Martial Arts Training as Physical Education:
East Meets West
by Alan Hochberg
I was a failure of the American system of physical education. Allthrough school, I hated "gym class". I was a skinny kid with areputation as a "nerd" who was no good at sports. It was humiliatingto be chosen last for every game, to never get the ball, to nevermake the team, to be unable to manage even one pull-up. My parentsencouraged me to give up on sports. They were happy with mygentleman's "C" grades in phys. ed., and encouraged me to concentrateon academics.
Why, then, at age 41, am I about to reach a major milestone inphysical training--by black belt in Tang Soo Do? I think the reasonslie in the differences between the Eastern and Western approaches tophysical education.
Respect vs. Humiliation
Comedy movies and TV shows often portray the American Phys. Ed.teacher using humiliation to motivate athletes. While this may workwith some students, it can backfire and discourage others, as it didme.
In contrast, I was always treated with respect in the dojang, even onmy first visit. There was no humiliation from the instructors, eventhough I had little coordination, balance, or speed, and couldn't tiemy white belt.
Instead they concentrated on the positive, which was that I had somelevel of endurance and fitness from hiking and bicycling. They madeit clear that if I was willing to work hard, they were there for me.
Collective vs. Individual Focus
American society is noted for placing the emphasis on the individual,while the group is more important in Oriental cultures. The Americansystem of physical education is built around identifying naturaltalent, and nurturing those talented individuals into "star"athletes. Certain body types, such as tall basketball players, areespecially prized. We pay lip service to "teamwork", but the "team"is already an elite group, and those who couldn't "make the team" areexcluded.
Martial arts training, by contrast, welcomes everyone who is willingto work hard. As one of my instructors said, "There is no quota forblack belts. We have enough for everyone who can earn one." Thatincludes both genders on an equal basis, and includes students of allages and body types. There are differences to be sure. A short,stocky fighter might be able to side kick someone across the room,while a tall fighter could drop an ax kick on someone's head. Butkarate is adaptable to both of them.
I think karate is so inclusive because it comes from a pragmaticdefense- and warfare- oriented tradition. When your village was underattack, you couldn't say to someone, "Sorry, you're not tall enoughto make the team. You can't fight alongside us." You needed to adaptand develop training methods for the people who were willing to betaught. Our weapons, adapted from broom handles and farm implements,reflect karate's pragmatic, inclusive tradition as well.
Another meaning of teamwork in karate is that the best students areexpected to teach the beginners, and to help them come up through theranks. I value all the lessons I have received from my fellowstudents, as well as what I have learned from my instructors.
Patience: Long-term vs. Short-term Goals
It shouldn't be surprising that an art with a 2000-year tradition ispatient and methodical in its training methods. No pressure to befully trained in two months for Opening Day, because karate has noseasons. Everyone begins as a white belt. Fundamentals are taught andre-taught for years and years. I learned never to say "I can't",only "I can't--yet." It took me months to teach my arms to move in asimple Low Block/Center Punch combination, and it took two yearsbefore the "one-two" action of the Jump Front Kick finally "clicked".My instructors waited patiently and encouraged me the whole time.
In Western thought, the mind and body are separate, and Americanculture divides us into "nerds" and "jocks". I definitely wasn't ajock!
In the Eastern philosophy behind martial arts, the mind and body areone. We learn mental concentration as well as how to punch.Meditation is part of our art. The tradition of great scholarshipalongside rigorous physical training goes back to the monks of theShaolin Temple and beyond.
A friend of mine in college told me that all growth is equallyimportant, whether it is mental or physical. It does you no good todevelop a fine mind, and then to have your body give out on you, sothat you can no longer use that mind for yourself, or to help thepeople around you. Karate has been a source of profound mental andphysical growth for me.
Zen and the Art of Karate
American sports are linear and quantitative in nature, reflecting aWestern way of thinking. Games start and the beginning and proceed tothe end. There is a focus on the outcome, the score, which is anumber by which the players can rank themselves.
Karate training is circular and qualitative, in the Eastern mode ofthought. Except in tournaments, nobody keeps score. When I do a form,I know myself whether I have done my best or not, and try always todo everything better, even though I don't get a number or lettergrade.
When I began training, I was a linear thinker. I thought that youstarted out as a white belt, and proceeded through the ranks, andthat black belt was the final goal, the "end" of some sort, thepurpose of training. Now I know better. Training is circular. Blackbelt is not the end, but the beginning of what my instructorcalls "the good stuff". And higher belts are not the reason to cometo class--it's the process of training itself. Each punch, each form,each one-step is the reason that I'm there.
There are similarities between karate training and other forms ofphysical education I have been exposed to. But there are alsoprofound differences. I'm sure that karate has benefits to thoseskilled in traditional American sports, since it involves rigoroustraining, discipline, and concentration.
Because our art is derived from the needs of combat, it is a well-rounded form of training, placing equal emphasis on strength, speed,endurance, balance, and co-ordination.
But karate also works for those that were abandoned by the Americansystem of physical education, such as myself. It is not basedon "star athletes". I find it ironic that I am in shape for my blackbelt test at a time when some of the "jocks" I knew in high school,no longer sports stars, are taking on a sedentary lifestyle andgaining weight.
Through karate, I have learned to do things that I would have thoughtimpossible when I started my training. Perhaps most importantly, Ihave become part of the "team" at KMAI in Hockessin. Not a "team" inthe sense of "athletic elite", but rather a community that teaches,uplifts, and cares for each other.
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