This post came about by accident, two different things coming together:
- I was talking to one of my private students about the Tai Chi Chuan I’m teaching him and he mentioned how he likes the different options it gives him for self-defense: to control an attacker or to break him in half.
- On the way home, I listened to the Martial Secrets podcast (Lawrence and Kris have some good stuff there, BTW) with Rory Miller. In it, he mentions something about how karate works great for breaking people from up close but sucks for sparring (which for many karate styles, I totally agree with) and controlling people.
To explain what I mean, you need to get your nerd on for a few minutes because we’re going to talk about computers first. You also need to be patient because this is another one of those posts where I have to put several elements on the table before it makes sense.
Also, this is me thinking out loud and I’ll be rambling a bit. Be warned… :-)
Martial arts as a programming language
There are loads of computer programming languages but they all have certain elements in common. One of the elements you can find in such a language is a type system. The purpose of this system is type safety which has one purpose: Preventing the language (and therefor the system that uses it) from making specific errors called “type errors.”
Wikipedia describes type errors like this:
A type error is erroneous or undesirable program behavior caused by a discrepancy between differing data types.
The behaviors classified as type errors by a given programming language are usually those that result from attempts to perform operations on values that are not of the appropriate data type.
To simplify it to the point where computer programmers will want to hang me from the highest tree:
A type system is an error prevention measure built into the language to make sure things don’t break down when data is used that doesn’t fit. It makes sure the program keeps on functioning when this happens.
In other words, this system makes sure everything keeps on rolling just fine when the system itself messes up by using the wrong kind of data.
I believe martial arts in general and traditional martial arts in particular have a similar (though not identical) dynamic going on.
Martial arts as an organized system
Read that page about programming languages again (as punishment for not doing so the first time I linked to it, but also) to see how a language is comprised of many different building blocks. I think it’s the same with martial arts. Depending on how detailed you want to go, you can define several building blocks:
- Physical: speed, strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.
- Technical: striking, kicking, blocking, deflecting, pulling, twisting, etc.
- Strategic and tactical: striking-based, grappling-based, joint lock-based, etc.
- Psychological: aggressive, defensive, neutral, instinctive,”cold”, etc.
I’m just summing these up top of my head and they’re by no means all-inclusive. Also, each block can be divided into multiple sub-categories and sub-sub-categories again but I’m not going into that here; you get the general idea.
Here’s the thing:
Every martial art style (traditional or modern, sports fighting or self defense) interprets these building blocks differently.
Some have similar interpretations, others are the complete opposite. Case in point: A muay Thai roundhouse kick (yeah, yeah, I know that’s not the right term) is very different from a Shotokan one. Yet to the untrained eye they look very similar.
Most of you will think “No shit, Sherlock…” right about now and I thank you for holding on a little longer and not clicking away right now.
The reasons why the interpretations differ are legion but I’ll offer some I think are relevant:
- Environment: Fighting on snow-covered mountains is different from fighting in a cramped alley.
- Society: Hardened criminals fight differently than Ivy League frat boys.
- Context: Formal dueling requires other techniques than defending against multiple attackers.
- Purpose: Defending yourself or defending others? Fighting or killing? Killing or killing silently?
- Body-type: Asian people have different knees than us, Western guys. They can get away with certain training we can’t handle.
- Time period: Medieval battlefield fighting is extremely different from modern day warfare because of the available weapons.
- Living tradition: Does the system get passed on correctly from one generation to the next or does it get watered down/loses components over the years?
And the list goes on and on.
When you combine all these for a specific time and place, the result is a specific style of martial arts. That style is an answer to the violence certain people face in their lives, then and there. The way they experience and therefor define that violence has an immediate and direct impact on what the style looks like. The result is that each style has its own logic, its own way of viewing things and is an entity in it’s own right.
Martial arts error prevention and its consequences
As the style matures, teachers define a curriculum, guidelines, texts and rules to clarify everything for the students. These are the type system. They prevent you from inserting the wrong data, from going against the style’s own logic.
You want to see this system in action? Go to a shotokan class and throw a muay thay-style roundhouse kick. It’ll take about half a second for somebody to say “you’re doing it wrong.” and then explain why.
