My Wing Chun Story So Far, by Kieran Love SG12
Kieran recently completed the Student Grades of our Wing Chun syllabus so we asked him to write a few words about his journey to give other people an insight about what it’s like.
"The truth is I had always wanted to study a martial art, and never got around to it. As a child of seven I started learning Korean Karate with the World Association of Tang Soo Do. I didn’t particularly enjoy the art and both me and my sister stopped about five years later. That sounds like a long commitment but as a child growing up and attending school, it flew by – and the level of training although physically intense was on a different level to Wing Chun and was more about striking than anything else.
Karate did teach me how to kick and punch and it made me pretty flexible, but if you don’t use it you lose it and sadly that’s what happened not long after I stopped training. My Karate did not help me as much as it could have, looking back. I had numerous fights in secondary school between Year 8 and Year 10 and I only remember using Karate once. A friend and I were in the lunch hall for morning break, he used to get picked on a lot and as a result I used to get in a lot of fights sticking up for him. This particular morning, I surprised myself as my Karate suddenly emerged.
A boy was being unkind to my friend and I stepped in and words were exchanged and before I knew it out of the blue this boy aimed a low punch right for my groin. I didn’t even know we were fighting it was a complete ambush, I made a cross bridge with my right hand and intercepted the punch, immediately he throws a second off his left arm again I intercept a low cross bridge and as if my right hand was guided, I reacted with a right hook. The sound of my punch created silence in this buzzing break hall, the boy started crying, me and my friend legged it. Although this was a successful attempt at self-defence, and preservation of one’s groin, looking back there were some fundamental lessons I missed, but out of many, many fights this is the only time I used it.
Between the ages of twelve and sixteen I had no desire for martial arts until I met somebody who was practicing Aikido. I was shown videos of Master’s and Grandmaster’s defending against multiple attackers, multiple attackers with swords, one-on-one’s and it ignited something within me – a practical self defence system that wasn’t about striking and that had useful applications for the modern day. At the age of twenty-two I met somebody else who had practised Aikido and Wing Chun and I got to train one lesson with their class. I didn’t want to go back because it was a small class and it was the equivalent of putting a complete beginner with Student Grade 8 or 9 students and expecting them to learn at that level. In short, the structure and the dynamic of the classes was not the best. But it did gain my interest.
So now I was really keen to learn Wing Chun. I couldn’t find a class which was local enough to where I lived, and it wasn’t until I got my first job in Cambridge that I was able to entertain the idea of learning an art. I was now twenty-nine.
My first lesson was with Steve on Monday 2nd February 2015 at St Matthews Primary School. There was a lot of emails bounced between myself and Steve from the very beginning of January but eventually I came to a class and we were learning grip breaking principles. Other than the very welcoming attitude from Steve, I found that there were many aspects of the grip breaking principles and as a beginner sometimes the technique worked and sometimes it didn’t. Regardless, I felt that I had left that class with something I didn’t have before. So, I came back, again and again, with the aim of learning something new each class.
The first grade was a challenge, I didn’t feel as though I should take the grading, whether I’d be ready. Truth is it doesn’t matter. The worst-case scenario is I pick up from where I left off in the next grading. I passed the first grade with an insight into the grading structure and a thirst for grade two. Grade two went much more smoothly, I took private lessons with Steve and Sifu Ross over the summer of 2015. The self-defence rotation at this point was ambushes and during my lesson with Ross we were nearing the end of the hour and without warning about which exercise we were practicing next, Ross went straight into the ambush program and at that moment I realised that not only was I capable of self-defence at a time of need, but I was hard-wired to do so. In my private lesson with Steve he mentioned the level of my Grade 2 syllabus was akin to a Grade 4 student, consequently, Grade 2 was a much smoother grading.
Before I knew it, December was fast approaching as was Grade 4, having to perform Grades 1,2 and 3 at a higher standard and on both sides of the body meant a lot of hard work, training and resilience on the day itself. This was hard to do training one session a week, however I trained outside of classes with my peers and Grade 4 was on the cards by the time the year was out. The syllabus was fairly smooth going, Siu Num Tao itself took about an hour and a half to pass and the theory was much more challenging than I expected but eventually we got to the pressure test. Two whole minutes of relentless one-on-one self-defence. It was hard having to deal with attackers who were now punching, kicking and grabbing with a ferocity that I had not yet experienced. By the end of the two minutes I had passed my Grade 4, exhausted, exhilarated and feeling like I now knew what I was capable of in a self-defence situation.
