The Different Levels Of Traditional Martial Arts Training

Training in traditional martial arts simultaneously trains you on several different levels. Not properly understanding this can lead to confusion and trying to apply a given technique in an inappropriate manner. So first of all, lets look at the different levels at which any technique actually trains you:

Self Defence Application:
Obviously each and every technique was at some point created for a some form of strike, block, deflection, throw/take-down, release, restraint; or (quite commonly) it can used for several purposes.

Learning Body Structures & Body Mechanics:
When we practice basic movements or kata/patterns/forms, we learning to move our bodies in an ideal manner, so as to learn body structures and mechanics; thereby squeezing out the maximum amount of speed, power and efficiency possible (in an ideal situation).

Self Awareness:
Often mentioned, seldom explained. When you teach a beginner a new technique, they often don’t do it especially well. Lets say their hand is in the right position but their feet aren’t. You point this out to them and they try again. This time they get the feet right but as they were concentrating on this they get the hands wrong! This is common in learning.

But why should we care about the position of the feet if we’re punching somebody for real, surely it doesn’t matter that much?

Well firstly there’s the body mechanics as mentioned above and yes the foot position does affect the power that the hand can punch/strike with as the wrong foot position can restrict the hip movement. Secondly its also about being self aware of where different parts of your body are without having to look down and check. For example, lets say you do a reverse punch; without looking down do you know if your reaction hand is in the correct position on the hip, is your back straight, is your rear foot pointing nearly forward, etc! Are you “aware” these different body parts without having to look?

There’s a very old saying in martial arts, before you can control somebody else in combat, you must be able to control yourself!

Some years ago, (ok - decades), my brother taught me to ski. He had taught several people before, but I learnt faster then anybody else he’d taught and he was quite impressed with the speed I picked it up. This was for 2 reasons:

  • I didn’t have any fear of falling as I knew I could fall without hurting myself. This allowed me to push the envelope more than most people.
  • I had body awareness, so when he told to put any part of body in a given position, I could!

No matter how good your technique is, you won’t get far without the correct mindset. You need “controlled aggression”. If we’re talking about self defence we’re talking about most likely hurting/damaging another human being. A very high level master or somebody very experienced may be able to do this without any adrenaline stress responses, but most of us will be adrenalised and feeling it! We have to train for that and there are some very good reality based martial arts exercises for getting you adrenalised (scenario training).

On top of these type of exercises, when training our basics and kata/forms/patterns we should be training with emotional intensity/controlled aggression!

Gichin Funakoshi said:

“You must be deadly serious in training. When I say that, I do not mean that you should be reasonably diligent or moderately in earnest. I mean that your opponent must always be present in your mind, whether you sit or stand or walk or raise your arms”.


Whenever you have to actually defend yourself, don’t worry about the technique being a textbook classic style. As discussed in the previous post, techniques are a kind of shorthand to teach us principles of movement, structure and power generation etc; so we don’t have to worry about performing a classical textbook technique, we just have to apply the principles that practising those techniques teach us.

On top of that, the technique teaches us application(s), self awareness and mindset. If we’re attacked, we don’t need to worry about learning body structures/mechanics, self awareness or mindset. By that point, we either have it or we don’t; we’re not going to learn them in a real life self protection scenario. In a real situation, there is only one thing that we need to worry about at that moment and that is the self defence application. The rest should take care of themselves if you’ve trained properly.

So the actual technique that comes out under pressure may not look too much like the one you’ve practice during training, but that same training will have taught you about structure, self awareness and mindset and these things should now take care of themselves naturally. So don’t ever worry about the technique being “correct” under pressure, just focus on the job in hand and let the rest take care of itself!

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