Athleticism and Martial Art

So I have been struggling with injury recovery for a little while. It has me thinking about physical capacity, physicality and our training. And the difference between athleticism and martial art. This is a slightly convoluted topic. It is not that complex, really, but it is easy to head down the wrong road when looking at physicality in the martial arts. The reason I think it is simple as there are two different categories of skill and development we are talking about here. 1) Straightforward physical capability- strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.. and 2) Martial skill- power generation, sensitivity, technical capability, bodily knowledge of strategy and tactics. Simple. But also complex, for two reasons.

  1. A lot of the second category can be imitated by elements of the first. You can make up for certain amounts of power and technique with strength, you can make up for certain elements of strategy and technique with speed, etc. So it is easy to seem like you are a good martial artist if you are simply strong, fast, and well coordinated. It is equally possible to mask poorly developed arts with excellent physical capabilities. A good athlete will be able to get things to work, especially against someone with lesser capabilities, even if these things are not really that well thought out.
  2. They are not completely independent. You can’t actually be a good martial artist if you are not in good condition- strong for your body, and able to move. And, to add complexity to that, different arts require different capabilities, so that you really need to have the right musculature, flexibility, etc. to perform the art. Without that combination it doesn’t really matter how good the art is, you can’t do it.
Image result for arnold conan the barbarian what is the secret of steel

What is the riddle of Steel?

So what does this mean? Well, first it means that physicality alone is not a good indication of martial skill, and fit students are not a good indication of a good system in and of themselves. As an example, strength is really useful, and discounting it would be foolish. However, it is not the same as power. Martial power is about delivering force where you want, when you want, the way you want, and in the systems I practice often over very short distance, right down to striking impact from contact with no pull-back. This cannot be imitated by strength, but with just a little space a really strong person can often hit pretty darn hard while a weak person cannot really generate short power so it is easy to confuse the two if you don’t know what you are looking for. Training can reinforce this, depending on how you train. If the training methods pit strength on strength really frequently, with no real tools for using skill to control strength, being stronger will make it seem you are more martially capable. If you can change speed in drills you can pretend you are better at timing by being faster or speeding up to “win”. So take a close look and see what is being rewarded. A lot of time and energy can be wasted, invested in something with difficulty but no depth.

The other side of this coin is that you cannot mask physical incapacity with technique. Or, to be more precise, you can but it requires certain training modes. If you are always working with compliant partners your techniques will always work. That means you can be out of shape, simply incapable of doing the technique against a reasonably fit or intent opponent, and possibly not even know it. Your “devastating techniques” can have their fictions maintained and reinforced by the way you train. Combat has a pretty central physical element. You need to be able to push, pull, lift, turn, duck, hit, tear, etc.. So if you see training that ignores physical capacity, that insists “only the technique matters and it can be done by anyone”, take a closer look and see what is really happening. Think about it in relation to other physical activities. How well will a person in poor physical shape perform in, say, Olympic wrestling, tennis, or parkour? These activities require very specific and highly developed skill sets. And the skills developed in those sports require a certain physicality to make them doable. While technique is essential it cannot function without physicality. The physical skills required are often pretty complex and difficult, and at the highest levels of any real art require a highly trained and conditioned body, one capable of expressing the art properly. That doesn’t mean you have to be young and absurdly developed but it does mean you have to be capable of what the system demands.

Image result for little person fighting big person

I don’t think he has taken in quite enough Chanko nabe to be ready for Sumo….

Marrying the two is where real training is at. A good system will have methods for developing martial skill and good strategy. An example might be oppositional sensitivity drills, things like pushing hands, but where the drill is developed and practiced to focus on specific technical elements, minimizing (but never eliminating, that isn’t possible) the effects of pure strength or agility. Testing, as it were, for the skill in question. Good training will also develop you physically, so you are capable to doing what the system requires. 

I have found that the two then reinforce each other. The system has certain attributes it requires for functioning properly- if you can’t get your body to do what is required you can’t do the art. So it develops these attributes. An example I have seen from my Feeding Crane sifu is that a number of times he has taught seminars and included certain techniques. These are often meant to give a flavor of the system as much as anything else. People will often dissect them and demonstrate how they are unrealistic. They will say things like “this won’t work, no one can really do that”. Sifu will laugh and say something along the lines of “well, it will work if your fajing is good, otherwise, no, it won’t. It won’t work for you because you don’t have short power.” And then make it clear he could get the technique to work. As can other people there, those with the correct martial power. But developing that is hard work-  lots of it, painful, tiring, and time consuming. Don’t do the work, the system will fail for you.  The corollary: do the work in a poor system and it will fail for you too.

So in a good art it is a web- physicality supporting techniques that are based in part on the physical and martial attributes developed by the system. In some ways a feedback loop. One of those things that make a system a system, and make it different from other well developed systems.

Anyway, long story short, don’t confuse being really fit with being a good martial artist. Good arts are far deeper than fitness, strength, and agility. They develop and do things that you can’t replicate with fitness alone, no matter how fit you are. But for goodness sake don’t call yourself a martial artist if you are not in good condition. If someone in poor shape is telling you their training will make you a good martial artist, or a good fighter, don’t believe it for a second. It just doesn’t work that way. At least not that I have ever seen.

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