Diagnosing the Problem
By Michael Nedderman © 2017
I chose the name “Touchstone” for my martial arts school to express my philosophy of teaching. Webster’s defines “Touchstone” as:
1. a black siliceous stone related to flint and formerly used to test the purity of gold and silver by the streak left on the stone when rubbed by the metal;
2. a test or criterion for determining the quality or genuineness of a thing; synonym, See standard.
Therefore, TOUCHSTONE MARTIAL ARTS is dedicated to the proposition that it is of paramount importance to:
• have a standard, criterion, or “touchstone”, and
• require students measure up to it.
While those two points might sound like something no one would oppose (and none do so publicly), the lack of standards, or the failure to require adherence to them, is in fact one of the greatest problems in the martial arts community in general and in the Wing Chun community in particular…not to mention in society at large. It is those who lack standards who give everyone else a bad name whether they are instructors or beginning students…or politicians, lawyers, or anyone else.
Most instructors fall into one of two categories: they either (1) use traditional teaching methods or (2) they cater to the “fast food” desires of some students resulting in what is commonly referred to as a “belt mill” (“belt” referring to a ranking system which uses colored belts, but this criticism applies to any system of ranking that is abused). Any middle ground between those two positions is usually occupied by those sliding from the former toward the latter category (this discussion presumes the instructor is qualified; unqualified instructors are another, though related, problem). There is one other category: instructors who uphold traditional standards but look for ways of overcoming the negative effects some traditional methods cause many students.
Insight into the Dilemma
While the following is a litany of problems many people encounter there are also solutions discussed herein with happy results that follow the implementation of those solutions.
Unfortunately, some instructors believe they must "push" students along, teaching them new things before they’ve demonstrated acceptable skill with regard to the earlier lessons. This is done either because the instructor lacks teaching experience or, if experienced, to keep them as students because such instructors fear losing them if traditional standards are enforced. Those instructors believe that most students don’t have the discipline to persevere. While that may be true of most people and many students, and is largely the cause of the high turnover most schools experience, catering to the lowest common denominator (at least to the most impatient and undisciplined) is, at best, a formula for mediocrity. At worst, it produces confused and frustrated students whose long term prospects have been compromised by such instruction and who, if they last, will be poor examples to junior students or to motivate referrals.
I observed that most of my classmates at our instructor’s school avoided beginners, seeking to advance themselves by training with someone more experienced while, early on, I recognized that new students are the lifeblood of any school which motivated me to focus on giving them the best learning experience possible. As a result of that experience, I acquired the insights which have shaped the understanding of Wing Chun contained in this article and in my other writings.
Certainly, many people, if not most, will not have what it takes to stick with the traditional training program. In fact, only about 1.5% to 2% of the population even trains in martial arts (about 10% play a musical instrument). Exact numbers are difficult to estimate, but it’s quite small, especially as compared to other sports and exercise activities (source: U.S. Census Bureau). Although there are other reasons than those discussed here (i.e., time and money), historically, 50% to 70% of students drop out after a relatively short time–that is 50% to 70% of the 1.5% to 2%. That fact would seem to doom to the financial doldrums an instructor who upholds traditional standards. But is that a valid reason for lowering one’s standards? Instructors who do so argue it’s a necessity for business reasons.
My observation has been that when standards are lowered, students eventually experience greater frustration because they can’t make sense of the art, and therefore can’t make it work. They reach a point where their bad habits and poor foundation become insurmountable obstacles to meaningful progress. And, they will feel swindled if they ever comprehend how they were short-changed. The justification for lowering standards, improving business, is therefore ultimately hurt by the action taken to supposedly enhance it.
Unfortunately, it is a rare student who can admit that he has bad habits and who will go back and relearn the lessons glossed over or learned improperly. Most egos just won’t tolerate such an admission. And then, of course, there’s the need for the will power few people have to focus on the problem and overcome the frustration of essentially starting over. Teaching students who have layer upon layer of bad habits is also very frustrating for the instructor who likely will begin avoiding such students whether they are his mistakes or that of another instructor.
