INTERVIEW: on Training Kung Fu


An Interview

Chad – “I got interested in martial arts when my brother was really into that whole Ninja craze in the 1980’s in the movie and entertainment industries. We used to dress up in Ninja suits, run around the back yard with plastic swords.

He didn’t take martial arts, but his interest got me started.”

“I started when I was six. I trained Wado Ryu Karate for three years. I always went to classes with my best friend, but then one day he invited another one of his friends to join – and I felt three was a crowd, so I quit.” (Ha)

“I gave it up and started platform diving (competition diving into swimming pools), and did that for two years. I didn’t train martial arts then, but I was always choreographing fights for school projects, and playing at it – friends and I used to fight, really fight, like flying drop-kicks even while on the trampoline.

I’m surprised that I’m not crippled. I remember kicking this friend with both feet, I hit him on the chest and launched him clear off the trampoline. He got up and just jumped back on. We practiced kicking, stretching – slowly going crazy, like DeNiro in ‘Taxi Driver’ (ha). I read a lot of books. I memorized a lot of facts about different styles of martial arts, history.

Years later when I started training again I thought, ‘Why did I take all that time off?’ I could have spent those years perfecting my training – getting stronger, faster, learning more things, attaining a higher belt in Karate.

But in retrospect I did do a lot of training in those years – a lot of the things I learned during that time are coming back to me now when I’m teaching my students; quotes and books I read, I’m now using as examples. I wasn’t training, but I was still fostering interest, nurturing that desire.”

“Ever since I quit it, I’d missed it. So when I was eleven and we moved from Edmonton to Calgary, I quit diving and started fencing (dueling with fencing swords).

I met a friend there in junior high who was training a ‘Five Animal’ style of Kung Fu. So I talked to him about fencing, he talked to me about Kung Fu. I was just planning to start training at his Kung Fu school, when my family moved again.”

“I was fifteen when we moved here to Kelowna. I started Karate; the other martial art choices at the time were Tae Kwon Do schools, Aikido and Karate schools, and a Judo club. Some of them were nice schools, but seemed a little too casual. I was looking for the total package – more severe, traditional training, and that was at the Karate school.

I signed up, and right afterwards a friend found a flyer for a Kung Fu school that was opening up. We both went in to try out a lesson there, and I really liked it – I really took to the instructor and the style. So I finished out the three months of Karate I’d signed for, then switched and started Kung Fu.”

Chad trains Wing Chun Kung Fu, which was also Bruce Lee’s martial art while Bruce grew up – before he developed principles of his own into ‘Jeet Kune Do’.

“Aside from playing various sports, I was largely inactive during the years since I had stopped Karate as a child. In high school, I had a short attention span, was socially awkward, wasn’t very fit physically.

So when I got back into the martial arts, and was exercising five or six times a week, I suddenly realized how much physical activity was important to me, to my mental health. My teachers were so surprised after I’d had about three or four months of training, like, ‘What happened to this kid?’ My grades went up, I was more sociable. In gym class, suddenly I was able to run laps, keep up with the others, it was a huge difference. I was a little uncoordinated at first, but I had a really high attention to detail early on, I was good at memorizing things quite quickly.

I memorized whatever my instructor said, even if I was unable to apply it physically. I was a good mimic, which I didn’t realize was such an asset until later. I could watch my instructor and then mimic him, and I could almost always learn the skill right away, just by pretending.

In later years I’ve gone traveling, I visit other schools and try to watch or do a class with them. I’ve been able to pick things up and retain them with some measure of proficiency and bring them back with me.”

“You learn in ‘edible’ amounts; when you train, you understand that it’s simulating a threat, a situation, that each exercise is carefully controlled, it’s not like you’re fighting for your life at practice. Then as your skill increases, your concentration on the basic structure of the movements decreases, making room for creativity to increase.

You have to train, repeat a skill until you become emotionally unattached to it – until you’re not worried about your ability to do it. It’s just like tying your shoelaces – learning it might take awhile, cause some stress, but later when it’s habit you don’t worry over it.

That’s the goal with martial arts: you want to get to the point where you can do it without having to worry about success or failure. Then it’s easier to perform and fight with that even (stable) emotional state. You know what you’re doing, you’ve done it a hundred times before.

You initially progress very rapidly, then you ‘plateau’ while you integrate, become more familiar and proficient with the all-around applications of that learning. Then you rise up further again, then again.

But you can still get confused; most people freak out when they hit those plateaus. They either quit, or try something new, or they just settle for being on a plateau and never push themselves to improve to the next level.”

