The big lie in martial arts

A while ago, I was doing a consulting call with a martial artist with 10 years of training under his belt. He’d contacted me a while ago to help him advance in his training because he felt stuck and didn’t know which way to go. So we analyzed what he had already done, what his goals and aspirations were, time constraints and much, much more. Long story short, he wanted to learn a new style because he had outgrown the reasons why he liked his current one.

That is a completely legitimate reason to change styles: sometimes, you come to a point in your training where what you learned before no longer applies to who you are now and what your goals are. So I said I agreed with him that if he was unhappy with his current art, it would be foolish to continue in it. The only caveat I added was that he needed to be sure of that before abandoning it altogether. He said he was.

Here’s the thing: he wanted to specialize in a style that would have meant starting from scratch.

The style was from a different country of origin than his current one, had a totally different structure, different techniques and strategy but most importantly a completely new set of body mechanics. At that point, I cautioned him to take a step back and think it through.

I’ll tell you something else first to illustrate the point I want to make about this:

I practice and teach Chinese martial arts and started training 28 years ago. Those arts have a very distinct flavor. One that is radically different from let’s say Japanese or Indonesian arts. Granted, there are so many Chinese styles, some of them have many similarities with certain other styles from those countries. Sometimes they look almost exactly alike (Hi there, all you Goju Ryu people!) but even in those cases, when you dig deeper, the differences come to life. You don’t have to take my word on this, go train in a different art and you’ll notice this yourself.

Though in all honesty, some people disagree with me on this and claim all arts are fundamentally the same because “we all have two arms and two legs”. To which I say: nonsense. Put the best tennis player in a badminton match against the top guy in that sport and he’ll eat Mr. Wimbledon for lunch.  Funny thing: tennis and badminton have more similarities than differences: you have a racket in your hand and have to hit an object across a net into your opponent’s part of the court and make him miss or hit the net. The rules and context are extremely similar. Yet no tennis player takes on the badminton guys and vice versa, you don’t see badminton champs going for tennis titles. Why is that? If the differences don’t matter, they shouldn’t have a problem switching between sports, right?

Most martial artists agree with me when I give this example. But when I then say that their karate is a lot more different from kung fu than tennis is from badminton, they raise their hackles and say I’m full of it. Now I understand that it’s disconcerting to be confronted with a truth you don’t like but that doesn’t make it less true. Back to the story…

Of those 28 years, I’ve been teaching for more than 20. I’ve had tons of students in that time. Some hadn’t practiced anything before training with me, others came from specific backgrounds. What I’ve seen is this:

Many (not all) people end up being ruined for any other art than the one they started with.

They learned to move and think a certain way when fighting is concerned and it ingrained to a point that it’s extremely difficult for them to write over that training and ingrain something new. Like I said, not all people. Some can, after an enormous amount of dedicated re-training. But even then it’s not a sure thing.

I have seen this over and over with students. For instance: tons of people who come from a karate background have enormous difficulties to learn a Chinese art. The movement patterns, techniques, mindset, tactics and training methods are radically different and conflict directly with their previous training. Then I see them try their best to make it work but as soon as things go a bit faster or they are put under (even mild) stress, they revert to their previous training. A lot of those people never manage to ingrain the new style and end up with a bastard child of both systems. One that isn’t very pretty and doesn’t function all that well.

Again, that is my experience and yours may differ. However, I’ve seen this to be consistently true and having talked to plenty of other teachers, they tell me they’ve seen it too. So I don’t think I’m wrong on this. Also, I’m not saying one style is better than the other but that learning two different styles often doesn’t work out.

The big lie in martial arts

Here’s the thing, sometimes, you are just screwed.

Bringing it back to my client: he spent ten years ingraining a specific style and wanted to switch to another one that was radically different. I told him that from what he had told me, what he had shown me (videos of his training) and from our training together, I thought he was in for an uphill battle in which diminishing returns would quickly come into play. Then I listed some alternatives that were more compatible with his current style and he is now working on exploring those. His feedback so far has been extremely positive, he’s enjoying the new style and is apparently making rapid progress according to his teacher. So I’m happy for him.

