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A Blow to the Ego: the Price of Progress When Studying the Internal Martial Arts

Being corrected by Chen Xiaowang, 2001.

Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang was teaching us the proper way to do fajin ("issuing energy") with the Hidden Hand Punch movement from Laojia Yilu. He had each person stand in front of him and do the movement.

I had really been practicing, and I was particularly proud of the way I was able to close into the kua before firing the punch. I had been studying Chen Taiji for over five years, practicing and practicing. I knew I was going to get a "good" from the Grandmaster.

He stood and watched as I assumed the position, legs wide, and I closed into the kua.

He shook his head. "Too much," he said.

"Too much?" I asked.

There was a bit of a language barrier, but it was clear that he did not like what he saw.

"Too much."

He showed me, and he settled into the kua the way I had done. "Too much," he repeated. Then he did it again, closing into the kua in a much more subtle way.

"Just enough," he said.

Ahhh, just enough.

I tried to copy him, and closed much softer. Then I fired the punch.

He nodded, said, "Okay," and moved on to the next student.

Laurel-Hardy Handshake
A laurel and hardy handshake?

Okay? Just okay? I didn't even deserve a laurel, and hardy handshake?

When you are a student of the internal arts under traditional teachers, do not expect a medal just for showing up. In fact, regardless of the number of years you have practiced, you should expect to be corrected as if you are a beginner.

Studying the traditional martial arts is not for those with fragile egos. Your ego needs to strap on a cup, because it's going to be kicked in the psychological groin for a few decades.

I have students who have achieved black sashes, and some that have studied 13 or more years and have not achieve a black sash. Others are just starting. When I see them perform, from beginner to advanced, I see different things that need to be corrected.

A week ago, I was correcting Colin, a student who has been with me for quite a while, and he seemed frustrated that he had not yet gotten a certain skill.

"Do you know what a special kind of person you are?" I asked him. "It takes a lot of strength to keep being corrected year after year. Not many can do it."

He had not considered the value of possessing this very great quality: persistence. It requires a lot of determination.

Over the years, you teach all kinds of students. Some can't handle criticism at all. Some decide as they become more advanced that they are not interested in being coached by you, and others take correction in stride, knowing it is intended to help them develop.

Occasionally, a student will quit very quickly, as soon as he or she realizes that it is very difficult, and the coaching can be picky. 

Chen Huixian corrects me in 2013.

This August, I hope to attend a workshop with Master Chen Huixian and Michael Chritton. A few years ago, I was training with them, and they reminded me not to collapse my legs, a habit I picked up training in the Chen Xiaowang lineage. If you look at videos from some folks, even some who are called master, you will often see a collapsed leg. 

"Maintain peng in the legs," Huixian said.

Instead of resenting the correction, it had a huge impact on the strength of my stances.

Another time, we were doing a movement, and Huixian said, "Relax the hip." 

I realized she was talking about closing the kua. Suddenly, what Chen Xiaowang could not properly describe to me in 2003 became clear. By relaxing the hip, your kua closes in a much more subtle way.

Ahhh. Okay. Now I can make progress.

I have seen my teachers corrected by Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, and Ren Guangyi. Being corrected in front of others is not a bad thing. You see, you will never be as good as you can be until you set aside your ego and realize that all good players -- in any physical activity -- need a coach to watch them and make corrections. The top golfers have coaches, basketball, baseball and football stars have coaches, and martial artists need coaches, too.

Without a coach telling you where you are screwing up, and what you are doing well, improvement takes a LOT longer.

We also tend to slip into bad habits. A coach can spot a bad habit and correct us. When I see some masters collapse their legs, for example, I realize they have no one correcting them, so a bad habit persists, and their students then pick it up.

So the next time your teacher corrects you, thank him or her. You have just been given a gift -- time. And if you are like me, you will drive away absolutely fired up over taking one baby-step further down the road on your internal arts journey.

If you can't handle criticism, perhaps you should do something else for fun, like stamp or comic book collecting, hobbies that don't require a teacher to slap you upside the head with the Dim Mak of a critique.

-- by Ken Gullette

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