So What Makes a Martial Art Work? The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Part 2 of 2)

“An error does not become truth by rea­son of mul­ti­plied prop­a­ga­tion, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.”
Mohan­das K. Gandhi
Polit­i­cal activist and spir­i­tual leader

In part one of this essay, we had estab­lished that each encounter is sit­u­a­tional and that one of the biggest chal­lenges to proper exe­cu­tion of any move in the mar­tial arts is to pull it off accu­rately in real time. Attrib­utes like tim­ing, speed, bal­ance, range, strength, body move­ment and angles of attack are uni­ver­sal and are used to achieve dif­fer­ent effects in dif­fer­ent arts. The key is tak­ing these attrib­utes and har­ness­ing them via an effec­tive sys­tem to train a stu­dent to develop pro­duc­tive and pos­i­tive skills. The aim of every sys­tem should be to enable stu­dents to develop appro­pri­ate responses and learn to exe­cute moves in real time. Eas­ier said than done.

In part two of this essay, I shall dis­cuss what I believe are traits and char­ac­ter­is­tics of effec­tive mar­tial arts and teach­ing sys­tems and how Tabim­ina Bal­intawak exhibits these traits. Much has already been writ­ten about how the sys­tem works and train­ing pro­gresses so I will only be high­light­ing cer­tain aspects of the train­ing. Dur­ing the course of this essay, I will make ref­er­ences to prac­tices I have observed in other arts. Please note that I do not mean to dis­credit any art nor do I mean any dis­re­spect. Rather I seek to use a wider base of exam­ples so that learn­ing and dis­cus­sion can be more mean­ing­ful. I would invite all read­ers to keep an open mind and give this essay a fair read­ing before mak­ing judg­ment. Now that all the for­mal­i­ties are out of the way, let us begin our dis­cus­sion in earnest about what works in a mar­tial art.

1. Attacks must be ran­dom and dynamic
Here is a hard truth: many mar­tial arts and mar­tial artists do not train for the “what ifs”. What if my oppo­nent moves or blocks? What if I miss? What if he does not go down? What if my dis­arm goes awry? Many sys­tems have stu­dents prac­tice using com­pli­ant oppo­nents i.e. stu­dents allow them­selves to be used as dum­mies in order to for their part­ner to prac­tice and learn. For exam­ple, to prac­tice a throw, one stu­dent may allow another stu­dent to move in and exe­cute a throw with­out resist­ing. The attacker gets to prac­tice his throw and the defender gets to prac­tice pro­tect­ing him­self when being thrown. (Guess who has more fun.) Many weapon arts also have one attacker strike and then “freeze” so the defender can prac­tice a block and exe­cute a counter-attack. This can be fol­lowed by more strikes, dis­arms and/or a take­down. It may be hard to make out but this “freez­ing” does take place quite a bit. At higher lev­els the “freeze” may be very minute because advanced stu­dents move faster and can take advan­tage of this gap but it is still there.

Right now many are prob­a­bly going to say, “Hang on! Isn’t that the whole point of train­ing? To get so fast that we can rec­og­nize oppor­tu­ni­ties to attack and exe­cute our moves?” I agree com­pletely but I am of the view that this kind of train­ing is incom­plete. Before the flam­ing begins, please note that in and of itself, there is absolutely noth­ing wrong with this freez­ing. Some­times, this is needed to allow a stu­dent to prac­tice and achieve a greater degree of finesse. How­ever, if this is the only way to prac­tice, then some­thing is lack­ing because every­thing is still cog­ni­tive and ulti­mately stu­dents are trained using mem­ory and antic­i­pa­tion which is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from reac­tion. Both sides know their roles (i.e. who is attack­ing and who is defend­ing) and what is com­ing (i.e. who is going to end up on the ground). So the out­come has more or less been deter­mined. This is why there is a lack of ran­dom­ness and few are trained for the “what ifs”. What if a stu­dent is non-compliant and resists? What if I don’t want to be dis­armed and keep up my attacks? What if my part­ner pan­ics and swings wildly at me? Can all of us effec­tively han­dle a non-compliant partner?

