Sport schools have taken a system, or in some instances several systems, of martial arts and adapted it to fit within a tournament setting. Sport schools are systems that are bound by predetermined rules and regulations and in many cases are highly publicized. Most of the training curriculum for these schools is devised with the tournament rules in mind. They train how they fight and they fight how they train – in a very controlled environment and pursuant to the rules set forth by the tournament officials. Most martial arts can share a sport aspect and there are many martial systems that have found themselves in the tournament limelight. However, it is not necessarily the martial system as a whole that is a sport but how the practitioners apply the techniques of that system as much of the core self-defense aspect must be cut away to become popular and no one gets seriously injured. Application of martial arts for sport purposes creates many misunderstandings, as the schools themselves are misleading and confusing to the general public.
For instance, most sport schools look the same. Most are located in a strip mall; there are mats, mirrors, flags, and trophies inside; and their front glass displays a “menu” of the different styles of martial arts taught at that location. I know this because I spent my first ten years in a strip mall and it physically had everything but the trophies and the menu. However, my teaching and philosophy is what made my school different from the ones down the street. I would often, and still do, have people come in and say they know what I teach because they trained in martial arts and many assume that whatever belt rank they hold in one system easily transfers into the next. While this is the case for some, this is not the case for my system.
I do not honor rank in any other system for one simple reason. My system is called Donjitsu Do not Hong's Tae Kwon Do, Karate-Mart, or any other name or style. It is a traditional based self-defense system and not a sport system and therefore the curriculum is not comparable and has nothing to do with any other school and what is taught there. What I teach will help save your life if need be but will get you quickly disqualified if you were to attempt to use Donjitsu Do techniques in a tournament setting. While I believe that each style of martial arts has something to offer, I find that most sport schools do not teach techniques applicable for self-defense. Despite the fact that the student enrolled in a sport style, showed up to class, paid their dues, obtained multiple belt ranks and/or certificates, and maybe even won several trophies, the reality is that the tournament rules create strict intentional habits that do not apply to actual combat. Competition, gaining points, and looking good is the focus of sport schools, not survival. Those that do claim to teach self-defense do not spend the time nor do they make clear the difference between the two worlds.
In tournaments, sport schools come together and test their skills against one another in a very controlled environment. All involved agree and train with a particular set of guidelines. There are strict rules and only certain techniques are allowed. During the match, there could be as many as eight people involved. Depending on the tournament, there could be four corner judges, a referee, and a panel of three seated judges keeping score. In most cases, the outcome will be determined by who has delivered more scored shots during a timed bout or who accumulated a certain number of points first. Other more aggressive systems could be determined by a knock out or submission. However, if someone is hurt, it is stopped, if someone is being too aggressive it is stopped, if someone is taking cheap shots it is stopped and there will be a loss of points or disqualification. A match is never allowed to get out of hand. The kata portion is understandably preformed alone as well as weapons. However, it has become more about the flash than any realistic form of martial art with lots of jumps, flips, and twirling of weapons. This completely lends itself to the old adage "fight like you train and train like you fight".
For many students who hold a high rank and have spent a considerable amount of time training in a sport system, it can be hard to break rules/habits' that have been so deeply ingrained in ones way of movement. It can also be confusing and very disheartening to find that what they have trained so hard in does not work outside of the ring. Most techniques that would win points in a tournament setting simply do not apply to the real world. For example, I had a college student passing through town contact me and ask if he could visit our dojo for a few days. I agreed and when we met he quickly let me know that he had multiple black belts in different styles including some MMA ring time. I explained to him that there was a big difference between what he had been doing compared to what he was about to do in our system. All of his experience had been in sport martial arts and he had never experienced combat self-defense up until this point. I was convinced he felt it was all the same as it was obvious that he did not pay what I had to say any attention. I could see in his eyes that he did not think I knew what I was talking about. I believe it was on the third day after being tapped out, thrown around like a rag doll, and mauled by my students that he stopped and said, "Could you please give me just one thing to work on, I know a lot of theory, but I can't do this". I gave him one technique to focus on and nothing more was said. There were no questions or request for an explanation. He just left after class that night never to return. He did leave with what I'm sure was a very rude awaking. As so many people visiting a dojo do, he only saw the color of each student’s belt. Most of the students he worked with were white and yellow belts. He was just one of many who have passed through our dojo doors completely convinced that he had the skills to protect himself if need be. Not once have I felt that it was the fault of the student for their lack of self-defense skills. If he and all of the others I have encountered understood that sport martial arts were not designed for actual combat use, I believe many students would not have put themselves in situations that caused them injury, or in this case embarrassment.
