Critique the Master

2 12 2014

Ah, yes. Analyze the master, even if you have to find fault with the way he did things. Understand that no man (or woman) is above reproach, and as long as we are human there will always be room for improvement. We strive for perfection, but no man should ever believe he has arrived at that point. For the moment you believe you have perfected the martial arts, you have just initiated your demise. Perfection, my brothers, is a never-ending, always out of reach plateau. You may get near it, you may realize you are approaching it, but the closer you reach perfection, you will realize a new goal or challenge. In order to become the perfect martial artists, you must always be in pursuit of it.

(My #1 gripe with Bruce Lee fans, btw–many hurt their own growth because they believe in Lee’s doctrine without question, without deviating from his path when the man was 32 years old…)

If your Sifu has done his job right, the day you become a full instructor, you should be the absolute best product he could produce. We martial arts teachers are a curious bunch. We honor our Masters and teachers by hoping to become the best Kung Fu fighters we can, but in order to do so, we must improve our teachers and their systems. We are often friendly and cordial with each other, but inside our minds, we think we are better than the next guy and do our best to show it. Some of us actually call each other up and tease each other about being better. Some of us take it personal and actually dislike our “competition”. Some of us are in competition with our own brothers. My Si Hing Chris Henderson and I used to kill each other with insults because he owned a Kung Fu school and I worked for a commercial Dojo. When I encountered his students in tournaments I would tell my students to get those “Wu Shu artists”. Another Si Hing of mine would call me a traitor whenever he saw me in a Karate uniform point fighting, telling me I was playing Tag. I would tease another Si Hing, Ron Wheeler, for being a break dancer in a Kung Fu uniform–and he’d tease me about the time he popped me in the nose when we fought at American University (I won lol). My Baltimore friends, who represented four different styles, were my opponents every month in tournaments up and down the 95. Through all of this, we sought to improve ourselves and improve each other through friendly (and not-so-friendly) competition. Yet the one person with whom we should also compete against is the person we often refuse to oppose: Our own Masters.

If we teach our respective styles without acknowledging the potential or need for improvement, our system will not improve. How can you teach your students to develop an unstoppable attack if we do not understand where our weaknesses lie? How can you give your students an impenetrable defense if you do not also teach them how they can potentially be beaten? In the Filipino martial arts, there is a term called “counter for the counter”. When you teach an attack, you must identify the possible counters to that attack, then you must learn how to counter that counter. In other words, in order to understand your system better, you must understand how to beat the system your Master taught you. Many of you are not psychologically ready to face this. Too many believe that their system cannot be improved. Too many believe it would be disrespectful to question what your Sifu taught, or if they had made any mistakes when they taught you. I would suggest that your Sifu very likely improved the art his own Sifu taught him when he taught you, however. Very few of us teach exactly as we were taught. Most of us have our own specialties, our own weaknesses, and things that we like in the art. Doesn’t it make sense to personalize our Hung Gar, our Wing Chun, our Tong Lung, our Choy Lay Fut–so that our students can get the best we can offer?

There are few ways to do this without changing your Sifu’s curriculum. One way is to omit those things you cannot do well. Another is to send your students to various classmates who can perform skills in your system better than you can. You can also elect to emphasize some skills and forms more than others, based on your own taste. But more often than not–you will have to change many things to fit your own individuality as a teacher, and your student’s learning ability, physical limitations or gifts, and needs.

When formulating your school’s lesson plans, it would be very fair to your student to find the most efficient, effective means to results that you can. Our teachers did not know everything. We must admit that. Of course, we respect our masters, but we do them a disservice by idolizing them and deifying them to the point that their legacy is ruined because we are too much in adoration to allow their art to grow. Don’t simply take the training plan you had as a student and regurgitate it without thought. Think of things that you and your classmates struggle with. Is there a way to make it easier to learn? Was there something in your Sifu’s school that caused a many students to drop out? It isn’t fair to just say they were “losers” or “weak”. Did you have classmates who did not get results? Have you found many instances of beginners becoming better than advanced students? Or, let’s just cut to the chase… Can you find a better way to teach than your teacher? Is there anything in the curriculum that is impractical, needs an overhaul, or needs to be emphasized? You are now the Sifu, give your students what they are paying for!

This is one reason I am not in favor of newly made Sifus being allowed to leave right out and open schools. Either that, or we should give instructor candidates ample time to work out those things out before getting in front of a student body. Once the instructor-student has learned the art, he or she may need time to fully absorb and understand the system before it is presented and taught to new students. We want to be fair to our students, and our students’ students by making sure that the art we are giving them has been absorbed, tested, developed and revised. New Sifus must be comfortable enough with the art–with his teacher’s art–to look at it with a critical art, and not be afraid to say, “I’ve improved my teacher’s art.” It is not a slap in your Sifu’s face to say that. In fact, it is a compliment. You are saying, “Sifu, I have learned your art and I have found a way to make it fit me better.”

Saying so means that your Sifu has done more than just taught a student; he has created a confident and wise Sifu-student who has become more than just a certified instructor, he has become a peer.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

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