As I approach my 18th anniversary from the day I first started wushu, I realize that there are a lot of things that I wish I had known when I first started.  Most of these relate to a lack of understanding about how wushu development works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be), and what I could have done to be more efficient in my approach to training.

So, I thought I would share a couple of the key lessons I’ve learned. This list is by no means meant to be exhaustive. In fact, I will probably keep learning lessons for the rest of my life, but these are the things that it would have been nice to know 18 years ago.  The things that have had a big impact on my understanding of wushu since I realized them.  These are also some of the biggest misunderstandings I see in many people who first start wushu.

But each misunderstanding brought about an important lesson about wushu.  So, without further delay …

Misunderstanding #1: The more styles I know, the better I will be.

During my first year with wushu I had written a list of the various styles I wanted to learn during my wushu training. It was a rather eclectic list including styles like Drunken Staff, Double Broadsword, Eagle Claw, Preying Mantis, Guang Dao, Chain Whip, Bagua Zhang, Tong Bei Quan and a few others. (Ironically Nanquan was no where on my list.)

I had even worked out how long I would spend on each style before “mastering” it and moving on to a new one. Something like 6 months for each one — perhaps a year at the most.  In my head, knowing a form was the equivalent of knowing a style.

At the time I had visions of myself doing these forms, looking amazing, and being an “all around” wushu athlete. And looking back I realize that I had only a very cursory understanding of what these styles were about. In fact, some of them I hadn’t really seen much of. I probably pulled them out of Wu Bin’s “Essentials of Chinese Wushu” book (affiliate link).

It was a lot like the way many kids write their Christmas wish lists. When I was a kid I would open up the local store’s catalog (back then you had to get a catalog to know what a store had — no internet yet!) and go through the toy section writing out all the things I wanted to get. I would submit this list to my mom and find myself rather disappointed on Christmas morning when I didn’t find all of the selected items under the tree.

I didn’t actually want or need any of those things. I was mostly excited about the idea of having them or playing with them. The day after Christmas I had quickly forgotten all about them. But it did make me realize that just because you write a list of things you want, doesn’t mean they will magically appear.

The same is true with wushu. Just because I wrote a list, didn’t mean I would magically learn all of those styles.

But this whole thing really speaks to a deeper misunderstanding I had about wushu skill development.

In my mind I had visions of the old Beijing Wushu Team members having to learn 18 traditional weapons, and a bunch of styles for competition. I had visions of the movie Shaolin Temple where every monk could do a wide variety of styles.

So, in my head, I thought the better the wushu athlete, the more styles they must know.

In fact, often times the opposite is true. Those who specialize in a main style — who become known as the masters of that style — are those who are considered to have the highest levels of wushu.

Li Jin Heng from the Beijing Wushu Team was known as the master of soft weapons because he focused on them from a young age. Li Zhi Zhou was the master of Eagle Claw. Yang Shi Wen was the Southern Fist King. These people are considered masters because they took something that many other people knew how to do, to a whole new level of proficiency.

I have a good friend, David, who is a rather accomplished polyglot. Back when he first started learning languages (about 10 years ago now), he had a list of 20+ languages he had planned to master. After a few months that number dropped to 18 languages. Then down to around 12 or so.

As he progressed to higher levels of various languages he realized that true fluency and proficiency in a language requires focused study and dedication. It is the kind of focus that becomes diluted when you spread yourself too thin over many different areas.

Today, he speaks just 6 languages, but at a high functioning fluent level. A far cry from the 25-ish languages he originally wanted to learn. But his ability to communicate in these languages is at a Native level and his focus on a smaller number of “styles” of communication have allowed him to reach a much higher level than he would otherwise have been able.

Without a doubt, my nanquan skill level increased when I decided to stop trying to learn a lot of different styles and focus on a core 2 or 3 (all southern ones). It was probably around 10 years ago when I realized that, if I really wanted to be proficient with nanquan, I would have to bear down and specialize on it. My level wasn’t any better than other nanquan people, and I realized it was because I was still trying to learn other random things like jianshu or new compulsory forms in other styles.