Additionally, and most significantly, intermediate and advanced students with bad habits provide a poor example for junior students who seem to pick up bad habits easier than good ones (parents will understand). Such an environment can become so bad it cannot be corrected and the instructor could actually lose control of the class which may become dominated by his more aggressive students who, of course, are the bad examples previously discussed. In frustration, such an instructor either quits teaching altogether or, more likely, stops insisting that students perfect their technique before advancing them. That is particularly true at the sparring level which is the competitive “candy” many students seek and may be an ego-enhancing addiction for the instructor as well. All this because many students and instructors lack patience, self-discipline, humility, and are willing to trade short-term gratification for ultimate competency. Doesn’t this just sound like every other area of life? And, that is why, traditionally, “doing it right” is how martial arts training became highly regarded for developing strong attributes of patience, self-discipline, humility, courage, etc., qualities that are more and more an anachronism today.
The “Master of Mistakes”
Therefore, I have concluded that a practitioner, even with good Wing Chun “sensitivity” but with sloppy technique, is (1) practically uncorrectable because his sloppiness is primarily an interlocking series of bad habits he can’t see, (2) is intolerable as an example to junior students, and (3) is unacceptable as an assistant instructor because he is essentially incompetent to teach the subtleties of the technical side of Wing Chun due quite simply to his lack of technical understanding caused by a lack of self-awareness and, by clear implication, he lacks the requisite teaching skill. In other words, a “Master of Mistakes” can only teach what he knows.
Humility to “empty your cup”
However, I do accept students who come to me with the bad habits they’ve acquired if they are willing to submit to the regular criticism which necessarily must accompany a remedial program. That willingness is evidence of the humility which is a prerequisite for such a program’s success. In fact, my Touchstone System is the perfect remedial program for such practitioners because of its emphasis on perfecting technique and focusing on understanding the art of both learning and teaching. Unfortunately, some people just can’t “empty their cup” and accept/comprehend what is being presented. In fact, this work is the result of realizing the importance of communicating these things after unsuccessfully trying for years to explain my teaching method to someone who was unwilling to “empty his cup.”
The Historical/Traditional Methodology
Additionally, and in light of all of the above, it is apparent that Wing Chun’s traditional method of instruction has an element of frustration built into it that only certain people can rise above. But is the design and continuation of that method intentional? It’s continuation is clearly intended. However, we can only speculate about the design because it is lost to history: could it be due to a culturally inherent disciplinarian attitude, or was it intended, like Special Forces training, to permit only the best to qualify? In other words, weeding out certain students may have been useful in the "good old days" in a culture that has radically changed now, China. However, it makes little sense today for a number of reasons, primarily because so many need the discipline as well as the self-defense skills.
A good illustration of this problem, applied to a single situation, is that I can think of only one non-Asian child who got to the senior level in the almost six years I ran my instructor’s children’s class while using the traditional teaching method (about half the adults and 3/4 of the kids were Asian due to the area). However, that child’s stepmother was Chinese. I can only attribute the fact of his success to a culturally-based, family-instilled discipline present in the families of the Asian children but lacking in the families of those who didn’t persevere (many of whom were also Asian but probably more "Americanized"). That factor would also include both parents and children placing martial arts training high on their priority list. And all of that is in light of the fact that my instructor, Eddie Chong, and his instructor, Kenneth Chung, each modified the traditional method to make it less onerous for beginners.
It was quite apparent that there was a filtering process at work in that children’s class resulting from the instruction but affecting students differently based upon the presence or lack of that factor: the culturally based, family-instilled discipline and appreciation of martial training.
However, would anyone argue that the students who dropped out didn’t need the training? In fact, they needed it more!!! They were screened out, not by me, but by the historical/traditional methodology I was using because they didn’t have the self-discipline to continue in a program I believe puts unnecessary stress on that weakness. The lack of the very thing they needed most from the training (self-discipline) was the very factor that prevented them from participating in it. That’s wrong, especially today in light of the ever increasing need for self-discipline and self-defense training. Addressing that and related problems is the challenge for today’s instructor both for his and his students’ benefit.
When I first began teaching under my instructor, I taught exactly as he did. New students’ first night was spent learning the first sub-set of the first form (Sil Nim Tao), stance switching, and the basic advancing step. While most can learn those things the first night, to varying degrees, some can’t. Those people are slow learners. On several occasions, I spent as long as three hours with slow learners, swearing that I would keep trying as long as he/she would keep trying.
Finally, it dawned on me how important it was for the student to have a positive learning experience rather than the frustrating one slow learners are doomed to having under the traditional method. I also realized how much better it would be for me to have a positive teaching experience if possible.
