Questioning Martial Arts

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My Sifu, Alan Orr often starts his class with the question “Any questions?”One of the problems with martial arts training can often be the unwillingness to really question anything, it’s an easy habit to get into and often only broken by the best students, so start by asking yourself if you want to be amongst that group? One of the best students, the students who go on to become instructors and/or fighters within their system.It is a constant questioning of what you are doing, what it is that you are being taught, why do this? What happens in this situation and possibly most importantly “Is what I’m doing actually relevant?” that will lead to finding the solutions. It’s maybe that those questions take you away from where you are training to seek out new information, maybe new teachers. I have trained under many different instructors, some good, some not. Sometimes years on you realise all you learned from one was that you had to find another but this article is aimed at cutting down that time span and to help lead you to the right path for you.Why am I doing this?This to my mind is one of the questions you should be asking yourself and then a secondary question should be what am I doing to achieve my goals??My belief is that if you wish to do a martial art then you must want to learn the skills to defend yourself effectively against an average adversary maybe one with greater strength or size, maybe to be able to really fight against a skilled and determined opponent or multiple attackers. The self confidence aspect of martial arts to my mind is the knowledge that you really can do those things under pressure. If you simply want a social club and a bit of fitness thrown into the bargain then fair enough maybe this article holds no relevance to those people and I know there is quite a contingent of people out there that go to their respective martial arts club to say they do a martial art but really have no intention of ever really being able to seriously use it. This article is aimed only at those who really want to achieve a good level of skill and the ability to use it under real pressure.Anyone who trains at a martial arts club will recognise this scenario…….You know nothing or very little about the martial arts but are eager to learn, you have seen Bruce Lee flicks, the UFC, Jet Li, you want to be like those guys, you are in a training hall with fifteen others most of which obviously know what they are doing. The instructor starts the class and everything feels alien. You learn some moves, the instructor explains and demonstrates them with the help of a willing senior and they all look good. This is probably where most people have stopped thinking….Its accepted practice in many walks of life that in order to be successful you must have clear and concise goals. In martial arts this is very true. However so few people take control of their path, instead they chose to rely on the guy standing at the front with the black belt or the pretty suit to take them there. If the guy with the black belt isn’t of the highest calibre then you probably won’t get to where you wish to be. However if you are in control, if you have done your research and have kept informed then you may learn to recognise what you can take from an instructor and also what to leave, sometimes even when to leave! An instructor must have integrity and humility to truly lead his students to a high standard and this is the ability to be transparent to his students as regards his/her own strengths and weaknesses. I admire any instructor who willingly brings in other teachers to fill his own deficiencies and will happily take his better students to study with others with skills to offer they might not have themselves. The best instructors are unafraid of honesty.To blindly follow someone on the premise that because he or she has done something a long time therefore they must be right, because they call themselves “Master” or “Sensei” or “Sifu” or simply because they have put themselves into the role of an instructor is certainly unwise. Common sense, taking note of real situations, reading, watching will all tell there own stories so don’t ignore them.Listen to your own experiences!!My first martial art was Tae kwon do which at the time was very much the fashionable martial art. In some ways I was lucky because I landed at a club where the instructor was both honest and also ex military and unlike many in the TKD field had spent some time boxing and was reasonably progressive with his training. However after 2 years I had started reading Bruce Lee’s JKD books and in practice started trying out many of the techniques and concepts outlined there. Bruce Lee’s investigations led me to go to a local boxing club and voila…. Some of the guys I really couldn’t do much with in sparring suddenly became much less trouble. The day I walked past one particular black belts’ defences and landed several unanswered punches was the day I decided TKD had lost its appeal. I had my 5th or sixth grade at the time, no black belt. I didn’t want one if 8 weeks boxing could wipe out the advantage of years of my opponents experience.Be prepared to walk!!!It was about the same time I decided to find a Wing Chun school. Like many people I decided to