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Top 5 Martial Arts Facepalms!


In these arts we call martial, there are just a couple of things that we have all heard time and time again that make us hang a heavy head, sigh with sorrow and bring hand to face. There is the saying, “you can’t argue with stupid” well these are the five things that make my inner numbskulls press the only in case of emergency face palm button followed by the walk away protocol.

1) “That wouldn’t work in the street”

I have no idea where this street is that everyone talks about but let me tell you I wouldn’t walk down their with my family or even my dog for that matter. If the rumours of this street are to be believed only violent psychopaths are found here whose first and only thought is to assault you and engage in non consensual acts of physical violence....

Although technically if you knowing walk down this street is it really a non consensual act? There are so many issues with this statement it's hard to know where to start. Firstly what Street are we talking about… Wall Street… Coronation Street… Sesame Street? There is significant difference between the frequency, likelihood and nature of confrontation if we are comparing a street in the leafy suburbs and a back street somewhere in Manilla. In one IF, I was to be attacked I’d likely have to deal with a knife wielding assailant and in the other a desperate housewife. I don’t know which is worse! Personally if the Street was anywhere near my house, number one, I’d always drive and preferably not stop at the traffic lights and number two, I’d move!

Joking aside for a moment my biggest issue with this statement is more that it shows a complete disregard for all of the other reasons a person my study a martial art. For example many people seek a great deal of joy and satisfaction from the sporting aspects of martial arts and although it isn’t for everyone that isn’t to somehow disvalue the brilliant things it brings. Ignoring this all together the biggest misuse of this phrase is actually a complete misunderstanding of context. For example not all techniques are intended to be applied in a life threatening situation many are actually techniques which demonstrate and allow the practice and development of fundamental principles which must first be developed. In fact that is now representative of a significant proportion of techniques and drills practiced through the various martial disciplines. We are not warriors despite what some people like to think and most martial arts practice is about educating students to learn and demonstrating techniques at full speed, power and with the level of violence and ruthlessness required to stroll down sed street simply doesn’t make for clear, concise and effective education. This phrase frankly is most commonly pulled out when all forms of useful and productive conversation have been expunged!

Please do not misunderstand me on this point however, I don’t wish to downplay the very real violence that exists beyond the safety of the dojo. As a teacher you have perhaps your most important moral obligation to be completely open with students about the brutality of violence. Nothing is more dangerous than giving them a false sense of security. For my own students one of the first things we discuss in their first lessons is my expectations of them as students that they should question everything I say and ask why. If they are unsure about a technique or principle they must ask as I want them to think deeply about their learning. In fact at no time am I more serious in the dojo than when it comes to nature of violence as it must carry a real resonance for students. Most people studying a martial art aren’t in fact studying real world violent confrontation they are studying their own bodies, history, culture, philosophy. They are learning confidence and kindness, empathy and kinship. I genuinely believe that martial artists as group are often some of the nicest people you can meet because in training we exert our bodies and minds and push ourselves. We experience pain and understand the meaning of our techniques and therefore learn to care for others as we understand the consequences of our actions and decisions. You resonate with with others because of our shared experience of training. Ultimately for me the reason this phrase is such a face palm is its based on a lack of communication between the two parties and imposes one person’s reason for training on someone elses. But moreso it stems from a misunderstanding of context which is so easily done when looking at a technique not in person. Also when this is directed a specific method of training for example solo kata practice it completely disregards the value of one type of practice or training methodologies as part of a suite or matrix. No method of training is perfect as everyone single method you can use has a limitation or flaw and so the only remedy is a variety of training strategies to overcome the limitations of any one method. What people really mean when they say a training method doesn’t work in the street is, I don’t like or struggle to see the value in that type of training and there is nothing wrong in that but they aren’t the same thing.

2) “What’s your style?”

I’ve discussed this facepalm before in fact I wrote a whole other blog on which you can check out after you’ve devoured this one but my issue with this statement is as follows.

Firstly to adequately answer this question for anyone who doesn’t stick rigidly to one style only this becomes a long question and in effect you kind of end up having to talk through your entire training history. The people that ask this question also attribute skills or technique to the style whereas, in my opinion the sensei makes a lot more difference than the style plus the best sensei encourage their students to look outside the box in order to understand their own styles more fully. Where this statement gets really petty however is when the my style is better than your style cards come out. It is the grown up equivalent of my dad is harder than your dad. Can you rank martial arts in a hierarchy, probably but it would not have a fixed answer based up the primary criteria you are using to judge each system. Generally speaking it isn’t the system but the person as ultimately what they practice is merely their expression of their personal truth at whatever stage that may be.

