- By Ian Sinclair
Every time a video of a martial art demonstration or competition is posted online, the typical trolls immediately start trash-talking the participants, often saying something like one of the following:
- “That would never work in a real fight.“
- “That is so fake!“
- “Yeah, sure, try doing that against Brock Lesnar“
- “tai chi is crap“
- “that guy is lousy at tai chi“
- “that is not even tai chi,”
- “WTF LOL SYL DFNT TGIF TTFN EMS OMG”
- “I was distracted by the pole dancer in the background.“
A quick investigation of the troll’s own background usually indicates that he or she is a teenager whose own martial experience is based on Japanese anime.
We try not to waste too much time explaining, to people who don’t really care, about the difference between a demonstration and a fight, or between a sport and actual combat. But occasionally it is worthwhile to say something.
The Difference Between a Martial Demonstration, a Real Fight, and a Martial Sport
① “In a demonstration, no one dies and no one goes to jail.”
② “Sport is about victory. Fighting is about survival.”
① “Stand like a tree and learn to observe your mind for a ten years. Then get back to me.“
Rant Answer (Rantswer):
Okay. Let us first address a few basic concepts.
What is the difference between a martial art and a martial style?
In ordinary conversation, most people make no distinction between a “martial art” and a “martial style.” But in this case, it is useful to explain the difference.
“Martial Art” refers to the study and conditioning of mind, body, and spirit for the purpose of improving, maintaining, and protecting health, balance, peace and harmony. This includes, but is not limited to, means of defending against physical aggression.
“Martial Style” refers to a particular approach to teaching martial art. There are as many martial styles as there are teachers. There are as many martial arts as there are students. Some styles focus a lot on sport, and therefore emphasize certain techniques over others. But most traditional martial arts have a more comprehensive approach.
What is Tai Chi?
Tai chi is a martial style. People who practise tai chi might be martial artists, or they might be using it as healthy exercise with no illusions of being martial artists. Each approach is lauded by some and derided by others. Both are fine in my world.
What is a fight?
To some, a fight can refer play fighting. To some, fighting can also include sport fighting like sanshou, wrestling, boxing or MMA. Fighting can also include real fighting, or actual combat where there are no predetermined rules and no guarantee that an opponent will show any concern for your survival. The play fighters’ goals are fun, exercise, and socializing. The sport fighter’s goal is victory. The real fighter’s goal is survival.
The clear distinction between “martial sport” and “self defence” is that the “sport fighter” aims to win, while the goal of “self defence” is to avoid losing. These are two very different things, with very different strategies.
What martial style works best in a fight?
No style works best in a fight. A style refers to pedagogy, not application. Some teaching styles may work very well for some students and not at all for others.
Several years ago, a friend of mine living in Vancouver hired a maths tutor to help prepare her for a career change. When the tutor arrived for the first class, my friend explained to the tutor that she was probably going to be a difficult student, simply because she hated maths and had since high school.
The tutor sympathized with her, saying that her dislike of maths was probably due to bad teaching. He said “I had a great math teacher, who made math beautiful and interesting, and made me really love it. She is the reason why I am a math teacher today.”
My friend agreed, “Yes, you are probably right. I had a terrible math teacher in high school. I hated her classes and I still hate math.”
“Where did you go to high school?” he asked.
“Oh. I’m not from Vancouver. I grew up in Ontario, in a place called Orillia.”
“No kidding?! I’m from Orillia. Which high school did you go to?”….
As it happened, they both had the same mathematics teacher in high school.
My point is that with martial arts, as with mathematics, not every teacher is ideal for every student, and not every student is ideal for every teacher. Even within a particular style, disagreements on pedagogy will arise over major and minor issues, like whether “mathematics” is a singular or a plural noun.
How well a style can prepare you to fight depends upon how effectively and enthusiastically you practice. It depends upon what qualities and skills you can manifest when it matters. Generally speaking, the best style for you is the one that you are willing (and able) to find, access, practice, perfect, and transcend.
When the application doesn’t match the style.
“I’ve seen competitions between students of different martial arts. But they all seem to fight the same way in the ring. Why is that?”