Now what has all this to do with “The big lie in martial arts”?

The big lie in martial arts is “if you train hard, you can become really good at any art.

I believe that this is all too often false, misleading and at worst, a complete lie.

You might become good at some arts, mediocre at others and totally suck at others still. Just because you want something, doesn’t mean you can get it. Passion and perseverance are crucial to master any field but they are not guarantees for success. If you can’t carry a tune because you have a crappy voice, no amount of singing lessons will make you a great singer. It’s just not in the cards for you then. The same goes for martial arts.

I’ll start with myself:

  • I suck at Japanese arts. I started my training with judo and ju jitsu but that was so long ago and I have ingrained Chinese arts so deeply that I am now completely inept at Japanese arts. They also rub me the wrong way and a lot of what I see in them doesn’t make sense to me. Which doesn’t mean others can’t make it work. I know plenty of people who are hell on wheels with their Japanese styles. But I’m not one of them and never will be.
  • I suck at taekwondo. I tried it for a couple lessons when I was younger and sucked at it. I’m just not built for those flashy, jumpy kicks. Mind you, I did plenty of jumping and spinning kicks when I competed but not like they do in Korean arts.
  • I suck at boxing. I studied it for a long time in my twenties but now, after all that time incorporating leg techniques, clinching and grappling into my training, limiting myself to punching feels completely alien to me. The footwork is too different, the stances make me feel vulnerable and every time I work on the inside with a sparring partner, I want to grab him and throw him. Or claw at his face. Or throw an elbow. Those things are not allowed so I’m always uncomfortable.

I could go on for a while but you get my point: my previous training has spoiled me for those arts. I will never be good at them.

But there’s more.

I’m not built for taekwondo. I’m too heavy and don’t have long legs. I’m also not built for harimau silat. My body doesn’t bend and twist into a pretzel easily enough for that. Basically, I don’t have the body type, mindset and and point of view for those arts, along with a bunch of other arts. I’m not really a good match for them, regardless of how much I’d want that to be the case. And that’s the kicker. My client had that problem. He wanted to go into a direction that was both incompatible with his previous training but also his body type. He is now very happy he didn’t do that.

A word of caution: there are no absolutes here. You might be the exception to this; maybe you can make it work for you. Or, you might be happy with the limited level of skill you acquire in an incompatible art. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It’s your life, your choice. That said, I think there is value in taking this issue into account before switching over to another art. Do you really want to put in all that time and effort for potentially nothing more than mediocre results? It’s OK if you say “Yes.” to this but at the very least you should ask yourself this question.

A final point I’d like to make: the opposite is also true: if you don’t train hard, you’ll definitely never be good, no matter how well you pick an art that suits you. What I wrote here is not a plea to take it easy and coast through your training because you don’t think you have what it takes to be good at it. On the contrary. I believe you should train as hard as you can for as long as you can. It’s the only way to actually get good at it.

Just make sure your hard work is aimed at something that is worth your time and effort. Because sometimes, turning away form it comes at a cost.

 

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Comments

  1. It is very true that some people just won’t be good. Maybe not even decent if they do not have the right make up to be a martial practitioner. That is okay as not everyone can be an NBA basketball player either. Some will excel and some will not. You are correct in that you certainly will not be any good or even decent if you do not train hard!

    Brian R. VanCise
    http://www.instinctiveresponsetraining.com

  2. Tino Carta says:

    Hi Wim!

    I started my martial arts career as a child with judo and ju jutsu and later in my teen years i started with wrestling. so i always saw myself as a grappler.
    then i quit martial arts for about 3 or 4 years because of my girlfriend at the time (yeah i know….. great reason!^^) and my military service.