“The mental and emotional aspects of martial arts training are so important. In a fight, as your emotional state goes up your I.Q. (‘Intelligence Quotient’) goes down. You have to keep your emotional state steady so you can use your entire intelligence.

We practice a lot of mental tasks, like memorization and concepts to keep in our minds while we’re exercising. You have to keep emotional control, otherwise you lose that mental capacity. Focus is really important. I’m pretty good at it. At practice is where I’m best at it; when I’m doing the laundry I can tend to suck at it.”

“You watch someone who’s a few years ahead of you do something you consider unbelievably difficult, and you think you’ll never be able to do that. Then three years go by and you do it. You think, ‘Wow – I used to think that was impossible for me – and I just did it!’ And then you not only do it, you get better at it.

You’re given all this training to overcome obstacles and perfect yourself, and you get to a point where you realize obstacles are always going to be present. Without them you wouldn’t be forced to grow. So you stop trying to guard yourself against them, and start welcoming them in all areas of life.

I used to be worried that if I stopped training (due to injury or other reasons), I wouldn’t start again, but now I realize that nothing’s ever going to stop me from training again. I train because I love to train, and I learned part of that because there were times I wasn’t able to train.

And if I’m ever more incapacitated… there are many martial artists who are blind, in a wheelchair… there’s always something that can be learned, done.”

“I’ve been going to the same academy almost ten years now. There are ten levels of skill, accomplishment in Wing Chun Kung Fu, as compared to colored belts in other martial arts. I reached my tenth level in August of 2000, and I was the youngest person in the organization Canada-wide to do that.

The person most likely to break my (age) record is the son of the head of the organization.”

“There is a strong structure at the academy to support learning. The grading curriculum is progressive; you start slow and easy, and continually add more advanced skills on. You’re never asked to integrate more than you’re capable of.

To work towards becoming a teacher, first you go through a Leadership Program. There are essays to write, for example: on the positive effects of martial arts, on your purpose for training, to clarify these things within each student. In addition, you learn some fundamental teaching skills, and act as an assistant to the more experienced instructors with their classes. Then once you’ve reached your seventh level, a student goes through an Apprenticeship Program – where in addition to passing the gradings, the student needs to have taught a certain number of classes for each level.

To become a certified instructor, you have to pass your level ten, you need to have taught and trained a certain number of classes, do your tests, submit more essays to show your knowledge and training skills.

The extra training instructors do and the apprenticeship program are to insure that in addition to being able to perform all the organization’s predetermined fighting skills, you’re also thinking about them in a variety of ways – like how would you, as a teacher, instill a new or greater understanding of this skill into a student? To just teach ‘step one, step two, step three’ is to lack that (deeper) understanding.

It’s key for an instructor to be thinking of new and different ways, while at the same time keeping the traditional ways. Things have to evolve.”

“I’ve been teaching for five years. In learning how to teach, I had to forget how to be so good at mimicking. In trying to teach a student, I’d explain, ‘Just watch me do it, and do the same thing’. But that doesn’t work with a lot of people.

People generally learn in three ways: auditory, visual, and kinaesthetic (physically doing it). I’m very visual and auditory, I can see it or hear it and remember. But kinaesthetic learners have to do it to remember it. They usually progress the slowest in the beginning since they have to actually perform each movement or skill several times, while auditory and visual learners can go home, remember what they saw or heard, and practice easier.

So I’ve had to change my approach. You think you know how to do something, until you have to teach it to a wide variety of people. It really showed me how proficient people who teach well have to be. Anyone you meet, if they’re skilled at something – you know their teacher had to be great, because they had to go over the material from a variety of perspectives, over and over again.

It soaks into you so much more quickly when you have to teach it, as opposed to just training as a student. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to start teaching – to learn things faster and more in-depth.”

“If I was in an encounter on the street – someone drunk, or even someone tough, a good fighter – I would feel very confident, now.

For a long time I questioned my ability… not having that practical experience. The biggest hurdle is when martial artists have a high degree of skill, but when confronted by an actual experience they lose themselves emotionally (to anger or fear, wobbly knees, weak stomach, confusion, uncertainty), that’s when things fall apart.

But I’ve done Adrenal Response Training at the academy, it’s a course where you are threatened by increasingly intimidating instructors, so you overcome your fears and adrenaline responses while being yelled at, pushed around and otherwise severely intimidated. Kept myself level-headed.

Also, you learn that most people (in street brawls) don’t have very elaborate attacks. You get used to well-trained attacks at your martial arts school, but for the most part people on the street will throw very simple punches. If you know basically what to watch for and keep a level head, it’s very simple to train yourself.”

