I joined the first one when I was sixteen, dove right in, thinking this would be an end to my dorkitude, the bullying I'd been subjected to, was gonna get that Bruce Lee body, be a totally different person in a year. I became ultra-dedicated… to a place, I can see now, embodying most of the things wrong with many martial schools.
There was no organized practice, no clear progression from A to B. All techniques were done from a static stance, often for super-high reps of the same technique, which is like trying to learn chess by moving your knight five hundred times in a row.
The moves we defended against were ones from our own system that we’d never, ever be attacked with on the street or in the halls of my high school. 'Wrestling,' which is what sparring frequently degenerated into, was used as a pejorative, said with a slight eyeroll and curl of the lips. The unfortunate fact that a lot of high school wrestlers could tie a lot of hifalutin' martial arts teachers in a knot, was not addressed.
If you asked what to do if somebody tackled you and took you down, we were told not to get taken down in the first place. Mmm, yes, that would solve the problem…
Weight training was discouraged, because it built ‘antagonistic muscles,’ a statement so stupid from an athletic training standpoint, that, having now been a fitness trainer now more than twenty years, it still makes my eyes roll back so hard I can see my hair. And boy howdy, if there was ever a skinny, nerdariffic sixteen year old in need of a barbell, some dumbbells, and a squat rack, stat, it was me, especially if I wanted to punch an aggro, muscular hallway bully and have him notice.
Asking questions was discouraged, including questions like “Gee, Sifu, doing this technique in the air two hundred times seems to hurt my joints, any help for that?” Ask the wrong one, especially if it mentioned another style, and you were in the doghouse for a couple of weeks, no direct instruction for you. It was 'disrespectful' to even mention another style, as this style could beat all others, and you didn't need another style for fighting.
An ex-ballerina told me that the secret to maintaining balance in a series of spins is to fix your attention on a single point. How must it be when your brainstem keeps revolving around the only idea you got?
I remember asking the instructor how we would respond to a left hook, having just read somewhere that our style was vulnerable to attacks like that, and he looked at me like I’d just wiped his car’s windshield for a handout. “What do you think?” he barked with a barely-concealed sneer, something he did a lot. What I thought at the time was that a halfway-decent hook, especially delivered by someone twenty pounds heavier than me (not hard to do, back then), would take my head off. The instructor summoned a bored-looking senior student, who on his instruction threw a slow, half-hearted hook at my head, which I blocked, no surprise. This was presumably to show me that I had the tools to deal with this attack. I didn’t. I think now pretty much nobody there did.
What pisses me off as much as anything was the unsafe way we did body conditioning; my first style, Wing Chun, did a lot of banging your forearms on other peoples', as well as on the wooden arms of a special dummy. The dummy's 'torso' was covered with hard rubber, and I do mean hard, and you were expected to throw hundreds of hard punches against it. Not having the means to purchase my own wooden dummy, I hung three sheets of cut-up carpet against a brick pillar in my basement, and punched that. Later, at college, I hung a folded towel in front of the heavy wooden frame of the upper bunk in my dorm room, and hit that. At seventeen, my knuckles were swollen and jet black.
I was a dumbass teenager, what did I know? Guys did stuff like that in the movies, and they always beat the bad guys in the end. And look, I had visual proof of my hard work! Of course now, figuring out that spending so much time on hardening my knuckles vs, say, getting strong enough to deadlift my bodyweight, was maybe a wrong use of my energy, seems about as brilliant as hitting the brakes when I see a stop sign.
And now, almost thirty years later, with much more knowledge, including a Master's in traditional Chinese Medicine with a focus on trauma medicine, plus having been a trainer for a long time, I know a few things about both physical training and martial arts, with some of them collected at the end of this article. But if I came out of that experience with my first school with anything, it was a clear idea on the proper actions of a teacher, especially a paid teacher. I walked away from that school, and had a lot of time to think about how things were done there, and told myself, “When I'm taking someone's money to instruct them, I'm not going to be like that.”
I left that school with a grudge, which has never left me and has, I think, served me well.
