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.
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.