Martial Arts: Fighting Spirit Vs Technique

Sometimes you see in martial arts forums and/or magazines, debates on what is most important in training; focusing on pure technique or developing a fierce fighting spirit?  Everybody seems to have an opinion and as the old saying goes . . . . opinions are like a**e holes, everybody has one.

So I though I’d add mine to the mix as well.  Opinion that is.  Obviously both are very important and nobody will get far without a certain amount of both.  However, as for which is most important . . . . . . I would say that depends on what stage of your training you’re at.

For beginners, I would say that more emphasis should be placed on technique.  Good technique is the foundation to traditional martial arts.  It is the basic building block on which all else is built.  People often argue that pure basics are unrealistic in a real fight.  I would agree.  However, when you build a house, the first thing you do is dig a great big hole and fill it in with cement.  This is your foundation.  When the house is built, you don’t actually see the foundation, but without it the house will fall down.

It’s the same with fighting skills.  When you fight or spar you take short cuts and you seldom see pure basics being used, but without good basics the techniques that you do fight or spar with will be limited.

I do think it is good to do some reality based scenario training (see the video’s in my post below) early as well, as that does teach the student tactics to deal with the raw aggression and pre-fight stage when somebody is trying to pick a fight with you.  This form of training can yield very quick results, particularly at overcoming any likelihood of “freezing” in a confrontation, so I don’t really feel that you need to do a lot of it.  Also, it should be separate from technique training, at least in the early days.

To learn good techniques takes time and is best learnt in a relaxed environment.  Learning under pressure tends to hard wire results into your brain very quickly, hence bad habits from early training can become hard wired and be difficult to remove later.

However, when the student becomes proficient at their techniques, then you can bit by bit build up the pressure and intensity.  But by this time, there should be a good foundation in place.  This can of course be done through several different methods:

  • Sparring is the most obvious as the student is on the receiving end of random attacks and has to react to them as they happen.
  • Even pre-arranged sparring can be intense.  When you are partnered with somebody who is fast, powerful, accurate and they come in at you with full intent (and you have to wait for them to initiate), it can requires full attention.
  • Kata/patterns/forms or even basics can be used too if you really visualise an opponent in front of you.  The body’s nervous system does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined (that’s why you heartbeat goes up and you jump at a scary movie, even when you brain knows that you’re safely snuggled up on your sofa).
  • More reality based (scenario) training, though now you can involve more technique.

This is particularly good at the approach to 1st Dan, when the balance can shift in favour of emphasising the spirit a bit more than technique.  Throughout the kyu/kup grades the techniques have been emphasised, but when the student goes for their Dan grade, they really need to show that they have the will to fight for it (mentally as well as literally).   It is often said that it is harder to live up to a black belt than it is to earn it, as a black belt is supposed to be courageous, confident and an example to others.   Somebody who folds under pressure (no matter how technically competent) cannot really be held up as an example.

Besides, martial arts are not only there to teach us to take the physical knocks of the Dojo (or even a street fight), they are also supposed to teach us to take the mental and emotional knocks of life itself.  That certainly requires great spirit.

However, as you continue to progress, (especially as you get older), you should learn to relax both physically and mentally under pressure.  This means switching back to focusing more on technique again.  I would say that by the time you’ve passed 2nd Dan or above, you should be accustomed to being place under pressure and rather than continuing to meet it with a “GRRRRRRR” mentality, you should be looking to casually evade, become deceptive, learn how to incapacitate using the least amount of your energy as you can.

Why?

Two reasons.

Firstly, martial arts are a lifetimes study and if you want to keep training as you get older, you need to consider the implications of age.  A lifetime of martial arts does not mean that you the same thing throughout your life.  A martial arts matures as the martial artist matures. Why would people in the 60’s or 70’s want to kick head height?  But without evolving into pure (and softer) technique as we move throughout our lives, then we bring forward our sell by date when we are forced to stop training.

Secondly, its a far more effective and efficient way of fighting, especially against multiple opponents.  A real fight can be exhausting, so using up all your energy fiercely and spiritedly defeating the first guy, just to find that his mates want to have a go too, is not wise.

What Are The Differences Between Kung Fu & Karate?

One of the most popular and most frequently visited postings that I’ve ever done on this website has been an unbiased look at the differences between Karate and Tae Kwon Do.  So I thought I’d do the same between Karate and Kung Fu.

As with Karate and Tae Kwon Do, I believe that there is often a lot of misunderstanding between Karate and Kung Fu practitioners as they don’t really understand what  the other one is doing or why!  That said, there are many people who cross train between the 2 styles, in particular Karateka who train in Kung Fu to better understand the roots of the their own system.

This post is not aimed at arguing that either martial art is better than the other, as I have always maintained, there is no “best style” only a “best style for a given individual”.

But to  tackle a question like this is a massive subject as there are hundreds of styles of Karate and thousands of styles of Kung Fu; so I am going to have to lay down some parameters before I start.