In and of itself that isn’t wrong, on the contrary. Teaching is an ongoing process where you alternate giving information, ingraining it and then explaining how it interacts/affects the other information you already taught. This last part means expanding upon previous knowledge and to help the student understand it better; it sets him up to learn what’s coming next.
This also implies a timeline for certain information: you learn technique/concept/skill A before you learn technique/concept/skill G. Otherwise, G doesn’t make sense because you haven’t learned B,C,D,E,F which are all part of G.
The more you train, the more everything becomes ingrained and the better the system works for you (or is supposed to anyway). If you train long enough and the style is constructed correctly, you’ll have effective fighting skills. Depending on a bunch of factors, this also means it can be extremely hard for you to learn another style. Or to fight in a different way than you trained for so long, even if the situation demands it. In other words, you’ve made your style’s fighting logic your own. Your style’s type system is the main reason for that because it corrected you every time you strayed from that logic.
But when somebody from another style comes in, things often go wrong. Techniques don’t always work as they do on your fellow students because the new guy attacked you wrong. His techniques are different from yours, which means he’ll have other strengths and weaknesses. If you’re unlucky and his weaknesses are difficult to exploit with the strengths of your style, it’ll be a rough fight for you. That new guy is from a different “fighting reality” than you: his style was created to face a different interpretation of violence than yours. His fighting logic is different. Not right or wrong, just different.
Because you trained so long, you’ll find it exceptionally difficult to leave your own fighting logic and adapt to his. Unless your style teaches you to handle another fighting logic by default, making yours a metalogic one (for lack of a better word.)
In other words:
- If all you do is punch and kick, you’ll have a hard time grappling or doing joint locks.
- If you only grapple, defending against a stick will be difficult for you.
- If you only train with knives, wielding a spear will not make much sense to you.
That’s it for the first part, on to the next where I’ll finally mention the scaling of self defense.
What you wanna do?
Because each martial arts style fills in the question of “How do you face violence?” in a specific way, it has certain topics it prefers and other things it either doesn’t cover or doesn’t delve into all that much. For example, like Rory said, Karate doesn’t really focus on controlling opponents but it does a lot of work in punching and kicking them. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, it’s a good thing to focus on a specific solution for facing a specific problem. You don’t ask for a plumber if you need open-heart surgery; you ask for a specialist in that area. Specific problem, specific solution.
The flip side of that coin is the general approach: styles that try to offer a solution to the most common problems regardless of the context, environment, etc. These are the one-stop shops of the self defense world. Again, nothing wrong with being a generalist. It’s neither a good nor a bad thing, it just is what it is: a system that tries to offer a solution for most (all?) problems regarding violence instead of focusing on a specific aspect of violence.
In the end, it all boils down to what you want to do: general stuff or specific stuff.
At a certain stage, these become mutually exclusive though. You can’t be the best marathon runner and at the same time be the best sprinter yet both activities involve running. The same goes for fighting: you can’t be the best grappler in the world and at the same time be the best swordsman. The training doesn’t overlap enough for that to happen.
This has certain “when all you have is a hammer, all you see is nails” implications:
- If your art focuses on striking, you’ll think with a logic of striking to solve the problem you face. Whether it’s a punch or a push, the solution you’ll most likely offer is punching and kicking.
- If your art focuses on joint locks, you’ll go out of your way to slap them on your attacker because that’s what’ll make the most sense to you.
Two things about this:
- I picked the videos at random to illustrate my point here. I’m not commenting on them being good or bad so don’t get your panties in a twist if this is the art you practice…
- I could sum up a lot more examples but I think it’s clear enough what I’m talking about.
That’s the second part, time to put it all together.
Scaling martial arts
The points I tried to make are at heart very simple:
- Each martial art style has a specific logic to it, a way of doing things.
- Depending on that logic, you either go in depth for a limited amount of techniques/concepts/etc. or you go wide by training in many but your knowledge and skill isn’t as deep as a style specializing in that specific area.
- Changing quickly from one fighting logic to another is difficult, if not impossible.
