Full Circle: The End is Where We Started

A question was posed to me this week that I had to really think about in order to properly frame an answer. That Question:

How far behind can a person leave their martial arts center before they are unable to return to that center?

Some years back, much of it chronicled on this blog, I began to question certain aspects of the traditional Chinese Martial Arts which formed the center of my life in training, my views and practices regarding self-defense, and colored my view of other martial arts – in particular, newer expressions of the martial arts such as MMA (mixed martial arts). I dropped all belief in Qi power, I questioned the necessity of forms training, especially some of the street-performer nonsense. I went through a process of field-stripping the style I had been taught, studied the complex reality of violent conflict and found the traditional answers I had been fed were seriously lacking in any substance. I changed my curriculum, first by dropping supplemental forms, then dropping forms that just didn’t have the right feel. For a time, I dropped all forms, only to end up bringing in just a few.

But in a way, I think, I ended up much closer to my core system, Hung Gar. I do not teach it right now, and I refuse to claim any mastery or special insight. But as I took this journey of a thousand winding roads, I found that there is an incredible wealth of knowledge in Hung Gar, if only one is willing to do the work. The same must be true of other styles.

I was unable, for a time, to answer the question of whether I was a traditional martial artist, or something else. Looking at things now, I see that I am a traditional martial artist, and I always was. If you study the history (the real history) of martial arts; questions, doubts, and introspective study are very traditional, as are making changes to what you practice. The idea that martial arts are to be handed on completely unchanged is a very modern idea, much like the idea that a master must know several hundred kata.

You cannot ever truly leave your core system of study if you have trained seriously for any decent length of time. Hard training and time will make that style a part of you. No matter where you roam, or how far from home you stray, that core will be there, influencing everything you do. Although the different styles of martial art can vary greatly, they were based on actual conflict. It worked at some point and therefore there is a core of the system that is very functional. That is where you find the real treasure of learning in the martial arts.

Let the style be the style, but it is the core of the system that will allow you to protect yourself if that is what you are searching for in the martial arts.

The end result of my personal journey was that I ended up practicing some of the same forms and the same weapons as I did before I started questioning everything. The difference now is that I have a better understanding of why I am doing what I do. I have come full circle. The answers were always there, but the fact is that everyone has to find the answers in their own way. I have a deeper appreciation of the traditional martial arts, as well as the newer systems and approaches, like MMA. I found a new understanding, and therefore – appreciation of the sport-oriented martial arts. I learned so much from the reality based self-defense people that I have no hope of ever being able to repay them. They were the ones who told me not to reinvent the wheel. They encouraged me to find the practical value in what I had already spent so much time in training.

So, to answer the question; The question starts from a false assumption. It is not possible to leave your core training so far that return becomes impossible. Return can be uncomfortable, but not impossible. Your core style or system will be with you no matter what you do. When you have spent years ingraining a certain physical response to attacks, it will still be there even when you try to ignore it or drown it in other stuff. This will be true regardless of the martial arts style you have trained in. If you feel the need to branch out or walk the earth, do it. There really is no reason to not expand your experiences. But do it with the understanding that your core training will influence you no matter how far you think you have traveled from the center. The center is you.

Train in What?

The question comes up often, and I am sure I am not the only instructor who gets this question over and over.

You say I should train to protect myself, train in what style?

When I urge people to train, I am not suggesting that I am the only one who should teach them. I am certainly not trying to sell them lessons with me. If someone wants to train with me, great! If they want to train with someone else, great!

The point is in getting physically conditioned to be able to actually fight back when you need to, should you ever need to do so.

I have been around martial artists almost all of my life (so far). I have also been in enough situations where things went sideways that I can tell you without hesitation, most of their skills looked sloppy as buttered hell when training theory met improvised application. I never understood why until I was knocked goofy. When you get hit square in the nose, all of your theories fly away and all you will have left to work with is basics and whatever skills you have honed.

Get some training in anything. Improve your overall health, balance, focus, physical strength, awareness, and confidence. Training improves you on many levels.

I don’t care about style. I have, in the past, questioned the usefulness of some styles. I now see that if you like the style and the instructor, you will have a base. If you are willing to study and keep your mind open to the idea that your style does not have every answer, and that these answers can be found and mastered with some further outside study, you are going to be ahead of the curve. Yes, there are boxers who would not be able to stop a determined mugger, but I personally know some who would turn him inside-out. I poke fun at a lot of what goes on in sport karate, but there are some sport karate people who are also real fighters.

The old line about it not being about the style, but being about the person. Yeah. That one. It happens to be true.

When I say get training, I mean it. It is not a commercial for my school, system or style. I mean; find someone you like training with, in a style that is a good fit for your body and temperament, and train. 

