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Mokuren interview: Wim Demeere

Photo courtesy of Wim Demeere
Today I am pleased to present the latest in our series of interviews with great martial artists – Wim Demeere. Per his website: Wim Demeere started his training in the martial arts at age 14 with judo and ju jitsu but soon switched to a traditional Chinese style called Hung Chia Pai. At age 18 he began competing in Chinese full-contact competitions called “sanda,” obtaining the Belgian national title four times and the bronze medal at the 1993 Wushu world championships. In 1997 he started his study of Practical Tai Chi Chuan. Throughout the years he has studied a broad range of other fighting styles, including Muay Thai, kali, pentjak silat and shoot fighting. Demeere started working as a personal trainer in 1994, helping his clients achieve their goals of martial skill, athletic performance and perfect health. Over the years he has published numerous books and video instructional tapes.
Patrick Parker: Thank you, Wim, for agreeing to talk with me today. Your bio mentions both sanda and taichi - these seem like they would be opposite extremes. Have you found that it was hard shifting gears from one to the other?
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Wim Demeere: This reminds me of an interview with a Chinese master who practiced many different styles. The question was how he managed to keep them all apart, how he didn’t get lost in his practice. He replied that the trick was not learning the same thing twice.
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I try to take that advice to heart and train accordingly. Sanda and tai chi have both commonalities and differences; in my view they aren’t mutually exclusive. The difficulty is usually not in seeing the common ground; both arts use striking, kicking and throwing. The real challenge is finding out how they go about it in a different way and distinguishing between these ways. That isn't always as black and white as you might think. As you progress through your training and get a deeper understanding, it becomes a little easier to distinguish what makes them both unique and different from each other. That said, it's always a work in progress, the learning never stops. But I have found you get better at it after a while.
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Patrick: Does your exposure to judo and jujitsu come into play much in the stuff you do now?
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Wim: I stopped training in judo and jujitsu over twenty years ago so I doubt these arts still play a big role in what I do now. Perhaps they do but I don't notice it.
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Patrick: Do you find that Personal Training and martial arts go hand-in-hand or is that kind of a small niche?
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Wim: It probably depends on your definition of Personal Training. For me, that means one-on-one instruction. I've been teaching like that for a long time and have found it to be an excellent way of training and teaching martial arts. This approach isn't new either: In Chinese arts, it used to be absolutely normal that you followed your teacher everywhere or lived in his house. That way, you had access to a lot of direct training from him instead of only his senior students. Now I don't expect students to follow me around, let alone live with me (my girlfriend would not approve...) but the ones who take private classes usually progress faster.
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Patrick: When doing private one-on-one instruction with a client, how do you get them a breadth of experience with other students and instructors besides yourself? (I try to get my one-on-one students to at least make the occasional group class.)
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Wim: It depends on the student. Some people start their training with me, they have zero experience. I try to teach them solid basics first and then gradually move on to simulate different types of opponents; faster, stronger, different strategies, etc. Obviously, it’s difficult for me to simulate a smaller or taller opponent so there are limits to what you can do in that regard. But I’ve found it helps students a lot if you explain clearly what the purpose is. For instance, certain take downs are not interesting for a tall guy to try on a smaller opponent. They just don’t work well. But vice versa, they’re golden. I try to teach in such a way that it’s clear to the student why he needs to do something, give him qualifiers and nuances to techniques instead of blanket statements like “Do this and you’ll always KO the guy.” I try to give him this information gradually, as his experience and skill increases with practice. It’s no use telling him something he can’t understand because he needs to experience other things first. That’s not me being arrogant or unwilling to give out information; it’s just the learning process. Some information you just don’t get until you’ve trained a certain amount of time or have certain experiences. As a teacher, you try to help your students to have both of those.
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When I look back, there were loads of instances in which I didn’t understand the full implications of what my teachers taught me. I thought I did but I was wrong. A couple years of training later and I get it now. Give me a few more years and I’ll realize I was wrong then too. It’s a never ending process.
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I do encourage private students to train elsewhere or work with others. But they aren’t always interested in that. Some people just prefer to avoid groups. Then it’s up to me to do “role playing” and simulate different types of attackers, like I mentioned above.
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Patrick: So, in your teaching do you tend to emphasize more of the physical development or technique or spiritual/psychological? I've found in my teaching that I used to be heavy on technical with perhaps a minor on physical development but lately I have been more of a technique/psychological teacher.
