Mistakes are part of the training process. Stumbling a bit while exploring beyond your comfort zone is par for the course. Recognizing the mistakes and correcting them is essential to make progress. I didn’t see my mistakes at the time (hindsight is 20/20). Looking back on my training, I’ve made plenty of mistakes that were obstacles to my progress. Here are a few of the bigger ones.
Thinking there is a perfect stance
This misconception probably came from my tai chi days and playing with people only doing stationary push hands. I used to have the idea that I could train to perfect my stance so that my structure would be rooted to take any force. It is easy to fall into this sort of thinking at the early stages of training since you are learning to align your structure, and your feedback generally comes in the form of simple static stance pulls and pushes.
Once you start dealing with complex 3-dimensional forces and having to consider footwork and kicking, that perfect stance idea has to be discarded. The nature of the human structure makes it impossible to have a structure perfectly aligned to every direction of force; rooting requires dynamic adjustment to the conditions. Add in the fact that you need to be to move already means you cannot just hold a single perfect stance. If you consider kicking, that perfectly rooted stance becomes a liability. Being super rooted (and immobile) is a poor substitute for using footwork to dodge or deflect a kick.
That’s not to say there was no value in stance training. Stance training does teach alignment. However, it is just one step in learning to keeping your structure intact. Stance training is a means to an end rather than the end itself.
Training what I liked as opposed to what I needed
This mistake is equivalent to playing instead of training. Playing is fun (and also a necessary part of the training process), but sticking only to the fun stuff does not address the skills that are lacking. An example of this would be doing things like skipping straight to doing free partner sticky and spinning hands work. Training this way is more “fun” since you get to play with translating principles into application sooner; the downside is that not enough time is spent doing more basic exercises to develop fundamentals. The partner drills provide feedback as to what skills are lacking and practice for translating skills into martial use. They are not a substitute for solo training and the more basic partner drill progressions. While there should be some fun in your training, the overall goal of training is improvement. Just training what you like stagnates your progress. You have to train what you need to improve.
Trying too hard to “win”
This mistake is closely related to playing instead of training. When you place too much value on winning, the drive to win overrides the goal of training to improve. You end up playing more than training. While there is a time and place for winning, it is not the primary goal of training.
To beat your opponent, you will rely on your strengths to win. However, training is meant to progress your overall skill which requires that you improve your weaknesses. Training is where you want to push your boundaries and expand your skill set. Training provides the safe environment where you can make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and not have to worry about the consequences of losing. If you try to win all the time in training, you sell yourself short by not stepping out of your comfort zone to make the normal mistakes that come with learning. In addition, you limit your partners’ opportunities to train since you are constantly trying to put them in the losing position. Dropping your ego during training and allowing yourself to make mistakes and “lose” helps everyone in the long run.
Relying on previous experience
Experience is generally a good thing. You usually want experienced people to fill job positions since they come with a knowledge and skills. You rely on experience for insight for dealing with situations. However, experience can also be a crutch or a set of blinders. In I-Liq Chuan, being present is fundamental to the art. You observe the conditions of the moment to see how to match your actions to those conditions. In this manner you can adapt to any set of conditions because you can see things as they are. On the other hand, falling back on past experience only gives you a way of responding to conditions that match the experience. Conditions are always changing, and there is a good chance of encountering conditions which do not match your past experience. Relying on past experience is not helpful in situations like this, and may even lead you to the wrong actions to deal with the present conditions.
As an example: early in my training, I was relying on muscling my way through things. I was usually strong enough to muscle actions in other activities, but that had a poor carryover when I started ILC. When we hit partner training, muscling things made me tired and got my balance plucked when I worked with an experienced student. Once I tuned into the practice, I was able to recognize my faulty movement patterns and replace reflexive muscle activations with movements which matched the forces coming in from my training partners.
The nerd in me likes understanding how things work. Wanting to understand theory and how to apply it is part of my nature. It is probably why I ended up as an engineer. However, just having a mental understanding of the how and why things work does not mean you actually have any skill in the art. You need to develop a high degree of body awareness to move properly. You need to be able to sense how your opponent’s structure and energy is arranged. You have to expand your mind enough be able to perceive conditions and react to them in real-time. At the end of the day, intellectual understanding is just a mental toolset; you still have to train to develop the art.
All the intellectual knowledge in the world does not give you the skill or the art. You can see this in other non-martial endeavors. Knowing sports science can make you a physical beast, but come game time, that is still not enough to make you a star athlete. Understanding the technical aspects of materials does not make you an artist; the artist still needs to express something to create art. Working knowledge of music theory and flawless instrument technique are helpful for the musician, but ultimately do not make the musician. There is a “feel” aspect of an art that cannot arise solely from intellectual knowledge.
Intellectual knowledge is just a tool. It can guide training and aid in understanding. But by itself, it does not make the martial artist. Training bridges theory and practice, and must develop the feel to truly express the art.
Assuming I “knew” something
With as many years as I have spent in higher education, you think I would not fall prey to this. At the early stages of my training, I still seemed to exhibit bits of the Dunning-Kruger effect. After gaining a little bit of knowledge and or a small insight, I suddenly fancied myself well on my way to kung fu mastery. My progressions would often look like:
Me: I understand how to align my structure to a force. (I’m awesome!)
Sifu: You can only deal with simple linear force. What happens when the force has multiple dimensions?
Me: I can align my structure to deal with forces from multiple directions. (I got it this time!)
Sifu: What happens when the force is dynamic and constantly changing?
Me: Ok, I can now feel and adapt to a changing force. (This is getting tough.)
Sifu: Your stance is too yang. Your feet are stuck.
Me: I’ve worked on balancing the yin and yang . (Did I get anything right?)
Sifu: Good, now keep all that while stepping and dealing with a random force.
Me: Ahh! Why do you torture me like this?!? (I’m a noob.)
Sifu: Then we can move on to distance, timing, controlling the mass, qinna…
Me: Ack! (in Monty Python voice: Run away!)
The truth of the situation was that I had only grasped a small part of the overall picture. Once I got over the initial “little bit of knowledge is dangerous” hump, I began to see that I had really only developed just enough skill to progress to another level of refinement or integrate different skills. If I had just kept the beginner’s mind, Sifu and my gongfu siblings would not have had to pull me off my grandiose molehill of achievement.