The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Tang Dynasty Poems, #72: The Song of the Guitar

The Tang Dynasty was a high point of culture in ancient China. Especially esteemed were poems. There was no home coming or leave taking; no event too small to not be commemorated with a poem.

Some of the best poems of that period have been collected into an anthology known as The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. A online version of the anthology may be found here. Today we have #72, The Song of the Guitar.

In the tenth year of Yuanhe I was banished and demoted to be assistant official in Jiujiang. In the summer of the next year I was seeing a friend leave Penpu and heard in the midnight from a neighbouring boat a guitar played in the manner of the capital. Upon inquiry, I found that the player had formerly been a dancing-girl there and in her maturity had been married to a merchant. I invited her to my boat to have her play for us. She told me her story, heyday and then unhappiness. Since my departure from the capital I had not felt sad; but that night, after I left her, I began to realize my banishment. And I wrote this long poem -- six hundred and twelve characters.
I was bidding a guest farewell, at night on the Xunyang River,
Where maple-leaves and full-grown rushes rustled in the autumn.
I, the host, had dismounted, my guest had boarded his boat,
And we raised our cups and wished to drink-but, alas, there was no music.
For all we had drunk we felt no joy and were parting from each other,
When the river widened mysteriously toward the full moon --
We had heard a sudden sound, a guitar across the water.
Host forgot to turn back home, and guest to go his way.
We followed where the melody led and asked the player's name.
The sound broke off...then reluctantly she answered.
We moved our boat near hers, invited her to join us,
Summoned more wine and lanterns to recommence our banquet.
Yet we called and urged a thousand times before she started toward us,
Still hiding half her face from us behind her guitar.
...She turned the tuning-pegs and tested several strings;
We could feel what she was feeling, even before she played:
Each string a meditation, each note a deep thought,
As if she were telling us the ache of her whole life.
She knit her brows, flexed her fingers, then began her music,
Little by little letting her heart share everything with ours.
She brushed the strings, twisted them slow, swept them, plucked them --
First the air of The Rainbow Skirt, then The Six Little Ones.
The large strings hummed like rain,
The small strings whispered like a secret,
Hummed, whispered-and then were intermingled
Like a pouring of large and small pearls into a plate of jade.
We heard an oriole, liquid, hidden among flowers.
We heard a brook bitterly sob along a bank of sand...
By the checking of its cold touch, the very string seemed broken
As though it could not pass; and the notes, dying away
Into a depth of sorrow and concealment of lament,
Told even more in silence than they had told in sound....
A silver vase abruptly broke with a gush of water,
And out leapt armored horses and weapons that clashed and smote --
And, before she laid her pick down, she ended with one stroke,
And all four strings made one sound, as of rending silk
There was quiet in the east boat and quiet in the west,
And we saw the white autumnal moon enter the river's heart.
...When she had slowly placed the pick back among the strings,
She rose and smoothed her clothing and, formal, courteous,
Told us how she had spent her girlhood at the capital,
Living in her parents' house under the Mount of Toads,
And had mastered the guitar at the age of thirteen,
With her name recorded first in the class-roll of musicians,
Her art the admiration even of experts,
Her beauty the envy of all the leading dancers,
How noble youths of Wuling had lavishly competed
And numberless red rolls of silk been given for one song,
And silver combs with shell inlay been snapped by her rhythms,
And skirts the colour of blood been spoiled with stains of wine....
Season after season, joy had followed joy,
Autumn moons and spring winds had passed without her heeding,
Till first her brother left for the war, and then her aunt died,
And evenings went and evenings came, and her beauty faded --
With ever fewer chariots and horses at her door;
So that finally she gave herself as wife to a merchant
Who, prizing money first, careless how he left her,
Had gone, a month before, to Fuliang to buy tea.
And she had been tending an empty boat at the river's mouth,
No company but the bright moon and the cold water.
And sometimes in the deep of night she would dream of her triumphs
And be wakened from her dreams by the scalding of her tears.
Her very first guitar-note had started me sighing;
Now, having heard her story, I was sadder still.
"We are both unhappy -- to the sky's end.
We meet. We understand. What does acquaintance matter?
I came, a year ago, away from the capital
And am now a sick exile here in Jiujiang --
And so remote is Jiujiang that I have heard no music,
Neither string nor bamboo, for a whole year.
My quarters, near the River Town, are low and damp,
With bitter reeds and yellowed rushes all about the house.
And what is to be heard here, morning and evening? --
The bleeding cry of cuckoos, the whimpering of apes.
On flowery spring mornings and moonlit autumn nights
I have often taken wine up and drunk it all alone,
Of course there are the mountain songs and the village pipes,
But they are crude and-strident, and grate on my ears.
And tonight, when I heard you playing your guitar,
I felt as if my hearing were bright with fairymusic.
Do not leave us. Come, sit down. Play for us again.
And I will write a long song concerning a guitar."
...Moved by what I said, she stood there for a moment,
Then sat again to her strings-and they sounded even sadder,
Although the tunes were different from those she had played before....
The feasters, all listening, covered their faces.
But who of them all was crying the most?
This Jiujiang official. My blue sleeve was wet.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Life and Times of the Deadliest Man Alive

Count Dante of course.

Below is a post from The Chicago Reader about the life and death of John Keegan, Count Dante, the self styled "Deadliest Man Alive." The full article may be read here.

In the 60s and 70s John Keehan was one of the most notorious figures in American martial arts. He ran dojos and had sidelines in salons and porn shops. He took a pet lion cub for strolls by Lake Michigan. He trained minorities and caught flack for it, and after one fight--part of Chicago's "dojo wars" of the 60s and 70s--he was implicated in the death of one of his students. He was also a fierce self-promoter: comic-book readers might know him best as Count Dante, the persona Keehan used to sell membership in his Black Dragon Fighting Society, as well as a pamphlet, World's Deadliest Fighting Secrets, that promised to teach readers how to maim, disfigure, and kill.

Ever since his death in 1975, Keehan's life has been wrapped in rumor and parody, but Oak Park filmmaker Floyd Webb is striving to untangle truth from fiction. For the past year he's been working on a documentary about Keehan, The Search for Count Dante, inspired by his own experience in martial arts, as well as his brief acquaintance with Keehan. Growing up in the Harold Ickes Homes near Chinatown, Webb raised pocket money by collecting deposit bottles, scrubbing out Chinatown trash cans, and taking other odd jobs, and on September 4, 1964, he spent part of that hard-earned income to attend the Second World Karate Championshipat the Chicago Coliseum. Numerous feats of martial-arts prowess were on display--board breaking, kata (patterns of techniques), sparring--and Webb recalls Keehan, the event's organizer, stalking the sidelines.

