The Master Student

Before you can become a Master Teacher, you must first become a Master Student…

^^ GREAT piece of wisdom, often lost on martial artists. ^^

Years ago, early in my teaching career, I had organized a sparring group in my school in Reisterstown, MD, just outside of Baltimore. We didn’t have many martial arts teachers, but those who attended were mostly tournament competitors I met on the circuit and martial artists-at-large–freelancers, you could say. Not everyone actively attended a martial arts school, and some came for the fighting but joined my school later. In fact, the sparring group is an institution I’ve had in my schools almost the entire time I’ve owned a school. We have entertained professional fighters, self-proclaimed streetfighters, grandmasters, school owners, and many, many freelancers. While living in Baltimore, I got my first part time as a night club bouncer, and it was there that I would say my martial arts elevated to a higher level. The club was a “go-go”, called the Zulu Cave, and I was known as a security called “Miyagi”. Everywhere I went, I was the shortest, Asianest bouncer–and often the busiest because of this. Being short was a liability in that business, and the go-go was a proving ground if you were just a big guy with a big mouth–or a big guy with a big mouth who could back it up. But not being a big guy, I had to go hands on, and that experience influenced my martial arts greatly. Eventually, I was known as an effective security, and often asked to refer more martial artists. This made me realize that most martial artists actually lack the skills and heart to work in this environment, although these arts were suppose to equip us to do so. Those who came with me, also benefitted from this work and the proof manifests itself in their new approach to the art. It really is something you’d have to experience to understand. Anyway, to this day, nightclub bouncing is a part of the Gatdula martial arts experience for my students. Of the 7 instructors under me, only one has not worked as a bouncer, and that is because of religious reasons. In my city, we are the only martial arts school providing bouncers for clubs and bars (as far as I know). Among the original group of guys I recruited to work in the go-gos, it was the freelancers who performed the best in that environment, and I’d like to expound on this a bit.

Those who freelance mostly come from actual classroom training, but for some reason they had to quit. Despite the reason, injury, school closing, expulsion, financial–the freelancer never stopped training in the art. Some simply trained on his own or in groups such as mine. Others started their own martial arts classes in backyards, basements and community centers, while furthering his own education in groups such as ours. And others continued to train themselves, but fought actively in tournaments–which was easy in the DC/Baltimore area, because tournaments often awarded cash prizes and strong fighters could use the tournament as a form of income. Decades have passed since I’ve had contact with some of these guys, and thanks to social media and the internet, we have reunited in a way. I see that many of these freelancers are today’s grandmasters and founders of new systems. On Bullshido, I have come to the defense of a few of my old friends who were ridiculed on that site by guys who couldn’t hold their jock straps. Perhaps they did take on a corny name. Maybe they don’t have strong lineage. But the value of their art is oftentimes stronger than those of established systems. The fact that these men were freelancers was foolishly believed to be a reason to ridicule, and I beg to differ.

A few years ago, I wrote a two-part series called “Fool for a Teacher“. You might go back to read them; here is part II. Being self-taught having a fool for a teacher; being self-trained is not.

When I say that my old sparring partners were self-trained, please don’t get me wrong. There is a difference between self-trained and self-taught. Like I said, most freelancers started out in a traditional classroom setting; they simply did not stay there. Each of us has the ability to take what we learned, never take another lesson again and train ourselves to Mastery. Of course, the path to mastery is a long, arduous one. It is not one that you should take alone. Can you take this path alone after developing a basic foundation? Perhaps you can. However, without the guidance of a mentor or one who is better, stronger, more knowledgeable than you–it will be extra-difficult. You will find yourself running into mazelike corners. You may be reinventing a wheel that’s been revised over and over again. You will certainly be exploring areas that have already been dissected and mastered by others who can save you years of time wasted. Some lessons you should learn from others whose footsteps you follow. Others you must experience yourself. Yet learn, you must, and you must be a Master student if you are to learn this art fully. It does not all need to be learned in a classroom. In fact, I’d like to offer you a simple plan:

  1. Classroom floor–best place to learn theories, techniques, and basics
  2. Sparring floor–best place to fine-tune, test, and try out those theories, techniques and basics–and develop an understanding and application of techniques
  3. Training floor–best place to develop physically, to get stronger, faster, and develop the performance of techniques… and develop your own ideas
  4. Sitting with teachers–best place to learn the highest levels of the art and grow as a martial artist

Step #1 is the only place you should start, and then 2/3/4 can be done in any order, as long as you go back and forth between them. I recommend that the serious martial artists spend as much time as possible at stage #1 before moving on. The more time you spend there, the more effective the other stages will be. Problem with martial artists being self-taught is that they do not humble themselves enough to truly learn anything. They dojo-hop, they study books, they learn by seminar and video tape… Then they go into the gym and try their best Rocky imitation, but never master the art. However, as the saying goes, you must first have been a Master Student before you can become a Master Fighter or Master Teacher. If you study for example the Spanish language without learning verb conjugation, grammar, not even correct pronunciation–regardless of how much you practice and rehearse, you will never master the language until you learn to do it properly. In the arts, we have people “Flowing” beautifully with drills. They can perform their choreographed techniques, counterattackings, drills–all flawlessly, but can’t fight worth a damn. Why? Because as a student, you did not learn the proper way to apply, linking drills and rehearsed techniques with actual martial arts usage. It is imperative to not just learn, but learn properly.

Thus the saying, “Practice makes perfect” is untrue. Perfect practice makes perfect.

The freelancer who builds his foundation, trains with those superior to himself, spars with those superior to himself, learns from those superior to himself, and trains harder than most of his peers–will master the art, even if he has no actual master to claim as his own. Conversely, a student who commits himself to a master, yet fails to spar with superior fighters, does not train to his potential, does not exchange with superior parterns and opponents–or worse, he does not commit to learning from any master at all while failing to train himself properly–will never become a true Master of the art. So one day, 30 years later, after practicing mediocre martial arts with mediocre skills, he’s online giving interviews calling himself a “Grandmaster” who ran out of opponents because he done whipped everyone’s ass in Chinatown–is being laughed at by those who know and knew him. Don’t be that guy; he’s not cool.

In the Filipino arts, we are surrounded by many who do not have have regular access to their teachers. Perhaps because of distance, finances or other circumstances–classroom time is limited. With the right learning and training plan, the freelancer can still develop just as well as the guy who belongs to a school, if not better. It’s not who you learn from, it’s how you learned, and what you do with that learning that matters.

Thank you for visiting my blog.


Author: thekuntawman

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

3 thoughts on “The Master Student”

  1. Thanks for sharing this post. I very much enjoy your writing and your perspectives. I am using what you have shared to move forward.

    Thanks again.


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