The old master ran calloused fingers through his long, wispy white beard and tried to hide his frustration with the young man who was, sadly, his top student.
"Like this, master?" The boy, who had been sent to the monastery by his family more because he was a bit dim-witted than out of any real religious inclination, didn't try to hide the pride in his voice as he demonstrated the hand techniques he'd been taught.
The old master shook his head. The boy's movements were pitiful. "No, no, that's not it at all."
"Then how, master?" The boy's voice betrayed the emotional wound he was suffering.
The old master, who had once been the most feared fighter in the province, winced at the old pain that flared through his hip as he walked over to his student. For a mad moment he held up a fist as if to demonstrate the technique himself, but the toll taken on his body by dozens of injuries and one longstanding and regretful case of syphilis prevented him from doing more than pointing and talking.
"You must move faster, more... suddenly. Aah, if only we had a way to view moving pictures taken by people from far away and distributed over some worldwide information carrying system!"
"Master?" The boy, whose imagination was as limited as his intellect, did not understand.
"No, wait a minute. How about this... move like a snake. You've seen a rattlesnake strike at a rabbit, haven't you?"
The boy swallowed, remembering a time when he'd witnessed just such an event. He recalled the instant where the snake had exploded from perfect stillness to blinding speed.
"Strike... like the snake?"
"Yes!" The master almost shouted the answer, and had to stop while his fit of coughing subsided. "Strike like the snake. Now, do it again!"
All my personal martial arts experience has been in Japanese systems, so I always find it a little goofy to watch a movie or video where someone is training in an animal system (I'm not saying those arts aren't actually good or effective, just that they look odd). Why on earth would a human want to move like a praying mantis, or a jackrabbit, or whatever other kind of animal shaolin monks were supposedly imitating?
However (and there's usually a "however" in there when I get an idea) there is something to be said for using some kind of visual model of movement in your training.
Think back to the first time you observed anyone doing martial arts - this is assuming you didn't grow up around martial artists. Maybe it was a movie you watched, a street demonstration, something like that. If you were old enough to really think about it, what came into your mind? I remember what I thought - I was thinking "I had no idea people could move like that." The moves I saw (in kung fu movies, in my case) were outside what I had thought people could do. I had never even imagined that someone could throw a sidekick head high, or whip their legs around at those speeds, or have so much calm and command in a fight.
This had two distinct results. First, it inspired me to train (in my case to sign up for karate lessons at my school), which has led to a lifelong love affair with martial arts, one that I've discussed before. But there was a distinct and separate thing going on - when I trained, I had an idea of how I wanted to move that guided my training.
In this context it's easy to imagine martial artists being inspired or guided by animal models. When a snake bites someone the movement is so sudden and explosive. Now keep that image in your head and throw a punch (move away from your computer screen first). Work to get your hand to move the way that the snake head moves. It's easy, I think, to imagine someone actually studying animals and trying to replicate those movement qualities while training.
Now I grew up in Brooklyn, and I've seen a lot more movies than I have seen wild animals. If I want to visualize quality movement I'm not going to try to think of a snake or a bear, and the kind of martial arts you'd get from mimicking houseflies or cockroaches have never appealed to me. Instead, I try to visualize Bruce Lee throwing a kick, or Tony Jaa doing a flying knee, or BJ Penn sidestepping an attack (the lightweight BJ Penn, not the fat one), or GSP jabbing (I'm like the only guy who was thoroughly impressed by his fight against Koscheck).
You think your footwork is good? Watch Dominick Cruz in a fight. Think you hit hard? Catch a re-run of a Shane Carwin match. Think your kata are sharp? Watch Black Belt (Kura Obi - the movie) or a good kata competition (be careful with that!)
Then, when you train, keep that image in mind. Try to punch like Dan Henderson. Close and withdraw like Frankie Edgar. Pick whatever image/ model works for you. If you care about being effective in actual combat you're going to need to pick an image - an archetype - that fits your body. If you're 5'2" and 100 lbs. soaking wet and you want to fight like Andre the Giant you're not going to do well. If you're 6'2" and 280 lbs. and you want aerial skills like Tony Jaa start saving up for your knee replacements.
There is a two movement combination that appears in a number of kata in my system - turn 90 degree, do an inside middle block with the lead hand, then a reverse punch. I gave this movement almost no thought, and I thought I was doing it just fine. Then, a couple of months ago, I saw a particularly talented junior do a kata which contained that move, and his speed was astonishing.
Since then I've been working to do this combination more explosively, and while my performance still isn't great, it's much better than it was before. It's as if I was limited by my own imagination - I didn't even realize the move could be done better. Now that I know it can, I can work to improve and close the gap between my technique and really good stuff.
When you train, visualize how you want your feet to work, how you want your hands to work. Push your body until it comes closer to those models, whether they are human, animal, or CGI!