Monday, March 05, 2007

endurance sports and kung fu (part 1) - bridges

when i first made the decision to begin kung fu lessons, i knew that as an athlete i was heading into some relatively unknown territory.

not unknown in terms of kung fu or sports individually; i knew i wanted to learn kung fu as a matter of (hopefully) acquiring some skill in self-defense and also intellectual curiousity about its nature, and sports i was already somewhat acquainted with as an athlete (albeit marginal). but definitely unknown in terms of combination; it was entirely unclear to me or to anyone i asked if there was any complementary or mutual elements between the 2 subjects, or if one could help with the other.

kung fu and sports--and endurance sports in particular--are disparate communities, with little association between the 2. from what i can tell, they are 2 worlds operating in very different orbits. i have not encountered very many people who can offer much in the way of connections between them. while there has been the occasional athlete who has participated in martial arts at some point in their past, i have found that they did so as recreation and not as part of an integrated athletic sports-related regimen. moreover, i have yet to find any institutional interaction between kung fu and sports, with little awareness of ideas, concepts, methods, or applications between sifus (i.e., "instructors" or "masters") and coaching staff.

this situation is not aided by the opinions the 2 communities have of each other, which are a mixture of ignorance, confusion, skepticism, and sometimes even friends in the athletic community have proffered a certain level of doubt (as in: "uh, dude, seriously, kung fu?"), joking (imagine the song sung as "oh, everybody is kung fu racing!"), reservation (delivered with "hmmmmm...okay"), and self-restrained courtesy (with the words "sounds interesting"). the one exception, to my surprise, has been my coach, who has adopted an air of aplomb and on a few occasions said to me: "let me know how it goes. who knows? maybe you're on to something." on the whole, however, the overall opinion has been one of uncertainty.

the people i have met in kung fu have been somewhat more reticent in their comments, but no less questioning regarding the possibility of relations with the sporting world. i suspect that there's a belief in incompatibilities or incongruities with athletics (i.e., sports is merely recreational competition, whereas kung fu is a way of life as well as a way of defending life), along with a bit of stereotyping of athletes in general (i.e., athletes are high-profile attention-getting testosterone-driven meatheads and not capable of understanding much outside of wins, losses, and groupies). i also think there's an undercurrent that kung fu, being a martial art, is serious stuff, while sports is just recreation.

i don't think this is all intentional from either side. a lot of it is just lack of communication, and the conclusions that inevitably arise from the lack of communication. because there's so much distance between the 2 communities, there is very little (if any) interaction, and hence no shared knowledge. the result is a lack of awareness as to what the other party knows. this produces an intellectual gulf that i believe to be a self-sustaining, self-realizing quandary, in that each side doesn't know what the other party knows and invariably interprets this as a sign that the other side doesn't know anything, rather than taking it as a suggestion that maybe they themselves don't know anything about the other side. of course, this leads right back to even less communication, which starts the entire cycle all over again.

examples of this have been easy to find. professional triathletes i've spoken to have laughed when i asked about the possibilities of martial arts training to sports--even though some of them have cross-trained in similarly disparate fields like ballet or yoga. when pressed, they've conceded they don't know much, but responded that they doubt it could be much. similarly, my fellow kung fu students have shrugged in puzzlement when i've posed questions about connections between kung fu and sports.

the result, i think, has been the disjuncture i have observed between the 2 groups. in a way, based on what i have experienced, i feel like i'm in between 2 different worlds.

admittedly, i kind of expected this when i began. i am what my coach dryly observed as "the experiment." since nobody seems to know about the connections between kung fu and endurance sports, it appears that i am going to be the one person to find out...and to find out empirically. with me as the test subject, observer, and analyst rolled into one.

so apart from self-defense and personal development, is there any purpose for an athlete (or triathlete) to learn kung fu?

i don't know yet. but i'm starting to see some connections. and i'm starting to believe the distance between the 2 worlds is not as great as either side might think. it's only been a relatively short time that i've been learning kung fu (try a few months), but what i've seen so far is encouraging. enough that i am interested in seeing more. i can tell you it's been one of the most interesting, and very much rewarding, experiences i've done--and not just physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. let's just say it's expanded my horizons somewhat.

hopefully, given more time, i'll be able to compile things together in a way which bridges the 2 communities. for now, i'll have to do it in increments.

i'll let you know.

1 comment:

Robin said...

Interesting. I see a lot of parallels between endurance sports and martial arts. Both require a degree of concentration, the ability to put aside temporary discomfort or pain, mental focus and clarity. I find that my karate practice aids my triathlon, and vice versa.

I wish you well on your journey of discovery in kung fu.