Introduction – The Cross Trainer and the Information Age
The Information Age aptly describes the era of the modern mainstream martial arts cross-trainer. Unfortunately The Confusion Age is an equally fitting title. The meteoric rise of the internet has provided most in the developed world with more instant access to knowledge and data than ever before in the history of civilization. Similarly, training in multiple combative disciplines is no longer the practice of the hard-core martial arts enthusiast or the heretical renegade who is forced to travel huge distances across the country and even the world to seek out knowledge. Today not only is there an unprecedented variety of fighting arts readily available within a geographical region but we have seen the proliferation of full-time martial arts training centres, where cross-training is actively encouraged by gym owners and embraced by certain clubs that offer training in different systems by guest teachers.
There is a flawed assumption that this age of information and cross-training should lead to the enlightenment of more people. Unfortunately such wishful thinking is without reckoning on human nature. Our cognitive reasoning is beset by a range of biases that shape how we filter and view information. Our tribal instincts push us towards the comfort of others with similar biases to reinforce our views. More access to information also means more access to misinformation and disinformation. The pursuit of knowledge can easily be derailed by the propagation of falsehoods and myths, especially if there is cognitive comfort in these stories. Furthermore, the sheer volume of information – even good information – at an unprepared researcher’s fingertips can often result in learning little more on his desired subject than if he hadn’t switched onto the internet in the first place.
To muse over metaphors once again, it is unsurprising that the phrase “surfing the net” became popular during the internet’s formative commercial days. If progress in any aspect of civilisation can be seen as a steady narrow current of knowledge that often has to gradually trickle its way around and often through hard rocks of prejudice, tradition, irrational protectiveness and fear in order to become established into the main stream (forgive the pun) then using the internet can be compared to handling a tidal wave. Rather than having to handle and carefully manage the gradual, steady flow of information used to fill a gulf of ignorance, the unprepared researcher is overwhelmed by a forceful mass of data that washes over him. Struggling for breath in his effort not to be drowned in the overload of facts he becomes numb to everything. He becomes confused. He becomes prey to his own bewilderment and also to the sharks of disinformation, which thrive and swim in the sea of knowledge. In the blinding chaos that is information overload the flailing researcher may even mistake such sharks for a valid float. Here is where conspiracists, pseudoscientists, pseudohistorians, archaists and purveyors of Bullshitsu strike progressive learning down. Yet we still have the skilful surfer or rider of the waves who has a far better chance at negotiating all the information available. Such individuals are no less vulnerable than the drowning non-swimmer – surfers still drown and are eaten by sharks – but they have developed skills and therefore have more available tools at their disposal.
The directed cross-trainer is comparable to the scientifically minded researcher. He can entertain ideas without being threatened by them or absorbed by them. He does well to ride the waves of information in the direction that will not overturn and engulf him; he won’t get drawn off-course to attractive islands and forget his way and he is experienced at spotting the sharks of disinformation.[i]
Below are three fundamental areas that are often not taught to students wishing to pursue cross-training. Whilst it is commendable that instructors encourage students to seek out different disciplines and research for themselves, many get discouraged when they start becoming confused. Confusion is entirely unnecessary if we think about what constitutes cross-training. As children we study multiple subjects in our most formative years often with different teachers who have different approaches. When we play sports, we learn many different games. Most occupations can easily be broken down into several different disciplines and skillsets. We know that historical martial arts practice comprised of cross-training and comparisons might be fittingly made with today’s military. The tribal nature of martial arts has led to the creation of a structure that makes students and teachers often feel unsure and vulnerable again when they train outside their usual art. Others ride through this anxiety and even embrace other arts, sometimes completely abandoning old systems for new, but struggle to blend different skillsets.
