Yesterday, I put this on my Facebook page:
Somebody just asked me why I don’t offer life-coaching based on what I learned from the martial arts. I replied that if you strip MAs down to their essence, it’s all about injuring, maiming and killing people. Sure, there is more to it but that stuff gets added to it and is not at the center of the arts.
So asking that kind of advice from me is like asking Hannibal Lecter to be your therapist. Sure, he has the required degree but that is not what he is at the core level.
Got a blank stare in response… Maybe I should have just smiled and said “That’s a great idea.”
I received a bunch of comments on this, some of which I agree with where as others not so much, which prompted me to write this post.
First, a couple of things to make sure we’re on the same page:
- With “Life-coaching”, I mean the “Empowerment now!” or “Believe in yourself and become confident!” and “Achieve inner happiness!” style services some people offer. That was what the person who asked me the original question meant, so that’s what I’m responding to. Nothing else. If your definition of life-coaching is different from this, that’s fine. But understand that we’re talking about different things then.
- I’m sure there are life-coaches out there who do a good job, it’s just that I haven’t met any of them. Doesn’t mean there aren’t any though. It only means I don’t know them. That said, you can imagine my opinion of their services isn’t all that high…
- I’m not saying the life-coaches I have in mind when I write here are all bad. What I am saying is that I have reservations about the job in and of itself. These two are not the same thing.
Now that we have this out of the way, let’s get started. What’s my beef with using martial arts as life-coaching? Well, like I said, I don’t think it’s the best source of information for that goal. Which isn’t to say there are no valuable lessons to learn from martial arts, lessons that apply to everybody. But those lessons can be learned elsewhere too. Perhaps even better.
The only lessons you can’t really find elsewhere (barring certain exceptions) are those related to fighting. And then we’re back to the killing and maiming part, which is what martial arts amount to at their most basic level.
I’ll get back to all that but first, here are some of the responses I received. First from Craig:
I agree, the physical manifestation of the techniques sometimes require maiming or killing, however that is not the purpose of martial arts. The purpose is to protect life, be it your own, your loved ones, your country, maybe even your enemy (if you can). Training is to become more proficient at protecting, so you hopefully won’t have to maim or kill and if you do you are clear about it and can do it as respectfully and professionally as possible. ethic > tactic > technique. So I’d say the center of the arts are to protect the tactic and techniques came from that, otherwise haven’t you become what you were training to defend against?!
I agree, up to a point. The purpose is indeed to protect life, primarily your own. But how do you do that? What approach do the martial arts take to achieve that goal? They do it by injuring, maiming and killing those who would threaten your life. Who wants to get life-style advice from a guy who specializes in that?
The tactics I learn from MA’s I do use in my everyday life ,it made me a better sensitive person to others & more aware of myself
I already wrote about martial arts in every day life a while ago, so I’ll refer to that post on a general level. To Fred in particular, I’d say that the things he mentions are fortunate byproducts of the training, but not the essential goal. More on this below.
It also taught me to kick ass & take names (protect myself and others ) if need be
I hear this reasoning about protecting others a lot but when I ask for specifics, I don’t get a lot of positive responses. What I mean is this:
Of all the traditional martial arts, how many of them focus on actively protecting others?
Not protecting yourself, other people.
I don’t know many…
And of those styles that do teach this aspect, what percentage of the whole curriculum is dedicated to this?
Of those I’ve seen, it isn’t much…
I see a whole lot of arts pay lip service to the concept of protecting others but then they spend the majority of their time practicing how to defend yourself. Well, not to put a fine point on it, but as soon as you are responsible for protecting another human being, everything changes about the way you fight. Which means you have to train in a radically different way.
The case I’m making is that in the vast majority of martial arts, this specific training is totally lacking. If it is, here’s a challenge for you:
Please find me a traditional martial art, one that isn’t modernized or has had these aspects added to it by the instructor from other sources, that covers things like:
- Embussing and debussing. Doesn’t matter that there were no cars in China 300 years ago. They had other means of transportation where the same principles would apply: handling the inherent vulnerability of for instance getting on or off a horse, carriage or whatever.
- Traveling. How do you drive? What are the protocols? How do you know what to look out for while driving? When to stop and when to keep on going? How much distance do you leave between you and others? Again, this applies to cars but also more ancient means of transport.
- Securing your home. Which type of house do you choose and why? Where do you live? What kind of windows, doors, etc. How do you lock them?
- Cuing your VIP. Which signals do you use to make sure the VIP follows protocol? How do you train him/her to use them?
- Planning. What is your checklist? What are the risks of one activity or environment over another. And why?
