Why Traditional Martial Arts Are More Valuable Than You Think

Traditional martial arts have more value than you think.

Traditional martial arts have more value than you think.

For a long time traditional martial arts have had a bad name. People look at karate, especially, and equate it with greed and poor business practices piled on top of horribly ineffective fighting skills. Unfortunately in most cases (at least around where I live) they aren’t seeing some mirage, they are seeing it for what it is.

The past few decades have seen a rapid increase in the quantity of crap karate and McDojos. The jerks that run these schools have run the name of good martial arts through the wringer and given the rest of us a bad name.

Two major factors contribute the most to this problem.

Good Salesmen With Bad Products

The first factor is that so many of the schools out there these days are in it only for the money. I have read countless reviews and heard a good number of anecdotes from people who have been greatly disappointed by their experiences at local schools.

The instructors are kids, the prices are exorbitant, and the business practices are nearly extortion. But the worst part isn’t the business side of things; even well-founded schools need to adopt some modern business practices to survive. It’s the quality of the training itself.

The problem with karate these days is that poor technique is very easy to propagate. After all, having low standards (or none at all) means almost anyone can pass belt tests until they are black belts and then get pushed into service as teachers. The faster these schools can churn out black belts, the more students they can take on, and the more money they can make. But bad breeds bad, and poor inputs always result in poor outputs.

Sadly, students often find it appealing when they are quickly promoted. But the truth is good technique takes a long time to develop. Few students are willing to put in the years of serious training it takes to become proficient, meaning good instructors are even rarer.

You can really see the proof just by watching videos online. Even the untrained eye can (usually) determine who the good students and instructors are when they comparison shop. But the evidence suggests that not enough people do comparison shop, or care for that matter, because these horrible schools are all still in business stealing money and further diluting good martial arts.

Applications Are Key

The other factor that plays in here is the lack of real application being taught in schools. At the root of all traditional martial arts are applications designed to make the techniques useful in a real altercation. Over the years these applications have become ignored or misunderstood. Competitive fighters then look at the kata (forms) of these systems and scoff at these wasteful dances and discount the whole system as garbage.

By leaving out the “details” of how a technique can be practically applied, it becomes easier for students to transition to teaching. But poorly taught students become poor teachers, and the quality of instruction in a given school quickly deteriorates. Once an understanding of practical application is lost, it can be very difficult to reacquire this knowledge.

Even good teachers of good martial arts can tend to lose their connection with the real roots of their system. Systems streamline and polish in the name of looking good and attracting students, and as a result the real value in their systems is lost… or at least hidden.

The systems that don’t totally throw away applications often see them mutate into unrealistic ‘history’ based applications. Many of the modern(or common?) explanations of applications are outright wrong. Spend enough time in a poor school (or on the internet) and you’ll see bizarre explanations for the applications of techniques in kata. A jump with a technique at the end becomes an unbelievable defense against an incoming sword. In reality dramatic defenses against swordsmen weren’t the intent behind these techniques.

Ultimately we don’t need new or modern applications to these techniques, we just need to see the ones that have been staring us in the face all along.

Squeeze every last ounce of value from the traditional martial arts

Rather than discount the traditional martial arts, the key is to know how to maximize value from them.

  1. Find a good school

A good school makes all the difference. How do you find one? Ask friends who are in the know, and look at the quality of the students a school produces. If the teacher looks skillful but his students all suck, move on. Try a class or two and avoid long term contracts.

  1. Don’t discount kata and other ‘archaic’ training tools

Kata and other aspects of these systems that have less immediate connection to realistic fighting are often hugely valuable over time. Deep stances are usually intended for training purposes, and many of the abstract movements will help you develop coordination and help you learn more advanced fighting applications down the road.

Sometimes good instructors don’t point out the value of kata and the applications to their students – at least not right away. Sometimes asking is all you need to do in order to get justification of the value of one of these training tools.

  1. Supplement with training that helps you connect to the real world

Finally, if your instructor doesn’t directly teach it, find someone who can help you connect the dots to the real world applications. It can take time to see the connection between traditional kata and real street fights. Learning a little about the context of a real fight will allow you to draw from your training and apply it to the real world. A great first step here is Craig Douglas’ ECQC.

I’m a big fan of good quality traditional martial arts, and a definite hater of poor ones. But maybe I am biased after 20 years studying kyokushin What do you think of traditional martial arts?

What Would You Do With More Time To Train?

I’m not sure about you, but I find myself always wishing I had more time. All through college I thought I would finally find a little more of it when I got into the working world (I did a dual engineering major – perhaps I was a little sadistic). But now that I am there, I relish the memories of my college years when I had that occasional free moment.

Since I am always busy, my personal training is always a limited subset of what I would really like to do. I keep dreaming about what I would do if I got the chance, hoping that somewhere around the corner I’ll find a way to make it happen.

Grappling

One of the biggest weaknesses I know I have in my own skill set is grappling. I have some natural ability, but courses like ECQC tend to point out that I could use some real formal training in this area.

Adding some grappling – say some jujitsu or judo to my training schedule would be nice, but dedicating a minimum of 3-5 more hours a week to a regular commitment just isn’t in the cards with my current schedule.