    After that i decided to start with martial arts again but i choose to start with a martial art that has no grappling techniques in it because i want learn new body mechanics and patterns.

    so i started with taekwondo.

    sometimes it’s still hard for me because of the unknwn movents and i have to train twice as hard on my kicks and my flexibility as other students but I want my
    blackblelt.^^

    But i know what you mean whe have a redbelt who was a boxer in his youth and alway when we do sparring he puts his guard up like a boxer (fists to the head and chin to the chest) we explain him that in boxing this guard works, but in tkd you got your head chopped of with an axe kick with that guard. But after 5 years in tkd he still falls in that guard because of his boxing training.

    p.s. greeting from Stuttgart

    • That’s exactly what I mean Tino. Some things get ingrained so deep (and that’s actually not necessarily a bad thing) and then you can’t “unlearn” them, like with the boxer you mention. Or like you having to work twice as hard. It’s fine if you know that up front and are cool with it. It’s something else if people ignore this and then get frustrated because they don’t advance quickly or it doesn’t work. Sounds like you are doing it the right way.

  3. Tim Cordrey says:

    Hello,
    You mentioned matching body types for different arts. Is there any rule of thumb to go by. I am an older fella who has trained in Shotokan karate to Green belt level. I do not have the legs for Taekwando….too slow and not good at jumping. I am interested in exploring Kungfu or WIng Chun for the art itself as well as self defense. Any thoughts?

    TIm

    • In general, the more jumping and high kicking you need to do, the better it is to be light and lean. The more grappling and clinching you need to do, it’s more practical to be compact/muscular. That said, there’s also ratio of fast twitch/slow twitch muscle fibers, bone density, etc. to consider but those are a whole lot harder to measure quickly. Wing Chun might be a good fit for you, not a lot of jumping around. Though I would advise doing a lot of strengthening and stretching for your rotator cuffs. It helps.

  4. Great article again, Wim. The badminton/tennis comparison really hit home the point. Do you do an initial assessment with new students in terms of their previous martial arts training? When I went from Yang Tai Chi (form only, classics were referenced but no martial aspect) after 4 years training to Practical Tai Chi Chuan I decided my mindset was to start again, as a beginner, and kept my previous knowledge to myself. Even though I did actually learn a lot about Tai Chi body movement with the Yang training, I entered PTCC as a beginner. I believe this accelerated my progress, although I try and not fixate on milestones, only to mark my own benchmarking – people are worse than me, people are better than me, I have to live with what I tell myself, so it might as well be the truth. It is a good feeling, I guess, to reflect once in a while to know you’ve progressed, but training for training’s sake is where it’s at, for me personally. Anyway all this talk is making me realise I need to do more training. Thanks again, Wim, for sharing your experiences.

    • Hi Ray,
      With private students and clients, I always do an in-depth assessment. With people who come to my public class, I ask for their background and explain some of the differences they’ll probably have difficulty with. Then I tell them to practice every day, if only 5 min. Those who do usually make quick progress. those who don’t usually stay stuck a ttheir current level for a long time. Often, they give up.

      Good luck with your training.

  5. Interesting post. I have to admit, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting as “the big lie” (I don’t know what I WAS expecting, but that wasn’t it).

    The basic point makes sense to me–I coach Muay Thai, and discovered over the years that the people that were hardest for me to coach were the guys who came in with black belts in other arts, particularly Tae Kwon Do. The kicking methods were just so different that they couldn’t absorb it. Occasionally, one or two would persevere long enough to get okay at Muay Thai, but it was an uphill battle.

    Oddly, as I think about it, I did technically transfer reasonably successfully from a background in Aikido and Okinawan karate to Muay Thai, but I did it by completely giving up on my previous training and training my ass off in Muay Thai. Years later, I discovered/noticed that some of the ideas I learned in Aikido seem to still influence my strategy, but the movements themselves are gone.

    More recently, I started doing a teaching exchange with a friend who teaches Chen Taiji. I have no idea how good I’ll ever get at the art, but it doesn’t feel entirely foreign so far…I think the blend may actually work out well. It helps that I’m no serious rush to master anything, so if I suck at it for a while, I’m perfectly copacetic with that concept.

    Here’s a question though: as a coach, how do you deal with a student who has chosen the “wrong art”? In other words, you get a student in your program/classes who is very dedicated, very hard working, but just totally unsuited for/inept at your art. At what point do you say “you know…this might not be your game.”? Do you ever?

