One of the biggest diseases in martial arts today which undermines the ability to make one’s skills functional, practical and usable for purposes of self-defense and protection on the street is the issue of rank, belts, titles or whatever else you want to call it. I have lost count of the times I have seen a soccer mom tote young A.D.D / A.D.H.D / whatever other bullshit acronym-of-the-month-afflicted Timmy into the school I was training in to inquire about lessons and within 5 minutes ask the question, “How long will it take him to get his black belt?”
The problem I have with that is the word “get.”
“Get” a black belt? If you want one just go buy a friggin’ belt to put on the shelf next to his lacrosse, soccer and baseball trophies. Shit, I’ll just give you one if that makes you happy. Sorry honey, if Timmy really wants to “get” one, Timmy is gonna have to work his ass off to EARN one.
Tempura, Teriyaki & A Side of Wisdom
One Saturday afternoon, as I sat and talked shop over sushi with my good friend and student/training partner who I will just call “Jim” since, being from the old-school he is quite vocal about keeping himself off the internet and social media, this idea became crystallized in my mind.
A burly retired Chicago fireman with a booming laugh, extremely dry and sarcastic sense of humor and a grip like a vise, Jim began training in Wing Chun in his mid 50’s and immediately experienced all of the frustrations that come along with beginning a new skill. As 4th degree black belt former national judo champion who has been training in that art longer than I have been alive, Jim is no stranger to hard work. A few years back he decided to compete in the Senior Nationals Judo Championships just for the hell of it, despite not having trained on the judo mat in years. He ended up walking away with a broken rib…and a bronze medal. An avid weightlifter, I personally watched him deadlift 405lbs. at 60 years old.
As if being a retired Chicago fireman and judo expert wasn’t badass enough, Jim also holds the distinction of having completed hiking the entire 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail, which extends from Georgia up into Maine. Hiking that trail is regarded as one of the most famous and grueling tests any outdoor enthusiast can subject themselves to.
Jim did it twice.
So yeah, this dude’s no powder puff and he’s lived a life so between our giving each other shit back and forth, which is usually how every conversation between us either begins or ends-when he says something deep or with meaning, you bet I listen up.
And so as we sat and enjoyed tempura rolls with ginger sauce the topic of conversation turned to the latest crop of new folks in class who stayed for 3 months and just as suddenly fizzled out. He mentioned how the training in Wing Chun was a complete 180 from his prior experience but that he was hell-bent on understanding the art.
I have always enjoyed teaching folks a bit older like Jim for this simple reason: almost without exception they are far more patient and can appreciate the way that Wing Chun training when done properly sharpens the mind to think in terms of simplicity, efficiency and directness.
After good-natured shit talk between ourselves-mostly him towards me-he talked about how in all his years of teaching children he ran into this problem time and time again and how he sees this problem in adults too, more specifically in a lot of folks that come in to our Wing Chun class. Whether they be kids or adults, the cycle remains the same: people start, want rank, realize they actually have to work at it, and quit.
He pulled out a napkin and drew 3 circles, linked by arrows going each way like links on a chain. In the first he wrote the word BE. In the second he wrote the word DO. In the last he wrote the word HAVE. He put it in front of me and asked, “Do you know what this means?”
Being as how I’m not a complete rookie I ballparked the meaning of the words but not their configuration. He said, “it breaks down like this: too many folks start at the end-they want to HAVE the rank, title, status, whatever. They think that if they have it, they will DO what someone of that rank does, and then they will BE what they want to be. That’s why I drew the arrows double sided each way. Thing is, they have it ass-backwards. They are looking at it from right to left.
Really, it’s the other way around. You start by BEING committed. If you are committed, you will then DO whatever you need to do. You will do the pushups, get your ass kicked, keep pushing through, whatever you gotta do. Once you do that, you will eventually HAVE what you are looking for-your rank. That’s the only way this shit works. There’s no getting around it.”
Now Jim isn’t one to just talk; he puts this into practice every time he comes to class and it’s no surprise that in spite of hindrances such as a bum shoulder and having to de-program body mechanics he has honed since his judo days which leaves him as stiff as a statue in the courtyard of St. Peter’s Basilica sometimes, he has become much more proficient in the art since he started.
Reap the Rewards = Put In the Practice
We train Wing Chun ultimately for peace of mind. The ability to successfully use our skills, to make them simple and effective for self defense purposes and to make them functional is use is simply a vehicle to our end goal: peace of mind and knowing we can affect our outcome to as great a degree as is possible through our own preparation and work.
Here are a few ways to begin aligning yourself with Jim’s 3 point process:
- Decide why you train and that you will be committed to put in whatever time, effort and work is required to achieve your end goal (BE). Too many people never even know why they are training. Sure it may be fun and it is good exercise but that only addresses the social and physical aspects of training. If I was only interested in exercise and a few giggles I’d join a 30 and over basketball league or bowl on Wednesday nights. Once you understand and can articulate why training is important, you then can BE committed to following through with training and all of the hardships and sucky stuff that you may occasionally go through. Feed your mind the right raw material to work with such as the excellent book Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence by Sgt. Rory Miller and mentally overhaul your training. Read it and once you are done, read it again.
- Decide what exactly needs to be done then get cracking on it (DO). Remember, pain ceases to be pain when there is a goal to achieve. To the person committed to the goal and who knows why he or she is training, the pain and suffering of training has purpose. This purpose motivates them to DO the work, no matter what. Pick up some gloves, a pair of headgear and a groin guard HERE and start making your training functional and practical.
- Decide that you will do whatever it takes to keep the status and skills you have developed (HAVE). Coming up the ranks I would daydream obsessively about becoming a black belt. Once I became one, I realized it wasn’t and end to anything but rather the beginning of a daily process of renewing the status I worked so hard to achieve. The status and rank I had dreamed about I realized was a symbol of the qualities of courage, inner strength, self-discipline and confidence. Now that I understand what the rank means, I am never letting that go.
Note how all 3 of these bullet points have the word DECIDE in them. That’s no accident. Go and do likewise, ladies and gents.
Thanks for everything,”Jim.”
Train Smart, Stay Safe