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Baby Steps by Pete Starr

March 27, 2009

Pete Starr

We’re lucky to have Pete Starr joining us for a monthly column on the Blue Snake Blog. A practitioner of the Chinese martial arts for nearly 50 years, Pete is the author of Martial Mechanics and The Making of a Butterfly. This is Pete’s first article for the column, entitled “Baby Steps.”

Although the term, “kung-fu” (also, “gongfu”), serves as a generic term for Chinese martial arts, use of the term in that regard is actually a misnomer.  As most of you already know, “kung-fu” refers to a fine, high level of skill that is developed over a period of time through hard work.  Thus, “kung-fu” can actually be applied to any martial discipline as well as many other activities that require rigorous and regular practice over a period of time.

Throughout the East it is understood by most persons who endeavor to train in any martial form that substantial skill cannot be acquired quickly and any teacher who promises otherwise is nothing more than a charlatan whose main interest (and skill) lies in separating a student’s money from his wallet.  At the same time, there are those who come from the other end of the spectrum and insist that students must practice this or that training routine (and pay for it every month, of course) for an extraordinarily long period of time if he or she hopes to acquire a high level of skill.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle and students must be careful about selecting a good teacher.

In the West we are accustomed to things being accomplished fairly quickly.  We have microwaveable meals (which aren’t really food….), instant entertainment (just turn on the television), quick diets (which don’t work), and so on.  When we want something, we want it now.  When martial arts were first introduced to the West, a number of enterprising instructors realized that a great deal of money could be made by short-cutting training routines and providing forms of “instant martial arts.”  My own teacher envisioned this happening although his young pupil (moi) just couldn’t see it coming down the pike.  But it arrived like a thunderbolt and it’s here to stay.

No doubt, some of the old, traditional training routines were extremely tedious but they were necessary for the development of genuine martial skill (as opposed to what is presented nowadays as being martial skill).  Westerners, being the way they are, sought to find short-cuts through much of what they regarded as “unnecessary, old-fashioned, unrealistic” training.  Many honestly believed that they had found ways to shorten the training process but the truth is much different.

My teacher likened the process to making tea.  To make tea the old way takes time and any attempt at hurrying the process will only ruin the drink.  To be sure, we now have “instant tea” but my teacher couldn’t stand the taste of it.  There’s tea and then there’s tea.

Even so, most of those who have undertaken the study of a traditional martial discipline with the understanding that it’s going to take time to develop real skill will still often catch themselves “shaving corners” and trying to take “big steps.”  Such attempts at hurrying the training process and the evolution of genuine skill almost always result in frustration and/or injury.

I knew one young man who wanted to develop large calluses of his punching knuckles.  He beat the living bejeezus out of his striking post (which was incorrectly made and was akin to hitting a tree) and mangled his hands…he didn’t realize that hardening the hands is not the primary objective of training with this particular device, and he finally had to give it up.  Of course, he then argued that training with the post was “old-fashioned”, unnecessary, and unrealistic.

Another fellow dreamed of being able to execute his form with the same precision, grace, and power as his teacher.  He trained his form for 2-3 hours every day, suffering pulled muscles as well as numerous other minor injuries.   He ultimately gave up, insisting that forms were “old-fashioned”, unnecessary, and unrealistic.

And yet another student envied the uncanny fighting skill of his seniors.  He dreamed of becoming an invincible warrior and practiced shadow-boxing and sparring incessantly.  When he engaged in sparring practice he often went at it with a bit too much power and the wrong mind-set (he was determined to “win”), so, of course, he often went home with bruises, cracked ribs, black eyes, and many other booboos.  He finally gave up, saying that traditional training was “old-fashioned”, unnecessary, and unrealistic.

Progress in real martial arts comes in what I call “baby steps”; little steps that are sometimes too small to even measure or notice right away.  Regular practice is essential.  After all, a toddler will never learn to walk if he or she only tries to do it once in a while.  So, if you train (at home) just every now and then, you can be assured that  you’re getting nowhere.  On the other hand, if you’re training at home three days a week or more and you’re taking your time (taking “baby steps”), you can be confident that you’re developing genuine skill – and if you keep at it long enough you’ll develop real “kung-fu.”

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For more blog posts by Pete Starr, click here.

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