3 Life Lessons Competitive Wushu Teaches

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3 Life Lessons Competitive Wushu Teaches: A Memo to Myself

Written April 14th, 2014

“You can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in the pocket[s].” — Arnold Schwarzenegger,

The following is a written self-reflection that specifically addresses myself, which both gives me something to think about, and reminds me of the lessons I repeatedly have learned, and will continue to learn, as I go to competition at the end of the week.  I have decided to share this as my next write-up for, in the hopes that other athletes may relate to this, or even possibly learn from this.

Dear My Future Self,

In the past, you’ve had a bunch of emotions rushing through you every time you’ve gone to competition; excitement, hype, anxiety, nervousness, fear, insecurity—at the risk of sounding condescending, it’s hard to describe this combination of feelings to someone who has never ever competed in something, or has never challenged themselves to do something out of their comfort zone.  Strangely, at the moment, you don’t really feel as anxious or as particularly nervous as before about the competition in particular.  Given the preparation you’ve had during training, you feel a lot less stressed as opposed to a week ago (though university work might have something to say about that).  However, given also your prior experience with competitions, those feelings can magnify the closer you get to the carpet.

At this point, you may have also noticed that the feelings mentioned above are more negative than they are positive, but you probably already knew that, didn’t you?  This is the unfortunate flaw in your individual psychology; you have always developed an anxious and stressed state of mind during competitive training, which has affected your mental and physical health (maybe it had something to do with a bad experience at your first competition, but that’s not important right now).  If only you were like your Wushu idol, Zhao Changjun, who, in an interview “Master Zhao Changjun: In His Own Words” by Mastering WUSHU, said that competition made him the “excited type”, and only enhanced his performance, if anything.  But you’re not Zhao Changjun.  You are not at that level of skill where you can feel fully secure about your abilities, and the truth is, you probably never will be.

So, in order to deal with these insecurities, I will lay out a set of three life lessons that modern competitive Wushu has, and will continue, to teach you throughout your life.  But these are not the corny, positive, “this-something-that-so-and-so-activity-has-taught-me-about-life” lessons that generic news reports exposition.  These are real.  These are things you will take away from your experience, and will indeed apply to your life in the real world.  And before, during, and after competition, maybe you will find some kind of psychological resolution to hold you over, at least until the next big one.

 1. Work Hard: Hard Work Supersedes Talent


This is the most obvious, but also one of the most fundamental lessons to understand, in anything that even remotely takes effort to get good at; Wushu is no exception.  In fact, it is because of how the sport of Wushu epitomizes this lesson that I continue to love Wushu; because of this singular truth that it teaches.  It is the root concept of what “gongfu” (功夫; gōngfu), better known by its more popularized term “kung fu”, means.  As stated in previous write-ups “A Statement about Wushu” and “Putting the ‘Shu’ Back In Wushu: The Art in the Sport Martial Art”, many people misinterpret the word as being the name for Chinese martial arts.  Not only is Wushu the more accurate term, (the indigenous meaning comes directly from the Chinese characters 武; wǔ, literally martial or military, and 术; shù, literally art or method), but “gōngfu” literally means skill or effort achieved over a long amount of time.  While gōngfu has become synonymous with wǔshù, the two ideas are not always mutually exclusive.  It may be pronounced in Chinese, but the idea of gōngfu is not a foreign one; it is shared across all activities that take some amount of time and effort to get good at, not just martial arts.  You can have “gōngfu” in cooking, calligraphy, farming, and virtually anything else that requires dedication to achieve some skill in.  It is only fortuitous that Wushu happens to be a central example to this idea, because it takes a lot of work to achieve even the smallest bit of improvement.  And most importantly, it is this kind of hard work that is done to achieve the level of skill that trumps predetermined talent.

