Sunday, February 23, 2014

What I Love About Training At My School

Fitness, Instruction, Application

The list of reasons that I love training in Northern Dragon Kung fu at my school is long and continually growing, but I’ll try to express some of them as best as I can. 

First off is the way classes are structured. I know that many, many martial arts schools probably structure their classes similarly, but all I can speak realistically about is the one I train at. I try not to take more than one quarter of a class block for calisthenics and stretching because 1) students should be working on strengthening and fitness at home, and 2) I value the instructional time with students as a time for tweaking and correcting improper technique. Forty-five minute classes are structured as follows:

Warm-up and Calisthenics
Skills Training

(On Staff Training days, we’ll teach students for three hours and then have an hour to two hours of training from our Sifu without students present.)

Warm-up and Calisthenics

Class begins with twelve to fifteen minutes of High Intensity Interval Training interspersed with Northern Dragon basic exercises. These instructor-led exercises, such as upper block exercises, vertical block exercises, kicking exercises, and basic forms, move across the training hall floor. The warm-up is meant to work up a sweat, get the muscles warm, and the body relaxed. It is a time to focus on basic skills like proper breathing, striking, stepping, and posture while also building strength and endurance. A typical warm-up routine might look like this:

Four minutes of high-kneed running in place or hop scotches
25 pushups
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches followed by a basic unpaired blocking exercise that moves across the floor in a stepping pattern
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches followed by a kicking exercise that moves across the floor
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches followed by 50 Russian Twists 
5 ladder Burpees
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches followed by 100 straight punches in a horse stance
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches 
1 minute plank

The warm-up can also be done without the basic blocking and kicking exercises as standalone High Intensity Interval Training, in which case it would look something like this:

Four minutes of high-kneed running in place or hop scotches followed by four to eight sets of the following:

25 pushups OR Spiderman Pushups OR Walking Pushups
30 seconds running in place or hopscotches
50 Russian Twists OR mountain climbers OR squats
30 seconds of running in place or hopscotches

Either way, by the end of the warm up students (and instructors) have developed a good sweat, they've increased their heart-rate and deepened their breathing, and are relaxed and ready to begin training. The great thing about the warm up is that it combines aerobic and anaerobic exercises.

While an instructor is leading the warm-up, another instructor should be checking student progress reports/sheets to focus on skills that need improvement and review. If there is only one instructor, this is usually done before students have arrived and class has begun.

After the warm-up, and students have had some water, an instructor will lead the class in static and ballistic stretches. This is great, too, since the muscles are now warm and “loose”.

Instructional Time

Typically, instruction begins with a review of basic stances and strikes, and then skills training begins as students execute techniques or go through their forms as instructors watch and make corrections with explanations about why the correction is necessary. If the students are at a basic level, the explanations are simple and limited to basic applications of blocks or stances or strikes. The more advanced a student is, the more advanced the explanation. This occupies the remainder of the forty-five minute class session, and always proves enlightening both as an instructor, and as a student.

This instructional period is an incredible time of learning and connection—if the student has practiced away from class. What is incredibly gratifying to see is the uniformity of instruction across the training hall; there is never an instructor teaching a technique differently than another instructor. If an instructor has a question about the execution of a technique, he or she refer, or in some instances defers, to a higher ranked instructor or to Sifu/Sigung. It makes group demonstrations look crisp, and clean, and tight. Hopefully, students understand that the repetitious nature of practicing their forms is preparing them for more than demonstrations--it's preparing those techniques to become second nature when called upon as a response. I made that connection after two years of training or so.

To accomplish this uniformity of instruction and deep understanding, instructors attend a staff training session once a week where techniques are reviewed and new instruction is given. It’s really one of my favorite days of the week. 

Another of my favorite aspects of training is the genuine appreciation shown by students when you teach them. When explaining the application of a technique of the execution of a technique and the best way to accomplish the execution properly, there is no better reward than the smile of satisfaction on a student’s face when they “get it” after performing a technique properly. I’ve also had adult students directly tell me that I’m doing what I should be doing because I’m a good teacher. There’s almost no feeling that can compare to the feeling of validation that comes with a sincere compliment from a satisfied student.

Sparring As A Learning Opportunity

I’ll end with my appreciation of sparring. Before beginning my training, I’d never sparred in an organized setting. I’d play fought/slap fought/messed around with friends but it was never serious. I had no training beyond the streets of New York City! But since beginning sparring I’ve had the chance to apply the techniques learned in class to an actual situation, and its been enlightening. Sparring is a true learning experience. Its not a time for “winning” or “beating” someone, its a time for figuring out how to use the knowledge gained in class, to avoid the errors made last session, to contemplate those errors and make adjustments. It’s also a time to observe your peers’ skills and learn from your opponents. Kung fu is as much timing and quickness as it is having complete confidence in your techniques to keep from being hit while moving into an opponent’s technique. 

It's important to practice all learned forms and exercises because forms train strikes and stances in different contexts. Its the repetitious nature of forms training that will allow techniques to become second nature when responding to an aggressor, or initiating contact in sparring. Every hand and stepping technique should be practiced to exhaustion. This includes short bridge backward stepping techniques.

After gaining proficiency with hand and stepping techniques, it is really important to remember that you learned blocks for a reason; to block strikes. You learned stepping patterns for a reason; to step off line and around opponents. Opponents think the way you do—when confronted with an onslaught of strikes you’ll probably step back to avoid engagement and being struck. So will your opponent. Its your job to step into the opponent’s zone and block, parry, deflect, or control his/her strikes and counter attack, driving forward protecting yourself with each attack.

Use your legs! Practice your kicks—front, crescents, lift, side, side lock outs. The front kick is your friend. It is a tool to keep opponents at bay, a tool to lull them into a trance, a tool to defend yourself.

Time your attacks and remember to attack the opponents inattentive side. Vary the rhythm of your strikes. If you attack mid to high range with hands, attack mid to low with feet when the opponent defends. If you attack mid to low with feet, follow quickly with a mid to high hand attack.

Change your “type” when fighting—be aggressive, counter attack, angle in on your opponent, be defensive. Use all stances. Confuse your opponent. The greatest compliment you can get is having an opponent say that your style is “weird” or “strange” or to call you “fast” just because you’ve beaten them to the punch, so to speak.

I always leave the training hall and school with a sense of accomplishment at both instructing and having learned something new.