If there’s one thing I’m confident in claiming I know about martial arts, it’s how it feels to be stuck.
As a Beta learner, I often go through long plateaus or regressions in training before (if?) I improve my skills. These periods are challenging from the perspective of motivation: when you’re not seeing concrete signs that the sweat, blood, and tears are achieving anything, the negative voices in your mind start to question why the hell you’re doing this at all.
As one of my BJJ instructors said, this is where you need discipline to replace motivation. Motivation ebbs and flows, but discipline keeps you on the path even when the desire to continue is waning.
However, if you’re feeling like you’re in a prolonged rut, there are other hacks you can try to break the cycle of spinning your wheels.
“Change what?” you might be asking. Something. Anything.
Work with a partner you haven’t trained with before. Experiment with strategies or techniques you don’t usually use. Try a new colour of Gi. Get a new haircut. Do anything you can think of to freshen the experience.
An unpopular suggestion would be to try out a class at a different school. Yes, your current instructor will probably not like that concept, but when something is not working, you can’t simply continue doing the same thing and expecting different results.
Citing loyalty, a lot of school owners would encourage the opposite—just stay the course, show up to class, renew your membership—but they have an ulterior financial motive. You have to question whether these platitudes are in the best interest of the instructor or the student.
I’m not saying to jump ship every time you hit a rough spell; plateaus and regressions are natural, and you need to work through them. However, every outstanding martial artist I know has gained experience from multiple styles and instructors. When your improvement has flatlined, it makes sense to do the same thing that your instructors did, doesn’t it?
Cross-training—whether between different martial arts, different styles of the same martial art, or different instructors within the same style—is quite illuminating. Sometimes having the same technique or concept explained in a different way helps the lightbulb go on.
Exposure to a new martial arts experience can broaden your skillset and approach, as well as reveal any training scars you might be developing, but it can also remind you what it is that you value about your usual training regimen. Sometimes window shopping only serves to reinforce that you were in the right store in the first place.
Judging your own level of skill and ability is nearly impossible to do objectively. Some perpetually overestimate themselves (as social media proves routinely), and some perpetually sell themselves short.
Remember to take the long view of your martial arts career. A few weeks of stagnation is a blip, not a long-term trend. If you examine your ability over the long run, it is likely that the overall market trend is moving upwards. If that is not the case, then you need to re-examine your training habits and that annoying discipline factor I mentioned earlier.
It can be good to talk with your instructors as well about how you’re progressing. You may feel as though you’re struggling to get better, but your teacher might be able to illustrate exactly where the silver lining is.
Martial arts are more fun when you’re performing well. Getting knocked around in sparring or tapped out ten times consecutively are inherently not enjoyable experiences, although you need those growing pains and reality checks in order to ultimately improve. Every martial artist must be able to grit their teeth and endure failure until they can figure out how to succeed.
Personally, laughter is extremely important in my training experience. Every martial arts school I’ve stayed at, the students and instructors have a sense of humour. We take the training seriously, but not ourselves. Getting tapped out ten times in a round is not so bad if everyone is smiling and joking while it’s happening—assuming they are laughing with you, not at you.
As Motobu Choki said: “The art (i.e. karate) of someone who is too serious has no flavour.”[i] If you keep what you love about martial arts in focus, the periods of stagnation and struggle will pass.
You’re supposed to face adversity as part of the journey; it is a necessary step towards the goal of becoming your best martial self. However, just because adversity is part of the process doesn’t mean you should take it lying down.
When you’re in a rut, analyze where you are in the process, and what, if anything, can be done about it. You can’t completely avoid the bumps in the road, but you can exercise some control over how long they last and how much damage they cause.
Ultimately, all of us enjoy training when we’re succeeding more than the opposite. If the failures are not leading us to greener pastures, than what’s the point of enduring them at all?
[i] Mizuhiko, Nakata. “Collection of Sayings by Motobu Choki.” Karate: My Art. International Ryukyu Karate Research Group, 2002. Pg. 31.
I first heard “training scars” a few years ago from my one of my coaches, who threw it out there casually as if it were a commonplace martial arts term. However, after a quarter century of Karate training, I had never heard it before then.
For those like myself who might not be familiar with the phrase, it simply means habits that emerge from training which do not translate well to “real life”—whichever outside context you apply your skills in, such as self-defence or competition. The reality is that we have different priorities and outcomes in day-to-day training than we do for either of those contexts, and so it makes sense that we develop habits which are conducive to success in our most common environment, but not necessarily when other variables change.
Here are some common examples of training scars that might develop as a result of your average class.
When I was growing up in the Dojo, “control” was one of the most frequent words used by my Sensei during the training process. I remember practicing exercises, either with a target such as a shield or a partner, where we tried to punch with as much power and speed as possible without making contact. In hindsight, this seems like a weird training methodology—creating the habit of not hitting things, instead of the reverse.
Of course, in sparring, we don’t want to injure our training partners, so pulling back is standard practice in any striking art—especially for those of us who are hobbyists with no interest in fighting full contact. The problem is that, when it comes time to turn it on and hit hard, a lot of people have trouble making the leap.
Point sparring (again, common in Karate, though luckily not in the Dojo where I started) also has a serious drawback in this aspect. Fighters get used to stopping after a single shot lands (and screaming to signal their success), which, as we know from full contact competitions, is certainly not a guarantee that the fight is over. In self-defence, stopping to admire your handywork rather than pressing the advantage you’ve gained could be disastrous.
Unfortunately, some form of this training scar is hard to avoid without risking injury. Even those who do fight full contact can’t practice that way on a daily basis. You can simulate the process by impacting focus mitts, heavy bags, or BOBs, or by taking the power out and doing some touch sparring with appropriate protective equipment, but there is no real substitute for hitting someone as hard as you can. You simply have to train with the correct intent and mindset behind your training, and hope that, when the time comes, the simulation has prepared you well enough.
This is one of the major advantages of grappling-based martial arts—you can come very close to the “real thing” in your training environment, whereas with striking, it is nearly impossible to do so without injuring or alienating your training partners.
The “tap out” is the grappling version of pulling a punch. There are anecdotes about the phenomenon where, in self-defence situations, one person has clearly bested the other, established a dominant position, and is about to put the attacker out with a choke. Then the attacker taps and the defender releases the pressure, which allows the attacker to escape and continue their assault.
As with the previous one, this training scar is hard to avoid. I certainly do not advocate for ignoring when your partner taps and taking the technique to its conclusion. Besides being potentially dangerous, this is certainly not a good way to make friends.
If nothing else, this speaks to the power of habit. Though I am leery of those who espouse “mental training,” as it can lead to potential BS, it is relevant in this case. In the context of the gym or Dojo, you should let go and soon as your partner submits, but it is important to remind yourself that for the context of self-defence, you can’t let up until you’re certain the person is no longer a threat to you.
Handing a Weapon Back:
Again, I’ve only heard anecdotal evidence regarding this, but these narratives seem to be frequent or powerful enough that some martial arts have modified their practices to avoid this training scar.
Many instructors who teach disarms encourage that, even in training, you should never hand the weapon back to your partner. The reason for this is that, apparently, some practitioners have successfully disarmed their assailants in real situations, then absent-mindedly given the weapon back to their assailants, simply because that is what they are used to doing in training.
I have no idea as to the validity of these stories, but there is certainly no harm in practicing removing yourself from the situation, or clearing the weapon away from the attacker, rather than casually handing it back. Sometimes throwing the weapon away and making your partner retrieve it might seem like a dick move when you’re standing within arm’s length, but it is the correct protocol for self-defence training.
Flow drills are fun, dynamic, intense, and an excellent methodology to create automatic reactions to stimuli (often called “muscle memory,” though that is technically inaccurate). In Koryu Uchinadi, flow drills are the primary method used to summarize and review various areas of technical expertise, such as strikes, joint locks, takedowns, chokes, etc.
