How’s that for a controversial title?
Chances are, if you are training to get good at a martial art, you probably never will. That’s right. By training to get good at a martial art, you almost ensure you won’t get good at that martial art. That’s because by training to get good at a martial art, you’re training the wrong thing, or, at best, you’re training the right thing in the wrong way.
I want to shift your focus now so that you have this opportunity sooner than I did. Getting good at a martial art is at least one step away from what you’re after, and if the evidence of so many martial arts out there today tells us anything, it’s that if you work too hard at getting good at your martial art, you’ll never be any good at your martial art at all.
Mixed martial arts enthusiasts, with their counterparts in sport-combative arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and kickboxing, often insist that realism is the missing ingredient that sets their art apart from the delusional fluff that passes for traditional martial arts, but let’s get real for a minute here. Traditional martial arts were traditionally both pragmatic and very, very martial, far more martial than any cage match with almost any set of rules, even very bare, licentious ones. Traditional martial artists fought quite literally for their lives or for their militaries. Traditional martial arts arose from that need, and so something must have gone wrong for the MMA guys to have such an impossibly good case on their side.
We can point to traditional martial arts losing their edge because they watered things down, because they withheld crucial information from new generations of students (as is very likely with the Asian martial arts that came to the Americas–including Brazil), or because of any number of other reasons, be those commercial and sport, or stupidity and laziness. All of these reasons have something in common, though: they make practicing their martial arts about trying to get good at the martial art.
Think about it for a second. If you’ve spent any time in a martial arts school, you’ve probably seen someone partway up the skills ladder get placed in a sparring situation with a completely new person and then get their asses completely kicked by someone who doesn’t have a clue about the martial arts–but who knows how to fight. Sometimes it happens to the experts, like the black belts or even the head of the school. What gives? Some of it can be explained by the experts holding back on the beginner, but not all of it. Some can be explained by the outsider’s complete lack of knowledge of the rules to which the insiders have become too accustomed to. Some of it just comes down to training a martial art to become good at the martial art makes you forget that martial arts are about fighting, and that’s not good.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, whatever you think of it as a martial art, has the reputation it does today because in the contexts where it is applied, it works. It works well. Again, we can make a myriad of excuses for this, like accusations that cage match rules-sets were designed to unfairly favor grapplers or whatever else, but tha fails to explain why even among grappling styles, BJJ seems to dominate, at least in the context of one-on-one fighting. The reason is one of their favorite things to trumpet, though: it’s constantly “pressure tested” in exactly the kinds of conditions in which it performs so well. More than that, however, the Gracies weren’t after getting good at jiu-jitsu; they were after getting good at fighting.
The traditional martial arts, or the farce that largely represents them today, seem to have forgotten this entirely. Kata is a series of motions to be gone though. Bunkai, or applications practice, is a charade. Sparring practice is constrained by rules that, while they enable their practitioners to become quite good under them, create unrealistic expectations about fighting outside of them. (Here’s as good a place as any to point out that BJJ and MMA aren’t exempt from this problem too!)
Traditional arts have shifted largely to the goal of getting good at the skills that appear to characterize those arts. Kata performances are perfected as performances. Applications are done under unrealistic play-acted conditions. Sparring is done with restrictive sets of rules. And so we see kata dojos and wushu schools churning out beautiful performers who think they’re good at their martial art. We see self-defense experts who can’t actually fight. And we see sparring-centered programs producing skilled fighters who excel under the circumstances that they’ve trained to. Getting across this chasm to good at martial arts requires accounting for all of those shortcomings in your training, and it requires you to stop training to get good at the martial arts.
Here’s where I have to get to the caveats. Maybe you don’t want to train martial arts so that you can fight. In today’s world, there’s no need for it. You can train a martial art–perfectly respectably, I’ll add–for performance, cage matches, health, exercise, mental focus, or any number of other personal goals. That’s all fine, and my point will remain. If you want to get good at fighting, which is what we usually mean by being good at the martial arts, you’ve got to remember that when you approach your training. If you want to equate some other objective with your martial arts training, then you’ve got to remember that, too, when you train (with the added requirement that you remember what you’re training for and don’t confuse it with fighting skill, which is harder to do than it seems when practicing a martial art).
I’m going to assume for the rest of this essay, then, that when you say that you want to be “good at the martial arts,” you mean that you want to be good at fighting with your martial art. (If your goals are different with your training, you can adjust for yourself.) If you want to be good at fighting with your martial art, then, you need to figure out exactly what obtaining that skill requires and train for it.
The easy and obvious need, the one that’s probably been confusing you up until now if you’ve never thought clearly about this before, is that you actually do need to improve upon and eventually master the skills and basic training requirements for your martial art. That doesn’t guarantee being good at fighting, but if you want to be good at fighting with your martial art, that’s going to be a central necessity. (My opinion is that many MMAers do not sufficiently understand this point, or they do and simply don’t care about it.) If your art is worth anything at all, getting better at these skills should improve your fighting ability, not make it worse. If training is making your fighting ability worse, you’re probably training to get good at the martial art instead of to get good with the martial art.
The next most obvious thing needed if you want to get good with your martial art instead of just good at it is to enhance the skills and capacities that improve your ability to effect a good fighting result. Learning to hit harder is a good example. In Yin Style Bagua, we distinguish, for instance, from regular hitting power and refined hitting power. The latter should drop or stop most people it hits while the former only sometimes will. The saying in YSB is that it takes three years of serious training to find a force, so learning to hit properly, with full-body power and accurate expression of refined force, is a project worth dedicating a lot of intelligent effort to. Learning to apply your footwork in a realistic way for fighting situations in another good example of a skill needed to improve at using your art. Improving your conditioning, endurance, toughness, and so on, are other aspects that also may be immediately relevant. Most important, though, is learning to practice with intent, and this includes practicing having intent.
The intent I mean is fighting intent. If you cannot imagine yourself applying your art in a fighting way, a real fighting way, then you don’t have it. Step one, in that case, is getting it. You absolutely must be able to clearly visualize yourself applying your art, or you have no hope of developing fighting intention that you can use in your training.
The easiest way to start this process, if you’re not there yet, is to visualize applications without a partner present, and visualize taking them to completion. You will need some skill with the techniques and, usually, having done them successfully with a partner at some point in order to make this happen. Eventually, you’ll need to rely upon a partner far less, but early on, it’s crucial to learning to feel how someone’s weight, position, reactions, and unwillingness to get hit or fall down disrupt your fantasies about your techniques.
Eventually, though, it isn’t enough just to visualize applications. You need to put that intent into your training. (That Yin Style Baguazhang demands this skill and training methodology is what makes it an internal art.) It cannot be neglected, for without it the best you can hope for is getting good at your art, not good with your art. That is, unless you happen to be naturally gifted as a fighter anyway.
Even that isn’t enough, though. Eventually this same process has to be repeated outside of applications. It has to be taken to fighting. Your opponent has to be imagined to be more and more dynamic, more and more dangerous, or your intent isn’t fighting intent yet. Sparring is one way that many martial arts carve into this ability to think through a fight because, like applications practice, sparring provides the realistic experiences that let you think about the problem in a realistic way. The higher level of development, though, is going to come from being able to visualize realistic situations in which you can see how your highly refined techniques can be applied. I’m almost sure that it’s only in this way that someone can truly get good with their martial art, and it requires you to think about getting good at it as only a low-level stepping stone, a foundational necessity, for getting good with it.