The breakthrough came when it occurred to me that the student didn’t know what he was supposed to learn that first night. From then on, when I sensed I had a slow learner, I simplified the lesson, just teaching the opening to the form, stance switching if he was catching on, and then taught the centerline punch in the mirror and on the sand bag (with one hand only for a week), simply because every new student wants to hit something and that technique is easy to learn. If anything appeared to be too difficult, I simply, without fanfare, went to something else until we found something that student could learn.
You can imagine how a student would feel if I had voice my thought, “he can’t do this.” Of course, “now” is the important word the instructor must keep in mind, as in “he can’t learn this now.” With this teaching method, everyone was happy and the student learned the rest if his “first” lesson over several subsequent sessions without the torment he would otherwise have suffered.
In other words, I learned to be flexible and adjust the instruction according to the student’s capabilities—but always within the context of upholding the highest standards of correctly executed Wing Chun theory and technique.
It was an important insight when I realized that what was needed was to create a simpler first level for all students, which is easier to learn and easier to teach so that both the student and the instructor have a positive experience, while always maintaining standards and combat effectiveness within that level of sub-level. Those who are not slow learners will progress through this level quickly and, when at least advanced beginners, turn around to teach what they know successfully because it is a simple first lesson. Requiring advanced beginners to turn around and teach what they know creates a better understand both of that first lesson (which they likely thought they fully understood) and of the art of teaching, causing them to both pay better attention to future lessons and to better appreciate their instructor.
I think that I understand the art better than most of my classmates at our instructor’s school because they avoided beginners seeking to advance themselves by training with someone more experienced while, early on, I recognized that new students are the lifeblood of any school which motivated me to focus on giving them the best learning experience possible.
Other Problems, like Distinguishing Between Learning and Winning…
Some students also become frustrated to the point of quitting by their competitive nature, with a lack of patience being the critical negative factor. And, a lack patience is often the essential element in the inability of some to acquire the self-discipline needed to either learn correctly in the first place or do the remedial work to fix bad habits, if acquired, in the second place. Consequently, impatience causes such students to be "too greedy to hit" (one of Wing Chun’s seven “no-nos), resulting in getting themselves beat up by their seniors and instructors who, themselves, may also lack patience and couldn’t find any other way to address the problem. Unfortunately, such students and instructors are unable to distinguish between learning and winning and, more seriously,
Some students are too greedy for advancement; some get advanced too rapidly to their bewilderment ("careful what you wish for…you may get it"); some quit in frustration because they didn’t get advanced as they believed they should have been (more impatience mixed with the incredible hubris that disrespectfully and incredibly adopts a condescending attitude toward the instructor). Those in the latter category clearly didn’t understand the admonition to “empty your cup” so it could be filled with the new lessons which includes giving selflessly to new students as an assistant instructor rather than chasing the next “new lesson.” Those students are too greedy for advancement and also cannot comprehend how teaching junior students will deepen their understanding of the art, mistakenly believing that there is nothing to learn from them.
Others could not give up relying upon their natural strength or speed and were, therefore, prevented from learning the "lesson that is in the feeling of the techniques" which is where the essence of Wing Chun lies. Unlike most other martial arts, Wing Chun doesn’t rely on strength and speed but upon understanding certain fight theories and developing the sense of touch into an incredible fighting skill called “sensitivity” to an opponent’s movement and energy flow so that the Wing Chun practitioner can “fit into” his opponent’s movement which is where he will find the timing and the techniques to be effective and successful.
Most martial arts seek to improve on the body’s natural reflexes (defend first, then counter-attack, hit and run, etc.) and on the natural human competitive nature to win and dominate, often using force to overcome force. Students who can’t give up relying on strength and speed actually have an ego problem because they are trying too hard (struggling) to win while sparring or even, believe it or not, while performing application drills. They fail to realize that they lose the ability to comprehend the essence of Wing Chun by not letting go of their compulsion to dominate and to win rather than fitting into their opponent’s movement where they will find the exact place and time to counter. And yes, getting hit is part of the learning process, something big egos can’t handle. Unfortunately, many instructors are a product of the “win-at-all-costs” process.
Therefore, the following questions must be asked:
• What can be done about the high dropout rate?
• Without sacrificing standards, is it possible to entice students with a program that holds their interest while they train long enough to develop the self-discipline, patience, and the technical foundation necessary to continue with the traditional training program which, if attempted earlier, would have sifted out a large percentage of them?
