We moved in sequence, blocking and striking. He wasn’t in great shape. Sweat ran down his brow as we rolled through the actions. He was quite good – I can’t fault him there. His stomach hung heavily over his waistline. He must have been in his late forties, it’s difficult to say, but it was definitely not a trim forties. Just short of an arm’s length separated us. This ordinarily would have been sufficient for Chi Sau. I extended my arms downwards, fingers outstretched. His block lacked conviction. Slipping past his guard the tips of my digits sunk into his gut. He belched uncomfortably, raising his hand to his mouth. “Careful, you’ll have all of my curry up.”
When visualising my journey through the martial arts, this wasn’t what I had in mind. I was looking for an environment that challenged me. A portly middle aged man stuffed with curry didn’t comfortably fit this vision. Martial arts are for everyone, but not all in the same class. I was studying under a Sifu with impeccable credentials and experience, but none of that quite makes up for the potential of facing a sparring partner’s still warm stomach contents.
It was a friendly environment. I was offered milky tea in a polythene cup immediately after class. Some of the students were younger, but few of them seemed stretched. This wasn’t what I was looking for. A great technique alone only goes so far, ultimately Wing Chun has to be about application and contact too. If you’re going to get that, it has to come from challenging sparring partners.
But friendly yet unfit sparring partners aren’t the end of the story. Some people whom want to learn martial arts are clearly deranged and doing it for all the wrong reasons. You just wouldn’t want to meet some of them in day-to-day life. I have sometimes felt that colleagues really didn’t need any more encouragement in fighting, and that perhaps mediation and anger management classes would be more suitable. In a sense, learning to fight alongside future assailants is a good idea, but they might not necessarily be the sorts of people you’re looking to socialise with after work.
Poorly run classes that encourage bad technique are the other side of the coin. Giving free reign to armature muggers wishing to turn professional, isn’t going to do you much more good than Example A’s stomach contents. Balance is everything. I once read a great piece of advice: When you begin a new class, look at the students. Judge their ability and ask how long they have been practicing. If you’re happy with x commitment for y result, then that’s a pretty good equation.
It’s tempting to base your decisions on the quality of the teacher, but it’s the quality of the class that tells the real story. The ability to perform and the ability to teach are not necessarily interchangeable. It’s easy to be blindsided by the mystique of the Sifu, but don’t be. After all, nobody wants to finish training with a squelch in their heel.