The last few weeks have been full of two things: transitions and writing. I will post on the prior soon. The blog’s immediate future, however, is focused on the latter activity. Over the next week or so, I’m going to be sharing a lot of under development writing, and I’d love feedback. Though much of it will be related to Anthropology, technology, and media theory, today’s piece is related to Martial Arts.

Our school is in the process of updating its website and I’ve used this as an excuse to write out some ideas that have been developing in my head for quite a while. As you will see, the essay below is written with beginners (or really perspective beginners) in mind, but I hope that there are ideas in it for students at all levels. As always, I’d love feedback on it — especially in terms of tone and suggestions about material to condense or remove outright (as usually it’s longer than I would like).

On Fighting and the Purpose of Martial Arts

The the truth shall set you free (but first it will make you uncomfortable) – anonymous

Since you’ve arrived at this page, you’re most likely interested in learning more about the martial arts and possibly taking lessons. So, let’s have a frank discussion about what you’re getting into:

At some point in your life you probably heard one of the following:

  • “The Martial Arts are about peace”
  • or “The Martial Arts are a great workout”
  • or “The purpose of Martial Arts is to improve confidence and focus”
  • or “The purpose of the Martial Arts is to make you into a better person.”

While well meaning, all of these statements distract us from the far simpler, and perhaps uncomfortable, truth:

Martial arts are about learning how to fight.

When you study a martial art you are learning a collection of ideas, strategies, and tools for overcoming physical conflict. When you commit to taking lessons at a good martial arts school, you are learning how to how to hurt someone seriously enough to stop them from hurting you or someone you love.

Motivation and Benefits versus Purpose

“Learning how to fight” doesn’t have to be the main reason you take martial arts lessons. Some students at our school primarily study for the fitness and focus benefits. Other students come because they find fulfillment in constantly testing themselves in an environment that unites and challenges both the mind and the body. And many people appreciate the sense of community they find, both with their school and within the larger martial arts community.

All of these are great reasons for getting involved in the martial arts. But you must remember that all of those benefits — improved fitness, increased focus and confidence, making new friends, fun and fulfillment — are all byproducts of diligent study, not the purpose of it. In fact, the dedicated practice of just about any sport or hobby can bring you similar benefits.

If your sole purpose is to get in shape — and you don’t want to learn to fight — you probably are better off taking up to something like running, swimming or weight training, as all of those activities will get you fit much more quickly than the martial arts will. On the other hand, while committing to exercise will get you fit and help you develop a “never quit” attitude — both critical to overcoming conflict — they are not going to teach you how to fight (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

Regardless of your motivation, the purpose of martial arts is to teach you how to fight, and if you commit to studying, you need to accept and commit yourself to that purpose.

Purpose and Responsibility

Martial arts are not all doom and gloom — walk into a good martial arts school during class you’re likely to encounter a positive atmosphere, hear laughter, and see smiles. Understand that fun training environment based on the fact that everyone training has made a serious commitment to  learning to fight and each person knows that they are responsible for each other’s safety in multiple ways:

When you become a student of the martial arts, you are placing your trust, and ultimately your safety (and even the safety of your loved ones) in our hands. As instructors, it’s our responsibility to teach you material that will always work for you (and not just us). Self defense that only works if your a world class athlete (or a Feudal warrior) is stuff that will get you hurt.

It’s also your responsibility to do what it takes to learn and execute the material — as good as our instructors are, they can’t fight your battles. You are ultimately responsible for yourself. What we teach are simple ideas and techniques, but that doesn’t mean that they will work without practice or some fitness. The less time you put in, the less likely it is to work.

Studying the martial arts — learning to fight — also means taking responsibility for the safety of others in two ways:

The first is obvious: you’re promising not to hurt each other. In order to learning how to do varying amounts of damage to the human body, you need a body to experiment and practice on. And, believe it or not, to understand the martial arts you also need to have your body practiced on. Working with a partner means controlling your actions to keep both of you safe during training.

The second responsibility to your partner is less talked about but equally important: you are also promising to help each other get better. If your partner is “letting” you escape, you only think you learning that escape. If you refuse to let your partner hit you during a controlled drill, you not only are not learning what it means to be hit, your preventing your partner truly learning how to hit. Imperfect practice guarantees bad things for both of you when push-comes-to-shove.

This is serious stuff. The only way for everyone to stay safe, both inside and outside of the school, is for everyone to remember that martial arts dealing with dangerous material (btw, most physical activities involve some danger, for example, swimming always inherently involves the risk of drowning). If everyone isn’t on the same page, people can get hurt, or worse, learn bad habits that can literally hurt them (or lead to getting hurt) down the line.

Assertiveness versus Aggressiveness

You can’t learn to swim without getting wet. But that doesn’t mean that you have to live in the water. Likewise, you can’t learn martial arts without learning how to hurt people, but that doesn’t mean you must become a violent person. Rather, the work of learning a martial art — practicing and perfecting a wide range of physical and mental skills — develops in you a self-awareness and self-control that can help you become more assertive.

Being assertive — recognizing and accepting that you always have the power (and responsibility) of choice — is the key to controlling your life. If you choose to take lessons and choose to learn, you are taking the first steps in learning to control yourself. Gaining control over yourself positions you to control your response to the situations and conflicts you find yourself in; that could mean verbally defusing a situation; it could also mean physically attacking your attacker. The key thing to understand is that taking control means consciously choosing and committing to act — in other words asserting yourself.

Learning a martial art provides you with both the framework to help make that choice and the “flight-time” — practice under pressure — to learn to trust yourself to make the best choice for that situation. As our head instructor says: “a key focus of the martial arts is developing tools for conflict resolution.”

Final thoughts

Ultimately the bottom line is this: If you commit to learning a martial art, in addition to punches and kicks, you will learn a lot about yourself; you will become more fit, more confident and more assertive; and, along the way, you will have a lot of fun. But that self-improvement can only come if you are ready and willing to fight for it — and that means being ready and willing to learn how to fight.