“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” – Vince Lombardi
The Bane of my Existence
I have spent a lot of time thinking about Vince Lombardi’s famous maxim on the value of practice. I will readily admit to hating this quote. It is exactly the sort of tough, yet ultimately unexamined (and perfectly circular) statement that reminds me of everything I despised about team sports while in school. That probably explains my attraction to individually oriented martial arts.
Not that any of this matters when you are laying on your back staring up at your wooden dummy from an angel that Ip Man never intended. Not that I blame the dummy. I blame the carpeting.
Dummies and carpets, especially high pile or shag carpeting, do not mix. To properly practice the mook yan jong you need to step with confidence as you shift and employ a variety of kicks. You can technically do the set in bare feet. I certainly have as I walk by, or find myself wanting to try out an idea out without getting geared up. Yet the nature of the unpadded dummy limits how hard and realistically you can kick (especially if you have a square legged model). Wing Chun, in contrast with arts like karate or judo, seems to have been designed with shoes in mind.
This is where carpeting becomes a problem. Prior to taking up Wing Chun I never really thought that much about flooring. And for the first four or five years of my training I simply did all of my daily practice at the school. Still, having to rely on the school’s jong was never ideal. During the advanced classes there were always more students than dummies, and I didn’t want to be a distraction to the students in the more junior classes which were held at other times. Successful schools tend to be busy schools.
When I finally had the opportunity to buy a dummy I jumped at the chance. I was sure that having my own jong would enable a level of daily practice that would vastly improve the quality of my Wing Chun. And then I moved to a new place with (shudder) wall to wall carpeting.
The dummy came with me of course. But so has the carpeting. For some reason, each of the last three places I have lived have had very nice carpets throughout. My wife loves them. I am more mixed. Don’t get me wrong. They are great when you are getting out of bed on a cold winter morning, or throwing down the yoga mat to do your core work. But dummies really work better on hardwood floors. Polished concrete is even better.
With a little creativity you can work around the issue. You can move in bare feet, but kicking is a problem. The sneakers allow you to kick, but can become so grippy on the carpets that I am afraid of ripping something in my knees. The coefficient of friction on socks are way too low to be considered safe. In the end I settled on a pair of house slippers with rubber soles. They offer enough protection to my feet that I can kick without worry, while providing enough grip to allow me to move around the dummy without fear of slipping (most of the time).
This arrangement is by no means perfect. Mounted on a portable stand with horizontal bars (rather than the typical thin slats) my dummy feels more “dead” than “alive.” It does not have that nice spring that more traditional Wing Chun practitioners crave. Nor is it likely that I will be able to do anything about it until I can find a place to have it permanently mounted. But I did come up with a way to hang my rice bags onto the dummy itself, making a more diverse training tool that is now a central part of my daily practice.
And I would like to think that the quality of this practice is now pretty good. But it took a lot of terrible practice sessions to get to this point. Contrary to the implications of the quote above, I do not think of those frustrating sessions as a waste of time. As one of my teachers recently pointed out, we only waste time when we fail to practice at all.
The Problem with Perfect Practice
Vince Lombardie is far from alone in his admiration of “perfect practice.” While reading threads on a private lightsaber combat facebook group I noticed that the merits of a similar quote (this time delivered by an olympic fencing instructor) were being vigorously debated. A couple of the students (one drawing on his own background as a firearms instructor) believed it was vastly better to have students who never practiced rather than those who practiced poorly. As far as they were concerned, the first group was superior as they possessed “no bad habits” and would therefore be easier to teach.
I experienced a mixture of emotions as I read this thread. Darth Nihilus, the instructor at the Central Lightsaber Academy (the location of my current ethnographic research) has a lot to say on the topic. I recorded an instance in my field notes where, after watching the performance of one of his students, he shouted that it was not enough to just practice daily, you actually had to strive to practice perfectly.
Nihilus’ was a professional musician before becoming a full time martial arts instructor. The approach to practice and personal study that you see in the musical world has certainly influenced how he approaches training within the martial arts. As he went on discussing what our practice sessions should look like (a topic that he decided that the class needed some ersatz instruction on) he ended up doing a hilarious imitation of his high school keyboard teacher who would sagely appraise his performances and tell him, “if your practice is garbage, it doesn’t matter if you do it a thousand times, you are still getting garbage.” Which makes perfect sense.
And yet, there are some difficult truths that haunt this entire conversation. The most obvious would be that perfection is a moving target. At least in the martial arts. It is not a thing or a singular point. It is more of an aspirational philosophy. No one ever reaches perfection. As one gains technical mastery in a single area, other horizons of possible improvement suddenly appear that you were not even aware of.
