“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
When the student is truly ready…the teacher will disappear.”
I am a fan of quotes and I’ve always like that one but it was not until I begin my journey of training in true Wing Chun purely for self-defense and combat skill proficiency that that quote took on a much deeper and profound significance for me.
The Most Difficult Aspect of Wing Chun Training
The most difficult part of Wing Chun training, I submit to you, is not in the hours and hours of dedicated, difficult and at times seemingly fruitless training. It is not the facing of one’s fears and mental barriers, it is not the fear of contact or being hit and it is not developing skill through repetition.
The most difficult part of Wing Chun training is finding a true instructor; someone who can, as Bruce Lee once famously said, act as “…a finger pointing a way to the moon,” guiding you along the way to discover the truths of the Wing Chun system for yourself and showing you how to unlock your true potential.
Awhile back I used the term “selflessly selfish” when answering a question as to why I teach (and even if I didn’t create it, I’m taking credit for it since I like it so much). What I meant by that is that a good instructor should be “selflessly selfish” in teaching, meaning he should get just as much, if not more, out of the act of passing on knowledge and making his students better than his students do, for in doing so his ability also grows which in turn benefits those he teaches, and round and round we go.
A good instructor should be a student first and foremost, always seeking ways and means to improve both his abilities and teaching methods. While in the U.S. Navy Reserve, I applied for, attended and passed the Navy’s Basic Instructor Course for the sole purpose of finding ways to enhance and improve my ability to transmit information to my students more effectively. I always jokingly say that if, in some backwards Bizarro world, the act of teaching was an exercise in depleting my own ability, as in sharing my pail of water with everyone while diminishing my own, you’d never see me again. Fortunately for everyone (me most of all!) the exact opposite is true. It has been said that you do not become an expert and then you begin teaching, you become an expert by teaching and all these years later I can say that truer words were never spoken.
The ideal instructor acts as a voice for your subconscious mind, that part of your brain that knows how to move your body in accordance with Wing Chun, coaxing these revelations out of you by various means based on the situation and the student, and eventually showing you that you had everything you need to succeed in Wing Chun within you all along.
Busting The “Miyagi Myth”
I am a child of the 80’s. For anyone too young to remember the 1980’s martial arts craze and whose only frame of reference for martial arts growing up is watching 2 tattoo-covered UFC fighters swear at each other, parade around press conferences each calling the other one a “bitch” and then showing total disrespect before, during and after the fight, let me just say I’m sorry but you really missed out.
There was nothing like it. Martial arts were everywhere in movies and on TV. Schools sprang up literally almost overnight. The result of the Bruce Lee boom of the 70’s mixed with the decadence of the 80’s made for a really unique period for the martial arts in America. Seeing as how my favorite movie of all time is The Karate Kid and having been a religious fan of the old Kung Fu TV show with David Carradine, as a pudgy, insecure grade schooler I often wondered what it would be like to train in martial arts under a wise, ascended master like Mister Miyagi or Master Po: you know, the type of wise old man who always knew the right thing to say at the right time, who could kick an untold amount of ass with his pinkie finger and then 2 seconds later be back to calmly carrying on with his pulse never rising over 72 beats per minute.
Now as adults we all know this is complete fantasy and that the instructors in the movies exist only in the movies. This is not good or bad; it’s just being real. That did not stop me from daydreaming about coming home from school one day to find some Asian old man had moved in the house next door and who would agree to teach me his secret deadly killing system after days of yard work or some other shitty menial tasks I had to endure to “prove my worthiness.”
Wushu and tai chi practitioner Mark Salzman, a Yale-educated martial arts enthusiast who spent 2 years training under legendary kungfu Master Pan Qingfu while serving as an English instructor in China from 1982-1984 and whose book and film Iron & Silk describes this experience, discusses this very idea of expectations and the gap between myth vs. reality very candidly in the following clip detailing how he met his first instructor as a teenager in New England. A natural storyteller, he perfectly captures this difference below:
For myself and most others of that time period, my search began locally based solely on who was closest to me through the Yellow Pages. Even today whenever I am in a new city on vacation or for travel I always grab a local Yellow Pages in the hotel to peruse the ads, see what martial arts schools are close by what styles they offer.