• What can be done to modify or correct the problem of the competitive nature of intermediate and advanced students getting in the way of those students learning, and also creating, at best, an indifferent or, at worst, an unfriendly environment for junior students? In other words, can a "humility lesson" be built into the program which addresses this problem more effectively–that deemphasizes ego rather than enhancing it?
A good analogy for that last question might be to a person who wants to go to college but who has inadequate education for the task even though, sadly, he may have been awarded a high school diploma. The obvious answer is that he must take remedial courses…if he has the humility to admit the need and the patience to essentially start over. The application of this analogy to some martial arts students and prospective students is that they need remedial lessons in self-discipline simply because that quality is lacking in many people today and prevents the long-term dedication necessary for progress. And, if a student is at an intermediate or advanced level in Wing Chun, and if he was advanced too fast or wasn’t taught to value perfection of technique (his first), he may need remedial lessons in the art which, of course, cannot be learned without the humility to admit the need and the patience to essentially start over. However, once a student gets to that place, it is almost impossible for him to admit that he has bad habits, a knowledge deficit, and may lack patience, human nature being what it is. And, such a person, lacking humility and patience, often reacts badly to having his short-comings pointed out which seals in “emotional concrete” those bad habits and that lack of knowledge as it reinforces impatience and enhances the humility deficit.
While it is true that all martial art training involves starting from the beginning in terms of technical skills, there should already be a decent level of self-discipline, patience, and humility already present. However, and unfortunately, today’s culture doesn’t value self-discipline and character development so that many new students need remedial work in those areas as well, presenting instructors with additional tasks and challenges. The training methods should confront those deficits without ignoring the business reality facing instructors and should, most importantly, encourage, not discourage, students.
Only a small percentage of candidates even qualify to enter, let alone graduate, the various special forces training programs (i.e., Army Rangers & Special Forces, Navy Seals, Marine Force Recon, Air Force Special Ops, etc.). Those programs have specialized goals, training, and screening procedures because they have life-and-death missions. Unless a martial arts instructor intends deploying his students on special operations behind enemy lines with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance, he can afford to, and in fact should, structure his program in order to make his art available to more rather than to fewer people. Obviously, this should be done without compromising standards, sacrificing either short-term or ultimate competency, and by presenting the training in such a positive way that students don’t even recognize its remedial attributes (please don’t rat me out). This is not only good for the student and teacher, but for the art as well, and such an approach should only enhance the business aspect of the art not to mention benefit society in general.
Once an instructor realizes that he doesn’t have to adhere to the traditional teaching sequence or methodology (as long as he upholds traditional standards and delivers good instruction that produces results), and that the student is completely ignorant of that sequence anyway, he is freed of the restrictions he learned and can tailor his program anyway he sees fit to address the problem confronting him. Again, this assumes he has mastered his art (you’d be surprised to learn how many haven’t who are teaching).
For those new students who may already have the self-discipline and mature character, it is a question of presenting an activity that they will value above others on their busy agenda. With regard to the program I’ve developed (described below), I hope those who join my class already possessing all the positive qualities will recognize the ultimate value of this approach (technical training preceding sensitivity training which they can easily teach) to the acquisition of the amazing martial skill the Wing Chun system can produce if properly understood.
Additionally, I hope students recognize the benefit of participating in what is essentially an apprenticeship instructor’s program which will provide them guidance in the form of a well thought-out teaching methodology. Advanced students are appreciative of the guidance that my written course syllabus provides when they assist with teaching junior students. Because my program is written, it removes the uncertainty new instructors experience by telling them what students have already learned (lessons are marked off) and what they can teach next, thus providing, along with my guidance, the confidence every apprentice instructor needs and desires on his path to mastery of the art of teaching.
What I’ve done to address the very real problem of traditional training methods discouraging beginning students, fostering bad habits and possibly negative character traits in intermediate and advanced students, while also frustrating me, is to develop an abridged version of Wing Chun for the 1st level that’s easier to teach, easier to learn, and makes students into effective fighters in a shorter time while giving them a “taste” of the effectiveness produced at the highest levels. That abridged version, the “Touchstone Wing Chun system,” begins with the “Jeet Fa” level, a study of “the intercepting method” (the meaning of Jeet Fa), and seeks as its goal to give students effective fighting skills in that 1st level while temporarily postponing some aspects of the art which seem to be stumbling blocks for many if learned earlier.
