Friday, October 30, 2020

Martial Misgivings: Faith-based Martial Arts

With this post I kick off a new series, Martial Misgivings, in which I'll look at aspects of the martial arts world that I have issues with. 

For this inaugural post, I want to take a look at what I call faith-based martial arts. By faith-based, I don't mean styles or schools tied to a specific religion, such as the "Christian Cajun Karate" dojo that used to operate out of my home town. Not that I don't have problems with that; I do. That just isn't what I'm referring to when I say faith-based martial arts.

What I am referring to are individuals whose belief in the validity of the techniques they are taught stems solely from faith as opposed to actual knowledge. 

An example: At the school I often train at, we once had a visiting student who had been practicing some form of Kung Fu for more than 10 years. Let's call him Grasshopper. He readily admitted that he had never sparred or tested any of the techniques he'd practiced against a noncompliant, resisting opponent. Before class started, I asked, in a polite way, if he ever questioned the efficacy of his art. Grasshopper admitted to having occasional flashes of doubt, but said in the end he had faith in his techniques because "Sifu says it works." He was sure he would do well in our class.

Sifu says....

Well, once class stared, I was paired with Grasshopper. He couldn't even deal with a very slow, telegraphed left jab that he knew was coming, much less a combination, and was totally lost in the clinch and on the ground. His sense of distancing was totally off when hitting focus mitts.

After class was over, we talked a bit more. Grasshopper said he felt a bit humbled, and thought he would have done better. His plan was to go back to his sifu and work even harder at getting better at the same techniques that hadn't worked in live training. This strikes me as an example of the sunk-cost fallacy. Grasshopper had already invested a decade of his life and who knows how much money learning ineffective techniques and no doubt uses that history to justify further investment of his time and money, despite new evidence — such as repeatedly getting hit in the head — suggesting that the future cost of continuing training outweighs the expected benefit.

(By the way, if you've trained for 10 years and are incapable of defending against even basic attacks, you aren't practicing a fighting art. You're practicing a dance.)

A few thoughts.... For one, having faith in a technique because "Sifu says it works" is, in my opinion, a straight-up cult-like way of thinking that has nothing to do with reason or logic. I'll post more on the cultish nature of some martial arts schools in the future, but suffice to say it's something I have no patience or tolerance for. I don't care how many "Supreme Mega Grandmaster Pompatus of Kung-Fu" made-up titles your instructor has in front of their name, that isn't an excuse to turn off your brain. Think for yourself. As Mikhail Bakunin wrote in his classic essay What is Authority?

"When it is a question of boots, I refer the matter to the authority of the cobbler; when it is a question of houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For each special area of knowledge I speak to the appropriate expert. But I allow neither the cobbler nor the architect nor the scientist to impose upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and verification. I do not content myself with consulting a single specific authority, but consult several. I compare their opinions and choose that which seems to me most accurate."

This way of thinking should absolutely apply to martial arts, especially if your principal goal is to learn practical techniques to defend yourself and others.

Real punches, real training.
So, how do you know if a technique works? You think like a scientist and you test it under pressure against a resisting opponent. Trav at Fight Smart puts it this way: Try your techniques on someone who wants to prove you wrong. I like that, and fully agree.

How do you pressure test a technique? The most obvious answer is sparring. Real sparring. Not Aikido randori or Tai Chi sticky hands. 

Some instructors I admire have issues with sparring. While I don't totally agree with their arguments (I'm definitely in the pro-sparring camp), I try to remain openminded and do not totally dismiss their points of view. However, sparring isn't the only way to pressure test techniques, nor should it be the only method used if you are serious about training. Another, possibly equally important tactic is to test techniques against a partner offering ever-escalating levels of resistance. 

Why even block that?
For example, if you're learning to parry a jab, I'll start off throwing fairly easy, somewhat slow open-hand jabs to your forehead. Note that I'll actually try to make contact with your head, and I won't leave my arm dangling out there either. That kind of training accomplishes nothing except to screw up a student's sense of distancing, yet you see it all the time. As you get better, I'll throw faster and harder. Then we'll put on helmets and gloves and I'll try to punch you in the face. Eventually I'll be throwing punches at about 70-80 percent power and speed.

Novelist and martial artist Barry Eisler did an excellent job summing up the need for this sort of live training:

"If you’re trying to learn how to weave off the line of an incoming punch, it helps if the punch is thrown by someone who’s really trying to knock your head off. If you’re trying to learn how to hit someone with a hip throw, it helps to learn how to do it against an opponent who’s trying his hardest to stop you. Yes, I know neither of these examples is the same as the 'real thing.' Training is an approximation. The closer the approximation, though, the better the training."

Some people will read all this and say, "But won't I get hurt?" Well, yes, sometimes. One of my martial arts mottoes is "If you always get hurt, you're training too hard. If you never get hurt, you're not training hard enough." Note by "hurt" I don't mean "injured." You shouldn't be breaking your bones (or your partner's!) or anything like that. On the other hand, expect  a few bruises, cuts, the occasional hyperextended joint, and other dings to your chassis. Yes, it will be tough, and you'll have to get used to a bit of pain, but as Alexander Suvorov, the last Generalissimo of the Russian Empire, famously said, "Train hard, fight easy."

One of the most common arguments I hear against pressure testing is the "our techniques are too deadly" canard. Sure they are. Where is the evidence? Where are the reputable reports of someone being killed by by your sifu's patented Five Fingers of Death blow? Do you have a study from a reputable, peer-reviewed medical journal explaining how the Five Fingers of Death blow works? And are your saying you are incapable of defending yourself without killing someone? That strikes me as a pretty limited martial art. 

I've also seen some rather stupid arguments against pressure testing. A few years ago, I came across a YouTube video making similar arguments to the ones I'm making here. One snarky commenter thought he was being clever in arguing that not all self-defense techniques need to be pressure tested. He wrote something along the lines of, "I know pushing someone off a tall building will kill them without pressure testing it." For one, pushing a non-resisting, non-threatening person off a building isn't self-defense or martial arts. It's murder. As for pushing a resisting, threatening person off a building, you actually can pressure test that if for some reason you thought you should. Put a couple of judo mats on the ground, imagine the mats are a rooftop, and try to push or throw your partner off. It might not prove as easy as the commenter thought. 

If you pressure test all your techniques against a resisting opponent, you won't have to rely on faith. You can rely on knowledge. Boxers know jab-cross-hook combo works because they've done it countless times and had it done to them countless times. BJJ practitioners know how to apply a rear-naked choke and they know how to escape a rear-naked choke. It isn't a matter of faith or belief. It's a matter of knowing based on evidence derived from constant testing. 

Pressure testing a choke.

Martial arts schools aren't churches, and self-defense isn't a religion. Insist on facts, not faith.

(Standard Martial Misgivings disclaimer: I practice martial arts first and foremost to learn and hone skills I can use to protect myself and others. It is from this perspective that I'm writing. Other people practice martial arts for different reasons, such as sport, self-improvement, or mastering an esoteric tradition. There's nothing wrong with that, and I do not criticize those motivations. They just aren't mine. Please keep that in mind when reading my posts.)

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