3) “Yeah but if you did this I’d just do this”

No you wouldn’t. This is a simple one for me, the value of hindsight statement. I’d just do this. No you wouldn’t because your brain doesn’t think at the same rate when your having an academic analysis of a technique and when your actually under attack. Brief mention of cognitive load theory here. The long or short of it that your brain really struggles to multitask and every time your brain experiences a new sensory input in rapid succession the delay between your brain's ability to process the information and respond increases. This is why most people, even an untrained person, can block a single attack (however badly). Most trained people can deal comfortably with two attacks but once you progress to attacks or just movements in excess of 3 or 4 stages your bodies ability to react has to become significantly impaired. It is now less cognitive and more instinctive so unless you have specifically trained to respond in a specific way for a specific attack or fault in an attack you wont be able to apply it with spontaneity. I’m not saying it is impossible to react in a certain way when a certain flaw presents itself but this is the absolute highest level of training and preparation which most people don’t have an concept of let alone then spend the required time to actually achieve.

This is not the same identifying weaknesses and possibilities in techniques and improving them, on the contrary that is one of the most important things for you to do. This statement is when personal arrogance blinds someone to the validity of a technique. The opposite of this statement but also as bad which so many people are guilty of is the following.

4) “I do this and then that would… break your arm”

Let me explain this one first. So you half way through a perfectly reasonable technique and then the person practicing stops to tell you what they would then do and then what would happen like some kind of martial arts fortune telling coupled with a slice of your lucky it didn’t just do this. You can almost see the smug smile and wink at the end of the technique. This happens a lot by people who think they practice arm locks for example but without ever actually practicing them. I would pull this, push here, twist this and your arm would break… would it though? The problem is unless you actually practice a skill in a high stress situation you will likely not be able to apply it as nicely as when your just talking about it. This one is also coupled with a little bit of naivety as to what it actually takes to break someones arm or choke them out or throw someone who doesn’t want to be thrown.

The hands down worst example of this however is in systems which regularly practice “knife fighting”. I have seen on many occasions techniques with a knife being taught where the technique has involved multiple stabs to vital organs, slashes to major arteries and cuts to functional muscle groups. Nothing wrong with the brutality of the technique, the issue is the mindset of the average practitioner. Most people thankfully would never be able to actually use that technique. Most people would probably vomit if they were covered in the amount of blood that would be realised by slicing an artery.

The point here is this, don’t use assume that you can discuss or imitate a technique and you can get it to work. This is actually one of the best strengths of Judo and then later Brazilian Jiujitsu in that the techniques are practiced in training drills designed to as closely replicate as possible a competition or fight and hence when a student is then required to apply it they have practiced it so many times in that scenario it’s not a big problem. The mindset also has to match.

5) Doing old man martial arts

So the final facepalm on my list isn’t so much a saying as a phenomena. Students imitate their teachers. No matter what you will as a student pick up the habits, mannerisms, idiosyncrasies and sayings of your teacher totally inadvertently. However whilst this is a great thing for witty one liners or rants you can pass on to your students it come with a health warning. Teachers aren’t perfect.

For example the 80 year old 10th Dan from Okinawan comes out to perform this kata. He performs what is a live time of experience and practice, but he also performs it as… an 80 year old man. That funny walk probably isn’t a secret technique it is probably that ankle injury from 30 years prior. That vibration at the end of the punch or block isn’t power generation on a scale you can’t imagine that is the physical capabilities of an 80 year old. Again don’t misunderstand I am not down playing the physical capabilities of older sensei or practitioners as they are quite frankly amazing. I hope to be half as physically capable when I reach that age and I will be more than happy. Instead my issue is when someone in their mid twenties or thirties starts to copy the old man version of the kata. Those same sensei would never have performed it that way when they were younger fitter and more able.

Always aspire to perform it at the peak of what it should be and could be. If you only ever look at a slower, less powerful form of kata over time the kata will lose some of the energy that should rightly be therefore its purpose to be delivered.

So those are my 5 martial arts facepalms. It feels good to rant for a bit so please let me know your facepalms in the comments below and feel free to rant you’ll feel better for it.

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