All of which brings me back to Wing Chun. One of the best pieces of advice on teaching that I got from my Sifu was that when introducing new material to students I should demonstrate, explain, answer questions, and then step back and let them work on the problem themselves. It is so easy to smother someone acquiring a new skill with well intentioned, but ultimately incomprehensible, advice. Sometimes what students need is not more explanation, but a structured opportunity for practice.
As I have watched teachers that I admire, I noticed that they all encourage (and even demand) that their students practice. But none of them are all that insistent that their students be “perfect” or practice perfectly. Not that their students usually realize this. Learning any new, sufficiently complex, embodied skill can (and often does) feel overwhelming. Yet from where I am now, I can look back on them supervising the mastery of a complex task (say, the dummy form) and appreciate the way in which they would give their students one task to work on at a time rather than simply listing all 53 of the major mistakes that were made the last time the student did the form. This is how progress is made, one correction at a time. And that means that none of our practice is “perfect.”
Practice as Research
The strangely shifting and fungible nature of perfection is not the only difficulty that such conversations pose. The more we think about the topic the more questions arise about both the nature of the thing being practiced, as well as the act of practice itself. Indeed, scholarly research into both areas may be helpful.
Readers interested in delving deeper into the question of what ‘practice’ is, as well as its relationship to the mastering of technique and the production of knowledge, might be well served by picking up a copy of Ban Spatz’s book What a Body Can Do (Routledge, 2015). This book has become something of a hit in martial arts studies circles because it directly speaks to a number of questions that lay at the heart of the turn towards the exploration of “embodiment” and “practice as research” rather than historical or social modes of inquiry.
A more traditional discussion of “practice” might start by supposing the existence of a self-contained, coherent and unchanging body of technique called a style. Techniques might be derived from conceptual first principals (the fastest point between any two points is a straight line) or inherited from a more traditional form of transmission (Ng Moy invented the art that would become Wing Chun after watching a snake fight a crane). These bodies of techniques, and a conceptual understanding of how to use them, are then transmitted directly from one generation of teachers to the next generation of students through the process of diligent, dare I say perfect, practice. Only in this way can a student’s fundamental dispositions be changed, and can the genetic purity of the next generation of the art be maintained.
Yet, as Spatz might point out, it is not clear that any teachers are actually up to the task of revealing the full depth of insight about a given technique that years of diligent practice can reveal. Any martial artist can tell you that more goes into our punches, kicks, locks and throws than just gross motor movements. There are a myriad of small adjustments that can alter the nature of a technique, and another myriad of insights that might be gained (or not) as to when and how to employ them. Nor do students approach the learning process as a blank slate, or an empty vessel ready to be filled with some sort of genetic transmission of pure knowledge.
Each of us brings our own assortment of bodily predispositions to the learning process. Some of these are physical, others are cultural. My wife’s approach to, and understanding of, Wing Chun will never be the same as mine. I will never experience a punch or laup the same way that she does. How could it be otherwise?
Yet one of the biggest determinants of how easy or difficult it will be to master a technique is what prior bodily dispositions you already have. Or to put it slightly differently, there is no such thing as a student that comes to a problem with no “bad habits.” We all have many idiosyncratic bodily dispositions. Some of them will push our development in one direction, while others might give us a shove in the other.
There is sometimes a suggestion that when Ip Man (or any other kung fu instructor of his generation) tailored his teaching to a given individual’s background or nature he was only passing on the “technique” and not the “true system” of Wing Chun which would be reserved for a handful of close disciples. Yet by placing the student at the center of the learning process, and allowing Wing Chun to be conceptually rather than technically driven, there were aspects of his pedagogy that can be thought of as ahead of their time.
Rather than seeing “techniques” as simply closed bodies of movement and knowledge, Spatz (capturing the intuitive understanding of most of the martial artists I know) describes them as akin to onions, each level of technical mastery reveals a new layer of questions and nuance. Nor depending on our background and nature, is it clear that we are all headed in the same direction on this journey of exploration. And beyond a certain point in our training, most of the new knowledge that we acquire will not come from classes and seminars (though that route never vanishes), but from the process of practice itself.
Practice is not just the acquisition of a finite skill. It’s a powerful research tool. As we practice we make discoveries. Spats notes that at first many of these will focus on how we can improve our own performance. As we become more advanced they may include insights into the application and nature of a given technique. Later, more original discoveries might open the way to creating new techniques and insights into how to better structure the process of practice. When reading the biographies of individuals like Kano Jigoro or Morihei Ueshiba, it becomes clear that this is the way that at least some martial arts are born. Yet at all of these levels of research martial artists are engaged with the age old question, articulated by Spinoza, of asking “what can a body can do?” This is such a simple question, and yet the answers always manage to surprise.