    • Jake,

      It depends. I usually focus on body mechanics first and then show how they apply to the techniques. Once they make improvements there, the rest follows easier. I also explain similarities and differences with their previous art, that seems to help.
      As for telling them it won’t work out. I usually don’t. Instead, I tell them what to do to get better and give them homework. Those who do it make progress, the others don’t. They usually get frustrated and leave. It’s sad but I can’t help them if they don’t want to listen to my advice.

  6. Hugh Wallace says:

    Spot on Wim. I am one who made a successful transition from one sort of style to a completely different one but am now encountering great difficulty trying to train others who come from other styles to try mine. I did a variety of Japanese arts for about 20 years (judo, jujutsu & ninjutsu) with the odd dabble in tai chi chuan, boxing, western fencing and now train in an offshoot of Russian Systema. I have found my home in the Russian way of moving but I still have major overtones of Japanese grappling arts in my movement (I never got to grips with karate or taekwondo) and my sword work is somewhere between Japanese katana and European sabre. But I was probably not very good at the stuff I did for those 20 years and have spent a lot more time training in the last ten so perhaps that is why my transition has been relatively effective whereas some of the students I help teach really struggle to grasp what we are trying to do, let along do it.

    • Well, it doesn’t help that Systema has (in the eyes of practitioners from many other styles) some weird body mechanics. :-)

  7. I think it’s more about — to borrow a corporate cliche — managing expectations. Everything you said is spot on, but sometimes, it’s not only useful, but fun and mentally stimulating to work at something for which you’re not particularly suited. If you go into it with the understanding that you’re probably not going to progress very quickly and might not ever become all that good at it — well, you might still get something useful and have some fun, so why not?

    (Personally, I’m not sure I’m ever going to get all that good at ANY art, but I’m still deriving benefits and having fun, so …)

    • Great point Kent. You’re right and I didn’t mean to imply you shouldn’t ever give other arts a try. There is indeed a big difference between doing it for fun and expecting to be good at it.

  8. Yeah this is true. The hardest I believe to transition to is wing chun and bjj because you need to relax in both to learn. Very difficult to do if you come from harder styles like Thai boxing or karate. I believe that the reason people don’t excel at a lot of arts is because you need an athletic base to do them. I believe this is why wing chun and bjj excel because they are more mental than physical.

  9. Great post and astute observation. I “lost my virginity” to Chinese martial arts-animal styles, tai chi, chin na, and so on. My transition to Muay Thai has been less than smooth. I still C step and find it so foreign to practice moving like a boxer and bouncing like the Muay Thai guys. I am learning things. It is worthwhile to practice to break a limb with your first strike. Work is over. You can remove yourself from additional threat, call 911, etc. Naturally, this assumes one would be justified in breaking a limb on a first strike. Living in the city where there is really little or no room for error in some situations this shift in mindset (not present or at least stressed in my early training).

    Point is my experience matches what you describe perfectly. I can’t shake more than a decade of training in Chinese martial arts. I am adapting-building Muay Boran movements and attitude onto a Chinese foundation as a guy who played football. It might be interesting to discuss how sports one might have played in elementary /high school affect choice of martial system and way of movement. Despite some of the outwardly flowery movements I learned (though they were quite pounding) there is very little graceful about me. I think anyway.

    I will always be a linebacker or hitter no matter how many years I train. The Chinese arts were good for me. If I’d have decided to lose my virginity to Muay Boran somehow I think I would have left a “blind spot” open to attack. I needed to cultivate some finesse and so on. Make sense ?

    • Makes sense. We’re all different and follow a different path. The trick is recognizing that the further down one path you go, the less other ones are available to you.

  10. Hello Wim,

    Thanks for the blog. It’s always a great read. I was reading your article about aging martial artists, and I was hoping maybe you could recommend one to me. I’m 49 and I’ve never been fast or flexible but I am fairly large and strong. I’m looking for something I can practice for a long time and become proficient in. I know that’s not much to go on but if you could just throw a few ideas out that i could look into I’d appreciate it. There are schools that teach choy lay fut southern mantis and wing chun near me. Do you think any of those might be a good match? Thanks.

