Common mistakes beginners make

It’s been about 20 years since I began practicing Wing Chun. And even more since I’ve started my martial arts journey.  I’ve trained thousands of students over the years through my Wing Chun schools, workshops and private lessons and I’ve seen the same mistakes over and over again.

As they say, a black belt is a white belt who didn’t quit but also a white belt that learned how to learn.Here are some weird things I’ve encountered over the years:

“Master YouTube” – Students come to the gym with their cup already full. They somehow know, based on internet videos, what Wing Chun is and what Wing Chun should look like. Years of direct experience with real masters are no match for a YouTube video made by a random guy. While it is obviously ok to do your homework before stepping into a gym, coming with preconceived ideas will never lead you to any progress. As someone famous once said empty your cup first. I started Wing Chun after years of WuShu practice. I started as a complete beginner doing the basics again. The same for everything else I’ve ever studied. I always set aside my pride and previous achievements and turned a blank page, ready to be a student again.

Another problem I see here is that students try to learn too many things from too many sources. There is a wealth of information on the internet and it is hard not to get confused by so many opinions. The issue is that unfortunately the students dilute their efforts by distracting themselves from the specific task at hand. Learning should be very specific, one clear thing at a time. Choose one instructor and one lineage and be consistent. Everybody is right and everybody is wrong in Wing Chun. Make your life simple and choose carefully the gym and instructor. After you master the fundamentals you will have the wisdom to make another choice if needed

Lack of individual practice and study. This is probably one of the most important things to be said. Wing Chun (and this stands true for any real martial art) it’s NOT a fitness system. It is not enough to go to the gym 3 times a week. You have to become a “Wing Chun man”. You have to eat, drink, and sleep with Wing Chun in your mind. You have to become obsessed with it. It’s like falling in love. There is the honeymoon period when you cannot stay away from each other for one second even. No matter what you do somewhere in the back of your brain Wing Chun should be there. Somebody said wisely “You don’t learn Wing Chun, you “become Wing Chun”. It should flow into everything you do. At this point practice is no longer practice but becomes a way of life. Only by doing this you will achieve great results. Going to class will only make you a Wing Chun fitness guy and you miss the entire point of practicing martial arts.

Treating the martial arts gym like a fitness gym. At a fitness gym you go, you pay and work out. You can come and go any time and ask for a private class anytime it’s convenient for you. The key point here is YOU as being the most important person. Well, martial arts are different in that YOU are not the most important person and frankly speaking, being a beginner especially, nobody cares about your glass heart. A martial arts gym is a place where people pay to feel uncomfortable, they pay to have their ego crushed, and it’s a place for growth and changes. This time it is YOU the one who has to make sacrifices and paying the gym fee is just nothing actually. The biggest sacrifice is the killing of your ego and your idea that everything comes easy and that you are entitled to attention and respect just because you paid the gym fee. On the contrary, it doesn’t give you any right for special treatment. It only gives you the right to get access to another world where you can have the chance to change into something great. Respect the gym and respect your teacher/coach and all your fellow students. Let the teachers know when you will be coming to class and keep them on the same page by texting them when you can’t. Never miss a class for trivial reasons and very important do not be late for training. Don’t let the entire team wait until you tie up your belt or you shoe laces. In small details the character of a man can be seen. Open your eyes and do not act like e jerk in the gym. Observe the environment and the actions of the others and follow them. As long as you can pay for the membership fee for sure you can pay for deodorant and soap. Do not come to class with smelly clothes or without taking a shower. It is weird to note that even in this century some people are not educated about basic hygiene. Clip your nails and remove any rings or piercings you have as you might hurt others or even yourself. Learn to do things for the gym because it is a place where you spend a big part of your life. Learn to help without expecting anything in return. The gym is slowly becoming your home after all.

Going too fast and hard and spazzing out. Beginning Wing Chun students do not have control over their body and cannot tell apart fast from slow and hard from soft. They also have this idea that going all out will impress the teacher and help them progress even faster. Students coming from other schools or other sports will inevitably try to prove themselves that their previous training was not in vain. As I said before Wing Chun is not a sprint but a marathon. In order to develop the level of awareness and body mechanics required whether it’s in sparring, chi sao, drills or form practice, the objective is developing the feeling of positions, the feeling of power, and the ability to be calm under pressure. Going too fast and hard especially in Chi sao will only give you limited understanding not to mention the potential injuries. It is actually more dangerous to spar with a “spazz” then with a guy who knows his things.

Challenging the coach or the instructor. I think there is a devil in every student that wants to check how good he is against the top dog in the gym. There are open challenges, when the new student actually challenges the instructor at the end of his first class. Now that is a bad idea from any point of view and there is nothing to gain from it. There is another challenge time best described by the example of guy I know who after learning boxing, went back to his previous karate gym and challenged his former coach and beat him in front of the students. Totally useless. It’s like after finishing your quantum mechanics studies you go back to your middle school teacher to prove that he doesn’t know anything about physics. Other challenges are way more subtle and sometimes hard to detect immediately. For example during the learning phase of a technique the student has all of a sudden a question “what if I do this” totally surprising for the instructor. Other example is also during the learning phase when the coach is demonstrating a technique and the student decides to resist 100% against the technique that’s being applied with 10% power just to check if the instructor can really apply it. These are sneaky “attacks” and sometimes the student might not even be aware that he is doing it.

Treating al students equally – this applies more to the instructors who do not give any freedom to the students. Especially when we are talking about sparring or Chi Sao the students should have the right to refuse sparring with a certain person. There are indeed in many gyms, to put is softly, jerks who either go too hard on the beginners or they hold the choke a little too much, they are smelly, or maybe it’s just not the right time to spar with that particular person. An instructor should carefully allow some freedom to the students to choose their sparring partner. There are guys coming to the gym once a month just to test their newly acquired skills from YouTube and perhaps the owner of the school is just too nice to kick them out. You as a student should really be able to talk to your instructor about any related issues. As an instructor never forces anybody force you to spar with somebody against their will. Students fall fast in the ego trap and they end up with broken legs and black eyes. Let them know that is perfectly OK to give up in sparring or in Chi sao to avoid injury. Remember it is not a fight for life and not a competition. I understand that in some gyms there is a “tough guy” culture and while this might be ok for an experienced martial artist, for a beginner it’s not conducive to growth and development of skills.

Being too friendly with the coach. Observe and remember gym etiquette and do not treat your instructor as your friend. Never sit in his chair or in his favourite spot. When something in not working do not call him from the other side of the gym just because you have a problem. Try the best you can to make it work. Do not worry, coaches see everything that happens in a gym and it might be his choice to let you struggle. Wait for the Q&A section of the training and then you can ask everything. Do not chitchat with your training partners during class. Remember you are there to train and not to exchange information about fashion. Attitude is a personality trait that will take you a long way. Oh and by the way, if you arrive early and you see the coach cleaning the place please stop him and do it yourself or at least help him. There is nothing weirder than a student of martial arts waiting for his master to finish cleaning the gym for him.

Adrian Tautan

To be continued…