Q&A: Even Prodigies Have To Learn

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

OK I know you said that martial arts needs a lot of practice to be good. But how about real savants? I mean in real life Varsha Vinod has a black belt at age 5. This type of thing truly is possible obviously. Or are you talking about grades beyond black belt? I don’t know much about that. But perhaps there is obviously still a difference between actually fighting a bad guy (but not trying to kill you. bad guys do have limits too or don’t want a murder rap.) than training??

There’s an unfortunate assumption that a lot of people make about child prodigies: they put in less time and effort.

To be a black belt at age five, Varsha Vinod started training at roughly age zero. Yes, I am saying she was literally trained from infancy. Time compression means more training rather than less. She had a father with two black belts. He could train her all day, every day, and he did. While you were learning to walk, she was learning stances. While you were playing with your friends, she was learning katas. The first five years of her life were karate. If you think that sounds fucked up, well, it is.

There are a lot of kids out there like Vinod, I’ve known some of them or known people who trained with them. Ernie Reyes Jr was competing in adult divisions at twelve. They are very impressive, but gaining that kind of skill that early comes at significant cost.

While Vinod has (or had) impressive hand eye coordination and muscular control for her age, acquiring adult level technical skill requires an extensive daily time commitment. (We also don’t know if she had adult level skill. Unlike Junior, she didn’t compete in the adult divisions.) The time commitment is more than if you mediated out your training. For most of these children, that “youngest female in the world to ever achieve a first degree black belt in karate” will be the high point of their lives. The vast majority fade out or fade into the sea of similarly talented individuals who started later but are also more driven because they were given a choice about what they wanted. You’ll notice Vinod has not continued her trajectory, her meteoric climb through the ranks ended at five.

The second assumption you made is actually a common one as well, which is the idea physical talent or skill equates with intellectual and emotional maturity. Child prodigies are not little adults, they’re still children. Vinod had a technical proficiency at five which qualified her, under the standards and grading systems of her martial art, for the rank of first degree black belt. This doesn’t mean she could, at five, fight an adult on equal footing. More importantly, karate is a traditional martial art and a recreational martial art. It has a very specific range of application, which is the Japanese annexation of Okinawa. Karate is unusual because it’s not a reconstruction, but it reoriented its purpose. Karate is designed for fighting samurai at a very specific moment in history and is very good at what it does, but you’re unlikely to be fighting a samurai anywhere in the world today. What I’m saying is: you can’t use karate to fight bad guys.

My shotokan instructor specifically pointed out that you can’t use shotokan for self-defense, and, since he was also a police officer, I trust his assessment. We’re talking about someone with seven black belt ranks who needed to leave the US and test with the grandmasters in Japan. Journeying to the origin of your martial art is a customary practice in many martial arts traditions when you achieve a certain high rank.

There’s the final major issue of your question. You’ve assumed a black belt means more than it does. When you strip away all a black belt’s mystic, what you’re left with is a certification. In karate, a black belt means you’ve memorized a fixed number of katas with an acceptable level of technical proficiency. This certification is also fluid. It changes based on who is doing the grading, what school it is, and who the student is. It shouldn’t, but it does.

There are a lot of kids like Vinod, some of whom are far more famous. Jet Li was the national Wushu champion in China at twelve, Ernie Reyes Jr competed against adults in the forms division and made some significant strides in Hollywood as a child martial artist, Rhonda Rousey is another individual who was trained from a young age in Judo. She has an Olympic gold medal. The irony is they aren’t any different from Simone Biles or any number of other high level athletes. They’re not warriors. They’re athletes engaged in competitive sports. As a UFC fighter, Rousey and Ernie Reyes Jr (who competed in StrikeForce competitive kickboxing) could charitably be considered gladiators. This is still entertainment.

You’ve confused skill with intent, and it is a common misconception put forth by anybody outside the martial arts community. There’s a lot of mystique surrounding martial arts and martial combat. For the East Asian martial arts, there’s a lot of orientalism to go with it. All of which are problematic because it gives an inaccurate impression of a skill set which primarily breaks down into a lifestyle —  personal empowerment, spiritual enlightenment, self-betterment — and a sport. These aren’t skills comparative to those learned in a modern military. You aren’t collecting a new weapon.

This is why I suggest parents enroll their kids in martial arts programs. Their kids aren’t going to learn to kick ass, what they will learn is mental determination and how to overcome adversity. These are important life skills anyone can benefit from. If you train a child to become a weapon, what you eventually get is an emotionally broken adult. 

If you want a standout warrior as an adult you need to follow the pattern gifted to us by a millennia of warrior cultures. What you’ll notice about these cultures (with the exception of the Spartans, who produced emotionally broken adults) is they let children be children. Instead of condensing their training, they stretch it out. They learn other skills in association with martial combat like strategy, tactics, command, and hunting. They structure training exercises as games. When the child is old enough, in their pre-teens or early teens, they are assigned an apprenticeship with another seasoned warrior. They don’t start engaging in serious combat until their mid to late teens, and complete their training at twenty.

You can throw a child into combat at twelve. There were plenty of cultures who conscripted soldiers that young. It doesn’t normally work out. There are exceptions, but they’re not the rule.

I know the idea you can cheat past the acquisition of skill is appealing, but it’s also as much a fantasy as a unicorn. This attitude ultimately devalues the time, effort, and dedication it takes to become skilled. You lack appreciation for how much work and sacrifice was made for Vinod’s achievement. You also lack the context to understand those sacrifices were not her decision. They were made for her by her father. The irony is, because she was so young, she needed to put in more effort and more time on a daily basis than a child twice her age. Karate was Vinod’s positive reinforcement, and it’s a fucked up thing to do to a kid.

The treatment of prodigies as magic in fiction bothers me, and the villainization of them also bothers me. Talent does not replace learned skill. Talent is just a building block letting you start a little further ahead of everyone else. You’ve still got to put in the time. The younger you are, the more talented you are, the more likely it is you’ll be putting in more time than other kids your age. And, honestly? That sucks.

-Michi

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