Above all else, I have always been of the opinion that terms like “talent” or “gifted” were overrated.  When the chips are down, it’s really the amount of dedication and hard work that makes the difference.  This doesn’t mean that talent does not exist.  It does, and it sometimes gives a clear, sometimes “unfair” advantage to some people over others at certain things.  But talent only takes someone so far.  Because while talent may provide an advantage, the lack of hard work required for applying that talent makes talent meaningless.  This is the singular truth that many martial arts instructors, including Wushu coaches, use to market and encourage young students and their parents to continue lessons, without directly lying or being fraudulent from a business perspective.  Saying that someone has “potential” is not exactly lying, because “potential” is just that—potential, meaning that something is “possible” or “could be”, but is not actual.  What turns that potentiality into actuality is the hard work aimed towards achieving that greater level of skill.

The idea of hard work applies doubly to those who are not predisposed to genetic advantages or aptitude in Wushu.  Those who are not born with natural flexibility or athleticism will have to work exponentially harder to achieve the same level of skill of those who are.  If anything, it is this kind of hard work that makes an “untalented” practitioner a better individual at something, and therefore more deserving of respect, than a “talented” individual, because those who are “talented” arguably don’t have to work as hard.  It is in this way that hard work supersedes talent.

This is not to say that you always need to bop till you drop.  Based on past experience, you don’t necessarily work well when you are forced to train twice a day, six days a week for hours at a time.  As a mentor of sorts once told you, you are not a Chinese athlete, you can’t become one (and given the comparative lifestyles and luxuries given between you and them, you probably wouldn’t want to either), so don’t emulate or pretend to be one.  It’s just not your modus operandi of training.  You are human, and you have a point of physical exhaustion and muscle fatigue, coupled with mental stress and anxiety, which, when you have been pushed dangerously close to, has had a history of diminishing your performance.  If you want to remain strong and have a consistently solid performance, it is important not to overdo it, and be aware of when you just can’t do something anymore.  There is a time for exhausting hard work, but arguably more importantly, there is also a time for rest and recovery to compliment that hard work, a period of recuperation that can bring you back with more strength and energy than before.  Push your limits, but don’t kill yourself going past them.  You still need to work hard and push yourself to be better, but just be aware of your physical limitations in all that hard work.  While you may not be as hardcore as those Chinese athletes, there is still hard work for you to be done.

To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger from one of his many motivational speeches—“There is absolutely no way around hard, hardwork.”  So if you want to get good, and more importantly, if you want to get even better, you know what to do.

2. Be Humble: You’re Not That Good


It’s just a fact.  You are not the best.  You are nowhere near the best, and you never will be.  And even if we were to consider the remote off chance that you are, it wouldn’t matter.  Because no matter how good you are, or how good you get further down the road, there is always someone with more skill than you.  There were plenty of older, tougher, and stronger athletes that were miles ahead of you before your time.  And given the ever escalating standards of competition today, it is entirely possible for someone who is either more talented, or works even harder than you do, to surpass you at any time.  And when there comes a time when your body just can’t do it anymore, there will be many more athletes that can and will surpass you, as not only will the standards of the sport continue to change, but so will the standard of skill level as well, as you physically plateau and lag behind.

It’s easy to say all that and pretend to be humble.  But trust me, it’s not as easy to write, especially when your own words are staring right back at you in the face as you read them.  It is difficult to accept all of this, because, like all other privileged individuals, you have an ego.  And that’s okay, because virtually every other human in existence has one too.  It rears its ugly head every time someone reacts to a negative personal comment, and it will always exist, because it is in human nature.  And the only way to counter such an ugly human trait is by being humble.

Unlike ego, humility is a value that is not inherent; it is learned.  You in particular had to learn humility the hard way, which is arguably the only true way to learn it.  In my opinion, humility is not truly learned until it really hits home that just aren’t that good; saying humble things and acting outwardly modest isn’t enough.  This lesson first happened when, one time after the seeing the competition you were up against, you realized that you just weren’t as good as you thought you were.  There were others that could do things that you couldn’t do, others that were better than you.  Initially at your first competition, you shrugged this off and were confident that you could the same things just as well, probably better.  But as the years followed, and when it came to actually performing on the carpet, the real results showed; you just weren’t on the same level as the competition.  It is at this point that you realized you weren’t, and still aren’t, that good, and showed a personal respect to those that deserved it.  This is one of the universal core values of traditional martial arts practice, regardless of style, and is something that is unfortunately lacking in the sport and competitive aspects, including Wushu.  And the beauty of humility is that it is a lesson you will continually be reminded of for the rest of your perceivable life.  This is not something that has stuck with you if you aren’t honestly aware of your own position relative to others.  Whenever you are feeling confident, get big in the head, or assume that you know more or are better in some way than others, it is completely possible for you to learn (or rather, relearn) a lesson in humility.

