Does a Shaolin Monk Hold the Secret to Producing High Level Soccer Players?

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Recently I had the honor of meeting a 34th generation Shaolin Temple Warrior Monk, named Shi Yan Ming or Shifu (Chinese for Master).  Shi Yan Ming migrated from China to the United States in the early 1990’s where he opened the USA Shaolin Temple in NYC.  He has been featured in more than fifty television shows, documentaries and movies, not to mention over a hundred publications; Shi Yan Ming is considered one of the top martial artist in the entire world, his 1-inch punch was scientifically tested to be more powerful than the force of almost two car crashes.  You are probably thinking what would a soccer coach be doing interviewing a Shaolin Warrior?  The answer is pretty simple actually, I believe that high level experienced martial artists have rare and valuable knowledge when it comes to the development of high performance athletes.  However, Shifu is no ordinary martial artist, he is a real Shaolin Monk, with a life story that is nothing less than jaw dropping, if I had to compare him in soccer terms, he is the equivalent to a “Ballon D’or Winner” or “World Cup Champion”.  As a coach it is my job to be a constant learner, the reason I went to the temple to meet Shifu was so I could continue to learn.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the school was the warm inviting environment.  I walked-up a long flight of stairs and was immediately greeted by a student who was very pleasant, relaxed and respectful.  There were a few other students talking and relaxing, enjoying their time together, almost like a laid back study group.  They called Shifu and announced that I was there, he came right over and invited me to sit on the floor with him.  He sat down on the floor with the flexibility of young child, while I struggled to find a comfortable position, my body is a rigid nowadays from too much coaching and not enough stretching!  I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I was surprised at how soft spoken, gracious and humble Shifu immediately was, right from the start.  Before I arrived at the temple, something inside me thought that maybe Shifu would be this very serious and rigid guy, I was expecting him to be a little skeptical about why some soccer coach would even want to see him, but this was not the case at all.

Sitting down on the floor, ready to start the interview, I already had recognized that the temple had the ingredients to be a high performance environment.  Why? Because humility, caring, open mindedness, honesty and acceptance had been demonstrated and extended to me, even in the very short time I was there.  There was not a hint of arrogance to be found anywhere.  As I began the interview, I had forgotten to ask Shifu if he had a time limit for the interview, but for the next hour plus, Shifu Ming happily answered all my questions, giving his time freely to a soccer coach whom he didn’t even know, this was very gracious of him to say at the least.  As we talked, we touched on a large variety of topics, Shifu answered all my questions calmly, his sincerity and experience was transmitted through his eyes, not just his words.  At one point during the conversation he told me that he was an expert reader of the human face, and could tell many things about someone just by looking at their face, that didn’t make me uncomfortable but it was unique for sure.  I had prepared a list of around twenty questions, but many of the questions became irrelevant as we spoke.  It quickly became apparent that Shifu’s life’s philosophy and training methods were intertwined, all leading back to a distinct center or foundation at the core, it was from that core that everything is built; this is why a lot of my questions were covered with a few broad strokes or explanations.  Below is what I took away from my meeting with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, one of the world’s top martial artists and Shaolin Monk Warriors.

Question: What is required to reach a high level of performance in his art?

Answer Summary:  Be honest with yourself, have a clean heart, clean mind and clean body.  Shaolin Kung-Fu will not change you, it is up to you to change you.  You must learn to lose your ego and be honest with yourself.  Life is beautiful, life is a gift, be kind, be compassionate and a be a good citizen of the earth.

Question: Are there people that are born with Kung-Fu in the leg or in other words are there people who are just naturals? Can a person who is less talented become as proficient as a person who has natural talent?

Answer Summary: There are people who are born with natural ability but a person with less talent can become just as good with the proper training in Kung-Fu.

Question: How can a soccer player strengthen his body (especially the legs) to avoid injury?

Answer Summary: Proper nutrition, exercise (training) and stretching all combine to make the body stronger.  Poor nutrition will make the bones brittle and put the athlete at risk.

Question:  How long does it take a person to be able to fight, where the skills are just automatic and they don’t have to think, they just execute?

Answer Summary: Some people never achieve this level, while some do.  He did not give me a specific time frame for this question.  Shifu did say that once you reach a high level everything is the same, meaning it isn’t about accessing the perfect technique at that point, you have access to everything you need.  Shifu also pointed out there are many connections or similarities that high level people in music, art, sports and martial arts share.  All these high level people experience a flow when performing.

Question:  During times of pressure, like when a person is in a fight or martial arts match, what should the person’s emotions be like?

Answer Summary: Relaxed, always relaxed.  Emotions and being tense will drain the body of energy, slow you down and cloud your mind. Be present in the moment, clear your mind, be confident and your training will take over.  This where he mentioned again the importance of having a clear mind and heart, he even gave the example of why children have so much energy, because they possess pure minds and hearts, so nothing gets in their way.

What did I Take Away from Meeting Shifu in A Soccer Context?

  1. Lose your ego: How many coaches have ego’s that hinder them from improving their coaching ability? Can you even have an open-minded if a large ego is attached?  Can you honestly reflect on what you need to get better at when your ego is large?
  2. Pure Heart and Pure Mind: Does your team culture and program revolve around caring and respecting everyone equally? Do you teach your players that ultimately the game is about love and everyone is a part of it?
  3. Be Honest with Yourself & Only You Can Change You: Being honest with yourself involves reflection and often the letting go of your ego.  The only way to get better is to do this. In sports and in life the person that can push you the furthest is you, but only if you are honest with yourself.  As a coach we are in charge of guiding our players to become the best they can be, if we don’t try and push ourselves personally, then how can we push others?
  4. Life is Beautiful, Life is a Gift, Be Compassionate: As coaches we are role models.  I have been around long enough to see that most teams take on the personality of their coach.  I know sports can be passionate and intense, but your actions should demonstrate compassion, appreciation, sportsmanship, respect etc.  Being able to coach is a gift, don’t waste it and don’t miss the point.
  5. Relax & Lose the Emotion: Getting all psyched-up before a game may be fun, but it might also be counter-productive. Your mind needs to be clear to concentrate on the task at hand, tense muscles use more energy and move slower.  Your inner confidence will guide you, just relax and be in the moment.  Coaches who get up arguing about calls not only show a lack of emotional control, they take away their ability to focus on the game.  I remember an English Premier Team Coach saying, “new coaches come into the league calm and focused, but the league has so much pressure to win that within weeks they lose all their self-control and end up running up and down like lunatics, losing their ability to analyze the game and coach”.
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