While the sport schools’ focus is on tournaments and competitions, a more modern style of training, classical dojos tend to focus on the historical, regimental, and formal way the arts were practiced. The majority of the focus is on the way the art would have been done during its height. A new term I have recently discovered that is used for this type of training is called "living history training". This term is used for those who preserve historical practices as an art form, an educational tool or hobby. The SCA or Society for Creative Anachronism is one such organization that does this with European medieval fairs and reenactments. This is a wonderful way to see and experience how life must have been like during that time. I absolutely love history and tradition however these schools usually teach the system based on interpretations as to how it was applied during a given time period. Their practitioners try to stay true to every detail such as terminology, etiquette, posture and mannerisms, and dress; striving for exact replication.
In Japanese settings, I have even seen it taken as far as students dressing and undressing their instructor as one might have done for a samurai, dropping to their knees and running around like servants doing everything for the high ranks. I teach respect for others and one's self and my students treat me with great respect as well. However, I tell them I am no better than they are, I am just a guide and further down the path. I believe etiquette is very important but in the end, it will not save your life against someone with none. I love the world's rich, fascinating history and believe it’s a wonderful way to relive history and to gain a better understanding as to how it must have been to live back then. However, the problem I see is not that different from the sport schools.
In classical system, the training can also be too strict as more time is dedicated to getting all of the nuances down than time spent on the application of the techniques. Though it is believed that strict etiquette was originally practiced by the Samurai or other warrior classes several hundred years ago, in order for it to be effective equal time should be spent on how it can be applied in modern day. If you spend all of your time training as if you were a Samurai preparing to fight another Samurai, your training will fail you in a real world self-defense situation today. This is where I feel the weakness lies in many of these systems.
For example, I have a student who has been training in a classical system for many years. He has been to Japan and trained in temples and places I dream of seeing. Yet he came to my dojo to learn how to apply the art he has spent so much of his life studying. In our dojo I have my students perform what is called an “attack line”. This is when a student faces the entire class, all attacks are random, done with power, and they must respond reflexively without thinking. He does not recall his first attack line because he was so overwhelmed. He said that he had never experienced any resistance during a technique and has never been asked to actually do the technique and maintain control of the attacker. What I teach and what he had been studying is very similar as both originated from the same Samurai idea. However, the differences lie within each given movement; it's depth of study and application. If your training partner falls for you, never resists nor fights back, then you will never understand how to make adjustments to your movement to maintain control.
In a conversation with a visiting instructor from another classical system, I asked after he executed a throw, “What would you do now if your opponent still insisted on attacking you?” He said that they believed that once their technique was executed there was no need for any follow up movement as what he did should be enough. Another sensei believed that the techniques they taught actually belonged to his particular dojo. He said his Sensei was upset about people “stealing” their techniques; however these were techniques his school was teaching at open seminars. At the end of another visit his sensei told me, he had a “gift” for me. The student and the Sensei demonstrated a defensive technique very similar to what we do, as one of my students quickly pointed out. Once finished he said “that’s for you”, and gave me permission to teach it. I bowed and thanked him all the while asking myself “did that really happen?” However, this is a very samurai way of thinking. Please understand that I have great respect for all ancient warrior arts, their traditions, and what they have to offer. However, with the time and energy that I have devoted to the study of the Samurai, their culture, combat strategies, ideals, and philosophies, I understand the time of the Samurai has long passed. Nevertheless, the study of any ancient art, its history, and tradition, we can still keep its warrior spirit alive in our hearts. Yet, in order to do this and keep it relevant we must seek its practical use in the world we now live.
The last types of school I want to mention are the self-defense schools. You might wonder if my issue is about the lack of actual self-defense that is being taught then why would I have a problem with a school that claims to strictly teach self-defense. My issue is not as much the lack of self-defense as it is the assumption that one could actually use it for self-defense. The danger is when the student is led to believe a particular system can be utilized for self-protection when that is not the focus or true intent of that system. In the case of the "self-defense" schools, it is a matter of balance to me - balance between hard and soft, mental and physical, and the true reason and consequences of fighting. Many self-defense schools typically look more like a boxing gym and less like a dojo. They will most likely have plenty of punching bags, mats, and mirrors but no uniforms nor formal beginning or tradition at the commencement of class. Their focus is on personal self-defense from a tactical mindset, which is perfectly acceptable. I'm sure some feel traditions are not needed at all however that is a topic for another discussion. Personally, I really like many of the physical techniques that I have seen from some of these schools and have been told more than once that there are similarities in the physical movement between our system and these purely tactical systems. I can definitely see this resemblance, as both are straight forward and to the point, physically. However, the physical aspect is our only similarity and where I feel there is a problem. From what I have witnessed in those schools, there is plenty of testosterone and willingness to fight but a lack of moral philosophy, appreciation for life, and understanding of consequences. Fighting (or winning) is their main focus.