So always be humble, as much as possible.  Acknowledge that you are not that good, that you can always be better, and that there are others who are better than yourself.  Acknowledge when you have failed and made mistakes.  Learn to take criticism, and be willing take advice and learn from others who are better than you.  Thank and acknowledge all those who have truly helped you and have assisted you, especially when you really needed it.  And never, EVER treat or belittle others as if they are inferior or lesser than yourself, as that is the epitome of egotism and arrogance (as you have seen from others that you have trained with in the past), and the core opposite of humility.  Continually remind yourself to be detached from pride, always have a down-to-earth mentality, never be assuming, and always be reserved in your judgment.  If nothing else, the one thing you can take away from Wushu is that its practice has taught you about humility in mind and in action.  Don’t ever forget that.

3. Don’t Be Afraid Of Failure: It Happens


This is the root of all your fears and insecurities—the fear that you will have nothing to show for the all the hard work you’ve done, no tangible results to claim at the end of the day.  It suggests that all that hard work has been for nothing, and all your energy spent, regardless of whether or not it was because of you.  And the “worst” part of it all?  It’s actually happened—multiple times, in different ways.

Let’s look at failure in the measurable sense, in terms of quantified results that is actually valued by others.  There has been a time when you didn’t make the national team after months of training, and a time when you didn’t medal at an international event.  From a competitive standpoint, you failed.  These were times where trying to get measurable or quantifiable results mattered and you just didn’t get them.

Then there’s the kind of failure that has arguably been more powerful in terms of how it has driven you—the personal kind.  It’s when you know that you didn’t have a good performance and that it wasn’t the best that you could give, even if you got the highest score of your division.  Deep down, you knew you didn’t really deserve that “win”, simply because you didn’t have the skills to back it up.  The lesson from this kind of failure is a subset of lesson 2—humility.  In this sense, you knew that you could do better, but for some reason or another, you just didn’t.  At times, you could pinpoint reasons as to why it wasn’t exactly your best performance, but sometimes you couldn’t.

Whatever the reason, you failed.  And that’s okay.  Sometimes these things are in your control, sometimes they aren’t.  Maybe, you just made a mistake, which can either be explained from prior circumstance, or it was just a slipup that you didn’t see coming.  After all, nobody’s perfect, not even champions—all of the great Wushu champions throughout history have at one point or another, failed and made mistakes.  And you’ve failed and made mistakes too.  Maybe you just made a mistake, or a couple.  Maybe a competitor was simply better than you.  Or maybe it had to do with politics.  Despite all the hard work you had to go through, someone with connections got in your way.  The Kung Fu Magazine article “The Muslim Master of the Old Empire” features the eponymous late Grandmaster Ma Xianda, who quotes an old Chinese saying, “‘Even if you have a good heart, you don’t get the best reward.’”  Failure is always a possibility, no matter how good you are or how hard you practice.  All of these aforementioned possibilities, have, at one time or another, happened.  Failure happens.  The first step of not being afraid of failure is accepting its inevitability.  The second step is not letting the fear restrict you or limit you in any way.  To take another quote from Schwarzenegger, “…never give up and never be afraid of failure, because otherwise you’ll box yourself in, and you’ll limit yourself.”