Part of the reason is that the rules determine the parameters for the fight. Sport imposes limitations on the types of techniques that can be used. But techniques are not what wins a fight. A technique must be applied using correct method or it won’t work. The method of application is based on inherent structure, biomechanics, attitude, awareness, timing, luck, and more. Mental and physical condition is mostly what wins a fight. Divine intervention is also occasionally helpful.
Many times a person will see tai chi or another martial art represented in a sparring contest of some sort, like MMA or Sanshou, and will say, “I didn’t see any tai chi in that.” or “That was lousy tai chi.” This has led some to conclude that Tai chi, or whatever the art in question, is “Horse S#%t”.
When you learn a martial style, do not expect to be able to fight with it. You do not fight with a style.
“Then why do some styles look the same in competition as they to in practice?”
Certain martial arts are sometimes referred to as martial sports. That is because they train specifically for a particular type of competition. Judoka, for instance, train for Judo competition, and they make such competition a regular part of their training schedule. Boxers train for boxing matches, and box regularly. Wrestlers train for wrestling competitions by wrestling, Tae Kwon Do for TKD matches, fencers for fencing matches, etc. If these athletes compete in a different type of competition, they need to practise for it. For instance, if a TKD athlete enters a judo competition, they need to prepare by learning judo. The converse is also true. Have you ever seen a football player try rugby for the first time? It is educational, like when a cricket player tries baseball for the first time and trips over the pitcher’s mound trying to carry the bat to second base.
So, if students of martial arts which are not sport-oriented wish to compete in a martial sport, they need to train for that particular sport. This may mean learning from a different style.
As a tai chi teacher, I can say that tai chi, as a style, like any martial style, is a pile of Pferdeäpfeln. The devotion that students have to a particular style limits their progress. Their devotion usually exceeds any attachment that the founder had to the same style.
The great teachers continued to develop and refine their styles throughout their lives, and no single student could ever learn everything the teacher knew. They could try to pass on the essence of their art, but no two students would come away with exactly the same understanding. The teachers who best carry on the tradition are transmitting the potential to master the art. This is far more valuable than indoctrinating devotees to a particular style.
One teacher, who trained “under bridges” with Aikido founder, Morihei Ueshiba, said, “Aikido doesn’t work. Don’t think. Just move.” What this means is that the style is not the function. No one needs to be able to identify your style by watching your how you defend yourself. This is true whether in playfighting, sanshou, mma sport, or real combat.
That which we call martial styles are merely pedagogy. Each style is just a way of teaching. The pedagogy is not the martial art. “Martial Art” is what the student develops by following and transcending the teachings. No painter should be expected to paint the same way as their teacher. No musician should be expected to sing or play the same as those who went before.
You do not fight with a style, any more than you can fight using your teacher’s own fists and feet. You fight with the qualities cultivated by you, in your own unique way, through the pedagogy, conditioning and practice of your art. You must transcend style in order to adapt to the conditions, restrictions, and requirements of each situation.
As my teacher, Liang Shouyu sometimes said to me, “Martial art is a martial ART.” Martial art is not dogma or religion. You will never understand the teaching until you transcend it. Liang himself teaches, among other things, the Wuji Xiaoyao system, a name which refers to non-duality and liberation from form.
It is important to understand the importance and the role of form. It is also important to note that great performances of forms (martial art routines) are those performed by people who have transcended both the structure and meaning of the routine.
When we restrict ourselves to a martial STYLE, we fail to grasp the martial ART. Painting-by-numbers is not a high art form. While it is true that imitating a teacher can provide a shortcut to mastery, limiting oneself to mimicry will inhibit such progress.
The founders of each style created their art by transcending style. Every style every created is different in some way from those that came before. Most of the great masters studied several styles with several teachers before creating their own styles. These styles then continued to evolve throughout the teacher’s career.
Style is important. It is like the boat that carries you across the ocean. The better the boat, the safer and more efficient the journey. But when you reach the far shore, you don’t need to carry the boat with you.
Greatness is not achieved by following in another’s footsteps. It is achieved by learning the art of breaking trail.
- Ian Sinclair