Martial Arts: How Good Can You Get?

Of course, children rarely wonder about their potential. When you are nine, just about anything is possible. Adults are generally more conservative. They go to a martial arts school with tailored expectations and practical needs.  However, the bug sometimes bites them and they begin to wonder about their potential as a real martial arts practitioner.

Group practice @plumpub.comFor some people, just obtaining a black belt is enough of an achievement. In a school like mine where we don’t award belts it can be a little more difficult. Often is the time I’ve been asked, “Well, if you don’t have belts how can you know how good you are?” Sometimes I reply, “Even with a belt you don’t know how good you are,” but I don’t do it often, because many people don’t get the point.

In reality, the answer to the question of your skill lies not just in your ability but in the nature of the school you have joined, and the definition of “good” you might have.

Kung Fu crane position @plumpub.comFirst, the type of school you attend often determines what is meant by good.  Most people attend what is known as a “commercial” school. These come in many styles: it may model itself as an update of some brotherhood of warriors or assembly of monks with the strict methods of teaching we see in movies. It may be a friendly children’s program focusing on belts and self esteem. By contrast, it might be more like the old time village school a looser confederation of students, studying their art as the seasons and their duties allowed. Such informal village schools were the breeding ground of many fine artists and a true communal sense of martial brotherhood, though very little like the typical modern school.

Kung Fu flexibility @plumpub.comAnother variation is the individual student who may work alone and only occasionally have a chance to see his teacher. Many martial artists of the past taught students only on the most random basis, instructing what they wanted the student to absorb and then possibly waiting months to see him again. This was a more unusual but still classical way of becoming “good.”

These different ways of practicing and learning allowed the teacher to customize the teaching to the student. The reason that schools of the past were so unlike the present day commercial school, regardless of what it teaches, was that the teacher could never produce a curriculum that would work for all people at all times. In an environment like this, the student was often only taught those things which he or she needed. And this offered an unusual opportunity: a student might concentrate on his appropriate skills so much that he actually passed his teacher in that specialty. This created what might be known as the student-master. As these students continued their practice they eventually became the true masters in some particular skill, such as a certain formal exercise.

Each of these considerations and a lot more go into the definition of “good.” You have to evaluate the goals of the school and their relation to your own goals. You have to understand what kind of teacher you have and his or her strengths; in other words, what they offer. Finally, you must decide the area of skill you wish to develop. Sometimes small is best. As I tell my students, each of them can become better than I am because they each are concentrating on a specific art. Such concentration brings progress.

Matching Fists @plumpub,comIn the hands of a well-diversified and experienced teacher, the student can become a master, even coming to practice late in life. All that’s needed is some perseverance, a good teacher and a lot of patience. And a good teacher who is real will be the first to celebrate the student who exceeds his own skills. That is real teaching.


2 Responses to “Martial Arts: How Good Can You Get?”

  1. Y. Pruitt says:

    Great article, especially for consideration of what made the masters of yesteryear, whose skills and knowledge were generally of higher levels than prople attain today. This is how the ‘fantasies’ of being a kungfu master are broken up so that one has to look at the level of training and commitment one really has to have. Thanks

  2. Ken Gullette says:

    Great post. You are known by what you know. Good concept.


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