When I finally separated the wheat from the chaff, and put all my energy into being the best at nanquan that I could be — that is when I would say my level increased the fastest.

Lesson #1: Focus is the key to mastery. Accumulation of knowledge is only mastery of facts, not of skill.  Click here to tweet this.

Misunderstanding #2: The higher the jumps, the higher the level.

It is easy to get caught up in the impressive jumping skill of professional wushu athletes. The first time I saw professional level athletes my eyes nearly fell out of my head. After I had put my tongue back in my mouth I went back to my wushu class and started working on my jumps.

When I watched wushu videos I would try to understand the technique of how athletes executed their jumps (wushu videos were harder to find back then — no YouTube!). I would practice my jump inside and jump front kicks over and over to get that extra little bit of “pop” at the top.

Now, granted, I wasn’t as obsessed with hops as some people I know. I had friends who basically equated wushu with jumping. That wasn’t the case with me, but I still held them in pretty high esteem (no pun intended).

In 1998 when I busted my knee on a jump inside horse I was bummed that it meant no more jumps for a while. But in hind-sight I think that might have been a blessing in disguise. It forced me to take jumps out of the equation and figure out how my wushu could improve in other ways.

I started focusing my wushu video analysis on aspects of wushu that were not related to jumps. I looked at other areas of wushu that affected high level skill development.

This was the start of my wushu paradigm shift. But it wasn’t until later that I realized that the aspects of wushu that really impact whether an athlete seems to have a high level or not was actually those parts of wushu that are the most fundamental — basic technique.

I was watching a 1997 video of Liu Qing Hua’s Changquan form. In the 4th section I realized that she had absolutely no difficult movements at all. In fact, all of the movements in the form were ones that any wushu practitioner with 6 months of classes under their belt could do.

Check out this video from about 1:11 on until the end.

Xin Bu walking, a couple of hammer fists and a kick or two. Nothing extraordinary about the techniques themselves. But what really separated her from anyone else doing the same movements was her execution of the movements.

The quality of her basics — her ability to execute fundamental techniques at a completely different level — is what made her such a champion. It wasn’t knowing advanced techniques, or being able to jump super high, that made her amazing at wushu. It was her basics.

I’ve seen other athletes attempt to do her forms before. Sure, they could do the movements, but was doing a Liu Qing Hua form making them into a Liu Qing Hua caliber athlete? If anything, it just ends up demonstrating how much farther a person is from that type of wushu practitioner.

When I was training with Li Neng Miao back in 2006 or so, he told me that for the first 10 years of his life doing wushu in Guangzhou, the only thing they had him doing was the same 10 lines of nanquan basics. For forms all he did was the old nanquan compulsory. That’s it. For 10 years his focus was entirely on basics.

He didn’t learn the gainer. He didn’t work on his jump inside 720. He didn’t learn some super fancy southern techniques. He worked on basics. And as a result his higher level skill in nanquan became quite good. (He didn’t do so well in competitions, that that is a different story.)

It is like the 80/20 (Pareto) Principal as it applies to wushu. What 20% of wushu techniques will help you improve 80% of your wushu?

When I think about how to train myself or what training to set up, I now think less about learning jumps (well, my knees took care of that a long time ago) or fancy techniques, and much more about what basics will give me the most bang for my buck.

In my view there are probably only 5 or 6 basic techniques that affect 90% of your wushu development. And if you can spend all your time — especially in the first few years of learning wushu — on those techniques, you will find that you improve the fastest and make the greatest gains.

Unfortunately most people who start wushu don’t have patience for this sort of thing. Who wants to do the same 5 or 6 movements continuously for a year? I certainly didn’t. I wanted to learn how to jump and leap and be “fancy” with my wushu.

But the reality is that high level wushu comes from the most basic and fundamental of skills. And if you build those up to the highest degree, then the “fancy” stuff will take care of itself.