In my opinion, many of these schools tend to have a more police or military feel as to how they are instructed. There seems to be a sense of superiority opposed to the desire to avoid conflict, preserve life, and survive; not destroy someone. Fighting techniques taught absent moral reasoning can be just as dangerous as someone holding a loaded gun and having no respect for what it is and the kind of damage it can inflict. Some of the instructors that I have encountered have been the typical militant tough “man's man”. Many of these instructors teach their students to get in their opponent’s face and hit them hard, first and fast. If he's big, act bigger. Keep in mind that these people are usually ex-police or military, which in most cases have historically been the aggressor during a conflict, and have a very different mindset than the average person. They teach what they have been taught and that was not how to respond as a civilian. These are also the same types of instructors that teach many of the women's self-defense and CWP (Concealed Weapons Permit) classes. In many cases the techniques and stances being taught are dictated by their use of body armor and the speed is dictated by the use of numbers both of which you probably won't have. One of these instructors was overheard during a women's self-defense class that he would not be teaching any ground work because if a man took a female to the ground she was done anyway.
I was once told by a visiting instructor of a self-defense school that he did not waste his time on that "philosophy junk". He claimed he taught people “how to fight”. From what I have seen and experienced this seems to be the general theme in this type of school. These are some of the most important lessons to be taught. Without the proper mindset, combat techniques alone can create just as many problems when not used wisely. Knowing when, where and why one should fight is just as important as how. A student of mine experienced this teaching firsthand. He worked where these classes were taught and from time to time he would sit in on some of the classes. He said that it was confusing to him as the ideas that I teach were completely opposite from most everything that he had seen in those classes. I had actually warned him of that when he first started working there. I knew this could cause this confusion especially being new to the self-defense world. Its simple math, Guys + guns + testosterone teaching self-defense - any kind of moral philosophy = what? He told me that from day one he was seeing and learning techniques in our dojo that the other instructor claimed to not even be an option. Many of these schools fail to cover what happens after you have maimed or killed another person after an attack. I'm not saying one should never kill because unfortunately you may find yourself in a situation where someone may give you no other option. However, what I am saying is that after the fact you have to understand there will to be consequences. Can you handle and live with those consequences of what has happened spiritually, mentally, and physically? This is where those lessons of honor, philosophy, and morality lie.
There must be a balance between the mental and physical. Without moral reasoning and philosophy behind any combat technique, it is just another way to cause harm to another. And, as an instructor, I personally take great responsibility for everything I do and say in front of my students and everyone around me. I am not one person on the mat and another in my personal life. I make it very clear during my interview process as to what Donjitsu Do is and is not. I teach my student to understand the consequences of their actions if forced to use Donjitsu Do in a self-defense or any other setting. In other cases, they are looking for someone or something to help them get from one day to the next. We must never forget that these students come to us and expect us to guide and prepare them for the worst. Everything we do and say makes a difference. Even if you are teaching a sport system it is your responsibility as the instructor to make it clear what the system is designed for and not leave it to the student to figure out that it has no place in a survival arena. This is irresponsible and is gives the student a false since of security. I don’t believe many instructors realize and truly take into account the consequences of what they are teaching and the long term effect it has on a student. This is something that happens when it becomes about the money and not the student or art.
In conclusion, my advice to anyone truly interested in learning any martial art form is to do your homework, research the style you are interested in. Decide what it is you hope to gain from your training, what are your goals? Are you interested in competing? Are you interested in being part of living history research or do you want to be able to protect yourself and your family? Do you want it all or just some of what martial arts have to offer? Do not assume that just because what you have chosen is considered a martial art it will apply in a survival situation. Be careful of what and whom you chose to believe in. Fame, rank, and flash do not make a master instructor, just as the amount it costs to train with someone does not determine the quality of their teaching. This is something that can only come from within. I tell my students to always sprinkle some reality on everything that they are exposed to. Never be afraid to ask questions, be wary of any instructor who does not like to answer questions. A good instructor will admit if they don't have an answer at that moment and will do their best to get one for you. Pick a dojo that you feel comfortable. Ask yourself are there any egos or a sense of malice when training with others.
If you are reading this and you are already involved in martial arts training you may be unknowingly training in a system not designed or intended for what you were looking for. If learning to protect yourself is what you were looking for you may unknowing be putting your life in the hands of someone who does not have your best interest at heart. Try to look at your dojo and system from a different perspective. Look for its strengths and most importantly its weaknesses. Go to your instructor and respectfully ask their opinion on these questions and ask if the system that you are being taught will protect you if you ever feared for your life. Listen closely to their answer and think about how their answer made you feel. I feel it is the responsibility of each system and instructor to make it clear as to what it is they offer and the purpose of their particular system. If they can answer your questions and you feel assured you are in the right place then you can continue your training knowing you have found the dojo where you belong.