For some reason Chinese kung fu is full of many silly myths. I hear them often and I’d like to start addressing them here.
1) The Master Never Gets Hit and Can’t be Beaten
Well, this is true if the master is never in a fight but only then. Can you imagine saying this about any other athlete? You know a good batter never strikes out, a good quarter back never gets sacked and a good basketball player never gets blocked or misses a foul shot. It reminds me of the question put to “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky. “Wayne, how many times have you made your shot”? Wayne replies, “I don’t know how many I made when I took the shot but I do know how many I made when I didn’t, none”. Is there a boxer that never gets hit or loses? So forget this myth, it’s nonsense. If you fight you are going to get hit. As they saying goes, ‘ it’s not what you do when you get knocked down but what you do when you get back up”.
2) An Old Master Can Beat a Young Fighter
Does this idea hold in any other sport? Do old ball players beat young ones? Do old boxers beat young ones? It’s crazy. As you age you lose many physical abilities and there is no way around it; believe me I’ve tried. Maybe an older fighter against a younger inexperienced fighter? Yes, that can happen but two fighters of equal ability years apart chances are great the young one will win. I am a complete failure if my younger students can’t beat me.
3) You Have to be a Better Fighter Than Your Student
Yeah, explain that to Michael Jordan that Phil Jackson could not coach him or to Mike Tyson that Cus D’Amato couldn’t train him. Only in kung fu do you find these ridiculous ideas about ability and teaching.
4) Size Doesn’t Matter
This is not only stupid but potentially deadly. Why are there size classifications in fighting, wrestling or youth football? So the little guy doesn’t get crushed. There is this idea that Bruce Lee would level a heavy weight, well, possible but not likely. I’ve had many experiences with bigger guys who were both skilled and unskilled fighters. Years ago I was with a WWE wrestler on a video shoot. They guy was huge and held a national trophy for heaviest military press. His chest was huge and his arms were not only bigger than my legs but almost the size of my waist. He had this shtick he’d do in bars for free drinks. He’d hold a full glass of beer in his hand and let someone full out punch him in the chest. If it didn’t spill they had to buy him a beer. He got a lot of free beer. In the course of the day we got to talking and he asked if I wanted to hit him to see. I did but didn’t want to admit it. I am very much into internal striking, i.e. – striking into the organs not through them. There were a few times I had floored folks with one blow so I was careful when I did it. In the back of my mind I wanted to know if I could hurt him yet was afraid I could not. Well, he egged me on and I went for it. I hit him with a normal punch first, to check the waters. Nothing, nada, zip, no reaction. So I hit him with 50% internal striking and again, nothing. So I gave him my all out, ‘to the moon Alice” (google it) and walloped him. His body shuttered for a second and he said, “Well, that was interesting, hmmm”. Not the reaction you want when you think you hit him with Thor’s hammer. This is where you say, “Please don’t hurt me sir”.
One time I had a huge guy, ex football player, just sweep me off my feet and held me up in the air over his head like I was a 4 year old. I was afraid he was going to throw me on the floor. He didn’t.
The other night while practicing I had a fellow, who was 5/8” 160 lbs, holding the bag while a very experienced kicker kicked him. Each time he would slide back a few feet from the blow ala Bruce Lee demo. There was another guy there who is 6’3 and maybe 235lbs and I had him step in and hold the bag. He didn’t move an inch when kicked. force = mass x (velocity / time) = (mass x velocity) / time = momentum / time
It’s just physics! Folks, size matters. (It just doesn’t matter when relating to……never mind)
5) Practicing in the Gym, Doing Forms, Prepares Me for a Real Fight
I’ve said this one a thousand times: you cannot practice swimming next to the pool. When in a real fight your cognitive brain is gone, period, it’s flight or fight. Unless you’ve trained your mind under very realistic conditions you will not be able to handle a real onslaught. Plus, when you train against fellow students you train to defend against what they do, not what happens outside. Most martial artists do very clean and linear striking but that almost never happens on the street. You can’t block a bobcat and you’re not going to block a berserk street fighter. I’ve told this story for years; I got attacked by a drug crazed knucklehead in a hallway once. He was bigger than me and came at me flailing like an egg beater. He was beating the hell out of my arms and I couldn’t get near him. I’d never experienced this before and finally shot a kick to his groin that dropped his hands and I ended the fight. In the school no one ever did speed and attacked me so randomly. You have to practice under real conditions and with partners who don’t fight like you do.
Years ago a student of mine was invited to another kung fu school. He is a good and kind hearted person and perfectly suited for dealing with many martial artists as he works in a mental hospital. He did the warm up with this school's students and then they paired off to practice punching and blocking. He was throwing first and his partner told him to start so he threw a few punches and his partner jumped back and shrieked, "Hey, you're trying to hit me!" Frank replied, "Of course I am, I'm punching you'. Frank could not understand that this student had never had real punches thrown at him. The sifu of the school called me later to complain about my 'brute' of a student. He may have been throwing real punches but he wasn't going to land them. The sad thing is that his many students really think they can defend their selves and they can't at any level.