Keehan took a moment to chat with Webb and his friends--which impressed Webb not just because they were kids but also because they were black. Keehan became "Steve McQueen cool" to Webb after that. "He was a snappy dresser," Webb says. "He had a school on Rush Street. We used to go downtown with our various hustles when we ditched school, and we would always run into him."
Chicago had 13 dojos in 1964, and Keehan owned two of them: the Imperial Academy of Fighting Arts at 1020 N. Rush and Chicago Judo and Karate Center at 7902 S. Ashland. They were too far away and too expensive for Webb to attend, but he still pursued martial arts, checking out karate manuals from the bookmobile, studying untranslated pamphlets from Chinatown bookshops, and taking lessons from war veterans and immigrants from Hong Kong. He briefly competed in tournaments but eventually pursued a career in film: he studied photojournalism at NIU, founded the Blacklight Film Festival (a showcase for black filmmakers), and later worked as a producer on the films Daughters of the Dust and The World of Nat King Cole.

Webb revisited several old neighborhoods while working on the Cole documentary and ran into some friends from his karate days. One said he'd recently seen Count Dante on the street. So did another. A third said he'd actually talked to Keehan and claimed he was now living on the southwest side. "I said, 'You're hallucinating!'" Webb says.

He was sure Keehan was dead, but to make certain he pulled Keehan's death certificate. The self-proclaimed deadliest man alive, it explained, had died in his Edgewater condo from a bleeding peptic ulcer, probably brought on by years of stress and hard living. He was all of 36.

John Keehan was born in Beverly on February 2, 1939, to an affluent family: his father, Jack, was a physician and director of the Ashland State Bank, and his mother, Dorothy, occasionally appeared on the Tribune's society pages. He also had an older sister, Diane. They're all dead too, according to a cousin of Keehan's contacted by Webb. (The cousin did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.) In his teens Keehan attended Mount Carmel High School and boxed at Johnny Coulon's 63rd Street gym, and after graduating from high school he joined the marine reserves and later the army, where he learned hand-to-hand combat and jujitsu techniques.

By 1962, after the service, Keehan was teaching at Gene Wyka's Judo and Karate Center in Brighton Park and made occasional trips to Phoenix, Arizona, to study under Robert Trias, who had opened the first karate school in the U.S. and was head of the United States Karate Association. Training full-time, Keehan quickly earned his second-degree black belt and was appointed the USKA's midwest representative.

In the early 60s dojos were rough, bare-bones joints largely inhabited by cops, ex-soldiers, and assorted other tough guys. (Trias, who died in 1989, was an Arizona highway patrolman who'd studied karate while stationed in the Pacific during World War II.) But Keehan, wanting a bigger audience, began to organize tournaments that emphasized the flashier aspects of the martial arts; he appears on the cover of one tournament program smashing eight rows of bricks with his elbow. He was a savvy publicist, making sure the first event he organized, at the University of Chicago field house on July 28, 1963, got mentioned in the Tribune's "In the Wake of the News" column.

Keehan's early tournaments attracted a host of martial-arts luminaries--like Ed Parker, Jhoon Rhee, and a pre-Enter the Dragon Bruce Lee--as well as new students. James Jones, a 66-year-old retiree now living in Hazel Crest, signed on at Keehan's Rush Street school the day after he attended the U. of C. event. He studied with Keehan for three years and remembers him as an ideal instructor. "John was a person who focused on basics and fundamentals," he says. "He had excellent form and techniques." He also says that Keehan was one of the few men who could side kick or punch a brick in half, though at one event it took three strikes and Keehan wound up breaking five bones in his hand. Still, he showed up at the dojo the next day, his hand in a cast.

But Keehan also had an arrogant streak. "John was the type of person who enjoyed attention and being in the limelight," Jones says. "'If you're talking about me, then you know about me.' I thought that was a weakness: 'What can I do for myself instead of the art?'" Arthur D. Rapkin, a Milwaukee-area acupuncturist who studied under Keehan from 1965 to 1971, recalls Keehan's "chronic" arguing with other karate schools. His ideas for tournaments were the biggest problem. Unlike most other teachers, Keehan advocated full-contact matches--no safety equipment, no pulled punches.
"John was six-foot, well built, and looked like a bodybuilder," says Michael Felkoff, a friend of Keehan's now living in Las Vegas. "If you fucked with him, he was liable to hurt you."

Keehan charged students $20 a month--pricey for dojos at the time--and he gained a reputation for being one of the first white sensei in the country to accept nonwhite students. "Race never played a part in John's teaching," says Jones, who is black. Ken Knudson, a white student of Jones's who later founded the Sybaris couples' resort chain, was interviewed by Webb a week before he died in a plane crash last January. "John loved the martial arts," Knudson told Webb. "He loved it, he ate it, he breathed it. He was blind to race. It didn't matter."

Keehan claimed that race strained his relationship with Trias. In 1969 he told Black Belt magazine that in 1964 "the USKA didn't have any Negroes in the organization, except for mine, and Trias didn't like it one bit. . . . It's the truth. Of course, now he has no qualms about it, but at the time, that's the way it was." Trias, in a 1975 article, dismissed this as "nonsense." Jones, who trained under both men, believes that there probably was a de facto ban on minorities in the early days of the USKA but that the battle between Trias and Keehan likely had as much to do with control as with race. 

Whatever the reason, Trias expelled Keehan from the USKA in December 1964. Keehan was on his own.

Trias later said that Keehan "was given too much power too young and too fast," and in his mid-20s the future Count Dante did seem to start drifting off course. On July 22, 1965, Keehan and Doug Dwyer, a longtime friend and fellow instructor, were arrested after a drunken attempt to blow out a window at Gene Wyka's school with a dynamite cap. After they were apprehended, Dwyer was charged with four traffic violations; Keehan was charged with attempted arson, possession of explosives, and resisting arrest. He got two years' probation.

Around the same time Keehan bought a lion cub--a legal, if uncommon, practice before the 1969 Illinois Dangerous Animals Act--which he kept at his dojo on Ashland and walked around town like a dog. (He later sold it to the Lions Club of Quincy, Illinois.) In the summer of 1967 he promoted an audacious exhibition in which, as part of a tournament at Medinah Temple, a bull would be killed with a single blow. Keehan purchased a bull from the stockyards and drove it around town on the back of a flatbed truck festooned with signs announcing the event. He wouldn't perform the deed himself: he'd picked Arthur Rapkin, then a 19-year-old student, for the task.

Bull killing was the signature stunt of karate legend Mas Oyama, and Rapkin initially seemed game: in a Tribune article about the event (headlined "Karate Expert Thwarted as Bull Hitter"), he's quoted as saying that if the police prevented him from attacking the bull in the building, he would "kill it in the truck on State Street, if necessary." But after the seats were filled Keehan announced that the event had been shut down by the Chicago SPCA. In hindsight, Rapkin says, he believes Keehan and his associates never seriously considered staging the event. "They were probably just howling at this little Jewish kid from Milwaukee they were going to put up against this bull," he says.