I know of not one traditional martial art that teaches any of this. Yet if you want to protect others, this is how the professionals do it. The reason they do it is because it works. They learn specific skills and use safety protocols to make sure somebody else is safe. Skills that are totally different from those needed to keep only yourself safe.
So I repeat: if the goal of martial arts is to protect others, then why isn’t there any of this in the curriculum of the vast majority of those arts?
My answer: because that is not the goal of those arts. Their goal is killing, maiming and injuring others.
Some more from Fred:
Mostly I use my training to identify & avoid potential situations of conflict
I’ll use the same logic as before:
Show me the arts that have a systematic and in-depth curriculum on the topics of avoidance, de-escalation and basically handling problematic situations without resorting to violence, however low-level violence it may be.
I don’t know of any.
Today, we take these things for granted but back in the 80s and before that, virtually nobody but a handful of instructors were covering these topics. Marc MacYoung, Peyton Quinn and a few more were the first to say “Hold on, there’s something missing in the martial arts. How about learning not to get into trouble in the first place?” You simply couldn’t find those skills in almost any of the martial arts taught at that time. Later on, instructors started implementing what these pioneers said was so important. But they didn’t get it from the traditional curriculum. They added it themselves.
So if the martial arts are supposed to teach you to avoid violence, then why are there virtually none of them that actually teach that. Instead, what they seem to spend the most time on is… Teaching injuring, maiming and killing others.
Was there no need for avoidance in Asia, a few hundred years ago?
Was it just assumed that you’d have to fight every time?
The evidence seems to suggest this as almost all traditional arts have either not incorporated avoidance into their curriculum or it is only present in such a low percentage that it is meaningless by comparison. So I humbly submit that martial arts don’t teach avoidance at all. If I’m wrong, please show me a list of martial arts (again, not modern ones, traditional ones that have this built into their system from the beginning) that teaches in detail how to avoid fights.
One more from Fred:
In the same breath our training enables us to have enough control not to us more force than needed & to better assess the situation That’s what training is for
Same reasoning: please show me the arts that have built this into their curriculum from the get go.
I don’t know of any.
Learning to control the force you use, assessing the situation and determining what level is appropriate is basically learning some sort of use of force continuum. This is exceedingly difficult to train, let alone get right. It’s not enough to say you offer students different techniques for different levels of danger. You have to train them specifically to pick the right response, it isn’t automatic. Just because you learn both a control hold and a neck break as a response to the same attack, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically pick the right response when somebody comes at you like that. That’s not how real violence works. There is a need for specialized training to teach you how to make the right decisions. Nowadays, this is mostly done by using scenario training or force-on-force training. I don’t see anything similar in traditional arts on that front either…
So if this is an important factor (and it sure as hell is in my opinion), why are the martial arts again lacking here?
My response? Well, by now you can guess what it is…
Here’s my challenge to you:
Find me a curriculum for an Asian martial art that predates WWII that has all the aspects I mentioned before: de-escalation, planning, prevention, safety protocols, a specific training methodology for these, etc.
By that I mean documented proof that these things are an integral part of the art. Not something that is mentioned in passing. Not something that teachers have added in the last 20-30 years.
If all these things are part and parcel of the arts, then it shouldn’t be hard to show me that proof and make me eat my words…
I’ll even help you out: the only style I know that comes even close is Katori Shinto Ryu. And even this one, we can argue percentages.
Now I’m not having a go at Fred here. In fact, I agree with most of what he said in that these are things we should incorporate in our training. Those are the things a smart person recognizes as important for self-defense. But to the best of my knowledge, traditional Asian martial arts don’t offer much in that regard. Indirectly, yes. But not directly.
My point is this: if I want those things because they are important, then I want the most effective way of learning them. If martial arts don’t give them to me (as I think I’ve given enough argumentation for), then I’ll get them elsewhere.
Before I explain this, I’d like to point to Bob Orlando’s book, Martial Arts America. In it, Bob explains how there is a natural cycle for martial arts. Paraphrasing, it goes like this:
- Fighting techniques. People fight, discover techniques that work and just keep on using them.
- Fighting arts. These techniques are organized and taught in a more structured way.
- Martial arts. Other things are added to the mix: philosophy, sometimes even religion, meditation, forms, partner drills, breathing exercises, conditioning, etc.
- Martial sports. The techniques are altered to allow a (more or less) safe way of competing with them. Rules and restrictions apply, along with weight classes.
When sports fighters then get into a life and death fight, they find out that their techniques don’t work as well as in the ring or on the mat. So they strip them down to the essence and search for techniques that do work well in the street or when survival is at stake.
