Friday, April 27, 2012

Tradition vs. Reality?

The Strongest Karate (check out his blog here) left a comment on my last post that go me thinking.  The comment was in reference to my assertion that before you could discard a technique, you really need to learn it first.  It’s in the same vein as Bruce Lee’s ideas on ‘keep what is useful, discard what is not’, a central concept in his vision of Jeet Kun Do.

The Strongest Karate said the following:

"Very informative post. 

You make the distinction that one must understand a technique fully before they can decide whether it is useful or not. I agree with this, but it does present us with a problem: one may have to practice every technique 10's of thousands of times before they really understand it and, regrettably, our lifetimes just aren't long enough. 

This, I suppose, is why the arts are passed down the generations, but then I run the risk of throwing away a technique that wasn't useful to me (due to size/strength/injuries/other limitations) but would be perfectly suited for someone else. "       

I agree with him.  We can’t master every technique before deciding to keep it or throw it away.  My concern is that many martial artists are too quick to throw something away.  If it didn’t go right, or it was hard, or it felt awkward or they simply weren’t good at it the first couple times, they throw it away, citing the ‘keep what is useful, discard what is not’ mantra.  Doing this without at least exploring it to discover a deeper understanding is a mistake. 

I’ve had serious doubts about the usefulness of techniques that I initially learned.  At the time I was convinced they’d end up in the mental trash bin.  I continued to work on them when required by syllabus or by Sensei.  Over time, some of these have become some of my preferred techniques.  Had I discarded them at the outset, I would have denied myself several valuable tools.  It took exploring the mechanics, the application and the variations to give me enough insight to determine their value. 

This brings me to the next point touched on in the comment.

“This, I suppose, is why the arts are passed down the generations…”

Good point.  To a degree, we must have faith in our art and our teachers.  This is not to suggest we should blindly follow without thought or question, but if you’ve managed to find a good teacher of high skill and character, you must accept a degree of the teachings as being valuable, even if not immediately apparent.  

This leads me into one of the powerful arguments in favour of keeping the tradition in traditional martial arts (TMA).  With a move towards the next reality based system (RBS) and the increasing popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA), we run the risk of losing what it took hundreds of years to learn, a comprehensive and complete system of effective, battle tested techniques. 

I’m saying this over genuine concern that with each new generation, we are increasingly getting ‘watered-down’ versions of what were once truly combat arts, or martial systems.  I’m not slamming MMA or RBS; I’m actually a fan of both, for different reasons.  What I am saying is that when you strip away large portions of a TMA’s system in favour of a ‘quicker-fix’ or rules based system, valuable history can be lost.

Not everyone is pursuing TMA for the long haul, and this is fine.  RBS and MMA are viable and effective options, each with their own focus and value. 

A significant challenge for teachers is to maintain and teach techniques that they may not feel are overly effective, for them, at least.  A technique that doesn’t work particularly well for one, due to height, weight, gender, flexibility, health etc. may be perfect for someone else.  So must a teacher maintain a group of teachings and techniques that they wouldn’t necessarily use themselves.  

What I fear is that martial artists, who start in TMA, but too quickly discard ‘not yet fully understood’ techniques in favour of a less traditional method, end up being the next generation of instructors in the martial arts.  This if fine if their instruction is confined to RBS or MMA, but it is an insufficient knowledge base to teach anything else.  You either have TMA systems not being passed down with the historical knowledge and understanding, essentially fizzling out, or you get unqualified people teaching an incomplete system.  Both are equally troubling to me.

You can see this all over the place.  It’s one of the reasons finding a good qualified teacher can be so challenging.  Many people, who I consider to be masters, are giving up on teaching.  I suspect this is due, in no small part, to society’s ‘quick-fix’ mentality.  The ‘now generation’ want it fast, and want it easy.  While I agree a training environment needs to be comfortable and respectful, too many students want to be coddled in their pursuit of a shiny belt.  The faster the better, and don’t make it too hard… 

I’m not a fan of some of the ‘old school’ methods of training that resulted in unnecessary injuries, but by and large, many students have ‘gone soft’ and are loath to experience pain or discomfort at the hands of a serious teacher or in training.  Sadly, the schools that provide a ‘no touch’ position on training are attracting a large student base.  This is also problematic for new students who don’t know any better.  Again, for fitness, fun and camaraderie, this is all fine, but for those seeking skills to protect themselves and their loved ones from real violence, they come up short.

I’m all for kid’s martial arts programs.  They build confidence, discipline, self control, and the kids have fun and develop social skills while getting fit.  It’s tough to be critical of any of that.  What I do have an issue is when the only real difference you see between the ‘kiddie-class’ and the adult class is the age of the participants.  

Obviously, I have strong opinions on the topic.  This is because I believe that TMA are just that, traditional martial arts born on the battlefield.  Tried and true techniques tested in (often) life or death situations and real combat.

