This article was originally published in my Patreon newsletter of February 2018. To receive the newsletter, you can join up here.
I posted this meme a few months ago on my Facebook page. It’s from one of my favorite movies, “By The Sword”, starring Eric Roberts as an arrogant fencing champion and F. Murray Abraham as, well… Just watch the movie and find out. Suffice it to say, he isn’t a great fencing instructor when the two men meet for the first time. In that scene, Roberts asks to demonstrate some basic techniques and after viewing the result, he delivers that line.
Before I go on about that, something else first: I was recently interviewed for Randy King’s podcast “Talking to Savages” and we talked about all sorts of topics to do with martial arts and self-defense. One of the things I mentioned was that when I started training, there was very little choice; you picked from what was available. In my case, I had the choice of judo and jujitsu when I started at age 14. A few years later, kung fu became available and I went with that because I liked it better. Those were the only choices I had, there was nothing else. For many people, training was exactly like that: you took the class that you could attend because it was close to you or within traveling distance.
There was also precious little instructional material. There were some videotapes available, but the selection was rather limited. What’s more, the books and videos on offer were most often from the same instructors. So you were usually only exposed to the same sources on any given art. As a result, the knowledge you could gain was also limited. Speaking only for myself, I tried to compensate that by training as much as I possibly could and that includes outside of classes I attended. I got home after class and then trained some more because I was afraid I would forget the techniques. Then I trained the next day as well and so on until the next class. I did that for many years and continue to do so to this day.
And then we get to today…
We are now in the age of Internet wisdom and YouTube experts. It’s been going on for a while, but if you go online or visit YouTube, it’s incredibly easy to look up instructional material. There is a wide variety of quality levels to be found, ranging from the impressive to the horrible. I’m not going to criticize any individual instructor, I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is which for your own tastes. That said, I’m sure you can agree with me that there is some rather poor quality instructional material available on the Internet.
It gets worse…
When you search for pretty much any self-defense or martial arts topic in your preferred search engine or on YouTube, the results that rise to the top have changed tremendously in the last few years. Today, the results are almost always from “YouTube experts.” All too often these are people who have some training in a specific martial art or self-defense system and clearly some passion and dedication to promote it. Most of all, they possess excellent marketing and promotional skills. They make the kind of videos that follow the best practices of the moment when it comes to video length, choice of title, keyword research, thumbnail layout, and all the other factors that are important to rank high. Notice that quality of instruction is not a part of that equation…
The result is that we now have a truckload of people who are seen as experts by the public when in reality they only have a fairly limited amount of training and experience. This, in turn, dilutes the quality of the information that is passed on to the viewer who looks to these people for advice, knowledge, and understanding. One way in which this manifests is in an oversimplification of instruction:
These experts answer questions along the lines of “How to beat any opponent in the street” or “The best technique to beat a larger opponent” in videos that are typically between 5 to 10 minutes long (because that’s what YouTube likes.) There’s nothing against that, I make videos like that myself. The real issue is that they tend to promote what they show as an absolute; there is no nuance. Because they make such outrageous claims in their clickbait titles, there really isn’t any place for nuance either. Instead, they play upon the desire of the uninformed to find a quick solution to whatever problem worries them. As a result, the information that gets passed along is extremely incomplete which in turn leads to misinterpretation and misuse of the techniques shown.
Given as there are more and more of such YouTube experts gathering a huge following, the appeal to copy this approach is high for beginning instructors. Which turns this into a vicious cycle.
It’s a free world and everybody is perfectly allowed to become an entrepreneur and sell his services. This includes promoting them in whatever way they see fit. It’s not my place to tell them what they can or can’t do given as I wouldn’t accept that kind of meddling myself. The reason why I mentioned it, is to point out how difficult it has become for novices to find solid information. Because in contrast to how things were when I started training over 30 years ago, there is now a massive overload of instructional material. This makes it virtually impossible for the beginner to know what is worth learning and what is complete nonsense.
There are no answers to this problem, at least none that I am aware of that don’t involve some form of censorship. That shouldn’t even be up for discussion; censorship is wrong, full stop. The only alternative I see is to try and do a better job myself. I do my best to offer nuances, caveats and hopefully in-depth information in my books, videos, and blog posts. I am fortunate to not have to make a living online, having a full-time job already: I don’t have to cater to whatever latest quirks the algorithms of Google and YouTube force upon content creators. I can just do as I please and will continue to do so. That means continuing to train and study so I have something to teach that is nuanced and worthwhile.
And that’s why all my stuff tends to be longer to read and view than whatever comes up first on an internet search. That doesn’t automatically make me right and them wrong. But I will stand up and say it does raise the level of quality of the instruction.
P.S.: Iain Abernethy and I also discuss this topic during a bonus podcast episode.