Monday, 23 May 2011

What kind of martial artist are you?

When you step into a dojo for the very first time you are often unaware that you have just opened the door to a very big world. You may not realise initially that ‘martial arts’ are a very broad ranging group of activities. The term ‘martial arts’ is often banded around to include activities that aren’t strictly ‘martial’ in origin e.g. karate (karate is civilian based not military based) or aren’t ‘art*’ because they are either ‘sport’ (e.g. MMA, boxing or wrestling) or they are pure ‘self-defence’ systems (e.g. reality based systems).

Some systems may be a composite of all three elements – art, sport and self defence with greater emphasis on one or other of those elements whereas others may concentrate either entirely on just one of those elements possibly paying ‘lip service’ to another.

Does it matter? Shouldn’t all martial arts be about self-defence? Well, it matters a lot if your aim is to be able to defend yourself in a violent encounter in the street and you must realise that not all martial arts will provide you with the skills you need to do this. If you want this you will need to choose a reality based self-defence (RBSD) system or a traditional art that is working very much at the ‘jutsu’ end of the scale.

However, effective self defence may not be your primary aim or motivation. You may prefer the world of sport and competition, a place where extreme physical fitness combined with martial skills is the order of the day. You can choose from traditional systems such as judo, sport karate or sport taekwondo which may encompass ‘art’ as well as sport or you can choose a more contemporary or purist martial sport such as MMA or boxing.

Maybe you’re not interested in the sports side of martial arts. Perhaps, like me, you are a little too old for competitive sport!  If you prefer to study the aesthetics, body mechanics, power generation, focus, self-awareness and various other esoteric qualities associated with martial artists then you may prefer a more traditional martial art such as karate-do, kung-fu or aikido. To what extent these more ‘artistic’ qualities of martial arts are combined with practical application will vary enormously from system to system and from club to club.

It is quite obvious that ‘martial artists’ come in as many guises as people do themselves. Is one type of martial artist better than another?

The RBSD martial artist will no doubt have the edge on understanding and dealing with the brutality of street violence but will win no competitions and have little empathy for body aesthetics or any of the esoteric qualities of traditional martial arts.

The sports martial artist may be at peak physical fitness, experienced the glory of winning and have a shelf full of trophies but he/she may or may not handle themselves well in a street fight or have any understanding of the true meaning of a kata they have just demonstrated so beautifully in competition.

The traditional martial artist may have mastered control of their mind and body, learned how to harness their own power, found greater success and fulfilment in their lives through the application of budo principles but own no trophies and have varying abilities to defend themselves in a real life confrontation.

So there we have it: you can train to be master of the ‘street’, master of the sports arena or master of yourself. None is better than the other they are just different, but they can all use the title ‘martial artist’.

How do you choose what kind of martial artist you want to be? Well you must first analyse your needs and your wants. Do you work in an area that regular deals with confrontation with members of the public or live in an area where street violence is a fact of life? Then you probably need a RBSD system to meet these needs. If you fantasise about being the next world champion in a martial based sport then a good judo, MMA, boxing or sports karate or taekwondo club may provide what you are looking for. But if your bag is more about a journey of self-discovery and self-perfection through the study of budo then a traditional martial art may be the best choice.

What is important is that you understand what it is that you want or need and what it is that a particular type of martial art is really offering. You need to match up your expectations with the objectives of the martial art chosen. Some clubs, particularly traditional MA clubs, may offer a combination of art, sport and self defence. This may have many advantages but remember you will learn to be a ‘Jack of all trades’ and ‘Master of none’ if you are not careful.

What you want from your martial art may vary as you go through your life so it is okay to change as you go along. For example, when you are young martial sport may be your main requirement. Once you are too old to be competitive you may decide to hone your self-defence skills more and opt to train in a reality based system. As you get even older you may get fed up with the focus on violence and the more brutal nature of training and wish to explore the more traditional arts that may lead to improvements in health and well being. The kind of martial artist you become may therefore change as you go through your life.

Once you have decided what kind of martial artist you want to be you need to find the right martial art, club and instructor. There is no such thing as a bad martial art only bad clubs, bad instructors and bad students! To find the right club you need to assess it against the right criteria. It is pointless judging a RBSD club through the lens of a traditionalist – it will be found wanting however good it is at providing self-defence training. Likewise, don’t judge a traditional martial art through the lens of a RBSD system, again it will be found wanting. If the club you are assessing is offering the kind of martial art that you need or want, you like the instructor, the environment seems appropriate for the art, other students seem to making good progress and it doesn’t seem like a financial rip off then it is probably a suitable club for what you want.

A final word of warning! Some martial arts instructors can be like ‘false prophets’ – they may offer things that they cannot deliver on. This may be unintentional because they believe in what they are saying (they've not looked outside their dojo door for a long time) or they may be true charlatans just after your money. Let the buyer beware – do your research!

So, have you worked out yet what kind of martial artist you are? Is it the type you expect or want to be?

* I have used the word 'art' throughout this article with a more Western interpretation as in art being about form and aesthetics. Strictly speaking the term 'art' in martial arts refers to 'craft' in eastern interpretations and is used to describe the 'jutsu' crafts rather than the martial ways. 

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Felicia said...

Great post, Sue, and I totally agree - except for one thing: I don't think there ever is a "too old to compete" - but that's just me :-)

Charles James said...

Sigh, refreshing; well done SueC!