I can still remember as a young kid being entranced by the ads in the Yellow Pages for martial arts schools: the bigger ones had quarter or even half-page ads with pictures of angry looking dudes performing flying side kicks, words spelled out in bold chopstick font and all other manner of bells and whistles in their ads to get my attention-which they did. Today , now all anyone has to do is Google search but back then, it was word of mouth, the Yellow Pages or a flyer someplace and that’s about it.
Based solely on geographic limitation and availability, I trained in several styles and under many different instructors. All of them were different from each other, not only in art taught but also in teaching style and personality. The important thing is that all have contributed to and left their own mark on my personal martial arts journey. It was only after I had been training for over 8 years that I was able to realize that when I found the Ng Family Chinese Martial Arts Association in Chicago’s Chinatown that this was the place for me and that Sifu Philip Ng and his assistant instructors were who I wanted to learn from. How I arrived at that inner knowing is the subject of this post.
3 Misconceptions to Avoid Like The Plague
- If someone has a lot of trophies or is a great fighter or champion, they must be a great instructor. Go into any school and you will most likely see the window ledges and shelves adorned with trophies, medals, belts and other sparkly charms deisgned to give the new prospect the feeling that you must study with Instructor So-And So because, well, look at all the stuff they have won…they must be a great teacher. The fact is this: often times the best fighters or tacticians are the WORST instructors, for the simple reason that it comes so naturally for them! As a novice in Taekwondo way back in the day, I was struggling with a complex maneuver and asked one of our instructors, a hell of a nice guy and world sparring champion, for assistance. “Just do it like this,” was all he said before executing this move flawlessly a couple of times, patting me on the shoulder and then walking away. All I could think of was, “um, and?? If I could do it like that I wouldn’t be f**king asking you!” The ability to break down the unfamiliar or complex into manageable and simple pieces is in itself a skill that must be honed. Unfortunately, most champions devote their time to, you know, being a champion so their ability to reverse engineer the complex to the understandable is not a skill set they have spent enough time developing. Now a good instructor should and often will have a high degree of ability, but talent is no substitute for instructive ability. The 2 are not mutually conjoined.
- You have to really “click” with an instructor in order to learn from them. On this point I am, in the words of Dr. King Schultz from Django Unchained, “at a bit of a quandry” insofar as I have built and maintained lasting and very close relationships with damn near all of my instructors and fellow students in the various styles I have come up in through the years -relationships that last until this day- but that is not because I instantly felt the “warm fuzzies” right away. I sought out these people because they had the skills I wanted to attain. Once our relationship was built on this mutual exchange, the friendship blossomed into much more than a student-teacher relationship. There have been others who I sought to only learn from and not emulate, as their personal conduct involved things I did not look to engage in or partake in. That is fine too. The end result is that I acquired the skills necessary for my own evolution as a fighter and martial artist. The way I see it, always remember why you are there-you are not there to seek anyone’s approval or be “one of the gang.” Take care of your needs first and if anything develops, it’s gravy.
- The right instructor will always have the answers to everything – This is a big one because adhering to this belief leads to cultish behavior. The Chung Moo Quan schools of the 1980’s were a prime example. This was the first style I ever trained in as an 8 year old. My attention span was not so great and l dropped out after about 9 months. Much later I realized the depth of all the crazy shit going on in that organization: money skimming, manipulation of students by instructors to charge astronomical fees, dictating every aspect of a student’s life, forcing students to live together, having students hand over their paychecks and receive an “allowance,” and unquestioning devotion to their leader, John C. Kim-this place was like Jonestown with karate uniforms. Never let anyone take away your capacity for rational thought. Now in martial art training of any sort, there will be a certain amount of trust placed in your Instructor to show you the right way of the art you’re in but it should NEVER take the place of your brain and your gut. PROPER Wing Chun training develops the inquisitive and discerning mindset in its’ students, not blind devotion to every word that passes off the almighty Sifu’s lips. Always keep that in mind.
Instructors are People, Too (This One is a Biggie)
One of the biggest pitfalls to avoid when learning from an Instructor whom you have placed your trust in to guide you in the acquisition of skill is the tendency to idolize or put this person on a pedestal.
I am constantly amazed by the skill level of my sifu, Philip Ng, but I think that my amazement and respect, while quite massive, of his skills is kept in proper perspective by remembering that he is a person and not some kind of god or deity. This may sound a bit melodramatic but trust me, this is a real problem in several martial circles.
