Saturday, February 23, 2008

What Is A Martial Art?

By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2007

When most people think of the martial arts they think of people running around in pajamas while punching, kicking, and yelling. While this tends to be accurate I truly believe that there is more to a martial art than this.

What inspired me to write this article was a conversation I had with someone earlier today about a "martial arts" school that is in my area. I put martial arts in quotations because I think that calling what this school teaches a "martial art" is a grave disservice to the martial arts. However, it is not my purpose to bad mouth this school, rather I intend to only define martial arts as I see them.

I have discovered that both martial artists and non-martial artists alike consider the martial arts to be little more than punching and kicking techniques. The other day I was walking through the park and I saw a boy of about 8 or 9 punching, kicking, jumping, and screaming. My first thought was that this boy was having a seizure and I took out my cell phone to call for help as I looked around for his parents. Suddenly he noticed me standing there and he stopped and turned to me and said, "Do you like my karate?"

Is that all the martial arts are? If the martial arts are nothing more than punching and kicking then we would have to include the following as martial arts: boxing, kickboxing, Tae Bo and other forms of aerobic kickboxing, kickball, soccer, hacky sack, and other childhood games such as paddy cake and bloody knuckles. I purpose that if all martial arts are is punching and kicking then soccer is a martial art, after all soccer has kicking in it.

What if we increase our definition from just punching and kicking to include throwing, takedown, choking, and joint locking/breaking techniques because many martial arts also use those techniques? Well, then the local high school wrestling team is practicing martial arts. Is a regional high school wrestling tournament really a martial arts tournament?

My personal opinion is that martial arts has very little to do with punching, kicking, throwing, etc. A drug addict who is spastically flailing his arms and legs in the air is not doing martial arts. My belief is that real martial arts are not the physical techniques but the methodologies and tactics that the martial arts employ. For example, which sounds more like martial arts: 1.) some guy just walked up to me and threw a punch at me and he missed so I hit him with a left hook, or 2.) I was being aware of my surroundings and I saw some guy walking towards me in an angry fashion. I put my hands up in a "stay back" fashion and used both my body language and my voice to establish a boundary but he ignored it and he threw a right hook at me. Luckily I was watching the center of his body and I saw his torso and right shoulder move so I knew the punch was coming, and I side stepped it letting it safely pass by me. Then I stepped into a strong forward stance and countered with a left punch and a kiai to his floating ribs.

In the above, what exactly is the "martial arts" aspect? If all the martial arts are is throwing your arms and legs in the air then both 1 and 2 were examples of martial arts because they both included punches. However, I think that the actual martial arts were knowing to be aware of your surroundings, noticing the individual's intent, establishing boundaries with body language and voice, watching the guy's torso and shoulders to see when the punch would come, the tactic of side stepping to avoid the blow, and then the methodology of hitting with proper structure and breathing, and of hitting vulnerable areas of the human body as opposed to just swinging away at general areas. In my book, the martial arts are not really what you do but how you do it.

When I teach a martial arts class I make a distinction between what is and what is not martial arts. If I see someone throwing a sloppy technique I stop them and explain to them that what they did wasn't martial arts. Anyone can throw a punch, but to do it with proper focus, intent, structure, alignment, breathing, and targeting is marital arts.

The other side of my argument is that if you take the term "martial arts" you notice that it has the word "martial" in it and that you're talking about the art of warfare. So, for an art to be a "martial" art it has to be geared for combat or at least applicable to combat or self defense. The way I look at it, the minimum requirements for an art to be an actual martial art is that it MUST teach both defenses for knives and multiple attackers. Why, because knives and multiple attackers are some of the common threats that you face, so if you are planning on walking down the street safely in today's world you'd better know how to deal with them.

Muay Thai is a great form of kickboxing but if a world champion Muay Thai kickboxer was walking down the street and two guys approached him, pulled a knife, and demanded his money he would be screwed. While Muay Thai is a great and very effective form of kickboxing it is only a sport and doesn't teach knife defenses or how to handle multiple attackers.

The same holds true for "MMA" or "mixed martial arts". For as cool as people think it is, it is not a martial art, at least not in my book. MMA, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Pankration, Sumo, Judo, many styles of Ju Jitsu, the majority of Tae Kwon Do, and boxing are not, in my book, martial arts. I do make exception for Kendo, many schools or archery, as well as combat shooting because if we dropped people skilled in those disciplines in a battlefield they may be able to hold their own for a time.