Perhaps ironically, the state of mainstream martial arts may be feeding the problem, or causing what I see as the decline of good TMA.  If students taking watered down martial arts are critical in their thinking, they may seek out a RBS to get real combat skills.  Or they may be attracted to MMA, which, for all its faults as a true combat art, does incorporate real and hard training against resisting opponents.  A hands-on sport based style can be better than a hands-off McDojo.

So, if students are creating a market for real combat skills development, they may naturally find themselves seeking out RBS.  And if qualified TMA teachers are frustrated with the business of martial arts or the desires of mainstream or ‘soft’ students, they may naturally find themselves instructing a RBS program. 

This can be good but also creates the very situation that I see as the problem.  When the TMS turned RBS teacher stops teaching, the next generation is only left with what was taught in the RBS.  Lost then, possibly forever, is the more comprehensive, and complete TMA system. 

So you either get TMA schools teaching watered down versions of a combat art and subsequent teachers who don’t have a complete understanding of the original art and its application or you get branched-off RBS systems which miss out on the larger body of work.

I’ve done a pretty good job identifying the problem.  The harder part is coming up with the solution.

If your goals of learning go beyond just the down and dirty of a RBS (which is valuable and more than sufficient for many), find a good TMA instructor and stick with him/her and the art.  Give the system and the techniques a chance before making any rash decisions about their worth.   Ultimately, I agree with the concept of discarding what is not useful.  Just make sure you’ve done enough of the work to make that assessment.  And, as always, keep an open mind.

Train safely.


  1. If we don't understand what we are doing, it makes it much more difficult to be successful.

    Take traditional weapons. Take one, the staff. You're not likely to go walking around with a 6' staff to defend yourself with are you? What good is learning it?

    Well for starters, learning a long weapon teaches you a lot about distance and how to manage it. You have to learn to be precise in your movements - if you're just off a little in your footwork or grip, the business end of your staff could be way off target.

    Have you ever tried to thrust at a small target like a hanging tennis ball? Working with a staff can teach you a lot about accuracy.

    Just as we're always striving to improve our physical performance, we have to strive to better understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

  2. Great post, Journeyman. You hit the nail on the head in regards to changing an art. I recently read an article by Ellis Amdur in Keiko Shokon about exactly this. It takes years to understand your chosen art, and it should be with a large degree of caution that you decide what to keep or modify or throw away or resurrect. It should also be with reluctance and yet joy that you are able to experiment and find the path you want. I think the purpose of a TMA is not solely to teach a person that curriculum, but to teach them the skills and abilities required to find their own path within the martial world. The best examples I can think of are Aikido and Judo - take your solid grounding, learn it well, then derive what you want and polish it. It makes me wonder what is in store for other arts like karate.

    One additional point - when people create something new, how can they know? When so much has changed and much of once was is lost, can there truly be anything new? The human body hasn't changed in 500 years, but we have lost untold numbers of arts and portions of curriculums in that span. Every discovery we make about our selves and our movements is one that has been done countless times before by others in our lineages, not to mention other separate arts.

    I couldn't agree more with you, Rick. How much can be learned through other mediums? It is said that the jo of aikido comes from spear techniques of another koryu. The art of the bayonet (jukendo) was derived from spear, bo, naginata and similar weapons arts and techniques. Without keeping the old and seeking what they strove to find, how can we be sure we aren't throwing out the baby with the bath water.

  3. A quote from a Xingyiquan teacher:

    "When you learn this stuff, you try to get the essence of the tradition first, but then later modify your practice so it works for you. You still pass down the tradition because it is a good way of training, but after a certain amount of time, your practice must become your own."

    1. This needs to be a banner inside of every martial arts school on the planet.

  4. Rick,

    You are right. We can pick up a number of skills from various segments of martial training. Weapons can often be seen as extensions of us, so in your example of the staff, small areas of weakness in technique are exaggerated by the staff. This can bring it to the forefront so we can work on it. On the flip side, you can end up improving other skills without really realizing it.

    As for your quote. I agree whole heartedly. The modification and making it your own is a key point and may be where many students struggle. This step of making it your own is the key to becoming an effective martial artist. Simply playing copycat does not lead to mastery, of the style, or the self. Thanks for including the quote.


    You said;

    "I think the purpose of a TMA is not solely to teach a person that curriculum, but to teach them the skills and abilities required to find their own path within the martial world"

    I could not agree with you more. There comes a point in your journey where you make your martial art your own. You may remain under the watchful eye of your Sensei, but in some ways it is a branching off and only you can take it to the next level. I am lucky in that my Sensei, and his Sensei before him, have never wanted their black belts to look like them. For a teacher to want to churn out carbon copies of themselves is either vanity or it shows a lack of enlightenment on their part.

    And you're right, who are we to toss away what may be the fruits of hundreds of years of experience? I also agree that there really is nothing new. The human body hasn't changed that much since feudal times. It is only in the application, focus and delivery that people can label something different. It's a shame that flashy names and new styles attract so much attention. Then again, business is business I guess. Most people ( I hope) who stick with it learn how to seek out quality instruction and can see through the hype.

