Skill Dilution

I am in Washington, DC., my old stomping grounds, and visited an old friend who has a successful school in town recently. He started with a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do/Moo Duk Kwon at a well-known local school while we were still teens, and today he boasts of more than 20 belts in various styles. I will refer to this brother as “JC” so that we won’t use his name, as my article won’t be a flattering one.

Among his instructorships is one in Wing Chun Kung Fu, which he received in a week. I am very familiar with the organization that awarded him permission to teach WC because that master is a distant relative of mine. In fact, I often show his advertisement to visitors to my school to illustrate how low the martial arts industry has gotten. I scanned the wall of his dojo, hoping to find a certificate in JKD/Kali or Eskrima so that I could bait him into a conversation about it. As an old friend, I never pass up an opportunity to educate… um, excuse me–rescue–those I truly care about.

Okay, I do it to almost anyone. But seriously, sometimes I really think I would be wasting my time with some folks. With my friends, however, I couldn’t care less about offending them and will speak my mind.

Thank God he does not teach the FMAs, although he did hit me up for a written curriculum that he could “follow along” to start a “sticks and knives” class. Conversation followed. Then he attempted to change the subject by asking me about the difference between Jow Ga’s sticky hands and Wing Chun’s sticky hands. (By the way, did I mention that I have also studied Wing Chun? Yes, one of my favorite cousins is a Wing Chun Sifu too)  We ended up crossing hands, and I had to give my good friend a lesson in Chi Sao. This isn’t fun, and bottom line, he should have beaten me as my total amount of instruction in Chi Sao (most of which came from white eyebrow, not wc) about 7 days of 6 to 8 hours of hands-on instruction. I am no expert in Chi Sao–and apparently neither is my friend. Sadly, my learning in just Chi Sao is more than his total amount of learning from the whole system of Wing Chun. Bottom line again:  He shouldn’t teach Wing Chun.

And he doesn’t. Actually, I believe my friend knows that he is no expert in these arts, so he lumps all of his martial arts offerings into one class appropriately labelled “Martial Arts”. He offers Yoga, After School Karate, tumbling, XMA, Aerobics, cross-fit style exercise, “kickboxing” (my friend is actually a good fighter), and a few other labels. I noticed, however, nowhere does he mention his lineage–and he comes from a very strong, Korean lineage–or his accomplishments. What he does best, he doesn’t teach. When I looked at what he’s pursued, I see that the dates correspond with the latest trends in the martial arts: Ninjitsu in the 80s, Kenpo in the 90s, BJJ in the 90s, Wing Chun in the Y2K, Israeli martial arts most recently, a generic “close quarters defense” certificate lined in camoflauge… I’m sure you’ve seen this before.

JC is in great shape, by the way. He looks better now in his 40s than we did 20 years ago, when I was hanging out with him. Yet in my opinion, he was probably a better fighter in those days than he is now–not due to age, but because back then, he only knew a few styles. Last I remembed, he had three main arts he did. Moo Duk Kwon (we were classmates) is a hard Korean style similar to Japanese Shotokan. He also dabbled in Judo and too part in a few open mats. And around our early 20s, he was learning “ninjitsu” from a Shorin Ryu expert whose teaching was very similar to our MDK teacher. I say he was better then because he only had a few arts that he was doing.

Many martial artists today are chasing so many different, unrelated arts that they know lots of stuff but they don’t do any of that “stuff” well. I call this “skill dilution”. (Actually I ripped that term off from Striking Thoughts’ page)  The thing about learning everything under the sun is this:  there is nothing wrong with learning a bunch of stuff, as long as you take the time to fully develop that stuff to proficiency. The question is, what do you consider “proficiency”? Well, as a student, proficiency at a minimum is the ability to use it in a fight. For a teacher, however, proficiency at a minimum is expertise–the ability to isolate that skill and use it against many opponents and to be able to dominate with that skill. Martial artists today are just satisfied with being able to demonstrate a skill and consider that ability to demonstrate the skill as “qualified to teach”.

Well, if my homeboy can’t whup me with a skill I had only about 40 hours of instruction in but he is certified to teach… he ain’t qualified to teach that skill. And in case you were wondering, yes, I did tell him. Had he opened his school here in Sacramento, he would have to deal with some very good Wing Chunners who might want to see how good he is at that art. Yes he is my homie. But then, some of these WC experts in town are my homies too. I can help you out with maybe two or three of them, homie… Fortunately there are no WC schools in DC that I know of.

This problem in the art is more widespread than you may know. Take any ten schools out the phone book in any city, I guarantee at least half of the teachers you find over the age of 30 will boast of expertise in at least 4 styles. Now ask around for who the best teachers are, and I am sure they will most likely recommend teachers who only teach one or two styles. This doesn’t mean he has only learned two or three arts; most of us have sowed our oats and picked up a few things or two (or three) along our journeys. The only difference is that we know what we are experts in and will not misrepresent ourselves to be experts in more than what we really know. Some people are in such a race to know and teach the next art, that the dilute their ability in arts they should be focusing on in the effort to skim the surface of a few other arts. Yes, they water down what may be excellent knowledge and skill, by failing to develop their proficiency in favor of stuff they know very little about. In my art of Jow Ga, we offer over 40 forms and weapons. Ask any of my students from my Advanced class, and they will tell you–I only claim full proficiency in five of those forms. And I practice this art full time, and have been teaching, for 21 years. I also happen to have permission to teach the arts of five Masters, but take a look at my website; I only offer the systems of two of them. These are the arts I do best, and the only way I will achieve the higher levels of skill (I am still in pursuit of those levels, by the way) is to focus on just two of them.

My old childhood friend is running a day care center because he has put the art he does best on the shelf while chasing side hustles that have not brought him the results he thought he’d get.

Here’s an afterthought:  Many MMA fighters do the same. Rather than learn to adapt what they do best to the ring, they dabble in a bunch of stuff that they only do halfway decent–and lose to the guys who have learned to maximize their Hedgehog. More on this later…

Thanks for visiting my blog.


Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

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