Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The craft of martial arts

It seems that today’s widely accepted term for many methods of fighting and combat, i.e. martial arts, is a frequent cause of the distorted understanding of the main purpose of the martial training, and therefore of the wrong approach to training methodology as well. Namely, the occurrence is widespread of practitioners commencing their “voyage” in a martial art from the end, hence skipping all those things that are actually supposed to shape and lead them to the desired goal. This is especially characteristic of the people who wish to achieve some mental or spiritual “enlightenment” or “advancement”, or in other words, to attain some proclaimed ideals in the context of martial arts.

In this view, some systems and styles of martial arts are actually arranged in such a way to offer exclusively this approach to the budding practitioner, hence hindering a normal development even for those who join the training for authentic intentions or maybe as a complete novice, without even knowing what to expect. In the majority of cases, it is the consequence of adhering to the ideals of the style founder in his final appearance, without the knowledge and understanding of the process that had lead to that appearance as such.
But, let us get back from the start. If we accept martial arts as one of many forms of art in general, then in might be useful to take a short look at the process of how an artist/performer is developed in some other arts. Regardless of whether at issue is painting, music, literature or dance, one can see a method of education that has been so much accepted as successful, that it has in effect become something of an axiom. However, as such it is often overseen, especially in the martial art training. The fact is that all other art forms commence their training as a craft. In practice, it means that the students first needs to get acquainted with the tools they will be using in their performance and potential creative efforts, followed by the technique of its utilization. However, this phase of utilization and application quickly becomes contextual, i.e. requires performance that clearly demonstrates what kind of art/craft is in question, and the level that the student/apprentice has attained can also be assessed from that performance.

In this parallel, we can already observe several deviations that emerge in the training of martial arts. First, in the phase of getting to know the tools, more time than necessary is spent. In case of empty-handed fighting methods it is not a rare sight of wasting too much time and energy on conditioning the striking surfaces (which sometimes turns into its own goal, often for the demonstration/circus type purposes). On the other side, in armed styles, there is a frequent occurrence of the practice weapon being sacralized, with some pseudo-spiritual notions being assigned to it, and where the practitioner is becomes a subject of the weapon, instead of its user.

In the next phase, we see an unacceptable number of examples where the training is approached so that the individual motor skills (techniques) are practiced primarily, or even exclusively, in solo form (in the air), i.e. completely isolated from the context in which they have emerged, thus without understanding their true aim. The schools and styles where this kind of work is prevailing usually try to justify it by “perfecting” the technique, but it only shows the fundamental lack of understanding for the methodology of a functional combative training. Namely, the human nervous system by its nature is not directed at adopting any motor habits as such, but rather at achieving particular results of the motor action. In other words, it is necessary from the very beginning to train the techniques in a manner that enables to understand the purpose of the movement as such, which means the targeted areas on the opponent and the effect sought. This omission is especially notable in so-called “striking systems”, and particularly so among the traditionally directed ones. For that reason, it is a common thing in karate, taekwondo or kung fu schools to see the practitioner standing in line, performing techniques in the air, often as the instructor counts. Can you imagine a painter drawing lines as his professor counts, and without canvas; or a pianist practicing an etude on count – without a piano!? After all, imagine this kind of training in judo, wrestling or BJJ gyms…

Of course, musicians do work on their scales and chords, dancers on the basic steps and figures, but always with awareness of their contextual use, and also usually as the preparation for the contextual application, most often at the same rehearsal/session. From that standpoint, the formal exercises in martial arts (kata, poomse, taolu, jurus, sayaw…) should be approached in a similar manner. Just like with scales, their individual notes/techniques, should be also used in new combinations, with varying rhythms and different partners. The scales cannot be the purpose in themselves, as they are but the raw material to make music, and so the forms should not be the final goal in practicing a martial art. Instead, on should be looking for the application of their technical contents in working with a partner.

After all that has been said so far, the image of a more functional (in the sense of training methodology) approach to studying and teaching martial arts should be emerging. It would be good to introduce the technical material in a systematic and chronologically coherent manner, so that the previously learnt skills would prepare the practitioner for the following ones. Besides that, very short time in training sessions (especially with beginners) should be spent in doing solo work on techniques, but instead it is very important to work with a partner. If for whatever reason the partner is not available, the time would be better spent in physical conditioning and fitness, as it will enable to spend more time (and repetitions) with your partner later, before the fatigue and degradation of technique set in.

Another thing is very important, yet often neglected in the martial training, frequently due to instructor’s to practice “bad marketing” on themselves. Namely, not everyone who first embarks on this path is able, or should, become great artists, those whose example will set the standard of great achievements. In other arts we also see many top-level performers, great masters of their craft, or artisans, but still they are not who we think of when those arts are mentioned. Great masters of the violin of piano still play the compositions of Paganini or Chopin; great dancers still perform the plays of great choreographers; excellent painters work on orders etc. 

In this regard, martial art practitioners have an advantage to the aforementioned ones, but they are often unaware and even ready to renounce it for the sake of some quasi-standards set be long gone persons from different times, cultures, environments and genetic heritage. What it means is, whenever training with a partner, every single repetition of the technique, scenario of situation at hand, is actually a unique event that cannot be recreated, with all those more or less pronounced variables that occur and are welcome in training, because only that way the essence of any technique is recognized, on the level of the nervous system, which makes it functional in all those circumstances where it is adequate.

Without the intention to be a wise-ass, since many others have already spoken about it – train to achieve the maximum of what YOU can be, and not to the closest possible copy of someone else!

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