That year Keehan legally changed his name to Juan Raphael Dante, telling people that he wanted to reclaim the royal title he lost after his parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1936, during the Spanish civil war. It's never been clear why a south-side Irish guy like Keehan decided he must be a Spanish count, or how he chose his new name (though Mount Carmel High School is located on Dante Avenue). Regardless, his new name and background came with a flashier stage presence. At a 1967 tournament held at Lane Tech, he arrived wearing a flowing cape and brandishing a cane capped by a lion's head; he'd dyed his hair jet-black and had a neatly trimmed beard, reflecting his new side gig in cosmetology. Also in 1967 he opened a salon, the House of Dante, at 2558 W. Superior in West Town. Rapkin recalls that Keehan recommended hairdressing to him as a profession; the flexible hours would let him pursue martial-arts training, and it wasn't a bad way to meet girls.
Suited up in his new persona, Keehan decided to make a play for national recognition. Inspired by kung fu dim mak, or "poison hand," strikes--which emphasize thumbing out eyes, flaying skin, fish-hooking lips, and suchlike--Keehan assembled the World's Deadliest Fighting Secrets pamphlet, which promised to teach readers his "dance of death," a rapid combination of attacks designed to leave your opponent in a writhing, bloody heap. Keehan advertised heavily in comic books, doing his damnedest to separate a generation of kids from their paper-route money:

Yes, this is the DEADLIEST and most TERRIFYING fighting art known to man--and WITHOUT EQUAL. Its MAIMING, MUTILATING, DISFIGURING, PARALYZING and CRIPPLING techniques are known by only a few people in the world. An expert at DIM MAK could easily kill many Judo, Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, and Gung Fu experts at one time with only finger-tip pressure using his murderous POISON HAND WEAPONS. Instructing you step by step thru each move in this manual is none other than COUNT DANTE--"THE DEADLIEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED." (THE CROWN PRINCE OF DEATH.)

World's Deadliest Fighting Secrets was very much a Keehan vanity project. The pamphlet's first two inside pages were a sustained brag about the martial arts he'd mastered, his "Strikingly Handsome" looks, and his devotion to classical singing. Those were followed by photos of Keehan in a black silk gi, demonstrating techniques like "Groin Slap or Grab and Tear Off (often called 'Monkey Stealing a Peach')" on an uncomfortable-looking Doug Dwyer. It wasn't entirely hooey. "The 'dance of death' was overkill," says Massad Ayoob, a security expert who interviewed Keehan for Black Belt magazine in the 1970s, in an e-mail. "But it also taught that a single blow or attack could fail, thus inculcating the student with the principle of continuing to fight until he had won." 

It's not known how many comic-book readers ponied up five bucks for a copy of the pamphlet, but Keehan's fortunes clearly grew--by 1969 he had opened three new Imperial Academies of Fighting Arts in the city. He also continued to hold full-contact tournaments, and his bad-boy rep began rubbing off on the larger Chicago martial-arts scene. Black Belt refused to cover Keehan's tournaments, and in 1969 it published a roundtable conversation in which several Chicago instructors laid into Keehan's tactics. Keehan claimed to have taught 60 percent of Chicago's karate instructors, to which Black Belt managing editor D. David Dreis replied, "Which is one reason why Black Belt didn't cover Chicago." One instructor described a Dante tournament he judged as an "amateur boxing match" and said he'd never judge another. Dreis wrote that Keehan's spectators "come to [his tournaments] to see plenty of blood spilled. Ofttimes they are disappointed; all too often, they get their money's worth."

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Element of Play in Martial Arts

Below are excerpts from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

The Problem with Play

I have always found TED talks to be a mixed bag. Some are wonderful. Others I find vaguely irritating. But the project itself, which seeks to popularize some of the most important “big ideas,” is deeply interesting.  If nothing else, scrolling through a list of titles on the video platform of your choice is a good way to see which concepts are currently making their way into popular consciousness. That is important as scholars are increasingly being judged by the sorts of “real world” effects that their research generates.

If the “TED Index” has any validity, there is one idea whose time has truly come.  “Play” is back.  After decades of being little more than a term of abuse, a purposeless activity relegated to the realm of childhood, play has recently become an important concept.  While few individuals, other than a handful of psychologists and evolutionary biologists, thought about play a decade ago, today studies are being conducted, grants are being written and (many) books published.

This material seems to have come to a general agreement on a few key facts.  Play is a very important aspect of human (indeed, all mammal) learning and development. Individuals who are artificially deprived of play tend to be less creative, flexible, resilient and have an increased likelihood of psychological disorders.  The rise of anxiety, depression and suicide in the Western world, while typically blamed on cell phones and Facebook, also corresponds with the increasing displacement of all forms of play from the lives of tightly scheduled children and young adults.  It seems that the entire TED circuit speaks with a single voice when they tell us that we are facing a crisis.  As Weber’s iron cage of modern rationality grinds on, play has become an endangered species.  The result is a society filled with less creative, less sociable, and less psychologically resilient individuals, precisely at the moment when we need those sorts of attributes the most.

Nor is this simply a matter of concern for parents and school administrators. While most mammals retain some interest in play, humans are practically unique (or at least right up there with dolphins and sea otters) in that extended periods of play remain necessary for adults as well.  As one of the afore mentioned TED talks noted, the opposite of play isn’t “work.”  Its depression.  And that quip brings us to the heart of our problem.  Play has a branding problem.  Can the martial arts help?

As with so much else, I blame the Puritans for all of this. The advent of the protestant work ethic represented a fundamental break with traditional modes of social organization across large portions of the West. While there is much that we could say on the topic (indeed, entire books and articles have been written on the subject), for the purposes of the current post it is enough to note that frivolous activities came under severe scrutiny in a society where an individual’s personal value became increasingly conflated with their net worth.  After all, the one thing that no society can abide is an individual who fails to take its values seriously.  In short order “play” came to be regarded with suspicion.

Nor has the increasing secularization of society done anything to alleviate this problem.  If anything, it has gotten far worse in recent decades.  School years are longer now than they were two generations ago, and seemingly secondary subjects like music, art and recess have all found themselves on the chopping block.  The sorts of athletic leagues that most children find themselves in today are so tightly supervised and disciplined that they no longer meet even the most basic definitions of play. Indeed, the need for constant resume building has eliminated much of the unsupervised “downtime” in which childhood used to occur in.

