Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Problem of Definition

My posting of the YouTube video below showing a ToShinDo trained "ninja" winning an MMA bout in 26 short seconds seems to have set off some heated discussion. I was hoping to get more open discussion, but I forgot I was posting on the open web... If you haven't already checked out the video, and posted any thoughts, I'm still encouraging opinions.

Part of the reason we have such a heated discussion is that we're not all using the same definition of the term "martial arts." At first glance, it seems like a specific enough term, indicating any method of attack and defense.

But really, "martial arts" is one term that encompasses at least three related, but different activities:
  • Reality Fighting: That is, techniques of movement meant to save your ass in life-threatening combat.
  • Sport Martial Arts: Which runs the gamut from fitness/exercise to professional and competitive sports.
  • Aesthetic Martial Arts: These are martial arts intended primarily for culture or entertainment, such as demonstration, dance, or even movie-making.
I say, "at least three" because there's plenty of room for overlap in these categories, and even some subcategories. For example, reality fighting includes personal self-defense courses within the context of violent crime, and you have military instruction that teaches methods to deal with the realities of the battlefield. Even that can range from non-lethal methods for use in peace keeping operations, to mass melee among bodies of troops, to sentry removal.
So without one, settled definition of "martial arts" it can be very difficult to discuss the topic across the internet.
One popular website demonstrates this problem. Their idea -- a paradigm, really -- of good martial arts is MMA competitive fighting. Based on what they've seen, they espouse the idea that this is the only way to be effective in martial arts. Why? Because two extremely fit, scary looking fighters get into a ring and connect with full force techniques that ultimately prove one man to be superior to the other. It sure looks like a real fight; and we're always told there are no rules. Except there are three very important rules:
  1. The fighters are matched for relative size, weight, and experience
  2. Neither intends to kill the other one, and both fighters know this.
  3. Most importantly, there are no weapons involved.
Meanwhile, the local strip mall martial arts school -- commonly derided as a "McDojo" -- gets a bad rap because they focus on memorizing forms, physical fitness, and some "feel-good" philosophy. Possibly there is some light sparring.
Yet this ignores the good work many "McDojos" do at keeping responsible, happy, fit students. They provide an outlet for stress and aggression, and also an opportunity to connect with a cultural tradition. Statistically speaking, most of these students are not going to end up in a fierce close quarters battle with a mugger or terrorist, and few will be foolish enough to choose to enter a competitive match -- at least not without increasing the intensity of their training. The most dangerous enemy they will face on a regular basis is themselves, and if they are good students, they will be equipped to meet that challenge.
I've been involved in martial arts for many years now, and I've been part of just about every approach to training you can think of. I haven't found it to be one size fits all because the reasons for getting involved are as many as their are students. I do think it is dangerous for any practitioner to fail to understand this spectrum of training. It can be very dangerous to think of yourself as a hard core warrior if your monthly session is Tai Chi at the Senior Center. But it is equally dangerous to think that you can take your MCMAP instructor's certificate and open a children's program when you leave the service -- you're not doing your wallet or your students any favors on that one.
Lastly, I've found that the key to a sustainable martial arts involvement, and the key to more advanced levels, is to embrace the spectrum and understand the importance of the different levels. The most common problem is to concentrate on the aesthetic and intellectual aspects and forget the martial in martial arts. I'm working on a post that will return to this point in the near future.

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