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Wim: I don’t see it as “either-or”. When teaching, I try to segment my approach and give the student what he is looking for in a teacher. If he wants to compete, he’ll have to spend a lot of time on conditioning and technique. The spiritual side will be less important than the psychological. But with a student who’s looking to develop some basic self defense skills, mind set is more important than technique. So it depends on the people I’m working with. That said, in my class, I have a certain set of guidelines as far as teaching goes. Certain things are important for everybody, like not doing drills that can cause permanent injuries or learning to control your techniques. Regardless of your training goals, you’ll need to focus on those two, along with a host of others.
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But in the past, I saw it differently: I used to teach the way I trained. It took a while to accept that not everybody is as committed to the training as I am. Nor should they be. We all have our personal goals and motivation when training; But more importantly, there’s a life outside of the arts. For many people, that comes first and rightfully so. It would be wrong to expect them to train like a professional competitor. Just because a student doesn’t want to train as much or as intensive as I do, doesn’t mean I can’t teach him. It only means he’s limiting the progress he’ll make. Some students realize that and either accept it or push themselves harder. Either way, it’s my job as a teacher to help them to the best of my abilities.
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Patrick: Other than just accumulating a lot of content-specific martial arts experience, how did you go about starting an international seminar circuit?
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Wim: Do you mean how I started teaching abroad?
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Patrick: Yeah, how did you start building a client base of folks and doing teaching gigs outside of your local area?
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Wim: This all came naturally. My first teacher asked me to cover for classes and that’s how I started teaching. A while later, he wanted me to take over all the classes and suddenly people started asking for private lessons. Word of mouth did the rest and I started teaching professionally.I'm very fortunate in that my hobby and passion became my job.
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The seminars abroad also came about in a natural way. I met some great people when I competed in their country and we struck up a friendship. Apparently I made a good impression and they asked me to come over and teach seminars. In other cases, I went to a gathering of martial artists and self-defense practitioners and taught a few classes there. One thing led to another and more seminars flowed out of that. The common factor is the people I met. They became friends and I always enjoy going to their schools to teach. The seminars are great but getting to see people I enjoy spending time with is even better.
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Patrick: To what degree do the traditional arts that you study play a role in your teaching of self-defense and to what degree is self-defense its own domain separate from the traditional martial arts?
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Wim: Traditional styles have gotten a bad reputation over the years. To a certain degree, I understand why but the reputation is still undeserved. Any decent traditional style has solid self defense techniques; notice I said "decent". Just to be clear, that qualifier points to the teachers and not the style itself. If the teacher doesn't know how to apply the techniques, that isn't the style's fault. It only means that particular person didn't learn things correctly or misunderstood his own teacher.
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It's the old cliché of which art is better. It used to be people asking if a boxer would beat a karateka. 50 years ago, it was judo that people wondered about. Nowadays, MMA is the big thing and every other style is compared to cage fighting. But that's comparing apples and oranges. Fighting arts are context specific. Take them out of the context, put them into another and their effectiveness changes. Some arts will do good in that new area, others not. Try muay Thai techniques standing on ice or wearing slippery shoes. Try Brazilian jujitsu arm bars against multiple opponents. Both arts are great in their own area but less so in others. That doesn't mean they are useless or that there isn't a cross-over of applicable techniques form one context to the other. But like the Chinese master said, you have to distinguish between the common ground and the differences. And as a really smart martial artist once said, the differences are just as important as the similarities.
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That's a bit of a rant but it answers your question in part. Personally, I use many so-called traditional techniques for self defense and teach them as such. But that isn't new either. At the risk of ranting some more, Reality Based Self Defense systems owe a debt of knowledge to Fairbairn and Sykes and their Defendu system. Many RBSD teachers will openly credit these two men as trailblazers for "real" self-defense. But where did they get their techniques from? A variety of fighting styles, actual experience and personal training, which included jujitsu and Chinese arts. So they took techniques form traditional arts and adapted them to their needs while working for the Shanghai police force. If you look at the Defendu curriculum, you'll see techniques found in most traditional systems. That's why I find that traditional styles and self defense aren't necessarily separate. If you find a good teacher, he'll make you just as effective a fighter as these pioneers of hand-to-hand.
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Patrick: Thank you again, Wim, for taking this time with us. I have gotten a lot of great material to think about from this interview - particularly the part about one-on-one teaching. I know my readers will love this material!
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2 comments:

  1. Hey Pat,

    Thanks again for asking me. It was a blast doing this with you!

    Wim

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow you cover it all that was a great post I will be back and definitely a digg for you!
    Thanks,
    Troy Macraft

    ReplyDelete

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