Lesson #2: The better the basics, the higher the level. Focusing on wushu fundamentals is what creates true mastery.  Click here to tweet this.

Misunderstanding #3: Wushu is a Physical Sport

It is was easy to have the impression that wushu’s skill development is about building your physical abilities. After all, it is a sport, right? To do well in a sport you need to do well physically.

I used to focus a lot of my energy on increasing my flexibility and working on my leg strength for a lower horse stance.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that wushu isn’t physical. As we all know, it is extremely physical in nature. Exhaustingly so.

But over time (a long time) I have come to realize that the physical aspects of wushu are only the starting point. Wushu (and most sports) are about much more than what you do with your body. It is even about more than what you do with your mind.

It comes down to the most fundamental part of who you are — your inner core. Spirit. Soul. Whatever you call it — this is the part of you where true wushu emanates from.

In discussions with professional wushu athletes, the one thing they all say which separates the high level athletes from the rabble, is the ability of the athletes to infuse their own self — the essence of who they are — into their wushu. Jet talked about it on his website. Yue Xiao Yu mentioned it during our interview last year. It is a common point of discussion.

They don’t talk about having the best jumps (because they all have amazing jumps, right?). They don’t talk about having the strongest horse stance (because they all have great basics). But they talk about how, when you do wushu, a person can see not just your high level skill, but they can see who you are in your form.

And in order to infuse this type of essence in to your wushu, takes more than just the physical or mental aspects of training.

I like to think of wushu as being a three tiered pyramid of skill.

The base of the pyramid is the physical work and effort. Without the physical effort and training, you have no foundation. There is nothing to build on. So, that is absolutely essential and it is what everyone starts from. Without this physical training you are not able to execute techniques correctly. You don’t have the endurance to do a form. And you don’t have the flexibility to extend your full range of motion.

The next level is the mental level of wushu. Understanding technique and analyzing form and function of wushu. This part of wushu is about using your head to bring out the best of your abilities. This is where you realize that you don’t have to do a million punches to be amazing, but it is more important to understand where the power generation comes from when punching so that you are doing it right each time. This is where you see people change from doing bouncy stance transitions to being rooted in to the ground like a tree.

But the top level of wushu is the spiritual. This is where you go beyond being able to execute techniques at a high level and being to interpret your own essence into each movement. It is where you create a form that represents your own journey with wushu. You don’t just copy someone else’s form because you come to realize that wouldn’t be your wushu.

Sometimes when I use the world “spiritual” to describe high level wushu people get a little uncomfortable. I get that. You are hard core athletes, so you don’t like to think of this hippy dippy stuff when analyzing your sport.

If it helps, you can call it something else. You are infusing your “personality” or your “character” or your “essence” in to your wushu. Whatever works for you. But the idea is still the same.

For me, these days wushu isn’t just about doing movements. And it isn’t just about understanding technique. Wushu is about expressing myself. About showing who I am through my wushu.

When I started wushu I didn’t view it this way. It was just about being able to hold a 1 minute horse stance. Or about getting head to toe. Or the splits.

Later wushu became about knowing how to generate power correctly. Or about the correct hand positions or foot placement for punches or kicks.

But now it is something deeper than that. It is about the “art” of martial arts. It is about the expression of myself.

Lesson #3: Wushu is a Spiritual Expression. It is a representation of yourself as a human being. (Click to Tweet this).  When you can infuse your core into your wushu, then you reach a level of skill that others can’t duplicate — because it is uniquely you.

So, there you have it. Three lessons that it took me a long time to learn with wushu. Sure, I wish I had known these things before. But the truth is that the process of coming to these realizations was a part of the process of growth with wushu.

I wouldn’t have been able to understand these ideas when I first started. It was the journey that created the destination, not the other way around.

What about you? What lessons have you learned through your study of wushu? What aspects of wushu do you wish you had understood at an earlier age or time? I’ve love to hear more about your own journey with wushu. Comment below and share!