Q&A: Just Make It Their Phys Ed Class

Kids in my story are taught flashy stage staff fighting to build endurance, confidence and coordination. They complain about it and are told if they can successfully master a complex method of not hurting each other, then the simple methods of real staff fighting should be fairly easy later on. Would this be realistic? Not talking child soldiers, just kids who think they’re getting dumbed-down lessons.

No, it’s not realistic and, in this context, the kids would be right. They are being lied to by their teachers.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is a much more complicated discussion about stage fighting versus real fighting, how you get children to learn, and the very real question of how you intend to sell flashy stage fighting that looks really cool as something that’s boring. I can already tell from the way you’ve structured your question that you’re looking for a “safe” way to get what you want i.e “cool” staff fighting without having to answer questions about how one responsibly trains kids to use weapons. Kids training on staves is realistic because it does happen in modern American suburbia without the drugs, the abuse, or the mental scarring, or the shitty Hollywood Orientalism.

Now, let’s start with stage fighting. There’s two kinds of stage fighting. One is actual stage fighting and the other is martial arts choreography which is in the category of stunt work. They’re in the same field but you don’t get to both from the same place. You can learn the first kind of stage fighting without learning anything about martial arts, this usually gets rolled into a side note course in theater classes. The second kind works best if you have a solid base in martial arts to start off with because it draws off real techniques. In both cases, stage fighting relies on making big eye-catching motions that are visibly distinct and easy to see which is the exact opposite of what you want from practical combat.

The first kind of stage fighting is what we’ll call, “The Art of Whiffing While Looking Good”. The looking good part relies on you only looking at the motions from a specific line of sight otherwise you’ll be able to see them miss by a mile. It’s all about big, eye-catching motions that work as slight of hand to convince the audience that something is happening which isn’t. It is a real art form, one which takes a lot of skill and control to be good at in the upper echelons of professional stunt actors, but it’s not real. Lots of people mistake this for being “safe” fighting. It is the same as a magician’s stage trick. There are plenty of theater kids who do think that learning stage sword fighting means they can fence. (We’ve gotten questions from a young fencer before about their theater friend who always wanted to fight them with a sword, and how they didn’t want to. The reasons should be obvious.)

If you teach stage fighting to kids first then it will actually be much harder for them to learn the real thing later. You’d have to completely retrain them from the ground up, retrain their foundation, their reflexes, their stances, their ability to apply power. On top of that, you’d have to give them real endurance training too, which is the actual boring part of martial arts training all the kids complain about.

Now, if you’re thinking about the fight sequences choreographed and performed by actual martial artists, then that’s just martial arts. The kids won’t be good at this “stage fighting” unless they master the techniques underlying it… which is again martial arts. This would undercut them if your end goal is for them to actually be able to effectively use a staff in combat because skill in the substance is what makes you good at the flash.

The basic rule is you can’t train people to whiff and then expect them to be able to hit things. You have to train them to hit things first, then you can teach them how to whiff. (You already taught them to whiff while you were training them to hit things, because they spent a lot of time practicing not hitting things or hitting things gently at different stages while learning to hit things full force. This is where the real control comes from.)

Kids can’t initially tell the difference between flash and substance. You can use that flash as the carrot to get them excited about learning and to push them into applying themselves through the boring, repetitive parts. You can hold out the cool technique as the reward for wind sprints until they reach a point where what’s hard becomes enjoyable. You’ve got to be careful with this method though, because what kids can do is smell bullshit. As an authority figure you need to maintain their trust.

You can’t continue to sell stage fighting as a pathway to real martial arts if your students get exposed to the real thing. As a writer, you shouldn’t be so terrified of the child soldier specter that you think learning violence has to be all or nothing. Also, that’s not what a child soldier is. Child soldiers are kids who’ve been stolen from their families, given very little training, hopped up on drugs, and sent out to die. Conflating a child soldier with an Olympian judoka or just a regular six year old practicing martial arts for forty-five minutes three days a week disrespects everyone. Martial arts training is not by its nature abusive or dangerous for children.

This scenario reads like you’re looking for a roundabout way to get what you want while avoiding both the idea of kids learning about violence and the necessary repetitive, boring parts which make up the bulk of martial arts training.

Violence is very boring, and learning to do violence is even more so. You learn your new technique in pieces. You practice the pieces separately. You put the pieces together into a single bodily motion. You practice this for a while, then with a partner where you never touch each other but get used to the idea of spacing. Then, then, then you get to use slowly, carefully, and with great patience on the other person. Depending on the associated danger, the other person might be wearing a lot of padding. You get your cool technique moments interspersed between hours, and hours, and hours, and even more hours of repetition. You will practice the same techniques over and over and over again until you can do them in your sleep. When you’re not doing that, you’re doing your conditioning which is your pushups, your sit ups, your wind sprints, your mile-runs, etc. When you’re not doing either of those things, you’re stretching.

The average, recreational martial arts school is like PE class, except more fun. In fact, martial arts does get offered as Physical Education in some schools. I took Shotokan in college.

The mistake a lot of people who never practice martial arts make is the assumption that learning about violence inevitably makes people more violent. This is actually not true. Kids who learn martial arts are much less likely to mess around and use those skills outside of class than, say, the theater kids who learned stage fighting. Stage fighting is safe, so this leads to them more likely getting overconfident with it and practicing outside adult supervision. Kids who practice martial arts learn very quickly that martial arts can result in them or someone else getting hurt if they make a mistake, and the result is they become more responsible about using the skills that they acquire.

Real violence needs to be respected for the harm it can cause. Teaching someone “safe” violence sends the wrong message, and this scenario you’ve concocted is actually more likely to result in these kids hurting each other outside of where the adults can see. They were taught they couldn’t be hurt by the techniques they learned, so why not use them?

The irony here is that the real thing is actually safer for them and better for achieving all the things they’re supposed to be learning from it than the fake thing. It’s also more honest.

They also still won’t be able to whip around and take on a Navy SEAL because all martial arts training is not the same.

You’d be better suited to having these kids learn recreational martial arts which is martial arts training dedicated to health and exercise than stage fighting if what you want them to develop is endurance, confidence, and coordination. At the end of the day, martial arts is just sports and it fits as easily into your average PE class as baseball, soccer, dodgeball, and football. Most martial arts classes don’t run longer than a conventional PE period anyway. Wealthier schools often offer various extra class types for the kids who don’t want to do general Physical Education. It wouldn’t be a difficult sell that these kids’ school has that option, where you could sign up for fencing, karate, or taekwondo rather than taking the general. You also don’t run into the problem of asking, “do their parents know about this?” because their parents already signed the waiver.

I took Shotokan in college. I grew up next door to Stanford University, where they offered a whole slew of special programs and afternoon activities in the summer for kids that included fencing. These kinds of activities are a lot more common than you might imagine in the places where they can afford it.

If you’re serious about writing this story, I suggest hitting up your local YMCA or youth center and seeing what they offer as programs for kids during the summer. You might be surprised what you find.

-Michi

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