Martial Arts Practice as Play

This is the section of the essay where I typically introduce martial arts practice as the unexpected solution to what ever issue kicked off our discussion.  Unfortunately, the relationship between the martial art and play is complex and multilayered.  On the one hand, these practices have been haunted by the widely held perception that they are not something that “serious” people do.  Spending an hour a day training for your half marathon is fine, even admirable.  But spending that same hour in a kung fu or kickboxing class can elicit sideways glances and nervous laughter.  Paul Bowman tries to unwrap what is going on here in the opening chapters of his volume Mythologies of Martial Arts(2016).  His arguments are well worth reviewing. But in brief, the alien and seemingly pre-modern nature of the Asian martial arts makes it difficult to incorporate them into Western society’s dominant discourses.

The health benefits of jogging are obvious, as are the competitive virtues of winning a 10K race. They require no explanation.  Yet one must always explain that kickboxing is a great workout, or that BJJ “burns a lot of calories.”  Martial artists are constantly, and with only partial success, justifying the resources that they spend on their training.  Yet at the end of the day, for most members of society, this will always be “just playing around.”  Children may get some benefits from martial arts training.  But Master Ken remains a telling image of the overly serious adult student who never managed to grow up. Serious martial arts training remains unavailable to many adults precisely because it is perceived as a type of (delusional) “play.”

The irony is that many, maybe even most, martial arts class rooms are devoid of actual play.  Real play, true play, can be antithetical to the goals of many martial arts schools.  To understand why this is we need to think a little more carefully about play itself. Unfortunately there are lots of definitions floating around and they don’t all agree. Still, I know play when I see it.  For a short essay like this a compete clinical definition probably isn’t necessary.  Luckily there are a few broadly held points of agreement that can guide our thinking.

To begin with, play is not the same thing as inaction or simply a lack of seriousness. It is an independent process in its own right, with both psychological and social aspects.  There are many types of play.  Some are deeply imaginative and others are not, being primarily observational or embodied. True play is an independently chosen activity that happens in the absence of a directing authority.  It is basically a truism to say that no one can force you to play. Play is generally seen as being purposeless.  This does not mean that it has no impact on an individual’s life.  Rather, it happens for its own sake. To summarize, fun activities are “play” only if they are self-controlled and self-directed.

A psychologist or social scientist may look at what happens in the average Taekwondo class and see a highly creative modern ritual. Individuals dress in symbolic clothing and engage in rites of reversal that upend mundane social values (such as don’t hit your friends or choke your siblings). And yet many training environments go out of their way to avoid an air of playfulness.  In its place we find the formality of ritual and the constant supervision (and correction) of concerned teachers.  Indeed, the parents of the children in the class are likely to be found on folding chairs in the school’s lobby, closely monitoring everyone’s progress. This is a type of performance staged for social purposes rather than individual play. Much the same could be said for most school sports.

One may have quite a bit of fun in such a structured martial arts class (I know I always do).  And there is no doubt that students learn and derive all sorts of physical and social benefits from participating in such classes.  And yet all of this is basically the antithesis of play.  The general feeling seems to be that not only would play in a martial environment be unproductive (how can one learn “good habits” without constant correction and oversight?), but that it might also be dangerous.

Just stop to think about the arsenal of weapons that line the walls of the average kung fu school?  Do you really want to turn the students loose for long periods of unstructured play?  Perhaps the opposite of play is actually “liability insurance.”

Luckily my own Sifu didn’t seem to believe that last point.  I can confidentially say that unstructured play was critical to my development as a Wing Chun student. Indeed, it was an important part of the curriculum.

Standard classes, graded by level and each having a well-developed curriculum, were held four nights a week at Wing Chun Hall in Salt Lake City. Yet Jon Nielson, my Sifu, was aware that more was needed when attempting to find your own place in the martial arts community.  So every Friday evening and Saturday morning his school would open for three hours of unsupervised “practice time” for anyone who wanted to come. Students of the Wing Chun Hall were expected to attend these “open sessions” on a semi-regular basis (and there was never any cost for doing so).  Even individuals from other schools were welcome to come by and train with the Wing Chun people if they so desired.  The critical thing, however, was that the one person who was rarely ever there was Sifu. The sessions were instead monitored (but not run) by his junior instructors who were under strict orders to help if asked. Otherwise students were left to train how they saw fit.  If someone wanted to learn some basic dummy exercises, even though they were years away from starting the dummy form, this was their time to do it.

Most people would come to an open session with some sort of goal in mind.  Maybe they wanted to work on a specific form.  Perhaps they were having trouble with ground-work, or one of the paired exercises that had been introduced during the week.  And it goes without saying that everyone wanted to practice Chi Sao with the more senior students (or to touch hands with visitors from different styles).

Yet three hours is a long time.  One would inevitably be drawn into all sorts of other drills, exercises and discussions that you had never envisioned. The second and third hour of any sessions always seemed to evolve organically. One might well come in to work on the dummy and end up with a pole in your hands.  I still have fond memories of one Saturday spent making up a game so that new Siu Lim Tao students could practice their footwork. While these open sessions tended to start out as directed and focused, by about hour two things had become much more fluid.

My sifu instituted these open sessions for a couple of reasons.  To begin with, everyone needs a night off.  And we can all use more hours of practice when it comes to the sorts of sensitivity drills that Wing Chun so loves.  These things are not like riding bike.  Once certainly will forget them, and you are never any better than however many hours of practice you put in the month before.

Beyond that, my Sifu was also a keen student of pedagogy.  He carefully explained to me the importance of unstructured play, free of judgement or overbearing correction, in learning any physical skill.  More specifically, he noted that this was where students would learn to trust their bodies, bodies that were now defined through a new set of skills.  And it was those martially educated bodies that would make judgements about the world. Understanding whether someone was a threat, or whether a technique was working, was an embodied process.  Teaching and drilling this material during the more structured nightly classes was not enough.  It was also a matter of how that knowledge was internalized, localized, modified and rearranged.  Drawing on his background in linguistics he noted that kung fu meant “hard/skillful work” (and it certainly is), but in China the martial arts are often associated with the verb “to play.”  One “plays wushu,” or goes to “play sticky hands.”  Both modes of action, he suggested, exist in a reciprocal relationship. Self-controlled and self-directed play is not disposable or supplemental.  Properly understood, it is a critical aspect of the learning process.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Skipping Rope to Improve Your Footwork

Below is an excerpt from another great post at The Art of Manliness. The full post may be read here.

When you think about boxers’ workouts — when you mentally run through all the real life preparation they put in before a fight, as well as all the cinematic training montages you can remember — one exercise probably comes most readily to mind: jumping rope.
Boxers, from bare-knuckle brawlers like John L. Sullivan to modern champs like Manny Pacquiao, have indeed made jumping rope a big part of their training regimens throughout the long history of the sweet science. And with good reason: the benefits of this exercise abound.
If you’re not planning on climbing into a ring anytime soon, you probably don’t think of jump roping very often; to get in your cardio or HIIT workouts, you’re more likely to mount some machine at the gym. Maybe that’s because you associate jumping rope with elementary school, think you’re too clumsy to do it effectively, remember it being overly monotonous, or feel like it’s too high impact an exercise for your older or heavier body.
Today we’ll show you how those objections can be overcome, and why you ought to train like a fighter by incorporating the jump rope into your workout routine.