There are several reasons why we find clarification missing from a typical martial arts class. Suppression by governments, suppression by occupying powers and prevailing tastes have led many martial arts teachers to become creative in the way they have justified teaching violence. Desires to blend in personal views of religion and philosophy became so strong within the Asian martial arts subculture in the past century that many have come to accept a pseudohistory whereby martial arts were not skillsets simply designed to subdue and/or neutralise the enemy. In the west, middle and upper class intellectuals felt a need to justify their training in violent activities such as boxing, wrestling and fencing, and welded on their own philosophical validations. Such validations were then made to retrospectively stretch back into a respective country’s history with the comparable 19th century romanticisation of medieval chivalry in the west, bushido in Japan and xia in China. Another motive to obscure the objectives of martial arts classes is the often commercial need to appeal to a wider audience and to offer more to retain students.
Because of my emphasis on clarification I make my teaching service-driven. I begin any course – be it a one-to-one or a seminar for a group – by asking my client what they specifically want and offer an honest answer as to how I can best fulfil that demand. If I agree to take on the client I can then stick firmly to our agreed objective without risk of either of us deviating. I deviate and tangent enough within a subject, so I am grateful for those parameters to keep me in check.
I recall once being asked by a small group to teach a martial arts course. The attendees really weren’t sure what they wanted, but it appeared that their primary interest was to undertake a fitness activity. After we worked out a rough definition of what sort of fitness they were after we agreed upon a combat conditioning course with a leaning towards Muay Thai. All went well until just after the first class one member of the group made a passing comment about what they could now do if someone tried to attack them. The comment was made half-jokingly, but nonetheless the group immediately began a serious hypothesis on how they would apply the skills they were learning and followed this with an honest evaluation on whether they would a) remember them and b) have the courage to use them. The entire conversation must have lasted less than two minutes before I felt I had to interrupt. I quickly explained that, as per my brief and our agreement, the course they were embarking upon was not for self-defence. It wasn’t really a Thai Boxing course, but used aspects from this art as an engaging way to improve cardiovascular fitness, strength and flexibility. I explained that if they wanted to learn practical self-protection I had a course that focused on this discipline.
What put them off then, as it had done when I first offered it, was the two most important ends of the self-protection training scale. Good self-protection training consists of mainly personal security non-physical “soft” skills. At the other end good self-protection training should include some form of pressure testing. Both are quite simple and straightforward, but aren’t necessarily comfortable. The former can be boring and difficult to absorb for someone who doesn’t have much interest in psychology, behaviour science, criminology, criminal law or the adaptation of warfare/law enforcement strategies. Besides, they can be difficult to apply and can override certain behaviours outside of the class. It is one thing to practice your combination work on the heavy bag or to go through katas, but it is another to properly assimilate a self-protection mind-set into everyday life. Pressure testing is usually not popular with many who don’t have a predisposition for this type of combat. Self-defence pressure testing should be a form of very intensive asymmetrical fighting and that isn’t usually a very pleasant experience.
Physical fitness is important in self-defence, but is largely a by-product of punitive mental conditioning through various ordeals and the development of good physical “hard” skills. Many civilians don’t really want actual self-protection or self-defence training they just want to produce a physical expression against their fears of interpersonal violence. This is easily catered for by hitting pads and performing techniques on compliant partners. One can see why so many martial arts teachers are tempted to leave it at this stage and exploit the demand for delusion in the market. There is almost an unwritten and unspoken contract between the student who asks the teacher “Tell me a lie that will make me feel better” and the teacher who justifies his willingness to do this by obeying the economic law of supply and demand.
Be clear about the purpose and context of your training. It’s a simple rule that is easily forgotten.[ii] Whether you are approaching a new class, training with a new teacher, beginning a certain exercise or training a particular technique, the cross-trainer needs to be clear about his objective. He needs to be clear about why he is dedicating his time and energy into this particular area of study. It is naïve to rely on even the best of teachers to take you exactly where you want to go. Unless the teacher is helping to manage your personalised cross-training programme, he is going to have a different agenda. His job is to teach you the discipline you have chosen in his own way. If you are undertaking one-to-one training he will tailor it more to your demands, but it is still a lot to expect him to understand how this experience will fit in with your overall martial arts education.
