In my years of martial arts training I believe that I have thought or asked the question ‘why?’ more in that field than in any other topic I’ve ever studied.
From the very beginning, from before any gradings and through those early kyu grades in my teenage years, I was challenged by my experiences in training. My experience as a teenager of fighting was limited to having been punched occasionally, witnessing playground scraps, watching Big Daddy and Giant Haystack wrestle on Saturday afternoons, occasional boxing matches, Grange Hill, the Fall Guy and James Bond movies – but I could see that the one step, three step and five step kumite we were learning bore no relation to any of that. Although I could see that I was getting faster and more accurate that discrepancy between what I was learning in karate and every other form of violence I had witnessed made me uneasy.
I enjoyed the kata training not least because I enjoyed the coordination of the techniques. But the ‘why’ for the movements we were learning (in both kata and kihon combination training) was lacking. Plausible answers were not forthcoming in class and the applications given in books and seminars at the time, like the sparring combinations, also lacked credibility. Many of the applications I occasionally witness still do.
Asking the question ‘why?’ drove me to seek out my own answers. That meant learning new skills by training with instructors in other arts, training under or collaborating with other instructors from many different backgrounds who had similar questions, reading books and watching videos to experience other approaches, and taking on board insights from being an instructor or training planner in other disciplines (over the years I have been a fitness instructor, a university tutor, a secondary school teacher, a first aid instructor and assessor, an educational visits coordinator, an adventurous training officer, an exercise director, a weapons instructor, a physical intervention and restraint instructor, a lifeguard, a low and high ropes confidence course instructor, and an instructor in three self defence systems different to my own). Improving what I practice and how I teach others is a personal challenge that continues to this day.
Moving beyond acceptance of the status quo by asking ‘why?’ should not be taken as a call to throw away everything that has previously been learned. Change for the sake of change does not necessarily bring progress. Just because you do not like something does not mean that it does not have value. But by the same token you should not be afraid to confront the possibility that your full cup is filled with copper pennies while others are offering coins of pure gold, and to make room for that gold you need to throw some or all of those pennies away.
We should have the courage to challenge everything with that simple three letter question. We live in an age of information availability and empirical testing. From lesson length to training intensity and frequency, from warm up methods to stretching to warm downs, from technique teaching to coaching and technique application, there isn’t a single element of your training regime that is so sacrosanct that it cannot be challenged. This does not necessarily mean breaking with tradition; is the core of an art its kata, its techniques, its training methods, or its aims? By changing nothing are you honouring your teachers and your style, or are you actually breaking the tradition of the past or mummifying it or both?
Sometimes you need to set the question ‘why?’ in a broader context to give it a useful purpose. ‘Why is our club intake so small?’ could become ‘why is our intake much smaller than other local clubs?’. Too often people pretend to themselves that the answer to the latter question is supposedly higher standards without truly assessing whether that is the case (and if it is how to turn it into an attractive selling point). A good question that too many martial arts instructors ignore is ‘why do so many people join martial arts clubs, but so few achieve (meaningful) Dan grades?’ (with too many attributing the low numbers to high standards rather than problems with their syllabus and pedagogy). Are students failing to meet our high standards, or are we failing to coach them in ways that help them learn? Are they leaving because they have achieved what they wanted to achieve, or are they leaving because we aren’t actually providing what we advertised we would? To draw an analogy with another physical activity, are we giving them constant penalty shot practise when they wanted to play a game of football?
It is important to weigh up the pros and cons of different elements of training, to make use of research and evidence from other physical disciplines, and to adopt or trial different methods alongside current practice. You do not have to change a single thing that you do, but you should always be open to that option and be prepared to continuously evaluate and compare the many options available to you. Even changes to lesson length and warm up methods can bring big changes to how unchanged lesson content is received. Asking the question ‘why?’ is a gateway to greater appreciation of what you already do as well as an opportunity to search for alternatives that may improve it.