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December 2008
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How Do You Accept Coaching from Your Martial Arts Teacher?

I spent over two decades in the news business. I started on the high school paper and then worked on my college newspaper before going into broadcasting professionally for 22 years.

When I got into my first real news job, I realized quickly how little I was told in school about how it really was -- how to see national news stories and tie them into the local impact -- how to write in an interesting way to the audience -- how to select stories based on your audience and the most important thing of all -- what does it mean to your audience?

As a young reporter, radio and TV anchor, and producer, I was rarely given any advice or input from my supervisors. I had to learn everything the hard way, and it took years for me to develop into a decent TV journalist. Since I had no mentor, I studied the best people I could see. I listened to Walter Cronkite's delivery, I studied the production techniques of cutting-edge shows (at the time) like "48 Hours." And when I worked in local newsrooms that had some talented people, I studied the way they wrote and produced the news.

I decided to become a news director -- in charge of the newsroom -- 20 years ago next month, in Sioux City, Iowa. A small newsroom where young kids out of college came to begin their careers. They were usually pretty rough and green, and I decided to help shave years off of their development by being a mentor, giving them feedback on delivery, camera presence, writing, and the use of video and sound to tell a story.

Some employees were hungry for the advice, and they improved rapidly. Many went on to bigger markets and more money -- markets such as Minneapolis, Phoenix, Boston and New York. Some went to networks -- CNN, ESPN, NBC News.

But some didn't want to hear my advice. Their egos or neurosis (TV attracts a lot of that) wouldn't let them hear anything that implied they could improve. One day, I was coaching a sportscaster whose boring stories took the same tone and approach every time. I was showing him how he could make the stories more personal by focusing on an interesting player or coach to tell the story around, rather than just reporting "The Rocks say they need to play their game this Friday, and then having a sound bite from the coach saying 'We need to play our game this Friday.'" 

So this sportscaster looked at me and said, "You don't like me, do you, Ken?" I was stunned. I said, "Well of course I like you. You're a great guy. What I'm trying to do is show you how to be more creative and interesting in your reporting."

"No," he shook his head. "You don't like me."

He lost his job a few months later, and to this day works in a low-paying position in a small newsroom.

When I began teaching kung-fu, I decided to become the same type of mentor that I needed in my own martial arts studies. Two of the best teachers I had were Jim and Angela Criscimagna. Their classes were fun but painful, and they gave specific advice -- humbling advice that let me know just how much I had to work on. And I accepted it and worked on it. In fact, I still do.

In my classes, I get picky over body mechanics. These are skills that take many years to develop, even though some students mistakenly believe they can do it in two or three years. When someone has worked on a form for a year or two and you show them where they need to improve, you can sometimes see it in their face -- they don't like it. Others take the advice to heart, with humility, and work their butts off.

I've been in many classes over the years where the teachers don't ever give specific, picky advice to individual students, and I can see a lack of quality in the students' movements. It's frustrating to me, because I know that just a few insightful critiques would put the student on a better path. There are some teachers who go to ridiculous extremes, like spending most of their time moving the student's hand two centimeters, making it appear that if your hand isn't specifically in one spot, you aren't doing it right. Others get into more productive details like structure and mechanics--why you're doing this move and how the power is generated.

If you're a student, you should expect your teacher to be a mentor -- tough on quality. You should go to classes and come out feeling as if you learned something, but humbled by the amount you still have to learn. And you should take criticism as something to make you into a better martial artist, not as something personal. That's the road to mediocrity.

Even my teachers go to their masters and after a good lesson, they walk out feeling humbled and sometimes they feel like beginners. But that's a good thing, because these arts take a lifetime to master, and those who understand this simple fact, accept coaching advice and work hard, find themselves on the road less travelled -- the road to excellence.

Hsing-I versus Real World Violence -- Taking Down a Violent Suspect

Don't tell the MMA guys this, or the guys who say what you study in martial arts classes don't prepare you for "real life" violence. We don't want to disappoint them.

