Kung Fu for Modern Times (Impatient Students)

30 05 2016

We have to challenge tradition, sometimes.

I recall a senior classmate advising me not to ask Sifu for information. I was a child then, and naturally what he told me entered one ear and out the other. We had a visitor who taught Wing Chun for the weekend and I was not allowed to attend (by my mother; I was on punishment that weekend) and I was upset about it. One of the things I was jealous about was that my classmates the following week were practicing forms that were taught and Chi Sao–which at that time I had only read about and heard about but not learned. I wasted no time in weaseling my way into getting Sifu to offer to teach me. But the Chi Sao he taught me was his own version, unlike what my classmates learned–and hey, I got to learn it! And there were other times, I had just learned a few moves from a form, I learned to approach certain, helpful instructors and ask them to “check” my progress. That usually got me some corrections and a few new techniques. To some, I was an impatient kid. To others, I was eager to learn. Years later, I would discover that some of my favorite classmates learned this same way!

Let’s discuss this topic (I’m actually changing the title of the article because of it) a little further.

We tend to frown on students who are eager to learn, because we want them to practice and focus on skill development rather than “learning too fast”. It is certainly understandable why students should take their time and develop skill–but what if a student trained hard and trained often and was ready for new material before his peers? Why should we hold him back or impede his progress? If he has put in the work, has developed good skill in a shorter amount of time than usual–what is wrong with allowing this student to learn at a pace his diligence and discipline will allow? Do we not tell students that their progress “depends on how fast you can learn and develop”? Or is that line only used to force students to learn at a slow place? Do we really mean it, or are we just throwing it out there to explain why we will selfishly hold on to knowledge to prevent students from learning and developing quickly?

It is doubtful that learning quickly if a student is hard working, eager, and disciplined is actually bad for him. One has to question why teachers started this “you must earn knowledge slowly” business in the first place. Perhaps it’s to prevent students from getting what they want and quitting. Or it ensures a steady flow of tuition by keeping them longer. Or how about this:  You simply don’t want them learning faster than you did. Remember, I am not saying teach a student who isn’t ready more material; we are referring to hard-working, diligent and consistent students who have learned and excelled faster than usual.

A question often heard is “How long will it take me to learn to fight?”

What do we tell them? Probably something silly like, “Learn the basics, take your time–maybe a year or two.”  I totally disagree. How long does it take a 5 year old child to learn to read? In Kindergarten, a five year old will learn his alphabet in September, and by December he is reading sight words and writing phonetically. So are we suggesting that a baby can learn to read quicker than a grown man can learn to defend himself? Ridiculous. A student who asks such a thing isn’t impatient, as we try to tell ourselves. He is simply trying to decide if he is wasting his money and his time. If you do not help him make and see progress in a few months–YOU are wasting his time. And unfortunately, so many Kung Fu Sifu waste students’ time that they rarely come to us for actual self-defense anymore. If you ever thought “interest in traditional Chinese martial arts is dead”, this is the #1 reason why. We are no longer meeting their needs.

May I remind you all, that this is not the Shaolin Temple or a Shaw Brothers film. If a guy comes to me to learn carpentry, I will have him doing basic jobs in a matter of weeks. If a teen signs up to learn to drive, we have him driving in a month. Why must self-defense take so long?

You couldn’t get away with that in an MMA or Kickboxing gym. Maybe that’s why they are kicking Kung Fu schools behinds at the bank.

The modern Kung Fu student is not as interested in learning to perform forms as we were 30 years ago. We were from a different time, we had different expectations, and things have changed. The traditional Chinese martial arts school has not kept up with the times, and we cannot accomodate the very real, modern-day needs of today’s student. This is why they come to us for esoteric reasons, and go to other styles–even Tae Kwon Do–for practical reasons. If it took a year before seeing results for weight loss, a class would go out of business. If I took a pill but did not see the health benefits for a year, I would stop taking it. If you gave your mechanic your car and he didn’t fix it for a year, you would change shops. Martial arts must be capable of meeting the needs of students in a realistic amount of time. Sure, to do a decent form a year of practice would be necessary. But if a student had been mugged and is in fear of being mugged again–forms should not be his focus in learning to protect himself and his family. He surely shouldn’t have to wait 12 months before being allowed to test his skills in self-defense.

Realistically, martial arts students should learn their basic skills in 1-2 months, and start sparring by the third. If you want to take 12 months to develop his traditional footwork and forms skills, do it. But help him see his progress for the goals he came to you for as quickly as possible. A school that can teach a man self-defense in 3 months is meeting needs. It does not come overnight, but it should not take a year or more. This alone will give the modern martial arts student the results needed to bring more people to the Chinese arts, as well as respect. Sparring and self-defense practice should be strongly intertwined with traditional training for it to be relevant to today’s needs. Instead of an arbitrary long waiting period for skill, allow students to move at their own pace and make your classes worth the money. Doing so will draw more people to your school and give everything students do in the classroom a point of reference. Once they have gotten their feet wet on the floor with gloves and headgear on, their training will make more sense as they see how this skill can be applied. This will be a challenge for teachers as well, who must find out the best way to prepare students for actual combat in just a few months.

Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.