Saturday, May 17, 2014

Aging and the Martial Arts

Willie Nelson was granted his 5th Dan in Gong Kwon Yu Sul on Monday, 4/28, 2014, right around his 81st birthday.   Nelson has actually practiced the martial arts seriously since he was a young man, starting with Kung Fu, then to Tae Kwon Do, and now in Gong Kwon Yu Sul.

Ralph Barrera/AP/
His elevation - and arguments I got into with people who insist that he can't possibly be good enough for fifth Dan due his age - coincided with my viewing of "The Bladed Hand" for the first (but not the last) time.

I marveled at how many of our oldest masters in the FMA's play with speed, power, and intent when I watched "The Bladed Hand".

Many of the featured teachers in "The Bladed Hand" were well over 65 years old, some as old as in their 80's and 90's, and yet, they were so smooth and so good at their art.  For example, here's some footage of Rodel "Smokingsticks" Dagooc training (outtake from the movie):

There is more than one reason he's called "Smokingsticks". I don't know how old Master Dagooc is, but as you can see, he's not a young man.  Would you want to cross him?  I certainly would not!

You see, I think that for a martial art to continue to be relevant and useful, it needs to be more than just a way for young, physically fit people to duke it out.  It has to grow with you, as you age, and as your skills change.

Note:  I did not say skills diminish, I said skills change.  I think that some things can improve with age - for example spatial awareness, target acquisition, spotting openings and gaps in defenses.  "Vision" and what I'd call "battle wisdom" (that is, a better understanding of when to engage in violence or avoid it) can improve with age, when other skills like strength, flexibility and range in motion may naturally decline over the years.

If you started the martial arts at a very young age, there is also the benefit of decades of repetition and refinement of core skills.  I missed out on that, having started so late in life, and while I work pretty hard at my art, I believe that means I will never be as good as people who've done it for two to three decades by the time they reach the age I have now.

In the wake of the news of Master Nelson's elevation to 5th dan, some folks asserted that if one cannot have the physical fitness of a young person, you can't earn rank.  To paraphrase: "You have to be able to break a board with your foot to get fifth dan! No way can he do that at his age!  It must be just some celebrity nonsense elevation for PR!"

Master Nelson has been training since he was a young man - that gives him about sixty years training.

Sixty.  YEARS.

I think he's learned a thing or two.

That guy complaining about Master Nelson's promotion has never actually seen him do martial arts... sigh.  I haven't seen him either, but I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.  I won't write off Nelson's ability based on his age (or his celebrity status - heck, Ed O'Neill is a legitimate BJJ black belt!)

Long story short, their justification for having to be as fit as a 20 year old in top physical condition is that you have to be that strong and skilled on the battle field (the martial in "martial arts"). I agree, that's true - this is why active duty, fighting soldiers in most cultures are young males, and their leaders tend to be older males who survived.

But most of us training in the martial arts aren't training for battle.

You're training for self defense, or for skill in a fighting sport, or for performance purposes... or whatever. But except for a very small subsection of the martial arts, you're not battle training (especially if your art is unarmed - nobody goes into battle with no weapons, ever).

Now, does this mean that physical fitness is unimportant?  Of course not!  But what "physically fit" means in your 20's is a different beast than in your 60's and beyond., especially when you take injury and chronic physical ailments into consideration.

So, be careful when you look at older martial artists and think they're far past their prime and thus, unable to deliver the goods.

It's very possible that Willie Nelson can kick your ass.

P.S.: To learn more about Grand Master Dagooc and Smoking Sticks, check out his web site here: