Redemption from Kung Fu Foolishness

Anyone in my age group will understand how it came to be that the first martial art I fell in love was ninjutsu.

Ninjas were everywhere those days, and what could be better than sneaking around wearing black, throwing smoke bombs, and building booby traps?

Of course I too was determined to become a ninja, but first I needed the gear.  I asked, begged, pleaded my parents to be given the tools of the trade (black outfit, sword, split toed sandals, all that good stuff), but unfortunately my mind control techniques weren’t up to snuff and I received no help from them.

For some reason my long suffering parents had their doubts that throwing stars and poisoned blow darts were good toys for their rambunctious 8 year old son.  Plus any ninja clans operating in the Greater Toronto Area were too well hidden for me to find them, especially since I was still almost a decade shy of testing for my driver’s license.

So my dreams of living a life in the shadows were crushed at an early age :(

But if I couldn’t do ninjutsu then I was determined to master some other form of martial arts.  I proposed Japanese Jujutsu, Tae Kwon Do, Kickboxing and Kung Fu, but my parents refused to invest; they didn’t see the benefits of having their very own pocket-sized killer ready for deployment at all times.  Which is a long way of saying that they didn’t agree to pay for any of these classes.

It took 3 years, but eventually my let-me-train-martial-arts-or-else campaign resulted in my being allowed to sign up for Judo classes downtown.  Despite the fact that I was only 11 years old, Frank Hatashita allowed me to train with the adults at the Hatashita Dojo.

I trained Judo for a couple of years.  It was fun and the skills I acquired helped me win a couple of schoolyard scraps.  Plus it formed an awesome foundation for my later obsession with the grappling arts.

But the problem was that Judo was too damn anchored to what worked in the real world.  By then I was a young susceptible teenager, and I had contaminated my mind with too many fairytales of high level martial artists doing near superhuman feats.

And so I eventually I acquired more financial independence from my parents, left Judo, and started to train at a local Kung Fu school.  I officially left the path of reality and wandered back into the woods of fantasy.

The Kung Fu school was a very traditional.  You did the same few forms (kata) over and over and over, hopping, skipping and jumping all over the place vanquishing imaginary opponents.

If you were extra special good then maybe you’d even be shown the advanced forms, and allowed to go to advanced classes (which looked a lot like the beginner classes, but never mind…).

It didn’t matter that you had no understanding of what you were practicing. The instructors assured us that the movements all had super-effective applications, we just weren’t allowed to learn them yet.  The key was repetition and emulation, not application and understanding.

The implication was that if you trained for years and years and years then you’d eventually unlock the secrets.  Eventually all this stuff would start to make sense for you, and you’d magically be able to start using these techniques in a real confrontation.

You didn’t really ask questions, and you NEVER talked to the head instructor.

The tone of a martial arts school is set at the top and then percolates its way down. So the junior instructors generally perpetuated the culture of secrecy.  Sometimes they’d look over their shoulder and then surreptitiously show you an application for a movement you’d have practised a thousand times in a form.  But this was a rare occurrence, and you never actually got to practice that application on a real human being, in part because everything was much too deadly to use for real.

And when it came to learning new material from outside the school, fughetaboutit!  The system we were learning were the truth, the light and the way when it came to martial arts.

Showing the moves, drills or forms to anyone outside the school was grounds for immediate expulsion.  Heck, you weren’t supposed to share your super-secret techniques with anybody, even if they were your classmates training beside you at the very same school.

It was insanity.

Eventually even my susceptible teenage brain began to question this totalitarian level of secrecy and suspicion.

Yes, maybe these Kung Fu killing secrets were so deadly that they could only be entrusted to people who had demonstrated their loyalty by training obediently, unquestionably for 10 or 20 years…

Or maybe the emperor had no clothes.  Maybe all this secrecy was to prevent everyone from figuring out that there really wasn’t much of a curriculum, and that the stuff we were learning didn’t really didn’t give you superpowers.

Maybe this stuff didn’t even work in a real fight…

Have you heard the expression, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king“?  The problem with one-eyed kings is that they have a very strong incentive to keep everyone else blind.  Anyone else who approaches their level of knowledge is perceived of as a threat.

Closing the doors to all outside contamination is what North Korea does to keep the minds of its citizens pure.  And not sharing your information with anybody else is famine mentality.

Eventually I went off to University in a different city, and this was a great opportunity to start a new chapter in my martial arts career.

I was drawn to Philip Gelinas at Montreal Martial Arts.  His irreverent and non-traditional approach to the martial arts, and focus on what actually worked, was a breath of fresh air after so many years of drinking the Koolaid.

Plus he showed you a TON of stuff.  It was almost like he wanted you to learn his material as fast as possible…

With Philip I mostly trained in Kajukenbo and Kali, but I also learned some JKD and grappling from him.  He quickly became one of the most important influences on my martial arts training.  I consider him a mentor and respect the hell out of him to this day.

Here’s just one little anecdote to show you how different things were in this post-Kung-Fu era…

One day I casually mentioned that I had seen footage of this weird Brazilian art called Capoeira and it was very interesting.  Much to my surprise Philip immediately suggested that I find a Capoeira teacher, bring him to Montreal, and have him teach a seminar at the school.

This was shocking to me.  Was one for my teachers actually recommending that I train with and learn from someone else?

And that’s when it hit me.

Philip wasn’t scared of his students acquiring knowledge.  He was a teacher, so facilitating the acquisition of knowledge was exactly the point.  That’s why he shared everything he knew with his students, and even encouraged them to seek out additional training elsewhere.

This one little episode made me think the world of him.   I trained with him for years, and he opened the door to connecting with other people who had similar views about sharing knowledge (most notably Erik Paulson and Dan Inosanto).

There’s a silly, cheesy little song I learned at summer camp as a wee child,

Love’s just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won’t have any,
Lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many
They’ll roll all over the floor.”

Students are a lot like magic pennies too.  If you try to control them too tightly then they’ll slip through your fingers and leave you.

If you’re an instructor you can’t expect to be the one and only source of knowledge for your students. What are you going to do, install nanny software on all their computers to make sure they’re not watching techniques on Youtube?

Give me a break!

You can’t be an expert on every single area of jiu-jitsu.  And if you have the confidence to let your students learn from from other people then they’ll respect you more, not less.

Your job as a teacher is to facilitate your students acquiring knowledge, NOT to be the sole conduit through which that knowledge gets into their brains.

It’s the 21st century and we’re not in North Korea.  Please treat your students accordingly.

Comment on this page with Facebook