Don’t check your brain at the door…

In the martial arts we have a very strange habit of taking off our shoes when we enter the training area. This is the reason most martial arts schools smell like a strange mix of sweat, and feet. The original reason for this ritual is probably a simple matter, like sandals fly off when you kick, or something along that line. I have heard very creative reasons given, such as “we take our shoes off to keep the dirt from outside where it belongs, outside. It is symbolic of the larger idea that personal issues are to be left outside of the training hall.”

Fun stuff.

Just as often, we also tend to leave our brains outside as well. We can be rational, intelligent, competent individuals outside of the dojo, but once our feet hit the floor of the training hall, we somehow willingly give up our intellectual freedom.

I have written at length recently on the moronic mysticism that so permeates the martial arts as to leave we devotees looking pretty asinine. I do not intend to revisit that aspect of the subject here. I am going to look at a more practical aspect. Below are some of the unexamined misconceptions to be found in most martial arts schools.

The Black Belt is always right. Martial arts Black Belts and Instructors are human. Just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect instructors. People, every single one of us have good and bad qualities. A friend of mine relayed a story to me once about an instructor who, while holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, admonished him to “learn to think like a champion”.

As students, we tend to take every word from the instructor’s mouth as being rock solid fact. And although it is sad to admit, we rarely take a moment to examine what we are being told. Leaving aside the mystical claims, we are still told some pretty strange things. We have a strange concept of the black belt as being a morally superior human. A simple google search can turn up over a million results on black belts who commit crimes. And many of these crimes are not simple self-defense gone too far. Assault, extortion, murder, rape, crimes against children, and the list goes on. No, a black belt means that you have trained in a system for the prescribed length of time and can meet the minimal physical requirements set forward by whatever sanctioning body you are attached to. It has nothing whatsoever to do with ethics or character.

Martial arts can build character. But it will require the right approach from both teacher and student or it will not work.

Related to the “Black Belt is always right” is the mistaken conclusion that “the black belt knows everything”.

I am just as stupid as anyone else on many subjects. I make mistakes every single day, and I am blessed to have many opportunities each day to discover that I am wrong about something. If you keep your eyes open, you might just find that Black Belts get flustered when proven wrong, and will very often throw out many logical fallacies in order to prop up their opinion on the topic in which they were just shown to be wrong. Most often, in my experience, the “master” will use the Appeal to Authority. When shown that they are wrong, they come up with “Grandmaster Stin Kee Toes said, “Blah blah, blah.” The idea being that “Grandmaster Sin Kee Toes is an expert on this subject, and he agrees with me, so therefore I am right.” That dog won’t hunt…

All you need to know about self-defense. There are the claims about how the practice of kata, or sparring will teach you how to handle a real self-defense situation.

While I love to train forms, and in my younger days sparring was life, neither one will teach you what to do when someone steps up behind you and cracks your skull with a baseball bat. In looking at the statistics from the Department of Justice’s website, 76.4% of the time the criminal was the first to use violence in the situation. What this means is that the violence occurred before the victim knew the situation was going to become violent. Action is, and always will be faster than reaction. The attacker knows going in what they intend to do, and they are prepared for it. You were going along in your day, and things took a drastic turn. When you are in this situation, nearly everything you learned in the dojo is going to be unavailable to you. Another interesting fact from the site is that resisting the attacker made them angrier and more aggressive 66.1% of the time. Women are injured more often than men in a violent encounter. Time does not permit, nor does inclination urge me to go into great detail of these statistics and what they mean, you can view all of the stats here:  

So, most of what we are told in the dojo about self-defense is not true. The training hall is a good place to be, get a workout, hang with like-minded friends, and hit people. But self-defense is a legal term, and most of what we are taught in the dojo is not self-defense, it is assault.

Lineage. We are taught to place much more importance on the idea of lineage than we really should. True enough, lineage can show that a person comes from a legitimate line. And very often in our modern world, with all of the training videos on the internet, one should be careful to select an instructor who actually trained in a system and didn’t just memorize some forms off of the internet. But beyond this, is lineage that important? Or is it the fallacy of the Appeal to Authority? I have stated before, and others before me that the famous masters of the past were well-known because they were well-known, and not because they were the best. If my lineage passed through the famous Wong Fei Hung, does that really mean that my kung fu is more legitimate than someone whose lineage did not? I don’t buy it. The legitimacy of my kung fu is found in the kung fu itself, and nowhere else. I do not recognize the need to cling to well-known people from the past in order to legitimize myself or my style.

When an instructor goes on and on about lineage, to me it screams of one thing – insecurity. In trying to continually show that he is legitimate, he starts to look less and less so. And in any other field of study; medicine, science, technology, you name it, modern means progress. There is no way on earth that we know less about kinesiology, proper training, etc. than what  they knew 200 years ago. That entire line of reasoning is just fatuous.

A Black Belt knows how to teach.  Knowing how to perform a technique, and teaching someone else to perform that technique with the desired level of skill are two completely different fields of study. Most black belt instructors have not gone through any training in how to teach, and just rely on what their instructor did. Unfortunately, their instructor probably just relied on how his instructor did things. This is not, and never should be confused with actual teaching. The martial arts organizations, in large part, have overlooked the real value to be found in setting up and running an instructor trainee program. IN most organizations, the trainee program is nothing more than putting the trainee at the front of the room and telling them to teach. Placed in this situation what will the trainee most likely do? You guessed it – he will do what his instructor did! So it isn’t really an instructor training program at all, it is a way for the instructor to get someone to do his work for him, without paying him!

These are just a few of the unexamined practices that can be found in most martial arts schools around the world. The list goes on, but the main message is simple. Don’t take anything for granted, and don’t take it as fact based solely on the instructor’s word, or the sheepish mindset of the students. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and legitimate and honest instructors are not afraid of, nor offended by questions.