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Author Guest Blog: “Suggesting an Attitude”

March 9, 2011

Phillip Starr has authored four books on martial arts with Blue Snake Books, including his latest must-have guide, Hidden Hands: Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Martial Arts Forms. Starr shares his wisdom from over 50 years as a practitioner and teacher of martial arts in a monthly article on our blog, and writes books to help martial artists not only improve their skills on the mat, but strengthen their minds. For more information or to purchase Starr’s books, just click on their covers.



“Suggesting an Attitude”

by Phillip Starr

Many eons ago when John Morrow was my student, an interesting incident took place. But before I take you back to those ancient times, you have to know something about Mr. Morrow. John was (and still is) built like a fireplug and stronger than most oxen. To this day, he boasts a large chest and back and a pair of arms that seem to be made of iron and legs that look like they’re carved out of granite. To say that he’s “in shape” would be a laughable understatement. A couple of years back, I spent a couple of days with John and his wonderful wife, Kate, and watched in horror as John led his class through a series of “warm-up” calisthenics prior to training. These consisted of various forms of push-ups, V-ups, crunches, and several exercises which must have been developed by some terribly sadistic and very bored guard in the gulag. John is only one year younger than me, but his students, many of whom were in their twenties and in very good shape, simply could not keep up with him. At the end of the “warm-up” most of them were sucking wind but John wasn’t even breathing hard and was raring to go. Made me envious…

Now imagine what he was like 30 years ago.

John’s fists usually sported solid callouses on his punching knuckles and his hands were like iron. In demonstrations he would often shatter boards, bricks, cement blocks (not haydite) and anything else that got in his way. He once killed a large hog by punching it between the eyes, but that’s another story…however, those of you who have spent time on farms know that the front of a hog’s skull is very thick and it is said that they simply cannot be brought down with a blow delivered there…

One day, as John and I were sitting on our duffs in the old training hall in Ottumwa, Iowa, two men came in. One had a board and asked John if he could break it. Martial arts were still new to that part of the country and we used to get a LOT of wierdos through our doors. I was about to ask them to go elsewhere when John happily told them that he could indeed cut the board. He had one of the men hold it and with a single thrust, he halved the wood. Neither of us thought it was a big deal, but the two men were thrilled and left after promising they’d be back with more “stuff” for John to try.

On their third visit or so, they brought in a chunk of three-inch thick sewer-line ceramic pipe. In one blow, John shattered it…

Then they came in with more boards. I was tiring of this, but I saw a chance to teach John something. As he began to set up one of the boards to break it, I stopped him. “Wait!” I shouted. “There’s something different about that wood. Let me see it.” John handed me the board. I pretended to look at it carefully. “This isn’t pine,” I announced. I faked trying to leave a cut in it with my thumbnail…”Look, I can’t dig my nail into it. It looks like pine, but it isn’t.”

John examined it and asked what it might be since it sure looked like pine. “I’m not sure,” I said, “But I’ve seen this stuff before. Hard as iron. Don’t try to break it. You’ll just hurt your knuckles…” I kept this up for a couple of minutes, explaining how this board was extremely hard and could probably support a small car.

However, John wanted to try it. “Go ahead,” I said. “But you won’t break it, that’s for darned sure.” And so, after setting up the board, John chambered his fist and let it fly. WHACK! And his fist bounced off the board! This really shook him. It was then that I laughed and told him that I’d not been truthful; the board really was pine…I just wanted to demonstrate to him how his mind and attitude could dramatically affect his performance. He still wasn’t so sure and it took some convincing before he tried a second time. The board split easily as if it were balsa.

Many years later when I was teaching in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, my old friend, Dave Swenson stopped in. Dave and I have known each other since I was in college (he was a psychology professor at Columbia, Mo.). Dave is a highly accomplished psychologist and is also skilled in hypnotism. He has trained in Shorinji Kempo and is highly skilled in Taijiquan, having trained under the legendary T.T. Liang.

Anyway, he watched as I gave my “Intro to Qigong 101” lecture to a group of students. As I was teaching them the principles of the Unbendable Arm, Dave asked if he might join in. I was thrilled to have him help. We presented the basic principles of how to do it and Dave told the group, “OK. Try it.” They did. And every one of them failed! I was stunned, to say the least. My presentations on this subject had never, ever resulted in almost every student failing to perform this basic exercise! I was also terribly embarassed.

Dave walked over to me and grinned as I tried to apologize. “It’s OK. I gave them a suggestion. They’ll learn something from this.” I’m sure my eyebrows arched; I couldn’t imagine what he’d done until he explained it to the group. He had told them to “try it.” The key word was “try.” It implies that failure is a possibility. Dave had noticed that when I gave the presentation, I always said, “Now do it.” The word “do” does not leave open the possibility of failure. “Try” does.

There is much to be learned from these two experiences. On the one hand, they demonstrate the powerful effect the mind and our attitudes have on our training and our ability to learn. On the other hand, they demonstrate how powerfully influential a teacher can be. The wrong word(s) at the wrong time can have dramatic and even disastrous effects.

And we are all teachers and we teach all of the time.

Have a story to share from your martial arts journey? Share it in the comments, and you could win a set of Phillip Starr’s books!

Other must-have martial arts books from Philip Starr:

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