Tabim­ina Bal­intawak, on the other hand, is com­pletely ran­dom. From day one (and this is typ­i­cal for any new stu­dent), we spend about 15–30 min­utes on the 12 basic strikes and coun­ters and from there it is all ran­dom. There is no set way in which the feeder or attacker will come at us and where, when or how he will strike next. As the train­ing pro­gresses, the stu­dent or defender learns a greater vari­ety of moves and coun­ter­at­tacks so his reper­toire is widened and the attacker him­self can­not always pre­dict how the defender will counter-attack. At the high­est lev­els, the dis­tinc­tion between attacker and defender is blurred since all moves are non-choreographed and both sides have no clue antic­i­pa­tion what is com­ing next. It is com­pletely sit­u­a­tional and both must react based on what hap­pens at that point in time. Who gets hit, dis­armed and/or thrown off bal­ance is really up in the air. By engag­ing in the process of agak (or play as we love to call it), we are train­ing for all the “what ifs” because we actu­ally exe­cute them and test our­selves and our oppo­nents. If we never train for the “what ifs” then we can never dis­cover the truth of what hap­pens for ourselves.

2. There must be a strong ele­ment of defense
Look­ing at the human race, it amazes me how we have made it this far. From birth, we are com­pletely defense­less and totally reliant on a care­giver for the first few years of our lives. Ani­mals have to learn to move by them­selves within hours of being born or risk being eaten. We learn to walk after a year or so. Some ani­mals are imme­di­ately left on their own the moment they are born but man­age to sur­vive. Granted we have a fan­tas­tic brain which does make up for it in later years (although some peo­ple I have met make me want to believe oth­er­wise), we are com­pletely vul­ner­a­ble for the first part of our lives. When pro­voked, we can instinc­tively lash out by punch­ing, kick­ing, slap­ping, bit­ing, pulling and shov­ing. How­ever, we do not seem to have any instinc­tive defense against punch­ing, kick­ing, slap­ping, bit­ing, pulling and shov­ing. Ani­mals, on the other hand, have sur­vival mech­a­nisms and are not defense­less. When chas­ing a zebra, lions have to be extremely care­ful of their prey’s pow­er­ful hind legs for a kick can seri­ously hurt them. I am pretty sure zebras do not sign up for classes to learn how to kick.

This leads me to ask what defense mech­a­nisms do we instinc­tively have? For the life of me I can­not think of any other than run­ning or hit­ting back and even the lat­ter does not seem effec­tive against a skilled or armed oppo­nent. This strongly sug­gests to me that as human beings, we have lost our defen­sive capa­bil­i­ties and must re-learn them. Too many arts focus on strikes but pay lit­tle atten­tion to defense; believ­ing that “the best defense is a good offense.” I believe that the best defense is a good defense. Before the objec­tions come flood­ing in, I would also like read­ers to con­sider the pre­vi­ous point above about ran­dom­ness in attacks. If one can suc­cess­fully fend off truly ran­dom attacks then one has a strong defense.

Right from the out­set, Tabim­ina Bal­intawak focuses on devel­op­ing a strong defense as our most fun­da­men­tal tenet. Again, attacks are ran­dom and stu­dents are trained to react appro­pri­ately. It is through such prac­tice that stu­dents develop their own sense of tim­ing and good body mechan­ics. The key to strong defense in Bal­intawak is good body move­ment — not the weapon. If our defense is com­pletely depen­dent on our weapon, then we are vir­tu­ally naked with­out it. On the other hand, our body is our great­est weapon and ulti­mately that is what we are train­ing; the stick is only a train­ing tool for the body and this ensures that we are never truly defense­less. We have a say­ing when we play: “My defense is my prob­lem. Your defense is your prob­lem.” So in short, there can­not be a truly strong defense with­out gen­uinely ran­dom attacks.

3. There must be stress
Many arts allow for stu­dents to prac­tice when there is lit­tle stress. The result is that many are unpre­pared for the adren­a­line dump that kicks in dur­ing high-stress sit­u­a­tions like spar­ring, fight­ing and ambushes. Many may now ask, “Isn’t the whole point of spar­ring to get stu­dents to put every­thing together and prac­tice their attack and defense?” I would answer “yes” and “no” to that ques­tion. “Yes” because spar­ring is sup­posed to do that but “no” because it does not always man­aged to do so.

