“Karate Doesn’t Work!”
Heard it before?
How about “Tae Kwon Do doesn’t work”? “Wing Chun doesn’t work”? “Tai Chi doesn’t work”? “Aikido doesn’t work”? “BJJ doesn’t work?” “Traditional Martial Arts don’t work”?
You get the idea.
To me it’s akin to saying “Cars don’t work”. It’s a statement so broad that it’s nonsensical. Occasionally people might narrow it down, “BMWs are rubbish!” – okay… all BMWs? Rubbish for what? Is that what that particular model is designed for? Is it the car of the type of driver it attracts?
Returning to martial arts, the two biggest critiques that frame such broad condemnations tend to be the contexts of either use in MMA or Self Defence or both. Dig a little deeper and it quickly becomes obvious that in some respects these arguments are built on sand.
As many exponents of traditional martial arts are quick to point out, it’s very difficult to find any move in an MMA competition that isn’t visible in the forms or drills of a traditional martial art. It’s also easy to find people with solid TMA backgrounds successfully competing in MMA. I doubt anyone has ever been bored enough (sorry, dedicated enough), to draw up a spreadsheet of every move used in any decade of any particular multi-discipline combat sport competition against the syllabi and/or forms of a broad range of martial arts, but I believe that if they did they would find that most traditional systems include somewhere between 60-90% of what has been utilised. Not 100%? Well if you study any particular competitor you’ll find they don’t use 100% of the compiled list. In similar vein there are a number of things you’ll see in some TMA syllabi that you won’t see used in a competition format, but you might see on video in effective use by Law Enforcement groups that invest in Ju Jitsu or Aikido training.
The elephant in the room here is of course the word ‘include’. The kata of karate are a comprehensive catalogue of physical movements that can be interpreted into techniques and combinations. It’s therefore easy for someone to read one of my books, watch one of my videos, train internationally with me, or with any number of the excellent seminar instructors from the thriving British Karate scene, and look at something in MMA and say “Oh we have that too in Karate”.
But do you?
You’ve only ‘got it’ if you train it regularly with partners and you can use it in live practice. I can see lots of sequences in Karate forms that can be interpreted as hip throws, but I don’t personally teach hip throws. My training journey has led me to prefer distal unbalancing, leg reaping and unbalancing over the leg to hip throws – so those are the unbalancing methods I teach, all of which I can relate directly to sequences in traditional kata. When it comes to my students, we don’t ‘have’ hip throws even if some of the kata they practice do.
But efficacy is not just about techniques though, it’s the training methods employed that build the mindset and the ability to effectively use physical skills appropriately. The technical differences between martial arts are minimal because we’re all working with the same problem of human body against human body – that’s a broad canvas that can be viewed from multiple angles, but we’re still painting on the same canvas. It’s less a case of “Art X doesn’t work!” and more a case of “Training method Y is less efficient!”. It’s not just the car but whether you’ve been taught how to drive it in different conditions.
But can we separate pedagogy from ‘style’? If we’re all doing pretty much the same motions with our arms and legs, isn’t how something is taught the only way to determine differences and apply ‘style’ labels?
Well yes. And no. I don’t think it’s that simple.
I’ve been around the block a bit over the years. In my core original art I trained regularly in seven clubs across six associations before I gained my Shodan and in the decades since then I’ve not only taught multiple people from multiple styles and associations, I’ve trained with, learned from and talked with instructors and students from a huge range of arts and professions all across the world. One of the things I’ve learned from this is that ‘styles’ tend to be illusory branding because once you really scratch the surface you’ll find more commonalities than differences. While some teaching practices are more common in some arts than others, or with some age groups than others, you are always doing a significant number of practitioners a disservice any time you attempt to pigeon hole any martial art by pedagogy.
Another thing about having ‘trained around’ for a long time is that whenever I see “ X doesn’t work!” I study the list of ‘reasons why X is bad’ and then the list of ‘why Y is better’ and strangely enough I’ve experienced multiple examples of clubs in Y doing what X is condemned for, and multiple clubs of X doing what Y is praised for.
Thus rather than write about ‘why Art X doesn’t work’ I think it’s more productive to write about techniques and training methodologies and the contexts in which they excel and why. That way we can avoid the obfuscation of stereotyping and pigeon holing and focus on ways to help each other improve.