I decided that I'd answer clients' questions as well as I could (hopefully without the rambling that I'm prone to), and if I was unsure, I'd say, “I don't know.”
I would always put the client's safety first, and never ignore them if they told me that something was hurting them that was supposed to be helping them.
And I'd never stop trying to improve what it was that I was doing, and if I found better ways, found someone with a better idea, I'd steal it and use it.
I've never studied Japanese martial arts, except for a spell in grade school when I did judo, very badly (bit of a grudge there, too, re 'the importance of correct strength training and conditioning'), but Japanese martial artists always had a certain quality that I aspired to.
I remember, my senior year in college, when I first started working out in the weight room with (what I thought was) some seriousness, I had as my inspiration those black and white photos of Japanese judo and karate practitioners; buzz-cut hair, faces calm but not clenched, ramrod upright posture, solid but not bulky musculature, the affect of having totally given themselves over to this art and being OK with that.
What didn't occur to me, and maybe not to those guys that I admired, either, is that they'd given themselves over to someone who might be lying, consciously or unconsciously, to them.
Bruce D. Clayton has written a great book, good for both martial arts afficiandos and, I submit, for teachers of any discipline, called Shotokan's Secret. Mr. Clayton, for more than thirty years, has conducted an extraordinarily deep study of his chosen martial art, Shotokan Karate, and reached very high ranks (sixth and seventh degree black belts) under several teachers of the art. And not only is he a highly engaging writer with a discerning intellect, he seems like pretty much of a mensch. Go buy his book on Amazon, I'll wait.
Too much good stuff in the book to cover here, but it confirmed that traditional teachers of Japanese martial arts are conservative, boy, as in, you try to change anything, sometimes ask 'Why do we do it like this? It makes no sense...' and things start boiling harder than an Irish dinner.
You don't try to improve things, you don't ask 'why,' at least not past a certain point, you get in line, shut your mouth, and do what the master tells you. And if you get too independent, you're a protruding nail that must be hammered.
Reading Clayton's book, I was irresistibly reminded of an article I'd read in a martial arts mag more than twenty five years ago, an article purporting to give a balanced answer to the ongoing question, are 'forms' (also known as 'kata,' pre-arranged martial arts movement sequences, usually done solo, with emphasis on doing the moves the same 'right' way, every time) realistic training for a real fight?
I don't remember who Answer A came from, some teacher who didn't think forms were worth the time and energy spent doing them, who very analytically instead recommended various types of bag work, drills with a partner, and strength training.
Answer B came from a student (name forgotten) of Tadashi Yamashita, a famous and very traditional teacher of Okinawan karate. It was unintentionally hilarious reading the student asking this very reasonably question, him seeing Yamashita reply with vague generalities about the past of the style while getting more and more pissed off that this student was daring to question The Old Ways, an account the student finished by saying, in effect, “...and then during practice, he beat the hell out of me for asking those questions, but, y'know, I really think that there was something to what he said.”
Hilarious because Yamashita's reply wouldn't have gotten him a C in Basic Logic, and the student seemed to be desperately trying to make a silk purse out of this sow's ear of an answer, an answer that may well have had Yamashita's students losing a fight, or their lives, in the future.
Well, also, it was hilarious because Yamashita wasn't hitting me, and I'm easily amused.
Watching a Traditionalist answer probing questions about their art, if they don't have the option of punching the questioner, is often like watching a drunk trying to climb up a down escalator, the same two minutes of footage, over and over. Dammit, it works because I say so, alright!?
Clayton's book has many gems, which is why I suggested you buy it, but some of the central points that he hammers home, after exhaustive dedicated research, are
- The 'character development' the original karate teachers spoke of was the character useful, indeed, necessary, in Tokugawa-era Japan: that of never questioning superiors, not getting out of line, and of shutting up and doing exactly what you were told. Not so much what we now think of as 'good character,' especially when you're told to do bad things.
- People can concoct explanations for anything - Clayton gives the example of his students coming up with combat applications of a series of moves he demonstrated, which they did with great success. He didn't tell them that the moves were from the Macarena. I swear.