I have come to learn that true skills can only be installed and accessed under stress. When we are under stress in an adrenal sit­u­a­tion, when we are tired, fatigued and des­per­ate, our body will react the way it knows best and this is when we show who and what we really are. Think about it – if one nor­mally train and prac­tice under safe and san­i­tized envi­ron­ment, and every­thing he does are sys­tem­atic and planned? What would likely be his instinc­tive response when fists are fly­ing and $#!* hits the fan, fine motor skills or wild haymakers?

How­ever, all is not lost. Some peo­ple do learn to deal with it over time and get bet­ter with more spar­ring. They get more con­fi­dent and more adept. But that still leaves us with 2 com­mon problems.

Firstly, what about those who give up because they do not want all that spar­ring? Let’s face it — spar­ring often hurts. At some point or other, we have to ask our­selves if all this spar­ring is worth it if we get more banged up from it than from actual fights and ambushes. The easy option is to give up. Some may say, “Too bad. He’s weak and can’t hack it.” I dis­agree with this response and shall explain why shortly.

The sec­ond prob­lem is that no mat­ter what, spar­ring will have 3 R’s present that can limit an art’s true effec­tive­ness: Rounds, Rules and Ref­er­ees. These 3 things will ensure that at the end of the day, no one gets hurt too badly and every­one lives to spar another day. For those who still believe their arts’ spar­ring is effec­tive in all sce­nar­ios, I would like to invite you to do a Google search on “Lon­don Prize Fight­ing”. Not to take away any­thing from any­one but the things these men did to one another were so bru­tal that it would make many pro­fes­sional fight­ers today con­sider a career change if they were asked to fight like that.

Tabim­ina Bal­intawak offers a solu­tion to both prob­lems. All attacks used in this sys­tem are on the right spot and stu­dents are taught to defend accord­ingly. We empha­size accu­racy of strikes and accu­rate defense. What is the dif­fer­ence between this and close-quarters point-sparring? 2 things — range and stress. Because Tabim­ina Bal­intawak is so close, there is a real sense of dan­ger that is pre­sented to the stu­dent at all times. It is the job of the feeder to con­stantly chal­lenge the stu­dent by push­ing him to the brink of jeop­ardy and then get­ting him to move and react to defend him­self. The result is that stu­dents are never truly com­fort­able and it is under these stress-filled con­di­tions that skills are imparted and installed. Also, there is pro­gres­sive stress. As the stu­dent pro­gresses, the attacks come faster, harder and are far more dif­fi­cult to counter. This ensures that stu­dents are con­stantly chal­lenged. So what you will see from the out­side is sticks fly­ing and bod­ies mov­ing with no dam­age or injuries to either party. This solves the prob­lems of dis­cour­aged and dam­aged students.

4. There must be con­tin­ual learn­ing
In gen­eral, I do not like belts, ranks, grades, titles or cer­tifi­cates within the mar­tial arts. The rea­son is because I feel it is too easy to get com­fort­able. Our instincts teach us to seek plea­sure and avoid pain. Hav­ing the entire class stop what they are doing and greet you when you walk in is very flat­ter­ing. Being called “Mas­ter” wher­ever you go is very pleas­ing. Walk­ing around with a black belt is some­thing many are proud of. Again, in and of them­selves, there is noth­ing wrong with any of this. The prob­lem comes when this stops us from learn­ing any­more because we think we have “arrived”. In ref­er­ence to my friend Josh Walker’s ear­lier arti­cle, we think we have learned all there is to learn and stop get­ting “IT” any­more because it is too easy to stop learn­ing and just enjoy the posi­tion we are in. To me, all of these acco­lades are men­tal traps and must be han­dled care­fully. That is why the only belt I care about is the one that holds my pants up.

