Friday, May 2, 2008

What’s Wrong with The Martial Arts?

By Matthew Schafer

Copyright 2007, All Rights Reserved

If you’ve studied martial arts for any length of time you’ve most likely had someone express the opinion that you are learning “crap”. The general opinion of the martial arts by the public is that the martial arts are quaint at best. What most people know about martial arts is learned from watching TV where it is portrayed in a manner that is comical at best. Even shows like “Walker: Texas Ranger”, which is supposed to show martial arts in a good light, make them look ridiculous

On top of that many people know someone who knows someone who knows a guy who was a black belt and got beaten up by some “Average Joe”. I’ve studied the martial arts for 20 years and I know several skilled martial artists who lost fights to non-trained individuals, even fair fights. I had a friend that got into a fight with a boxer one day in a parking lot. They put up their hands and my friend, who had lighting fast kicks, threw a right roundhouse kick at the guy’s head, only to have his leg grind to a halt when his jeans refused to stretch the last few inches and he ended up stumbling off balance. This gave his opponent the opportunity to land a roundhouse punch to this temple and knock him out cold. A seasoned black belt knocked out by a boxer with one punch.

With incidents like this and TV shows like “Walker: Texas Ranger” I can understand why to most people the martial arts are a big joke. Though the question show be asked, why are people trained in the martial arts often not able to defend themselves? Why do people, instructors included, say that the martial arts were effective 500 years ago but are not effective today? What is wrong with the martial arts?

My answer to this is that nothing is wrong with the arts themselves; the problem is the people who study them. To give a more well rounded answer let’s address the notion that while the martial arts were effective long ago they are not today. To begin, we have to dispense this notion that people that lived 100, 500, or even 1000 years ago were really different from us. The truth is they weren’t and we are really no better than them.

The one difference between the people living today and those living 1000 years ago is that today we have more knowledge and more technology. There seems to be this notion that people who lived 1000+ years ago couldn’t think as well as we could today. Those that lived long ago were just as smart as we are, just as driven as we are, and just as violent if not more. 1000 years ago people roamed the land murdering, raping, robbing, stealing, and enslaving just as they do today. The only difference is what tools they used and what distance they did it at.

Long ago you might kill someone from 0-5 feet away with a knife, sword, or axe; today you might kill someone from 0-5 feet away with a knife, sword, or axe but you might also kill someone from 0-5 feet away with a gun. It really is the same violence accomplished by the same types of people.

Now we have reliable records from the orient saying that 500-1000+ years ago martial artist not only could defend themselves but they were considered very deadly. In fact, people who knew martial arts were treated with respect because of their abilities. We have records of masters defeating 5 or more people at the same time and often the men were armed. Long ago the martial arts were not only considered effective but they were national treasures.

So if people and the violence they wage haven’t really changed in the last 1000 years, and back then the martial arts were quite effective, what changed? Logically it would have to be the martial arts themselves. But wait, we have the arts passed down from that time and records that can prove it. We can say with a fair amount of certainty that we are doing punches, kicks, blocks, and even forms the same as they were doing them 500-1000 years ago. The other day I was doing a form that was 300 years old.

What has changed? The way people practice the martial arts has changed. Back then skill in the arts could mean life or death and today it’s a hobby or sport people devote a couple of hours a week to. The intent really changed. As recent as 100 years ago people who threw a reverse punch did it with the intent of having that punch hit someone else and inflict injury. Today when people throw reverse punches most do it with the intent of scoring points, impressing their instructors, making a punching bag swing, etc. Back then people revered the arts as deadly and treated them as so; today people treat the arts as a hobby. If you want to see what difference something such as the intent that you train with makes, you can see it at:

Let’s be more specific. In my 20 years I’ve trained with boxers and I’ve trained with martial artists and I’ve seen real fist fights between practitioners of each. I have to say that from my own experience if a boxer and a martial artist fought the boxer would win fairly easily, and I’ve seen that happen on more that one occasion. Now the boxer and the martial arts use fairly similar techniques, so what gives the boxer the edge? Simply that a martial artist trains to throw punches and kicks and the boxer trains to hit people. It’s really that simple.

Today martial artist go up and down the floor throwing punches and kicks but do they ever actually train to hit someone? No. Of course you can say they do sparring but if you really think that point sparring is realistic training then there might not be too much hope for you. However, you do hit people during sparring so even sparring practice does provide a little benefit when it comes to real violence; but sparring alone is not enough.

To really be effective martial artists need to get back to learning how to hit people. 1000 years ago hitting people was a main focus. If you asked someone why they just threw that punch they’d most likely say something like, “to hurt my opponent”. They had a whole arsenal of techniques and they practiced each and every technique with the intent of hitting someone and injuring them.

Now you can say that back then the martial arts were for peace and love and whatnot, but that is really a myth we tell ourselves. Martial arts being about peace and love are a product of the last couple hundred years. If you rounded up 100 martial artists from 1000 years ago probably only 1 or 2 would be training with the intent of self betterment. If you really look at the history of the arts you will see that the arts themselves were originally just a collection of fighting techniques and nothing more. However, the Chinese were mostly Buddhist, Taoist, or students of Confucianism and so they normally mixed those in with their arts, but most of what we today consider to be martial arts is in fact just Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, or even Yoga. It would be the same thing if today I taught my son to be a Christian and then taught him martial arts. He might grow up connecting a front kick with Jesus the same way we connect martial arts with non-violence and mediation.

If martial artists want their arts to be effective again they have to start training to hit people and with the goal of hitting people. I know several black belts with great techniques but if they ever actually hit anything with them they’d break their hands or be knocked off balance. People have to work on grounding themselves, using their hips and hitting things. You have to condition your body to drive force into an object. You have to train yourself to look at a human body and see a myriad of places to hit and know how to step in and hit them.

One of my favorite drills is to have one person stand naturally and have a large pad held tight against their chest. Then their partner hits it and knocks him back, then continues it until he has knocked his partner across the room then they switch and go back. This is a great drill because it trains your body to receive roughly the same shocks it would if you hit a person for real. For most people it is a big eye opener. Most people lack the fundamentals to even drive someone back more than a single step.

Another thing I like to do is when my advanced colored belts do one-step sparing drills I don’t have them stop their strikes at their targets. I have the place their punches, kicks, knife hand strikes, etc on their targets and then they have to follow through and push through their targets displacing their partner. This is a great way to learn both balance and why it is important to use your entire body and not just your arm or leg. Most people end up trying to muscle through someone with just their arm and not their hips.

Bottom line, the reason why boxing is effective and the martial arts are perhaps not is that boxers train to hit people and martial artists don’t. I’m not saying that you need to train like a boxer and actually I think that’s quite counterproductive. An upward slap to the groin, a knife hand to the side of the neck, or a ridge hand to the throat will always be more effective that a punch aimed at a general area of the head. So you don’t have to put on gloves and dance around a boxing ring but you still have to focus on hitting people if you want to do it effectively.

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