It really gets peoples' dander up when I say that Judo and some styles of Ju Jitsu and Tae Kwon Do are not martial arts and I can understand that because they do use martial art uniforms and belts so the mistake is forgivable.

Judo, it should be mentioned, was never intended to be a martial art. The founder of Judo was very open about the fact that he was creating a sport form of Ju Jitsu , and Judo is considered a sport. While some schools of Judo do teach knife defenses, I've never heard of defending against multiple attackers as part of Judo's curriculum. While I respect Judo and it does have some great self defense moves, such as wrist locks (that they took from Ju Jitsu), I consider Judo on the same level as high school wresting.

Take Judo and compare it to Krav Maga, which has in it's normal curriculum knife defense, gun disarms, multiple attackers, and ground fighting. While I'm not a big fan of Krav Maga, it makes Judo look like ballet.

Today many schools of Ju Jitsu teach nothing but sport martial arts as well. Many people have commented to me that they went to study Brazilian Ju Jitsu but left because the school was doing nothing but preparing them to compete in MMA fights.

Nearly every single Tae Kwon Do school or system that I've come across teaches nothing but punching and kicking. I have found some Tae Kwon Do instructors who do teach knife defenses, usually only to black belts, but they had to learn them from outside their Tae Kwon Do community and then add them to their curriculum. Never once have I found a Tae Kwon Do school that taught defense against multiple attackers as part of their curriculum. Therefore in my opinion, while there might be some instructors out there who do teach Tae Kwon Do as a martial art, Tae Kwon Do in general is not only not a martial art but gives martial arts a bad reputation.

I used to give various self defense seminars throughout Colorado and it would make me sad when I went into a Tae Kwon Do school to teach knife defenses, gun disarms, joint breaking, or fighting on the ground and I would walk in and see 15 or 20 black belts who looked at me like they were starving. I don't think I ever got out of there on time because everyone was pawing at me wanting more. These "black belts" had spent years doing nothing other then punching, kicking, and teaching forms to lower belts that when they had the opportunity to learn something like knife disarms you could almost see their mouths water.

Just like someone who goes to a restaurant and orders filet mignon only to have the waiter bring them burnt toast, they had signed up to learn martial arts only to have their instructor feed them the same punching and kicking techniques every week for years. These poor people had excitedly reached the rank of black belt wondering what great new things they would learn, only to find out that the only thing in store for them is a bunch more forms, maybe a new kick or two, years of teaching colored belts colored belt material, and maybe if they're lucky they get to swing nunchackus around a little. That's why so many people leave awhile after they reach black belt, there's nothing for them to do but show up to class and teach colored belt material.

The particular school that I mentioned in my area is a prime example. They teach a form of Tae Kwon Do that they made up themselves and they teach absolutely nothing other than how to flail your arms and legs in the air. I was asked to sit on the judging panel for one of their black belt testings and I saw black belts who couldn't throw a kick without falling over. I saw people who would spar and be thrown backwards whenever they hit their opponent. No balance, no focus, no being grounded or centered, nothing but swing your arms and legs in the air. I should also mention that everyone passed.

Over the years I worked out with a few of their black belts only to be shocked because I found out that some simple things that I considered to be white belt material were never taught. There was a guy who trained at the school for 3 years, was a black belt, and for the first time he was learning that if someone grabs your wrist you can go against their thumb to pull your hand out. That's self defense 101 and I thought people learned that within their first two belts! Hell, you can go to any women's self defense class and I'll bet that almost every single one teaches that within the first 30 minutes. So why doesn't a black belt with 3 years of training know it?

I know I've run a little long, but if the martial arts are to have any credibility we can't just give out belts to people who can swing their arms and legs in the air. We can't just teach someone a bunch of punches and kicks, give them a black belt, and tell them that they've learned everything they need to know. We can't have all these people walking around with the title "master", "grandmaster", "senior grandmaster", "chief grandmaster", or "eternal grandmaster" (that one still makes me roll my eyes) when all they can do is perform a bunch of punches and kicks. Of course if we raise the standards to what I suggest then 99% of martial arts schools in America would have to close their doors.

I can't blame people for not respecting us, we've done it to ourselves.

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