Thursday, April 17, 2014

Your Master: The GPS Of Your Martial Arts Journey

As discussed in my previous post, the most important person in your martial arts training is you.  However, your master is a close second.  While your warrior spirit is like the driver on a road trip, your master is like a GPS.  An excellent one will get you to your destination in the quickest and most efficient way possible.  A lousy one will cause you to wind up lost, frustrated, cost you valuable time, and is ultimately a waste of money.  Here are seven tips for finding an excellent master to guide you on your martial arts journey:

1) Your Master Should Be Someone You Like.

In many cultures, the master is more than just a teacher.  Over time, they become a trusted mentor and eventually, a surrogate father/mother.  Obviously, you shouldn't make parent-shopping your chief goal in looking for a master.  However, your master should be someone who you admire and respect. 

2) Your Master Should Have Received Advanced Training In Their System

In other words, their training should consist of more than a six-hour seminar from Angry Bob's Fighting Shack.  They should have received expert training themselves from a reputable master.  Most masters who run their own schools are fifth-degree black belts or higher.  I personally don't recommend training under someone who is less than their system's equivalent of a third-degree black belt.  That being said, quality of instruction is more important than rank.   

Note: If your master has studied multiple systems, give them one dan ranking for every instructor-level rank that they have received (i.e. five different first-degree black belts=5th dan).  

3) Your Master Should Be Able To Properly Explain Their System

In addition to showing you how to properly execute a technique, your master should be able to explain CLEARLY why it works.  This should go hand-in-hand with the previous point, but that's not always the case.  I once had a language teacher who couldn't teach me their native tongue.  Likewise, some masters are able to perform techniques from their "native system."  However, they lack the communication skills, self-awareness and patience to pass the moves on to others.  If your master makes you flail around for an hour without telling you what you are doing, or speaks in pseudo-zen gibberish that would leave a Shaolin monk scratching their head, ditch them for someone who is actually willing (and able) to teach you something.

4) Your Master Should Have Integrity

The world is full of people who want to cheat you out of money, manipulate you into giving them sexual favors, or even worse, abuse your kids.  Do a background check on your master before you start training to make sure that they aren't one of these people.  This background check is EXTRA important if they are going to be teaching your kids.  If your "scumbag alarm" is still going off after you do a background check on your master, trust your gut and train somewhere else. 

4) Your Master Should Be Affordable

What is affordable will vary significantly depending upon which country you live in.  Regardless of where you live, make sure that your training costs are low enough for you to still provide yourself with the bare essentials (i.e. food, clothing, rent, etc.).

In the United States, $90-$140 a month will usually get you a reputable master.  That's roughly the same amount as a car insurance payment.  Since your body is worth infinitely more than a car, it's definitely worth the investment to protect it.  If you are getting charged more than that, there better be a good reason (i.e. you're receiving private lessons or getting a package deal at an MMA gym).  If the only reason is the master's name and ego, then it's time to find a different school.  As previously stated, the world is full of people who want to cheat you out of money.  You don't need your master to be one of them.   

5) Your Master Should Care About The Well-Being Of Their Students

Some masters routinely injure their students just to show how big and bad they are.  Additionally, some of them allow (and even encourage) their more advanced students to haze the rookies.  One of the reasons why you are taking martial arts lessons in the first place is because there are numerous people in the world who are willing to hurt you for FREE.  Why should you pay someone to do it? 

If your prospective school has the social vibe of sharks during a feeding frenzy, don't even think about training there.  Find a place where the master and their students are willing to help you and each other grow as martial artists

Note: Speaking of well-being, make sure that your master is willing to provide a safe training environment.  For example, if they are teaching you throws, they should have some mats handy.   
7) Your Master Should Make Your Development As A Martial Artist Their Priority

If you are a 45-year-old businessman or career woman, your master shouldn't be training you to step into a cage with Jon Jones or Ronda Rousey.  Nor should they try to make you into a clone of themselves or their star pupil.  If you are gifted, they shouldn't tear you down to appease the envy of your peers, either.  You and your fellow students should work together as a team.  That being said, what works for you may not necessarily work for the 18-year-old male Olympian or the 50-year-old single mom with two kids.  Your master should understand that you have your own unique personality and body type.  They should be willing to do anything within reason to help you excel in your personal martial arts journey.  If they aren't willing to do that, they aren't even worth your time, much less your money.