At this point, you may be noticing a motif of Schwarzenegger quotes.  Sure, Arnie may have been a steroid-using, unfaithful, former Governator of California and washed up actor of Hollywood.  But that doesn’t mean what he said isn’t true.  If there’s anybody that knows anything about achieving success through a combination of hard work and failure, its good ol’ Arnie, and he’s got experience from his bodybuilding career to back it up.  And what he says here is true: “You should not be afraid of failure, that’s just part of life.”  It is especially convenient that such an example as Schwarzenegger exists, because it just goes to show that these lessons transcend from Wushu into the practice other activities, as well as into all other aspects of life.  Failure is an experience to be had; you’ve had plenty of them, and you will continue to have many more of them.  And every time you have stepped out of your comfort zone to test yourself, where you had no control over what might happen, you have always run the risk of failing.  So your fear of failure has never come from coming to terms with past failures—it was easy to admit the times when you made mistakes, because those already happened.  What was really nerve-wracking for you was the possibility of the future risks and failures.  You’ve always been afraid of failing and embarrassing yourself again, and you’ve always been afraid of confronting and admitting that fear.  Well, here it is; it’s happened, and it will continue to happen.  And when it does, just take it and move on to the next thing—everybody else has.  If you failed because you made a mistake, then you’ll just have to correct it next time.  And if it’s not something that is in your control, just accept that that’s the way it is, and it will make your life much easier.

Before I continue, let me make the purpose of what I have to say here clear.  I am not saying you should take your failures in stride.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t care when you make a mistake, and I’m definitely not saying you should ignore any of your mistakes or failures, or the risk of making them.  Regardless of what I say here, while it is important, it doesn’t change the innate emotions you have as a human being.  If and when you fail or make a mistake, you will most definitely be upset.  You’ll probably hate and be more disappointed in yourself than anybody else ever could be.  As I’ve said before in the write-up “Competition vs. Practice: A Look at Training Wushu Fundamentals”, when you go to competition, there is a set distinction of winning and losing, with many of us having a focused goal of winning; if not winning over others, you are at least striving to win over yourself.  Winning in any sense is great.  But losing, failing is even greater from a philosophical standpoint, because you learn and push yourself even more from the experience.  One of Bruce Lee’s many quotes is, “To accept defeat—to learn to die—is to be liberated from it.”  Lee’s original quote is true and very applicable in this context, but while the prospect of death is even more inevitable than general failure, that’s not what I’m talking about here.  So let me change the quote to, “To accept defeat — to learn to fail — is to be liberated from it.”  The key to neutralizing the fear of failure and its psychological hold on you is to embrace it.  Even if you’re afraid to do something, but you know you want and chose to do it, just do it; go through the pain of inadvertently screwing it up completely, if necessary.  Because failure is ultimately a learning experience, so you shouldn’t be afraid of it; you should acknowledge it, and attempt to learn from it.  As former Beijing Wushu Team member and champion Zhao Qingjian said in the Kung Fu Magazine article “The Wushu Champion from Shaolin”, “‘I don’t draw conclusions when I succeed.  I only analyze when I lose.’”

The fear and anxiety may always be there in your mind.  It will probably never go away, because that’s just how your mind works.  But to confront that fear head-on allows you to be free from it, and ultimately allows you to become a better individual for it when you move on.  Even if you are afraid, don’t ever let it limit you or keep you from trying, because that is greatest failure of all.  Nobody ever got flak for even trying or doing their best.  If anything, they got respect for persisting, and some who persevered when others gave up, went on to even win and be successful.  It’s the person that didn’t risk it and didn’t even step up to the challenge that truly walks away with nothing.  Failure at least gives you something to take away from, and if you look back at it and analyze it the right way, you can improve and be even better for it.  So don’t be afraid of failure; and if you’re still afraid, that’s okay, but no matter what, don’t ever let it limit you.

And that’s it.  In summarization: 1. Work hard, 2. be humble, and finally, 3. don’t be afraid of failure.  The greatest thing about these lessons is that you can take them away from Wushu and apply them to virtually any other situation in real life.  In this case, they are even more relevant to think about as you go back to competing in Wushu.  If you’re going to think about anything leading up to game day, think of these lessons.  Remember them before and after the experience, and if and when you decide to step onto that carpet the next time, give this little reminder a quick skim every now and then.


Your Past Self.