In Tabim­ina Bal­intawak, there are no belts or ranks. In order to under­stand where we are and who we are up against, we sim­ply play. It is a per­for­ma­tive art. We seek to be able to per­form under stress so belts hold lit­tle mean­ing for us. Learn­ing should be ongo­ing and lim­it­less. From dis­cus­sions with my Bal­intawak instruc­tors, we have all come to agree that learn­ing is end­less. Even the most adept at the art are con­stantly learn­ing new things about them­selves, new things about their stu­dents, prob­lems they had not pre­vi­ously encoun­tered or new solu­tions to old prob­lems. As cliché as this may sound, it really is a jour­ney and not a des­ti­na­tion. There must be growth and evolution.

On a per­sonal level, I have come to see that the fin­ish­ing line keeps mov­ing fur­ther and fur­ther away from me. I know I am pro­gress­ing but with each step for­ward, I real­ize that there is so much more to learn. I now believe I will never learn all there is to learn but I sure am going to enjoy try­ing. On a larger level, many arts I see are fac­ing a dif­fi­cult choice — change and adapt to today’s con­text or main­tain their course in line with tra­di­tion and purity. There is noth­ing wrong with either choice and I have no views about it either way but I do have 2 concerns.

My first con­cern is when instruc­tors from arts with a long tra­di­tion and lin­eage insist that every­thing they have to teach is still applic­a­ble and use­ful in today’s con­text. Remem­ber that many arts were devel­oped for spe­cific con­texts in mind and these con­texts may not be the same today. It is thus vital to be clear exactly what we are train­ing for — com­bat, fight­ing, self-defense, sport, com­pe­ti­tion, per­for­mance or health — because the teach­ings and objec­tives are not the same all across the board. My sec­ond con­cern is with arts that insist they have all the answers and have no need to grow and learn. I think it would be use­ful to be truly hon­est about the lim­i­ta­tions (where applic­a­ble) of every art. Con­sider the sit­u­a­tions we find our­selves in every­day — the clothes we wear, the places we fre­quent, the peo­ple we asso­ciate with and the things we carry with us. Is this com­men­su­rate with the things we do in the con­text of our training?

I must acknowl­edge that all these ideas are not entirely my own but I do hold them to be true. They have come from a com­bi­na­tion of my past obser­va­tions, dis­cus­sions with friends and experts, research from books and the Inter­net and teach­ings from my instruc­tors. Isaac New­ton put it best when he said, “If I have seen a lit­tle fur­ther, it is because I have stood on the shoul­ders of giants.” Credit must be given to those to have worked long and hard to seek and under­stand these truths and who have ded­i­cated their time to shar­ing it with oth­ers. Again, I am not claim­ing that Tabim­ina Bal­intawak is the “most effec­tive”, “the dead­liest” or “the best” — only that it works. I would like to invite all read­ers to exam­ine and reflect upon their own train­ing and sys­tems in light of the cri­te­ria above. Does your train­ing involve all or only some of these traits? If your train­ing involves all these traits, then con­grat­u­la­tions — you are learn­ing some­thing won­der­ful and gen­uine and I encour­age you to apply your­self to it whole­heart­edly. To those who may feel that some­thing is miss­ing, I encour­age you to exam­ine exactly what is miss­ing and to seek to under­stand what really works and what does not. At the end of the day, we are all respon­si­ble for for our own edu­ca­tion. If we are not pro­gress­ing at the pace we should be, then I think it is nec­es­sary to exam­ine why. I do not expect all read­ers to agree with every­thing that I have put forth but I do hope that I have helped to shed a lit­tle light on a sub­ject which so many peo­ple feel so pas­sion­ately about. To round off, if there is only one thing I could share with you, it would be this:

Train the way you fight and fight the way you train.

Stay safe and keep playing!

About the author:
Mar­cus Poon is a mid­dle school teacher in Sin­ga­pore teach­ing Social Stud­ies. He is mar­ried to his job (the beau­ti­ful woman who sleeps next to his snor­ing form every night might have some­thing to add but this is his blog, not hers) and is an avid stu­dent of the mar­tial arts. He also likes pizza and for peo­ple to send him money. (Hey that mort­gage isn’t going to pay itself.)

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