“I’ve had to use my training verbally, but never physically. Usually you hear that three-quarters of a confrontation is what happens before the actual fight. I’ve never gone past that verbal stage. I’ve never been attacked by anyone other than friends, and other students during training.

My college class went to New York on a field trip. While we were there, that incident had just happened – in 1999, in New York City, four white cops had shot a nineteen-year-old black kid; they asked him to identify himself, and when he went for his wallet they (ostensibly thinking he had a weapon) shot at him 41 times, hitting him 19 times.

One year later while I was in New York on a school field trip, those four cops had just been acquitted of all police brutality charges resulting from the incident. There were demonstrations everywhere. My friend and I went to Times Square, and we were the only Caucasian people we could see in all the Square, it was entirely filled with African Americans protesting.

We made it to about a block away from the restaurant we had eaten at, trying to get to the subway to get back to our hostel. A guy grabbed me and said, ‘I should force you into slavery, Cracker!’ (Cracker is a derogatory term used by blacks to insult whites)

I was a little freaked out, thinking, ‘Holy Crap!’ I looked him in the eye, I was thinking of explaining that I was from Canada and had no idea what was going on (with the protest) when one of his friends saw us standing there. He pulled his friend away and said to me, ‘Maybe you should go’.

I was like, ‘Thanks’. After that, the aggressive guy was totally placid – both of them detected I wasn’t hostile in any way. I wasn’t really afraid of how angry they were. I was obviously prepared to defend myself, but I wasn’t looking to fight, or afraid of one.

So, happy ending, we walked to the subway.”

(He gave me a couple similar instances of keeping a level head and using certain principles to defuse situations in night clubs, I’m omitting them for space. Then he sums up:) “They say, ‘Fear attracts the fearful.’ You lose the seeing of these things as being random events.

A lot of guys go to a night club just to get into a wild time, fight. I’ve watched ‘guy 1’ see ‘guy 2’, and walk over to fight that guy, a total stranger. And I’ve been standing right next to this. It’s like I wasn’t even there, they walk right by me.

On that trip to New York I mentioned, we walked past a lot of homeless people, some of them have what seem to be diminished capacities. There were a couple instances where one of these street people freaked out – and they went to (accost) other members of my group, like to magnets. (But not to him) Your emotional state has a very large impact on the types of people you attract in everyday life.”

“It’s easier to transfer some principles than others from practice at the academy to practice at home, but mostly it’s the same at both. Your demeanor when you’re defending yourself in some random violent encounter is the same demeanor you have when tackling any problem: you’re going to be proactive, apply yourself without fear of failure. You’re going to let the situation come to you, rather than going to seek the problem.

That way the problem is doing half the work, and you do the other half. You’re not passively waiting for something to happen, but you’re not running around excitedly either. Once you’ve learned the ability at practice, it comes pretty easily when applied to other things. My ability to deal with all unexpected situations is increased.”

People unaccustomed to traumatic or emergency situations, or to training for them, usually need a lot of time: To recognize what’s happening, convince themselves it’s real, wonder what to do, want preparation time to get ready, try to do something – usually clumsily, since they’re unprepared.

With a lot of fighting experience or training, when something like that arises you have a much clearer head, you can just react, respond – avoid it or jump into it as needed, without all the confusion or fear of, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on, what do I do?!’

“Another thing – and I don’t know whether this comes from my training or my teaching – is an increased ability of how to integrate newly-learned skills. I’ve learned and taught so many new skills so often that now I don’t have that sense of dread people get when they’re first learning something they don’t know how to do. Having gone through that process, that progression so many times, learning new (non-martial arts) skills is now really easy.”

“Adults, since they’ve been out of school for awhile, usually take awhile to get back into the swing of learning new things on a consistent basis. They get over that hurdle, then become much more physically fit, then finally get that emotional strength.

And that’s where the big payoff is, where everything (in their life) becomes easier. Driving to work becomes easier because you’re not worried – whether about getting there on time, or about someone cutting you off and starting a confrontation or fight. You just drive to work, and if something happens you know you’re prepared for it physically and mentally.

You stop having all those anxieties, stop thinking about what could happen, and start focusing on what is happening.”

“I find you become a lot more honest. In your childhood and teen years you build up a lot of rationalizations, behaviors; your feelings get hurt, maybe you were physically hurt – and because you were afraid to deal directly with these things (and the people involved) at that time, your behavior changes, alters towards unhealthy or insincere directions.

One of the most significant things that people create behaviors to cover is fear of pain, fear of discomfort of some kind. Maybe you make jokes to control social situations because you’re afraid of being embarrassed, or you’re intimidating because you’re afraid of being attacked or injured. Maybe you hide behind humor, or become aloof, or are extra-outgoing, or interrogative, or become intimidating; you take refuge in these behaviors to cover up what makes you feel uncomfortable.