Besides you don’t really want him to do that. You want him to teach you what he knows best. For example, imagine asking a Western Boxing coach to improve your Muay Thai punching techniques. In principle, this is a great idea. However, you are not really getting the most of his experience and knowledge if you insist on having you both stand more square on, change footwork and to limit upper body movements in line with Muay Thai. Your purpose here is to train in Western Boxing as if you are a western boxer. Outside of the lesson it is time for you to put the work in and see how it applies to your Muay Thai game.[iii]
Being clear about the purpose of any exercise is crucial for a cross-trainer. Being actively involved in different disciplines calls for strict and mindful time management. Objective defines an exercise – be it to test a single technique or test one’s abilities in a certain area. If the agreed objective of a technique exercise is test the efficiency of a rear naked choke then it is pointless to continue with another technique when the choke has been thwarted. A better use of time, energy and resources would be stop and restart. Unfortunately the cognitive reasoning of the brain often takes a back seat once matters get heated in a physical situation. It is quite common to see a pressure test centring on takedown defence deteriorating into a ground game.[iv]
The same attitude should be carried over into your solo training. This is where a lot of the good work is done and also wasted. It can be mentally tough enough for most people to take the initiative to train properly outside a class in the first place, be it alone or with a fellow student. It is even harder to then apply cognitive thought processes to encourage greater skill development and continued learning outside of a classroom environment. The cross-trainer has to go beyond what has been prescribed in lessons. He needs to do more than rehearse routines to fulfil grading criteria and needs to do more than improve his physical fitness. However, this takes a special extra kind of effort and a lack of commitment to this type of effort is what leads to the cross-trainer becoming confused with the various tools he has at hand. It is much less taxing on the mind to just lose one’s self in the superficial demands of an undetailed workout.
So the heavy bag ends up being used as a one dimensional repository for any random move the student chooses to throw. Shadow boxing becomes a freestyle dance of favourite movements. Focus mitt holding becomes a more energised version of the punching bag situation but little more. This comes from the person training not having a clear plan in their head and therefore not getting the most out of their training equipment, their training partners or themselves. If you are going to use the bag as a stand-in for a training partner then you are going to need to imagine the fight and stick to certain target zones so that you hit accurately. You also going to have to move with the bag or around the bag, depending on the context of you are training. You are going to have to plan your rounds or sets. Is this going to be about technique, improving speed or developing raw power? Are you going to theme your workout as lessons are often structured? What other equipment are you bringing into your training session?[v]
Clarification defines the purpose of what you want to do in all that you do. Begin with a clear idea and make sure you return to that idea as often as possible.
Critical thinking is woefully absent from the martial arts world. Martial arts subculture is largely based on a simple principle of following a teacher without question. Likewise, the system or style is considered to be sacred. Nevertheless, critical thinking has played a huge role in the development of virtually all martial arts. Every system or style has its root in one teacher’s critique. All the great founders were sceptics to some degree. However, they were also human and prone to seeing everything from their perspective. As time moved on they became surrounded by sycophants and further entrenched in believing their way was the only true way. Martial artists have done a great job of bringing scientific concepts into the refinement and progression of their systems, but few have fully embraced the scientific method as a whole.
The martial arts cross-trainer needs to apply critical thinking on his journey. This can make the quest quite lonely as our natural instinct is to try to find a tribe. Martial artists who switch styles will typically regard their new style like a new relationship and convince themselves that everything about the new class is better than the last one. On the other side of the coin a good number of martial artists will spend their time cross-training telling everyone about the greatness of their base art. Rather doing their best to completely absorb new material they will preach to their unfortunate training partner about what they do and why they do something in the main system they train. The critical thinker needs to be wary of both these temptations. He engages with the material and then later properly questions it with a rational and logical mind. Through this process the individual cross-trainer should understand that there is no certainty that anything will work, but he will also start accumulating a list of the most probable options.
