Path To the Perfect Martial Arts Student, pt II (The Laboratory)

There are many reasons to study the martial arts, and not all of them are to learn to beat people up. However, they all involve combat. Does this sound like a contradiction?

I’m sure it does, but I assure you, combat and training for combat does not always equate to beating people up. For example, in American football–you learn to rough up the opponents. You knock them down, you hit them, you throw them, you evade them, you block them. But American football is not wrestling, and someone who just goes in to hit, knock down and injure is not exactly “playing football”. Those actions are not the goal of football either, even if roughing up people is the reason you enjoy it. The goal of football is to run the ball into the end zone, to kick the ball through the goal–or stop the opposing team from accomplishing either goal. For the martial arts, depending on which culture your art is from, the original purpose for those arts can range from disciplining the minds of monks in China to preventing an outside power from invading your land in the Philippines. Fighting can be central to an art or a mission–but the goal can be completely different and merely enhanced slightly by fighting. Look at Tae Bo (don’t laugh!)–a great way to lose weight. Exercises and movements come from fighting, but fighting isn’t the purpose of those who do it–not even why it was created.

We can remove the art from the system to make it a sport, as well as remove the fighting from the art to make it a discipline. In many places in America, Arnis is not used for a fighting art as much as it is a way for some cultural groups to attract young people to learn more about their culture and take pride in where we came from. In the school system, martial arts is taught as an afterschool activity, as a way of giving children something to do and deal with boredom. I taught the martial arts for years for free because I wanted to give kids something to do as an alternative to hanging out or intramural sports. The agreement the school system made was that they would give me access to their gyms as long as the children did not do any fighting (they gave me schools in low income areas already overrun by gangs). As much as I dislike that approach, I had to realize I wanted to do a service and this was the only way I could do it. So in this way, it was just a pastime. My students still learned the techniques, they hit the targets, learned hand conditioning, even learned to strike with the weapon, but did not participate in sparring.

Through my teachings, I had several children come to me and say they wanted to learn to fight, but their parents could not afford to pay for lessons. Those who had the money I allowed to join at a discount, and those who did not, I gave “scholarships”. I discovered something amazing through this. I had long advocated the need for sparring to learn to fight. But for four years, I taught this group martial arts with no sparring at all. When the few students who opted to train at my school came over, I discovered that many actually did know how to fight! The target-hitting, the punching and kicking in the air, the single stick drills had done some good. As soon as they began sparring, there was an awkward stage where they had to get a feel for the techniques before they became effective. I expected that. Some kids got it right away. I found that those who could spar right away did the most practicing on their own, and visualized themselves fighting. This went a long way, apparently, because almost immediately when they had donned gloves and helmets and padded sticks–they had instant access to their knowledge’s effectiveness. It was at that point I realized a reality of sparring:

Sparring is not to discover what techniques work–but to discover how they work.

I’d never been a fan of the “discovering what works” cliche. In my opinion, everything works. We only learn to make things work by finding out how and when to apply the skills, and develop our skills with them to the point that we can impose our will upon our opponents and his skills. What does this mean?

Simply this:  We must know more than what techniques “work”. As I said, they all “work”. We must know what techniques to use, which opponents and situations to apply them, when the best time to use them, and what it feels like to use the techniques. I can learn a nice spinning hook kick, get the skill to throw the most beautiful, the fastest, even the most powerful spinning hook kick. But until I know what it feels like to hit an opponent with this kick, I won’t be able to use it. Until I know what an opponent can do in response to that kick, I won’t be able to use it. Until I know what to do after I throw the kick, I won’t be able to use it. I must know what the possible counters to the kick are–and have a response to those counters. I must know when not to throw the kick and who not to try the kick on. I have to know how to throw the kick as a counter as well as how to throw the kick as an attack. I must know how to set the kick up. I should know what areas of the opponent’s body to aim for and what it will do. For example, most people think of the spinning hook kick as a high kick. After all, it doesn’t make sense to hit a guy with a spinning hook in the chest, common sense would tell you that. However, I have discovered that the spin hook can also be used as an attack against the inner thigh as well as the shin (as a sort of sweep). I also discovered a way to use the spin hook against the opponent’s back leg round kick, and if I hit you with it–there is NO counter against it. If I explained it to you, even showed it–you wouldn’t get it. You’d probably even tell me I was crazy. But spar with me, and let me hit you with it–you’ll be a believer AND you will be in the gym when you get home trying to figure it out. There are many lessons that will only be revealed to you after you have tried them out in sparring. The gym is essentially the place where theories and rules are learned. Sparring is the laboratory where those theories and rules are not tested–but understood. The mind and the gym after sparring is where new theories and techniques are created. Wash, rinse, repeat. True learning will involve you going through this process many times over. Until you have done every stage, over and over and over–you have not actually gone through the learning process. Remember this very valuable rule.

And this is one of the secrets of the Masters. It cannot be taught in a seminar, it cannot be put in a videotape or a book. Even if I showed you these things and you practiced them, they will not be learned until you try them out against several live, resisting, combative opponents.  There is a very valuable saying in the martial arts:  Sometimes, you must win. Sometimes, you must learn. There are many reasons to spar and compete. If you want to truly learn the martial arts, you will have to–there is no way around it. But it is not to decide for yourself what works–that is a fallacy. It’s not even “what works for me”–another fallacy. When I hear a guy say, “high kicks don’t work”, he thinks he is saying high kicks are ineffective, even if he’s tried it. What he is saying is, “I can’t kick high. I tried, and I suck at it.” I hear the same thing when a guy says, “Point fighting sucks/point fighting makes bad habits/blah blah blah…”–I hear, “I tried it and I suck at it”. Beat a point fighter, then say it. Most people simply have not learned to do it, or they haven’t learned to reap the benefits of point fighting… These masters have tried things out and have a deeper understanding of them; yet not all things can be taught or imparted. They transmit what they can, but the higher levels of understanding can only come from doing it yourself. This is why I say that short training experiences can be counterbalanced by longer periods of fighting experience. You can learn only a portion of a system’s curriculum, but develop a very deep level of understanding through actual experience using those skills–and then gain more skills and ability than someone who stayed in the gym long enough to learn everything (and never get concrete, actual experience). These seminar junkies who get certified in 5+ styles, but have logged in fewer than 10 competition fights are a perfect example. Collecting Black Belts and teaching certifications, but have no actual experience and understanding while fighting with those skills = Complete waste of time.

As a martial arts student, it is exciting to learn new arts and techniques. Regardless of your reasons for doing so, remember that you have not actually “learned” those skills until you have exhausted your ability to understand them by fighting with them–in any format. Whether in point, round-robins, full-contact, or whatever. You must use your knowledge to really understand what it is you’re doing.

If mastery is what you are after, mastering the learning process is the only way to begin that journey. Not to determine if your grandmaster was right or wrong in choosing your style’s techniques (honestly, that’s what “finding out what works” is so arrogantly trying to imply)–but to unlock the secrets of what your grandmaster has buried for you in his curriculum. By learning how his system works.

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Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

4 thoughts on “Path To the Perfect Martial Arts Student, pt II (The Laboratory)”

  1. Another great post. You have shared a great deal of practical philosophy her in terms of martial arts study. Thank you for this!


  2. i have a minor disagreement with your statement:

    “Sparring is not to discover what techniques work–but to discover how they work.”
    i think it should be
    “Sparring is not to discover what techniques work–but to discover how and when to apply the technique(s) ”

    i say that because generally most practitioners know how the technique work (in theory); that is what comes with the hours of practice that gets beaten it into your head figuratively (and sometime literally).

    for example i’ve been working on disarms for a little bit and i know the details of a few of them pretty good. the intercepting strike to use, the footwork to get into range and position the opponent, hand placement, etc, etc.

    so about month ago i was live stick sparring and decided i would try some. well the tryout didint work out so well for my hand. yes i know you obviously cant fish for disarms, but how else was i going to be able to practice under live fire (vs the sterile partner request).

    anyways to keep this short i didnt learn anything about how the disarms work (because i didnt disarm anyone) but i learned disarms can’t be attempted on a retreating opponent; under pressure my checking hand is about a 1/2 beat too soon and is exposed; and most importantly that i need to soften up the opponent or bait them into a disarm. all things i have as mental notes for the next exploration in pain.

    i find this article (as well as your other articles) enlightening as always even though i never comment.


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