- In the most traditional of arts, teachers will make stuff up, and claim that it's ancient knowledge handed down only to them. Seriously, this happens.
- The actual original Okinawan karate teachers (like Funakoshi and Nakamura) changed their art for reasons having nothing to do with, you know, doing good karate, ie, changing a form in nonsensical ways so that, at the end of the form, you end up in the same place as where you started, all to get a higher score when being judged in form contests.
Over the years, I've formulated what I call the 'Bai Mei Rule,' named after the white-haired villain of several Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks, and later borrowed by Tarantino for the second Kill Bill movie (where he screwed up the name as 'Pai Mei.' 'Bai' = 'white' in Mandarin, Bai Mei = 'white hair,' which the character always has. Jeez, Quentin, you call yourself a fan?)
Bai Mei, originally played by Lo Lieh (who brings what I still think of as the most evil set of lips ever seen on screen) is a bad guy, but beats the crap out of the good guys for most of the movies. The historical Bai Mei was apparently also a bad guy, but also a tough guy and prolific teacher, from which we may extract the rule :
“Not-so-nice people often have the good info. If you can get it from them without unduly compromising yourself or your beliefs, do so.”
As a collary to the Bai Mei Rule, I have heard quite a few teachers or masters bang on and on about their pedigrees, why they are eminently suited to be listened to, listing how far back their knowledge goes, how many masters they've studied with, how smart they are, how strong they are...and then they go on to say something that I knew, or know now, is categorically wrong. They may have been big, bad, apparently successful, claiming lineage back twenty generations...still wrong. And they will steer you in the wrong direction, knowingly or unknowingly, and never lose a night's sleep over it.
I've mentioned my early admiration for Japanese traditional martial artists, and my early experiences with hand conditioning, ie, beating hard things with your hands with the aim of making those hands impervious. Hand conditioning has been a big part of karate for awhile, quite likely, as many of their martial arts were, in imitation of Chinese kung fu.
But in Chinese martial arts, the teacher was traditionally also an herbalist, who'd hook you up with the liniment to soak your hands in after pounding wood posts or the like. This part was not usually included in Japanese training, which resulted in some messed-up digits later in life. You had karatekas unquestioningly pounding mankiwara posts, getting the same black knuckles I used to have, and then one day not being able to pick up a pen.
The man I still consider my teacher, though I haven't trained with him since the 90's, Sifu Charles Chi, once told me a story about being out with a famous karateka, one that I'd read about in my teens, in a book on breaking boards, bricks and other stuff, who'd been written about admiringly for his hardcore body and hand toughening. Sifu Chi told how they'd both been waiting for someone in a building, in the summer, the karateka's eyes began watering, and he finally blurted out, “Charlie, I gotta go, this air conditioning is killing my hands!” before running outside. I doubt that that guy is sending many emails these days, unless he uses voice-recognition software.
Charles Chi had me beat my hands, forearms, and shins a whole lot more (on both bags and against other people) than I ever did at my first school, but never stinted on the post-workout medicine. And I never had any ill effects, after the pain of training, that is, though he always made it clear to let him know if we did.
Sifu Chi would answer any reasonable question put to him, was always in excellent shape with rippling abs, could explain any technique he demonstrated and fight with what he taught (a number of challengers came to his school over the years, and they came in vertical, went out horizontal), and never stopped learning. He continues to be a teacher I try to model myself after.
So what to do? Learn as much as you can, and never stop learning, so you can tell when you're being fed bad info. You don't have to jump up and scream “You lie!” if your teacher tells you something you know is wrong, you can maybe glide around it if it's not a big deal, take in the 95% of the other stuff they say that has value. But you shouldn't stay in a place where asking questions, respectfully and meaningful questions, is forbidden, or when the training itself is breaking you down.
Your health comes first. If you ruin your body during training, what the hell for? The old saying “When competition comes in the door, health goes out the window” has a lot of truth to it, but how far will you ride that horse? For a medal? To be your district, state, US champ? Well, great, but it won't generally be worth a lot of money, and athletes easily forget how little people outside their sport know, or care about it. I still remember Joe Lewis, who dominated sport karate fighting in the 70's, in talking about this, asking an interviewer in '03 “Who's the current US karate champion? Never mind, I don't know, and I don't care myself.”