One of my students is a police officer. I ran into him today and he was excited about his success using Pi Chuan -- one of the five fist postures of Hsing-I Chuan -- to capture a violent man recently. I'm not including all the names, locations and dates to protect identities.

According to the officer (my student), the suspect had his fists up, daring the officer and his partner to cross the room and get him. He was ready to fight. This wasn't the first time he had been in trouble with the law. The officer took out his taser. The man laughed and said, "Go ahead and use it."

The officer loaded his stance, then suddenly exploded forward, taking ground as we had practiced so often in class, and took the suspect down with splitting palm. He told me he kept his energy down and focused on taking his opponent's ground, exploding across the room without warning.

This officer was a student for about two years, practicing Tai Chi and Hsing-I. He especially loved Hsing-I (he's one of the students in the Hsing-I Fighting Applications DVD). He stopped coming to classes after he became an officer, but he still practices the fist postures, forms, and fighting applications every day. After he and his partner had handcuffed the suspect, the suspect looked up at the officer and said, "Who took me down? Man, that was awesome! That was really fast!"

It's nice when even a violent person that you've just busted compliments your technique.

When I read books that pretty much say that classroom training doesn't work, I know that I'm just reading one person's opinion. There are a lot of different types of classrooms and a lot of different types of training going on in martial arts classes. It's not accurate to paint everything with a broad brush. Likewise, as much as I appreciate all these varying opinions and enjoy reading the viewpoints of others, the fact is this: good training and frequent practice develops skills that work in the real world.

In China, Hsing-I is said to have been used by soldiers on the battlefield, but it gained the most fame when it was used by bodyguards in later years. Their Hsing-I was good enough to fend off bandits, and their skills and art became highly respected.

We're doing the same now in America, but in a different way. 

This isn't the first time the officer has used the techniques we practiced in class on the street against violent criminals. He's a really nice guy, and tries most often to avoid violence at all costs. But as a police officer, he knows that sooner or later, he'll run into someone who's ready to rumble. So he practices Hsing-I -- what some uninformed people call a "soft art" -- because he knows what works in the real world isn't just found inside a cage match.

Nothing is Constant Except Change

In martial arts, it is well understood that nothing is constant except change. One of the primary concepts in the internal arts is to be able to adapt to change and maintain your balance, changing with circumstances so you can triumph.

I turn 56 years old later this week. Growing up in the South, in the Fifties and Sixties, I remember "Colored Only" restrooms and drinking fountains. I remember when black people had to sit in the balcony at movie theaters--it was well understood that they weren't welcome on the main floor with us white folks. I heard the "N" word countless times growing up, and used it myself plenty of times.

Then I went to college, and a couple of things happened. I was sitting in a class one day, next to a black student who belonged to a black fraternity that had a practice of branding their members. They actually placed a hot iron brand on the arms of their fraternity brothers and scorched the sign of the fraternity on their arms. I sat in class, looking at this sincere, serious young man with the weeping wound on his arm, and for some reason I was enlightened. He was a lot like me. In school, looking for acceptance, seeking an education, trying to make his life better. And as I sat there, I was sure that he felt pain just like I do.

The other event that transformed me was the night that Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman. At that time, Foreman was deadly. He knocked all his opponents out cold, and everyone felt he would kill Ali. Now, in the South, Ali was hated by white people because he was a "loud mouth," and by God, nobody liked a loud-mouthed black man.

I listened to the Ali-Foreman fight on the radio. At the beginning of the fight, I was rooting against Ali because that's what I was taught growing up. After all, Foreman waved a small American flag at his fights. He was a better choice for white people over a man who wouldn't even fight in Vietnam (Ali).

But something happened to me during the fight. Ali wasn't killed by Foreman. As the fight went on, and he was using the "Rope-A-Dope" strategy, being pummeled by Foreman and absorbing the blows, his courage became apparent to me, and halfway through the fight, I began cheering for Ali. When he knocked Foreman out, I was elated. I became an Ali fan from then on, ended up attending a press conference as a reporter after he beat Leon Spinks in 1978, and the more I learned about him, the more respect I had.