So do I hate flow drills? No, of course not. However, I would be remiss if I wrote about training scars and didn’t point out their drawback—the notion of flow, by definition, means allowing your partner to defend your technique successfully. That is the only way that the “flow” can continue.
Flow drills have their benefit in practice, no doubt, but they can’t be the lone training methodology either. You also need to experience what it’s like to finish techniques without allowing any potential defense or continuation from your partner. In KU, we often call these exits—where you can leave the continuity of the flow drill and practice how to finish the fight once and for all.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, I started my martial arts career in “traditional Karate,” which is another misnomer—traditional Karate was developed in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, making it relatively modern when compared with its much older Okinawan predecessor (Toudi). The emphasis on Kihon and Kata, two of the three pillars of “3K” Karate, instill a number of good qualities (snap at the end of techniques, breathing, hip rotation, stability), but also several bad ones.
As illustrated in the above video, I was taught to keep my chin back and up, chest lifted, and my shoulders down and even with each other when doing basics and Kata. According to most Karate authorities, these are the correct technical components. In addition, there is also the habit of keeping the technique extended after the point of impact, even when working with partners. It is a typical and frustrating element of many traditional Karate Dojo, where the partner holds the technique out like a robot and allows their partner to follow up with a series of counters that, truthfully, would not work if the other person simply moved or responded at all.
Ironically, in writing this, I’m realizing that traditional Karate develops two opposite training scars: pulling punches early, and keeping them extended too long.
However, we do many of these things differently when it comes to the third pillar of 3K Karate—Kumite (sparring). The gap between the technical requirements of Kihon and Kata vs. Kumite, when many practitioners are told to do the complete opposite of what has been ingrained, is one of the biggest challenges that Karate faces in the 21st Century. Many noted instructors now are innovating and pushing the envelope to address specifically these issues.
The sad reality is that many of these “traditional” preferences seem to be based more on aesthetics than functionality. Ask any boxer: they’ll tell you to tuck the chin down and forward, lift the shoulder up to the protect the jaw when punching, and retract your strike as quickly as you throw it. However, my classical Karate gyaku-tsuki still sometimes shows up when I’m sparring, leaving my head unprotected. Funny enough, this is exactly how the controversial knockout happened in the gold medal Karate finals at the past Olympic games.
Despite attempts to move away from the arbitrary and often ineffective standards of traditional Karate’s Kihon and Kata, I still find that this particular training scar flares up every once in a while.
Nice Guys Finish Last:
I was recently corrected on two rather innocuous habits in my groundwork that I had never given much thought to, but my coach immediately caught as potential training scars.
The first is when setting up guard in order to practice. I had the habit of posting my hands on the mats when scootching my hips in close enough to let my partner close their guard, before proceeding to set up the correct grips for the technique. My coach immediately caught this as giving up an opportunity for a Kimura, even though we “hadn’t started” training yet.
The other, similarly, was my straightening my legs to let my partner get into mount, before posting my feet flat on the floor. Of course, you can’t bridge with your legs straight out, so even though my intention was just to be nice to my partner, this is a habit of doing something incorrect before doing it correctly. In other words, trying to make life easier for my partner was detrimental for myself in these cases.
Breaking these habits is still a work in progress, but I am at least aware of the fact that you can’t claim these things “don’t count” because you’re doing them in the set up of the technique rather than the training itself. Any and everything you do on the mat is training, even how you get into the position where you’re going to be working from.
The term “training scars” is a nice phrase for a concept that every martial artist should be familiar with. Of course, depending on the martial art or style we practice, we all develop habits that can be bad outside of that particular training environment. The main thing is to develop an awareness of these habits, to try to minimize the damage that they might cause if we ever need to apply what we learn. Cross-training is an excellent way to expose these areas because a new instructor or training partner might pick up on these habits and show you why, in a different context, it is an error.
The cool part of any kind of scar is it tells a narrative about how you became who and what you are now, and training scars are no exception. Though I would certainly be happier with fewer bad habits in my training, I am grateful for the scars that I’ve developed; they are mementos of a long, challenging, and still-evolving martial arts career, full of colourful characters and a large number of wonderful memories.
 Miller, Rory and Lawrence A. Kane. Scaling Force. YMAA Publication Centre, 2012. Pg. 244-245.
If you’re someone who is envious of those who have already received their black belts, and you’re anxious about when you will be the one honoured with the magical promotion, you might want to slow your roll a bit. The truth that many black belts won’t admit is that they were probably happier with their training before the milestone.
There are various points along the Way where students decide to take the fork in the road and depart. In my club, yellow, green, and brown are landmarks where people often decide that they’ve had enough. However, statistically the highest percentage would be at white and black belt—the two opposite ends of the spectrum.
For a white belt, it’s easy to understand: tried it, didn’t like it. But after so much time, money, and energy invested to get to black belt, you would think that those who make it through the meat grinder would be there to stay for life, right? So why do so many leave?
The easy answer is that their focus was misplaced—they were in it for the wrong reasons, not for the true pursuit of Budo. Once you receive a belt that you will wear for the rest of your life, that superficial motivation disappears instantly. In some cases, that conclusion might hold water, but for many, I think that is an oversimplification.
The reality is that many aspects of martial arts practice are significantly worse after you get to black belt. Here are some examples.
People Act Weird:
Recently, a middle-aged man who I’ve met all of three times in my life decided it would be a good idea to punch me in the arm while I was refilling my water bottle. The information he made this decision based on was that I am a Karate black belt.
I’m not sure why people feel the need to “test” the skills of martial artists in bizarre, socially inappropriate ways. If I found out a friend of mine liked swimming, I wouldn’t immediately attempt to drown them to find out if they are legitimate.
Though this kind of weirdness, inside and outside the Dojo, is not limited to black belts, it does get worse at that level. Whether it’s students who suddenly start sucking up to garner favour, people who are ready to prostrate themselves at your feet because they think you can walk on water now, passive-aggressive friends who want to undermine your accomplishment, or jealous peers who try to beat the shit out of you, all manner of weird behaviours come out when the black belt gets brought up.
For a period of my life, I actually lied about being a martial artist (I told people I taught fitness classes) because I got tired of these awkward reactions. Eventually I got tired of lying and resigned myself to the inevitable weirdness that unfolded every time the topic was breached.
If you know anyone who is a martial artist (at any rank or skill level), do the community a favour and just act normal. Be cool. Pretend they like crocheting or something.
You Improve Slower:
To be truthful, many plateau or get worse after they get to black belt. At brown belt, training can be very intense as you push to reach the big benchmark, but once you’re passed that point, many taper off or neglect to refine their abilities at all. Certainly, neglecting physical fitness is an embarrassingly common side-effect of having “made it,” particularly within the Karate community.
I received my first Karate black belt on my nineteenth birthday; I made a conscious decision that, after seeing many of my peers rest on their laurels, then subsequently get bored and leave the Dojo, I was going to try to get better. I did not want that achievement to be my peak as a martial artist, and, thankfully, it hasn’t been.
Teaching involves a lot of supervision, delegation, and selflessness, which is not conducive to personal skill development. Of course, we need leaders to impart the right way of doing things, but if you’ve ever been in a class or seminar with an instructor who is more interested in practicing than teaching, you will recognize immediately that they require two different mindsets. It is incredibly difficult to do both well simultaneously.
Even if you don’t teach, the likelihood is that, as you move up the ranks, your training partners will increasingly become less skilled and knowledgeable than yourself. This presents another dilemma: when practicing at a speed, intensity, and level of complexity appropriate for a novice, how can you improve as a veteran?
At black belt, you end up spending the vast majority of your “training” time working on things you don’t need to improve, and a miniscule amount of time, when you’re lucky, practicing the things you still need to polish.
This phenomenon is why I am a big believer in seeking out new opportunities to cross-train and expand your skill set. If you want to teach, great, but don’t teach for the purpose of training. You need to find a specific, separate time that is dedicated to developing your own abilities—which can be quite difficult to do when you are also teaching and running your own club.
