Boards Don’t Hit Back

In the 1973 film Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee uttered some of his most profound and memorable quotes. Perhaps the most repeated of these quotes came during his interaction with Karate champion Bob Wall prior to a sparring match. As Lee and Wall bowed to each other before the fight, Wall held up a board in one hand and punched it with the other. The board can be heard hitting the ground off-screen in the distance, obviously broken into multiple pieces. In response to this, Bruce Lee stated his oft repeated and very true aphorism, “Boards…Don’t hit back!”

Very recently I was reminded of this quote when a middle-aged black belt (with over a decade of training in a Korean style…) visited my school to take a trial lesson. During the first lesson, I always stress to prospective trainees that effective punching requires doing so with proper targeting and at a proper distance. In my opinion, this is something that many arts and instructors fail to impart, yet they are absolutely crucial habits to develop from the very start. When one does not practice punching at a proper distance to their target, they will end up throwing thousands of punches which will always fall short of making contact. In the case of our black belt, they simply smiled and stated how many boards they could break, and assured me it would be a piece of cake.

But as they practiced with a live partner, it became increasingly clear that they were unable to make contact at a correct distance, even when they really tried. Instead each of their punches would stop at least 5 inches away from their intended target. Naturally, I explained that it wasn’t necessary to strike their classmate hard, but that being able to reach them and actually make physical contact between their fists and the partner’s body, was the goal. After a short period of time, the black belt then complained how awkward and uncomfortable the techniques felt and said it was unlike anything they were used to. By the end of the lesson, the black belt was still incapable of throwing slow, controlled punches and touching their target with a slight bend in the elbow, which would be necessary for proper follow-through in a real-world situation. They seemed quite discouraged and it didn’t surprise me when we didn’t hear back from this person following their trial lesson.

The problem experienced by this black belt could best be summed up as an inconsistent and unrealistic approach to training. This is because when they learned to break boards, they were instructed to punch “through” the target. Yet when paired with a real training partner, their previous martial art (or instructor) dictated they should do just the OPPOSITE and stop short of making contact with their partner each time.

This inconsistency in their training approach which says, “punch through boards, but if you punch a human, stop 5 inches away,” represents an unrealistic way to prepare for a real life situation. It’s exactly as Bruce Lee alluded to in his famous quote: boards don’t hit back, but people surely will, and they might even move around and try to avoid being hit in the first place.

There are many different styles of martial arts in existence, but the most effective are those which share a realistic approach to training the concepts which underlie the “techniques” and “movements,” namely distance, timing, and proper execution of force. Systems and styles may appear superficially different, but it is the concepts behind them, which make them fundamentally similar.

The Best is the Enemy of the “Good”

Voltaire, the famed French philosopher is generally credited with quoting an old Italian proverb which states, “The best is the enemy of the good.”

Regardless of your chosen field of study and your level of expertise in said field, no one is perfect. Speaking specifically of the martial arts, everyone who has achieved mastery in a system has studied for nearly 20+ years and they usually hold an instructor rank of 5th level/degree or higher. With a couple of decades of training and thousands of repetitions under their belts, they move with speed, power, fluidity, and adeptness. Undoubtedly, their students see them as flawless executors of each and every technique.

But as masters, we know this is not entirely true. Each of us having mastered the style/system/art is still not perfect. We are humans, not machines…and we make mistakes. The difference between us and the novice is that our mistakes are so slight, only we or another master perceive them. Though we may execute a move which is highly effective and looks flawless on the surface, we alone realize at that moment that perhaps we were slightly off balance, or we weren’t operating at 100%, or didn’t perform as “perfectly” as we should.

So whether we are beginners or advanced, novices or masters, there is always room for improvement. While one may be good at something, very few are the best at it. As Voltaire alluded to: being satisfied that you are “good” at a skill works against you ever wanting to become the “best.” Here we are not talking about best among everyone, rather the best that YOU are capable of achieving.

But where to begin? Well, self-improvement starts with the realization that we need to improve and then choosing to do something about it. Our next steps are:

  • Self-Assessment – consider the things you personally know need improvement. For example, if you’re skilled at applying techniques with your dominant side (left or right) and just so-so on your weak side, there is room for improvement. Put it on the list!
  • Consult an Expert – ask your teacher, master, Sifu or Sensei what they think you need to work on. As a teacher, I can tell you that we love having students take a sincere interest in working hard to improve their skills.
  • Make a List and a Plan – okay you’ve got some ideas of what you need to work on, now put together a training plan. Perhaps it is practicing only your weak side one day, or picking one technique per week to put in extra reps each day, or it may be gradually increasing how much time you devote to practice each week. Be sure to set some short-term and long-term goals. Goal-setting is crucial and you need to put them in writing.
  • Self-Discipline – this is the hard part. You know what you need to work on, you have a plan to do so, now execute. Start right away and stick to it. Experts say it takes 30 consecutive days to change any habit or behavior.

Satisfied with the good, or are you ready to be the best?


The Empty Cup is the title of a book I published last year which provides readers with the eight keys to developing a proper mindset for success in their martial arts training. Presented in the form of parables, these life lessons are analyzed and explained in a way that is easy to understand and apply.

But beyond it’s applicability to martial arts training, these principles can be applied to learning just about anything. As one of the reviewers of my book said, “The subtitle of this book is ‘Proper Mindset for Successful Martial Arts Training’ but really it is the proper mindset for learning really anything in life. Starting with approaching any subject with an open mind and be willing to learn from the newest person in the building or the oldest person in the room; each person can offer something new to help you on your journey either in Martial Arts, biking, programming, or writing a book – any subject where you are wanting to learn.

The book begins with and takes its title from the parable of the Empty Cup, a well-known concept in Chinese martial arts. Having an empty cup means entering a learning situation as an open vessel, fully prepared and anxious to absorb new knowledge. Only by having an open mind and a beginner’s curiosity to learn can we allow ourselves the opportunity to take in new information without prejudices or preconceived notions limiting us from giving fair consideration to the new material we are being taught.

So beginning with that, I encourage you to pick up a copy of The Empty Cup which is available in both paperback and Kindle format. This blog is meant to accompany the book, as well as my future book projects and it is my hope that readers will take something of value from The Empty Cup which they can apply to their everyday lives.

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