Edged Weapons

Another area I have been interested in for years is edged weapons training. Knives are a common threat that can be very dangerous, but they are far easier than a gun to carry. I can’t remember the last time I went without a knife, but yesterday I couldn’t carry my gun. Being capable with a bladed weapon makes a lot of sense for this and many other reasons.

Finding formal knife training is a little more challenging than finding a good judo or jujitsu school. I haven’t had the time (noticing a theme?) to even look for knife fighting classes in the area, but I’m willing to bet I’d be spending some time driving to get to one.

More Shooting

If it hasn’t been obvious with the amount of content geared towards firearms training on this blog, I like to shoot. Right now, if I’m lucky, I might get two weekends in a row where I make it to the range. Other times I might get there (like last week) only to find no space on the range to shoot.

If I had a lot of free time, I would definitely invest some of it heading to the range. Pistol training on the range is best if I can make it at least once a week. I also would like to really start working carbine and general rifle skills more often.

Fitness

Right now I’m getting by fitness wise. Two to three days a week I do a short functional body weight strength training workout. I’m noticing small improvements, but spending less than an hour a week on fitness is pretty weak.

If I had more time, I would definitely spend some of it strength training. More time lifting, more body weight training, and some sandbag training to round myself out.

I would also love to spend some time on other areas of fitness like sprinting and some ruck sack marching/hiking. Both would do great things for my overall fitness and help round out some of my weaknesses.

Karate

I have been training in karate for a long time. It has been a passion of mine since childhood. For better or for worse, the past 8 years or so have been spent focused on teaching it. I love to teach, but of course when time is short something has to give, right? As a result my own training suffers.

Developing my own skills has dropped in priority compared to developing my students. I would definitely continue teaching regardless of my schedule, but being able to invest even a few more hours a week in my own training would be huge.

Odds are you are probably like me. You have some time to invest in training, but probably not enough. Day to day life takes a huge amount of our time. I’m always short on time, and I don’t even have kids yet: the ultimate time suck (or so I hear).

If you happen to have come into some free time to train, feel free to steal any or all of my ideas. Let me know what that elusive free time feels like. If not, then write a comment and tell me what you would do if you came into some more time to train. Maybe there is something else I need to add to my list.

Traditional Martial Arts: A Strong Foundation

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had a few opportunities to test some of my skills. First came a chance to practice the IDPA classifier with some of the IDPA guys at the range after a range cleanup day. While I’m certainly not a master class shooter quite yet, I did score pretty close to Expert. This was my first time attempting the classifier (or any IDPA stages for that matter) so I was pleased with myself. The following week during my own practice session I shot the fastest F.A.S.T. That I’ve shot yet: 6.5 seconds.

These aren’t huge accomplishments (at least in my eyes), and I have a long way to go to be where I really want to be with my skills. But looking at where I stand now with the amount of training I have, it brought me to realize something. I haven’t taken a full length pistol class yet. I’ve done modules at the first NEShooters Summit a few years ago, and I’ve done a decent amount of course work with instructors like Southnarc, but not a lot of work on the fundamentals or doing a fast draw, reload etc.

The reason I think this is significant is that I do have almost two decades of time spent training in a traditional martial art: Kyokushin Karate. While some may say my rapid improvement and performance is because I’m somehow a gifted athlete with great hand eye coordination, they would be wrong. Ask my wife how graceful I am, and she’ll be the first to tell you that I’m a complete klutz, at least when I’m not focused on a task.

Karate has taught me to be fast as well as able to refine and improve my body mechanics. Economy of movement has become second nature for me. Anyone who has many years of training will have noticed that picking up more advanced concepts and techniques tends to get easier. There is a reason that first degree blackbelt, Shodan, is considered the beginning. Until you have reached such a point in your training, you are just working on the basics to make further training possible.

This ability to pick up other body mechanics makes long time martial artists very quick studies when it comes to picking up another martial art-shooting included.

Anyone who would knock the traditional martial arts for self-defense is at a minimum neglecting to see the peripheral benefits of the training. A long investment in Karate or a similar system (being taught by a good instructor) is the formal education equivalent to getting your high school diploma. Without understanding the basics of arithmetic, writing, and science there is no way you can be reasonably successful in some college degree fields.

Instead of just looking at the face value of these martial arts for the defensive applications, consider them an investment in your martial education. There is more to self-defense than the latest and greatest technique or gadget.

Have you noticed the role traditional martial arts has played in your training?

Learn to Take a Hit

Image by KellBailey

In many martial arts, great time and effort is spent on body conditioning. Fighters in arts like Kyokushin condition their shins and sometimes forearms by rapping on them with bundles of chopsticks. They condition their legs by kicking each other, and learn to absorb body shots similarly by practicing taking punches and kicks.

These practitioners do not train to take hits instead of learning how to properly defend. It is usually better to avoid getting hit in the first place, but a wise student learns to accept that you will not always be fast enough to block something.