Part of this stems from the fact that Wing Chun is predicated on practicality and as such training tends to cultivate a very pragmatic and no-nonsense mentality. Other arts, for example, that may place more emphasis on more esoteric elements that run the risk of sounding a bit “out there” or “woo-woo” have a much higher risk of painting their instructors as modern day Pai Mei’s from Kill Bill who can touch you on your left earlobe and 3 days later have your spleen rupture from a delayed chi transfer death touch (cough…BULLSHIT…cough). Funny as it is, there are several people out there who still buy into this. This leads to a waste of time spent training at best and a false sense of confidence that may just get their asses or those of their loved ones hurt, maimed or killed at worst.
Mark Salzman again describes the moment when he realized his Instructor was not the “superman” he thought he was here:
The bottom line is this: a good instructor will never seek to manipulate those who have entrusted him with responsibility and privilege of teaching. Any other behavior should be met with immediate distrust and severing any relationship with him and those loyal to him.
3 Questions To Ask Yourself When Choosing An Instructor
Now that I have beaten the “what not to do” horse dead enough, let’s look at what you should look for in seeking a Wing Chun instructor.
First , one more thing: DO YOUR RESEARCH! What is your instructor’s lineage? Is he credible? Is he authorized to instruct others by his organization? This is the age of the internet now, no one can hide and no one can get away with just saying this or that. My own lineage is posted for the world to see in the BIO section of this site; I have nothing to hide and my pedigree is as clean as it comes. I am proud to be affiliated with each and every organization I list. Any potential instructor you seek should be just as transparent.
When seeking instruction in Wing Chun, there are 3 key questions you must ask (and be 100% honest with) yourself:
- What is my primary aim in training? Before you begin choosing someone to learn from you need to first be honest with yourself and answer the first question. What do you hope to gain from your Wing Chun training? Are you seeking self-defense first and foremost? Some instructors, for example, focus heavily on combat sports participation such as MMA, boxing or kickboxing and only cater to students who show natural athletic ability or an inclination to participate in such events. There’s nothing wrong with this and for those who wish to follow this path everything is right with the world. In many cases, however, those who can benefit the most from martial arts training get left behind or are not given the same attention. Other instructors may focus more on concept and theory and as such tend to attract those students interested in learning the art from a theoretical and almost philosophical point. There is nothing wrong with this either, however someone seeking Wing Chun training for self-defense purposes will soon grow disenchanted and bored with training and may in fact write off the entire Wing Chun system that nothing more than fluff and big talk (this is a sin on the part of the instructor as they have not shown through their actions and abilities the devastating power and effectiveness of proper Wing Chun for just that purpose in addition to all of its’ non-physical benefits). It all boils down to what YOU are looking for. I will say this: if your Wing Chun class does not involve regular training in applied self-defense, you may want to seek instruction elsewhere since Wing Chun is made for self-defense and not forms, meditation or philosophy.
- Can the instructor effectively demonstrate his or her abilities in line with what I’m looking for? Any good Wing Chun instructor should be able to effectively apply Wing Chun in a non-cooperative situation, be it chi sau, sparring or self-defense scenarios. This is a big issue within the Wing Chun community right now if I am to be honest. Too few people claiming to teach others self-defense actually can perform well under pressure with an opponent who is not cooperating or acting only within the bounds of chi sau or some other prearranged drill. If your Instructor is not willing to don protective gear and take shots to demonstrate realistic application, proceed with caution. Forms, chi sau, weapons and dummy training are designed as spokes on a wheel; all are needed to make Wing Chun work the way it was designed to. A good instructor should be able to effectively demonstrate the forms and techniques of Wing Chun but also be able to explain the motions of each form and how they relate to real-world application, what modifications need to be made in the heat of a situation and how the Wing Chun concepts can be applied in various ways as the situation calls for.
- Has the instructor been able to replicate those abilities in his senior students and has he or her laid the foundation for the qualities in his less experienced students? Let me just say this now: the old stories of the Master being “untouchable” and the students not even coming close to his ability are pure bullshit. A good instructor should seek to make his students better than he is. The paradox is that as the students improve, so too does the instructor as they turn their abilities back around on him, forcing him to grow and improve. If you observe a class and the most senior students are nowhere near the ability level of the teacher (provided the guy didn’t open up a school last month) that should send a huge red flag up in your mind. A rule of thumb when observing a class is this: a good instructor’s senior students (2 years plus) should be able to replicate the instructor’s ability around 70% and the junior students should demonstrate a structural and conceptual grasp of the precepts of the Wing Chun system and be able to apply them accordingly. Too many folks out there teach solely to stroke their own egos and have people treat them as some kind of exalted being. This is tragic, as these folks are coming to that Instructor for knowledge, self-confidence and self-improvement and are getting nothing but feelings of inadequacy and subservience in return.
