Friday, May 26, 2017

Longevity in the Martial Arts

How long can we train in the martial arts?

As a 45-year-old who returned to practice in January 2016, I've been pondering this question for the past few weeks, in three separate ways.

First, in episode 161 of the Whistlekick podcast, a practitioner of the Chinese martial arts said that as a younger man he focused on the so-called "hard" or "external" styles, and as he aged he transitioned to the "soft" or "internal" styles. For example, you might begin learning Wing Chun or Kung Fu, then migrate to Tai Chi, or spend more time on Kung Fu forms instead of sparring. I have done some Wing Chun and Tai Chi, but the majority of my Chinese practice involves Kung Fu forms.

Second, I participated in Professor Pedro Sauer's Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu spring camp in Herndon, VA. Professor is in his late 50s and he talked about the importance of learning technique rather than relying on strength. He said it is good to have strength, but you should "keep it in your back pocket." When you learn Jiu-Jitsu with technique and leverage, you can continue practicing Jiu-Jitsu your whole life. Professor spoke in front a picture of Grandmaster Helio Gracie, who was still on the mats in his 90s. During the camp I couldn't help but notice the number of older people practicing BJJ, mixed in with the younger students. The camp consisted of a three hour Friday session, two three hour Saturday sessions (with a two hour break), and a three hour Sunday session.

Third, I participated in a Krav Maga Global camp at NovaMMA in Arlington, VA. I was only able to attend four hours on Friday and four hours on Sunday. (Saturday evening I visited Evolve Academy in Gaithersburg, MD to train at a Rener Gracie seminar.) Although there were some older practitioners there, it seemed that most of the participants were a decade or two younger than me. The physical intensity level of the camp was fairly high. One of the outstanding young students from my home Krav Maga school said the Saturday session left him completely exhausted. This young man is 17 years old, and we often joke that a two hour session is just a warm-up for him! The camp consisted of two full days of training (Friday and Saturday, 9 am - 5:30 pm), an extra three hour seminar Saturday night (6-9 pm), and training or testing on Sunday that started at 9 am and ended between noon and 2 pm, depending on the grade being tested. The grading ended with an exhausting "ladder" drill: 1 combat sprawl, 2 punches; 2 combat sprawls, 4 punches, and so on, up to 10 combat sprawls, 20 punches, then back down to 1 combat sprawl, 2 punches.

Comparing these experiences, I wondered about my ability to continue practicing each style.

For Kung Fu, I believe I can continue practicing forms as long as I can walk. My Kung Fu Sifu is in his late 50s and his Sifu, Master Chan Pui, is 80. Master Chan is an extraordinary individual, and I have never been able to move like him, at any age! However, practitioners can modify Kung Fu forms to suit their athletic capabilities. Forms can be a life-long mental and athletic pursuit, albeit one with little combat application (in my opinion).

For Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I believe I can continue rolling for almost as long as I can do Kung Fu. The older the practitioner, the more of a focus on defense and survival. The longer you practice, the more technique you develop. I believe the Boyd Belt is one way to keep a realistic outlook as you age. However, I think it is possible to fully participate in Jiu-Jitsu with practitioners of all ages as I get older.

For Krav Maga, I am less certain of my ability to maintain a lifetime practice. Some readers might point to the amazing story of Ton Maas, the 84 year old who just earned his KMG graduate 2 rank. I have also seen some practitioners older than me succeed in their training and grading. However, the structure and pace of the Krav Maga world seems more physically demanding than what the average older practitioner can sustain.

For example, in March I completed the five day General Instructor Course Part 1. My body held up pretty well, but five full days of training is a lot for a 45-year-old. To become a full instructor, I have to complete parts 2 and 3, each of which are nine days long. This process does not seem to consider the physical recovery challenges of someone not in their 20s or 30s!

Some readers may think it's my fault for not pursuing instructor certification 10 or 20 years ago, and that is a fair criticism. Perhaps Krav Maga is ultimately a younger person's art. However, that means the pool of instructors will not be as large as it could be, simply because the training and certification process is designed for younger participants. That in turn leads to fewer people with the life experience to match potential older students.

The same physical endurance dynamic is at play in Krav Maga gradings. My first test lasted 1 1/2 hours. My second test lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes. My third test lasted over 4 hours. I have seen tests for higher grades last 8-9 hours, with no lunch break. I have heard of tests taking two full days! The factor driving these tests is the requirement to demonstrate all material, from all ranks, during the test. Beyond techniques, candidates engage in a variety of sparring matches (standing, ground, mixed, etc.) and cap off the sessions with the ladder drill. I have thoughts on why KMG leadership believes the physicality and comprehensive nature of the tests are required, but I will save that for a future post.

In brief, I see myself active in Kung Fu forms for as long as possible. I hope to continue rolling in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as long as I avoid major injuries. For Krav Maga, I expect to physically top out at some point, so long as the non-routine events (instructor training and grading) expect the physical performance of those in their 20s and 30s.

What are your thoughts on longevity in the martial arts?

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