Friday, November 17, 2006

The Natural

Chuck Norris once remarked that he preferred to coach a student with shortcomings in ability, as opposed to the trainee who is inherently talented. Some are more inclined to do martial arts than others, and this is true with all endeavors. On the average, it takes five to seven years to achieve a black belt in most systems, but there are those who can do it in considerably less time. Norris tested for black belt after a year, but it should be pointed out that his tang soo do sessions lasted five hours and were held six days per week. Paying dues through arduous training is part of the martial way. Woody Allen's rule that "80 percent of success is just showing up" really applies to just about anything one wishes to pursue. Sometimes discipline is just being able to arrive at the dojo.

Should someone be allowed to move up through the ranks quicker than the next person just because they're more naturally inclined? The idea of having a novice around who gets techniques down pat on the first try, and can whip most of the people in the school (regardless of rank) doesn't always go over big. Don Nagle, as a white belt stationed on Okinawa during his US military stint, routinely razed local black belts in kumite. This gave tremendous credibility to his teacher and the maverick style of Isshinryu, but truth be told, Nagle probably would have excelled in any karate style.

There's no guarantee that innate ability will carry you far in the martial arts. The opposite is also true: Perceived liabilities cannot hold anyone back. We all have talents and special abilities that are meant to be realized and shared. Even if we're not the best at what we do, we each have a distinct way of expressing that which makes us unique. But being prodigious at something usually comes at a cost. Nagle's sensei, Shimabuku, advised him to stop visiting other dojos to issue challenge matches. He wasn't welcome there anymore.

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Blogger Rick Matz said...

Here's a link to a pertinant article at 24FightingChickens:

7:54 AM  
Blogger Charles James said...

Hi, John

During those years the requirements were not as great as they are in today's dojo.

I try to remember what I had to accomplish to earn Sho-dan and not get carried away with today's shinsa.

Nagle made black belt strictly due to his fighting ability. One of the senior guys in Isshinryu stated once that Nagle knew only three kata when Tatsuo Soke promoted him.

Not a hit against Nagle and he did learn all the rest in time yet his main claim to fame was his abilities on the street and that ability was transferred to many of his first generation students.

He still left a solid long life legacy.

Oh, yea, if you have not been told yet we lost Steve Armstrong the night before last.

Kanpai John!

10:58 AM  
Blogger Perpetual Beginner said...

My first dojo was in Nagle's line (Sensei David Gabbard). Even that many years later the emphasis was heavy on fighting ability, and we had at least one black belt who knew very little by way of kata - though kata were taught, and we had a number of students who did quite well with them.

My experience is that the biggest downfall of being a natural, is that it's something you can't teach, which often makes the naturals poor teachers themselves. Since they didn't have to work hard and break things down to learn them right, they're not sure how to show a student how to do these things.

Contrariwise, I had an interesting experience learning an eskimo roll (self-righting from a flipped position) in a kayak. An eskimo roll is an extremely counter-intuitive move, and notoriously difficult to learn. The lady that I learned from, however, had the best record of teaching rolls quickly in the country. Impressive numbers of her students could roll after only a class or two. Her secret? She herself had been a hopeless case, and had had to go to many teachers for several years before being able to roll. She knew every possible strategy for teaching the roll, what each one was good for, and when to use them.

12:25 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Great story! Thanks for the link, Rick.
Mr. James:
Nagle only knew three kata when Tatsuo Soke promoted him.

That doesn't surprise me at all. It really couldn't have been any other way. Nagle's hitch on Okinawa was only a year or so.

Too bad about Armstrong. I trained with a guy who made shodan under him. There's not too many first generation Isshinryu people left. Advincula is the only one of note that comes to mind.
Perpetual Beginner:
I've spoken with a number of Nagle's disciples through the years - he was a spectacular fighter who liked to mix it up with his own people. He took no prisoners and basically fought everyone the same way, with little or no regard for size or gender.

It's true that sometimes the best teachers are less than stellar performers themselves. This is definitely the case in boxing. I won't bother with a list, but nearly all of history's greatest boxing coaches were at best mediocre fighters in their own prime.

11:09 PM  
Blogger Mir said...

I couldn't get the link to work for me, Rick. It seems that the last few words were cut off so I couldn't get to that page.

