Are Traditional Martial Arts So Formal & Stylised So As To Become Obsolete?

One thing that traditional martial arts are often accused of, is being too stylised and formal to be effective in the chaos of a real street free-for-all.  Those precise movements, the deep stances, the big long steps, the pulling back of the reaction hand, the pre-arranged exercises; all we’re told won’t work in the melee of a messy fight where an uncooperative partner is trying to hurt us!  So many of these critics have got a “I know of a black belt who got beat up” story.  We are seen by many as being not effective and even obsolete!

Yet most of these traditional martial arts go back to times when they were a matter of life or death, not scoring a point.  So how come these arts that people once used to rely on to save their lives are now held by many in such low regard?

Dumbing Down Of Martial Arts

Well first of all, lets just imagine that you’ve been taught the most perfect self protection system in the world.  It’s been taught in small select groups and you were lucky to be selected to learn it.  Then you decide that you want to teach it to the world.  So off you go.

But after a few years, people who have only learnt part of your system move away and set up their own clubs, teaching an incomplete system.
Then some years later, your students want to test themselves, so they develop it into a sport.  Oh yes, they introduce a lot of safety rules.  Some become fantastic athletes, but they focus on winning points in competitions rather than on how to actually defend themselves on the street.

Kung Fu Posture
Traditional Kung Fu

Then some of your students who have trained in other styles which they also haven’t learned fully, then they decide to set up their own version of your martial art.

Then some people find that they can make a lot of money from it so they simplify it to teach to larger audiences.  They realise that the best market is teaching to kids, so even more safety methods (more dumbing down) have to be introduced as the children are not mature enough to learn the nastier applications that can actually maim or kill an opponent.

Before you know it, your art (and all the sub-versions of it) has spread all over the world with millions of practitioners.  Hundreds of thousands of them are apparently now black belts!  But most of them do not actually train that closely to how you originally taught!  Worse still, a number of these new black belts have actually lost fights to experienced street fighters, bringing your system into disrepute.

So what has this fantasy got to do with today’s martial arts you ask?

Well, that is exactly what did happen to our martial arts.

With the dumbing down of many arts, simplification to teach to large audiences and very young audiences, conversion to sport and sometimes just money-grabbing teachers; it’s little wonder that some black belts got beaten up.  Besides, statistically it’s bound to happen anyway.  With hundreds of thousands black belts about, some of them are bound to get into fights at some point.  And by the laws of averages, some are going to lose.

There are of course many many stories of martial artist, even low grades, successfully defending themselves; but of course those stories don’t get told by our critics.

Gichin Funakoshi’s 20 Precepts

Gichin Funakoshi performing karate kata
Gichin Funakoshi

I have written before how martial arts training, especially basics and kata/forms/patterns simultaneously train us on a number of different levels.  This includes body mechanics, self awareness and of course an actual fighting application.

Now is should be understood that most traditional martial arts start by focusing on learning the correct body mechanics and correct body structures to generate and transfer power into an opponent (the form of the technique).  These movements focus on a lot of detail and accuracy of movement so that we learn to connect everything internally and move our whole body as one complete unit.  Then we should learn how to apply these techniques in a sensible and free-style manner under pressure (the function of the technique).

I’d like to refer to 2 of Gichin Funakoshi’s 20 Precepts.

Beginners must master low stance and posture, natural body positions are for the advanced”.

Funakoshi expected us to start with the formal stance to learn the body mechanics (form), but he realised that we would not necessarily be able to defend ourselves in those low stances and postures under pressure and did not expect us to even try to; hence the natural body positions as we advance.

Practicing a kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another“.

Funakoshi is telling us that although we strive for perfection of movement and accuracy in our kata, in a real fight accuracy and perfection are just not going to happen.  As with the stances, we strive for perfection to learn the body mechanics, structures and internal connection when we practice our kata (form); but in a real fight, you either have those body mechanics, structure and internal connection or you don’t.  In a real fight, is not the time to worry about such things.  All you need to focus on defending yourself (function), not worrying about things such as is your back foot in the right position or not!

The Problem With Many Traditional Martial Arts Today!

Sadly, this last step of applying the technique in a realistic and free-flowing manner is often overlooked.  Too many traditional martial arts clubs and associations never move beyond that first stage of trying to perfect every movement in low postures and stances with all the fine detail and think that is how they are actually supposed to fight.

Man kicking bag
MMA Fighter

That’s why people in MMA and Reality Based Martial Arts often have a grim view on our arts.  The sad part is that a lot of the time, they are right as so many traditionalists focus on form rather than function and never move on to properly learn the function.

These people have serious limitations to their self defence capabilities.  Unfortunately, many of them do not even realise this limitation and don’t even know that applying the function can be very different to the formal practice of the technique.

Traditional Martial Arts Applied Correctly For Self Defence

Ironically, from an actual self protection perspective the technique itself is not really that important.  As well as a functional fighting application, techniques teach us principles of movement and combat.   It’s how we apply those principles of movement and combat that counts; not how we apply the technique itself.  When we understand that, and stop trying to defend ourselves with the same accuracy of technique that we perform our kata and basics with, then are training much more like the original masters intended.  Then we have a very functional self protection system.

