the conference. Knowing that you have to transmit what you learn to others can motivate you to pay attention and take good notes.

Balance Between Refinement and New Knowledge

One of the main questions I get asked by my students is “Should I do something I’ve never done before or take classes in the disciplines/systems I already know?”
I recommend striking a balance; Divide your time between what you know and what you don’t know.
Taking a workshop on a subject with which you are already familiar, but from an instructor who is new to you, can give you excellent insights on how you practice your current art. Perhaps they will present a missing piece of information, or convey something in a slightly different way that makes new sense to you. If you’re worried about being bored, ask the instructor to challenge you, or use the opportunity to really maximize your practice. Be sure to ask the instructor for specific and detailed coaching. Often, if an instructor sees that you’re familiar with something, they may not comment on your form (because it’s “good enough”), so invite them to do so and maximize your coaching input.
Learning a new subject can be fun and interesting, and it can also deepen your understanding of your primary art. You don’t have to plan to take up yet another discipline (who has time for that?) but you can broaden your mind, discover new insights into old things, and learn new ways to approach your current training.
By balancing between the new and the old you’ll also run less of a risk of overtaxing your brain and making it (relatively) comfortably through the entire event.

Look After Yourself

Eat well. Get good sleep. Pace yourself and be easy on your limits. Make sure you have a clear picture of what your goals are for the weekend and plan your time to support that. If your goals are learning oriented, consider whether staying up ’til 3am socializing and drinking will best support them. If you are a new practitioner to an art, consider that in a three-hour workshop the first hour is probably the most important, so put your energy there and don’t sweat learning the material in the second two hours. In any well structured workshop hours two and three provide plenty of opportunities to focus on the core skills of hour one. You can keep your focus there, still be a good partner, and not worry about retaining anything new.
Nourishment is important. I always bring a few protein bars with me into every class to help keep my mental and physical focus. I don’t eat lunches that are overly carb rich, and I use my stimulants (coffee, etc.) judiciously so I don’t crash.
If at any point you feel that you’re reaching the ends of your physical or mental limitations, especially if you feel that it will affect the safety of you or others, take a break. Observe. Take Notes. Step out of class and take a nap or go for a walk. Not trying to be a super-human will allow you to be a very effective regular-human.
Take care and have fun!
What are your strategies for getting the most out of an event? Let us know in the comments.

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