Remember, the average black belt takes at LEAST 3-4 years to earn.  In some systems (such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) it can take 8-10 years!  For that reason, you want to make sure that you pick the right master to guide you.  Having an awesome master is like having a excellent GPS on a road trip: it will allow you to focus completely on enjoying your journey.        


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Most Essential Element Of Your Martial Arts Training

Once you have a firm spiritual, social, financial, and intellectual foundation, you are ready to begin your martial arts training.  That being said, there is one important thing which you need to understand before you start.  The most essential element of your martial arts training is not your athletic ability, your style, or your master.

The most essential element of your martial arts training is YOU!

Your determination, your heart, and your fighting spirit will determine whether or not you will succeed in your martial arts journey.  You can have a potbelly and study Angry Bob's Couch Potato Drunken Fist under Sensei Moron, but if you are truly determined to become a warrior, you will succeed.  Likewise, you can have an Olympian physique, have a membership to Greg Jackson's gym, and train under Bruce Lee's best successors.  However, if you don't have the passion or the drive, you won't be able to fight your way out of a petting zoo.

Katas, drills, mat time, and sparring don't create martial artists.  They reveal them.  Whether or not you become a martial artist is decided before you step into the dojo.  And the person who makes that decision is you.

If your heart isn't in it, you won't make it past white belt.  If you are wishy-washy, you won't make it past the intermediate ranks.  You will only become a black belt if you are truly determined and put your heart and soul into it.  To survive, much less thrive, in the shark tank known as the advanced black belt ranks, you will have to make an even deeper commitment.

If you are truly committed to becoming a martial artist, then nothing will stop you from achieving your goal.  If you are not, all of the talent and instruction in the world won't help you, so you may as well stay home.  


Friday, March 28, 2014

Four Things Which Are More Important Than The Martial Arts

Why aren't the martial arts the most important thing in the world?

1) God's decision to let you into heaven (or send you to hell) is not going to be based upon your belt rank.
2) It's very difficult to build deep, meaningful relationships with people who you only meet up with twice a week to fight.
3) Showing off the latest technique that you mastered may impress the cute female cashier at the grocery store (or, if you are a female martial artist, the hours spent practicing that technique may get you into good enough shape to convince the hot male cashier to ask you out). However, that cashier will still expect you to pay for your food, and for that, you need money.
4) Most employers won't accept a national or world championship in lieu of a college degree.

For those four reasons, the martial arts should only be priority number five. Your eternal destiny, healthy relationships with your family and friends, your career, and your education are all more important. If you find that your training is causing you to neglect those areas, take a break from practicing the martial arts and fix your life. True excellence in the martial arts can only come if you have a strong spiritual, social, financial, and intellectual foundation.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lessons Learned The Hard Way: Pick A Style That Is The Right Fit For You

MMA has proven the value of amateur wrestling as a martial art. The overwhelming majority of American UFC contenders and champions have an amateur wrestling background, including Chuck Liddell, Rashad Evans, Cain Velasquez, and Chris Weidman. That being said, there is one person for whom amateur wrestling will never work: me.

It is not uncommon to spend your first year in a martial art getting your butt kicked. However, after that, you should be able to win consistently. If you have been doing it for two years or longer and you're still getting crushed, it's probably time to try something else. If you have been doing it for over three years and you're still getting dominated, then you shouldn't go anywhere near that particular style anymore. I know this because that was my experience in amateur wrestling. Even though I made the varsity team during my final three years of school, it was only because I was slightly better than the two guys I had to beat to get the spot (and one of those wins was by forfeit). My record was 0-11, 4-22, and eventually, 1-5. Finally, two-thirds of the way through my final season, I had enough and threw in the towel. Even then, I had overstayed my welcome. Too stubborn to quit, I took out my frustration on my coaches, my managers, and my teammates. In the process, I alienated a lot of people who wanted to be my friends. If I had simply accepted that amateur wrestling was not my thing early on and moved on to judo or Greco-Roman, that probably would not have happened.

