My practice this week, and for the past several weeks, has shown me many areas where I need improvement and has also made me somewhat disillusioned with the way some commercial martial arts schools are run: even the way I have taught in the past. I think it’s a shame that many students in some martial art schools spend years advancing through the ranks but never really know how to fight or defend themselves. It seems that the focus of many schools is not where it should be, and many advanced students lack the correct motivation and skill sets that should be present in a true martial artist. Too many martial artists are not focused on proper combat training.
This week, I was practicing standing to ground grappling with Master Beyersdoerfer (a master instructor in Cincinnati). As usual, Master Beyersdoerfer had a wealth of detailed insights into this area of martial arts practice. I came away from the practice more aware of things I need to improve. It also struck me how little I knew about practical grappling despite spending years working with joint locks and throws. The way I had been practicing the throws was all wrong and always put me off balance – something that would be fatal in a real life fight. I hadn’t focused properly on how to practically apply these techniques in combat.
This reminded me of times in the past where the practicality of my techniques fell short of where it should have been. I’m ashamed to say that while I was in college, I got in a couple of different fights. Thankfully, these weren’t real fights but rather encounters with hot-headed friends who were fooling around with flying fists (I hung out with a pretty high strung crowd back then). Even though these weren’t truly dangerous fights, I still walked away with a good set of bruises, and they were real wake up calls for me; despite the inexperience of my hot-headed friends, they were able to go toe to toe with me pretty well and finish in a draw both time.
At that time, I was a 2nd degree blackbelt, had been studying Taekwondo for seven years, and had been a serious student of it for two years (going to class everyday, teaching my own classes, practicing at home everyday). That is why I was appalled that my wild friends seemed to fight at the same skill level that I did. They had no formal training aside from a handful of drunken bar fights. It seemed to be the case that I had spent years learning how to fight just as well as an angsty punk but no better. I wondered what I had missed in my training or where my training was so lacking.
My experiences don’t seem to be unique either; I have heard many accounts of police officers who were blackbelts but got there rear ends kicked in the first bar fight they had to break up. For some reason, blackbelts coming out of some of our modern martial arts schools aren’t what they should be, and the focus of the school and the students is the problem.
Martial and Art
For those of you who have been reading my other post, I may be starting to sound like a broken record, but here is another case of the balance between the two sides of martial arts. Too often we as martial arts arts instructors focus on the techniques simply for the techniques themselves instead of what they were meant for: defending one’s self in a life or death combative situation.
When I first became an instructor, I trained my students in foundation techniques (kicks, strikes, blocks, stances), joint locks, throws, and forms, and at that time this seemed sufficient. I was good at getting the students to do these techniques “the right way,” and they all looked pretty good on rank promotion day. However, what would have happened if a violent aggressor had entered the school and wanted to fight? Had I successfully taught my students how to handle this sort of terrible situation? Some of my students were very talented, and probably would have been fine, but would I have let the others down by not properly preparing them?
Last night, I watched a Hapkido promotion test here at the Ahn Taekwondo Institute. Though I had never had a chance to watch the Hapkido class here, I could immediately see that the attitude of the students and instruction was spot on. Even rather beginner students had to demonstrate rather extensive interaction with a training partner in one steps and counter grappling. The defensive techniques used in the test were not flashy and would never appear in tournament sparring. They were, however, chosen for what would be effective in a real life combative encounter on the street or elsewhere. The students solemnly approached these techniques with a do or die attitude. There were over twenty students testing, and it probably helped that most of them were adults.
The challenge of youth martial arts education
Teaching martial arts to students between the ages of six and eleven is doubly difficult because most of these students are forced into martial arts by parents and so lack the proper drive to learn quickly. Because most of us have a desire to protect the innocence of children, there is an unconscious tendency to go easier on them in physical training (would one have a nine year old boy do the same pain tolerance training as a sixteen year old boy?). Therefore, these students tend to be less likely to push themselves, and we as instructors tend to be less likely to push them.
The real problem arises when one considers that in the modern martial arts school, most of the student body tends to be made up of this student demographic, and catering to them is profitable; it is profitable to make things easier on them. If one is not careful, the result of this could be a watered down martial arts education that is given to youth students because it’s interesting enough to keep them in the school but not so challenging them that it discourages them to leave (as many youth students do in more traditionally difficult training regimes). If one is really not careful, this watered down version of martial arts education that is fed to most of the student body (most of the student body being between the ages of six and eleven) becomes the school’s educational standard, and teachers focus on this smaller part of the total curriculum because it is easier and more profitable to do so. The result is students with a watered down knowledge of the art, and this leads to watered down blackbelts who aren’t truly capable.
The goal of martial arts education should not be to produce well behaved people who possess sound technical knowledge of fundamental movements and forms. The goal should be to produce individuals of high moral character who can successfully defend themselves and others in truly violent combative situations – forms and fundamental movements should be a means towards that goal and not part of the end desire.
Martial artists everywhere need to take a look at the bigger picture of what they are learning and what they are teaching. What’s being focused upon or emphasized? Will that make you a better performer or a better personal defender? When people speak of the martial arts tradition, or even the warrior tradition, a time is spoken of in which martial artists lived or died by their abilities to fight and succeed in combat whether they were soldier on a battlefield, bodyguards of merchants, or rabble defending their villages. The only way we can truly carry on a true martial arts tradition is to be just as combatively effective as the members of our traditions were. Go hit the training floor.
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Images were found in google image search from these sources respectively (in the same order as the images appear)