    Thanks for the great comments gentlemen.

  5. I know I had very very little with this tremendously well thought post. All these notions and ideas were already inside your head - but I am glad I could provide even the smallest spark which allowed you to share all this. Great stuff!

  6. Thank you. Your post provided another dimension for my work. I agree wholeheartedly that many criticise, reject, and/or modify what they do not necessarily understand. Do you have to become proficient in the technique before you can comment? That is one way. That is what McGinnis would refer to as 'traditional teaching and coaching' methods. Another way is to understand the essence of the techniques before you've even seen them. The essence is what makes them work. The essence is the science behind them. That is what is common to techniques we are familiar with and those we are unfamiliar with. Understand the science, and you understand the essence of the technique. Problem is, the science behind martial arts techniques or those used in violence generally is not well understood, as various authors of biomechanical texts state.

  7. T.S.Karate,

    Thanks for the compliment, and for the inspiration to start to organize my thoughts on the matter.


    Your welcome.

    There are definitely different methods of learning. In the martial arts, it is very difficult to fully learn something from the 'essence' without having done some of the repetitive work first. Having said that, once enough time has been put into the basics with an understanding of the body's mechanics, you can pick up new skills by examining the essence. I've found dozens of techniques become simply a few once you understand, say, how a joint works. I just take what is available to me based on what is presented. I don't think I'd been able to do this without having first worked out each variation through repetitive practice. I hope that made sense. Thanks for the comment.

  8. Hi Journeyman, sorry to be a late entrant on this post, I thought it needed proper time and attention to read it properly and I've not had a lot of time recently!

    My two pence worth: I think that to preserve traditional arts the order of teaching is important. In my mind karate-do should be taught before karate-jutsu, particularly with children. Through the 'do', which includes hard repetitive practice of basics, the body, mind and spirit are developed to a point where it is possible to learn the 'jutsu' side of karate more effectively and (probably) more quickly. It is too easy to dismiss the necessity of some classical teaching techniques used in karate, such as sanbon kumite, air punching and kicking, obsessive correction of body movement/position because they have no obvious direct connection to self-defence but they are essential pre-cursors to effective karate-jutsu at a later stage of training.

    Interestingly, many reality based martial arts instructors have themselves trained fairly extensively in traditional martial arts and value this experience. However, they don't seem to feel that TMA training is necessary for their own students, preferring them to try and 'run before they can walk'. In my mind 'jutsu' before the 'do' is a mistake (in karate at least).

  9. Hi Sue,

    No problem at all. My life has been busier than it's ever been, so I totally understand. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I agree that there are certain skills, be it developing the mind or conditioning the body that are, at the very least, transferable skills sets. They are probably more. The path to/of Budo is multi-faceted. I wonder how important many of the examples are for the development of adults entering the arts later in their lives. I imagine it depends on their focus and what they hope to get out of things.

    Your next point is one that I've been pondering for a while. I don't think I've ever met a reputable reality based martial arts instructor who hasn't had significant experience in one form or another of traditional martial arts. Is it necessary to learn fully what you don't necessarily need first? Does it also come down to an issue of credibility? Who would go to a RBS instructor who didn't hold any belt rankings? I don't know. I've fallen prey to the same thing myself. A black belt in any style always sounds impressive, even though some do not deserve them... Running before you walk is generally a mistake, I agree. I'm not fully convinced everyone needs the 'do' in order to succeed in the 'jutsu', if the jutsu is the end goal. I'm somewhat conflicted on this. While I have been lucky to deliver some 'real' self defense programs with positive results, I doubt I would be so confident in my material if it weren't for my martial arts history and journey thus far. Great point to ponder. Thanks.

  10. You might find this post interesting:

  11. Sue,

    Thanks for the link. I read the article with great interest. The author had a lot of great points on the topic. I particularly liked the idea of having an end goal and not just stopping at the end of one technique. Allowing the student to make it their own is very important and the idea of teaching the end goal and then 'plugging' the techniques in is a different way of approaching the process. Traditional methods often have the students learning the techniques in isolation and then later 'putting it all together'. I found it interesting that the author felt you still needed a grounding and a solid foundation. I suspect a certain amount of repetitive training is needed. Once the student has exited this first foundation type training, you can shift to applying with an end goal, not necessarily an end technique which allows for the flexibility and adaptability that is so important.

  12. Yes, I found the article interesting too. I liked the idea of building the framework first i.e. the concepts, principles and strategy and then filling in the detail with the techniques. I sometimes get frustrated because I don't always know what it is I'm trying to achieve with a technique or how it fits into other things I'm learning so this approach to teaching would certainly help.

  13. Taijiquan master Yan Gao Fei's theoretical hierarchy:

    philosophy-> principles->applications-> form

    "Philosophy practiced is the goal of learning." - Thoreau