Thursday, 15 September 2011

Keep your eyes wide open…

A lot of martial artists, particularly instructors get very frustrated when they see a lot of crap being taught or talked about to students. They get frustrated when other instructors teach techniques that clearly don’t work or don’t push students hard enough to achieve a high standard because they are afraid the student’s will leave (taking their 
money with them).

In my view there are three types of bad instructors:
  1.    Instructors who lack knowledge and skill and therefore teach to a low standard
  2.   Instructors who are highly skilled but misinform you about what you are learning to do e.g. they tell you that you are learning self-defence but you are in fact learning sport.
  3.    Instructors who are too indifferent or lazy to correct student’s mistakes and then allow them to pass gradings at a low standard.

However, no art, no club and no instructor is perfect so if you want to become a good martial artist yourself then you:
  • have to train with your eyes wide open,
  • be objective in your assessment of the system you train in and 
  • don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Let me explain a little more about what I mean:

Train with your eyes wide open
Don’t take everything you are taught at face value. For example, if you are training in a traditional art such as karate and you are told that you will be learning self-defence then think about how much time you are spending doing application work. Karate is composed of kihon, kata and kumite. These are initially taught as separate elements but at some point they need to all come together and that is during the application of principles to self-defence. If your club only ever treats these three cornerstones of karate as separate elements and does no application work then you are not learning self-defence.

Remember that ‘good technique’ and ‘good techniques’ are not necessarily the same thing. You may develop the technically perfect spinning hook kick but is a spinning hook kick a good technique to have in your self-defence armoury? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t; the point is you may meet people who are technically perfect in the performance of all their techniques but the techniques themselves may be useless. 

At some point, as a student, you will have to make your own decisions about whether the things you are being taught are useful and effective. Some of what you will be taught will be excellent, some will be okay and some will be useless – take some responsibility for deciding yourself (this gets easier as you get more experienced) and  remember to train with your eyes wide open.

Be objective in your assessment of the system that you train in
No system is perfect or complete - whatever your instructor says.  A system in its infancy may have an incoherent structure and either a deficient or excessive number of techniques until it has evolved to a more coherent and optimal state. A mature system will have developed bias as its founders hone it to their own strengths and beliefs about what makes a good system. However, whatever evolutionary stage your system is in it should be dynamic, slowly changing, evolving and improving. 

If your instructor boasts how he is still teaching the system the same as it was 300 years ago in Okinawa or Japan you might want to be a bit worried if you are expecting to learn realistic street defence.  The world 300 years ago was very different to the world today, particularly in relation to the law. What was acceptable practice back then may leave you in prison today.  Though ancient fighting arts may have little contextual currency today they may still have cultural and historical value and so be worth practising in order to conserve them for future generations. If you’re interested in historical preservation then studying these arts may be for you.

Though a living martial art needs to avoid stagnation, you need to be sure that in a very new, contemporary system that the founder hasn’t completely thrown out the baby with the bath water and just made it all up. A good contemporary reality based system is generally still based on many traditional principles and its instructors generally have a lot of experience of traditional martial arts. Those that don’t often end up re-inventing the wheel but not managing to get it quite round.

So be objective in your assessment of the system that you train in. You have to get to know it and you have to give it a chance. No system will provide you with 100 percent of what you need or want, so try and assess its strengths and weaknesses. If it’s giving you 80 percent of what you need then it’s probably not doing badly.

There is no point in flitting around from one system to another either, trying to find perfection – you’ll never get anywhere. Find a system that gives you much of what you want and then look at how you will fill in the gaps. This brings me to my third point…

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
In my opinion cross-training between different arts is a good thing. Not everybody agrees with that. Some people think that cross-training confuses students because different arts often have a different way of moving and follow a different fighting strategy. This can be true but if you cross-train intelligently the two arts can work synergistically together.

So how do you cross-train intelligently? Well first decide which your main art is and stay true to the strategy of that art. Then choose a supplementary art that complements rather than contrasts with that main art. I do karate as a main art and kobudo as a supplementary art.  Some people would say that kobudo is a part of karate and in some systems it is. But then jujitsu could be considered a part of karate because the kata contain throwing techniques. All arts overlap to some extent and share some techniques or principles so you could argue that there is no such thing as cross training – you are just broadening you horizons.

To cross-train intelligently you also need to think what it is about the supplementary art that you want to learn – is it a more flowing way of movement, to learn some new techniques which can be integrated into your main art, or just gaining a new perspective about self-defence? Be clear on what you are trying to get out of cross-training and then it may work very well for you.

When you first start training in a martial art you will slavishly follow your instructors teachings, you have to and should do because you don’t know any better. However as you progress up into the dan grades you may start to (and should) become more objective in assessing and identifying your systems strengths and weaknesses and your instructors’ biases and beliefs. It is up to you as a student to decide whether this system is really working for you and whether you can plug the gaps with intelligent cross-training.

Learning a martial art is an active process not a passive one. It requires the student to think objectively about what they are learning, keeping their eyes wide open and working out for themselves how to overcome any deficiencies in their training.

So train intelligently with your eyes wide open – it’s your responsibility…

Sue is the Blog-Editor-In-Chief for Martial News. You can contact her at
Sue also writes a personal blog called My Journey to Black Belt