Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Five-Year Mission

Americans are huge fans of instant gratification. They don't like being told that it takes years of intensive practice to finally be good enough to qualify as a beginner. I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I've been playing the guitar for less than two years and I'm continually frustrated that I don't sound anything like Eddie Van Halen, Richie Sambora, or Eric Clapton. And you see it all the time in the martial arts.

You very rarely hear in the U.S. that achieving one's black belt is a sign of finally being ready to truly learn. Quite the opposite - many modern karate schools often bombard their students with the black belt as a goal. A finish-line. The end. And for many students, that's exactly what it is. They get their black belts and they're done - game over.

Karate can be (and many would argue should be) a lifelong pursuit of excellence, of knowledge, of technical perfection. But in the U.S., it's often seen as a quick way to make a buck - pull in a bunch of little kids, get them hooked into the program for 5-7 years till they get their black belts, and then turn them over and bring in a new batch.

I recently looked into training in Tai Chi, and had a somewhat surprising conversation with the Sifu running the program. I'd done some amount of research, and found it was somewhat common for Tai Chi programs to advertise that new students could learn the basics of their form in as little as four months. The Sifu I talked to was having none of that. He told me that authentic, traditional Tai Chi - like the form he teaches - is the hardest, most challenging martial art he's ever studied. And students should expect to be beginners for at least five years, assuming they practiced diligently. It wasn't a very good sales pitch (and I'm sure he knew that), but it was extremely refreshing to hear from an American instructor.

I actually think this process is one of the things that attracts me about the martial arts. As much as I'm anxious to learn more and I look forward to one day earning my black belt, I can see a progression of improvement over many, many years ahead of me. I don't want it to be something I hop into and finish a short time later. I want to challenge myself to be better. I want to reshape myself physically and mentally. Even more, I want my kids to see the long-term benefits of the martial arts. I can't know whether they'll stick with it for life, but I can influence them while they're here with me and as long as I can afford it (which is always a challenge when you have five people training) I'm going to strongly encourage them to continue to learn, to improve. I want the martial arts to infuse them with strength of arm and strength of spirit. I'd like them to feel the connection to hundreds of years of history - of meditation, contemplation, sweat and blood and exertion to the point where it feels like you must break, but then you somehow push just a little further. You don't get there on the five-year plan.

I know the dojo we're training at now embraces these sentiments, which is obviously important since we plan to be with them for the long haul. I also think that American martial arts is poised for an overhaul. I think the churn of little kids into and back out of the program - that's been going on for a good 20 years - may be susceptible to competition from dojos that embrace both traditional martial arts values (and knowledge and training) as well as the modern business practices that have helped make "Americanized" schools successful. I think that would be a huge benefit to all concerned. Well, except for those "Americanized" schools that refuse to adapt and embrace their roots, I suppose. But that's the nature of business, isn't it? Those same schools re-wrote the rules when they adapted adult-focused karate training into programs aimed at children. Now they'll just need to do it again.

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