Moving up into the Intermediate class felt like a huge leap. Immediately I was surrounded by a small number of familiar faces such as assistant instructors, my fellow Grade 4 students and of course the class instructors, but now immersed in material far more complicated than the Beginner Syllabus. I found the material overwhelming at first and doing it well enough was as much of a challenge. The gradings were not so smooth but I was passing through Grade 5, then Grade 6 – but it wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to scrape my gradings and feel under-skilled or inadequate to train up to the required standard. It became clear I needed to up my hours and train more.
It was after my Grade 6 that I changed my training to two classes per week and suddenly things started sticking in my brain and my Grade 7 was much smoother. Backtracking now, I started to be an assistant instructor the moment I passed Grade 4, I wanted to bolster the skills I had just learnt. This would in turn prepare me greatly for my Grade 8, but also allow me the opportunity to give something back to help other students. At a similar time, I took up an assistant instructor post with the Youth Program, teaching an hour on a Thursday evening. All combined this took my training from 1.5 hours to 7 hours a week! In the spring of 2017 I started my Grade 8. Several students and I made a start on what would be an epic journey into my Wing Chun Story. My Siu Num Tao and hand forms passed first time around I was extremely happy with this result given the time it took to pass SNT at my Grade 4. The rest of the syllabus took a lot longer as there were so many people going for Grade 8, over ten in fact. Subsequently none of us passed all of the material in this rotation, so we came back for another go in the summer just four months later. The Grade 8 grading was in sight with just the pressure test left – a four-minute onslaught where I must survive, keep cool, and not pass out from exhaustion.
This was by far the hardest thing I had had to do in my journey so far. I was tired after the first minute, exhausted after the second, close to passing out after the third and possibly quite lethargic by the end of the fourth minute. The bear hugs and the headlocks allowed me some time to try and catch a breath but only until they start squeezing harder then you have to react. My fitness was not the best at the time and I felt close to passing out, but I passed, as did my peers who have been training alongside me all this time. We made it.
Passing Grade 8 opened more opportunities. I was now teaching in the Beginners and the Intermediate classes for the youth program and occasionally leading classes, I was occasionally leading Beginners classes in the adult’s program, became a permanent assistant in the adult’s program and all the while working away in the background to learn the Advanced Syllabus. The jump between Intermediate and Senior felt more transitional, the material was harder and more complex, but we all had a deeper level of understanding and interpretation of the moves making them more of a challenge than seeming like a problem.
Grade 9 was a challenge for us, learning section one of the new form, Cham Kiu. This meant that the majority of the first grading week was spent on this form and making it better. In the second week we just had enough time to pass the remainder of the material including theory. Grade 10 was a stumbling block for me, for the first time ever I failed a grading, stuck on Cham Kiu sections 2, 3 and 4, and I was not even able to get on to the Chi Sau or Lat Sau which I knew was at a higher standard. It went back to basics really, always practice the form, practice it more than anything else – especially before a grading.
I was fortunate to be offered a position at the Wing Chun Summer camp of 2018, where you have an opportunity to grade. I booked off annual leave and snapped up the opportunity, this ignited a fire inside of me and I came back from the failed attempt and smashed the Grade 10, and then Grade 11. On the same day we passed the Grade 11 grade we started work on grade 12, the final student grade, kicking off with Siu Num Tao, we were now in the last week of August 2018. On the basis that Grade 8 took me six months, I thought that if I allowed myself twelve months to pass Grade 12 this would be enough. By the end of September 2018, I had managed to pass all the Beginner Syllabus at the Grade 12 standard, and one third of the Intermediate Lat Sau. By November 2018 into December we progressed through all the Intermediate Syllabus leaving only the Senior material. Unfortunately, I hit another stumbling block, my weapons self-defence.