Hopefully, you will never need to defend yourself or your loves ones from the bad guy. I really hope neither you nor I ever face that day. But there are people out there who hurt other people. I study this subject, and I can tell you; there are some scary individuals out there. You can hope the bad guy never sets his sights on you. Or, alternatively, you can be prepared so that if he ever does notice you, he gets the creeps and moves on with his day. Preferably  elsewhere.

I hope that answers the question. It isn’t about a commercial or chest thumping. I want people to be able to protect themselves effectively. The first step is going to be found in starting to train in some method of self-defense.

Talking Timing

I was asked to address the idea of talking down an aggressor.

My take may not be the same advice you get elsewhere, but here it is.

If we are talking about conflict engaged in by mutually willing people, then there is no talking things down. If two people want to fight, or if they both are servants of the inner monkey, things are going physical unless outside people intervene and stop them.

So, that one is futile.

If we are talking about an assault, talking them out of committing the crime is also a waste of time. The time to prevent them from attacking is during the interview stage, where they have not yet decided that you are the target of choice. Once they have zeroed in on you, the assault is going to happen, unless your fighting abilities hurt him bad enough to make him reconsider. This will take some skill and a lot of luck. Luck is not a good plan.

So, another waste of time.

Are we talking about an argument with a spouse or coworker? These tend to be emotionally charged. When both people are emotionally agitated, things will not be rational, and so reason is probably not going to make the point and win the day in the way you might hope.

I don’t want this to seem to doom-and-gloom.

There is a time and place for certain strategies. Talking down, deescalation, defuse, whatever term you want to apply – they are valuable, but timing is essential.

Generally speaking, the earlier you begin to tone down the inflammatory comments (you might consider them witty when you are the one making them), the better the outcome will be. And you must keep in mind that you only have a limited number of opportunities to get things right before you either need to catch a gear and leave or brace yourself for the attack.

Apply the deescalation strategies early.

Regarding assault, a very different critter from fighting, you need awareness first and foremost. You cannot deescalate the resource predator. You have to rely on not looking like a victim. Project an awareness that tells people that you know what is going on. Be aware of the signals you are sending out, but be aware of the signals they are sending out as well.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. You have to know your situation and be able to use your best judgement to handle it like a grown up. But the timing of your strategy has to be right, and well placed.

But how do you set that up?

I love talking to people who are smarter than me.

It amazes me just how many people are smarter than me! I get to engage in conversations with smarter people all of the time!

Today was one such day. I spoke with an old friend of mine who was able to give me an ah-ha moment, and put into words something that I have been unable to find the right phraseology to properly express.

In martial arts there are several categories of study.

Some people want to only practice forms for show. They want flash, fancy techniques and stuff that will get attention and wins in a martial sport tournament. There is nothing wrong with this endeavor, but it sets people up to fail in a crisis.

There are people who cross-train. They want traditional martial arts training and they want to get the gloves on and go fight. I have had the chance to see first hand how they can fail to see the dichotomy of their criticism of ITF Taekwondo using the sine-wave in kata, but failing to use it in sparring (because it is counterproductive), but then fail to see that their kickboxing looks nothing like the traditional martial art they are practicing themselves. Cognitive bias maybe? I don’t know. I’ve been hit in the head a lot.

There are people who study for application. They want to know how is this technique used?  Some martial styles are obvious in how a technique is used in a fight, some less so, and there are many degrees of interpretation.

While there are people who do teach what I will present here, there is still a large group out there who do not seem to get it.

There is a lot of work involved in getting to the point where the technique can be used. Yes, practice and repetition are a part of it. But if you do not understand how to set up a technique, you will never pull it off.

In speaking with my friend today, I used the example of wrestling. In the martial system that my friend and I both practice, Hung Gar, there is a practice called bridging where you first create contact with the adversary. In the system it is often said when there is a bridge, cross it, when there is no bridge, build one. To use the system, any system, there needs to be contact first. In wrestling, you are already starting in a position of contact. The bridge has already been created. But in either case, you have to know how to set up what you are trying to do or you will fail.

In my youth, the two went hand in hand and as such I never had to give it much thought. This is how you create contact, this is what you do with it.

But when you watch a lot of the martial artists show how to use their style or system, they have someone present a feed (a feigned attack that stops short and then remains motionless).

As a training tool, under limited practice, this has its uses.

But anyone can look good in this type of demonstration. To the beginners, this stuff looks like something out of  movie. To old codgers, it is lame.

If you are an instructor, teach how to set up the attacks, defenses, or applications you are teaching. If you are a student, ask how these are to be set up. Otherwise, you are going to be missing a huge component of your system.