I’m making a pretty black and white statement with these three bullets and I know that. The topic is more complex than that but this post is already long enough so bear with me.
Here’s what I wanted to say (“Finally!” some of you will think…):
The tai chi chuan I learned has its own approach, just like any other system. In essence, it is a self-defense system with an emphasis on evasion and counter-attacking. It looks deceptively easy and soft but is one of the most complex arts I’ve ever studied. It’s also one of the few arts I’ve encountered in which scaling force is taught from the get go. This isn’t really surprising when you look closer at the art:
The term tai chi (or taiji) refers to the two opposing forces of Yin and Yang. “Chuan” means “fist” and is often used to denote a martial arts style. So you have a self-defense system that uses the concept of Yin and Yang as it’s very core. By default, that means you have a mix of soft and hard aspects.
You see this in a multitude of techniques meant to redirect/evade the opponent’s force without opposing it (soft) and then punching/kicking/pushing/pulling/throwing/sweeping/locking/breaking with explosive force (hard).
But you also find it in the way techniques, strategies and tactics have a sliding scale from one extreme to another:
- On the one end there are low-level reactions where you redirect an attack as a means to run away. You make the guy miss in such a way he’s busy recovering his balance while you’re already sprinting away. He remains unharmed.
- Sliding away from that soft response, you can make the guy miss and shove him into a wall as you get in position to run. He’s slightly injured or at least shaken up.
- At the other end of the scale, you can have a hard response and evade the guy’s attack so his face accelerates into your elbow as you pass him by. He’s counting stars, knocked out or hospitalized.
Or to put it in a graph:
Though I only gave examples for the extremes and the middle of the scale, there are obviously many more steps along the way from one end to the other. Tai chi chuan teaches all these different steps, it also teaches you to go from one extreme to the other. Which is easy to do going from soft to hard but not the other way around as that requires a collected and “cold” mind (for my PTCCI family members, I’m talking about “reeling silk” pushing hands.) which isn’t easy to maintain under adrenal stress.
For a visual, take a look at this video I made for my post on “How to learn techniques from video”
- From the initial entry, I can go into a wide variety of techniques: striking, throwing, locking or as is the case here, breaking his balance as a set up for a strike. It’s all there.
- The soft/hard sliding scale is also present in the components of the technique:
- I can use my right arm to check my opponent’s left as I do here or I can use it to strike him so he feels like he’s running into a wall.
- The set up for the arm drag can be just a grab, a slap to bend his elbow or an arm break.
- The arm drag can break his balance like I do here or I can use it to launch him to the floor. I could also use it to launch his face into my right hand for a neck control or break.
Nothing works if you don’t train for it so don’t go thinking this is easy to pull off. You’re supposed to train real hard before you get to the point where you see all these possibilities, let alone apply them. But you will actually do them all in your training and learn how to go from one to the other.
In other words, the logic of tai chi chuan as a self defense system is to give you options. The fight logic of the system is: understand yin and yang. Which says everything if you train in the art and nothing if you don’t. The type system (rules, texts, principles, etc.) is structured in such a way that each part of the art reinforces the lessons learned in the others.
There’s more to the tai chi chuan than that but I’ll leave that for another time
Here’s a parting shot or two:
- Not every martial art offers this type of versatility though a lot of them claim they do. It’s the difference between a more general and a specific fight system I mentioned before. I’ve only found this kind of structure in certain traditional martial arts and in a handful of combat sports as taught by some very specific teachers. And they were the exception to the rule.
- I believe the mere fact of knowing you can either hurt or control your opponent combined with knowing you can go from one to the other in an instant, is of crucial importance in today’s society. You can almost guarantee you’ll be caught on camera by CCTV or a cell phone when you fight or defend yourself in the street. Your actions will likely be scrutinized later so having more than one option is crucial, especially if your art teaches a killing blow as a primary response…
- Please understand I’m only talking about the style of tai chi chuan I practice and not the others. They might see it differently and more power to them. To each his own and love and harmony for all mankind. :-)
That’s it for now. Thanks for sticking with me until the end and feel free to leave a comment here.