The Benefits of Jumping Rope

Jumping rope builds your fitness, athletic skills, and even your mindset in ways few other exercises can match. When you look at the list of benefits below, it’s easy to see why boxers are particularly keen on this form of training, but these are advantages the average guy surely wants to develop as well:
  • Serves as a whole body workout that incorporates all the muscle groups
  • Works the body’s anaerobic and aerobic systems and efficiently burns calories
  • Builds speed and quickness
  • Develops overall balance, coordination, timing, and rhythm
  • Intensifies power and explosiveness
  • Increases reaction time and reflexes
  • Gets an athlete comfortable with being in the “readiness position” — on the balls of the feet
  • Enhances agility and nimbleness — lightness on the feet
  • Offers practice in moving through all planes of space — up, down, backward, forward, and side-to-side
  • Enhances ability to accelerate and decelerate while keeping one’s balance
  • Develops body control and awareness
  • Cultivates greater ability to synchronize the lower and upper body
  • Increases hand-eye coordination
  • Strengthens mental discipline and mindfulness (in calling upon one’s powers of concentration)
Beyond these physiological benefits, jumping rope is a super cheap and portable exercise — you can do it almost anywhere — and incredibly versatile to boot; with hundreds of variations in techniques, patterns, and progressions, it’s a workout you can keep perennially fresh.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Martial Arts Practice Keeps the Brain Young

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at regarding martial arts practice and the long term benefits for our brains. The full post may be read here.

I’m no longer the spring chicken I was. I’m approaching 40, and I want to maintain a healthy brain as well as healthy body. Turns out according to this article in Psychology Today that I’m on the right path, because Physical Activity is the No.1 way to keep your brain young. This article explains the link between aerobic fitness and cognitive function. Christopher Bergland the author of the article goes further stating that maintenance of close knit social bonds are second only to exercise in terms of maintaining longevity and psychological well-being.

Great news for martial artists

This is great news for martial artists practicing in quality clubs and gyms. Not only are they getting the benefits of exercise on cognition but also the psychological well-being of close knit bonds with their martial arts classmates. Provided of course you’re training at the right kind of club or gym.

The benefits of finding the right club

This highlights the benefits of finding the right club where not only you receive great instruction but also the support, help guidance and camaraderie of your classmates. I’ve been lucky throughout my martial arts journey and when creating my company StudyMartialArts.Org to meet and learn from the right kind of people. At present I’m based in Beijing and loving the training and the community at Big King BJJ and Muay Thai (insert shameless plug).

So what about the science?

Well according to Richard A. Friedman’s article in New York Times.
“Intriguingly, exercise in humans and animals increases the level of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, in the blood and brain. BDNF promotes the growth and formation of new neurons, and it may be responsible, in part, for a remarkable effect of exercise on the brain: an increase in size of the hippocampus that is linked with improved memory.
Conversely, adverse experiences like major depression can lower BDNF levels and are associated with hippocampal shrinkage, a phenomenon that helps explain some of the cognitive impairments that are a hallmark of depression. Aside from making people feel better, antidepressants can block the depression-induced drop in BDNF, so

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Motivation and Discipline

Happy 4th of July!

Below is an excerpt from a post at The Art of Manliness. The topic is the difference between motivation and discipline and how for some of us, maybe we're further ahead by being motivated rather than being disciplined.

The full post may be read here.

There’s a popular maxim in personal development circles that goes: “F**k motivation. It’s fickle and unreliable and isn’t worth your time. Better to cultivate discipline.”

Everywhere you look these days, people are exalting the sentiment behind this mantra; they’re down on motivation and high on discipline. Your Instagram feed is probably full of “influencers” shouting at you to get disciplined. Discipline, discipline, discipline!

We used to beat the discipline drum ourselves. In fact, we were banging on about discipline before it was cool, man!

But in the past few years, I’ve found myself changing my tune. Chalk it up to the greater self-awareness that (hopefully) comes with age, but I realized that while it felt satisfying in a fist-pumping, chest-thumping kind of way to attribute my good habits to discipline, it wasn’t really the operative force behind their execution.

At the same time that I’ve been questioning the role of discipline in my life, so has the scientific community. It was once thought that people who seem to have the most self-control — who rank themselves highly on this quality and have the positive life outcomes to back that assessment up — were simply better at exercising their willpower. But recent studies have shown this isn’t the case; in fact, as Vox writer Brian Resnick reports, “The people who said they excelled at self-control were hardly using it at all.”

As it turns out, people who seem to exhibit the most self-control aren’t gritting their teeth and using discipline to resist temptations, but instead have minimized the number of temptations they experience in the first place. How? Because of the way they structure their environment and routines, and, because they actually enjoy the habits they pursue.

In other words, though observers on the outside, and even the individual himself, may think he does something because he’s disciplined, he often actually does it because he’s intrinsically motivated to do so.

How do we so readily miss this fact? It happens like this:

Let’s say there’s a guy who makes a habit of waking up at 4:00 in the morning. We find waking up this early extremely difficult. So, we assume this early riser experiences the same resistance we do, and yet manages to overcome it through greater discipline.

Discipline, the ability to resist temptation and exercise willpower, carries all sorts of cultural and even ethical weight, owing to religion, the Puritans, the Protestant work ethic, etc. The possession of discipline is seen as a virtue; its lack, a moral failing.

Thus, when we see that someone is able to wake up early, when we cannot, we not only chalk it up to greater discipline on their part, we equate this greater discipline with superiority of character, which turns their early rising habit into a moral imperative – something we should do too.

But it’s possible to look at this example from a very different angle.

Let’s say there’s a guy who makes a habit of waking up at 4:00 in the morning. He does so because he’s biologically got a “chronotype” – a disposition towards a certain waking/sleeping schedule – that makes him naturally feel great, and function best, when waking up early in the morning.

We, on the other hand, struggle with rising early, not because we’re undisciplined, but because we have a chronotype that naturally predisposes us to go to bed and wake up later. We actually don’t function best super early in the morning, and it’s not even healthy for us to try to do so.

In other words, while we assume that the early riser wakes up early because he’s more disciplined — and the early riser himself is likely to chalk it up to discipline too, because that’s the most flattering way to look at it — what’s really happening is that the early riser’s unique biology and personality dispose him to like a habit that others do not. He’s not driven by discipline to wake up early, he’s motivated to do so. But because we equate early rising with discipline, and discipline with moral character, we try to force ourselves into a mold that’s not right for us.

