Eighteen Chinese boys pick up heavy loads and begin running around the perimeter of the Greco-Roman wrestling hall. Each load is actually a classmate who's clinging to the carrier's back — or to his front. Or who's draped across his shoulders. Sometimes the cargo is right-side up, sometimes upside down, sometimes sideways. After carrying their classmates for 45 minutes, each pair switches roles and another 45-minute session begins.

by Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D.


In a neighboring room, 35 boys and 20 girls are doing similar drills designed to enhance their freestyle wrestling. In another training hall, girls and boys lift concrete blocks to build grip strength for shuai chiao. Across the way, the san da team kicks itself to exhaustion. In a nearby room, gi-clad bodies slap the mat during judo practice. In a different gym, boxers work the heavy bags. And not far away, karate and taekwondo teams train their hearts out, hoping to one day win gold for their country.

Such is life at Weifang Sports School in the People's Republic of China. Funny thing is, this very scene is repeated every day in sports schools across China.

In spring 2018, I accepted a job as director of a joint-venture American education company in the city of Weifang, Shandong province. I'd been on the fence about whether I could live comfortably in such a remote city, but then I learned that my wrestling teammate from Shanghai University of Sport, a guy named Zhengtong, was a Weifang native and would be there to help arrange my training and get me settled in. That would make things a lot easier, I figured.
Zhengtong had graduated from the sports university with a wrestling degree the previous year, which prompted me to ask what he'd been doing. “Nothing," he said.
And he meant it. He hadn't worked or trained since graduation. This seemed to be the unifying theme among the ex-fighters of Weifang. I went on to meet many former national or professional athletes, and most were unemployed and no longer training.
In a way, Weifang marked a crucial point in my China experience. Years earlier, I'd trained at Shaolin Temple, where I got to see how the young san da fighters and wushu practitioners are weeded out. Then I studied at the sports university, where only the best Chinese athletes are accepted. Given that there are more than 250,000 kids enrolled in sports schools, plus another 100,000 in kung fu schools, but only about 30,000 in sports universities, I'd always wondered what happened to the ones who didn't make it. Now I was discovering that their plight was not too different from that of the sports graduates: They were overweight and unemployed.

Many of China's top wrestlers and san da fighters come from Shandong province. They grow up in sports schools or wuxiao (kung fu schools). During their high-school years, if they win a national title, they may be invited to move to the sports university, as was the case with Zhengtong. At age 14, he was already living at Shanghai University of Sport, training with the pro team. Exceptional athletes who don't win a national title may be invited, on graduating from high school, to compete for a spot.
The universities in China are tiered, with Beijing, Shanghai and Xian being the best and the provincial universities and institutes being the lowest. To test for entrance into Shanghai University of Sport, wrestlers and fighters undergo two days of brutal drilling and contests that eliminate the majority of applicants. Since most of the teams tend to have about 30 members, this means that in any given year, the number of openings is in the single digits. And some of those spots will already be occupied by national title winners. In the end, there can be as many as 100 athletes from sports schools or wuxiao across China competing for five or six openings on a university team.
Most will collapse during the two days of drills, and that results in their elimination. For those who remain, the final weeding out comes at the end of day two when, if they're wrestlers or judoka, they have to execute 12 unique throws against a compliant opponent in 30 seconds. Final tests for hopefuls pursuing other arts are similarly demanding.

Those who make it onto the university teams are the best. Those who make it onto the top university teams — Beijing, Shanghai and Xian — are better still. Those who fail to do either know that their life in competitive athletics is finished. It also means that their education is basically over.
For those accepted into a university, graduation is not a given. Injuries and poor performance can mean being cut from the team, which for many results in a dismissal from the university. Others manage to remain on the team but fail to complete the academic requirements for graduation. They simply do their martial art for four years and then leave empty-handed.
Zhengtong was lucky in that not only was he accepted at Shanghai University of Sport, but he also managed to graduate. However, he did so without having learned much of anything. In his own words: “I know nothing. And I don't know how to make money."
At age 12, he stopped attending academic classes. “Once I started wrestling, I stopped studying," he said. “At the sports school, we were supposed to have a half day of training and a half day of studying. Instead, we trained three times a day and never studied. Now I don't know anything."
He was left with a bachelor's degree, which was worth little, and a lifetime of wrestling knowledge, which he saw no way to monetize.

Some of the sports-university graduates go on to find careers. The best ones compete for positions with the police — or the special police, which is the dream of most boys. One of my training mates at the university was Liuxin, a san da major and a gold medalist in both san da and karate. He said that when he tested for the special police, 200 candidates showed up to compete for 17 spots, 11 of which went to graduates of Shanghai University of Sport.
“People from other places were better than us at culture," Liuxin said, meaning students from other universities had a better education than the sports grads. “But they don't have our strength. We beat them in all the physical tests."
One wrestling graduate I know landed a job as a gym teacher in a government school, which is a coveted, although horribly paid, civil-service position. A few of the wushu grads opened their own academies and struggled financially. Some of the martial arts or bodybuilding grads got jobs as trainers in health clubs. For the most part, none of them seemed to be doing very well. And these were the lucky ones.
Now, along with Zhengtong, I was in Weifang, surrounded by the non-graduates, the ones who didn't even make it onto the university teams.

(To be continued.)

Antonio Graceffo's book
Warrior Odyssey is available at blackbeltmag.com/store.

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Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
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Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: StevensTKD@aol.com or go to www.StevensTaeKwonDo.com

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

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