Your Mistakes Get Scrutinized:
Everyone loves catching “Sensei” screw up. On the rare occasions when it does happen, students who couldn’t remember a three-move combo last week suddenly have a photographic memory of the moment the instructor turned left instead of right.
Naturally, expectations should rise as you progress, gaining knowledge and experience as you go, but somehow people’s expectations leap from “pretty good” to “absolute perfection” in a day when you go from brown to black belt. Part of this is the bizarre mythos in mainstream culture that surrounds an item which, originally, was designed only to keep your Gi closed.
Yes, we should hold black belts to a certain technical standard, but we are all human and make mistakes. Furthermore, if you actually do the math, there are typically seven Kyu belt rankings, followed by ten Dan levels. That means if you are a new black belt, you are at an intermediate level, not advanced.
You are supposed to continue learning and improving after you receive your black belt. Guess what? Part of that process is making mistakes—and some of them will be public, obvious, and undeniable. For some reason, witnesses who previously would have let things slide are unwilling to do so once you wear a black belt.
If you’re not one who can tolerate this kind of scrutiny and make friends with your demons, experiencing life as a black belt is not for you.
It Doesn’t Fix Anything:
I know many who espoused the idea, “Once I get my black belt, things will be different.” Then they got their desired promotion. Nothing changed.
Whatever problems you have as a brown belt still exist when you move up. You might have a bit more experience and technical ability than before, but your strengths and weaknesses remain until you work hard enough to change them. People often believe their bad habits and personal problems will somehow improve as a result of a new rank. The reality is that you have to fix your own issues; a belt will never do it for you.
The person you are does not change at all when you get to black belt. For those who are unhappy with themselves and looking for a quick fix, this is not it. You can’t suddenly see the Matrix the moment the knot is tied.
In the Dojo, people might bow a little lower or call you by a different title, but you are surrounded by the same insecurities, doubts, and fears you’ve always had. Those never disappear, nor should they—that is your motivation to continue the journey beyond the milestone that many perceive as the finish line.
There is a certain prestige and definite perks of being awarded your final belt. However, the reality is that, once the honeymoon wears off, the day-to-day grind of being a black belt is not as glorious as many make it out to be. The temptation to become complacent, finding challenge when teaching or training with juniors, and lack of time to focus on your own goals are real obstacles that lead many to flatline after they’ve achieved a milestone they worked so hard to reach.
For those who are not there yet, cherish the freedom to be selfish that you have at this point in the process. Don’t rush to cross that bridge unless you know what lies beyond it.
For those who are there, find ways to bring joy into your training—whether it’s starting over again at white belt in a new discipline, or simply reinventing your practices to keep them fresh and exciting. Don’t fall victim to the traps that have already claimed so many who used to be black belts.
In part, the appeal of Japanese Budo is its pursuit of higher ideas that transcend an individual era or practitioner, a philosophy or ethos that dictates an endeavour beyond the mere physical demands of the practice. These ideals can be summarized by the principles of Bushido (武士道, the way of the warrior).
Historically, these tenets were actually articulated during the denouement of the samurai in the Edo Period—in periods of frequent war, they were too busy fighting to survive to spend time on introspection about the deeper implications of life and death—but they serve the purpose of romanticizing the way of the warrior beyond the scope of the samurai’s utilitarian role in feudal Japan.
One of the defining principles of Bushido is 忠義 (“Chugi,” loyalty), exemplified by the samurai’s unquestioned willingness to die—even by his own hand—for his lord. Today, thankfully, the stakes are not so drastic, but the virtue of loyalty is often espoused within the Dojo as a vital aspect of Japanese Budo.
In today’s epoch, what does loyalty in martial arts truly mean? How does the modern martial artist remain steadfast in allegiance to the true pursuit of Budo without being corrupted by the politics and propaganda that taint the industry?
Not to a Style
Many insist on blind devotion to a single club or style, particularly within the realm of traditional martial arts. This thinking can easily be extrapolated into a cult-like following, where practitioners are susceptible to falling for wildly impractical teachings or simply are taken advantage of—financially and psychologically—to put their instructors on a pedestal.
There is a certain resistance to cross-training amongst many traditional martial artists, perhaps in part because of sunk-cost fallacy. Only focusing on a single martial art or style is portrayed as a virtue, but the reality is that many are not sticking to a single system out of loyalty; they are doing it out of fear that another system might expose the weaknesses and flaws in their own training methodology.
This doesn’t mean that you should jump ship at every opportunity; it is important to train long enough to get more than a superficial understanding of a system or style before exploring other avenues. However, the best martial artists and instructors that I’ve had the privilege of working with have multiple black belts or instructor accreditations in several martial arts.
As a driver, you have to learn to check your blind spots when changing lanes; as martial artists, we have to learn to do the same as we progress along the way. I’ve always found cross-training extremely helpful in identifying where I need to focus my future efforts, and to spark interest in new concepts or situations that my previous training had not addressed in sufficient detail. I’ve also had my students join other Dojos and be exposed to different teachings, and guess what—they come back as better, more well-rounded martial artists every time.
Not to Lineage
Particularly in Karate, many insist on deifying the founding fathers of their traditions. I’m all for acknowledging your sources and paying homage to your roots, but the reality is that we probably wouldn’t be impressed by the skills of many past masters if we could transport them to the 21st Century.
Coming from an “authentic” lineage is not a qualification. There is always a gap between what is taught and what is learned, as I’ve discovered from a decade as a language instructor and almost two teaching Karate. Furthermore, generational and linguistic barriers between ourselves and the pioneers of Okinawan Toudi make it virtually impossible to know whether our current efforts would make them proud or have them rolling over in their graves.
Besides which, trying to make dead masters proud is not the point. Many traditionalists want historical authenticity, but which era do you choose? Most “traditional Okinawan” Karate Dojo wear Gis, belts, and use Japanese terminology—none of which would have been in existence in 19th Century Okinawa.
In addition, narratives show that early martial arts teachers were not altruistic or egoless. Many initially denied their students entry, forcing potential candidates to perform menial tasks—as illustrated by The Karate Kid—without the payoff of it developing into actual skill. Some threw hot tea in the faces of their prospective students to test their tempers, asked for months of labour without pay before teaching them, or deliberately taught them wrong to maintain superior skill within their own families.
Honouring the heritage of your practice is very different from being stuck glorifying the past. I believe we are beholden not to preserving the past, but to making traditional teachings relevant and meaningful today—which is the best way to ensure they will continue to be perpetuated in the future.
Not to Curriculum
Many justify their allegiance to a single organization or instructor not based on tenure or leadership, but on the content of the practices therewithin. In other words, they justify their loyalty because they are practicing the “best” stuff around.
The issue is that content does not make someone an elite martial artist; training methodology and dedicated practice does. You can find the majority of curriculum content for virtually every martial art and style on YouTube these days, but most instructors would agree that studying those videos is not sufficient to make someone competent.
In order to develop skill, you need both a methodology within your training that supports continual improvement, as well as an instructor and training partners who have a selfless attitude towards your skill acquisition—which brings me to the next point.
To People? Kind of.
Surely, if nowhere else, your loyalty should lie towards the people with whom you’ve shared blood, sweat, and tears, right? Partially.
I’ve made many of my closest friends through martial arts, including role models, peers, and students. Some of my fondest memories are moments shared on and around the mats, where you build an instant camaraderie that most Muggles cannot possibly begin to understand.
Regarding people, I believe we should remain loyal towards what they have given us. We should be grateful for the time spent in the presence of mastery, and for the memories that make us want to continue chasing the impossible.
However, we also have to remember that we can’t expect those memories to perpetuate themselves indefinitely. Every phase of our training and lives is finite, and eventually, we find ourselves at a fork in the road where we are forced to reassess our journey, say goodbye to the companions we’ve had on it thus far, and find new compatriots who are going the same direction.
