By Dr. Gary L. Deel
Faculty Director, Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University
In the first part of this series, I described my visit to China years ago to study kung fu and how my teacher there put me through grueling training that far exceeded anything I had ever been exposed to studying martial arts in the United States. But while I was training there, I got to watch and work with the youth who were training to become Shaolin monks and their abilities made clear for me the benefits of the harsh training.
The Skill Level of Chinese Martial Arts Students, Even Young Children, Was Unbelievable
Children and adolescents from age four to 16 would enter the gym where I trained each morning at 7 a.m. I would later learn that they began their days at 6 a.m. and when I saw them in the gym at 7, they were actually just finishing their run of more than an hour. Without missing a step, they would then spread out and begin working on kung fu drills and routines. And the skill level was unbelievable.
These young boys sailed through the air with acrobatic grace that made it appear as if they could quite literally fly. They moved with a speed so fast it was actually hard to follow them with the eye. They were so flexible, they seemed almost not to have a rigid skeleton at all. They wielded weapons from swords to staffs to chains with perfect dexterity. It was breathtaking.
Now, every martial arts school in the United States has its talented students. And mine was no exception. The nephews of our head teacher attended our class at my local school in Florida. They were young and physically fit, and they could do very impressive things in the classroom — at least by American school standards.
But make no mistake. They couldn’t hold a candle to what those Chinese boys were doing in Zhengzhou. The performances there didn’t seem human. They were masters in agility, elegance, speed and strength.
Management and Coaching of Martial Arts Students at the Shaolin Temple
I spent several days in China studying under Shifu and watching the Chinese kung fu students train alongside me. And during my time there, I asked about how the children came to be in the martial arts program, and how they were managed and coached.
Shifu explained to me that the Shaolin monks would scour the country looking for talented young athletes with potential for greatness in kung fu. The vast majority would be turned away, but an elite few — those deemed to possess true ability — would be invited to stay near the Shaolin Temple and study kung fu as a lifelong commitment.
Their parents were invariably delighted by this honor. They would be eager to see their children accepted into such a prestigious program, as the future for a Shaolin performer — although not particularly lucrative or glamorous — would be far better than what many rural Chinese families could hope to provide for their children.
The monks would become new parents for the enrollees. And they would train and discipline them — hard.
There is no “good enough” in such a program. There is no “do your best.” The children start extremely young and they are expected to either make the grade or go home. Corporeal punishment is not uncommon for failure to meet expectations. It seemed, in my view, a very harsh environment to grow up in.
But the results were intriguing. These boys were absolutely magnificent. Flawless would not have been an overstatement. They seemed to move effortlessly through the most difficult positions, leaping and crouching, thrusting and diving…with perfect poise.
I was in awe, but in hindsight I’m not sure why. I learned that the boys would practice 12 to 16 hours per day — every single day. Working that hard and that long at something, it would be hard not to become incredibly adept.
Is Our Society Doing All That We Can for Our Children?
Upon returning home to the U.S., I couldn’t help but reflect on the environment in which we raise our children and wonder if it is the best it could be. Are we really doing all we can to cultivate talent? Or is our society and its limitless congeniality doing a disservice to those aiming to push their limits and discover where their talents lie? Are we actually hurting our children by cosseting and sheltering them from the realities of hard work? In the third and final part of this series, I’ll offer my thoughts on these questions.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.