One of the essentials of gung fu is effort. This simply means that the student has to put in sufficient effort to master the art. That sounds obvious and simple. However, if it’s so obvious and simple, then how is it we don’t have gung fu and Wing Chun masters walking around all over the place? OK! Forget I asked that! We do have people who are happy to claim to be “masters” or “grandmasters” or “great-grandmasters” of gung fu waltzing around all over the place! I meant the genuine thing, of course! Genuine masters are rare because the process that contributes to mastery depends on the conjunction of certain factors, and this combination seems to be rare. These factors include: finding a genuine instructor willing to properly and fully teach; in a life position to be able to continue regular training over many years; having at least adequate talent; and, last but not least- making appropriate effort. How many are able and prepared to sustain the effort required over the years to attain and to maintain mastery? Apparently, very few!

On the other end of the spectrum, if effort was such a simple thing then why do we seem to have such a terrific through-put or drop-out rate in modern martial arts classes? At least it seems to me as an “old hand” after training for over forty years that the classes in earlier days I trained in, or taught, were more stable. Fewer people dropped out and those who eventually did so, had lasted longer than students today do. Most commercial classes seem to operate on the assumption that they actually sustain their business by this through-put as the number of students who rise to a senior level are limited. In fact, it seems one of the distinctions between a genuine, traditional closed door or semi-private class is the high proportion of seniors compared to beginners. In commercial classes this ratio is reversed.

Effort can be deconstructed by analysing the part it plays in Wing Chun development. Effort may be seen to have different dimensions along which it can be analysed. Some of these I can think of off the top of my head as I write this article – (most, if not all of my articles are “off the top of my head”, actually when I think about it!) – are the: quantitative; qualitative; relative; intelligent; mental; and, moral.

Effort obviously has a quantitative dimension. We can have more or less, moderate, little, great, sustained, et cetera, as adjectives. So this quantitative dimension is one way to analyse effort. I guess that the quantity of your effort has to be in proportion to several things: the traditions in your gwoon concerning the quantity of training you ought to do; your innate overall talent; how hard/easy you find a particular aspect of the art; and, just how good you want to be.

Effort also has a qualitative dimension. This is the case with respect to counterbalancing the quantitative and qualitative in your art. You can do lots of a particular aspect (quantitative), or you can focus on less (but with higher attention to quality), or you can focus on both quality as well as quantity. In some cases, for example, as a sifu where I simply want a student to initially develop a rough idea of a technique or to relax into it, or to increase their strength or endurance, I might focus on quantity. At other times, for example, once a student has an approximate idea of a particular aspect of the art, I might focus on refining movement, increasing efficiency, increasing speed or some such attribute – then I may focus on the quality of what is being taught or trained. I obviously never let garbage go by but there are degrees of correction and expectations required of an instructor. If absolute perfection were required of everything most people’s progress would be glacial or slow to a complete halt as they became discouraged.

Effort, as well as being possibly “all or none”, can be relative. It can be relative to the time you have to train regularly; relative to your own previous efforts; relative to the efforts of your training partners; relative to your current condition (you may be sick, just returning after a break, over-heated etc); and, relative to your aims. I recall once talking to a sifu who was obviously struggling with just how good he had to be. In fact he seemed to express concern that he was unsure. He asked me in a sort of guarded way how good does one have to be? I simply retorted that he had to ensure he was better than those he was likely to ever have to fight. This is my basic take and I answered this guy without really thinking too hard. I think I jolted him a little, too. In fact I think my response might have been spontaneous. I could have also answered, in retrospect, that you have to be as good as you think you want to be or that you think you have to be; as good as you can be; or, you ought to aim to be the best. So, you see effort can vary, but will be relative to various yardsticks.

Effort also always needs to be intelligent effort in my view. What do we mean by this? Well, you need to assess how much or how little effort you put in given the situation and your aims. You also need to assess what sort of effort you need to put in. And, realistically, what amount of effort you can afford to put in. Is it “sufficient”? Is it “above the normal”? Is it “all out”? In fine Wing Chun style, I’d have to answer: “It depends!” It depends on circumstances and what your purpose is.

Thus, deciding what the circumstances entail and what sort of effort is required brings us to the intelligent dimension of effort. No-one moves around by running at top speed all the time. We stroll, we walk briskly, we may roll, we may jog, we may even run at top speed. But our choice is relative to our needs, our desires and the assessment we make of what we need to do to meet these needs. And to decide, to choose, we need to intelligently assess the type of effort required contingent on our needs as determiners.

The mental component of effort involves you needing to focus your concentration under effort. Effort without mindfulness is simply rehearsing fatigue!

Moral effort refers to the effort you ought to put forward. Consider that you have the opportunity to learn a great art. Many don’t and never will. You are in good enough health and have been selected to, or able to, join a gwoon. You have a settled lifestyle. Your sifu may not plan on teaching his art for a long time. My teaching life-span is logically more limited than it was as a young sifu – thirty or forty or even fifty years of age! You have all you need to support your training. So, to cruise or not put in your best effort is laziness and folly. The factors conducive to you being able to learn the great art of gung fu may not operate indefinitely. So take advantage of them by putting forth appropriate effort.

When I was young I lived with, and near, some truly great martial artists. I was able to spend shorter periods with some internationally famous legends of the martial arts. They were accessible. And they were willing to teach me. I was always keen to train – if it meant I had to work myself to exhaustion; miss sleep, meals, social life, career opportunities (I worked in underpaid employment much of my youth to allow me time to live and train not to simply live to go to work) to learn my art, then I trained anyway. I sacrificed a great deal – my social life, what many would think could have been a different and rewarding career, friends, family time, money, my sleep et cetera. Why? Because I felt I had to get what I could while I could. I knew that just because a door had opened to me does not mean it might not slam shut again. And, time and again it proved true that opportunities were often only windows in time opening and closing and remaining closed. I ran out of money, the sifu moved interstate, the sifu died, our relationship changed, the gwoon closed down, my job required I move to areas where I was the only martial artist, life demanded more of my time, I had to work two jobs and eighteen hour days to survive – all these things occurred intermittently. Yet perseverance and effort saw the process through.

So effort is simple – yet it isn’t. Right effort is also one of the steps of the Noble Eight Fold Path that I will comment on in our website’s Buddhist area. Without the right effort, you will never succeed!