Confessions of an Aging Kung Fu Legend

Before anyone’s feathers get all fluffy, I want to point out that I use the term “kung fu legend” as a joke. It was used by someone to describe me, and I laughed it off, but it kept playing in my head. It also seems I must remind people that the words in these posts are only opinions, and only my opinions, and should not be regarded as anything more. Stay calm.Like most martial artists, I started at a fairly young age, although not nearly as young as some of my current and former colleagues (one of whom began training at the tender age of five). Starting the training of martial arts in my early teens put me at, what I feel to be, the ideal starting point. Most teens are at an in-between stage, where the type of ambidextrous training found in the martial arts will really improve coordination and thus aid in self esteem. In my early teens, I was out of shape, the way that the majority of modern American teens are today (back then I was something of an anomaly). I did have that one critical component – I was severely motivated. Lacking the understanding of the ways of the world that I am now so heavily laden with, I wished to become the next Bruce Lee. I fell far short of that goal, but I had that as my goal nonetheless. This motivation was to sustain me throughout my difficult teen years, carry me past several injuries which would have put the brakes on the martial aspirations of any normal human, and help me to land a job that I never dreamed I could have. If you watch the Olympics, you should notice an unspoken, yet highly visible characteristic shared by all of the athletes.

They are young.

In some of the events, they are still young enough to live with their parents without ridicule! With the exception of the NFL, one will find that nearly all of the world class athletes are under the age of 25, or else are boosted along in the otherwise failing stages of their career by steroids. The best of the best will also be found to have begun their training in whatever sport they are in while at a terribly young age. On close inspection, you will find that there are no sports stars or Olympians who first began training in their chosen sport while in college. By the time they reach my age, they are retiring due to injury, or simply no longer having that competitive ability, or have made their fortune and no longer have the drive and desire needed to compete at the high levels.

Or, possibly, they are embarrassed at the younger athletes who are showing them up. I cannot tell you how much this honesty is hurting my pride. With this in mind, why do so many of us in our late thirties/early forties think that we are still the second coming of Bruce Lee?

And why do we hang on to our past accomplishments as if they were only yesterday?

I was speaking with my students a few days ago about a tournament where I became a National Grand Champion, and it dawned on me…no wait, it didn’t dawn on me – it hit me like a runaway freight train – I was a National Champion before most of my students were born! That was a kick in the groin…

My hair is turning grey. Never having been all that much into vanity, it is no real problem to me, and no I will not be using any “Just-for Men” hair dye. Definitely not my style.

I have also put on about 70 lbs since I was a National Champion. That sucks too.

So here I am, older, greyer, fatter, and still training. When I was in my early years of training, we used to perform throws and rolls and falls on concrete. We used a sheet of cardboard as our padding. The bumps bruises and occasional fractures were part of the training. “A bruise is a lesson” was a running theme in our training sessions. I have a scar on my wrist, not from a failed suicide attempt, but from trying to catch arrows out of flight. I missed once, got shot through the wrist. Once, I hit my head on the concrete, and had a concussion, but didn’t know it at the time, and finished the second hour of the training session! I was injured, an injury which really does require prompt medical attention. And I kept training! When I think back on these and other similar incidents, I really think I must have been nearly brain dead the entire time.

Now, I just don’t think I could bring myself to pull that tough guy routine anymore. I know very well what a concussion feels like, and I do go straight to the hospital when I get one. Thankfully they are much rarer now, as I am much more careful than I was back then.

While there are those who refer to one of my experience and rank as a “master”, this is not a term I will use in describing myself. There are plenty of people out there who like to bestow such absurd titles upon themselves, and I am more than happy to let them have the title. As for me, I am a student of the martial arts. So, not speaking as a master, but as a long term student and teacher of the martial arts, I would like to state a few observations about the martial arts and aging.

· In terms of speed, endurance and general physical health, I am well past my prime. At thirty eight, my best sport karate and kung fu championship days are behind me. I have been much faster than I currently am. I have been a quicker healer in the past, and had a much higher tolerance for pain in my twenties than anyone I have ever known (yes, I am biased, what of it?). All of these points, however, no longer hold true.

· My physical prime was around the 1995 – 98 timeframe. The National Championship I won was in 95.

· My last, and most severe knee injury was in 1994, but I made a comeback that amazed even my TKD Instructor, who thought I was nuts for even trying to make a comeback, and thought I should simply hang it up then.

· Being a cranky old man, who gets crankier with each passing day, I do enjoy having the ability to still give more than I get in sparring the young people.

· In spite of being past my prime, I still learn more every day. Lacking the speed of some of the younger folk, I have been forced to resort to other skills, and I rely a lot on experience. I am able to wait out the younger trainees and eventually they make a mistake that I made years ago and got my nalgas handed to me on a platter for it, and I am able to use that experience to undo their best efforts. It is very rewarding to live long enough to see others make your old mistakes.

· I have learned that practice does not make perfect. No matter how many times my various teachers told me that it would. Perfect practice makes perfect. Nothing less will do. · I am better able to relax as I age (my critics will call it laziness). However, one thing that young people never do anymore is relax. In sparring one can easily see the ultra tense martial artist losing out to the relaxed competitor. It is the same in life.

· Training is key to anything. I went through a period of time where I spent a lot of time posting on a kung fu internet forum called by those of us who were a part of it “SFO”. And toward the end of its bright existence, SFO became a place for people to split hairs over the most minute details which could not possible matter to anyone with half a brain. One of the finals posts I made in the place, I was chastising someone who had admonished another person for asking a question on a “secret” subject. Not being one who does not believe in there being any martial arts “secrets”, I told the offending party that “In my training, there never was a problem with someone asking a question. I was then promptly blasted by a person in Syracuse who shall remain nameless to help him avoid embarrassment, that “When did an internet forum become training? Is that really what you are?” Of course, and internet forum never was training to me. But that was not even what I was talking about. I was speaking out that asking questions is fine, and if you don’t know the answer, shut up and let someone who does know the answer give it, don’t cover your lack of knowledge with that mystical “it is secret knowledge, so don’t ask such questions” kind of BS. The training is the way to success. You will never be invincible, you will never become two fisted doctor death, but with training, you just might become good.

· While I do not like to admit it, my overall skill level is not what it once was. And one must still remember, I never was the best in the world. I like to believe that I could fight and defeat anyone on planet earth, but I am secretly thankful that due to my size and legend, I will never have to fight everyone on planet earth.

· Do not confuse having talent with increasing levels of talent. I have talent that will last until I die, but others I have had to let go. One must also realize that as martial artists age and mature, they (consciously or otherwise) lessen the frequency of situations where they can have “their nalgas handed to them on a silver platter” (my new favorite expression). Don’t make yourself vulnerable as you age!