Today, our nation is changing. Barack Obama becomes President of the United States. Last night on the news, a 100-year old black man was crying, and tears came to my eyes, too as I imagined the insults he endured, the racism he suffered from, being told he wasn't good enough to eat with white people, or sit near them at the theater, or swim in their public swimming pools. Yes, tears came to my eyes.

Empathy is something that is rare among people who hate. Racists don't understand that people who are different from them share the same goals, the same feelings, and want the same things--comfort, success, love, and the well-being of their family.

Today, I'm celebrating change. I'm celebrating the fact that America can adapt. I understand from the polls I read and some of the comments that I hear from the "far right," there is still hatred of people who are different, and there are still racists (strangely enough, those people often proclaim themselves to be Christians). It shows that all people will never achieve the enlightenment that empathy can bring. And it's astounding, as our nation teeters on the brink of disaster, that ANYONE could be opposed to a new direction. The last eight years certainly haven't been good for this nation (and this opinion is from a guy who voted for Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the first Bush). It has been the worst presidency of my lifetime.

There is a very interesting human trait -- we resist giving up long-held beliefs. We invest a lot of mental energy and emotion into something, and when a different view is expressed, we reject it and we retreat to what's familiar. It's true in politics, which is why a few die-hards still believe Obama is a Muslim or a Socialist. It's true in martial arts, where people can practice tai chi without any quality but reject the idea that they have been led down the wrong path. Many internal artists have teachers who simply don't know what they're doing, particularly in tai chi, but it's too difficult emotionally to admit that you've been studying wrong. In politics, we simply hate the people who have different opinions, and call them traitors. This behavior is wrong, from a moral standpoint and from an intellectual standpoint, but that's how humans are. All of that will be going through my mind today. I'm not sure why I have the ability to change directions when new information is presented. I changed from a racist to someone who is accepting. I changed from fearing and ridiculing homosexuals to--after I actually became friends with a young man who had AIDS--realized they were no different than anyone else. I changed from a far right Republican as a young man to a liberal-leaning Democrat as a middle-aged man. I learned, and when presented with two paths, I came to the conclusion that I'll always try to look objectively at what I'm clinging to, and try to find a better way, a more accepting way, and I'll choose the path to higher awareness and tolerance. Sometimes, we learn what we're told by people in roles of authority. Sometimes what we learn is dead wrong, whether the authority figure is a preacher, a parent, or a martial arts teacher. This ability to change will be on my mind today, and a question--why is it so hard for some people?

But most of all, as I watch the inauguration today with tears in my eyes, I'll remember the "Colored Only" signs I used to see, and I'll hear the "N" word that friends and family used in the South. And I'll hopefully see and hear all of that fade into history, as the nation turns a corner, adapts to much-needed change, and takes a step forward as a far better country than it was when I was a child.

The Road Back -- So Far So Good

One month ago today, I spent 6 hours in surgery while a gifted cardiologist, Dr. Michael Giudici, burned 80 spots inside my heart to stop rogue electrical activity that caused the heart to flutter and race. Atrial fibrillation is the leading cause of stroke. It was my third heart surgery in 2008 but I wanted the problem fixed.

Yesterday, I visited Dr. Giudici. My heart has been beating strong and steady, and I got the good news that I could stop taking blood thinners. I had the option of going completely off the two other heart medications, but I opted to cut the dose in half and see if the steady heartbeat continues. My hope is to eliminate all medications within the next week or so.

The worse part of all this was the pneumonia I developed one day after surgery. It has robbed me of most of my endurance, but I've been doing some weight training and I can feel my endurance growing based on the number of reps and sets I'm able to complete without gasping for air. I had a practice with some students Wednesday and felt a lot better than a week ago. I'm keeping my weight down and I've changed my diet. A few days ago, I did Laojia Erlu (Cannonfist) for the first time at about half power and felt good.