My current sport is dragon boating, and I love doing it. I have no ongoing health problems because of it, don't anticipate any, but if my shoulder started to hurt uncontrollably, I'd find another sport. I plan on climbing mountains and running down horses in my nineties; health comes first. In self-defense training, we're supposedly preparing to prevent someone from (maybe permanently) hurting us. So, how hard would you fight a leering goon who threatened to smash on your hands so's you couldn't use them after middle age?
One of my favorite strength coaches, Mike Boyle, is often derided by the Internet meathead brigade for a somewhat conservative approach to training, to which he commonly replies, "Hey, come see me when you're 45." Well, now I'm 46, I feel great, and want to keep it that way.
Teachers....I really like a point Clayton makes in his book about giri, the Japanese concept of 'unpayable debt.' Some teachers wrongly put this all on the student, that because they are the student, and they must pay the teacher back for the thousand or so hours it took to make them a black belt.
Clayton points out that giri implies a two-way obligation, involving both the master and student. The student is expected to obey the master because the master has the good stuff, and points the student correctly. The master, though, must indeed steer the student safe and true, while cultivating benevolence, humaneness, and a genuine concern for those that they teach. A master who does this is said to 'have the Mandate of Heaven;' one who doesn't, does not. Without the Mandate of Heaven, all debts owed to the teacher are cancelled, and we are not just free, but obligated to leave that instructor.
With the benefit of hindsight and experience, I don't think my first instructor had it. Although I've only been recently introduced to that term, it's something I've never stopped trying to earn.
Oh yeah, the stuff that I now know, that I didn't get in my first martial arts school? Here's some of it -
- People will wrestle you, if they fight you and they can't put you down with just one or two punches.
- Every tough guy in the world (almost) uses, as his plan to fight a martial artist, barreling in with his head down, knocking you off balance, and then pummeling you. If you can't deal with this, you can't fight. If you can't teach how to deal with it, you can't teach how to fight, period.
- Everyone needs to weight train. Extra strength and power won't come out of the air, and hitting bags of whatever description is not sufficient. Standing still in a low stance can be screamingly painful, but doesn't make your legs fast and strong, which is why people who run real fast or jump competitively don't do it, it just makes you real good at holding that stance. You have to do squats, deadlifts, lunges, and their variations.
- If you mainly practice techniques in the air, you'll have a rude surprise when you actually hit someone. Plus, it's really easy to hurt your knee, elbow, and shoulder joints by snapping them straight with no resistance.
- Every athletic workout must be planned, have a purpose, and be part of a progression.
- Punching really hard but immobile stuff does not make you a killer puncher, it gives you a false sense of power as you automatically get that 'rebound' feeling back up your arm that happens when you land a solid hit. Opponents do not stand still and brace for you. This crap still show up in action novels: “...and he hit sacks of concrete mix until his punch was like being hit with a blunt axe...” Uh, no.
- You need to strengthen your wrists and to some extent condition your hands to hit, but any 'hand hardening' must be accompanied by application of a well-made herbal liniment, or your hands will be arthritic and very painful later in life. Knuckles and hands, themselves, are not deadly weapons, you don't yank 'em off and throw them at someone (“Feel the force of my rock-hard extremities!”); what makes a hard hitter is generating whole-body force, preferably from three dimensions, timing, and throwing from the correct distance.
- Sometimes, teachers will ask you to figure something out on your own to make you stretch those mental muscles. Sometimes, it's because they don't have an answer, or they have a wrong one. In general, questions deserve answers.
- I don't care if it re-made her career, Jodie Foster, and later Julianne Moore, should not have been cast as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs/Hannibal. Man, Starling was supposed to be a bad mamma jamma who cleared rooms on a SWAT team and was tough as nails. The only way I can see Jodie/Julianne putting down a suspect is via hysterical laughter at the sight of them trying to be tough. What, was Ellen Barkin totally booked? I know this is off the subject, but jeez, that still pisses me off. Sorry, Thomas Harris.