A Question Of Reality Martial Arts

I have received an interesting question from a reader to the site. The name is I believe in Arabic, so my apologies, I am unable to read it. The gentleman concerned apparently lives in Algeria and as I’ve never had any correspondence from that part of the world before I am very delighted to hear from him.

I like it when I get interesting questions, as firstly it helps me to get good content on the site and secondly, it’s nice to know what people actually want me to write about rather than me just guessing (and just writing about what I want)! 🙂

Anyway, the question I received was:-

“A true system of reality based must also present realistic training that enables the student to deal a wide range of criminal situations. These fields also encompass the techniques and training methods employed by criminals since they are the very enemies that practitioners of reality based study and fight against. Without understanding the enemy, reality based would be nothing more than learning how to fight against other martial artists (as is the case with traditional martial arts)”.

Basically, many martial artists train how to fight other martial artists; NOT how to fight real criminals!

It is a good and valid point and one which many reality based martial arts teachers often raise. Criminals and thugs have no sense of fair play and will use any deception to gain an advantage. We might regard this as “cheating”, but as the old saying goes, “all is fair in love and war”. Especially war!

Most modern martial arts have a sporting side. The 2 opponents stand several meters apart, bow, take up the fighting stances, then move into range to start hitting each other or grab each other to grapple. In the more physical sports such as grappling, full contact Karate/Kickboxing or MMA; combatants are separated by gender and weight classes. All very fair and sporting! But how does this compare with somebody walking home, possibly after a few drinks with their mates, being set about by multiple opponents who are all bigger and stronger then he/she is, with the element of surprise, possibly an attack from behind and maybe they’ve got weapons.

There is nothing fair about that is there? So simply training for a fair fight and/or training to fight somebody of the same style is lacking when training for real world self protection. Martial arts today are in the main quite different to how they originally used to be and a lot have been dumbed down for many social and political reasons. One of the biggest influences being to make them into a sport. Hence training for a fair fight in an unfair world.

Also, a large emphasis in many cases of on self development. I’m not against self development, in fact I’m all for it. I just don’t see that real world martial capability has to be sacrificed for it, but it often is.

Another major factor is money! As many instructors make their living from teaching, hence class sizes become larger; so does the requirement for a simplified system to teach to the masses. This has lead to the rise of the McDojo’s. This is especially true when it was realised that most money was to be made teaching children.

Now that’s not to say that today’s martial arts training is useless. Somebody who trains for competition will still be fast, have good timing and in most cases still be a powerful exponent. But the techniques and strategies employed will be optimised for the ring, not the street.

A Historical Perspective

So lets take a historical perspective. Up until the American fleet forced it’s way into Tokyo in 1853 setting in motion a chain of events leading to the downfall of the last Shogun; Japan was literally feudal in every sense of the word. In terms of warfare, they were still fighting with swords, bows and arrows and spears. They may have refined their methods, but they were akin to Europe’s middle ages.

So to be clear, they would not have been fighting for competition points. They would not have been focusing on aesthetic beauty. They would not have been focusing on how much money they could make by filling classes with as many children as possible (knowing that most of them would give it up in under a year).

They would have been focusing on life and death. They would be considering all scenarios. If your clan lost, the women and children might well be butchered too so some of the woman would learn to fight as well. I doubt they would be facing a fully trained Samurai there to kill her kids and bowing 3 meters apart first. It was about survival on every level.

In Okinawa, much of Karate was developed by the bodyguards to the King of Okinawa. The Japanese overlords would not allow the Okinawans to carry weapons, not even the King’s bodyguards. So these bodyguards had to find strategies to defend their King from fully armed Samurai, or even armed angry crews from Western whaling boats who wanted to trade but were being turned away, again by Japanese command.

Do you think that their martial arts focused on perfection of character and pretty kata when they could be outnumber by men with weapons when they had none?

When the Shaolin monasteries were being raided by local warlords during more turbulent times, do you think that the monks focused on health and developing their “chi”?

