Martial arts have always carried a certain amount of mystique, which are often associated with ancient practices and traditions. As practitioners, we are asked to respect and follow these, often without question. But is it really something we should do?
Before I continue, let me make one thing clear. My purpose in writing this article is not to offend, but to encourage people to question and think critically. I will return to this concept later.
I want to discuss three fairytales that are common in the martial arts world:
1. The idea that any particular system ‘invented’ a style of fighting.
2. The belief that martial artists are experts on self defence and self protection, and ‘martial arts’ is an all-encompassing term for anything that relates to fighting or combat.
3. The idea that your instructor is always right, simply because he or she is your instructor
So where do I start?
Being a sceptic in nature, I have never bought the lines that many schools sell that say ‘they are the original MMA’ or ‘our system was the first system to use this technique’, etc. Despite what some claim, martial arts have been around since the first monkey climbed down from a tree and swung a fist at another monkey. It may have taken some time before language and communication allowed humans to systemise these into distinct fighting styles, but fighting is something instinctual that is part of our DNA. At the end of the day, there are only so many ways in which the human body can and cannot move, and those concepts are not decades, nor centuries old - they have been around since the dawn of humanity! While different systems have adopted certain aspects of fighting that suit their context and specialise in that area, the claim that they have invented it is usually false.
Let’s break this down further. The term ‘martial arts’ covers a huge number of systems and concepts, and is generally understood by most people to be an all-encompassing term for anything that is combat-related – verbal judo, firearms training, self-defence, competition, handcuffing, arresting, etc.
This is perhaps the most dangerous fairytale of all, as it can open the door to instructors claiming to teach skills which their system does not support, or that they have no experience in, none more dangerous in my eyes then claiming that your system can be used for self defence when it clearly cannot be. And here is another important point! Many systems claim their style is done in a particular way because it has been combat-tested, or passed on through generations, etc. But the fact that a system has traditions (and I would always like to see proof one way or another) does not mean that all the traditions are still relevant in a modern context, and while showing respect to the ‘old ways’ is an important part of training, it is also important to ask why it was done that way and not take it on blind faith.
Let’s look at some specific examples. Of these things. These are from my personal experience:
1. I had recently been invited to a verbal judo and de-escalation seminar. When I had asked the organisers about who the presenter is and what their experience in that specific area is (for example, law-enforcement, corrections or security), they had simply replied that ‘he is a high-raking martial artist’.
Now, is anyone at fault here? The organiser of the seminar had adopted the approach outlined above, which most people do – martial arts include all elements of self-protection. Based on that belief, they had selected someone to teach a seminar about talking based on his or her skills in fighting (and fighting in a particular way at that). And the flip side to that, which is even worse, is that the instructor may believe the same thing about him or herself, simply because that’s what he or she was taught even if they have no real-life experience in it.
2. There are plenty of traditional martial arts systems that practice techniques in certain ways in order to uphold tradition. But while these systems can be traced back to combative origins centuries ago, and while they do teach principles and techniques, claiming that they are effective self defence systems today may be misleading for the sole reason that the context in which they are practiced is totally outdated – i.e. moving as if you are wearing armour and swords, etc. I had recently asked an experienced martial artist who practices a very traditional style how he would deal with a common attack – big overhand right. His response was something that is considered a big no-no in most self-defence systems (there is a reason they call it a ‘suicide throw’…). His reasoning was that his master’s master’s master had used it effectively in combat and his teacher assured him that it is an effective response.
3. A particular stick fighting system I was told about advocates a particular stance and angles of attack. They had provided reasons for why they are teaching that way, which are the usual ones – the proponent of the system was the mightiest warrior of his tribe, he killed his enemies in combat, never lost a fight, etc. Turns out that the original proponent of the system had a limp and a busted shoulder, which forced him to fight in an awkward stance. But all of his students since have adopted the same approach, even though they did not have the same physical limitations, and had followed the system simply because they believed their master knew what he was talking about.
These are only a few of my favorites, but there are endless examples.
Please note that this is not a discussion about whether traditional martial arts are combative. Some are and some are not, and they do have some other benefits that are fantastic. And it’s also not a discussion about which system is best, because everyone claims that their system is.
And this is really the point of this very long discussion – Do not take things for granted. Have an inquisitive mind, ask why things are done in a certain way and do your own research. This does not mean be disrepectful! If your school really does have a solid understanding of, and believe in, what they teach, they will encourage you to do that.
The last situation you want to be in is one where you are fighting for your life, you try a technique and have to tell your attacker ‘bam! Now you need to drop to the ground. My sensei told me so!'
Stay tuned, stay safe.