[note: this sigh is one of satisfaction and contentment :-)]

Charles James said...

Master Po: "You have written well grasshopper!"

Caine: Bows respectively with appropriate reverence to Master Po.

hehehehehehehehe couldn't help meself hehehehehehe

John Coles said...

'Beware of false prophets' - the student and prospective student needs to adopt an attitude of 'professional sceptiscm' (see a previous post of mine).

I really like your distinction between 'art' and 'craft' in relation to Japanese jutsu.

John Vesia said...

I'm a hobbyist, but I'm a 'serious' hobbyist. Also, I agree with Felicia about never being too old to compete. Kumite maybe, but not kata. And nothing will sharpen your kata like prepping it for a tournament, not even grading.

Sue C said...

Felicia and John V, Okay, I admit it - I'm using age as an excuse, I'm just not that hot in competition!

Charles, why thank you Master Po (kowtow,kowtow).....

John C. I found your post very interesting and informative. Thanks.

Journeyman said...

You've pretty much said it all in your post. The key is to know what you want and to be able to tell if you're getting what you want. Too many people mistakenly think they are receiving something that they aren't.

I've always liked thinking of my art as majoring in combat effectiveness while minoring in self improvement and spiritual enlightenment. I also think of it as must haves versus wants. I must have a system that works. I want and strive towards the more esoteric aspects. If I get good enough at the first part, my focus will likely shift.

You mentioned how important it is to not only evaluate the teacher, but to observe the students. Each school has a vibe and the way the students interact with each other and new students is very telling of the overall atmosphere and quality of a martial arts school.

Great post.

Sue C said...

Journeyman, you have obviously identified exactly what you want from your martial art and it sounds like you've found a club that provides that - that is a very fortunate position to be in. I don't think that everyone can assess themselves and their art with such clarity so well done to you!

yakbi11 said...

you are never too old to compete in tournaments,my sensi is pritty old but fights like a devil!

Martial Art Training

Journeyman said...


I am fortunate. And I'm lucky to know exactly what I want and need. The process of discovery took quite a few years and quite a few bumps along the way. Thanks.

Sue C said...

Tal, I know one or two older karateka that would put up a good fight in a tournament too! Thanks for commenting.

Journeyman, I think I'm still discovering what it is I really want/need. Maybe I'll get there one day :-)

SenseiMattKlein said...

I would say the vast majority of people do that give that much thought to their goals when they select a school and begin the martial arts. They just join the closest and most convenient dojo and jump in.

Everyone thinking about starting a martial art would do well to read this post, and think carefully about what they want from it. As you point out so well, there are vast differences in the focus between every school. Very good post, Sue.

Sue C said...

Hi Matt, thank you! I have to admit that I was one of those people who just chose a convenient dojo and jumped in. Fortunately it has worked out well for me on the whole but I can still see the strengths and weaknesses of the system I train in and I'm working out how to plug some of those gaps. Nothing can be perfect!

Michele said...

Excellent post.

You offer great advice about selecting a school using the "right" criteria and doing a little research.

I handle many of the inquiries for our dojo. I can usually tell if our dojo matches the needs of the potential student based on the questions they ask. Many of the callers ask if we have a MMA cage.

If they are looking for something we do not offer, I refer them to a dojo/instructor that better matches their needs.

John W. Zimmer said...

Hi Sue,

You have put together a well thought out essay here! All of what you say is true... there is the art, self defense, and competition sides to most martial arts.

What I have found is it is not so much the martial art as the marital artist. Meaning that most martial arts have the framework for individuals to focus on their interests.

I cringed when you mentioned "reality" based martial arts as being "one" of the most practical for the street because the seasoned sport fighter (like I was) could easily use distance and initial movement to pick their shots and mount an effective defense.

But this too is in the eye of the beholder. Excellent article Sue!

Sue C said...

Michele, thank you. You sound like you provide a good service finding out exactly what prospective students want and pointing them in the right direction - I think many instructors would convince students that they can offer what is required and take the money! You clearly have a lot more integrity than many.

John, you clearly knew exactly what kind of martial artist you wanted to be before you even chose the martial art framework through which to pursue your goal. You are a good example of how when one knows what kind of martial artist they want to be and researches the right art and club, they will achieve success.

samuel.x.killer said...

I started martial arts from the art point of view. I approached the practice from the aspect of working on discipline that can translate to my writing while enjoying something which incorporates my spiritual association with taoism.

Sparring led me to see how much fun the sport could be. And I was happy as a practitioner who spent lots of times on forms and sparring. Self-defense seemed a rest at best, pointless at worst.

Until I was held up at gun point. At which point I understood that even if I do not look for the reality in the dojang, their is reality everywhere outside of it. While I know there was nothing I could have done other than what I did - give them my material posessions - it led to much soul-searching and a better understanding of both the art and sport through the prism of the real world combat tactics.

All this is to say - we should all try to be a three dimensional martial artist. Even if we are older, we can benefit from the practice of sparring training. Even an MMA fighter could learn something from the balance and breathing of forms. Even me could be held up on the street.

That is why I aspire to be a complete martial artist, forever knowing that I will always be incomplete. But that just means I can never quit!

Sue C said...

Samuel, thanks for such a great comment. Most of us don't face the adversity necessary to give us the kick up the backside that we need to make us reassess why we do things. Your comment has been very thought provoking.


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