I bought some new lighting equipment yesterday and today, I'll be videotaping new lessons for my online internal arts school. In the next week, I'll resume my heavybag workouts to boost my conditioning -- I'll start with one or two 3-minute rounds (alternating between punching as fast and as many times as I can one round and kicking the next round) and try to work up to 10 to 12 rounds by March 1st. Tournament season starts the first week of March.

I'm very happy about the prospect that--after a year of strange heartbeats and a little concern about how it would impact my training and longevity--I may have solved the problem and can resume life at full speed. And it's wonderful to wake up in the morning and feel a heart running smoothly and quiety like a well-tuned engine, instead of the engine with a couple of misfiring pistons that I felt for over a year.


A Healthy Lifestyle is Crucial for Martial Artists

Like a lot of Americans, I struggle with the challenge of living a healthy lifestyle. All of my life, I've exercised more than most Americans. I also have a tendency to eat too much junk food, like most Americans. I used to drink two or three Mountain Dews every day. And my weight, throughout my adult life, has fluctuated from around 190 pounds to 208 pounds. When I go over 200, I can see it in my stomach and in the tightness of my clothes. I get angry with myself and I begin cutting back on the junk.

I weighed 190 pounds in 1975, when I was a senior in college. During the past year, as I worked hard on the online school--sitting at my computer 8 to 10 hours a day--and having an irregular heartbeat--my weight crept up over 200. I could see it in the fact that my stomach was visible in the lessons I videotaped for the website. At 6 feet tall, I can carry 200 pounds, but that's not where I want to be. I'd rather be at 190.

Three weeks ago, when I came down with pneumonia the day after my third heart surgery of the year, they weighed me in at the hospital and I was at 208 pounds. They wrote it on a little white marker board that I stared at while lying in the bed recovering. I understood that some of the weight was fluid that had built up, some of it in my lungs, but still the number bothered me.

When I got out of the hospital, I bought a new digital scale, and became determined to drop the weight. Pneumonia certainly helped--the body pulls energy from every place it can to fight the illness--and for the past two weeks I've been consistent at 189 pounds. That's a big weight loss in just over a week, but in some ways I consider it a gift and I'm determined to make the best out of it.

My cardio endurance hasn't recovered yet from the pneumonia, but Nancy and I joined one of those 24/7 fitness centers and we've been going almost every day. I've resumed my weight-training workouts, working on a different muscle group each time and focusing on abs every time. Working to strengthen the core is one of the smartest things anyone can do, and I can feel a difference already. Cardio endurance is a different matter. When I do a strenuous tai chi form like Cannonfist, I feel fatigue through my chest when I'm only halfway through the form. I have a long way to go before the first tournament in early March.

For years, my favorite source for health, nutrition and fitness information has been Men's Health magazine and its website. I've bought several of their books during the past few years and I've paid attention to their lessons on nutrition and proper workouts.

Besides stepping up our workouts, Nancy and I are changing our nutritional habits. I'm eating a grapefruit each day, working in better carbs such as whole wheat products and steel-cut oatmeal, and adding more fruits and vegetables into the diet. Junk food has been dropped almost entirely. I've cut back on caffeine, too. Before I experienced atrial fibrillation, I sometimes drank a couple of Rockstar or Red Bulls each day. Now, I won't touch the stuff. Caffeine shouldn't be necessary for us to function well. If we're fueling our bodies with the right nutrition, we should have everything we need. If you're a typical caffeine drinker and go cold turkey, you'll have a serious headache for two or three days. That should tell you something. Anything that causes your body to go into withdrawals can't be a good thing when we do it to extreme. I enjoy my coffee in the morning, but by 10 a.m. I'm done for the day and I switch to non-caffeinated drinks.

