I recently got a new tattoo. It’s based on a Zen riddle found in Ryoanji Temple (The Peaceful Dragon Temple) in Kyoto, Japan. The literal translation of the kanji is ‘I learn only contentment’ or ‘I learn only to be content’. This ties to old Zen principles of learning to live in the moment, detachment from materialism and learning to be content wherever you are.
To me, as someone who considers himself a lifetime student and academic, the translation can also be taken as ‘contentment comes from learning’.
These two principles – learning and detachment – are very powerful agents in the practicality and application of martial arts.
How many of us love the system that we train in? This is a rhetorical question. Most of us train because we love it. The problem that often arises, especially if we don’t cross-train, is that we become emotionally attached to the style and to specific techniques within the style.
We all have techniques that we love, and ones that we don’t love as much. And so we should – we are not all the same and therefore there are as many styles and approaches to martial arts as there are people practising them.
But why is it a problem to become emotionally attached to our style or to a technique?
1. Love is blind – when we become emotional attached to a style or technique, we often downplay or ignore the weaknesses of that style, while focusing on the strong points of that style. Next time you watch a UFC event in the pub, just listen to the comments of some of the spectators and you’ll be able to tell straight away who is a striker and who is a grappler by the tone of their comments about the result of a fight. The danger of this, especially if we only spend our time with others who train in the same style, is that after a while we stop seeing the weaknesses because we are rarely exposed to them in our training. But these weaknesses can come back to haunt us quickly and brutally if we encounter someone who doesn’t play by our rules - whether that's in the dojo, the ring or the street. Let’s look at an example; BJJ has an almost cult-like following among many, if not most, of its practitioners, and is often advertised as a form of self defence... despite all evidence to the fact that the realities of violence – which include, to name but a few, strikes, weapons, multiple attackers, no illegal targets, and hard, uncomfortable surfaces to roll or fall on, and most importantly someone with a deadly intent kill you quickly and efficiently - are not commonly practised. Does this mean that BJJ cannot be used in self-defence? Not necessarily. But in order to do that, one would have to start looking for solutions outside of the normal rules of the system, which many practitioners are not willing to do. I don’t know many practitioners who actively try and roll against two knife-wielding attackers. In other words, they are blinded by their love to the system. This is present in almost every system or style and this is just one example.
(Side note; I’m not trying to put down BJJ. I absolutely love it. However I do not think, personally and based on my experience, that it is an effective form of self-defence when trained on its own and with a competition mindset).
2. Technique is incidental – This is a great saying by self-defence guru Richard Dimitri. Situation dictates strategy, and strategy dictates tactics, and tactics dictate technique. Unfortunately, when we become emotionally attached to a technique or a style, we go about this the other way around; technique ends up dictating our tactics and strategy, which can be disastrous or even fatal. Let me give you an example. I love boxing. It is my favorite sport and martial art and I spend much of my time training in boxing. Due to the fact that I broke my right arm twice in 2016, I spent literally the entire year working on my left jab and shoulder-roll defence. That being the case, these are now my favorite techniques and ones that I find I have great success with in sparring. That being said, I consider myself first and foremost a self-defence practitioner. Does that mean that in a self-defence situation I would start snapping jabs out at my attacker as I circle around him and ‘feel him out’ to try and land a power shot, or use shoulder rolls to defend every strike? Highly unlikely, as it is not going to give me the best result, which would be to do enough damage to my opponent as quickly as possible so that I can get away safely. Better techniques might be a hard cross, kick to the groin, or an eye poke. The technique that I love the most is not the best one for what I want to achieve. Simply put, the best technique is not the one that you can perform the best or the one that you love the most, but the one that would produce the worst result for your opponent. How often do we find ourselves in training looking for a technique that’s just not there for us to perform, simply because we like it? How many times have you found yourself saying, in your head, ‘I want to do this throw’ or ‘now I will throw this combination’ and try and do it even though it's forcing the technique? I don’t know anyone who trains who has not experienced this, and if you say you never have then you are either lying or naïve. Being emotionally attached to techniques can result in us making poor tactical or strategic decisions.
3. Loyalty to the flag – often sticking to a style means also swearing allegiance to a particular association or affiliation. We become attached to the brand. The logo, the club colours, the famous fighters or practitioners under the brand, etc., are all sources of pride – and so they should be. Yet at the same time, they also become very limiting. As we become emotionally attached to a particular affiliation we start disregarding others, and choose our training partners based on their affiliation. If you are part of group A, you can’t train at academy B. If you train with instructor X, then instructor Y will kick you out of his school. I have had people who have come to training and speicifcally asked not to be on any pictures or social media so their instructor doesn'd find out. This is not uncommon. A few years ago I ran a seminar at a Krav Maga school that belongs to a particular affiliation, and they were interested in seeing how what I do compares with their curriculum. Everyone was very receptive and welcoming. At the end of the seminar, the head instructor said to me that what I had shared with them was excellent, but they can’t share it with their students or do it in their school. The reason was that their head office has a strict curriculum and they are not allowed to modify or change it in any way, under penalty of expulsion. This is not uncommon, especially with very traditional martial arts. While I understand and respect the need to preserve the lineage and authenticity of a system, this also needs to be tempered with practicality. If you are teaching a self-defence system, then whatever works should be incorporated, regardless of where it comes from. The emotional attachment to the affiliation, organisation or ‘our way is the only way’ can result in valid techniques, or even practitioners, being left out or deliberately omitted, which ultimately hurts the system and its practitioners.
As per usual, my rant ends with a similar concept; be open-minded and humble enough to know when to stand your ground about the benefits of your system and when to learn from others to further better your understanding of your art and achieve your training goals. It’s a hard line to toe and one which we all battle with, with varying success at varying times. The reminder, which is now a permanently tattooed on my arm, is to try and be content regardless of what lessons I need to learn about my own progress, or how much I like those lessons at the time.
Stay safe, stay tuned.