The premise of the Jeet Fa level is based upon two observations:
First, the traditional/historic method seeks to impart sensitivity skill as soon as possible—and, for most people, that is a mistake because, to make it work most effectively, one must have perfected the techniques he has learned which is often not the case.
Second, it is truly incredible to hear the accounts of students defending themselves and to realize how little Wing Chun it takes to prevail in most situations either because the student was a beginner and knew very little or, if advanced, because he just used the simple, direct techniques, often the most basic, demonstrating Wing Chun’s incredible effectiveness. And quite often, sensitivity skills were not a factor—Wing Chun’s direct, intercepting (jeet) techniques were that factor along with the art’s incredible close-range power and speed. And that’s what the Jeet Fa level teaches. However, it is important to understand that the greater the differences between you and your attacker(s) in size, strength, age, skill, and/or numbers, the higher level of skill will be required for you to survive. In other words, big people can get often away with being sloppy when smaller, older, female people can’t—and their technique had better be as close to perfect as possible.
We like to think we live in a civilized society, and we do for the most part, but if you meet the wrong person(s) at the wrong time, it’s “survival of the fittest” and “go for what you know” time—and what you know had better be good…
Jeet Fa: the Mini Martial Art
In spite of understanding the truly simple equation: more practice = more progress; less practice = less progress, many students let their frustration with the pace of their progress cause them to drop out which reinforces, by negative example, the lesson that patience and diligence are the indispensable virtues. However, impatience often, and unfortunately, rules. Given the reality of human nature, the only solution is to not only simplify the lesson plan, but to make each level a mini martial art, as complete within itself as possible—like a building constructed on a modular plan—if no further progress is made beyond a particular module, whether the building or the martial art, that part can function as a complete and effective, albeit, a mini version of the whole. And that’s exactly what the Touchstone Method presents.
For example, the first “martial art module”, the level named Jeet Fa, or “the Intercepting Method”, uses eight of the fastest and most effective “empty hand” techniques which each embody the intercepting method (Jeet Fa), along with three kicks and a full range of footwork, to form a cohesive fighting system. Those techniques are pure Wing Chun, taken from the entire art but taught right at the beginning to function together as a complete, albeit basic, martial art. Although, boxing is not, strictly speaking, a martial art (it’s a sport), a good boxer can be very dangerous with just the half dozen techniques he knows.
An Apprenticeship Instructor’s Program
Finally, because my Touchstone Wing Chun System is much easier for students to learn, it is easier for them to immediately turn around and teach, thus revisiting and reinforcing their recently learned lessons, unlike most martial arts where students can’t teach for many years. This accomplishes two things:
First, it provides the chief instructor help with the most time demanding students—beginners.
And second, it exposes, for self-correction, a common attitudinal problem which is best exemplified by the statement "show me something new," clearly implying that the student, in his opinion, has accomplished all previous lessons and that his instructor doesn’t realize it. Now, instead of the newly advanced student placing his emphasis solely on the next lesson while ignorantly/arrogantly denying that there is anything more to learn from the earlier ones, he willingly revisits the level he just completed for the benefit of both himself and the junior students he is assigned and, in so doing, he will have the humbling experience of realizing that he has more to learn about that level.
The first level of my 2-level abridged Wing Chun system addresses problems described in this essay by being fairly simple. But when students, as part of their 2nd level lesson, try to teach the techniques contained in the 1st level, they discover that there is more to learn—and I don’t have to worry about bruising their egos by criticizing/confronting them with that fact. They discover it for themselves, and are now motivated to dedicate themselves to any needed remedial lessons at this early stage of their development, will pay close attention to me when reviewing, and can then apply their newly acquired good attitude both to completing the remedial lessons and employing that process and good attitude to future lessons and to junior students. Now I have a student for the duration who has the best possible attitude toward his own lessons, yes, but he now views the junior students in a positive light rather than a distraction to his progress.
The 2-level Touchstone Wing Chun System is an apprenticeship instructor’s program wherein the principles of learning and teaching can be more easily developed and understood within the context of an effective, albeit abridged, martial art. Essentially, what I’ve done is "translate" the fantastic martial art of Wing Chun Kung Fu from 18th and 19th century Chinese culture, where there was little entertainment competing with martial art training (true until quite recently), to 21st century American culture which has lots of competition for a student’s time and money.