So the main reason we mistake motivation for discipline is that we miss the fact that some people’s biology and personality predispose them to enjoy things that others find miserable.

When the researcher Daniel F. Chambliss conducted a study on the “nature of excellence” by examining what factors resulted in the stratification of competitive swimmers – why some became Olympians and others did not – he found that:
“At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features of the sport which the “C” swimmer finds unpleasant, the top-level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring—swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say—they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. They enjoy hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions, try to set difficult goals. Coming into the 5.30 AM practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.”

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Why You Are Not an Elite Martial Artist

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Freakonomics. It was a transcript of a podcast. The full post may be read here.

There are a lot of factors that go into greatness, many of which are not obvious. A variety of Olympic and professional athletes tell us how they made it and what they sacrificed to get there. And if you can identify the sport most likely to get a kid into a top college — well then, touchĂ©!
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
*      *      *
Maybe you’re an obsessive sports fan. Or maybe a more casual fan, and you follow just a couple sports or teams. Maybe you pay no attention to sports, and you only see it when the Olympics are on someone else’s TV. Whichever the case: when you do see those athletes, it’s easy to think of them as existing solely in that context. A full-grown adult. Wearing a uniform. Performing under extraordinary pressure. Focused on a highly specialized task that has zero to do with daily life, or at least your daily life. But is that who those people really are? And how did they get so good at this thing they do? When you see them on TV, all you’re seeing is the outcome. But what were the inputs? We understand that elite athletes represent some magical combination of talent and determination. But what about, say, luck?
Shawn JOHNSON: Oh my gosh. Yes, absolutely. I think a ton of luck is involved.
That’s Shawn Johnson, an American gymnast who’s won an Olympic gold medal and many other top honors.
JOHNSON: It’s like this miracle-math kind of equation that has to equal the perfect answer. I mean, you can’t get hurt. You have to be healthy. You can’t have the flu on the wrong day. You have to find the right coach in the right city. You have to be able to afford it. It’s all these random things and when you get all the people who fit that equation, you’re not left with many people. So I guess I was just the best of the very few who fit that equation.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: the third installment in a series we’re calling “The Hidden Side of Sports.” In the first episode, we looked at how sports have always mirrored society — from our historical penchant for war and colonizing to our more recent obsession with pushing the limits of human achievement:
NEWSREEL: Three minutes, 59.4 seconds, shattering the four-minute mile, the Everest of athletic achievement.
In episode two, we looked at the economics of a single NFL franchise, the San Francisco 49ers, and how they’ve begun to recover from a debilitating losing streak.
Kyle SHANAHAN: When you lose a game, a lot of noise happens. When you lose two, a ton happens. Usually three’s like Armageddon. Try nine.
In today’s episode: becoming an athlete. Time to step back and try to understand how these people rose to such heights. How scientific is the process; how predictable? We’ll look at a number of factors, including of course raw talent:
Kerri WALSH-JENNINGS: My parents are both super-studly athletes.
Mark TEIXEIRA: Yep, I think the gift is number one.
We’ll look at will and determination:
Domonique FOXWORTH: I did a bunch of pushups and sit ups that night, until I was throwing up.
And the mental aspect of this most physical pursuit:
J.J. REDICK: Well, I think the mind is as big of a separator for professional athletes as any physical tools.
Stories of opportunities gained — and lost.
David CANTON: In 1981, there was 18.7 percent African-American players in the major leagues. As of 2018, 7.8 percent.
And we’ll hear one story that’s almost too good to be true:
Andre INGRAM: They said, “Hey, you are blowing up on Twitter, you’re blowing up on Instagram.” You’re everywhere and you just have no idea.
*      *      *
When you see an elite performer in any field — sports or music or surgery, whatever — it’s natural to ask yourself a question: how’d they get so good? How much of that ability were they born with? How much is attributable to hard work and practice? This is a debate that’s been going on probably forever: nature versus nurture; raw talent versus what’s called “deliberate practice.” We’ve had the debate on this program, most recently in an episode called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” Too often, this debate ends up obscuring what strikes me as a pretty obvious fact: to become great at anything, you need both: talent and practice. Lots of each. But even that fact seems pretty narrow, don’t you think? Because athletic success — like any success in life, or any failure — is what you might call multifactorial. A lot of inputs, a lot of variables. Imagine you’ve got two athletes with identical talent levels and identical training methods: do you really want to make a big bet that their athletic careers also end up identical? As much as we might want to turn the pursuit of success into science, into a recipe, real life is more nuanced than that. Also, more interesting.
FOXWORTH: I mean, Jay Z sold drugs, grew up in Marcy Projects to a single mother.
That’s Domonique Foxworth, who played six seasons in the NFL.
FOXWORTH: Now he is a multi-multi-millionaire married to BeyoncĂ©, the most amazing talent we have today. So why don’t we set it up so that all young men must sell drugs when they’re kids, and have only their mother, and grow up in Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York. I mean, he had a great talent and to be honest there’s probably a great deal of luck he happened to not be there when one of his friends got arrested, and his friend didn’t snitch on him — that is a lot of luck. And the same thing is true for me. I can go through the course of my life and look at all the things that happened that were just happenstance that led me to these positions, and I’m not going to say that it’s a model that should be followed. I understand that there are occasional outliers, but trying to build around that seems crazy.
So okay, we’re not going to arrive at some perfect model for turning an ordinary person into a world-class athlete. But we’ll do our best to describe some of the inputs that seem to be strong contributors. Let’s start with … physical ability. It may not surprise you to learn that a lot of elite athletes exhibited a pretty high baseline level of talent from an early age. Mark Teixeira, for instance, a three-time Major League Baseball All-Star.
Mark TEIXEIRA: Yes. And most kids grow up being — you know, if you’re an elite athlete, you’re going to be the best kid on your team. I played every sport as a kid.
DUBNER: Was baseball your best sport from the outset?
TEIXEIRA: It always was. And I actually enjoyed playing basketball more. I played backyard football. I played soccer, tennis, and — but I was always good at baseball. I knew baseball was going to be a sport for my future.
Athletic talent is considered one of the more heritable traits passed from parent to child. In SuperFreakonomics, one of the books I wrote with the economist Steve Levitt, we performed a rough calculation showing that if a Major League Baseball player has a son, that boy is about 800 times more likely than a random boy to also make the majors. So it may not surprise you that a lot of the athletes we’ve been interviewing for this series came from athletic families. Here’s Kerri Walsh-Jennings, who’s won three Olympic gold medals in beach volleyball:
WALSH-JENNINGS: Oh man. Well, my life has literally been family and sports like from day one, from birth. My parents are both super-studly athletes. They both come from very athletic families.
SHIFFRIN: My parents are both athletic.
And the alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who’s won two Olympic gold medals.
SHIFFIN: My mom is extremely athletic, and even now, she’s had knee surgeries and hand surgeries and neck surgeries and everything, but she’s still such an incredible athlete.
JOHNSON: Well, I mean my dad did every sport when he was growing up.
And the gold-medal gymnast Shawn Johnson.
JOHNSON: He was a hockey player, he wrestled, he did BMX, he raced Moto X. I mean, everything.
Just how powerful is the sports gene? David Epstein is a science journalist and author of a book called The Sports Gene. In it, he tells the story of a man named Donald Thomas.
David EPSTEIN: Donald is about six-foot-two, a lean Bahamian guy.
Thomas played basketball at a small college in Missouri, but he was far from an elite player, and the college program was far from elite. One day in the gym, he was bragging about how high he could jump.
EPSTEIN: And the best jumper on the track team, a guy named Carlos, overheard him and said, “You know, you’re talking all that trash. You wouldn’t even clear a bar of six-foot-six in a real competition.” And Donald says, “Yes, I would.”
So they go out to the track and Carlos sets the high jump bar at six-feet, six inches. Donald — still wearing his basketball sneakers — runs up, jumps, clears it easily. Carlos moves the bar higher, and higher. Donald keeps clearing it.
EPSTEIN: We’re talking about the first high jumps of his life. He’s going over the bar backward of course, which he’d never done before. And Carlos gets the bar to seven feet, and Donald clears seven feet, at which point Carlos is worried he’s going to hurt himself.
Donald Thomas soon moved on to Auburn University, on a track scholarship. And, not long after, he competed in the World Track Championships.
ANNOUNCER: And this is Donald Thomas, very much an unknown quantity really.
Thomas was jumping against much more experienced and accomplished athletes.
ANNOUNCER: And he goes clear! Donald Thomas goes clear at 2 meters, 35. The man that started high jump only two years ago. That is an incredible jump.
EPSTEIN: And not only does he win but he records the highest center of mass jump ever in history. He doesn’t set the world record because his form is so bad. He looks like he’s riding an invisible deck chair through the air.
It turned out that Donald Thomas had a physiological trait — an abnormally long Achilles tendon — that gave him a big advantage.
EPSTEIN: So there aren’t that many Donald Thomases in terms of winning the World Championships. But this happens at lower levels all the time where somebody will step in with no or very little background and win some kind of regional or state championship and then those are the people who end up training and going on to become champions.
David Epstein also writes about the success of “talent-transfer programs” in the U.K., Australia, China, and elsewhere …
EPSTEIN: Where they’ll take people who maybe aren’t making the national team or making it to the top in a certain sport and say, “Hey, why don’t you go try this other stuff?”
Some converted athletes have done remarkably well. The U.K. won several gold medals in rowing and skeleton with athletes who began in other sports. In the 2002 Winter Olympics, the Australian Alisa Camplin, a converted sailor, won gold in aerial skiing.
EPSTEIN: She wins the Olympic gold medal and was still so poor at skiing that when she was invited to ski down the mountain to the gold-medal winners’ press conference, she fell and rolled down the mountain on the winner’s flowers because she still didn’t know how to ski. I heard she learned how to ski later, like on vacation. But not by the time she’d won the Olympic gold medal.
TEIXEIRA: Yep, the gift is number one.
Mark Teixeira again.
TEIXEIRA: Because without the gift, you can’t take a kid that has zero athletic ability and just happens to be a hard worker and he goes to the big leagues. But talent on its own, as we all know: it only gets you only so far.
But talent on its own, as we all know: it only gets you only so far.
TEIXEIRA: At any given time there’s 1,000 big leaguers out there. But there’s probably 10,000 players, whether in college or amateur baseball or low professional ranks, that are good enough to someday make it.
DUBNER: Talent-wise you’re saying.
TEIXEIRA: Yes, there’s 10,000 talented players with a gift. Of those 10,000 players, which are the ones that work hard enough? Which are the ones that figure it out? Which are the ones that get it? That make the right decisions and you know, train the right way, and eat the right way and do preparation for games. Those are the ones that make it. The most talented player that I ever saw as an amateur was Corey Patterson. And he had a decent big-league career. But talent-wise, I would kill for his talent. Talent-wise, there were a ton of guys that I thought had more talent than me, but I thought I figured it out.
REDICK: My brother was inherently more talented than I was.
That’s J.J. Redick, who’s played in the NBA since 2006.
REDICK: He could never shoot the basketball the way that I could, but he could hit a baseball a mile, he had a cannon for an arm. My best friend from high school was the same way certain kids are just — everything sort of comes easy to them, and it’s natural for them.
JOHNSON: I have seen some of the most physically gifted and talented gymnasts I think our sport has ever seen.
Shawn Johnson again. She now coaches young gymnasts.
JOHNSON: But they just do not have the mental capability to get themselves to that elite level. And it’s not a matter of training them or getting them to the right sports psychologist or getting the right people around them. It’s just, it’s not there. I think you have to be born with some sort of innate ability to push out all pain and emotion and push yourself past a boundary that 99 percent of the world kind of operates within.
FOXWORTH: I remember being in an apartment we lived in in Indianapolis …
Domonique Foxworth again.
FOXWORTH: … and I told my father I wanted to be a professional football player …
He was eight years old.
FOXWORTH: … and he told me, alright, well, you set a goal, you should do something to get you closer to that goal every day. And I took that to heart. So I did a bunch of pushups and situps that night, until I was throwing up — it’s ridiculous.
What was it that gave Foxworth such an intense drive for football
FOXWORTH: I was in love with the game, in part because of how violent it was. Honestly, whatever warped sense of masculinity I had at that age, that probably has not fully left me, was like, “Basketball is for the soft kids. Football is for the men. And I want to play football.”
ARMSTRONG: I just, I trained my ass off. I loved it. And then when I got in the race, I just didn’t want to lose.
That’s Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion who was stripped of his titles when it was proved that he — along with many cyclists of his era — had been doping. I’d asked Armstrong what drove him when he was a kid.
ARMSTRONG: As a 46-year-old and I look back on it, and really really far removed from that part of my life, there are probably things. I mean, I didn’t have — I didn’t grow up on the street, but I didn’t grow up behind a white picket fence with 2.3 brothers and sisters and an S.U.V. and a mom and a dad. My mom and I were scrappers, and I never met my biological father and I’m not making excuses here but I’m just trying to — you know, there wasn’t — the only father figures in my life were my coaches.
DUBNER: Did you — I was going to ask; did you ride angry? I don’t mean quite angry, but you were really cocky and confident.
ARMSTRONG: You can say “angry.”
DUBNER: All right. Angry, yeah.
