Tuesday, 1 October 2013
My Martial Art is better than yours, and that's FINAL. 31.09.13
"Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own"
Once upon a time I had a little pony called Bob. Bob was, obviously, the best little pony the world had ever seen. He was friendly, kind, determined and brave. He was “the little engine that could” and always did his very best for me. He was, however, built like a normal horse that had been left in the heat so his legs had melted, with most of the mass ending up in the hooves. He looked more like a hippo than a thoroughbred. As for his gait - you know how certain horses seem to glide above the ground, only putting their feet down to pay lip service to the law of gravity? Well, Bob didn’t do that. Bob stomped. When Bob put a foot on the ground, the ground knew about it. Clomping his ginormous hooves, my little pony carried me towards many fine adventures. Rather unsurprisingly, however, none of these adventures involved winning any races. Dressage and show jumping rosettes never graced his stable.
The horse was built like a tank and was just about as graceful. I loved him to bits, but I knew his limitations. Would you try and teach a hippo to tap-dance? Had I pushed him into disciplines to which he wasn’t suited, he would have been unlikely to succeed, however hard he tried. He would have been soundly beaten by horses better built for that particular activity, who could achieve more with less effort. Happily, being a chilled-out kind of individual with no aspirations beyond his home comforts, he would not have cared in the least.
Why am I prattling on about horses in a blog mostly about self-protection and interpersonal conflict? Because what’s true for good ol’ Bob is also true for me. I am as graceful as a sack of potatoes, although marginally less co-ordinated. My body shape is more suited to carrying a small pig under each arm than to ballet. I am, most definitely, built for comfort, not for speed. If I cut weight I don’t look willowy; I look ill, and my friends grow concerned and bake me pies. Yes, with dedication and determination and a hell of a lot of training and effort I could change a lot of that, to a certain degree, but the bottom line is that I’m made the way I’m made. The way I’m made makes me more suited to some activities than to others. Realising this, I grow mightily puzzled by a lot of self-defence and martial arts debates.
So many people seem completely immersed in endless arguments about how their art or system is the ultimate, final and best answer to the problem of violence. Their art is THE best. All other arts are inferior. I don’t get it; I really don’t. I have dabbled here and there, and what I have found is that – shock, horror – some arts just suit me better than others. I found them easier to pick up and I could achieve a degree of competence in less time, because they play to my strengths. Conversely, I know that in some arts I could never hope to be more than passable, however hard I tried, because I’m just not made for them. Putting in the same amount of time and effort, I could be half decent at Wing Chun or Krav Maga, or terrible at Tae Kwon Do or Karate. What matters, the “universal” best or what’s best for me?
Now, it’s possible that I’m missing a trick and I’m an inferior human being. Maybe everybody else has the ability to learn whatever they want at the same speed and with the same ease. Maybe everyone else is limitless. Unless that’s the case, though, a lot of the debates are incredibly short-sighted, because they are effectively comparing apples and oranges. People seem to forget that the systems have to be actually learnt and used by people, and not all people are created equal. The best move in the world won’t help you a bit if you can’t learn it because your body won’t allow you, or if, once you’ve learnt it, you can’t use it effectively because of your size or shape.
Let me present to you an extreme example: my mother. She is elderly, unfit, barely over four-feet tall and has severe osteoporosis. Now, is the system that is “the best” for a tall, fit, strong man in his twenties going to be the best for her, too? She can’t kick as high as most people’s knees. Hard impacts cause her to break. She also has a deep aversion to any kind of violence and faints at the sight of blood. Ok, so most systems aren’t designed for people like her, but that’s the point: they are designed with a certain type of person in mind. Just because they suit that type, it doesn’t mean that they’ll suit another.
It’s not just about physical limitations, either. Different systems cater to different personalities. This becomes painfully evident when you spend enough time people-watching at martial arts conventions. If what you are studying doesn’t suit your personality, there is a greater chance that you will not be able to use it effectively when you need to. For instance, if you have a dread of injuring people too much it is utterly and completely pointless to learn a lot of über-brutal moves that you would never apply – and a lot of people feel like that. It would be far more constructive for them to learn a “less effective” art that they would actually put to use with no hesitation if needed.
Furthermore, some systems take a long time and a lot of effort to give you functional skills, whereas other systems can give you something within a very short period of time. Again, who are you teaching? Will they be sticking with you for the length of time that it takes to master that killer move? Because, if that’s not the case, you should be asking yourself what you are sending them home with today.
I am very fond of the British expression “horses for courses”. It comes from the horse racing world, where it is widely believed that some horses race better on certain courses than on others (e.g., damp vs. dry). The expression means that it is important to choose suitable people for particular activities because everyone has different skills. It seems to me painfully obvious that the opposite is also true: that it is important to choose suitable activities for a particular person.
There are arts and systems out there that are clearly bogus and only survive through refusing to be tested against people who are not indoctrinated into believing that they work. There are also a lot of instructors in a lot of arts who really aren’t up to standards. I am fully behind spending time and energy in fighting these charlatans, partly because the public could do with the help but also because, let’s face it, it’s fun to make them eat crow pie. As for all the systems and arts that have something that can be of use to somebody, though, how about we left them alone? Instead of trying to prove how our system is Ultimate Best Devastating Martial Art System Ever, we could spend more time learning from and helping each other, regardless of our allegiances to an art. Instead of being defensive of our arts, we could be open to learning where their shortcomings are so that we can overcome them. We could focus on working out what works best for us and help others learn what’s best for them. Hell, we could just spend more time training, because smacking stuff is fun... With all that free time and energy, the sky’s the limit.