I personally believe that long term, traditional martial arts are the most effective form of self protection, when trained this way.  You get the best of both, the dynamic body mechanics and internal connection, and the practical way of applying it.

It just takes a small change in thinking, but it can make a big difference in our effectiveness.

Self Defence & The Law

Something that is not always taken properly into consideration when we talk about self protection is where do we stand legally.  It’s all well and good if we successfully defend ourselves against an aggressor, but what does the law say if we end up seriously hurting or even killing that person?  Should our response always be proportionate to the attack?  How do we interpret minimum force and is it the same for everybody?  What if we make an honest mistake and end up injuring somebody?  Do we have to warn a would be attacker that we’re a martial artist?

As martial artists, we regularly train to hurt and damage other people, and to use a corny quote from Spiderman; with great power comes great responsibilities! Continue reading “Self Defence & The Law” »

Do Traditional Martial Arts Really Work Under Pressure?

This is an old chestnut that keeps going around every now and again; do traditional martial arts really work under pressure in the street?

Many people argue that they don’t, after all, we’ve all heard of a story where a black belt in whatever style ends up getting beaten up by a street fighter.  There are also lots of stories of martial artists, some even quite low grade, who have used their martial arts to successfully defend themselves.  Which story you quote depends on which side of the debate you’re on.

Now when you consider that there are literally millions of people around the world who practice martial arts, just by the law of averages there are bound to be some who are successful in defending themselves and some who are not.  So until somebody can come up with some studies and statistical data (I’m not aware of anybody doing so yet) I think we have to be careful how much we read too much into such stories. Continue reading “Do Traditional Martial Arts Really Work Under Pressure?” »

Target Hardening (Part 2) – Special Considerations For Women

This post follows on from the previous post on Target Hardening (Part 1) but covers issues that predominantly (though not exclusively) effect women.  It would probably be beneficial to read Part 1 first then return to this post, it’ll make more sense that way. Continue reading “Target Hardening (Part 2) – Special Considerations For Women” »

Target Hardening (Part 1) – How Predators Select Victims

First of all just to be clear, this post is talking about how predators select their victims and how to harden yourself as a target; with regard to asocial violence.  That is the type of violence where the perpetrator does not want an audience (witnesses), such as a mugger, rapist, serial killer.  This is as opposed to the bar room or class room bully who does want an audience to show of that they are the alpha male/female.  For the sake of this post, we’ll primarily focus on the mugger as that is the most common type of asocial violence.  For more information on the differences between social and asocial violence, please follow this link.

When the subject of street predators comes up in my classes I often ask, “how do lions hunt”? Continue reading “Target Hardening (Part 1) – How Predators Select Victims” »

What Is The Ultimate Aim Of Self Protection?

Self protection is a phrase that is often used, but what does it actually mean and what is it’s ultimate aim?  Well, self protection is a phrase that was initiated by Peter Consterdine, co-founder of the British Combat Association and it’s daughter organisation, the World Combat Association.  Loosely speaking, it combines “hard” physical skills of striking, kicking, grappling, etc; with the “soft” skills of de-escalation and dissuasion, using assertive behaviour.  The hard skills are usually referred to as self-defence and are the actual skills of violence; whereas the soft skills are non-violent and sometimes referred to as conflict management. Continue reading “What Is The Ultimate Aim Of Self Protection?” »

How To Line Up For Pre-Emptive Strike

When somebody is trying to bully you and it becomes apparent that they are likely to attack you, the tactics you use at that “pre-fight” stage can put you into a position of enormous advantage without the aggressor realising what you are doing. Continue reading “How To Line Up For Pre-Emptive Strike” »

Violence Never Solves Anything . . . . Really?

How many times have you heard well-meaning people say something like, “violence never solves anything”.

The idea that violence never solves anything has been has been around for a while in world of ever growing political correctness.  As a society, it’s a laudable goal to try and eradicate violence so that nobody has to be unnecessarily hurt and it is something that we should all work towards.  We’ll never achieve it of course as violence is part of the human condition and we are all capable of it given the right circumstances! Continue reading “Violence Never Solves Anything . . . . Really?” »

Positioning For Multiple Assailants

I came across the video below from the London Wing Chun Academy which I thought was worth sharing as goes beyond style boundaries and should be of interest to anybody who is into real world self protection.  It talks about being aware of your surroundings and how to positional yourself when facing multiple opponents. Continue reading “Positioning For Multiple Assailants” »

Best Street Fighting Style Vs Self Protection

How often do you see an advert or website claiming something like, “Best Street Fighting Style”, “Ultimate Street Fighting System”, “Scientific Street Fighting”, “The Art of Street Fighting”; or words to that effect.

Many martial arts, and I would say especially the more modern arts, like to emphasis how practical and effective they are and give themselves more kudos by emphasising “street fighting” over all other aspects of martial arts.  Some routinely position themselves as superior by deriding traditional martial arts; Continue reading “Best Street Fighting Style Vs Self Protection” »