Friends, there is a problem with martial arts. This is similar to the demarcation problem in science and it goes like this:
How do we tell the good martial arts from the bad?
I’ve spent years thinking about this problem of “martial arts demarcation” (or “martialcation” if you will) and I’ve come up with something of an answer:
All martial arts are good, in their own way.
And yet, as far as I can tell, none of them are quite good enough, not yet.
The first thing I must say before going into this is that there is so much variation within martial arts styles that any targeted criticism of a particular style will always fall down eventually. For example, one criticism of Kung Fu is that it doesn’t have a proper ground game, so its practitioners can be vulnerable if they get into a wrestling situation. This is a fair point, that all Kung Fu practitioners need to address. But some Kung Fu schools do already recognise it and do their best to incorporate wrestling into their training.
So any criticism I level at a particular style should not be taken as a universal one. It’s just a criticism of the style in general. If you are a practitioner of that art and have found a way of overcome the limitation in question then that’s great. It is in fact exactly what I propose all martial artists do.
Anyway, when trying to solve the martialcation problem you first have to decide what “good” even means in the context of martial arts.
Maybe it’s just being able to beat someone up. But most violent people don’t even need a martial art to accomplish a good beating. So this might lead one to feel that all that is needed from a martial art is the ability to find people smaller than one, and to distract them for a few seconds.
One might go a bit further and think that a good martial is also good at beating people who do other martial arts, and this is a good principle to keep in mind but it can’t be the whole story (as I’ll explain later).
It also provokes the question of what to do with martial arts that aren’t good against other martial arts. After all there are many different reasons why one goes into martial arts in the first place. Spirituality, exercise, camaraderie, self-control, and the simple fact that martial arts training is frikking cool.
These are all common reasons for joining a martial arts school, and they are all good reasons, but we have to draw the line somewhere and for me it is here:
IA) If you’re not learning how to defend yourself then you are not doing a martial art.
This seems like an entirely neutral statement until you read my next point:
IB) If you are not doing some sort of realistic sparring then you are not learning how to defend yourself.
I take a very broad definition of “realistic” (the idea can after all cover an array of possible training methods). In fact in order for me to classify you as “realistic” you only need to live up to the following point:
IC) If you are not learning how to apply your technique against an opponent who is trying to defeat you, then you are not doing realistic sparring, so you are not learning to defend yourself, and you are therefore not doing a martial art.
Many of my more martial-savvy readers will realise that this is a direct and deliberate criticism of several martial arts, particularly Aikido. Almost all of the Aikido schools I’ve seen, or trained in, have only used partner drills (like I said above: I know that there are exceptions, but this is still a general trend).
A partner drill is when you and a partner practice a technique together. It’s an important part of any martial arts training because it’s very difficult to learn the basics of a technique against someone who is trying to stop you.
Partner drills are effective and necessary, but they are far from a complete solution. In fact if they are all that you are doing they can be downright detrimental. It has already been noted by some martial artists that if both you and your partner are trying to get a technique to succeed then your partner is probably masking some of your mistakes, so if this is all you ever do then you are never going to completely master your art.
I would go further than that and say that if you never practice with people who are trying to stop the technique then you are unlikely to ever be able to use it in the real world against people who will be doing precisely that.
True mastery of a martial arts technique doesn’t just mean success despite your opponents’ efforts, it means using your opponents’ efforts against them.
And you can’t learn that with someone who is just going along for the ride.
Tai Chi is another martial art that usually falls into this trap; it doesn’t incorporate realistic sparring, so it is not a real martial art, at least not any more.
Back in the day Tai Chi practitioners did use their art as a legitimate fighting style. But that’s sort of my point: back then people got into fights all the time, so Tai Chi practitioners had an opportunity to develop their art in the really real world.
These days that doesn’t happen much, and I don’t know of any Tai Chi schools that do realistic sparring. I’m sure there are some out there, I just don’t know about any.