Due to the tribal nature of martial arts and the lack of overall transparent regulation, irrational thinking has touched virtually every system of combat in some way or other. Pre-scientific ideas have persisted to be a part of many martial arts systems. Sometimes they remain as part of an appeal to tradition argument within the various schools wishing to continue a lineage. However, many modern systems don’t need such an excuse to buy into all sorts of quackery and unproven pseudoscientific concepts. Likewise, philosophical and religious concepts have been forcefully melded with the practice of martial arts and absorbed as absolutes. This dogma takes many different forms and appeals to novelty are just as responsible as appeals to tradition for their continued propagation. Cults of personality have also arisen where followers support the belief that their leader can never be wrong. The martial arts cross-trainer needs to be able to recognise these factors both in others and in themselves.
However, there is at least one caveat the eager sceptic or critical thinker must take on board before he questions everything: be wary of pseudoscepticism. The pseudosceptic denies rather than doubts. He is more of a cynic than a sceptic or is keen to cast scorn over anything outside of his own narrow view. They mask their confirmation bias with scientific sounding language, but fail to adopt the scientific method. They might apply a double standard by applying keen scepticism to one concept and yet not to his preferred choice. However, on the other hand, he might attempt to bolster his argument by attempting to drag down a view accepted by mainstream science as an equal opinion. Reasoned and informed questioning should be a regular part of healthy learning.
Scepticism allows the martial arts cross-trainer to truly free their mind and to resist certainty whilst allowing logical methods – such as Occam’s Razor and the Scientific Method – to lead them to the most effective solutions.
Martial arts were created as tools to serve people. They are not tangible entities. They are ever changing concepts, shaped by individuals. They evolve and mutate all the time whether the teachers want them to or not. No one person trains, practises or teaches exactly the same way as his teacher. Indeed, we have countless examples of teachers changing the mind regarding the emphasis or even core concepts of their system over time.
Does that mean each and every student should be taught in their own unique fashion? Unfortunately, and this goes against the innate human desire to be seen as an individual, despite countless studies and a huge amount of popularity, there is no empirical evidence that argues tailoring a teaching style to a student’s supposed learning style is effective. Furthermore, it has been argued, that purely by playing up to a person’s apparent strengths and preferences means that they never get a good opportunity to address their weaknesses. Nevertheless, combat reveals that different people fight differently. We all have different combat personalities and this can be seen throughout the history of interpersonal violence. Humans have thrived as a species due to the many ways they can adapt. So how do we correlate this information?
When it comes to cross-training the individual is running their own show. They are building new data based on previous experiences. Putting an individual at the centre of their education needs to be done with care and with caution. Individualising training shouldn’t be about pandering to their wants, preferences and prejudices of one person – be that person yourself or your student. Rather it should be an exploration of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. A combatant will develop their own style. The way that style is learnt and developed should not be through a straightforward agreement between teacher and student. The teacher seeks to prompt the student to take responsibility for his own education. He acts as an honest advisor, an unbiased critique critic and a supportive coach. He doesn’t seek to adapt his teaching style to the perceived niceties of a student’s learning style or to feverishly consult a catalogue of categories that some supposed education expert has conclude, but he provides an environment that prompts the student to find his own way.
The student cross-trainer uses his individuality to better understand what works best for him. This is where cross-training defines itself as being more than a sum of its parts. This is where the hours of solo training comes in. This is the time spent recruiting various different partners to test and train outside of formal lessons. Individuality in learning is most successful when it is underpinned by clarification and scepticism. An individual often discovers what he needs through clinically testing what he thinks he wants.
[i] See my chapters “The By-Product Myth” and “The Calypso Effect” in my e-book “Mordred’s Victory” for in depth discussions on how martial artists often get side-tracked in their training objectives.
[iii] See my chapter on “Attribute Training” in my aforementioned e-book to understand how to get the most out of these lessons.
[iv] My chapter on “Specific Training” in “Mordred’s Victory and Other Martial Mutterings” details the importance of specialised pressure tests.
[v] I have a chapter on “Solo Training” in “Mordred’s Victory and Other Martial Mutterings” that can help provide more insight into this often abused side of learning.