Weapons was difficult for me for some reason, I understood the concepts and ideas, but they hadn’t stuck in my mind properly for some reason. Col very kindly offered me a space in the Escrima weapons class and very kindly his students fed me a variety of impulses that I was to be tested on later that evening. With Col’s persistence, my resilience and determination and hard work and practice I was able to overcome this major hurdle for me. Finally, the end of the end was now around the corner. With just theory and the gruelling six-minute pressure test to contend with and one final lesson of the year, everything rested on the last minute. There were three of us going for the Grade 12 pressure test; myself, John and Minh. We answered our theory as a group and this was in front of the Beginners, Intermediates, Seniors, Advanced students and all the instructors. We passed this element which meant we were ready for a good beating.
The interesting aspect of the Grade 12 pressure test is that you never know what to expect, only that it will last six minutes. Unlike the Grade 4 and 8 pressure tests, Grade 12 is always a different challenge. This gives you an opportunity to demonstrate what you know, adapt in the moment and cope with what is thrown at you – much like a real-life situation. The first minute comprised mainly of being hit very hard in the face and the body with the only aim being to move out of the way, covering the body when that is not an option. We had to demonstrate great control in this section as it was made clear the first minute’s exercise was to avoid and to only avoid. Minute two was strikes, the usual: elbows, punches, palm strikes and knees, but for a whole minute and at a good speed and intensity. Minute three was the same as minute one but we were now allowed to respond with appropriate controlled force. This was very challenging as my partner is a very experienced Grade 12 student and was making it very difficult which I entirely respect him for, since this was the biggest test to date. The last three minutes was a continuous flow of single assailants one-on-one, mixed with flurries of multiple assailants where the objective is to not get hit, line up your opponents rather than allowed to be encircled by them, then escape…
The end of the pressure test not only signified passing Grade 12, it signified everything that is ‘success achieved through hard work’. Attaining the Grade 12 in just four months was an incredible achievement personally, it took less time than my 8th grade but mostly because we are the master of our own destiny and I was 100% focused on making it happen. I would like to acknowledge the following people as not only integral to me achieving the Grade 12, but they are generally awesome.
Sifu Ross: has been at the forefront of most of my training, from Beginner through to Senior, and now Advanced. His level of skill combined with his passion and enthusiasm to aid others in learning has been such an inspiration. Other than teaching, Sifu has welcomed me into the Kung Fu family, I feel like a part of Cambridge Kung Fu in its classes, its teaching practises, and its general ethos.
Col: has been a major influence, especially in the Intermediate program and the Senior program. I have developed skills in areas such as weapons, controls, anti-grappling, ground work, and these have laid the cornerstone/foundations for a lot of the work between Grade 8 and 12. I’ve also been lucky enough to see Col in action teaching the youth classes and he has an excellent rapport with the younger community of Cambridge Kung Fu.
Steve: was mostly responsible for me taking up Kung Fu to begin with. It was his helpful approach and persistence that led to me taking my first class. More importantly I kept coming back because since my first class I came out of every class with something new, something I had learnt and something which I could take away with me. Steve has also been a massive help training in general with his positive attitude, welcoming approach and dedication to the art and to Cambridge Kung Fu itself.
Finally, there are many students who deserve to be mentioned in my journey from zero to twelve, but none more deserving than Minh. My Kung Fu brother, as affectionately named by Sifu Ross. Minh and I have been training partners since Grade 1, we have been together in every grade and I owe a lot to him, he has taught me much that I have forgotten, he has taught me much I did not know, and he has taught me that a regular training partner and friend is one of the most valuable assets you could hope for when you train a martial art. Minh and I have trained so much together over the last 46 months and without him this most certainly would not have been possible so soon, thank you.
If I could pass on any wisdom to our students about their journey it would be the following points. There are more things on heaven and earth than Siu Num Tao, but few are as important: practice the form, practice it more, practice it lots, be self-critical, ask lots of questions to the instructors about the form, this will serve your dividends at grading time. Never say no, if you are offered the opportunity to grade, take it, if you are offered the opportunity to assist or lead a class, take it. Be the one who grabs the opportunity and seizes the chance, if you believe you will or you believe you won’t, you’re probably right.
Lastly, use Kung Fu as a platform to build a better version of yourself in everything you do, not just martial arts. Integrate the philosophy and lessons into your everyday life, it will be good for you, trust me. I hope this detailed account not only helps manage expectations of the path ahead but also enlightens you as to what can be gained from it."