I’ve found many martial artists, citing lack of loyalty, are burdened with bitter feelings towards former teachers, peers, or students that they’ve had fallings out with. Of course, the Dojo can be an intense atmosphere, but once two people’s paths have diverged, I fail to see the value of fostering such bile. I much prefer to let go of the negative and appreciate the years of support and productivity spent in one another’s presence.
Of course, this is easier said than done.
The part of martial arts that will survive indefinitely, without question, bias, feeling, ulterior motive, or ego, are the principles and concepts that define success in all of our respective art forms. Aligning your practice with those principles is “the dispassionate aim” of every practitioner, teacher, style, and curriculum. It is the aspect that will ultimately transcend all of us, regardless of how much or how little we accomplish in our careers.
This is why, despite the fact that it arguably contradicts the Bushido tenet of 礼 (“Rei,” respect), I have a certain admiration for those who call out practices and teachings that are impractical or unsound. Even though some might perceive it as rude or disrespectful, we need people like McDojo Life in our community to hold us all accountable to the reality that not all martial arts are created equal or implemented effectively. Matsumura Sokon explained it this way: “To all those whose progress remains hampered by ego-related distractions let humility, the spiritual cornerstone upon which the fighting traditions rest, serve to remind you to place virtue ahead of vice, values ahead of vanity and principles ahead of personalities.”
Ultimately, no matter who you are, what martial art or style you practice, who taught you, or what you call the techniques you practice, you are responsible for answering the question, “Does my training align with sound concepts and theories?”
As cold as it may sound, our only unwavering loyalty can be towards the principles of our practices. They are what all of us have in common, all of us can relate to, and all of us strive to conform to during our brief, fleeting, beautiful, doomed pursuit of the impossible.
 Kammer, Reinhard. Zen and Confucius in the Art of Swordsmanship. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1969. Pg. 7-9.
Leggett, Trevor, trans. Samurai Zen: The Warrior Koans. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 2002. Pg. 33.
To some degree, the answer to this question is always yes. Of course, you are the person most invested in your progress in martial arts—that’s why you show up to class. It also makes every practitioner somewhat selfish.
This attitude is only a problem when it actively prevents the progress of others, which is shortsighted and ironic; the reality is that helping your training partners helps you improve too. The more skill your teammates acquire, the better they can push your limits, both physically and mentally.
It is a reciprocal relationship. The rising tide raises all boats, which is why martial arts needs to be done in a community. If you surround yourself with quality people to train with, it definitely forces you to rise to meet the standards of the group.
So what are the telltale signs of training partners who are only in it for themselves?
It’s obvious, but needs to be said. If one person insists on getting more of the reps than the other, it is a symptom of a selfish attitude.
Both people should be active in training, no matter their role, but if one partner insists on always being the Tori (取り, literally “the taker”) and wants their partner to always be the Uke (受け, literally “the receiver”), it creates an imbalance of power. One person habitually reenacting winning and the other habitually reenacting losing creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That said, there is nothing wrong with asking for a re-do if you screw up a rep. I often ask my partner to try something again if I wasn’t satisfied with my execution. I also follow a simple rule: never end on a bad rep. I apply that both to myself and my partner; I’ll encourage the person to go again if they didn’t like their previous result.
If one partner struggles more with a particular technique, then it makes sense for that person to get more of the work to address their weakness, but over the long term, there should be a balance of workload between both practitioners.
Hogging the reps doesn’t just mean the number, either; it can also be the quality. I have experienced some partners who have really sharp focus on execution and precision when it’s their turn, then when it’s mine, they turn into a gelatinous mound of distracted flesh. It’s really hard to develop skills when your partner is giving less resistance than a wet paper towel and isn’t reacting at all to the stimuli you provide. A good partner stays engaged and thinks critically even when in a passive role.
You Don’t Address Mistakes:
This can be a tough one. It is a tricky line to know when you are experienced and skilled enough to advise others. I’ve been berated for teaching others when I wasn’t ready to or wasn’t supposed to—lesson learned. When in doubt, ask the instructor to clarify or correct. However, that doesn’t mean you just bite your lip during training.
Letting mistakes pass—especially obvious ones that beginners make, like using the wrong arm or leg—is detrimental to your partner’s skill acquisition, and also sends the message, “I don’t care whether you get it right; just finish what you’re doing so I can train.”
A good partner will, at the very least, make suggestions. They may be wrong, they may be right—troubleshooting techniques is a difficult process in martial arts. If you and your partner don’t come to a consensus, bring the authority in the room over to settle any discrepancies. However, just giving feedback to your partner about how it feels when they execute their technique does not require an expert. You shouldn’t need a BJJ black belt to tell you when you’re about to pass out from a choke.
You Always Lead:
Especially when you’re working with someone less experienced, less skilled, smaller, or weaker than you, let them set the pace and level of aggression they are comfortable with. Otherwise, you are just beating on someone who is unqualified to defend themselves. How much are you really going to learn from the experience? There are times when giving someone an old-fashioned beat down might be justified, but it’s generally not warranted.
On the other hand, working at a slower pace with less resistance offers opportunities to practice different things. Put yourself into bad positions and see if you can work your way out of them. Try that ridiculous, low-percentage technique that never seems to work. Identify openings to utilize strategies outside your usual repertoire. This way, even if you’re taking it easy and letting your partner work on the basics, you are still developing new skills.
This works the opposite way, too. I’ve had teammates prepping for tournaments that I wasn’t competing in. They needed to push the pace to get used to dealing with the franticness and adrenaline they were going to face; if I’d insisted on light touch sparring or a gentle flow roll, I would have been doing them a disservice. It kind of sucked, but they needed a ragdoll to throw around and beat the hell out of, and it was my turn to take one for the team.
There’s Always an Excuse for Losing:
Selfish partners can’t admit when they lose. They either don’t put themselves in position to face defeat by avoiding the people who challenge them, or they have ready-made excuses. Here are some of my favourite examples:
“Man, my shoulder’s suddenly killing me.”
“I thought I’d let you try that one out.”
“Isn’t that against the rules?”
“Hey, I thought we were just taking it easy.”
“It was leg day, so I’m super sore.”
Instead, try replacing these ego-saving sentiments with:
“That was sweet.”
“Damn, that hurt.”
These statements acknowledge the reality of the situation, letting your partner know they did something legit. If you train for long enough, you will be on both sides of this equation many times. If you win, feel satisfied and don’t brag about it. Humility is only a meaningful if it comes in the face of success; there is a big difference between being humble and being humbled. If you lose, recognize how your partner made it happen. Acknowledge it, congratulate them, and address what you did wrong so you are less inclined to be victimized by the same technique or strategy in the future.
Someone Gets Hurt:
Martial arts are intimately connected with the study of physical violence, so yes, sometimes accidents do happen and injuries occur. However, the frequency or severity of injuries tends to be more extreme surrounding students who have a selfish attitude. Often the damage happens to the partner of the guilty party, but the person can also cause themselves injury by exhibiting selfish behaviour—ironic, in that the prime goal of most martial arts systems is to learn how not to get hurt.
Usually this is the result of an overzealous person who doesn’t account for the comfort or skill level of their partner. Especially when training with someone who you don’t have a history with, there should be a feeling out process while you discover the other person’s abilities and patterns. You should start slow and build incrementally until you find each other’s limits, rather than dictating your own pace. The majority of injuries I’ve seen have resulted when one of two unfamiliar partners has decided to go full throttle before both people are ready for it.
Raw beginners who want to train as hard as possible are the most terrifying, especially if they are large and strong people. It can quickly devolve from training into actual self-defense if your partner doesn’t know their limits and level of competence. They might believe they are ready to train at full intensity, but they are usually not.
My advice here is to take your own safety into prime consideration rather than worrying about winning. For example, though I am philosophically opposed to pulling guard, if my training partner is trying to crush me using raw strength rather than skill, I will resort to this strategy simply because it is a position where I can impose some control—slow the other person down and let them burn off energy trying to pass.
