One of the most misunderstood issues of martial arts is context. Among martial artists of different styles, you can hear endless arguments about which style is better. Practitioners will argue which knuckles to strike with, the merits of stand-up vs ground fighting skills, and traditional methods of training vs modern ones. What they often fail to look at is context.
As far as the debate over superiority of style, I submit that it is…contextual. Every style, or system, of martial arts emerged as a practical answer to a particular need for particular people, at a particular place and time. For them, the system they developed was appropriate and effective. They were never meant to be set in stone. During the times of the origins of traditional martial arts styles/systems, new ideas were investigated for merit and the systems were edited to incorporate new methods. That is how they became systems in the first place, and continued to evolve over time. Practitioners of “traditional” arts should understand that the art they practice is just that, a tradition, and it’s context of application is historical. That’s not to say that there aren’t many practical lessons to be learned that apply to our modern context, but there is, perhaps…a bit of translation to be done at times.
Wherever you stand on the issue of style, there is a context that I think is far more crucial than that debate – what are you training for? The answer to this question is perhaps the single greatest element in deciding the path you should take in the martial arts. While that answer is infinitely individual in its precise details, there are a few general categories of purpose for which someone may find themselves studying martial arts. Generally speaking, most people are either in martial arts for fitness and wellness, the art, sport, self-protection, or job related skills. Each of these contexts calls for a different approach to training, both in content and method.
Rather than going down the list of contexts and their appropriate training paths, I’m going to focus on one: self-protection. The reason for this focus is that many of us in the martial arts mistake which context we’re training for. Often, martial artists are just that – artists. They love the culture, the philosophy, feeling of practice, and the community of their brothers and sisters in training. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s a wonderful thing and something I thoroughly relate to and enjoy. However, it’s a mistake to equate such training with preparation for self-protection. As lovers of the art we tend to dive deep into the details of the correct way to stand, throw a punch, execute a block, perform a routine, etc. We spend hours practicing techniques on the mat. What we don’t do enough of is practice having an escalated conversation that erupts into a sucker punch-flurry, or being ambushed by a rabid knifer while glancing at our smart-phone. Unless your context is combat sports, military, or police personnel, those are the kind of situations in which you’re going to find yourself called upon to use your training. Unless you’re one of those guys who says, “Alright! You and me outside!” you’re not going to find yourself squaring off with a single opponent. Techniques are important, but recognizing that they are just one small piece of the self-protection puzzle is more important.
What about combat sports? MMA practitioners train hard and constantly prove their skills in the octagon. Most would probably feel they’re prepared to protect themselves. I wonder though, when was the last time they trained on concrete or asphalt, or their opponent pulled out a knife, or they faced multiple opponents? When was the last time they practiced staring down the barrel of a gun? People who want to hurt you don’t announce themselves and they don’t fight fair. That’s what combat sport training prepares you for – a fair fight against a single known opponent at a particular place and time. That’s not to take anything away from sport combatants. They are the absolute best at what they do, and their training is appropriate for that context. However, it’s not preparation for self protection. Neither is military training. Even though they train to deal with all manner of armed attacks (depending highly on what their job is) their context is different. Their job is to go into a combat zone against enemies that are known and armed. They seek out that danger at a time and place, often of their choosing. They engage with the highest possible advantage with the goal of neutralizing the enemy. With this context, their preparation is vastly different from a civilian who may be assaulted by a criminal. Perhaps the nearest to our context is that of police with some very important differences. Police, like the military, move toward danger. It’s in the job description. Unlike the military, they don’t always know when a situation will go from routine to life and death. In that way, their context is similar. However, police are there to arrest criminals. We civilians are not. Perhaps the most innocent, in terms of appropriateness of training to context, are those who engage in the martial arts for personal fitness and wellness. They often have no illusions of combative grandeur. They enjoy the activity as an alternative way to be in shape and de-stress.
The point is that none of these paths are wrong. If your training fits the context of your purpose – great! This is a call to martial artists to check their premises. Look at your training and ask yourself if you’re really preparing for the fight that could be coming your way. Recognize what your training accomplishes and what it doesn’t, and be honest with yourself about what you want from it. Then make adjustments accordingly. Being a traditional martial artist myself, I know that this can mean a hard look in the mirror. I think many of us are drawn to the martial arts out of a fantasy, fed by movies and comic books, that martial arts will provide some kind of super powers with which we can smite evil, and kung fu any mindless thug through a wall with ease. The truth is that training – proper training – gives you a fighting chance where you wouldn’t have had one. Hand to hand skills are an important tool in the self-protection box, but it’s not enough just to own that tool. You have to know what the situations in which you need that tool look and feel like. I encourage you to go on YouTube and look up videos of assaults. Look at the whole situation and analyze what can be done to protect one’s self in such situations. Reverse engineer your training from real-life attacks. Take notice when hand to hand skills would – or did – come into play, what happened before, what happened after and to what degree were hand to hand skills appropriate or necessary. In this way you can begin to create a bridge between your mat skills and preparing to protect yourself.