The right nutrition and fitness lifestyle is even more important as we get older. Our bodies can't absorb the same abuse that we inflicted on ourselves when we were young. In college, my typical dinner would be two quarter-pounders with cheese, a large order of fries, a large Coke, and an apple pie. In the evening when studying or watching TV, I would drink 64 ounces of Coke and eat a bag of potato chips. I stayed the same weight. Now, that type of meal and junk food on a regular basis would result in obesity.

Look around at the people you see out in public. Most of them are fat. The health impact is tremendous and horrible. And it's all because of bad nutritional habits and a lack of exercise. I went to a buffet restaurant a few weeks ago and was stunned at the number of fat people gathering at the trough, piling up their plates. You think about how many millions of people around the world are just trying to find enough to eat to keep themselves alive another day, and the selfishness and gluttony of Americans is shameful. And we're killing ourselves with food.

I don't feel that I've been in top shape for about 4 years. Running my own kung-fu school actually hurt my physical conditioning. I was teaching but I was working full-time AND trying to run a school. On off days, I had little energy for training.

2009 is the year I get it back. My atrial fibrillation is gone, thanks to Dr. Michael Giudici. And now it's my turn to bring about a lifestyle change -- better nutrition and an effective workout schedule. It can work if it's accompanied by determination and drive.

Let's do this.


New Book - Fighting Secrets of Martial Arts Masters

BookFightingSecrets I was honored recently when Charles Prosper asked if he could include something I wrote in his new book, Fighting Secrets of Martial Arts Masters. The book is finished and on the market now, along with amazing bonuses that include audio files and videos. The bonuses alone are worth more than the cost of the book, and it's all downloadable. To check it all out, click this link.

Charles and I also recorded an interview that will be available as an mp3 podcast. He asked my opinion on specific fighting techniques for various real-world situations.

In my classes and on my online internal arts school, we are very honest about what's likely to work in a real self-defense situation and what isn't. Over the years, I've discarded techniques that I didn't consider realistic. Occasionally, we'll practice something just for the concept of it (after all, these are called arts) but if a technique isn't likely to work against a real, motivated attacker, it isn't something we focus on.

The book, Fighting Secrets of Martial Arts Masters, contains chapters by different martial artists from a wide variety of styles -- karate, Shaolin kung-fu, wing chun, and many others. You can buy it on the web, by following the links here. It will also be available on soon.

Mr. Prosper is planning to bring many of the authors from the book together in a 3-day symposium in Anaheim, California perhaps this summer. I might be one of the martial artists presenting at this symposium. It would be eye-opening for attendees to practice some of the fighting applications from tai chi, hsing-i and bagua. It's an exciting project and I've got to give Charles his props for pulling it all together. :)


Third DVD on Tai Chi Fighting Applications Now Available

TaiChiApps3-250 Nothing says "Happy New Year" like a new DVD on tai chi fighting applications. This is the third in the series that explores the Chen tai chi Laojia Yilu form. In the first two DVDs, around 250 fighting applications were uncovered during the first half of the form.

This DVD explores the second half of the form and demonstrates more than 150 fighting applications.

By studying all three DVDs in this series, you'll gain knowledge of more than 400 fighting applications for this one form. My hope is that it will cause you to see deeper into all forms and understand that usually, what appears to be just a block or deflection or a strike can actually represent a lot of different applications. The photo on the cover, for example, shows my favorite application for the movement Punch the Ground--a takedown, not a punch.

Future DVDs will explore chin-na in tai chi forms and we'll also break down other forms such as the 38, Laojia Erlu, Xinjia Yilu, Chen Spear, Chen Double Broadswords, and other forms in Chen tai chi, Hsing-I and Bagua.

The DVD is $25.00 and that includes free shipping in the U.S. and Canada. There's a $5.00 shipping charge for International orders. As always, I stand behind my work, so there is a money-back guarantee if you aren't satisfied in any way with the DVD. To order in the U.S. and Canada, click the Buy Now button below. For international orders, please click here.