The world of martial arts is an interesting place to say the least.
Martial arts has a long history. This blog aims to examine the true nature of martial arts as a sport and physical activity and ultimately explain why they do not feature more prominently in sports media, and at the pinnacle of world sport, the Olympics. The only two styles currently in the Olympics are Taekwondo and Judo.
Read about this years Olympic Taekwondo start: https://www.olympic.org/news/joel-gonzalez-s-goals-remain-constant-despite-weight-switch
This website draws cases from multiple training centres in southern Gold Coast. See the YouTube channel: Tweed Heads Martial Arts
It will be helpful first to understand what the martial arts really are. And to do this we need to find a common ground between the varying styles because there are many separate groups of people who observe different styles of techniques.
All arts more or less have two outward commonalities: 1. People learn physical skills that focus the power of the body. 2. There is a discipline that accompanies the skills, which is usually interpreted as conveying a long term character transformation. If you were to look for all activities practiced in the world that matched these two criteria, every martial art would make the list. But for people who do martial arts, the similarities stop there. Practitioners hold their own styles to be truly distinct from others. Heres why.
Most people within martial arts have rigid perspectives shaped by the fact that distinct sets of techniques are practiced to the exclusion of other sets and given their own fancy names. For example take-downs gleam with their own individuality when given the name, and practiced within the protective mental box of, Judo take-downs.
Arts / Limits
Kicking, Striking, Forms
Striking (hands only)
Kicking, Striking, Forms
Kicking, Forms, Take-downs, Submissions
Put differently, people who do martial arts believe there is something special or inherently unified about the style they are attached to. The table above shows how different styles literally have certain types of techniques either they totally excluded, or narrowly focus upon. This kind of selective focus / exclusion of certain types of technique builds mental barriers around what a given martial art is.
It can be curious to note that the public generally does not share this perspective. Someone with no prior involvement in martial arts would tend to think all martial arts are mostly the same.
Although people with in the differing styles like Karate or Kung Fu or the countless others would energetically disagree, the public is mostly right.
How in this case, can an uneducated mass hold a more accurate view than an involved minority?
The answer is that much of what is truthful about martial arts can be found immediately on the surface of it. Where as the vague and confusing aspects are usually only presented to the public. And the most obvious truth fathomable, trained in zen or not, is that learning to hurt someone is learning to hurt someone. Doesnt matter if its with a Taekwondo kick to the solar plexus, a boxers left hook to the jaw, the Jiu Jitsu beloved triangle choke or any thing else taught in the wide world of martial arts.
Since an uninitiated civilian has no concept of what makes one style different from another intellectually, it makes it hard to see the difference between any style of martial art. Its true, there actually is no difference between learning to hurt someone and, learning to hurt someone…
So where is the difference in styles then?
To sum it up: intent, culture, leadership, incentives.
When someone joins a martial art they immediately become subject to pressures to behave and think in certain ways. Sometimes this is constrained to the training environment, other times the pressure can extend far into peoples external lives.
Many of these pressures are actually good. Few would argue habitual stretching is a bad thing to develop. In the same way strong routines are positive when centred around the right activities and since martial arts are physical, a good training routine usually brings sound physical fitness. Nothing wrong with any of this.
However, these are not things that create the huge divides that separate different styles in peoples mental landscapes.
Difference Creating Pressure Number One – Intent
Most arts have some kind of explicit intent as part of their M.O. Some are official slogans or decrees, others are contained in stories.
Taekwondo text books quote the founder, General Choi: “Taekwondo intends to bring peace to the world.”
The intent of Jiu Jitsu is contained in a nice story about its founder who was far weaker than his siblings and peers and adapted Japanese grappling to work for him against bigger people.
Again most styles include teaching self defence and fighting abilities as part of their intent. But from that point things change between styles.
Some people practice techniques but dont apply the technique in any kind of sparring (controlled fight). Other styles take their testing to the limit by sparring (fighting) as hard as possible without breaking laws and turning opponents to permanent benchwarmers. This creates two groups in martial artist minds, and they usually identify as one only. One group must rationalise their training by theorising about outcomes of its use because they dont test it in reality. The other group truly believe they are tough based on what do they in training. In relation to intent, one of two things happen to students who join these environments.