In some cases, injuries can happen to the person exhibiting the selfish behaviour too. The best example of this is people who refuse to tap while rolling. In order to save their egos, they refuse to admit when they’ve been got, which creates a dilemma for their partner: prove who won by injuring the person, or simply let go and allow them to labour under the delusion that they weren’t submitted. Putting one of your teammates in the position where they have to make that decision is the epitome of selfishness in martial arts—and, eventually, someone is going to decide to do the former and force an injury that could have easily been avoided.
I’m not going to say that nice guys always finish first in martial arts, or that virtue is directly tied to success. That idealistic and naïve notion is attractive in Hollywood, but doesn’t pan out in reality, especially when we look at the upper echelons of martial arts competitions or combat sports.
However, I will state that, especially for the average martial arts hobbyist, a selfish approach to training limits you. By failing to invest your time, attention, and energy in the partner you are working with, you are likely going to lose their interest as well. Conversely, by promoting their progress through your actions, they become a person who, in turn, supports your growth and development in training.
Ultimately, you want to be the kind of partner that everyone at your club is excited to work with, not the one that everyone avoids making eye contact with when it’s time to split into pairs. You know the guy. And if you don’t, it’s probably you.
My Sensei breaks the learning spectrum down into three distinct categories: 30% are the Alphas, the physically gifted specimens that acquire and assimilate skills within a few reps. 40% are the Betas, who are governed by the law of reciprocity—the results they see are roughly correlated to the effort, time, and diligence of their practice. The last 30% are destined to below-average performance, regardless of how hard they try.
It should be noted that, as a spectrum, these categories are subject to standard distribution—that is to say, some learners might be at either end of the extreme, and some might be on the cusp between two of these classifications. Amongst scientists, there is actually some debate about whether Alpha-ism is a real phenomenon is human beings.
In animals, that trait is actually a social quality rather than a physical one, but whether it exists or not in humans, we can simply say from empirical evidence that some athletes are particularly talented or possess natural qualities that predispose them to success in martial arts. On occasion, I have been mistaken for one of these individuals by my peers, students, and, on good days, instructors. The truth is that those moments represent the Renaissance ideal of Sprezzura—the concept of “effortless effort,” or working your ass off behind closed doors to be mistaken for a gifted individual.
Unlike my Renaissance predecessors, I don’t conceal my work ethic. Any success that I have in martial arts hasn’t come as a result of natural talent. I am not an Alpha learner. For all of those who, like me, are not particularly gifted athletes, here are some tips and tricks to keep up with the real elite.
Fitness is the Poor Person’s Talent:
Fitness is often mistaken for athleticism, so if you’re not a gifted athlete, a good strength and conditioning program works in your favour. It will fool some people, and possibly even yourself at times.
As a martial artist, your body is the toolbox that you need to develop hands-on skills. Alpha athletes can be slightly out of shape, and still get away with it because of their raw, innate physical qualities—speed, strength, stamina, balance, and an uncanny “feel” for how to execute things correctly. They don’t necessarily need to work on these attributes; they can just roll out of bed in the morning and they have them.
As a Beta athlete, these qualities need to be developed meticulously. That means not only putting in your training time in on the mat, but working hard outside the martial arts environment to build the physicality required to keep up with the Alphas.
A balanced conditioning regime should improve stamina, strength, and flexibility. It also requires enough variety so your body doesn’t get accustomed to doing the same exercises all the time, and so you don’t grow bored or demotivated to maintain the routine. That’s how to keep the tools in the toolbox sharp and in good working condition.
The Expectation Horizon:
Alphas can accomplish great things in a condensed time frame, receiving promotions, winning competitions, and developing skills far faster than the average martial artist would. As a Beta, you can still expect solid results, but you’re going to have to be patient.
A lot of people in martial arts worry about their “time in grade,” or how long they’ve been “stuck” at the same rank. Instructors often give estimates about when people will move up based on their previous learning and experience, with the corollary that it depends on maintaining consistent training habits in the future.
Here is the truth that very few people want to admit: the learning curve in martial arts is different for every individual, and it is not a steady, upward process. You might plateau for months. You might have a breakthrough and excel. You might be like me, where you often need to get worse before you get better. I don’t know why, but when I get exposed to new skills and strategies, I usually get my ass kicked for a few weeks before I can integrate that new input into my existing repertoire.
In a short time frame, progress is not correlated with effort. It’s unfair, but true. Especially as a Beta athlete, you will sometimes see Alphas surpass you in skill level with less time and effort. Just remember that your success is not what happens today or tomorrow. It’s in the distance, on the far horizon.
Outwork and Outlast:
If you are truly passionate about martial arts, one day you’ll look up and find yourself at or near the front of a line that you used to be at the very back of. A training partner of mine once commented, “I don’t feel like I got that much better; it’s just that everyone else left.” And that is exactly the point.
Consistency is the key for Beta learners. Taking a month or two off is like starting from scratch. It’s not so for the Alphas. For example, they can get away with taking a month or two off, cramming for a couple weeks before a grading or competition, and still put on an impressive performance. They only need a few classes to get back in gear.
As a Beta, you can’t afford prolonged breaks. It’s what you do when no one is watching that really makes the difference. In my Dojo, I am usually the first to arrive for class and the last to leave. That work ethic is what keeps me afloat, what allows me to outlast many others who have already called it a day.
The old expression is “Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.” You can’t necessarily change the cards you were dealt when it comes to the perspective of athletic inclination and natural physical attributes, but you can change how you play the hand.
The other critical factor is that you have to enjoy the process, not only the result. Alphas are used to seeing tangible results—belts, trophies, awards, or recognition. Many of them lose interest or grow frustrated when these don’t continue piling up at the rate they once did, and they sometimes quit because of it. They see the learning process in martial arts as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
As a Beta, you are liberated from these concerns. Sure, the results and recognition is nice, but not necessary. Sometimes you win, sometimes you get your butt handed to you. Maybe it takes you twice as long as someone else to get that next belt. But the reality is, if you are a true martial artist, it doesn’t matter. Win, lose, or draw, you’ll be back the next day to do it all again.
Recent conversations with many of my peers have circled around the same topic of discussion: how to streamline Karate’s traditional strategies and techniques into a method that works effectively and consistently for modern self-protection. This movement has been termed “New Wave” Karate by some of my contemporaries, which is a term I love to distinguish between the mainstream methods established in the 20th Century—traditional Japanese Budo and competition-based sport.
Inevitably, my conclusion will piss off many within the traditional martial arts community. If your primary or exclusive purpose for training is self-defense, you shouldn’t bother with Karate.
The Burden of Proof:
There is no question that all traditional martial arts are derived from practices that once proved effective in the historical context of their societies. In Karate’s case, numerous narratives exist to validate the efficacy of Toudi in old Okinawa. Every shred of historical evidence suggests that these practices once worked, but how does that translate to the 21st Century?
I would argue, generally not well. There is a tendency for traditional martial artists to look at the past through rose-coloured glasses, idealizing past masters who, granted, were considered expert fighters for their time, but probably wouldn’t be noteworthy if transported via time machine to today’s epoch. Of course, embellishment and self-serving exaggeration tends to influence the stories told about the old masters, to the point where they are reported to have had abilities bordering on superhuman.
In the past, martial arts knowledge and fighting skill was extremely exclusive, usually limited to the noble class within society; today, widespread access to training has made the market much more competitive. The rising tide raises all boats, but practices stuck in the quagmire of the past seem to be sinking relative to others that are free from the burden of tradition.
Particularly in Karate, there is also the challenge that comes from broken telephone between cultures and generations. The transformation that Karate went through in early 20th Century Japan placed more focus on solo callisthenic exercises—kihon drills and endless repetitions of kata—for the purpose of developing social conformity and fighting spirit to reflect the increasingly militaristic nature of their society in the buildup to WWII. In that process, applications for the kata were not emphasized, and therefore many sequences and techniques remain ambiguous or impractical for self-defense application.
