The Arrogance of Youth by GM Ronald Stone
A wise man once said that it is never a good idea to pick a fight with an old man. He is slower than he once was and feeble, so he won’t really fight back, he’ll just kill you quickly!
Recently it has come to my attention that many western martial arts practitioners have confused the concept of youth and athletic ability with worthiness for high martial arts rank. In the orient respecting and honoring one’s elders is a well-established cultural norm. In the west however there tends to be a common belief that life somehow ends at 40.
I started mulling this issue over after watching several episodes of Steven Segal’s new television show. It is essentially a reality cop show with a few martial arts demos by Segal tossed in. I’ve enjoyed many of Segal’s early movies and was greatly impressed by his grandmaster skills in Aikido. I couldn’t help but notice however that he has aged since Above the Law premiered. He is a little more wrinkled and a little wider around the girth.
As I watched his television demonstrations I was still impressed with his knowledge and abilities and concluded that older or not I would not want to take him on in a fight. Even if I could however, I wouldn’t, since I feel he deserves the respect his years in the martial arts have earned him.
Many of the truly high-ranking martial artists I know personally are plagued with old war wounds. These can vary from torn biceps muscles to knife and arrow wounds, from diabetes to arthritis and bursitis. I ask you, should we be less respectful of someone with forty years in the martial arts because they can no longer do a kip up or a cartwheel? To answer that I should remind you that while Don Schula is still one hell of a football coach nobody expects him to run the field as fast as Tim Tebow.
Many young martial artists confuse athletic ability or gymnastics with martial arts rank. I for one was recently reminded that while you can teach a monkey to jump, flip and kick, they can’t earn rank. Martial arts rank is a reflection more of knowledge than physical ability.
Now don’t misunderstand me, there certainly is a physical component necessary to being able to earn rank. One must have either previously mastered the skills or currently be able to perform them to obtain the desired rank. What many westerners do not know however is that in the orient, above a certain belt rank testing is done not based on a performance test but on an academic one taken along with a consideration of past achievements.
The legendary Jackie Chan has been in the martial arts all his life, starting as a child at the Peking Opera House. I know that after all his injuries Jackie is no longer able to perform many of the stunts he did as a younger man twenty years ago, but I ask you: Would you rather study today from old Jackie Chan or from some buff young athlete who may have a couple of tournament wins and has all of ten- or fifteen-years’ experience to offer?
When I studied for my first-degree black belt years back, I was asked what the meaning of the black belt was. We had been trained in our style to respond that it meant Understanding the Night. In other words, as you proceed up to the higher levels you begin to understand not just the obvious or the “how to do it” of a technique (the light), but rather at black belt rank you begin to understand the “when, why, where and what it” of a technique (the darkness or night.)
To this explanation I would add that when you advance to the very highest of levels of an art you begin to realize what sets up a technique and when your opponent is going to use it, and to read body language through years of experience. This allows the truly great practitioners to anticipate, avoid and counter in a seemingly effortless manner.
They’ve “been there- done that” so to speak.
Recently during practice, I asked my instructor why it was I never seem to see Grandmasters doing all the fancy multi combination jumpy- flippy-kicky techniques that we learn as lower belts. “Because we no longer have to at our skill level,” was the reply. “We often already know what’s coming before the opponent even starts his technique, so our counters can be much simpler. But remember, we first had to do all those techniques to learn when they are done, how they are performed, and under what circumstances the mind and body work during the techniques to gain that knowledge. It’s what now gives us that advantage. Been there done that.
By way of demonstration, I was asked to attack spontaneously with a technique of my choosing. I feinted and charged with a roundhouse punch only to strike thin air and drive my shoulder into what felt like a ten-penny nail. My instructor anticipated my move, subtly avoided, and merely stuck out a finger so that I ran the pressure point at the base of the shoulder right into that rigid finger. In other words, I was effortlessly spiked. The results were dramatic and exceedingly painful. My arm was useless for about twelve hours. (At my age it takes longer to recover I guess.)
The point is that is was no longer necessary to defend using a muscular or gymnastically impressive technique. Supposedly the martial arts are about effective fighting techniques, not impressive fighting techniques. Trust me that simple move was effective…and painful.
The art of judo refers to using the opponent’s force against himself while Hapkido and Aikido use the principle of non-resistance. Seems to me you don’t necessarily have to have a six-pack abdomen to take advantage of these principles.
Now for those of you who don’t know me personally I will confess right up front that while at one point in my life I had a 34-inch waist and could do 200 crunches a day sadly I no longer am that fit. Somewhere along the line genetics kicked in and I became a diabetic. For those of you not familiar with this terrible disease it produces a chain of biological events making it extremely difficult to lose weight. (Loose too many calories and you get sick. Take in too many calories and you get sicker) Also I suffer from some arthritis in my knees brought on from forty years of kicking and being kicked and from a genetic predisposition (rheumatoid arthritis).
That said I am sure that there will be many who believe that I wrote this article to justify my physique and rank in the arts when others think I don’t present the image. Fortunately, I could care less. My first day on the job in 1970 my instructor explained that the martial arts are about being the best you can, not about being what others think you should be.
In the seventies I remember that there was a 45-year-old brown belt in our judo school who was working out in order to be able to spend time with his son. At the time I was eighteen and a white belt (do the math). I wondered why this old man even bothered to step onto the mat. He couldn’t do as many crunches or push-ups as the rest of us in the school and was a little rough in his techniques. Looking back on this decrepit old man I now see him for what he was, a hero. I don’t even remember his name but now that I am a fifty-seven-year-old Hapkido master I truly appreciate the effort he must have expended, both in time and physical punishment, to learn the martial art and to be with his family. What a role model!
A very dear older friend and mentor of mine once chided me when I was an arrogant rookie. “Remember,” he explained. “I know more about being young than you do because I have been young longer than you have been old!”
So, my words to all you young lions are as follows: You want to make fun of an old-timer, remember you do so at your own expense. Want to fight? They don’t. Really, they don’t. But remember if pushed we won’t fight; we’ll react instinctively and violently. And there are a lot of years behind that instinct. Knowledge is worthy of respect. Athletic ability fades with age while wisdom continues to grow.
About the author: R.W. Stone is a veterinarian in Florida. He is an avid horseman, martial artist, best-selling western author, and a firearms enthusiast. Currently Stone is ranked a 7th dan in Haemukwan Hapkido, a third dan in Daehan Yudo and a second dan in Kukki TaeKwondo. He is the Master Instructor at the American Dragon Martial Arts Academies in Ocoee, Florida. Read his daily thoughts on Martial Arts at www.facebook.com/groups/koreanmartialarts For more information on Hapkido visit www.haemukwan.com