INB #01: The First Month, Verbal Interactions…

Sometimes the most important first step in a Kung Fu student’s career is not the teaching of basics but the first interview with the instructor. Though first impressions can be wrong, they can also be revealing. Few people come to a Kung Fu school with wide experience and informed opinions; this is to be expected. But the exact details of their half-understood ideas and general misconceptions—along with their perfectly reasonable notions—can determine the course of their progress. In an effort to be polite, possibly commercial, and generally to try to give a good impression of the martial arts, instructors often allow things to pass that they should try to correct in a non-confrontational way. Let’s think about these: 1. Kung Fu as a smorgasbord. I had one student, a while back, come into my school after spending two years in Tae Kwon Do and obtaining a brown belt. He felt that he had wasted a lot of time and learned many impractical things. He was at my place for T’ai Chi, to relax, ostensibly. A few more minutes into the interview he mentioned that he didn’t want to waste time learning weapons. A couple more minutes and he also added he would like to learn the wooden dummy form, because of the Jackie Chan movie he’d seen. Then he reiterated about things he felt had been wasted instruction. At this point I informed him that I understood that he felt his previous training to be inadequate, but that it was not my responsibility to make up for his previous teacher’s deficiencies. In other words, I had a curriculum that didn’t allow the sampler approach. He never studied with me, which is fine, because I suspect he would never have been happy.

2. Kung Fu coffeeshop. It’s true that there is a definite link between Kung Fu practice, for instance, and principles of Chinese philosophy. Anyone deeply involved in the art can attest to this. But some potential students tend to want to jump to abstractions. They forget that they’re entering at the level of Kung Fu nursery school, not college. Discussions of the I Ching can be useful at certain points in training but they can also be premature and destructive. A good instructor emphasizes that experience precedes analysis and that too much theory before such experience can be mystifying, not to mention misty. For example, I often tell my students that talking about change is very different than changing.

3. Too many items in the bowl. Here’s a typical guy in his forties. He walks in, sits down, and starts telling about how he’d like to get into shape. He’s already given up smoking, has started to exercise a little; oh, and by the way, today is the one month anniversary of his divorce. He’s also decided he wants to take up the martial arts. Then he looks at you like he’s just handed you a winning lottery ticket. Somehow, the project of reconstructing his life doesn’t seem as easy and exciting to you as to him. It’s best to tell this person outright that while you respect his efforts, Kung Fu is the kind of discipline that is not a substitute for sports or general exercise. One analogy I make in these situations is that if you have a bad wrist, and someone tells you to strengthen it by taking up the violin, it’s best to also like music. In other words, some solutions are deeper than the problems. And therapy, while a very useful approach, doesn’t take precedence over the simple truth. The student who sees the martial arts simply therapeutically will meet a lot of frustration and miss a lot of enchantment.

4. Auditioning. We all like to fantasize. And young people, especially, are at a point in their lives where fantasy is also a form of considering options. The young student who’s more interested in showing you his aerial spinning kick than in learning basics can be a trial without knowing it. Since most students come in with more experience in seeing Kung Fu in the media than practice it’s not surprising that choreography often takes precedence over functionality. A good teacher validates the idea that martial arts can be fun and expressive, but doesn’t compromise its role as a means of discipline and self-discovery. Don’t misunderstand me: I believe that most people can do fine in Kung Fu, but it’s better for them to be informed at the beginning. After all, they are coming into your school, supposedly, because you have something to offer them as a teacher. Otherwise, they could run a video in their living room. As a teacher you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you can’t help them, for instance, because you’re agreeing with their wrong ideas about the arts, or about the benefits of study, or about how to learn. You are the expert and it helps no one if you give up your position as a teacher.


Nowadays, there is a lot written about martial arts, probably more than any time in human history. But very little of this is at the instructor level dealing with the problems, goals and strategies of imparting the arts. This series, written by martial instructors, will be a frank and directed discussion of such topics. If you are a beginner and new to the martial arts, you may find some of these subjects a little distressing. And, indeed, this may be premature for you. The only thing we guarantee is a sincerehandling of informed viewpoints.

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