With the recent emergence of challenges where traditional Martial Artists are bested, often in seconds by trained ‘sport’ fighters, I think it is worth looking at perhaps the most important guiding principle of my practice and the foundation of the MartialBody method, The principle of Honest inquiry.
“how much can you know about yourself if you have never been in a fight!” – Tyler Durden – Fight club.
How do you know if a method is useful for you? How do you decide on the merits of a method or the skill of a teacher to impart their skill? These are perhaps the most difficult obstacles for someone new to the martial arts to overcome.
It is a world filled with ‘tricks’ that conspire to confuse and fool the practitioners, where those with a little skill can confound those with none, and build entire mythos around their methods. All too often however these methods are built on the shakiest of foundations.
But more than simply confounding the uninitiated, and perhaps far more dangerous, is the tendency for coaches, teachers, and trainers to buy into their own delusion. The pull is strong as a coach to allow students to believe that what you are doing is extra special. We see this is the ‘internal arts’ masters throwing students around without touching them, with the students bowing for the privilege to feel the wonders of the master’s skills, and with the pervasive belief in these schools that their work is ‘too deadly’ to test. These situations are as damaging to the teacher as they are to the student and yet, even in the modern times, where technology has made huge volumes of information and research available to us, they persist.
Therefore, very early in my quest to effectively bring good information to fellow martial artists, I adopted a very simply but powerful rule.
“All training must be tested in a non-compliant environment outside of my own training group.”
Although this seems like a simply concept it is nuanced in a way that ensures continual growth.
Initially, I sought to test the validity of my training in the real-world environment of night club security. It was a time of intense learning and dissolving of illusion, a time when learning happened extremely fast, but ‘testing’ was impossible. The results of a test not working were dire, and often life threatening. Indeed, someone I worked with many times was killed in a fight while working after being pushed down some stairs. This is not the place to be testing your training methods if your health is of any concern to you!
But you methods DO need to be tested, so how can one go about testing the abilities we aim to build or the attributes we are looking to obtain without risking our health and life in such a direct way?
For me I have always had an affinity to the grappling arts, I had trained Judo and Japanese JuJutsu to a good level so a method that emphasised free exchange seemed like the perfect environment to begin to test my work. Brazilian JiuJitsu represents this environment for me, but for those with a striking bias a method like Kickboxing or Muay Thai, or the more encompassing MMA may present the right environment.
One argument against these arts that I hear time and again from traditionalists is that they are ‘sports’ and sports have rules that inhibit their effectiveness on ‘the street’. Although this may be somewhat true, for instance the MMA fighter rarely deals with knives or multiple opponents which were common place when I worked on the doors, these methods do provide the practitioners with something very useful. Firstly, they provide the real, and committed, pressure of an un-cooperative exchange. Even considering the ruleset, this is something that anyone interested in combat needs to become intimately familiar with. Secondly, they provide competitive arenas, where both the minds ability to control nervous energy, the body’s ability to deal with adrenaline and its technical and entrained skill is tested.
Bringing this testing back to our personal development. Initially, as with everyone who trains something like BJJ, you are more concerned with surviving a round than you are will looking at how your body method can help you, or how the mechanics you are training can be applied. However, over time the body can naturally express the skills you are building because familiarity with the pressures of the environment increases. We become attuned to real resistance, however limiting the ruleset, and can begin to ‘train’ and ‘test’ our methods, even within the flow of the fight.
There are, however, a few very important points to understand about testing your work that should be adhered too. Below are just a few of the methods you can use to fill your training with valuable learning experiences.
Framing the work correctly.
We are ’wired to win’ at a very deep level when we are engaging in combative exchange. However, this concept sometimes can work against us in that it moves us outside of our learning and development mindset into the ‘survival’ mindset. For us to be able to analyse the merit of a method or the level at which we have built attributes we need to frame our exchanges correctly. For instance, is we are working on HeavyBody attribute, we should be looking to obtain feedback from ourselves and our partners on noticeable changes. If we can understand if the training is making us feel heavy or not in free exchange then we have something to work with in our person training.
Keeping your work to yourself
Secondly, we need to maintain a level of secrecy from our regular training partners. This is not to protect some ancient knowledge, but simply to ensure that they are reacting in an honest way to the work we undertake. When we tell someone what we aim to do, especially when a teacher tells a student what they are about to do, the partner will often either deliberately try to stop the method, or will excessively react to the method. However, if we simply do the work and then ask the partner afterwards how it felt, they will be able to provide honest work in the free exchange, and give an honest account in the final assessment.
Step outside your group.
In Brazilian JiuJitsu there is plenty of opportunity to go and train with other groups. There is a culture of ‘open mats’, where students are able to turn up and spar with their peers. This is a very useful tool for someone testing their development for several reasons. Firstly, the partner in a new gym will invariably want to prove the point that their gym is legitimate so will attempt to win honestly. Secondly, in a new environment there is a mental pressure on you as the new person that will test whether the attributes you have built are innate or only manifest when focused. Generally, when you have built these attributes such that they are engrained, the new partners will comment on them, often “wow how much do you weigh!” then surprise at the low figure, or “you’re so strong! What lifting do you do?” then surprise at the minimal amount. These are good pointers towards your attributes being engrained.
Of course, this is true of any martial art where sparring and non-compliant exchange is promoted. Visiting other Kickboxing Gyms, MMA gyms even Push Hands classes will allow you to enter a similar exchange with your peers and get similar honest feedback. Of course, the further and more immediate feedback comes from engaging in competitions or sport fighting, where, despite the rulesets you can test specific attributes in the crucible of combative exchange with someone REALLY trying to beat you!
In conclusion, it is easy to delude yourself. It is easy to think that what you train, do or teach is special or superior. But in a world conspiring to present you with Bullshit at every turn the only way in which you will truly know is if you test your methods for yourself, accept the defeats and learn from the dead ends of training. I have been down many of these dead ends and they are only ever highlighted when someone is stood in front of you who doesn’t care about your ‘skills’, your ‘reputation’, your ‘method’, but instead who just wants to win the exchange. Far from being your enemy, they can represent your greatest ally on the martial journey.
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