They either fall in line and develop the same intent as the rest of the group, or they promptly leave feeling repelled by the attitudes.
The martial arts situation in Tweed Heads illustrates this very well. Currently there are about 5 – 10 competing Taekwondo styles in the area. They all claim hegemony of the style due to some affiliation with Korean counterparts. But once all claim the same thing, you cant be sure whose claim is valid. This is not an important conflict though. Its the intent of these competing groups of instructors that is important. Tweed Heads has the population to support a large and profitable Taekwondo program, but it is fragmented. One style prides itself on its ability to ostensibly get consistent wins at tournaments, the other prides itself on the fact it does not enter in to competitions. Who is more correct? Its hard to be sure in any way other than looking to the market to let them decide.
In high school economics you learn that in many ways, a dollar is a vote. By spending one, you are voting for the service or product provider you spend at. By choosing not to spend with another provider, you are indirectly withholding a vote from them.
For all the musings about how martial arts is taught as community service, it cannot be viewed differently. If a training provider is receiving more dollars, they are probably doing better all round than one who is receiving less. Note that this does not necessarily mean that the quality of training is better at a higher earning provider. It means their ideas, service culture, intent, leadership, incentives and program suit more people. Without supportive members of the community (paying customers) ay style will shut its doors or operate as a charity, at the expense of the teacher.
The stated intent and justifications built up in the myth and texts of each style create abstract yet stark differences between many styles.
Difference Creating Pressure 2 – Culture
Too big to fully discuss in this article, culture is the standardised behaviours of the group as its individual members interact with one another, and of the group as a collective as it interacts with outsiders or with other groups.
Needless to say different groups have vastly different cultures. This is another thing that isnt obvious when an inexperienced observer assesses the differences in martial arts, but it is strongly felt by people who are part of the group.
When a student spends enough time in the training environment built up by their style they are very sensitive their culture. Meaning they will treat others as prescribed by the culture, they will engage in behaviours consistent with the culture. This can and usually is very unintentional and is directed subconsciously.
How does this make students think their style is different form another?
Once a student experiences the culture of another style they quickly sense the differences, but again, usually its not a conscious awareness of what exactly is different.
Style A is softer, dominated by child aged students and older adults and does not have very intense training but focuses on pure technique. Students have disturbingly high levels of respect for the highest ranked Instructors and there is a class hierarchy. New students are treated with patience but expected to immediately conform to seemingly arbitrary rituals like bowing and facing away from flags when yawning.
Style B is highly results driven, dominated by males 15 – 40 and will usually only train a technique if it can be shown to work in a fighting context. Training is intense. However students have a more relaxed relationship with their instructor because training is based on results not ranks. Everything that is done in training is obviously linked to physical performance.
A student who stepped in to style A from Style B would instantly feel the cultural differences between their normal training, and the new training. And vice versa.
They could tell you things that were different. But it must be stressed that they would usually not be abel to clearly explain why they felt so different.
You could get more insight here by observing their reports of the training.
Student from Style B may say Style A was: not intense enough, not likely to work ‘in the street’ and focused too much on unrelated techniques.
Student from Style A may say Style B was: crazy, lacking respect, lacking clear attention from instructors.
Learning to hurt someone doesn’t strictly require any one of the above mentioned things or ways of training. The idea that every training session must be intense is just part of Style B’s culture. And its the culture that becomes ingrained in students minds that becomes opposed to the cultures of other styles.
Culture is linked closely with intent. Tweed Heads Martial Arts has the full spectrum of training cultures form soft and technique focused, to intense and application focused, all the way to plain brutal MMA focused.
Difference Creating Pressure Number 3 – Leadership
A students experience of a martial art can be enormously dependent on the individual personality of their teacher.
Simply put, instructors are humans. But martial arts students can be extremely unreceptive to teachers who are too different from their initial instructor. Some students only ever do one style with one teacher because they never find another teacher to fill the gap of the first.
Clearly the underlying act of hurting someone, or defending yourself, can be performed in countless ways independent of who has taught you. But the link between style and teacher is very real in the minds of many students. This is another large and over looked reason as to why people hold similar physical skill sets to be so distinct.