Firstly from the Karate perspective; most modern styles trace back to the two Okinawan styles of Naha Te and Shuri Te.  There is arguably also Tomari Te, but that is really a branch of Shuri Te.  To confuse the issue further, many modern styles are also a hybrid of the two (like Shitoryu).

Naha Te (which later became Goju Ryu) was almost completely based on White Crane and Praying Mantis Kung Fu, whilst Shuri Te was quite extensively modified by the Okinawans.  So for the purpose of this posting, I’ll be looking at the Karate styles from the Shuri Te/Shotokan lineage.  Ironically, much of this will apply to Tae Kwon Do as well, despite significant development by the Koreans.

Kung Fu is even more difficult due to it’s huge variety.  So for the purpose of this posting, I’ll be looking at the traditional Shaolin styles of Kung Fu (rather than modern Wu Shu, Wing Chun or the Daoist based internal arts).

Usually one of the first things that people say when comparing Karate and Kung Fu is that Karate is more linear and that Kung Fu is more circular.  But what does that actually mean in application?

If you look at a Karate reverse punch, the hips are rotated, yet the arm goes out straight; so there is a combination of circular and linear movements within the same technique.  Many (if not most) Karate techniques are powered by a hip rotation, so does that make them partly circular.  Furthermore, although Kung Fu tends to have more techniques where the arms attack in a circular fashion, they also have a lot of techniques that come out straight forward, so are they linear?

Basically, what defines a linear or circular technique is not just whether the body rotates or not, or even if the attacking hand/foot moves in a straight or circular motion.  It is how the technique is powered.  A linear technique is powered by the forward inertia and momentum of the body, whilst circular technique is powered by the centrifugal force created by a rapid rotation which does not necessarily move the body forward.

You can see this more clearly in the 2 videos below.  In the first one you see a Karate reverse punch.  The hips rotate from being pulled back approximately 45 degrees to being rotated square to the front.  But overall the body weight moves forward in the direction of the punch.

In this Kung Fu example, you’ll see that the hips are rotated much further, so much so that the stance is facing at 90 degree’s to the direction of the punch and opponent.  When he performs the second punch, his hips rotate almost 180 degrees around to face the other direction (compared with Karate’s 45 degree hip rotation).  This obviously creates more centrifugal force.  The technique will vary from style to style, but it does demonstrate the general principle.  However, it does not create any forward momentum towards the opponent.

Again, I do not suggest that either method is superior to the other, they are just 2 modified ways of achieving the same result, which is putting down some b*****d who seriously deserves it.  It should also be made clear that Karate and Kung Fu both contain linear techniques and they both contain circular techniques.  It is just that Karate puts more emphasis on linear whilst Kung Fu puts more emphasis on circular.

Some people say that Karate is more aggressive.  Shuri Te was developed by the bodyguards to the Okinawan king.  They were the masters who evolved linear technique.  When you examine their requirements and the challenges that they faced, they needed a system of taking the fight quickly and ruthlessly to their enemies.  To do this you need to be able to move forward (linear).

With a circular system, to a certain extent you are letting the other guy bring the fight to you.  That may not have been an option for the Shuri bodyguards, but for us today who should only be interested in self defence, it is fine.  You can still take the initiative and give a pre-emptive strike if somebody comes too close (which an aggressor will do) but you don’t need to take the fight to him.

Circular technique is better for grappling, spinning very fast when you have hold of somebody is a good way to of-balance or throw them.  It also helps to apply locks to any trapped limbs very quickly.

Linear technique is less versatile in application, but was designed for very much with multiple assailants in mind where running away was not an option (as in bodyguards).  For this they needed to take the fight to the opponent, put him down very quickly, then move onto the next.  I believe that this is where the Japanese maxim of Ikken Hissatsu (one strike, one kill)  comes from.  Grappling techniques are too slow when you’re outnumbered, so that versatility was not required.

Furious 5 from Kung Fu Panda

Many of the Shaolin styles are based on animal movements such as Tiger, Snake, Monkey, Praying Mantis, Crane and many others (even mythical creatures such as the Dragon).  Although these styles imitate animal movements, they are still very effective in application.  Drawing from the movements of mammals, birds, reptiles and even insects has led to a great deal of innovation and inspiration, not only in fighting techniques, but in the principles adopted (for example, power from the Tiger, but flexibility from the Snake).

Karate however has been more influenced by the Zen philosophy which is (or was) very popular in Japan.  Part of Zen is to minimize everything, which has also been applied to the movements in martial arts.  Only the movements strictly required for a technique are included, all else is striped out giving it a much plainer appearance in many ways.  This also fits in with the linear concept of less emphasis on grappling and versatility, but focusing more on multiple opponents instead.

Of course this is a very broad subject as already mentioned and there is a lot of overlap between Karate and Kung Fu, so this posting can only be a guide rather than a definitive in every case and every application.  As such there will be plenty of exceptions, so any writing on this subject (by me or anybody else) should only be regarded as a generalised guide.

If you have found this useful, or if you have anything to add to the subject, then please leave your comments below.