Finding a true Wing Chun instructor that aligns with the essence of both why the system was founded and what you hope to gain from training is a true blessing. I have come to realize both as a student and later as an instructor of Wing Chun that in order for a student to truly grasp and grow into a dedicated and talented practitioner of the art, proper instruction is key. Sadly too many folks out there limit themselves purely on geography or price without giving much thought if it all to how good a fit a particular instructor is to their goals and their abilities.
To recap, three key points must be fulfilled when seeking out qualified Wing Chun instruction:
- You must be clear in your mind as to what your aim in training is and seek out an Instructor aligned with that aim.
- Any potential instructor should be able to demonstrate the qualities you seek to develop; in other words, he must be a “doer” not a “talker.”
- The students of that instructor should be able to proportionately demonstrate those qualities and skills to the time spent training.
Remember too, that even the best Instructor is a person. He has faults, shortcomings and failings like everyone else. If you are seeking Mr. Miyagi or Master Po, stay at home and throw kicks in the air while watching them on your DVD player, ’cause that’s the only place you will find what you have built up in your mind as the end-all, be-all of martial arts training.
On A Personal Note
I have trained under many talented instructors, each of whom passed on various skills to me. I can’t honestly say I had all that much in common outside of our shared involvement in whichever art I was learning, with every single one of them. Many yes, but not all. You know what? I couldn’t have cared less. I sought their instruction to fill the void of what I needed to know. Now it is true in my case that I have forged wonderful friendships that last to this day with many of them, but they grew out of training, not the other way around, which is exactly as it should be.
I have had the blessing of forming very close bonds with several of my instructors over the past 25 years and in many cases my fellow students have become as close to me as family. This type of dynamic is a true blessing. My fondest martial arts memories come not from inside a school or at a tournament but around a restaurant table in Chinatown after class or a parade, or a party at one of our houses.
These experiences serve only to reinforce the bonds between all of us, but those bonds were already there since our training was aligned with a common purpose; we knew why we were training and what we were training for. That clarity fosters a sense of camaraderie that is pretty hard to match. Many folks do not have this type of “inner circle” connection, seeking only to learn and then go home. That is fine, too.
The rreason I always say that I am so very lucky to have found the Ng Family Chinese Martial Arts Association and my Sifu, Philip Ng,is that the school and system of Wong Shun Leung Ving Tsun (WSLVT) completely aligns with my views on personal protection and self-defense. I did not know it at the time, but every school, style or system I had trained in up to that point guided me to discovering this school in this system. Each art, style or system I had trained in gave me a piece of a puzzle; another clue on the map whose ultimate hidden treasure was clarity. I was discovering what I wanted out of training as well as what I did not want. Just as importantly, I was discovering more and more about who I was and what I wanted to become.
Once I began teaching Ving Tsun at Lee’s Academy of Kung Fu I sought to emulate those qualities in my class: respect, support and mutual growth through training. I also found the instructors and owners of that place to be on the same page as well, leading to another crop of strong-as-family bonds being created. As if I was not lucky enough, on several occasions my training brothers and even Sifu Phil, my instructors Ken and Keith and even Grandmaster Sam Ng occasionally paid visits down to Lee’s Academy to train and help instruct. Looking back I can’t help but believe that all these benefits were afforded to me by choosing the right place for me to begin my training.
If you know you want to train, get clear on why and then seek out someone reputable who demonstrates that he not only has the skills you seek but can replicate those skills in others. “Empty your cup” as Bruce would say, be highly coachable yet never allow anyone to bypass your gut and common sense, and have at it. Keep these pointers and pitfalls to avoid in mind and your experiences will be just as fulfilling as mine have been and continue to be.
Train Smart, Stay Safe
As I have stated in a prior post on this subject, there is no such thing as “wasted time” training in other arts before the one you decide is best for you. Every stop in your martial journey played a role in getting you there-never forget that-even if it is to show you what you do not want or, more in line with this article, whom you do not wish to emulate or learn from.