“People, like nails, lose their effectiveness when they lose direction and begin to bend.”
Staying on-course is not an easy task for a martial arts cross-trainer. Today more visible and accessible options are on offer than they were in previous times. The martial arts industry has evolved alongside more aggressive marketing tactics and the growth of multi-media. A modern martial arts school has learnt the advantages of offering more programmes to it students rather than closing their doors to other systems and styles. By definition the cross-trainer – my ideal being a nomadic explorer who trains in different clubs in line with his individual requirements as opposed to simply trying out new things for their own sake – volunteers to go off-course. That is the point. He has a set objective and a straight path to that objective be it self-defence, sport or the perfection of an art. Whilst on this path he may feel that certain areas of his training need more attention. He deviates off the path into other systems to improve these areas. However, the purposeful martial arts cross-trainer never allows the current persuasion to carry him off to the shores of the latest craze or apparent sacred truth.
There are many sirens in the martial arts world that draw in the hopeful, the desperate and the unaware with false promises of hope, but these are usually avoided by the world-weary vagabond warrior. He is normally an enthusiast with a profound interest in martial arts and by the very fact that he chooses to train in other styles demonstrates his ability to not allow himself to be snagged by even the most pushy of salespeople. However, if we are to continue with my Odyssean metaphor I would say they that these jaded travellers may be able to plug their ears against the song of the sirens, but how do they fair against Calypso?
According to Homer's “Odyssey”, Calypso was a beautiful nymph of the fabled island of Ogygia, where she detained the Ithacan king, Odysseus for seven years. She fell deeply in love with the Greek hero whose wiliness and cunning were little match for her charms. Unlike the sirens, Calypso had a real beauty and her intention was not to kill Odysseus but rather make him her husband. Likewise, his concern should not be whether his chosen new club is honourable, but whether it may distract him from his original goal for too long.
In order for one to gain the attributes of another system or style it makes sense that you need to be immersed in that system’s training. As one of my coaches, Matty Evans, used to say “You need to learn the rules in order to break the rules”. I guess it is comparable to how one imagines a deep cover operation. You leave your self-defence training to work out at a wrestling gym in order to understand what it is like to fight grapplers of a high calibre, to gain attributes like positioning, tactile awareness, takedown defence and perhaps some high percentage techniques that might suit you personally and can be adapted for self-defence. Whilst at the gym you train with wrestlers, like a wrestler. You don’t stop to argue with your wrestling coach about the street applications of a referee position. Instead you learn the basics of wrestling, emptying your mind of anything else that does not have any direct importance at that current time. You wear the wrestling boots or shoes regardless of whether or not you have worn footwear in other grappling arts. You might even buy the leotard wrestling singlet. The greatest temptation for an enthusiastic martial arts cross-trainer is to tell people in his new club about how similar certain things are to another art he has practiced. Try to avoid this at all costs. It rarely serves you well. Leave that stuff for when you return back to the main path.
So, you are several months into training at the new club. For the most part you know your way around the basic moves and although the fitness here might have shook you up as being different from other systems you have studied, your baseline combative condition has ensured that you recover fast and have adapted well. The path of the vagabond warrior is often a lonely one, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t got on well with your fellow students. Maybe you have made friends with one or two. The club is a nice place and you respect the coach. The new system keeps your eager mind working and, if nothing else, it has provided new learning challenges and thus alleviating the fear of getting into a training rut. It is at this point that you need to decide whether you have learnt enough for the time being. You should at least be able to hold your own with students who have served a similar length of time and are of similar physicality. I am not saying you should leave the club – by all means train yourself up to as higher standard as you want – but it is time to remember why you came here in the first place.
This is where the Calypso Effect begins to reveal its hold. Suddenly the self-defender feels cold towards developing your striking. He doesn’t want to hit pads; much less he doesn’t want to hit pads within the context of training to handle “real-world” violence. During his time at the wrestling gym he has been training with athletes – proud people who see little value in training for an incident that is not likely to happen. Instead they would rather perfect their craft to face other conditioned athletes in a respectable competition. He has enjoyed the thrill of watching a wrestling completion, something he did not understand before. The holds and counter-holds fascinate him, especially when performed by two experienced players. Now he can see the subtle shifts in direction and the fantastic tactics used in order to set up and then execute a perfect technique. Before you saw grappling as a primitive behaviour that you avoided in most civilian fight situations and, at best, only employed it in order to restrain and arrest. However, prominent holds you learnt in self-defence do not have a place in your wrestling training, as they are often illegal. Combat sports offer you the opportunity to prove yourself against another human being, satisfying a primal urge to climb to the top of your tribe. You win any match and you get an immediate sense of accomplishment, proving yourself over another member of your species. At best, self-defence proves you can push yourself further than you realized in order to offer you a better chance – but no guarantee –that you can survive a situation that will probably never happen.
