Recently I was asked to write an article. To be absolutely honest, my first thought was, what could I possibly write about that would interest anyone or that wouldn’t be self-obvious to anyone who has trained martial arts for a few years. Another factor was the realization that the longer I train, the more I find that things I believed to be true or “the right way” earlier in my martial arts career turned out to be either completely false or at least not as true as I first thought. However having promised to write an article I had to write about something, and so I decided to write about something that may help people that are in the early stages of their martial arts training – sequence training.
I know that there is a long and zealous discussion in the martial arts world about whether it is useful or important to train sequences, but since this is an article for YMAA and sequences are a large part of our Shaolin kung fu curriculum, it is a given that they are important to us.
Over the years I have seen many people train many times a week on regular basis, yet make very little progress in their martial arts ability. They spend a lot of time practicing their sequences, yet after many months of practicing their sequences they have made very little progress. I believe that the problem is in how they approach sequence training.
They look at it as if they have to train the sequences. There are usually several reasons why they feel that they have to do the sequence training and the reasons split the people into two categories. Ones that have some outside pressure forcing them to attend YMAA classes – be it parents for the children, or New Years/Exercise/Health resolutions for the adults. They practice their sequences because that is what is required of them by their teachers. These people will not make it far until they start wanting/needing to get better at kung fu, and so I will not discuss them any further.
The other group is people who want to get better at kung fu, but see sequences as something by which they are measured - be it by their peers or be it for obtaining their next stripe. They basically operate on the belief that if they do the sequences long enough, the sequences will start to look good. This then causes them to train the sequences essentially forever, since improvement will come very slowly. When I watch these people do their sequences they do put some effort into the sequence, but the effort is more akin to let me be finished with this, or their mind is on the next move. They never try to concentrate on the current move and try to do it full out - meaning with speed and power. Speed and power are an important part of any fight. I have heard Master Yang say many times that in a fight Speed carries the most weight in terms of the outcome of the fight (if one is markedly faster then the opponent, then one can strike the opponent at will, without being struck himself). Power is next, and finally in third place comes technique (with technique one can make up for some deficiency in speed and power, but usually it takes a huge amount of skill and technique to make up for a fairly small amount of speed and power deficiency).
The interesting part is that oftentimes these individuals when training basic punching and kicking, will put everything they have into their strikes and kicks, but when it comes to sequences, for some reason they strike and kick at about 80% of their capabilities. Most likely their mind is preoccupied with the sequence, or if they have done the sequence for a long time they just “space out” and wake up at the end.
Both may be acceptable under some circumstances. The first will be true for some time after the sequence is learned, but during that time the sequence should also be actively trained in small pieces so that the student can concentrate on the individual moves without having to think about what comes next. That way one can start developing speed and power in the individual techniques contained in the sequence. The “space out” version is really only acceptable when demonstrating the sequence in front of others. At that point you are not trying to improve on it because in doing so you may make a mistake, but instead you are just showing what is in your muscle memory, which in turn shows how and how much you have practiced your sequence.
Finally there are also people that just can’t wait to be finished with their sequence, so that they can check it off on their mental list of things that they should review that day. This is the worst way to practice, because not much is gained besides just remembering the sequence better, but by this point they know the sequence very well anyway. These people would be better served spending their time practicing something else, since doing their sequences in this manner will gain them very little for a large amount of time invested.
All of the above ways are wrong when training sequences for improvement of martial arts capability. I believe that one should approach sequence training as a way of training basic kicking and striking while moving. Basic kicking and striking are important for developing speed and power, but are not adequate by themselves since they do not train martial application. For fighting, having strikes with speed and power is useless unless they can be performed while advancing, retreating and dodging. Because a fight is never a static situation, one must learn to manifest speed and power in their strikes and kicks while moving in a situation dependant manner.
The Long Fist sequences contain Long Fist fighting strategy, and if one wants to use this strategy in a fight, then one has to be able to perform the movements optimally. All of the sequences (that I know) simulate various fighting scenarios; usually one move defends and the following moves involve a counter attack. As you can imagine it would be very useful to be able to perform both with maximum speed and power in a real fight.
In White Crane training many if not most sequences are used for jing pattern training, where essentially the sequence replaces basic static kicking and striking training.
So if you want to make progress in your martial arts training you have to approach your sequence training not as if you were training a sequence, but rather as if you were training sets of moves over and over, making them a little bit better each time, in the same way as when training basic kicking and striking. It would probably not be wrong to say that if one knows enough sequences, one should be able to fully replace his or her basic kicking and striking training with sequence training. This would be better use of one’s time since one would not be spending time training just static kicking and striking and then spending more time training footwork and moving. However as I have said at the beginning of this article, my opinions about various aspects of the martial arts have been wrong before, so I will refrain from making any sweeping statements.