Studying Martial Arts in the Video Age

By: Ken Gullette

The greatest martial arts legends lived before video existed--masters who allegedly could knock down opponents with their chi or, with a flick of a finger, could knock a large opponent twenty feet.

One legend tells of a young student who wanted to learn a form (also called "kata") from a master. According to the legend, the master performed the sequence of movements one time, turned to the student and said, "I will be back in one year. At that time, you should have mastered this form!"

One year later, the master returned and the student had, in fact, mastered the movements. And he didn't even have a DVD player!

I'm a visual learner and I've studied martial arts since 1973, but I still can't memorize more than two or three moves in a row by just watching a performance once. In 1978, however, when I bought my first VCR, it opened up a new world of martial arts training for visual learners like me.

Wouldn't it be amazing to see videos of some of the great, legendary martial arts masters. Imagine if you could watch the creator of Tai Chi, Chen Wangting, perform his movements hundreds of years ago in the Chen Village. Legendary Hsing-I master Sun Lu Tang, the creator of Sun Tai Chi, lived until the 1930s but sadly, not long enough for camcorders and VCRs to be invented.

Since the early 1980s, martial artists around the world have been recording themselves on video.

The rise of the VCR and DVD gave us the chance to stop a master in his tracks or slo-mo the movements like never before.

I study and teach the three internal arts of China: Tai chi, Hsing-I Chuan, and Baguazhang. The body mechanics for these arts are incredibly complicated. It takes years of study to do them correctly.

I've studied in person with some of the best tai chi masters -- Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang and his brother, Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing, their students Master Ren Guangyi and Chen Bing, and American students and disciples. I have a collection of their videos and there is a near total lack of actual instruction on them. Not all great masters are great teachers. My best teachers have been Americans--students of these masters--who questioned beneath the surface and explained, in plain English, the meaning of the movements.

Body mechanics must be taught clearly for a student to learn properly, and most masters show the mechanics on video without teaching the details. And that's the problem.

An effective martial arts video requires a teacher who knows how to teach through video -- with specific visual detail. Most masters only do repeated movements at different angles with very little instruction on body mechanics. Without proper body mechanics, you can't do the internal arts properly. Some of the best videos I've seen have been by martial artists who were not considered masters, but they were great teachers and knew how to use video.

If you try to learn martial arts on video, find a way to get feedback on your techniques and movements from a qualified teacher. We all believe we look like a great master when we perform, but the reality is usually different from the self-image in our heads.

Use a camcorder to record your movements and then compare them to the video you're studying. Be brutally honest with yourself. Get a friend to look at both videos and tell you where you're making a mistake. Is your body really doing what the instructor is doing?

Some of my students who live in other parts of the world put private videos on YouTube for me to watch and critique. Sometimes I make video replies to show them the mistakes they're making.

Nothing can replace face-to-face teaching, but if you live in a town without people who teach the arts you wantScience Articles, the development of video and the Internet has given anyone a chance to do training like no other time in history.

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