This is just one example and I ask my gentle reader not to get drawn into the rather tiring self-defence versus sports argument either. I know plenty of mixed martial arts fighters that deviate into an incredibly enticing sport like Brazilian jiu jitsu to gain the attributes of ground fighting, only to find themselves get figuratively and literally wrapped up in the gi-wearing side of things. The same goes for those who look into the Filipino and Indonesian arts to get more familiarized with the use of knives and sticks. Suddenly they have gone from gaining attributes on how to deal with your average kitchen or Stanley knife wielding thug to trying to master an endless series of intricate weapon on weapon forms.
At this point I think I should point out that there is nothing wrong in wishing to get to a high level of proficiency in one of these other arts. The concept of learning art for art’s sake is not abhorrent to me. I can see the attraction and I hope to continue to study new things in various martial arts disciplines for the rest of my life. However, let us take note from the man who was a big part of the aesthetics movement, Oscar Wilde, who said “All art is useless”. It begs the question where does that leave martial arts? I think that was answered over a century ago when war crafts the world over began being filtered into the mainstream and nervous governments or occupying powers needed convincing that their purpose was not to train rebel militias[i]. Philosophers and educators infused the teaching of systems once designed to kill into methods for discipline, leisure and recreation.
Odysseus experienced cognitive dissonance on the island of Ogygia. He was – Pulled between two conflicting desires? the allure of Calypso and his need to return home to his wife, Penelope, in Ithaca. Eventually it took the intervention of the gods to free him from his trance on that island. Social psychologist Carol Tavris called cognitive dissonance “the engine of self-justification”. As my article “Taking it on the Chin and Listening to Fools” discusses, self-justification is a big a problem in the practice and coaching of martial arts as it is in just about every other form of human interaction and it can be just as potent as a magic trance. Odysseus’s relationship with Calypso was an affair, as was his time with Circe. When it comes to assigning blame, scholars have debated the hero’s morals here. Nevertheless, he is betraying Penelope and Ithaca by staying on the island with another woman as man and wife. Likewise, the martial artist is betraying his original training objective when he begins to unreasonably justify his actions for training in another martial art. My friend and martial arts pioneer, Geoff Thompson, often used to refer to the instructors of old as behaving like jealous lovers when they prevented their students from studying in other clubs. Being a cross-trainer that endorses free-thinking and research, I see it as apt simile. However, in this instance I am looking at the other side; when matters go too far. There is nothing wrong in completely abandoning one mission for another or one club for another or one style for another, so long as you are true to yourself.
Self-justification reveals itself when you start decrying your old mission or convincing yourself that the deviation you took will take you on the same path. This is when you start looking back at your original club with unwarranted disdain. No problem if you feel you have had your eyes opened and you think there is something seriously wanting in your original training. However, it really is a moot point to say that the throws you have learnt in judo are of a higher calibre than what you have learnt in your mixed martial arts class. This is when we start saying things like a combat sport is all we need for self-protection training or that a traditional art, taught within an historical context, is easily applied to modern situations. You might have a case in that there are some worthwhile attributes – perhaps the pace involved – you can take from jacketed wrestling arts that can be applied to mixed martial arts and no-gi (unjacketed) submission grappling. However, one must be honest about the direct relevance. As mentioned in my “Hierarchy of Training” article and its subsequent sequels, the more abstract the activity the further down the list it should go. Don’t fool yourself into believing that what you are doing is actually taking you closer to your original goal when your real reason for hanging around is because you enjoy what you are doing.
This is easier said than done and requires a reasonable degree of self-awareness. Due to the fact that the clubs I have trained at were usually very far from my house, it was easier for me not to be drawn into any activity outside the club. Unlike the overwhelming majority of students that attended these classes, I was not local and I felt little attachment or sense of loyalty. I made friends with some impressive coaches and learnt a lot from my fellow students, but I didn’t fall in love with the style or even the system.
I teach students to put themselves at the centre of training and not an intangible entity like a martial art. My passion is my objective; that is where my loyalty lies. Therefore, when I train in another system I will immerse myself in what is being taught and work at it with at least as much passion as my fellow students, but when I step out of the lesson I recall my Ithaca and I continue my journey to that destination.
[i] See my article “Philosophy and Ancient Wisdom” for more on what happened in Asian martial arts.