    • Hi Mike,

      That’s really hard to answer. It depends on a whole lot more than what you give me here. That aid, if I have to pick one of those three, I’d pick Wing Chun. Regardless which one you end up choosing, as a fellow big guy, I would focus on two things: learn to relax and pretend you aren’t strong (don’t rely on your strength for anything). Did wonders for me.

  11. I definitely know what it’s like to study within both a compatible and an incompatible martial art!

    I studied Tai Chi (as a martial art) for about three years.
    I loved it.
    It made sense, I picked it up quickly and in those three-ish years I had learned the short form, long form and the sword form.

    Then I moved just far enough away to make continue going to classes inconvenient.
    So I started going to the local Karate Club.
    I liked that it wasn’t a formal dojo (the concept of all those formalities unnerved me a little)
    Like Tai Chi, I picked it up quickly, but I also quickly discovered the two styles were VERY different. The breathing was backwards, the foot movements un-intuitive; the hard blocks seemed incredibly impractical (especially for a petite, fine-boned female like myself).
    After a year and a half I left (for many other reasons than what I’ve just mentioned).

    In fact I abandoned all martial arts for nearly three years, which was fine – I’d only been a hobbyist to begin with.
    Then something changed; I wanted to pick it back up.
    Some things had changed within the management structure of the Karate club, so I went back and found that I suddenly loved it! (I think it took those three years for me to forget how awesome Tai Chi had been). I slowly shifted from a casual practitioner to a real martial artist!
    The style was still incredibly impracticable for me and the tests were utterly brutal on my stamina, but I thrived on the challenge. I still do. (I’ve been back for almost three years now)

    But I’ve also recently started assistant teaching Tai Chi.
    Though I hadn’t touched it in six or so years I had popped in for a class taught by a guy who’d been one of my classmates when I was learning. I loved it (again) and asked if he wanted some help. I then more or less re-taught myself the form on my own and have been enjoying that.

    My martial arts journey has been incredibly schizophrenic and it’s almost certainly NOT the best way to go about it (*I* wouldn’t recommend it to anyone); but I’ve found if you enjoy something and it’s doing something for you, go ahead and do it.
    I think that consciously *knowing* Karate isn’t the best style for me is important.
    I won’t stop me from gunning for my first dan, but it’s a nice dose of perspective. I’m not sure If I’ll drop Karate when I reach black belt or keep going for the sheer enjoyment of it. Now that I’m getting my Tai Chi fix again it’s now only a matter of if I’m having fun or not ;)

  12. Does this mean that if you train in a bad system for a long enough time(like say,5-10 years),you’ve essentially crippled your ability to physically handle yourself and your ability to switch/adapt to an effective system? Thank God I did my research on the internet before hurriedly enrolling in a martial arts school if that’s true. The idea of never being able to defend myself is terrifying.

    • Not necessarily, though you’ll probably have to unlearn a lot of bad habits, which takes a lot of time and effort.

      • You know,now that I go back to this particular topic,I gotta ask:

        Does this still apply if the martial art you’re transferring to operates on a different range?

        To explain what I mean,I plan to start training in Gracie jiu-jitsu at a Gracie Academy sometime soon. No,I didn’t buy into the whole “GJJ/BJJ is the absolutely best martial art ever!” BS and I’m well aware of grappling’s limitations for self-defense purposes but for a variety of reasons,it is the martial art that appeals the most to me at the moment.

        However,will this negatively affect me if I decide to train in,say…Tai Chi later on in my life? (or heck,any legitimate stand-up martial art for that matter)
        Those 2 arts operate in completely different ranges after all.

        • I think so. The body mechanics are very different on the ground as opposed to standing up. The more you practice a specific set of body mechanics, the harder it becomes to master another.

          • Thanks for your input. I’ll proceed with caution then. Gracie Combatives is a structured learning curriculum focused entirely on the grappling basics for street application so learning that shouldn’t hurt me much I think. (I also think its a great option for strikers/other martial artists who aren’t really passionate/interested about grappling and just want to learn the basics so they aren’t clueless if ever they end up there in a street fight. there are a ton of problems with your average sport BJJ gym if you’re looking for street applicable grappling,like the lack of a structured learning curriculum,but getting into would make this too long)