Knowing what we know about the human body and the nature of physical violence, we can reconstruct more functional applications for kata than the wildly impractical scenarios that dominated 20th Century Karate. However, we can’t guarantee historical authenticity, and, far more importantly, many of the “practical” kata applications developed (notably, mostly by practitioners outside of Japan) still don’t hold up exactly as designed under aggressive resistance from a partner. A lot of adjustment and improvisation are required beyond the templates contained in the kata, and those things are usually not instructed in the Dojo.
There are also glaring inconsistencies and contradictions within the tradition. An example of this is the common Karate stance Kosa-dachi. In sparring, we are taught to never cross our feet while striking at long-range; in kata, we are frequently encouraged to do just that. Granted, Kosa-dachi can be usefully applied as a grapevine while standing or a half-guard/lockdown on the ground, as well as a transitional stance when setting up a throw such as Ippon Seionage or Ogoshi. These are plausible for self-defense, but there are many kata templates where what you’re doing with your upper body makes it virtually impossible to utilize these applications to explain the sequence as a whole.
In a few cases, the old masters documented specific practices that they considered worthwhile, such as Motobu Choki’s twelve Kumite drills, or the 48 self-defense diagrams from The Bubishi. While some of these can be implemented immediately and with relative ease, there is also a lot of historical baggage. Many techniques or strategies have to be modified significantly to make them work, which begs the question: if your primary purpose is self-defense, why spend time tinkering with traditional practices to make them realistic? Instead, it might be in your best interest to simply study methods that work to begin with. If you have a round hole and a round peg, why waste time whittling down the square peg to make it fit?
When it comes to functional self-defense, the burden of proof is squarely on our community to prove that Karate’s traditional practices work consistently under duress. So far, the jury is still out.
The Quickest Way Between Two Points
Many contemporary pioneers are innovating within Karate to transform the tradition into something that remains relevant in the 21st Century. However, if your aim in training is self-defense, it makes little sense to delve into the past, explore traditional practices, then revolutionize and update them to fit modern society. It’s much easier to just start in the present.
Krav Maga is a good example of this approach. Granted, it heavily emphasizes striking the groin, the efficacy of which is a topic of some debate amongst self-defense experts.
However, everything within the Krav curriculum is aimed at the singular purpose of self-protection. It deals with modern scenarios such as knife and gun defenses, which are largely neglected in traditional martial arts, or, in the case of knife disarms, often done horribly.
Krav also touches on legal implications, psychological elements, and tactical decision-making (such as when a threat is significant enough to warrant pre-emptive violence) which are notably absent from many other martial arts that claim to be all-encompassing self-defense systems.
I’ve seen novices develop scary skills within six months to a year of training in Krav. In Karate, at six months, most new practitioners are still learning stances, kata, blocks, and have barely touched a partner, let alone performed techniques under aggressive resistance. The insistence on the traditional approach to skill development in this case hinders Karate more than it aids it.
No single martial art is always the answer; good martial arts can still be done badly, if the instructor isn’t competent or the students don’t apply the lessons correctly. However, for self-defense, you should be looking for a lean system—the excess fat of peripheral, impractical methods derived from “tradition” should be stripped away. In many Dojos, Karate is undergoing that transformation, but the reality is that there is still a lot of trimming left to be done.
That would mean:
removing all impractical or inexplicable kata templates
limiting kihon practices to developing mechanics that support functional, rather than aesthetical movements
revising traditional stances to make them match exactly how you stand while applying realistic techniques against aggressive resistance
removing the common, but stupid myths and misconceptions about technical applications (i.e. Nukite to the solar plexus), and
pressure testing the remaining templates to ensure they work against resisting partners of various sizes and strengths.
If you have a starting point and an end point, the most direct path will get you there quickest. However, by diverging into various interpretations of tradition, we often head on several detours before we get anywhere close to the destination.
I don’t mean to say that training in Karate will not provide you some benefit in self-defense in comparison with doing absolutely nothing. Virtually any training that gets you used to experiencing physical violence will improve your self-protection skills to a degree. Even within the most traditional of Karate Dojo, there is some content that is practical, though it is often embedded within a myriad of unrealistic scenarios, leaving the learner to sort the wheat from the chaff.
What I would argue is that Karate’s purpose in modern society is largely academic and historical, not practical. If your sole purpose in martial arts is to learn how to defend yourself, Karate is simply not the quickest option to reach your goal.
It’s one of the biggest questions facing any 21st Century martial arts student: should I pursue the traditional pathway or the modern one?
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the obvious—this is an artificial division. Most “modern” styles have long and complicated histories dictating how their practices evolved to their current forms.
Western boxing and wrestling are theorized to date back to prehistoric times, and were Olympic sports in ancient Greece. Jujutsu—which is perceived to be modern in its popular Brazilian version—is derived from the unarmed fighting techniques of the Japanese samurai. Muay Thai developed from an older system known as Muay Boran, which dates back to the 16th Century. MMA has a comparatively short history, but, as the first “M” would suggest, it is a combination of strategies, methods, and techniques derived from these and other martial arts.
So perhaps what best distinguishes traditional from modern martial arts is rather the relationship that they have with their pasts. Traditional martial arts look to the past as a way of validating their methods, whereas modern martial arts largely ignore their histories and simply look for functional validity in the 21st Century context.
In the realm of Internet forums, podcasts, and YouTube comments, these two camps are frequently at odds with each other. The modernists look down on traditional practices as being ineffective, hokey, and impotent—which is often a valid criticism. The traditionalists look down on modern practices as being brutish, unrefined, and classless—which is often a valid criticism as well.
So what are the differences in priority between each—and how do your priorities align with them?
Primarily, modern martial arts have two purposes: combat sports and self-defense. These are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinct pursuits. Certain strategies, such as pulling guard, might be valid for submission grappling, but are not recommended for a street fight.
Traditional martial arts have a wider variety of possible outcomes. The two mentioned above are certainly possible, though few traditional martial artists have successfully crossed over into the highest echelons of combat sports outside of their own style and rules, which suggests obvious limitations to those methods. Applying traditional martial arts to self-defense is also possible, but because of the historical baggage of “tradition,” it is often done poorly.
Instead, most traditional martial arts seek historical validity—what worked or what would have worked in the context of the society and era when these techniques developed, which brings me to the next point.
The techniques and strategies of traditional martial arts largely assume an assailant is completely untrained—which was probably a good guess given the exclusivity of martial arts in the past. As most experienced practitioners know from working with raw beginners, the wildness of an untrained person presents its own unique challenges, but generally techniques that are low percentage—or might have seemed impossible—can actually be pulled off with relative ease against a complete novice.
Modern martial arts typically assume that the opponent knows what they’re doing. Especially for combat sports, the opponent is going to be well-versed in the same techniques—as well as equal weight, approximate strength, and gender. Going into a cage fight from the viewpoint that the opponent has never seen and can’t defend any of the techniques that you are going to try would be a very dangerous assumption.
Given the popularity of martial arts in the 21st Century, assuming an opponent has some fighting skill and knowledge is a more valid premise today. Even a completely untrained MMA fan will at least be familiar with some of the basic submissions and positions on the ground, even if they suck at executing them correctly. Compared with the average 17th Century peasant, even today’s casual fans are experts.
Traditional martial arts come with a lot of side dishes. Sure, they can contain some pertinent skills—but there’s also the etiquette, terminology, history, and cultural elements that go along with the actual training. Beginners seem to spend as much time learning how to tie their belt and how to address their instructors as they do learning self-defense. There also tends to be more focus on development of character and ethics, particularly for children.
In Budo, the Dojo is very much a microcosm of Japanese culture. The strict hierarchies, cultural rituals, and unwritten rules of etiquette are meant to reinforce the social norms of the epoch when Budo was formally standardized—namely 20th Century, pre-WWII Japan. In many ways, modern Budo practice is a time capsule, reflecting the priorities and ethos of that civilization rather than today’s.
