Thursday, June 7, 2007

power versus aesthetic: a common problem.

Recently, I've been house hunting. We've looked at neighborhoods all around Columbus, trying to find exactly what we wanted. While we had some criteria in our minds, we each knew that we'd know the right house when we saw it.

A lot of listings looked great on the surface. Large square footage, ample sized rooms, attractive photos. When we drove to see the property, it was a completely different story. The house, and the neighborhood around it was completely run down and neglected, in many cases less than ten years after construction. A closer look at these houses reveals that unlike their counterparts, these houses were built with cheaper materials, cheaper labor, looser tolerances, and much MUCH less land.

Why would such a house sell in the first place? Questions of economics aside, these houses sell because they look nice (at first, anyway) and look exactly like what the ideal house should look like. Unfortunately, looks alone do not make a good house, and these houses are eventually revealed for what they are when put to the tests of weather, usage and time.

Quite a roundabout analogy for martial arts, I know, but bear with me.

I've seen some good looking forms in my day. Really low stances, fully extended kicks, an excellent sense of timing, shi sun and kihap. All of these factors are things we've been told the judges look for.
(note: I am NOT saying the people in these photos are lacking in talent. I'm just using them because they nicely exemplify the qualities I'm talking about. I'm sure that they are all excellent martial artists.)

Much like the sub-par houses, you can't always tell what lies beneath the surface.. It depends entirely on how you train. A lot of people pay close attention to building up these external details, but completely neglect the foundation that they should be built upon. As a result, the martial artist is incomplete. They may be in a low stance that looks good, but can they stay that low when they transition to the next stance? Will a stiff breeze blow them over? Can they break more than 1 board with that really pretty side kick?

Once these habits are built, it's hard to go back in and fix the foundation flaws. You literally have to tear down the house, and build it back up from the bottom.

What about the other end of the spectrum? Intense, powerful students who lack polish. You've seen them, and a lot of us used to be that person. Usually, this is the student you watch in frustration, because you see their commitment and dedication, but deep down you know that it is U-G-L-Y (they ain't got no alibi!)

Now, a lot of people are more willing to give them a pass, because "it worked, right?"

Did it work? Maybe to a certain extent, but they too are missing something. Give them a challenge that is appropriate for their strength and size, like a 3 board low block. Chances are they will hit it hard - really friggin hard -- and bounce right off it. Why? They have the same problems, lack of stable foundation, neglecting the proper angles, timing and control. In many ways, this student is a lot more dangerous because they are more likely to cause injury to other students and themselves.

Both tragic examples from opposite sides of the spectrum suffer from an inbalance between power and aesthetic. The balance between the two is something that every martial artist struggles with. YOU MUST HAVE BOTH.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe we have OK form, but we have too much strength and haven't harnessed it properly yet. We need to look in the mirror and pay attention to details.

My favorite story is about Master Brian Fisher, the former WTSDA Grand Champion. He'd practice charyut/choonbee in front of the mirror for hours. You might think that is window dressing, but he also had incredible power behind his technique. He spent that time harnessing what he had.

Some of us have excellent form, but tend to bounce off whatever we hit. We need to build up strength in our technique through targeting, conditioning and strength training.

Most of us need to do both. I have an excellent left leg side kick, but my right is no better than a green belt.

"Some martial arts are very popular, real crowd pleasers, because they look good, have smooth techniques. But beware. They are like a wine that has been watered. A diluted wine is not a real wine, not a good wine, hardly the genuine article.

Some martial arts don't look so good, but you know they have a kick, a tang, a genuine taste. They are like olives. The taste may be strong and bitter-sweet. The flavour lasts. You cultivate a taste for them. No one ever developed a taste for diluted wine." - Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do

Which one are you? What about your students? In order to keep them on the correct path, you have to identify these problems, and develop a plan to fix them over time. Even if you spend a month working on keeping hands closed and chambered when they should be.

Your dedication will pay off, and then you continue the process of ryun ma once more.
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