ARMSTRONG: I didn’t walk around angry I just — I felt it, it served me best to be angry. The anger part, and I also know that this happens in every locker room of every sport. So, let’s just say, right, let’s just use Texas football and Oklahoma football as the biggest rivalry you have. The week leading up to the game, those coaches, every single day, guess what is posted on the board, in the University of Texas Longhorns locker room, meeting room, it is articles and quotes from the other team. “We’re going to kick their ass.” “That so-and-so player, he’s mediocre” And the coaches, they love that. “Hey Joey, did you see what number 82 said about you?” And so we — if I didn’t have that, if I didn’t have a rival speaking out in the press saying, “Oh I saw Armstrong last week, he looked average, he looked like he’s past his best.” If I didn’t have that, which I did plenty of times, then I’d make it up. I’d go read some article. And I’d say “That motherfucker. Can you believe that he said that?” And the next day I’d go out and train and I mean, it would be the only thing on my mind. Now, it sounds a little toxic, but it made me ride harder, made me train harder, made me hustle.
WALSH-JENNINGS: I think my insecurity drives me really really hard, you know?
Kerri Walsh-Jennings again:
WALSH-JENNINGS: At every kind of leveling up from eighth grade to high school, high school to college, college to the Olympic team — there was a moment, there were many moments of insecurity in the transition, many moments of, “Oh, S-H-I-T, can I do this? Am I good enough?” It’s exhausting. It’s really exhausting. I want to leave this sport being known as a bad motherfucker.
So yes, most of the athletes we’ve heard from were extraordinarily driven, and talented. But of course they’ve also had to work incredibly hard at perfecting their craft. Most of them, at least. Remember Donald Thomas, our high-jumping friend?
ANNOUNCER: And he goes clear! Donald Thomas goes clear at 2 meters, 35.
David Epstein interviewed Thomas’s college track coaches:
EPSTEIN: They said they would usually find him outside shooting free throws when he was supposed to be inside learning how to high jump.
Most athletes, however, do train incredibly hard. In part because they’re not allowed not to by their coaches, their teams, maybe their parents. But of course, they also push themselves.
Mike MCGLINCHEY: I think it’s about how much you want it, how much you love it, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice for it.
Mike McGlinchey is a rookie offensive lineman on the San Francisco 49ers; he was the ninth player chosen in this year’s draft.
McGLINCHEY: I was never the best athlete on my team. I was — I’m still not the best athlete on my on my team here. But I’ve always wanted it more, I’ve always worked harder than everybody else. And just attention to detail and the things that — you need to know how to self-correct, you need to know how to learn.
“Knowing how to learn” is particularly valuable when the skills you’re trying to learn are unusual.
MCGLINCHEY: Playing offensive line is one of the more unnatural human movements on earth, in sport. You’re required to move other large men out of the way and when you’re trying to stop them in pass protection, you’re completely moving backwards. It’s a really, really different thing to have to learn how to do, and until your body can feel it, until you can watch it on film and self-diagnose when things happen, that’s where the separation comes in.
MANUEL: Swimming is like pretty difficult.
That’s Simone Manuel, who won two gold and two silver medals at the 2016 Olympics.
MANUEL Because you’re in the water, which is totally defying gravity. You have to work out every day because if you’re out the water for one day even — when I take my day off on Sunday when I come back Monday morning, I feel terrible. And you have to kind of practice all of those aspects of the sport on a regular basis, or else you’re not going to improve.
There’s also the fact that the training opportunities in some sports are inherently constrained.
SHIFFRIN: Ski racing is a really unique sport in many ways. When you think about it, the actual time that I spend, or any racer spends, on the hill actually skiing during a day of training — let’s say you get, one course length is about 60 seconds long, and you get seven runs in one training session. And that takes about somewhere between three to five hours, depending on how long the chairlift takes. So you’re adding up about seven minutes total of practice in your sport for the entire training session, which is comparative to, say, three to five hours of somebody playing tennis in a single session. Which makes me feel like the deliberate practice component is that much more essential. There’s skiers out there, teammates of mine in the past, who spend their time from the top of the chairlift to the top of the race course, it could be half of a train length, that they’re skiing down and they’re just flailing about and doing whatever. And I was doing drills to the top of the course, trying to make use of every square inch of space on the mountain. Every time I’m deliberately practicing skiing and my technique and everything, I’m kind of getting a one-up on everybody else who’s not.
Because it’s so demanding to master the skill set that accompanies each sport, whether it’s skiing or swimming or football, you can imagine an aspiring athlete would want to spend as much time as possible on that skill set. And not waste time on, say, other sports. This has become a huge debate in youth sports: at what age should an athlete stop playing other sports and commit to “theirs”? And once they do commit, is it definitively better to spend most of your time in deliberate, structured practice. Or what about a more free-flowing, unstructured environment, what’s sometimes called “deliberate play”?
REDICK: I totally agree with this this notion that there’s something to be gained from less structure.
That again is the NBA veteran J.J. Redick. As an example, he brings up his former teammate Jamal Crawford.
REDICK: Jamal is one of the best ball handlers in N.B.A. history. He’s had a fantastic career. Jamal will tell you he’s really never done a drill. He’s never done a ball-handling drill but he has incredible ball-handling skills. And he’s done that through just playing pickup or taking a basketball around his neighborhood when he was growing up and literally putting moves on bystanders he as he passed them in the street.
Redick’s own view on unstructured versus structured practice is still evolving.
REDICK: I had a teammate in Orlando. His name was Anthony Johnson, I played with him for two years. He was much older. This was early in my career. And I met up with him for lunch and I was telling him about all the workouts I was doing that summer. And he said to me, “Dude, don’t worry about being the best workout guy. Worry about being the best player.” And it kind of annoyed me when he said that, but I’ve thought about him saying that probably 50 times over the last five years. For me, part of it is I want structure. I feel like I thrive in structure. I like having a plan. I like going to a gym and saying, “This is what I’m going to work on today.” But then the other part of it is, it’s sport, right? There’s something organic about it. There’s something that has to flow naturally. And if your point of reference is only structure — well, the game is not really structured, right? You’re constantly reacting to things as they happen. There’s nine other players, there’s one ball. I think that’s actually been incredible advice for me over last five years of my career.
J.J. Redick grew up in rural Virginia, and his practice environment then was pretty unstructured.
REDICK: My dad put up a hoop and it was just — for me being in that backyard and shooting a basketball and seeing it go through the net became just an obsession and it’s something that I wanted to do over and over again.
Lately, Redick has tried to reconnect with that unstructured practice environment.
REDICK: You get a safe place to work on your weaknesses and improve those weaknesses. Look, if I go into a gym and I’ve got 30 people in the gym watching — even at 34, I’m going into my 13th year in the N.B.A it’s a little nerve-wracking to work on your weaknesses in front of people in a structured setting. But alone, away from any lights it’s a more calming experience and you can gain confidence from doing that.