Martial arts styles are like members of the opposite sex: you're not going to be compatible with all of them. Forcing yourself to stick with one that you are not a good fit for will just cause you to become frustrated, bitter, and resentful. If you stay too long, you will eventually take it out on your teacher and fellow students. That may lead to you getting kicked out of that school and getting blackballed in the local martial arts community. Why put yourself through that when you can find a style that is great for your body and personality? Perseverance is important. However, it is also important to know when to cut your losses and move on. I didn't do that with amateur wrestling until it was too late. Hopefully, you will learn from my mistake so that you don't have to figure it out the hard way.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What A Martial Artist's Belt Really Means

It's a common misconception that everyone who has a black belt is an unstoppable force of martial nature. The fact of the matter is that this is rarely the case. First off, most martial artists quit when they reach 1st-degree black belt. Many of them don't even continue to practice the fundamentals to keep their skills sharp. Second, many martial arts schools are "McDojos." In other words, if you pay the instructor money, you get a belt, regardless of how good you are (or how much you suck). Third, when a legitimate instructor awards a belt, they look at more than just fighting prowess. They also consider the student's teaching ability, how much they care about others, their work ethic, and dedication to the art. While the best instructors consider all five factors, most will be biased towards one area. A master who promotes based on technique will be biased towards fighting prowess; a master who promotes based on understanding and application of martial theory will be biased towards teaching ability, and so forth. So at the end of the day, all that someone's belt tells you is how long that they have been training under a particular instructor. It tells you nothing about how good their technique is, the quality of the instruction which they have received, or if they could actually survive a common street attack.

So how do you know if Mr. Tough Guy (or Mrs. Tough Girl) is really as big and bad as they say they are? The best way is to spar with them at either their dojo or yours. If they kick your butt, they are obviously legit. If they don't beat you, but come at you with everything they have and the kitchen sink, that's a good sign as well. If they cower under your gaze (or simply wimp out of sparring with you completely), then their belt is not worth the cloth that it is made out of.

That being said, it is not always practical to challenge everyone you meet. Here are some other ways to find out if they can smoke the bad guys with their skills or are simply blowing smoke up your rear.

-Find out who they got their belt from. They should be able to trace their lineage back to either the founder of the art or, at the very least, to the culture where it came from. Obviously, if they got their belt from one of Bruce Lee's top protégé's or a member of the Gracie family, then they are probably legit. If it is from Angry Bob's Fighting Shack, you should be skeptical.

-Find out how long it took them to get their belt. While it is possible to earn a black belt in two years, it normally takes three to four to get it from a reputable master. If you are training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it usually takes 8-10 years. For each additional degree (a.k.a. "dan") ranking that they claim to have, it should have taken them at least an additional one or two years, if not longer.

-Look at how old they are. While the key milestones in the martial arts vary from system to system, the typical ones are instructor (first dan), expert instructor (fourth dan), master (fifth dan), and grandmaster (ninth or tenth dan). In academic terms, they would be the high school diploma, bachelor's degree, master's degree, and PhD., respectively. Someone claiming to be a first-degree black belt should at LEAST be in their mid-to-late teens. Someone claiming to be a fourth-degree black belt should be in their early-to-mid twenties. A YOUNG fifth-degree black belt will be in their thirties. Realistically, you are unlikely to encounter a legitimate ninth or tenth-degree black belt. If you do, they will probably be in their late sixties (or older).

I once met a seventeen-year-old who claimed to be a seventh-degree black belt. Since I trained for a year at the school that he went to, I found this highly dubious. You should be equally suspicious of anyone who makes such grandiose claims.

-Do a background check on the person by speaking with their master and fellow students. Most masters won't criticize a student to an outsider (unless that student did something truly disgraceful). However, a master will usually praise an exceptional pupil. If the master acknowledges that they trained that person and says nothing else, then that student is probably average or sub-par. If the master has never heard of that person before, than you've been lied to. The person's training partners will usually be more forthright about how good (or lousy) that student is. However, you want to talk to at least three or four of them to account for personal biases. After all, the training partner who gushes about them might be their best friend. The one who trashes them might be doing it out of jealousy or because of a grudge.

The key thing is to remember that someone's belt only tells you how long that they have been training under a particular master. What's far more important than the color of the belt is the person who's wearing it, which is why you must find out as much as you can about that person before you allow them to impress you.