Though some martial arts that I’ve deemed “modern” contain traces of tradition (the Gi in BJJ, for example), these are usually at an absolute minimum. There is not a lot of bowing or ritual—just enough to acknowledge the history of the practice without weighing it down. Modern martial arts are far more comfortable disregarding aspects of the practices handed down from previous generations if they do not fit the outcomes of contemporary training, or if they are proven ineffective.
One of the biggest differences between the average traditional martial arts Dojo and modern martial arts gym is the type of people that will be attracted to each environment.
In the 1970s and 1980s, traditional martial arts were held in higher prestige in mainstream culture. Part of that appeal was simply that the lustre hadn’t worn off yet. Despite some incongruous or illogical practices, there was also a heavy emphasis on the sports side, which brings out a more competitive attitude in practitioners, particularly in sparring. As such, testosterone-fueled alpha athletes were more inclined to join traditional martial arts then—in large part because that would have been all that was available.
In the 1990s (when I started training), traditional martial arts became perceived differently—more as a nerdy pursuit for weaklings who wanted to get tough, but weren’t. It’s no coincidence that this was the era when many of the modern martial arts began to make their way into mainstream culture, leading to an increased awareness of these methods and greater prestige.
Today, this division has only continued to widen. The atmosphere in most modern martial arts gyms is much more competitive and testosterone-driven—which makes sense, given the goals promoted within those practices. The people attracted to that environment tend to be gifted athletes who make fitness a priority.
The BJJ club I train with used to be located within a gym, and I first noticed this trend when I ran into my teammates while working out. I’ve always made physical conditioning a significant aspect of my training, but when I saw my BJJ teammates lifting, I had an epiphany that the spectrum of strength was a lot broader than I might have assumed, and I was not on the same side of it.
Conversely, these days traditional martial arts seem to draw people who are not as athletically gifted and not as fit. Of course, through training this demographic will increase their athleticism and fitness level, which is great for overall health and longevity. However, the historical and traditional elements embedded within training appeals more towards people who are interested in the anthropological and academic elements—in other words, nerds like me.
This is not meant as a slight—it’s just my genuine observation. Not everyone is wired the same way, and I think finding the right martial art for the right person is critical. Every individual brings not just their bodies, but their own biases, goals, fears, and egos with them into training. Everyone with the interest to do so can find a practice that is challenging and rewarding if they consider all of these factors in selecting the right martial art, the right school, and the right instructor.
As I mentioned, the division between traditional and modern martial arts is contrived; the reality is that traditional martial arts have evolved and adapted from how they were practiced a century ago, and modern martial arts wouldn’t exist without the insights and innovations of previous generations. However, the rivalry between these two factions is likely to grow, given the increase of advertising propaganda that promotes certain styles or martial arts as “better” than others.
I think the more important question is, “Better at what?” Certainly, if you train for the purpose of combat sports, the best approach would be to develop some contemporary striking skills (boxing and/or Muay Thai) and grappling skills (wrestling and/or BJJ). If your primary goal is defending yourself, I wouldn’t bother with systems that are weighed down by their historical precedents. However, if your goal is to study the weaponry that the samurai employed in the Edo period, your best bet would be to study some Kendo or Kyudo.
There should be room for both in the 21st Century, since these different pursuits attract different audiences. It would also be nice if these two camps learned to look at one another with respect rather than antagonism—while acknowledging the very real differences in training outcomes, recognizing that the core of these practices is the effort to pursue technical perfection, and in so doing, hoping to get closer, inch by inch, to the impossible ideal.
It’s hard to explain to Muggles why we do what we do, given that it can be uncomfortable, stressful, embarrassing, and downright painful. Despite that—perhaps, in some weird way, because of it—martial arts can also be a hell of a lot of fun.
I still have difficulty articulating to my non-martial arts friends the exact reason that it appeals to me. My Sensei has broken down the pursuit into five distinct goals: sports, business, physical fitness, self-defense, and lifestyle. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive, and we often have more than one of these outcomes in mind.
Personally, my primary goal in training oscillates between these. I don’t do sports Karate, and my few attempts in submission grappling competitions have been remarkably pathetic so far. I get paid to teach my classes, but I’m not business-oriented and certainly couldn’t make a living the way I run things now. Martial arts helps with physical fitness, and was my inspiration to start a strength and conditioning routine, but I also don’t think it’s sufficient on its own, which is why I supplement with hot yoga, cardio, HIIT, and weight training. Functionality in training has increasingly become a priority since my conversion to Koryu Uchinadi, but I also feel that traditional martial arts will, by definition, contain some historical baggage—obsolete techniques that fit a contextual premise that has ceased to exist.
So, by process of elimination, that leaves “lifestyle,” which is probably the most accurate description of my relationship to this pursuit. Many of my students, however, train once or twice a week, may take summers off, and skip classes when it’s time for exams. Does that relegate them to the realm of doing martial arts as a hobby?
In my circles, “hobby” is a bad word; it implies a lackadaisical, casual attitude that is not conducive to the true spirit of Budo. It implies a lesser degree of dedication to a way of life that should demand the upmost commitment to ideals that transcend our era and society. It implies a relationship of convenience towards training versus one of sacrifice to make it work.
That’s probably what most of my contemporaries, a few decades into their martial arts careers, would tell you. Is this reasonable to expect from the average person—or even from yourself?
Quitting is an Option
If you pursue martial arts as a profession, you don’t give yourself the option of giving up. If it’s not going well, you have to persevere and push through. There are lessons to be learned from such adversity—personal growth and insight often results from failure more so than success.
However, how meaningful is tenure in martial arts if you never truly gave yourself the option of getting off the highway? Treating martial arts as a hobby means you’re making a conscious effort to continue training because it inspires, motivates, and challenges you rather than riding on necessity.
Many martial artists proudly flaunt the number of years they’ve trained as if it’s a qualification in and of itself. There is a vast difference between continuing and improving. The choice to do the former is easy and can be done out of obligation; the latter is difficult and only worthwhile if the blood, sweat, and tears is rewarding as a process in and of itself, regardless of the immediate result.
Martial Arts Identity
Dave Lowry writes that he prefers an instructor who has experienced adult life outside the Dojo. Personally, I agree with this premise. Career martial artists often don’t have the same perspective on what they teach that their students or peers who do it as a side project may have. They sometimes assume it is the central pursuit in everyone else’s life—it isn’t.
As I’ve discussed in previous works, the notion of “Sensei” has been deeply distorted as a result of mainstream myths that traditional martial arts instructors are supposed to be role models in all facets of life, not merely relegated to their own area of expertise. Nowadays, this is gradually changing. Students more often understand that they are paying for someone to develop their skills, not someone to become their life coach.
Though Budo is supposed to strengthen character and instill a strong sense of ethics, for many career instructors, it seems to have the opposite effect, leading to rampant egotism, personal vendettas, and blatant manipulation in an effort to elevate their own legacy. This proves Yasuhiro Konishi’s statement that “Karate aims to build character, improve human behaviour, and cultivate modesty; it does not, however, guarantee it.”
On the other hand, hobbyists have often proven their value in other avenues, leaving them liberated from the demands of recognition or validation through martial arts. This spares them from the insecurity that fuels so many conflicts in the Dojo.
Interestingly, having a self-image that is too wrapped up in martial arts doesn’t seem to be particularly psychologically healthy. Nowhere was this more evident than at the onset of the COVID pandemic, when martial arts almost immediately became a criminal activity worldwide. For those who run a business, there were obvious financial impacts, but more drastically, the identity that many had used to justify their own self-worth was stripped away in the course of a few days.
Martial artists were amongst the most vocal individuals on social media, demanding that governments put the pursuit of Budo above public health—ironic, given that martial arts’ original design premise was personal safety. They also seemed the most prone to waves of depression and bouts of self-pity.