If you don't practice what is real you can't deal with what is real.
One day I was in my yard about to construct a huge portable screened in porch. It takes hours, is no fun, and I was not in the best of moods knowing the time and effort involved. As I was about to start I looked into the yard and saw a groundhog digging a new hole. It was fully engaged in what must be a daunting task, making a hole much bigger than yourself. I thought the difference between me and him is that I am thinking of the finished project and how long it will take and he is just digging in the moment without the weight of the goal in his mind.
When undergoing any large task we are often discouraged by how daunting it is. We become overwhelmed by the difficulty and the volume of work needed and this impedes us. It could be learning kung fu, guitar or another language, whatever it is we become discouraged and often give up because we look at where we want to be rather than where we are. Here I think of one of my favorite expressions from India. “How do you eat an elephant”? Daunting isn’t it? Seems impossible? Yes. Here’s the answer though, “one bite at a time”. That is the key to all learning. We get hung up on the end result rather than dealing with the task at hand. About a year ago at a World Series of Fighting event I was talking to heavy weight champ Ray Seffo. He told me that he speaks German, Samoan and Japanese fluently along with his English. I asked how he managed to do this since I had struggled with Mandarin for such a long time. He said, “I learn key phrases then add each word as I need it, soon I can communicate and eventually I master it”. He didn’t try to learn it all in one big bite but did it one bite at a time. It inspired me to do that too and has been a huge help in my learning. So don't let the goal discourage you from the path, just stay on it. Practice without anticipation. Decades ago after I had undergone a tragedy and didn’t know how to go on or deal with it and my Zen teacher said to me, “just put one foot in front of the other..”.
There has been a trend in America for several years regarding how things are taught and the responsibility of the teacher. I have had several students say to me, “This is not how I learn best, please adapt your teaching to me”. I understand this and have people very close to me that have learning disabilities so I am not insensitive to it. On the other hand if I am constantly adapting for the student I will never get to teach anything to the others. The onus falls on me to adapt what I am doing but not what they are doing. I think this is an unfair request and ultimately not beneficial for the student and here’s why; because the student is always working in what is comfortable for them and they have no challenges. They will not learn to adapt and grow by this but will always look for that comfort zone. In the ‘old days’, particularly in martial arts, the teacher taught his way and you either got it or didn’t. He didn’t dumb it down or make it easier but you had to earn it. If you wanted it, you went after it, if not you did not. I am not saying a teacher should be inflexible but it has gone to the other extreme.
For some reason most people do not see kung fu as athletic training, they see it as magic. It is not seen as a form of athletic prowess but learning the right hands and techniques. “If only I knew this secret hand I’d win” is a common mentality among kung fu practioners. I don’t get it. It’s all about training and conditioning and not about magic hands. Even for those who do train they train at what they like, the familiar and the comfortable even if it hurts. I heard a professional body builder comment on this saying, “You see some guy in the gym and he works out an hour a day, everyday, but you never see him look any different, why? Because he does what feels right to him, he does not go into the ‘burn’ and the unpleasant places; he’s found a comfort zone thus his body does not have to adapt”. I think this is particularly applicable to kung fu training; you do the exercise that suits you or makes sense to you but it doesn’t necessarily improve your fighting ability at all. Maybe it helps your athletic ability but not your fighting ability. Many folks think fighting is something you calculate and ‘figure out’ but it’s not. Like I’ve said before think about being attacked by a cougar, the animal not the other type, and attempting to defend, you can’t. Nothing in the gym or forms can prepare you for someone who wants to hurt you. The only way to train for this is with real fighting in your training.
One of the first real fights I had was with a kid who was seventeen and I was twenty three. He had trained at Joe Frazier’s gym and wanted to ‘mix it up’. This is not someone whom I ever trained with or observed. I went in entirely confident that I could take this fellow, control him and defend myself. We paired off and then he went into pure attack mode, totally overwhelmed me, hell-bent on hurting me with no concern for his own safety. The fight lasted maybe ten seconds before I was on the floor. This greatly depressed me for a long time. I realized that I had been training to fight students and not fighters. It made me reevaluate everything I did from then on. I didn’t want to admit it but it was clear that I had no understanding of the real deal. Fighting is scary and ugly, no way around it. There are no time outs or take over’s; it’s just real and present. You either bring it to the table or get tabled. There is nothing comfortable about this. So many students don’t want to hear this. They want to practice a ‘defensive art’, you know, one that somehow magically negates violence like the cougar attack. It’s a dream folks, time to wake up.
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