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.
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.
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.
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?