Fighters, especially full contact fighters (knockdown, MMA, etc) end up taking a lot of abuse during their fighting careers. A top level tournament fighter might have to fight 5 or more fights over a day or two in order to win his tournament. UFC fights are relatively long fights as well, with many long rounds. A great level of physical conditioning is required to be competitive.

What about those of us who don’t compete, but instead try to prepare for the fight that they hope never comes?

Should the student who prepares only for self-defense (and not competition) practice this way?

On the surface, no…

If you do not compete as a fighter, you aren’t likely to experience a long fight. Most self-defense encounters tend to be very violent, intense events but are also relatively short. I would not expect to be fighting for the 15 minutes or more that a professional MMA fight might take.

The average self-defense student is also unlikely to fight sequentially for days. He might fight multiple attackers, but not individually spread out over the course of a few hours.

Fighters also have other reasons to worry about conditioning. The purpose of most body conditioning is not necessarily to mitigate damage. Being hit can help build your body up and make it stronger against being hit in the future, but most conditioning helps serve to deaden nerves and make you impervious to the mental disruption that can come with being hit.

In any life or death encounter on the street, adrenaline will be a huge factor. You probably won’t feel most of the shots you take anyway. The first time I fought in a tournament in my youth I didn’t feel a single shot I took until about 30 minutes after the fight, at which point I couldn’t bend my leg and walking was… difficult. Conditioning has little effect on that first encounter.

The next time I fought, the first shot I took went right through me and I quickly realized something was different. Fighters condition because they won’t have the huge benefit of adrenaline at every fight. If you are jumped on the street, adrenaline is one advantage you can probably count on.

How to take a hit

If I’m too slow to get out of the way, I can position my body to mitigate the hit that I do take. Practicing getting hit means that when you are unable to block, you can at least take the hit on your terms. Generally this involves turning your body into the blow to brace yourself for the hit.

Face it, in a street fight you are going to get hit. If that is the case, shouldn’t we learn how to take the hit and not fold over like a cheap suit? Adrenaline can help you with pain and make you stronger, but it won’t keep the wind from getting knocked out of you. Learning how to properly exhale when being hit can.

While conditioning in itself might not make a huge difference, practicing how to get hit can. Your time is well spent learning how to properly take a punch or a kick. While conditioning can be useful as part of your routine, learning the best way to take a hit will give you much more bang for your buck.

Do you practice how to get hit?

Beginning Training Series: Hand to Hand and Traditional Martial Arts

Today I will be discussing fighting skills, specifically unarmed combat and traditional martial arts as part of my series on beginning training.

Fighting skills should be a major component of any self-defense training regimen. In order to truly be prepared for a violent confrontation, you need to be able to handle yourself with and without a weapon. We will discuss in the next post about how weapons fit into the picture, but today we are going to cover hand to hand fighting skills.

Striking or Grappling

When you break down all major martial arts systems that are intended for hand to hand combat, you essentially get two categories: striking and grappling. Some systems cross over that line more than others, but these are really the only two methods of empty-handed fighting.

Striking arts like Boxing, Karate, Taekwondo, and Muay Thai for example focus on using punches, kicks, and other strikes in order inflict damage to one’s opponent. The advantage to learning a striking art is being able to fight without becoming entangled with your opponent. On the street becoming entangled, especially on the ground, should be avoided whenever possible. Having one or both hands free improves your chances when fighting multiple adversaries. Unfortunately many real fights have a tendency to go to the ground.

Grappling arts like Jujitsu, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, and Wrestling focus on fighting an opponent primarily without the use of strikes. There is an advantage to learning how to grapple. If you end up in a fight, you are likely to find yourself in a scenario where grappling may be needed. Many street fights go to the ground, a bad place to be if your opponent has friends. Knowing how to grapple is your best bet to get out of these scenarios.

Think of it this way: if your only experience is with striking, you won’t know how to handle yourself if you get stuck in a grappling situation. On the other hand, if your only experience is with grappling, you are more likely to end up grappling (the very situation you should be trying to avoid).

Which should you learn? I recommend trying to practice both. If time only allows you to practice one, find a way to spend some time cross training the other. Every little bit helps in your efforts to be prepared to defend yourself.

Traditional Martial Arts

As time goes on, the “McDojo” fad has been driving people away from studying traditional martial arts. These dojos tend to overcharge and under-train, and they give many of the martial systems a bad name. Despite this, I would still consider traditional martial arts a valuable thing to study, and something you should seriously consider learning – if a decent instructor is available to you. If you find yourself looking for a school, check out my post about finding a good dojo.

When choosing a system, note that traditional martial arts have value that you tend to miss out on when studying the non-traditional systems. Many of the traditional systems put emphasis on training the basics and practicing kata (also known as forms). My experience is that this emphasis creates a well-rounded student. I have found that my time training in Kyokushin has made much of my non-traditional learning, and even my firearms training much simpler. In these traditional systems, you learn more than just how to punch and kick, but how to use the whole body in order to get the best economy of motion.

Finding a good martial arts school should be high on your priority list if you wish to improve your capacity for self-defense. Almost any system will do as long as the instructor is good. Having some formal martial education will significantly improve your skills and pave the way for learning new ones.

Have questions or advice about hand to hand martial arts? Post them in the comments!

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