Traditional views of the martial arts would have us believe that what the Master says, the student does. Unquestioning and conforming to all, the student is required to practice and rehearse routines and techniques, the application and use of which they sometimes have little or no idea of. Given the cultural proclivities of the societies in which many traditional arts developed, the issue of conformity and unquestioning adherence is considered central to the “correct” practice of martial arts. The progressive global evolution of martial arts has served to invite many additional cultural influences, generating different perspectives towards the interpretation of technique and indeed teaching styles.
One of the fundamental differences is the degree of analysis and understanding required as students progress their knowledge. Far from the blind adherence and conformity of tradition, modern martial artists often actively desire a deeper understanding of the application and function of the techniques and movements practiced. Whilst there is a solid argument here that any legitimate martial arts academy or class would provide this as standard, there are still those who would frown upon the student’s desire for a deeper insight and understanding. This article is not intended to present a case for the “pro” and “con” in regards of any teaching style, rather it is intended to address the answer to the most common question asked by students, “Sir, I get it but what if….?”
In most martial arts and combat sport classes we face the inevitable need to isolate and distill certain techniques and drills, to facilitate the specific practice and rehearsal of fundamental component elements. The good example that springs to mind here would be a basic four punch combination drill using a jab, cross, lead hook and rear upper cut. It may be that this combination is never used in the context of the fight, however we ask our students to practice it as it provides a great opportunity to develop greater sensitivity of weight transference, power generation, balance, accuracy and focus to name just some of the fundamental underpinning concepts. However, unless we coherently present this as a drill designed in part to reinforce all these concepts, it could be considered that we practice it is the best combination of punches to score or do damage in the fight. The student then sees this four punch string as the way. The way that it MUST happen. Some students (at their own peril) blindly accept this. Others present the confused argument of “Sir I get it...but what if I threw a cross instead on an uppercut?” The underpinning fundamental components can become lost in the specific rehearsal of the isolated techniques and drill. In fact it is understanding of these fundamental components that yields the greatest value to the practitioner, in particular a student who is in the early stages of their martial arts journey.
To ensure that there is a focus on developing an understanding of these underpinning concepts and components it is key that there is equal focus provided to variety of training modalities. Each specific modality of training has specific benefit and it’s own individual limitations. For example, practicing forms allows for focus on individual movement and technique acquisition without the necessity of a partner. When coupled with the correct understanding, focus and intention, training forms allows for the performance of full power technique without risk of injury to a training partner. However, forms training is also limited by the fact that there is no partner involved. When referencing technical applications, focusing techniques and acquiring an understanding of distance and accuracy, all these are aided by the presence of a partner. Set sparring may then be able to provide us with an answer to this limitation, providing the presence of a partner and allowing for practical rehearsal of the technical in a more realistic setting. Set sparring is however limited in its “aliveness” and obviously limits the opportunity for the participants to elicit technique at full power due to the need for safety. Neither training modality is inherently better than the other, what each presents is a different opportunity to look at the underlying components of the technical application. When completed together, as mutually supportive training modalities, they begin to offer the student a much more complete opportunity to meaningfully develop their technique.
Karate’s Iain Abernethy (7th Dan) (https://iainabernethy.co.uk) suggests that it is indeed the way that training modalities combine which contributes to the “realism” of training. Iain Abernethy is an expert in practical kata bunkai, and travels the globe providing seminars and teaching on the application of movements within forms. His suggestion is that we need to observe a training “matrix” (a term which suggests simply that we need a diversity of training modalities) to provide our training with a sense of realism. By definition, training can never be “real” due to concerns associated with safety, training efficiency and the need to develop specific skills. In this respect Iain suggests that any training modality will compromise “real combat” in specific areas. This doesn’t make the modality more or less worthwhile, it presents the practitioner with a requirement to analyse that specific modality and assess what compromises have been made. The result of this analysis then requires a further modality of training to be undertaken which fills the gaps, however by default this additional training modality will have it’s own individual compromises, therefore the process begins again and so on. The ultimate result of this analysis and addition (of training modes) is that we end with a diversity of training methods (a matrix) that when practiced equitably and in a balanced manner provides the best method for ensuring our training is practical and effective.
This need for diversity of training methods is as important to the development of underpinning concepts of martial arts, as it is to ensuring we develop practically effective technique. There can not be one without the other. Truly effective technical application is a product of coherent understanding of the underlying concepts of the art being studied. Moreover, for the practitioner to become free thinking in that art, to attain an understanding which allows for creativity and true individual expression, there must be significant understanding and a solid root in the underlying concepts of that art. From this root of understanding the practitioner can then better begin to identify how they can respond, apply and effectively express the technical skills they are developing. They can readily identify for themselves how best to interpret the technical applications of the drills and activities they are performing. Developing a deeper understanding of the underpinning concepts and immersing themselves within a diversity of training modalities allows the practitioner to be aware of their own potential within a given drill or set sequence. No longer are they blindly following the steps of those that have gone before, they are beginning to understand how they fit into these footprints and by definition of this create a footprint of their own.
Understanding the art from a diversity of perspectives and training modes is fundamental to growth, both for the individual and the art itself. Through the diversity of modalities, the practitioner is provided with the opportunity to identify how the underlying concept and principles are applied in that specific context. By combining these modalities into a holistic “training matrix” where each component aspect supports understanding, growth and development of the next the practitioner can develop their own personal and individual expression.