Author’s note: I originally wrote this in 2012, and I chose to repost it now after a recent class. In this class, major foundation issues were exposed that I must strive to correct. No doubt about it: it is frustrating to learn that you’re doing something terribly wrong. But, it can also be a catalyst in your training and give you a needed push in your practice. Alternatively, you can stick your head in the sand and pretend everything is fine! The choice is yours.
I’ve often heard the benefits of martial training. Supposedly, it’s great for the body. Indeed, if it wasn’t for my training, I’d probably look more or less like these guys. On the other hand, I know lots of folks who have injured themselves needlessly over the years, and as a result are no longer able to enjoy training in the same way. Oddly enough, I also know a lot of people who pride themselves on their swollen knuckles, crooked toes, bad shoulders, Costco-sized barrels of Dit Da Jow, etc.
And I’m not talking about this:
That’s just funny!
I’m worried about problems that are more subtle. Shortcuts that are taken to get to a level of power, speed or flexibility beyond one’s actual ability. Most of the time, we are unaware of what we’re doing. Instead, our brains have come up with a way to replicate what we’ve seen. (2016 note: ouch!) I’m always fascinated that even in senior instructor classes, we spend so much time talking about our stances. We always return to this very fundamental lesson. Indeed, stances are the foundation, and we build our techniques atop them. What happens when we build too much upon a poor foundation? Let’s look at architectural history.
An odd thing occurred with the construction of the tower of Pisa. The flaw in the foundation was actually noticed very early, as it began to sink after the 2nd floor was added. Progress on the construction was actually halted for decades to allow the soil to settle and compensate for the flaw. (Boy, if that’s not an obvious metaphor for aspiring black belts, I don’t know what is!)
When they resumed construction, an interesting approach was taken: one side of each floor is taller than the other.Now, even if the building was straightened, it would have a curve to it. In modern times, over 800 tonnes of counterweight has been added, cables have been used, and countless cubic feet of soil have been removed from underneath. Hilariously enough, this has been done not only to keep it from falling, but to keep the tower at its distinct angle! (as a straight tower of pisa would not be a tourist boon.)
I see this problem in many students. They make rapid progress in a technique and then plateau. Usually, it’s because a fundamental flaw in their motion is stopping them. In an attempt to fix the flaw, their technique regresses. Not because I’m necessarily wrong (though I should point out that I’m wrong all the time!) but because their body is so used to doing it wrong that I’m essentially re-teaching the technique.
The student is now at a fork in the road. To stick with the method they have used so far, and be content with their progress (usually thinking that if they practice more, they’ll get it.) OR they can go with the “new” way which feels odd and awkward. It’s admittedly a rough path, because they student is re-learning and they must go through the painful process of looking silly, messing up, etc. I often joke that I’ve brought them “back to white belt” with their technique and they must work to understand the change.
Over time, the tower was no longer able to support it’s own weight. The bells were taken out at one point to relieve weight. The same thing happens with training. We reach a limitation, and then as it slowly settles in and degrades the joint, we find that we can no longer kick or punch like we used to. Is it because we’re too old? Tell Jhoon Rhee that he’s too old to throw a high kick… Go ahead, I’ll wait here.
Oddly enough, I came to this thought while listening to an NPR broadcast on the dangers of Yoga. Yeah, yoga. Similar problems infest both practices, with similar tragic results.
In the pursuit of false goals and ego, we are often motivated to go too hard, to get too low. I’ve seen people completely break the connection between their rear foot and the ground to get into a seemingly lower front stance for no other reason than to satisfy people who make the false conclusion that “lower is better, therefore lowest is best.” I have no problem with people striving for a low stance as there are plenty to attributes to gain from such training, but for your sake do it right.
Think long term. It might not hurt now, or even tomorrow. But our injuries come back to haunt us in later years.
Train smart, and train safe. I personally want to continue the pursuit of this martial art as long as I can. The more I can fix pre-40, the less I will hurt in the upcoming decades. With any luck, I will be able to still do hyung like this gentleman at his age:
Added Conclusion: Some people think that advanced ranks aren’t bothered by such elementary problems. As someone who barely qualifies as an advanced rank, I’m here to tell you that we are. At this point in training, hopefully they are more like “refinements” than “renovations” but as there are many techniques and skills, sometimes a student may be quite good at one, and rather behind with another. The difference between an advanced student and a stagnating student is that when faced with a renovation, the former embraces the challenge while the latter is content to deny the problem. Note, I’m not talking about injuries that are preventing progress (we can’t jump kick forever!) but rather mental walls that are put up. I also understand that the body is constantly wearing down, regardless of activity and there is no such thing as perfect movement in practice. However, through constant refinement, we can stretch out our physical ability like a grad student living off ramen and department pizza lunches.