“Secrets” of the Filipino Fighting Arts
Words from a Modern-Day Warrior

The Novice Student (Skipping Grades pt III)

This is a continuation of my series on How to Study the FMAs. The last installment is located here.

If you notice, I named the series “Skipping Grades”, rather than “How to Study”. Ever wonder why?

It’s because martial arts students of the Filipino martial arts–compared to those of other styles and genres of the art–tend to be less committed, less patient, and in such a big rush to become “certified” to teach, they never properly learn the art. If you have ever wondered why I seem to be so condescending to FMA people and down on the arts, despite that I am one myself, this is a big reason. I don’t consider most “experts” of the Filipino Martial Arts to really be experts.

It sounds bad, I know. But when a Korean kwangjangnim complains that today’s students are not committed, he is not speaking with the same breath as an FMA Guro saying the same thing. At least in the most commercial, Mickey-Mouse Dojang you can find, it still takes 2 years of training three days a week, followed by board breaking and sparring and a 3 – 4 hour exam to obtain a Black Belt. But the FMAs? Shit, you and I both know there are assholes out here certifying Guros in a damned weekend. A great majority of the source of FMA being taught around the world–not just in America–is through seminar and correspondence courses. Teachers who live in some other city, coming around a few times a year to teach, and “study groups” being led by “Associate/Apprentice” instructors (aka senior classmates) who are getting their training the same way. The result is that if a Guro decides to open a full-time school to teach Eskrima:

  1. He won’t know how to teach it because he’s so used to teaching on the run, he can’t think of how to teach week after week and make it a practical education, and
  2. Students won’t commit to it, because they are busy or some other lame excuse–when reality is that they’re used to learning on the run as well.

Sadly, we end up with mediocre at best martial arts “experts” and they do not have the level of dominance that an expert should have. Our experts become proficient at giving demonstrations instead of fighting. So much so, that when we actually see someone fighting with their FMA–not playing around, but fighting–we are in awe.

But I digress. This article is about the Novice Student…

Many FMA people come into the art expecting certification and proficiency right away. The rudimentary skills of the Eskrimador require unsophisticated, boring repetitions of stroking practice–numbering in the thousands, for months before delving into finer points and anything requiring more than basic motor skills. Eskrima students have seen tons of youtube videos, many have taken seminars and own several videos and DVDs with intricate strike patterns, drills and countering combinations. So when he walks into a school and a real Eskrima master spends 20-30 minutes of every class making him execute hundreds of the same, single strike–he is bored. He feels like “I already know the #1, why am I still practicing it? When will I learn to *fight*, Mr. Miyagi?”

Don’t laugh. Some of you are old enough to know what I’m getting at.

The heart of Eskrima is in the wax-on, wax-off type of practice. It is there, that what saves your life will be found. It is in this type of practice and consistency that true fighting skill and physical prowess is developed. Not with the stuff that makes for a 10,000-hit youtube clip, trust me. Somewhere buried deep in this kind of practice are the most profound things discovered about fighting. It’s nothing that can truly be taught in a class, it is an enlightening that reveals itself to you through proficiency and familiarity. There may not even be a point where you actually realize that you learned it. This is the first stage of training that the true fighting schools are heavy on, and most of the worst fighting schools are light on:  The DO of the training.

Perhaps I should break and explain before I lose you. I have identified several stages of learning, please remember this, as every teacher must fully grasp this if he is to master teaching, and if he is to help his students master learning. Mark my words on this, and you will one day come to the realization that I have just given you a gem–One must be an expert student if he ever hopes to become an expert teacher or expert fighter in the arts. I don’t want to get too far off the subject so let’s just keep this one short and sweet. In learning you have three stages of being a beginner martial arts student:

  1. Doing. You must do the techniques for at least a year–preferably two years–in order to learn HOW to do the technique
  2. Absorb. You must absorb the technique so that you can execute the technique with your eyes closed, mind closed, and thoughtlessly, flawlessly. This is the stage where fighting with a technique is really learned
  3. Understand/Analyze. I couldn’t figure out which word I want to use, and they both mean the same thing in the context I have in mind. It is at this stage, you have full physical ability with the technique as well as plenty of experience using, applying, countering, and overcoming your opponent’s counter–of that technique. Once you have done this, the student is able to change, modify, personalize, and adapt this technique to any situation

To illustrate, allow me to use handwriting as an example. When a child is 5, he learns his alphabets. He learns to recite them, he learns to recognize them, he learns to write them, sound them out, and form basic words and read them. I have letters my baby boy has written me (he’s 6) where he has phonetically spelled words he has not yet learned to spell, but he tries. By the end of this school year, he will be pretty literate. And it’s taken him about 2 years to learn to read. Can he read now? Yes. But not like he will by the time he’s 7, and keep in mind, he started when he was 5…  Like I said, 2 years. he knows how to write block letters in print. When he uses lined notebook paper, he has a difficult time staying in the lines. Although he gets the concept, he still fumbles with writing and reading. There are plenty of English learners who would love to have his proficiency in reading and writing. Those of us who are adults and speakers of English know that he’s got a long way to go, but hell–he’s SIX! Yet to a Chinese man who does not speak English, my son is pretty good.

