Martial Arts Education

A Real Martial Arts Education:
Are YOU Getting One?
by R. F. Bresch
The martial arts are universal in their appeal. They have something for everyone, regardless of age or gender. The martial arts are generally viewed as methods of self defense and are often used as a means of physical conditioning. What the martial arts truly mean to you depends on your individual purpose for training.
It could literally take an individual his entire life to define exactly what his martial art means to him on a personal level. You may start training for one reason and then find that your purpose changes over time. You may be interested in self-defense and then shift your focus towards fighting and physical conditioning. You might even decide, as you grow older, that you are more interested in some of the dance like movements designed to enhance your health and endurance.
Culturally, the martial arts are a puzzle. They have deadly techniques but at the same time teach you to be gentle, to avoid violence and to have peace and harmony within your life. Is there an attitude of harmony in the midst of the violent techniques harbored within the martial arts? One theory is that the sheer power of the killing blows used in the martial arts are enough to cause a person to respect his own body as well as the bodies of others. As a result, the martial arts force self-respect. Another theory is that working out in the dojo/dojang (training gym) gives individuals a place to release the hostile feelings and aggression that he might normally channel towards others.
Do the martial arts relax tension? Which theory is correct? All have some truth but the truth is that the martial arts do help to improve a person’s character. The martial arts offer everyone who participates a method for developing their own abilities – to push themselves to their own limits while testing themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually. No matter how long you study the martial arts you’ll gain at least a few benefits, whether they come in the form of improved health, self-confidence, or insight into your own life.
There are six different elements to martial arts training. These elements are universal and are important to your studies no matter which style you choose to practice. The only difference is the practitioner’s purpose for training. These elements are demonstrated in your mental focus, basic techniques, forms (hyungs or katas), self-defense, sparring or free fighting, and breaking.
The Mental Aspects of the Martial Arts
The mental aspects of the martial arts emphasize the importance of the principles and creeds of your martial arts. Students learn discipline and respect as well as self-reliance, concentration, and self-control – all of which are stressed as important aspects of everyday life.
The Basic Movements
In most martial art programs, students will be asked to start by learning a series of basic techniques, usually including blocking, striking, and kicking. In my opinion, the "art" should be stressed in all schools and not just for fighting. In many of today’s modern schools, students are taught to make physical movements but they are not taught the physical or energetic dynamics of each. Most are simply shown what to do but are never given an understanding of the movement’s basic mechanics or purpose.
An example of a movement that is commonly misinterpreted by students is the basic front snap kick. As with most other kicks, the basic front snap kick has four parts:
1. Knee up/chamber
2. Extend kick
3. Re-chamber
4. Landing, either in forward stance or back in original stance
These four components provide beginners with a general idea but lack the basic mechanics that make the kick effective. Most teachers don’t stress the importance of keeping the hips straight and some even forget to tell their students to pull their toes back and hit with the ball of the foot. Not hitting with the ball of the foot, for example, can result in serious injuries to the foot itself, including broken toes.
The targets for the front snap kick vary as well, depending on the level of the kick. A low snap kick, for example, would be targeted at the groin or the knee. A high snap kick, on the other hand, might be targeted under the chin. Aiming at any of these targets could cause injury to the kicker if proper body mechanics are not used.
New, beginning students need to be taught proper mechanics from the very beginning. There should be no excuse for poor technique mechanics after white belt. I have found that there are three main reasons for poor mechanics. These include:
1. Lack of proper teaching methods
2. An instructor failing to correct a student with improper technique
3. The instructor believes a student should be able to figure things out on his own
Some martial arts instructors watch as students give less than 100% effort during classes. The saying "You are what you repeatedly do" is true. Students who come to class and give lazy, half-hearted efforts will never develop any martial arts talent. Lazy habits lead to ineffective martial arts. This concept applies to every aspect of training, including forms and basics. Strong, informed, and effective training habits are essential to forming a positive base foundation for good martial arts.
Another thing commonly left out of most martial instruction is information about the actual damage that the techniques students are learning can cause. Students are taught to execute techniques in a safe manner while practicing so that they don’t hurt themselves or their training partners. Is this really an effective way of training – especially if a student doesn’t understand what target he is aiming at or how it will impact the person he strikes with full force?
I recently read that the martial arts were developed thousands of years ago as a form of defense against animals. Thousands of years ago this may have been the case. Let us not forget the styles created in the past few hundred years though. These martial art forms are the ones that were practiced during times of war. They were practiced as a means of self defense for soldiers as well as for civilians. If this is true than the techniques we practice today were originally meant to do a significant amount of damage, if not cause death. The need for safety is always important but the real, equally important techniques need to be taught as well – if for nothing other than self defense purposes.
Forms (Hyungs, Katas)
A form is a set pattern of techniques that students practice at all levels. Learning forms increases the student’s comprehension and memorization abilities. Forms drill basic techniques while teaching strategy, tactics, timing and balance.
Forms consist of various blocks and strikes patterned to develop control, rhythm, power, balance, and speed. As an exercise it is part of the progression in which the art conditions the mind, body, and spirit. Each form has its own character, just as each person does. These characteristics may be used as a basis for evaluating a form.
In addition to reinforcing the basics, most forms were designed in their set pattern to teach defenses and counters against attackers. In some styles of martial arts the forms were designed to teach its practitioners the three different levels of energy it takes to perform each different technique – low, middle, and high. Each technique is executed in one of the three levels. This particular principle is unfortunately not something that is taught in every style of martial art.
Many instructors only take their students through the motions of the form without explaining why or how the techniques are applied. I’ve found that there are twelve elements of forms that if applied and understood can help a student truly perfect their forms:
· Form sequence refers to a person’s ability to learn the form and perform it from start to finish.
· Power control refers to a person’s ability to control his power, understanding when to decrease or increase power as he completes each technique
· Tension and relaxation is applied to each technique, usually one or the other. Knowing when to show tension and relaxation in a technique is crucial to proper form execution.
· Speed and rhythm control is essential as most forms are performed almost to a beat. Practitioners must be able to find a beat and stick with it throughout the duration of the form. Performing your form too quickly or too slow demonstrates improper execution.
· Direction of movement refers to knowing where you need to move and how you are going to get there. Practitioners must know what steps to take, at what angles they should be taken, and how to perform techniques from those directions.
· Spirit or attitude refers to the energy you put into performing your form. Practitioners must learn to keep their spirits up at all time in order to keep their kias loud and strong throughout the entire form.
· Power of technique refers to the level of power needed to execute each technique in the form. Practitioners must learn which level each technique should be executed from and practice performing the techniques so that they have the same level of power every time they are used.
· Understanding form technique refers to knowing what each technique is, what it is called, and how it is used.
· Distinct features refers to the unique way in which each form was designed. They all have unique features, whether they are blocks, strikes, kicks, or a combination thereof. These features are usually used as mental triggers to help a student remember his forms.
· Precision of movements refers to the accuracy of your techniques and stances. If a form calls for a practitioner to be in a horse stance, for example, than the practitioner should be in a properly formed horse stance. Anything else is unacceptable.
· Intentness is your ability to keep your focus locked on your form from start to finish. You should not allow yourself any distractions.
· Perfect finish. End your form with just as much energy as you started with. You should either keep the same level of energy throughout the form or find it increasing as you progress but it should never diminish.
Self Defense
Self defense drills allow students to practice techniques against a known attack. They allow students to learn about correct distance and timing, which are two critical factors in a real confrontation. The goal in self defense practice is to help a student develop automatic responses to certain situations. This is a very controlled, safe, way of practice that often involves little to no contact.
True self defense involves preparation in order to minimize the possibility of an attack to begin with. Many attack victims became victims not because they did not know how to defend themselves but because they had no idea how to identify a dangerous situation. Through hard work, dedication, effort, and desire a practitioner can gain enough knowledge to greatly improve his chances and overcome his odds of becoming a victim.
Students today parrot the techniques they are taught simply because that is what they are told to do but often do not have a proper understanding of how or why a technique is used or why it is effective. Part of the reason for this confusion is because students are expected to practice their techniques in the air or while looking in the mirror.
Working with a partner in a controlled situation, on the other hand, gives practitioners the ability to get a feel for how a technique really works. They begin to understand why things work as well as the proper targets for each strike. They are no longer simply going through the motions without any idea of how their techniques would apply in real life situations. Watching the instructor and his assistant demonstrate will only provide a limited amount of insight into the mechanics of any given technique.
Every style or organization claims to have the most effective system of self defense. Each of these systems is effective in its own way because it teaches self defense against known attacks or grabs. Despite its level of effectiveness, the more complex the system of self defense the less likely it is to actually work when you need it most. No matter how effective or simple a system may seem there is always the chance for an unexpected problem or barrier. This is why martial arts practitioners must learn to "expect the unexpected."
The truth is that most self defense systems only lay a good foundation for self defense. Because unexpected problems may arise, some techniques may work and others may not. This is why it is important to learn to improvise, so that if you run into a strange situation you will not reach for a set series of techniques that are suddenly no longer effective. The main reason this occurs is because as a person’s adrenaline rises his fine motor skills begin to fail and he can no longer draw on the fancy martial self defense techniques he has spent so much time practicing.
Sparring or Free Fighting
Sparring allows students to free associate techniques with one another in a controlled environment. The goal is for students not to fight but to practice defending themselves in an improvised and monitored situation. In this area of training we teach students how to flow freely in a controlled environment so that they can experiment with the skills they’ve learned even if they aren’t necessarily the most street practical.
In this day and age, safety in training is an absolute MUST and, therefore, protective gear is worn at all times. Whereas I completely agree with the need for safety at all times I do believe that some types of gear actually restrict movement. This restriction, on the other hand, should not affect the way a student learns or his ability to protect himself in the street.
The truth of the matter is that a student can become injured with or without safety equipment. In a real life self defense situation the same risk of injury will be present. In order to effectively defend yourself in real life you must be prepared to take these risks. Are you prepared enough to be able to defend yourself?
Board Breaking
The practice of breaking wood teaches students to concentrate while focusing their minds on correctly targeting a technique. Breaking is usually seen during promotional tests, demonstrations or at tournaments. Breaking also helps students break through the mental barriers that limit their achievements, thus improving self confidence.
The art of breaking is based purely on power rather than physical strength. It is controversial as to the physical components that make up power. Thanks to a very wise master of the arts I have found that speed, balance, weight, accuracy, and alignment are the components needed for true power. Anyone who can incorporate the proper mental and physical attributes of power can break a board.
Breaking a single piece of wood is easy enough that even a child can do it but even a child must have a "yes I can" attitude, proper technique, and proper application of power. As you advance in your training you will learn how to apply these principles in a more controlled manner. This is generally why you see black belts and other high degree students breaking larger stacks of wood, bricks, blocks of ice, baseball bats, and other strange pieces. In this area of the martial arts you’ll find that physical size does not matter as much as the amount of mental and physical power you apply to your techniques.
So are you getting a real martial arts education? If not than you may need to make a change. Your life is real and your martial arts education should be, too.
This article completed with:
Consultation by: Grandmaster F.G. Blair, 8th Dan Black Belt, Tae Kwon Do Moo Duk Kwan Association, USA
Revisions and editing by: Deborah Dera