As a hobbyist, though I miss my regular training schedule and the challenges it entails, I was pleased to have affirmation that, despite the profound impact Karate has had on my persona, I do still have a distinct identity outside of who I am in the Dojo. It may be as a struggling, underachieving writer and sarcastic jackass—but it is a distinct identity nonetheless.
Purity of Intention
If practiced for business, sport, or fitness, outcomes dictate that the pursuit itself becomes altered. In sport, strategies and techniques are designed to take advantage of the rules; presentation becomes paramount to earn favourable scores rather than pursuing the art for its utilitarian purpose.
For business, many school owners become enslaved by birthday parties, movie nights, and grading fees—things that can make a profit tenable, but distract from the actual path. Almost every school owner I know has complained to me about doing something for the sake of their business that they actually hate.
If pursued for fitness, the all-too-common out of shape black belt has to be ashamed. Some instructors take things to the opposite extreme, spending so much time on physical conditioning that they fail to actually teach martial arts. My brother-in-law quit Taekwondo as a child because all he remembers doing is running and push-ups.
However, taken as a hobby, the stakes are not so drastic. Failure can be tolerated. Loss is not humiliating. There is room for error, and in this way, pursuing martial arts as a hobby actually becomes the truest undertaking, untainted by conflicting interests.
There was a time when I would have looked down on anyone who declared that they trained as a hobby. I considered hobbyists less mature, less dedicated, and less qualified.
Naturally, the intensity, frequency, and duration of your practice will have a bearing on the level of skill you acquire—alongside with natural athleticism, tenacity, and ability to accept and implement feedback. However, the elitism and trend towards style snobs in martial arts (especially in traditional schools) has not benefitted our community nearly as much as it has hindered it.
Ultimately, what we do is, in modern society, not necessary. As a result, what draws people to martial arts is a spark of interest. No matter what causes it, we should seek to nurture it into a flame, rather than judge that spark insufficient to keep the water of our respective traditions at a boil.
Don’t get me wrong–I think this movie is awesome. I’ve watched it more times than I can count, and I can count fairly high. I can quote every memorable line, and my philosophy towards martial arts–which, in turn, impacted my philosophy towards life–was largely developed from this movie.
But of course, Hollywood exaggerates and embellishes for the purpose of entertainment. Interestingly, the latest reincarnation of the franchise, the popular Netflix show Cobra Kai, revisits and qualifies a lot of these same myths while still maintaining the signature 80’s cheese and nostalgia of the original. Which myths the series propagates and which it contradicts is one of the most compelling aspects of the new show.
So what were the most significant martial arts legends created by the original movie that don’t apply to real training?
You Can Develop Skill By Doing Unrelated Things
“Wax on, wax off” became entrenched in pop culture as a method of learning to block by waxing cars, painting fences, sanding floors, and painting houses. When Daniel-san finally has had enough manual labour, Mr. Miyagi does the big reveal–he has been learning Karate all along, and is now instinctively able to deflect a series of unscripted attacks.
It would be so cool if it worked in real life. So cool. Unfortunately it doesn’t.
You can’t learn to swim without getting into the water, and you can’t learn to block without lots of reps of someone attempting to hit you. If you’re learning correctly, you will occasionally get hit.
I think this myth has had an impact on people’s perception of the Uchi-Deshi (内弟子, a live-in disciple or student) concept. I’ve seen and heard multiple reports of Uchi-Deshi programs that seem to focus on the student’s sanitation skills rather than their martial ones.
Like many things, it depends on how this is done. If you are spending an intense period of time training day in and day out with an outstanding instructor, then it is probably worth it. If you’re spending large amounts of money to be a live-in maid and catch a couple classes here and there, you’re probably falling for a scam. If you spend more time vacuuming than learning, you might have gotten short-changed on your end of the bargain.
Again, in The Karate Kid world, Daniel’s chores were actually a secret form of training. In reality, when someone says, “I’ll show you the secrets of Karate when you complete all these chores,” the chores are probably just menial labour.
I’ve travelled to train at other instructors’ schools, and of course it’s important to be grateful to your hosts. It’s good manners to clean up after yourself when you’re a houseguest. I might buy a gift for their house and maybe a bottle of wine, if my hosts are so inclined.
But I truly get the sense I would have been welcome to visit no matter whether I did the dishes or not, which is the true spirit of camaraderie in martial arts. Not everything should be done in expectation of reciprocity.
Mysterious Methods Are Better
A lot of Mr. Miyagi’s appeal is his mysterious nature and background. East Asian culture, especially in regards to martial arts, tends to be mystified in mainstream media representations in North America, which is a distinct contrast to the far less exotic reality of physical violence.
For reality-based martial artists, there should be a lot more transparency in the learning process. A mantra that I learned from my instructor’s accreditation program for teaching English as a second language is, “Why are you doing what you’re doing the way that you’re doing it?” Both parties involved in the exchange of information and the development of skill should be able to articulate an answer to that question.
Outside the silver screen, less mysterious and more pragmatic methods of instruction will benefit the student every time.
Win The Tournament, Get The Girl, Walk Off Into The Sunset
Yeah, it was that easy—in 1980’s Hollywood. In the 21st Century, even the fictional Cobra Kai characters don’t have it so easy.
I was once a fly on the wall for an interesting conversation between a poet and editor, discussing the poet’s debut collection being released. The editor acknowledged that there would be some congratulations, some fanfare, perhaps even an award or nomination, but then, “Don’t expect it to change anything.”
Although I have very rarely competed in martial arts, those I know who have all say the same thing—it’s nice to be recognized if you win, get a medal, and have your picture taken, but it doesn’t change your life. The same is true for rank promotions and seminars. Little Johnny in the third row picking his nose and staring out the window on a Tuesday night doesn’t give any shits that Sensei just got his next Dan rank. He just wants to know when he can go home and play the next level of his video game.
As an instructor, pay extra attention to Little Johnny. If you don’t connect with him early, he might grow up to ride motorcycles, smoke weed, and pick on the new kid at school.
Good Guys Win
In Karate, it has long been asserted (optimistically to a fault) that a practitioner’s moral development and skill acquisition are inexorably linked to one another, such that, “No matter how you may excel in the art of Te or your scholastic endeavours, nothing is more important than your behaviour and your humanity as observed in daily life.” Ethics aside, The Karate Kid reinforces the fallacy that if you’re a good person, you will be better at martial arts.
Daniel-san is a tool at the beginning of the movie. He is an instigator, provoking conflict with his antagonists instead of turning the other cheek. When he becomes a student of Mr. Miyagi, he learns the right and wrong way of applying his skills, learning to fight “so [he] won’t have to fight.” Funny enough, for the purpose of plot development in Cobra Kai, he seems to have forgotten many of those life lessons and regressed back to the original model.
It would be nice if we lived in a world where human beings received material reward for moral behaviour, but we don’t. In martial arts, the fairest and most sportsmanlike competitors are not often the ones who come out on top. It’s a crap shoot. I’m sure there are altruistic CEOs and lottery winners too, but the distribution is far too even for it to be a cause-and-effect relationship.
So, if you’re setting out to be a good person in this dog-eat-dog world, good for you! Don’t expect the universe to reward you for it. You can try your best and do things the right way, but sometimes at the end of the practice, coach will still turn to you and say, “Great hustle, kid. You’re cut.”
This is another aspect that Cobra Kai has revisited and modified, adding a lot more grey area to the original movie’s black and white characters.
Like many things that are meant to inspire and entertain, The Karate Kid shouldn’t be taken literally. Watching a video recording of actual Karate, even when it’s practiced with effective methodology, may not appeal to many (Zoom lesson? Anyone? How about I teach these crickets?).
However, despite the myths that the movie perpetuates, it captures the right essence of practice—especially the way Karate can be a lens through which all aspects of your life are seen as a pathway towards self-improvement.
Remember to focus on the forest, rather than the trees that have been Hollywood-enhanced for your viewing pleasure.
The Karate Kid. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Columbia Pictures, 1984.