Around the second grade, his print is good, and so he is learning now cursive. His literacy is improving, he is reading books on his own. He can read fonts of different styles and knows right away what the words say. He is learning basic grammar and spelling basics, and all that crazy rules you American people have in your language like silent letters and why “laugh” and “caught” don’t rhyme and all that stuff that’s confusing to non-native speakers. If some guy from Mexico bought the Berlitz Ingles course, he’d pay handsomely to have this second grader’s command of English. And you and I know (and I am no damned expert myself)–this little boy is an expert, and he’s been writing and reading three whole years. Long enough to get certified in 4 different styles of FMAs AND Krav Maga.

Finally, by the time the kid is 8, he knows that ghosi can be pronounced “fish” (“gh” from laugh, “o” from women and “si” from mission) without having to think much about it. He will understand that he “fought” yesterday instead of “fighted”, and doesn’t even have to think about it. He can engage in handwriting or spelling or reading contests and be pretty damned cocky about it. His smart ass is intelligent enough to correct his father’s English, despite that his Dad has lived here for 30 years. And get this:  If someone hands him some college ruled paper, he can write and adjust his handwriting to be just as legible as Dick and Jane (and know that this book is not a porno) or a celebrity-style, unintelligible autograph. Even doing it while running his mouth. He has only been reading and writing four years, but he’s pretty literate, wouldn’t you say? Compare that to another 13 years of education, and he’s still the bottom of the barrel in the work force. To someone who doesn’t know English, he’s an expert of speaking, reading and writing English–but he has barely grasped the basics.

And that’s why I named this installment the “Novice” student. He isn’t thinking of college at this point. He’s just learning the basics, doing it over and over and over again. Doing homework, reading comic books, writing tattletale notes to his parents about his sister, writing poetry and stories. Little does a child know, he has submitted to the learning and will properly learn the language and the lessons. The sky is the limit with this kid. He could be the next slam poet, or great orator, or award-winning novelist. But at this point, he knows his place and is just trying to master the lessons before him.

The martial artist on the other hand, daydreams in class about skipping the third grade and going to MIT because he “already knows this stuff”. Unlike the child, there is an asshole or two out there, willing to sell him an MIT fantasy and let him skip first through twelfth grade go straight to the University level. He only has to do it a few times a year and a few camps, and won’t even have to debate with other scholars for his degree or be a resident student.

Told you I digress. I have myself a note here:

Submit to your teacher’s lessons, absorb the training, and let it become as natural as language before attempting to analyze and (canonize) your own method that contradicts your teacher’s method.

Then move on to the intermediate level of learning. (slightly revised)

Hmm. Maybe I should have just said that.

Thanks for visiting my blog.

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3 Responses to “The Novice Student (Skipping Grades pt III)”

  1. This reminds me of the old Chinese kung-fu saying: “Three years for small success, ten years for big success.” Of course kung-fu isn’t just fighing, it can be any endeaver, but the meaning of kung-fu is “success through hard work over time.” In a fast food world, hard work and time are often bad words.

  2. Ya brother Mustafa! Wonderful wisdom in this. As a martial artist as well as educator I see much value in utilising this philosophy to learning any skill or trade. Learning is absorbed and understood best when done slowly and carefully. I especially appreciate your stages. Well-written piece!

  3. I am 60 years old this June with 42 years of training under my multi-belt. Funny how, my eskrima certification took two years of 3 times a week privates with my teacher back in the 1990’s…. and that after I had practiced eskrima as a side art for 20 years. Now, in a new town, few guros know me and I just sit in the nosebleed seats at competitions.

    Some days, I simply want to invite any one of them to a non-padded scrimage with a decently weighted baston. But that is just my rage getting the better of me.

    My Judo coach, with over 1,200 organized bouts and a large number of street fights under his 6th degree Judo belt offered me a yodansha after training with him for 8 years in the late 1990’s. That was rather extreme. But I declined as I had no interest in judo matches. Still, that experience and his attitude reflects that changes in Budo over the last 2 generations.

    Why is MMA so dumbed down that Carmouse and other females cannot survive Rousey’s assault? They do not really know the techniques. They only have been introduced to them.

    From Sensei Hal voin Luebbert’s recent words:

    “Take care with any technique or tactic that you watch it done for a time before attempting it – especially as has to do with speed due skill (there are several kinds, you know – skill due strength, skill due neuromuscular facilitation, skill due what I guess we’re calling “empty mind” here, and more). Then, begin very (very, very) slowly. Make the full movement, doing everything you can to observe, feel, and control it. Never do more than ten repetitions at first (read again what I said here about what strengths you can train at the same time). Even the slightest fatigue “splatters” perception (Golgi Apparatus and neuromusculoar sensory). Lactate kills nerve response and feeling. Try to let speed be created by number of repetitions. Do not try to be fast – that is always a by-product, never an effect of trying. Realize that one wrong requires ten correct to get back to zero and starting point (now youi’re learning about how most people’s practice guarantees they’ll never be skilled; and that those who somehow become skilled do so in spite of their training, not on account of it). You need a partner (one who also knows well what you’re trying to do) to watch and correct. “The proof isn’t in the pudding because you have no way to know what the “pudding” is.”

    This from a man who is 75, earned 3 Iowa wrestling state championships and 3 Iowa state Judo championships before he was 16. He also taugh full time with Phil Porter at the USJA for about 10 years and holds 3 National Championship medals. He also sits silently and without much pomp when he attends competitions these days. He is still looking for the one Budo devotee who will not receive a the decision and think that is what winning is about.

    Lesson: martial skills are for life and the honing of character is a great reward. Fame and fortune can be bought with good PR, but great skills as a practicioner of Budo take a lifetime. practice because it is time to practice – not to get promoted, become a teacher or to become famous.


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