It is through the struggle that you really can learn how much you value what you have acquired. Things that come easy don't challenge you.

9:07 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Things that come easy don't challenge you.

Not only that, but they don't get our attention, aren't examined, and then cannot be shared or taught.

As for Rick's link, click here. The author, Rob Redmond, is a long time Shotokan practitioner.

12:37 AM  
Blogger Miss Chris said...

I think that, regardless of ability, that time spent in the endeavor counts for a lot. It creates more of an appreciation for the art and also makes you dedicate yourself to it completely. Great post.

10:33 PM  
Blogger Miss Chris said...

By the way...another karate dilemma for me (See post). Any advice?

10:34 PM  
Blogger BWTKD said...

This brings up a very old and often argued topic amongst our black belts. How much of a testing is criteria based, and how much is individual? You can have 2 people testing for black belt, one of them is a gifted athlete and the other may struggle to master simple physical techniques. With out giving up our standards, we try to look at each individual, and judge them based on how far they have traveled rather then how they "stack up".

3:41 PM  
Blogger Stephen Irwin said...


Grades - if they were never invented in the past someone would invent them today...

Progression is for each individual. All that matters is that they train, learn and have fun. The belts see to themselves.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

6h a day? crazy...

I have problems teaching. Learning comes easier.

We all have litlle problems, mine being I don't find enough stuff to learn. Or the right stuff to learn. Or that corrections come very seldomly... When I get lazy, in fact :-)

Being patient truly is a virtue...

Getting in the car is probably hte hardest part. Showing up.

10:35 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Welcome to my site. It's true that there's a double standard regarding rank. What I've noticed is that students who lack athletic ability and skills, compensate in other areas, such as breaking down techniques (bunkai), teaching, or just imparting enough enthusiasm in the class so that it inspires the other students.
Yes, during his US Air Force hitch in Korea, Norris trained 30 hours per six days. And on the seventh day this nut did a judo class! He's 66 now, and still hasn't stopped. Amazing.

2:28 PM  
Blogger BWTKD said...

Hi John, Thanks! This is a great discussion.

Yes, I totally agree that students who struggle with some physical aspects actual understand the techniques better because they must in order to perform them. (this often leads to them being able to teach the techniques better as well)For us, the physical requirements for rank are applied within the framework of the individual.

In regards to Chuck Norris and Osan Air force base, My instructor (Bruce Twing, now deceased) was training at Osan around the same time as Chuck Norris. Norris trained at the Moo Duk Kwan, and my instructor at the Chung Do kwan. My instructor would often talk about the 4 - 6 hours of training, 6 days a week schedule. Like Norris, and many service men, after 13 months, he came back to the states with his 1st dan.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Daniel H. said...

Hello John,

Interesting posts here.

You can have 2 people testing for black belt, one of them is a gifted athlete and the other may struggle to master simple physical techniques.

In my opinion, it is the "teacher's" responsibility to help any student reach an adequate level, regardless of physical ability or psychological maturity. It seems that most teachers prefer the good students, because it demands less, but I personally feel that you are truly considered a teacher when you help someone with less or no ability than a natural one, and make him a black belt. If someone is struggling in order to become a black belt, then it means that the instructor did not focus on that particular student.

This is definitely the case in boxing. I won't bother with a list, but nearly all of history's greatest boxing coaches were at best mediocre fighters in their own prime.

My take on this is that most of those trainers have become famous due to talented boxers, and not due to their work. I bet you that the majority of boxers were taught by someone else, and ended up with those trainers due to the business aspect of boxing. How many of these famous trainers can claim that they taught a boxer from a young age and made him a world champion? And how many trainers have made more than two or three champions, if they are so good?
In addition, because one is an athlete doesn't mean that he or she could be a great coach. In order to teach, it requires analytical ability to sort things out, and we all don't have it. Personally living the different human emotions involved in a fight, doesn't mean that you see what someone knowledgeable might see from the outside. But in order to teach you also need to have some type of experience in order to convey the right message. How can I explain Fear to a fighter if I have never experienced it myself?

I apologize for the long post, and I could probably keep going but I would eventually bore you to death...hehe

Daniel H.

I will link you to my page.

1:50 PM  

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