learn this martial art because it was the basis of Bruce Lee’s thinking. One of the truly keenest and revolutionary minds that the martial arts world had ever produced had based many of his beliefs on his first system and that was good enough for me. Unfortunately finding a teacher to match was another matter. I was in a class almost exactly like I outlined in the scenario above aside from the fact I did have some sparring experience and was still boxing on and off.One year on my feelings towards this school were changing. Most of the students there couldn’t handle my sparring ability, they couldn’t handle pace or power, couldn’t deal with my ability to kick. I stayed for another year although mainly because I’d met a guy very like minded who became my sparring partner and friend. We used the class to train together and often just experimented with our own ideas. Dave emigrated (returning years later to again help with my development) and that was me done with that school. Again the temptation to stay for the next grade, the next ‘level’ just lost its appeal and again the idea of chasing the black belt held nothing for me there.This particular school is a great example of a place where the instructor had lost all his humility and although a nice enough guy who did believe in his own ability he was neither skilled nor really honest. He would rarely chi sao and certainly never spar with his students, external training was very strongly discouraged. Everything was in house. There was never a comparison with the outside and students could blindly follow their “master” for many years achieving meaningless grades in a system that was never ever tested.The year that time forgot……In 1993 two things happened that shook the martial arts world. The Ultimate Fighting Championships should have re educated the world as to what it takes to win a fight but much of the martial arts world myself included were unaware of it in its early days (although mixed martial arts certainly changed things for me later on) and a series of books by a gentleman by the name of Geoff Thompson, a night club doorman from Coventry. I can’t remember whether it was 93 or 94 when I read “Watch my back”, and then bought “Real Self Defence” and “The Pavement Arena”.Real Self Defence is to my mind still one of the best books ever written on the subject of self protection in the street and “Pavement Arena” should be sent to every “traditional” martial arts club in the UK and beyond because its honest and frank discussion of what it takes for a martial art to be effective for real is still very relevant. The information in these two books certainly reinforced some views I held and gave me impetus to explore other aspects of my training. I recognised the truth of what the man said and acted upon it. I still find it amazing how the so many in the martial arts world still manage to ignore all the information available to them, if you wish to own a black belt that’s worth more than the 5 quid you paid for it then don’t be one of them.”You too can learn the ways of the force”I had ditched one martial art took up another and had sampled several others including traditional Ju Jitsu, Freestyle Karate and Kickboxing. Whenever I got sick with Wing Chun I went back to the boxing gym, often doing the two in tandem. My heart was with the kung fu style but often my head with the honest sweat of the gym. Looking back I have often thought that had I put the effort into my boxing over the years that I had my Wing Chun then I would be a better fighter today but as its turned out I now don’t think that’s true but not because I finally exited the temple doors a shaolin warrior monk with secret kung fu skills only revealed to me after years of training, nor did I face Darth Vader again to finally become a true Jedi.Like many others I continued to believe that if I just got that bit better in Wing Chun everything would fall into place and I would be the untouchable “Bruce Lee” type I’d seen in his films. I think many martial artists fall into this trap. The truth was I knew my Wing Chun training lacked something, I could see its potential, I knew it had something special, something I hadn’t seen anywhere else but couldn’t grasp what it was.So, I followed my Wing Chun instructor and continued to supplement my training now in the new realms of mixed martial arts. I learned some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (A martial art with true depth that has become a second love), Wrestling, takedown defence and indeed takedowns. My new training and sparring partners often derided my Wing Chun training with “prove it, get in the ring, do it!!” In fairness they did give my hands some respect but would often put that down to my boxing and encouraged me to use my long reach and not play the ‘Wing Chun’ game.I’ll finish this little story with a happy ending but bare with me for the moment and I’ll return to the key points of what this article is about.When learning something new the worst thing to lose is time and many people in martial arts spend many years developing something that simply isn’t really relevant in the belief that if they just get better at it then they’ll see that thing, learn the ways of the force???? It’ll all click??It’s also a total and utter lie

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