In 1989, I prepared for an advanced sash promotion -- Level 8 -- two levels below black sash, in Sifu Phillip Starr's Yi Li Chuan system in Omaha. Sifu Starr is a great teacher. His classes are very strict but a lot of fun.
On one early test, we had to stand for 20 minutes in a horse stance at the beginning of the test. A higher-ranking student walked behind us and if we tried to cheat by rising up a little bit -- WHACK -- we would be hit with a stick.
You can bet that most of us practiced holding our horse stance before that test.
In the advanced levels---brown belt in most schools---we studied Baguazhang, Shuai Jiao, advanced chi kung and other techniques that we needed to know prior to black sash.
I attended 3 or 4 classes each week and trained at least an hour a day at home. I was working in the news industry at the time -- a very stressful job -- but I always found an hour to work on kung-fu.
I took the test with other students that day, and when Sifu Starr gave us the results, he handed me a certificate. I looked at it and had to do a double-take. He had promoted me TWO levels. Instead of reaching Level 8, he had pushed me up to Level 9 -- one level below black sash. He wrote "Surprise!" under his signature on the certificate.
Naturally, I was honored, because I had never heard of this happening. But what it really showed was the value of training outside of class.
Now that I've been teaching for nearly 12 years, I know how it feels to have students who work outside of class. It's obvious to a teacher when a student comes in knowing the material better than he or she did the last time. Your respect for that student rises.
Likewise, when you see that students haven't spent the time working on important techniques outside of class, you often wonder if you're wasting your time on that student. You want to spend more time with the ones who are working hard.
Successful martial artists know one simple fact -- classroom training is only a small part of learning. In the classroom, you learn the techniques and how to perform them properly. Actually learning it, however, requires real thought and study and a lot of practice on your own time. It's very obvious who has done it and who hasn't.
Straight sword fighting techniques, for example, are not easy to learn. You practice them with your teacher to get proper technique, hand positioning, stance correction, etc. That's just the beginning. From there, you go home and practice each parry, each deflection, each thrust, over and over and over and over -- getting the posture right, the slight break in the wrist -- internalizing the movement so if someone thrusts at you with a sword, you can parry it perfectly without thinking.
When you practice a form in your mind, you reinforce your body's knowledge of the form. When you don't have a partner, use a heavybag or a post and imagine arms and legs. Imagine a right punch coming at you. Practice your techniques. Imagine a kick coming at you. Practice your techniques. An "imaginary friend" as a partner is the next best thing to a human being. You can find a way to practice and truly learn the material if you put your mind into it.
Here's another important thing to know -- it isn't your teacher's responsibility if you haven't mastered the technique. It's your fault if you don't know the material. Your teacher shows you how to do it, corrects any mistakes in your technique, and points the way. The rest is up to you.
In an age when -- at many schools -- students test every 3 months whether they're ready or not (and they usually pass if they pay the test fee), unrealistic expectations arise. Students expect to be promoted because they've shown up and gone through the motions. In a society where all kids get a trophy whether they win or lose, why work hard to be excellent?
There's a lot at stake when students aren't worthy of their sash or belt color. The student's safety is at stake. The teacher's reputation is at stake. And even more important--the quality of the martial art is at stake.
If you aren't able to put the time in at home -- time to think deeply about each technique, the body mechanics for that particular technique, and work hour after hour to perfect the technique -- do everyone a favor and stop taking martial arts. Or, go to class and enjoy it, but don't expect the teacher to spend extra time with you, and don't be surprised when you take the next promotion and the teacher says, "Not this time. You must work harder."
Good teachers will do that for you.