Friday, February 28, 2014

What Should NOT Be Your Chief Reason For Studying The Martial Arts

There are many great reasons for studying the martial arts. Self-defense, the thrill of competition, and personal development are only a few of them. However, there is one thing which should not be your chief goal: to become an all-powerful war god (or goddess).

Most people who have this goal would not frame it in those terms. That being said, when you hear what they want to accomplish, it is apparent that this is what they are truly after. If someone wants to defeat Jon Jones or Ronda Rousey with both arms tied behind their back, clear out a biker bar with their bare hands, or take out a team of Navy Seals with their pinky, they really don't want to study the martial arts. They want to become a god and have chosen self-defense as their path to deity.

Maybe your fantasies aren't that extreme. Maybe you just want to be able to manhandle a 22-year-old Olympian...and you're a 45-year-old white belt. Maybe you want to show those street toughs who hang out in front of your apartment building who's boss...and you're a 100-lbs. college girl who's only been to one women's self-defense seminar. The fact is that having unrealistic expectations of what the martial arts will do for you will cause you problems. Best case scenario, you quit when training does not live up to what you saw in Jet Li films and miss out on all of the benefits that self-defense provides. Worst case scenario, you put yourself in a dangerous situation after a week in the dojo and get yourself killed.

No amount of martial arts training will make you invincible. No matter how many black belts you get, you can still be beaten by someone who knows how to exploit your weaknesses. Not to mention that bullets are faster than your hands, baseball bats are stronger than your legs, and knives are sharper than your elbows and knees. Also, if a bunch of thugs jump you on the street, they aren't going to line up and fight you one-on-one like they do for Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan on the big screen.

So whatever your goals are, make sure that they (and your training) are realistic. You will not only be more likely to become a successful martial artist, but you will have more fun as you do it.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Choosing A "Base" Style And My Personal Choice

If you are serious about studying the martial arts, then you should try out several different styles throughout your lifetime. If you do, you will be a well-rounded fighter who can handle most common street attacks. While no one is invincible, having a variety of techniques (which you have internalized through intentional practice) will greatly increase your odds of survival in this increasingly dangerous world.

That being said, there does come a point when you eventually have to commit to a "base style." While you should keep the most effective techniques from the other martial arts which you have practiced, it is much more fulfilling to have a deep understanding of one art than to just know the basics of twenty different ones. It's like the difference between getting married and serial dating. It may be more stimulating to always be with someone new and exciting, but you will only truly be happy if you commit your life to the "one."

In August of this year, I will finally take classes again. I haven't been able to train since last August due to personal trials, a job loss, and having to move. However, after getting hired this past November, I am finally getting back on my feet. During this time, I have given a lot of thought to which style will be my "base" style. After all, I am already in my late twenties; it's time for me to move beyond the "martial dating" phase and walk down the self-defense aisle. I still plan to study Brazilian jiu-jitsu, catch wrestling, and capoeira, as well as resume my Krav Maga training this fall with Steve. However, these styles are going to be the equivalent of my male buddies. My "bride" style, the one which I will commit my life to wholeheartedly, is going to be Kung Fu. In particular, I want to earn my fifth-degree black belt in Pai Lum under Pastor Michael McClure at the Valour School of Self-Defense in Delray Beach, Florida. He is a sixth-degree black belt under Professor James Cravens, who in turn studied under Daniel Pai himself.

I decided on Kung Fu for one main reason: it is really fun! When I was a kid, I loved the idea of fighting like an animal and copying the movements of the tiger, crane, praying mantis, snake, and dragon (a.k.a. dinosaur, but we'll get into that later). For several months last year, I finally got to do it, in addition to fighting like a leopard. I had an absolute blast training under the guidance of Pastor McClure and his daughter, a third-degree black belt who has also taught the martial arts overseas. Additionally, the kata did wonders for my health. The more I did them, the younger I felt. They were like a macho version of yoga: I became more flexible, relaxed, focused, and alert. Also, I started noticing many similarities between the self-defense techniques of Kung Fu and Krav Maga. This validated my belief that Kung Fu is still a deadly martial arts system, in spite of criticism that it has received recently by members of the MMA community.

At the same time, I'm not blind to Kung Fu's main weakness: groundfighting. That's why I will cross-train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which I consider the self-defense equivalent of my male best friend. However, at the end of the day, the lessons I learn from other systems will ultimately be used to improve my development as a Kung Fu practitioner.