• Jackie Bradbury

Aging and The Martial Arts

Musician Willie Nelson was awarded his 5th Dan in Gong Kwon Yu Sul on Monday, 4/28, 2014, right around his 81st birthday.


Ralph Barrera/AP/Time.com

At the time, there was some of the usual grousing about "celebrity" pseudo-promotions by people who didn't know that Master Nelson has been training in the martial arts most of his life (starting in the 60's with kung fu). He's been training in this specific style, Gong Kwon Yu Sul, for 20 years.


However, some of the more nonsensical objections I ran across when this story broke is that it's impossible for Master Nelson to be 5th Degree because of his age.


Coincidentally, while this news was being discussed in the martial arts community online, I watched the film "The Bladed Hand" for the first time. This documentary on the Filipino Martial Arts covers a lot of different styles, but there's plenty of footage of some of the elders demonstrating or teaching FMA's.


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 GM Rodel "Smokingsticks" Dagooc training (outtake from the movie):


Do you have any doubt at all that GM Dagooc can handle himself when it comes down to a fight? I certainly don't!


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 Degree, 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!"


If his style requires him to board break, I bet he can do it easily, because board breaking isn't about power, it's about technique.Master Nelson has been training since he was a young man - that gives him about sixty years training.


Sixty. YEARS.


I bet he's refined that technique.


That guy complaining about Master Nelson's promotion has never actually seen him do martial arts, mind you. 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 and he's no spring chicken either, being about 15 years younger than Master Nelson).


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").


Of course, they can't explain why they're training in unarmed fighting as a battlefield skill, but okay, let's concede the point. In a battle, being young and super fit is a huge advantage and is what we usually want for soldiers.


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 you aren't training in weapons seriously.


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 - or any of those old folks you see in the dojo - can kick your ass.


Do you think it's impossible for older folks to be "real" high Dan ranks, especially those with physical fitness requirements? Have you trained a long time, and how did you adjust what you do and know as you aged? Let us know in the comments!

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