Culture is discussed on the Twee Heads Martial Arts Vimeo Page
Again, Tweed Heads displays a wide range of leaders through its collection of instructors. John Maxwell says there is an inherent level of latent leadership ability in everyone, but no one can surpass their own ‘lid’. Being a Martial Arts instructor in itself draws out part of this potential in those who find them selves in the position. But for most the rest of their potential lies dormant because it is not developed through intentional study of leadership, and great leaders from history. It is no coincidence that instructors who run large and profitable programs almost all have been through some kind of leadership study or training.
Difference Creating Pressure Number 4 – Incentives
Charlie Munger, billionaire and business partner of Warren Buffet, said that in every single year of his life his approximation of the power of incentives was challenged and enlarged by some novel event. He was 76 at the time.
If thats what Charlie thinks, incentives must be strong.
Martial arts is hard work regardless of the ambient training intensity. People do not work for long without some form of incentive (probability of being reward for same work).
Every martial art has incentives built in to it to keep students feeling as though they are earning rewards as part of doing their training.
And of course, in every style the incentives are vastly, or sometimes subtly different.
Some styles encourage students to compete and the many trophies and medals usually dispersed at competitions serve as a simple reward system, particularly for children. Yet other styles manage to hand out intangibles as rewards, like social validation through promotion or acknowledgements (belt ranking is an obvious reward system).
The nature of the rewards dont matter so much. The fact is that people become very finely attuned to respond to their incentives. So a different incentive system can make another style seem far more different than it actually is.
Martial arts ranking systems in Tweed Heads range from traditional to non existent.
Are the differences real?
Hopefully after reading this you can see how many of the differences held up by practitioners are created by placing different techniques into mental boxes. The boxes are formed by naming a set of techniques as in naming a set of kicks, strikes and forms ‘Taekwondo’. This combined with the other factors mentioned above is enough to make most people completely buy in to the stated differences.
To put it even more simply lets use a hypothetical. As a round figure estimate, 20,000 distinct techniques or combinations exist in martial arts that are discrete enough to be thought of as individual skills. Whats to stop someone, or a group of people, from coming up with a new name for an art and then using that name to describe the practice and use of all of those 20,000 techniques? Nothing.
Il do it right now – pan machitikos. (Yes, close to pankretion, the Greek art of wrestling / boxing.)
Pan means ‘all’. Machitikos means ‘fighting’. All-Fighting. Panmachitikos. A new mental box for all martial arts techniques.
Of course its just my phrase, the only thing that would give it life would be for masses of people to agree that the phrase describes the list of 20,000 techniques. From there people build convictions around the phrase.
This is exactly how the styles get people to feel they are so unique.
Would this eliminate perceived differences?
Not immediately, but it would break down the dubious comparisons. Instead of comparing styles with their concommitant intents, cultures, leaders and incentives, techniques are the only thing left to compare. And this would happen internally.
Its like what we see with MMA, except for that MMA is just its own mental box that claims to only observe things that are effective in a ‘real fight’.
Martial arts have differences. Its true that certain techniques are more effective at causing harm or restraint than others. It is even true that whole styles are more effective than whole other styles. But even when one style is more effective than another, they both essentially lead to the same end (hurting or restraining someone), albeit with varying success and efficiency.
Readers may lament that this article has neglected to discuss the internal features of martial arts. Things like ‘chi’, and self esteem enhancement have been left out of this discussion. This is because these things, and related ideas, can be learnt independent of martial arts, and their absence does not change the physical nature of the activity. Many trainers today have completely removed mental and energy channeling aspects from their programs, yet their arts have retained their effectiveness and stigma. So while the internal aspects do exist and can be gained in martial arts, they are not the defining feature, and can be gained with equal efforts in other pursuits.
The conclusion is that all martial arts are very very similar in intent and in physical form. They just vary in their effectiveness and popularity.
The perceived differences arise from the strong categorisation that emerges from techniques being grouped and named, like symbols of a religion. Consequently the people who work to perpetuate their knowledge reinforce the perceived differences by creating an artificial culture, leadership structure and incentive system.
Other pages examine martial arts in sports media and its presence in the Olympics.
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