And we’re back to square one.
Now we are precisely at the point I mentioned in my initial response:
If you strip MAs down to their essence, they’re all about injuring, maiming and killing people.
That is the essence of what is taught. It doesn’t mean that you have to use it as such all the time and go berserk on everybody who looks at you. It means that you shouldn’t mistake the arts for something they, at the most fundamental level, are not.
All the other things that got added to them when they turned from a fighting system into a martial art, you can get those better and in a more effective way elsewhere:
- Physical conditioning. Join a gym, go running, whatever. Lots of choices here.
- A peaceful mind. Learn to meditate. Works a lot better and faster too.
- To become a good person. Pick a religion. Most of them teach this in principle, though organized religion is a bit of a mess. If you’d rather not, study philosophy and ethics. Loads and loads of systems to pick from. Some of them are even thousands of years old…
- Protect others. Take a close protection course. You’ll learn more on this topic than you’ll lever find in martial arts.
I could go on but this post is already pretty long. You get the point.
Mind you, there is nothing wrong with the fact that some of these aspects are also present in martial arts. That’s a good thing. But like I said, they are fortunate byproducts of the training or things that got added to them. They are not a the core of the arts. Which brings me to my original response:
Why would you want to learn life-skills from somebody who is in essence always practicing how to maim, injure or kill others?
If your goal is empowerment, self-confidence or inner peace, there are tons of more appropriate specialists who can teach you that.
Does that mean that martial arts have no value, other than learning to cripple other people?
No, that’s not what I meant at all. There is value in the training beyond learning to fight. But if you are real honest about it, the mere fact that you acquire those other skills via such a gruesome path in my opinion disqualifies you as the most appropriate person to teach people who are looking for those woo-woo things the life-coaches offer. Maybe a priest, philosopher, therapist or psychiatrist is more suited for this task.
That also doesn’t mean you can’t teach people other things than just maim, rip, kill! I’m not claiming that either. What I am suggesting is some humility and acknowledging that at the core, at the most basic and fundamental level, your art teaches you to use violence. If you can accept that and everything that comes with it, I believe you might have the right attitude towards somebody who comes looking for advice. If not, then I’ll just have to disagree with you.
Adam just left an interesting comment here below and it seems I’ve given the wrong impression. To set the record straight:
I didn’t write that I don’t coach people.
I do and have been doing so for a long time.
I’m routinely hired to help people, to give advice, do consulting work, etc.
For several years now, I’ve also been teaching workshops and seminars to entrepreneurs, teaching them a mental framework inspired in part by martial arts and combat sports. It’s not something I have written much about here, other than perhaps mentioning it once or twice. Mostly because I don’t want to turn my blog into a business oriented one.
But just because I don’t talk about it much, doesn’t mean I am not active in that field. There is a lot more to my life than what you can read about here… :-)
However, there are certain things I do not do as a consultant or coach (which was the whole point of this post):
- I don’t promote martial arts as a way to personal empowerment or inner peace. That’s what the life-coaches I wrote about promise their clients. I don’t, because of the reasons I explained here.
- This also means that I don’t talk about ethics much, don’t pontificate, nor do I spout tidbits of Asian philosophy while looking all mysterious. That is not how I see martial arts. Others might, but I don’t.
- I don’t tell people how to live their lives. I’m not qualified to do so (few people are IMHO.) Even if I were, I wouldn’t use martial arts as an example for that goal.
- I explicitly state that I only offer information I believe to be accurate because it has worked for me and others I’ve counseled. But my word is not gospel. Meaning, I present people with options they might not have considered, hand them tools they don’t seem to know about. That is all. The feedback has been overwhelmingly possible so far, so I think this approach is a good one.
So I’m not saying coaching people is bad, not at all. Nor am I saying that I have no experience doing so, on the contrary. What I am saying is that I don’t use martial arts much as a vehicle for coaching skills that are not directly related to these arts. I mainly use my experience of being self-employed for 18 years, having run a corporate gym, having been involved in an IT start-up, being a writer, etc. The experience I got from those activities has proven much more relevant than anything martial arts has had to offer.
I’m also not saying Martial arts is useless for anything other than fighting. I repeat, I did not say that. I said that it is IMHO not the best tool in the toolbox if your goal is to teach people happiness, purpose in life, feeling empowered, etc.
Is it impossible to achieve those things with martial arts? Nope. But if you have to pick a tool to help you achieve them, martial arts should probably not be your first choice.
I hope that clears things up a bit.