But after you get to a point through training where you feel safe all the time, you don’t need those behaviors any more. You even feel safe when you don’t feel safe, because you have this trust in yourself, in your abilities, your mind during whatever happens, rather than in trying to find a situation that’s safe.

Now, when you say things, you’re not saying them to cover up your discomfort or fear… you’re saying it because you want to say it. When you come from that honest place towards someone, they can’t help but take it to heart. They can appreciate it.

When I was first teaching, I’d tell someone, ‘You kind of need to work on this’, or I’d make a joke about it, and their feelings might be hurt. Now, coming from that (sincere, honest) place, I just explain to them directly, simply, ‘This needs to improve’. And they’re okay with it.”

“Becoming accepting of everything you feel is really important. Emotional strength comes through being freer, feeling the ‘flow’ of your emotions as they happen. If you are afraid, or angry, be non-judging of yourself. If you feel jealous or envious – people think, ‘I shouldn’t think like that’. They feel it’s ‘negative’.

But when you’re dealing with combat, if something happens to make some emotion pop up in you… if you don’t feel (recognize and accept) that emotion and let it go through you unhindered, it gets in your way. Becoming accepting of everything you feel is really important.”

If you haven’t learned to deal well with emotions and thoughts beforehand, then during a confrontation or fight your opponent – on the street or in the ring – can really weaken you by confusing you or manipulating your emotions. You could die due to such neglect in preparing your nerves.

“You start to realize how powerful a human being is. We are capable of surviving almost anything – except what kills you.

There’s only one thing that’s going to kill you, everything else you’ll survive. Broken leg, broken heart, car accident… whatever happens, you’ll survive it until that one time. Then – what do you care? – You’re dead.

So you stop worrying so much about things.”

“Any obstacle is smaller if you have a purpose. To walk a thousand miles is a laborious task, but if you are walking that distance to save someone’s life… you’re going to do it with more willingness, zeal.

Martial arts has the benefit of having the easiest purpose to understand: personal safety, survival. Every living thing understands that if something is trying to hurt you, you have to stop it to save yourself, whether by running away, fighting back, whatever.

The whole time you’re practicing, you understand that this is for your safety. You always have that purpose. Every time you’re tired, or sweaty, or sore, or you don’t want to do another push-up, you remind yourself that you’re learning self-defense; everything you’re doing is furthering your strength, endurance, pain tolerance, skill, safety.

Your physical fitness improves because you want to be better at defending yourself. Then your mental fitness, strength… mental acuity becomes sharper, because that helps you.”

“One of the reasons I’m succeeding in martial arts is because I still have that almost childlike fascination with martial arts that came from those early years of goofing off, reading about them, etc. Fun has always been my main interest in it. I’ve always had a pretty light-hearted demeanor while training.

Other martial artists and instructors train for different reasons, whether it’s for anger issues, fear issues – I started (and continue) because it’s fun.”

“After you’ve reached your tenth level in Kung Fu there are no more grades – so now when I train I’m not working towards a test anymore, I train because I want to train. Almost like gardening: you take care of the things that foster growth, but you’re not concerned with the speed or level of growth anymore; you don’t say to a plant, ‘Why aren’t you growing faster?!’

I push myself, I make sure the quality of the training is high, but now it’s without feeling I have to reach a certain number of kicks. The greater challenge for me now is all the things that happen outside the physical part. Even if I were to become incapacitated physically, even though I wouldn’t be punching and kicking, the emotional stability, the mental acuity (and other learning) would still be here.”

Training introduces you to mental, emotional stability, acuity – a lot of people need to be shown they actually exist and can be trained for. Then, if something happens in the future, even if you never train again, you will still have that stability. It’s like patience: once you truly learn it, you never lose it.

“I was talking with my Mother about my siblings, and they’ve had a really hard time with jobs, or relationships. I realize a lot of those are difficulties I’ve had, but I went through them a lot more quickly, or maybe handled them with more composure.

Seeing people who grew up in generally the same circumstances as you did is a neat way of looking in the mirror. Seeing how people who didn’t grow up with the benefits of martial arts (or other body- and mind-strengthening training) weathered the same storms…”

“I have almost all the positive signs of martial arts training that you read about, hear about. It’s like a grocery list of improvements – and I’ve got a check-mark beside all of them.

Gratitude is one of the most important things in accomplishing anything. I’ve gotten in touch with almost everything I have to be thankful for. It seems almost every day I get a renewed sense of gratitude for what I’ve accomplished and what I’m able to do.

It’s been really positive.”


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