The idea of a direct transmission of knowledge from the mind/hands of the master to the mind/hands of the apprentice is mostly an illusion. (And I say this as someone with great love and respect for my teachers). The nature of practice itself suggests that the learning of technique, beyond its basic stages, is a rhizomic and ever evolving process. As our practice becomes better, our research into the nature of techniques becomes more profound.
Practicing on Carpet
When we think about what actually happens as we strive to practice and master a technique, the very idea of perfection is quickly revealed as a myth. After years of practicing the dummy form I have yet to finish a routine and think “That is it! Perfection has been achieved.” At this point in time I am as much motivated by curiosity as anything else. There is so much more that I want to understand, and the only way of getting there is through practice.
Yet it is never enough to declare something a “myth” and move on. Rather, within martial arts studies, we must stop and examine what these myths do. What social functions do they serve? How is it that mythic statements about something as fundamental as daily practice get passed on?
Caution is required as we move forward. As with most things, I suspect that this particular myth serves more than one purpose. Specifically, myths can be used to point to insights that empower, or they can set up hierarchies and relationships that disempower. Our goal as scholars is not so much to dismiss all myths as lies, as it is to actually understand them. Ergo my ongoing interest in the creation myths of the southern Chinese martial arts.
This essay drew on two practical examples of “bad practice.” One that resulted in me staring up at my dummy after having slipped on shag carpeting, the other elicited a shout from an instructor in a lightsaber combat class. Together they might weave a more complex understanding of what this council to perfection may signify.
Lets begin by returning to the Central Lightsaber Academy. The instructor, Darth Nihilus, made his living as a professional musician before devoting himself to teaching Chinese martial arts. Musicians understand something about the nature of practice and embodied skills. But what is more interesting was that the specific student who he pulled aside was also a professional musician (in this case a drummer) who had played with multiple bands and toured quite successfully.
When Nihilus told him that he needed to perfect his practice (and related the story about an old piano instructor of his own), he was entering into a type of dialogue that his student would immediately understand in a very specific way. Both had taught music lessons. They understood how the process of practice and learning interact. Both understood that he was issuing a call to practice with improved mindfulness.
Simply going through the motions is not enough. One must be self-aware, actively choose goals when practicing, and strive to improve those one or two things until you could do them “perfectly.” In a moment of frustration Nihilus called on a student not to “be perfect,” but to make a conscious choice to put himself on a path to mastery. At its best, this is what the challenge of “perfect practice” can be.
At its worst, it is a paralyzing agent. Consider gain the story of my own experience with the dummy. I really enjoyed the feel and tactile feedback that I could get from my Sifu’s dummy mounted in his school. Unfortunately, my dummy arrived a short-time after leaving Salt Lake. And when I set it up, I found both the flooring and the stand less than ideal.
Notice that I did not say “unworkable.” There were certain skills that I wouldn’t be able to practice. And it is difficult to do the form “properly” on a carpeted floor. Yet rather than compromising and getting down to business, I let my perfectionism take over. I convinced myself that it was better not to practice than to do so badly, or in less than ideal circumstances. Specifically, I was concerned that I would develop “bad habits.”
Fear and paralysis is the dark side of a call to perfectionism. Luckily, guilt eventually got the best of me and I was able (through a lot of terrible practice sessions) to experiment and work out a (mostly) suitable resolution to my situation. At this point I can practice the dummy without thinking about these issues too much. Have I developed “bad habits” by practicing on carpeting for the last five years? Probably. But I have also learned a few things about effective footwork that I would never have known. God help the guy who decides to come after me on a shag rug.
Perhaps the real problem with the concept of “perfect practice” is that its inherent impossibility encourages an often unhealthy appeal to authority. Consider again our opening quote. How would one know if your practice had been “perfect?” I suspect that in the world of football Vince Lombardi would have been more than happy to act as an expert witness.
When the process of striving for mastery is short circuited by an instructor, school or brand that claims to be able to judge and certify “perfection,” a more serious set of problems arise. Rather than practice evolving as a form of research, it may devolve from hollow mimicry to stultification. That is a problem whenever one outsources personal judgments about progress or motivation to an exterior authority. This situation can be tricky to identify when we are the ones who are caught up in it. The observations of scholars like Ben Spatz can raise the warning cry, and suggest that we reexamine whether we are still on the path of mastery. It all comes down to how you practice.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Butterfly Swords and Long Poles: A Glimpse into Singapore’s 19th Century Martial Landscape