The problem with Martial Arts

Published: Fri, 10/13/23

This time last week I was preparing to drive to Salisbury to lead a course on Saturday. We had six people attend, which seemed to be just the right number in the circumstances and we worked with the four sticks which are the basis of Stav weapon training. Of course you need the physical dexterity to actually manipulate a stick, but such skills can be quite easily acquired with the right training and practice. Then the important bit is what do you want to do with the weapon? Simple drills are needed with which to train safely with another person, and each drill should build up the physical dexterity to move and use your body. Traditionally some martial arts put in a lot of effort learning long and complicated forms or katas with or without weapons. This is the cultural or ‘art’ aspect in ‘martial arts’, as black jacket grade in Lee style Kung Fu I can perform some of these forms. However, these days I call my approach to martial
arts ‘Principles Based Martial Arts’ because I have come to realise that what really matters is understanding the fundamental principles of how things work, rather than just being able to do long sequences of moves, however beautifully they are performed.
Looking back over the 50 years during which I have been involved in Martial Arts I realise that I have always been more interested in what I am learning from training rather than just learning to train. What do I come to understand from my practice? Rather than just practicing movements for the sake of it.
Regular gradings are an incentive to learn forms and other drills and there are a lot of people who achieved black belts, or even higher grades in martial arts, many years ago, but what have they done with it since? The emphasis is too often on perpetuating the system, rather than personal development in the individual. Participate, do what you are told, and we will measure your progress according to our curriculum and award you coloured belts to validate your progress. At some point you realise that belts are for holding up your trousers and providing somewhere to clip a knife pouch or a mobile phone case.
On the other hand, participation in training with other people provides a context in which to practice and thus learn from your practice. To me, the challenge for the instructor is to create an environment in which there is structured training and practice and yet encouragement of the personal development of each individual student. The challenge for each student is to participate in a training context with respect and cooperation while still developing their own understanding of principles. Finding this balance between inner and outer priorities is never going to be easy, so at least recognising the paradox is going to be a good start.
The Western principle of personal development used to be seen as apprentice, journeyman, and master. Start off with little or no knowledge and simply learn from a master as an apprentice. When ready, set out as a journeyman to put your skills to practical use, and perhaps work with others who can offer other perspectives. Then eventually be recognised as a master who can train apprentices of his or her own. This process may manifest in stages of a life time. Or, since principles apply on any scale, every skill or piece of knowledge however small, is going to be learned, worked with, and then mastered, perhaps even in the space of a few hours.
Perhaps here lies the real difference between martial arts which are intended for cultural, sporting, physical fitness, and social purposes and training for genuinely managing conflict situations. A system in which there is so much to learn that no one ever tries it all, let alone masters it, creates permanent apprentices. A principles based system will be simple enough to learn the essentials quite quickly and easily. The principles learned will work in any relevant situation, and on any scale. As an example, during the second world war effective close quarter combat training was needed for commandos and for agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). W E Fairburn had trained the Shanghi Police in martial skills during the 1930s and was brought in to use a concentrated distilation of his combat knowledge to create a system which could be taught rapidly under war time conditions.
During peacetime the majority of people have no interest in martial training at all. Those who do have an interest will mainly practice for cultural, social, or sporting reasons. However, as you may have noticed, circumstances can change in sudden and terrifying ways. When ordinary people do realise a need for self-protection then the person with knowledge of martial arts may be looked to for appropriate training. Somewhere in that 100 movement form which qualified you for a black belt there may be some useful techniques, but, do you know where to find them? The best guide to finding what is actually useful in your martial system is a genuine understanding of the principles of martial arts. The most fundamental concept being that intention comes first, in the sense of asking the question: What do you want to achieve in any given situation? Once your intention is clear, what combination of action and movement will enable you to
fulfill your intention? If that intention is unrealistic, then what intention can you fulfill with your available tactical resources and opportunities for movement? Dealing with real conflict situations are really that simple, if you can be honest and clear about your intentions.
Easier to demonstrate that write about, next course is in East Yorkshire on the 4th of November
Next course in Salisbury will be on the 9th of March 2024, and I will be going deeply into these principles at the 2024 Stav camp in July next year.
Graham Butcher
21 Beaver Road
Beverley East Yorkshire HU17 0QN

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