These arts were developed to be brutal and effective. They were designed to incapacitate, injure, cripple and if necessary - kill! The watered down combat effectiveness in mainstream martial arts today is not how they were designed, it’s how they’ve been adapted to a peacetime society with laws, and for teaching to children that you don’t want using dangerous applications in the playground.

Putting The Reality Back Into Today’s Martial Arts

Now martial arts are different things to different people and that is how it should be. Some people want a sport. Some just want to keep fit. Some just enjoy the art and aesthetics of it. That’s great, nothing wrong with that - as long as they are aware and acknowledge that and don’t pretend that they are all about self protection when they are not. That leads to a false sense of security and a very dangerous situation when the practitioner is challenged.

If you are more interested in self-protection, then the way traditional martial arts should work is that you learn the body mechanics and correct structures first, then you learn how to apply them in a realistic manner. The problem is, in many martial arts today (and my primary style of Shotokan Karate is often an offender) is that they don’t properly get past the body mechanics and correct structures stage. Emphasis is put on good technique and good kata to the detriment of all else and practical application part is sometimes sacrificed. I have seen so many things taught as bunkai (applications) that simply would not work under pressure. This is why modern reality based styles like Krav Maga and MMA criticise (and sometimes rightly so) traditional arts as being ineffective.

I have written before a number of times on how many of todays traditional martial have become dumbed down, so I won’t cover it again in this post. Instead I’ll look more on how to put it right.

Firstly, you need to study how to actually apply your art correctly under pressure, not just under cooperative conditions. Many applications taught today in mainstream martial arts would not work in real life under pressure. I’ve seen kata movements described as blocking 2 attackers simultaneously from opposite sides. Sorry, but that’s impossible. First off, you can’t even see them both properly. Then you can’t guarantee that they’ll attack at exactly the same time, plus you don’t know how or where they are going to attack you. It would make much more sense to step sideways so that you are not in the middle and can see them both. Not wishing to offend anybody, but often the big single style organisations are the worst offenders, as they often don’t train outside their own association or invite others from outside to teach them. So things can become cast in stone with nobody wishing to rock the boat as it might appear rude and pretentious.

John Johnston, one of the best applied Karate teachers

However, there are many good teachers around who do teach practical workable applications that do work under pressure. If you look the Bunkai Category on this website you’ll find a number of videos giving various ideas on how to apply moves from both the basics and the kata (forms/patterns) in ways that would actually work under pressure.

Secondly, you really need to learn about the different types of violence, the different motivations for violence, which risk category your demographic fits into, the potential effects of adrenaline and the psychological changes that may occur to you under pressure. These subjects are often seen as add-ons and not really part of the actual martial art. I disagree. I think they are an integral part of the arts that was always there in the beginning, but got filtered out as emphasis changed to sport, self development and simplifying to teach large groups ($$$’s). Again, there is a lot of information on this website in the Self Protection/Reality Based Martial Arts Category.

You will also find various books and DVD’s on the Resources page that will help you to go deeper into the applied side of martial as well as the reality based side. This is not about radically changing our arts or adding something foreign to them. This is about taking them back to how they originally started!

2 Comments In This Topic

  1. The psychological side of a fight is much more important than the physical. How many times have we seen someone who can’t even throw a punch beat the crap out of someone highly trained because they have a killer mentality. I have been studying martial arts since I was 5. I had the fighter mentality then lost it. It was sometime before I regained the right attitude.

    1. I totally agree Ryan. Gichin Funakoshi said, “spirit first, technique second.”

      As I was progressing through the coloured belts, I was noted for being quite sharp and having good technique (for the grade). However, I did not do so well at sparring. That was because I lacked that fighter mentality. As a brown belt, I decided to deal with it. So in sparring I would root myself to the spot and not move off it no matter what came at me. Not the best sparring tactic I know; but it allowed to overcome my timidity. Once I was comfortable going toe to toe, I started moving around again. It worked for me! 🙂