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.

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

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.

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.