The Plight of the Armchair Trainee

I recently did an interview with a fine fellow named Himanshu Ojha of the Columbia News Service based out of Columbia University. Himanshu was curious about the recent rise in availability of martial arts instructional videos. He was investigating their value and validity as training tools.

Himanshu’s finished article can be found here. He did a great job.

Unfortunately, as I was answering questions, I gave him way more information than he could possibly include in a reasonable article. So I thought to myself, where could I expound on this topic to an unreasonable degree?

That’s right. Right here.

Check out my take on how video can add exceptional value to your training, or dupe you out of time, money, and even safety (bad advice can be dangerous).


martial arts videos

1) Firstly, terminology – martial arts vs self defense.
How do experts distinguish between the two? Is a video that uses “martial arts” in its title or promotional material promising something different than a self defense video?

Although there is no set line that distinguishes martial arts and self defense, it is generally understood that you are getting a slightly different focus between the two. When talking about self defense, the intent will likely be centered on scenario based situations. Most of the instruction will be relegated to likely street scenarios, such as getting grabbed, choked, punched, etc etc. Instructors will also often discuss things like street awareness, avoiding bad situations, and using body language and voice to further discourage attackers.

When talking about martial arts, you can generally expect a much wider array of topics. “Martial Arts” might include things like forms (kata), sparring, basic movement drills, as well as self defense applications (defending against choke, punch, etc).

Ultimately, one of the primary goals of both self defense and martial arts is to assist the individual in protecting themselves during altercations. “Self Defense” seminars and videos will go directly into it via scenarios, while “Martial Arts” will try to approach it from a more fundamental and holistic perspective.

2) What, in your opinion, has video added to training from the point of view of both student and teacher?

The recent increase in video availability has proven valuable in a lot of ways for both students and teachers. Not too long ago students were relegated to the specific experience of their direct instructor. There are plenty of good things about that, but it also creates a bit of a narrow window in regards to ideas and methods of growth. On Okinawa, many of the older masters would train under various different instructors to get the benefits of their combined wisdom and experience. The increase in video has allowed for a similar kind of sharing over much longer distances and time.

For students, video also helps ensure that their material stays in line with that of their instructor. If a student must be away from his/her instructor for extended periods of time, memory and natural growth will cause certain changes and adaptations. To properly pass on a tradition, that student must then go back and make sure they can teach material in the method they were taught (so as to properly preserve their art for posterity). While their personal art grows and evolves, the student can use video to stay grounded in tradition.

For teachers, video can help in the management and coordination of both long distance students and larger organizations. As experts (or “masters”) pass away, there are often schisms in opinion from their students as to how the master wanted techniques performed and preserved. Video can help reduce the amount of argument and misunderstanding, especially as more and more generations progress from that original source.

From a practical standpoint, learning a technique, be it for self defense or any other goal, requires plenty of rote practice and development. Having access to video, which you can rewind, slow down, pause, etc. is a great addition to in-person training (albeit not a substitute).

3) Conversely, what do you think are the downsides of videos and how are these pitfalls best avoided?

One of the major problems with video comes from an over-reliance upon it. The development of martial skill is extremely subtle and requires strong guidance. A live teacher will provide the necessary adjustments and corrections to make technique excellent and efficient in dangerous circumstances. Video alone simply cannot provide the kind of personal guidance needed to become a good practitioner of any style.

The dojo (dojang, gym, etc.) setting is also crucial to proper development. The ability to train with people of different body types and emotional dispositions allows a student to build mental toughness as well as physical technique. A video at home with one or two training partners will result in a very limited skill set, no matter how enthusiastic the trainee.

Another problem with video comes in the form of fraudulence. Ego is a very big factor in the martial arts, and people are all too quick to list their experiences and styles. Many needy individuals will purchase and watch a dvd of a certain style (let’s say Krav Maga just as an example), and then add Krav Maga onto their checklist of “mastered arts”. These individuals will claim a long list of black belts and personal experience with top experts. They’ll usually buttress these lists with a series of ill-gotten certificates and a host of trophies.

To avoid the common pitfalls of video, you have to use them for what they really are – a reference point. Video can help inform and enhance a solid foundation, but cannot be used in substitution of one.

4) There is a huge amount of material out there now. Is there any regulation of this or standards bodies that would give consumers a way of sifting through it all? Is there a perception of Snake Oil Salesmen?

Unfortunately there are no regulating or standard bodies in place to cull the good from the bad. If you so chose, you could photoshop a promotional degree, declare yourself a 10th Dan, and start your own martial art style tomorrow (it happens frequently actually).

dan karate diploma

There are many federations and associations that attempt to maintain the quality of practitioners inside their own style or system, however there are many more federations designed to prop up their mediocre headmasters and legitimize a whole lot of quickly and questionably gained rank. The various martial art associations have no effect upon one another.

The phrase “buyer beware” is in full effect when it comes to purchasing martial arts and self defense videos, or even believing that anything stated within them is effective or true. Buyers must keep a keen eye out for snake oil salesmen and women because there is an abundance of them. It can be frustrating trying to sort through them, but there is a little hope developing at this time…

Video is getting free. Not too long ago the only videos available were roughly shot and expensive as heck. People couldn’t really know the quality they were getting until it was too late. Now they can utilize websites like youtube to sample “experts” before spending any money. If the expert in question turns out to be terrible, or doesn’t offer free samples of his/her work, shoppers can easily go to a different resource and spend their money there.

5) It seems (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that there are new cultures of training videos.
Firstly, there are the MMA/UFC style videos.
Secondly, there are the “Real Street Fighting” videos.
Then there are the pseudo-military instructional videos which claim to teach methods from elite fighting units.

As a traditional practitioner of martial arts, how do you view these kinds of videos and their claims?

I think those videos should be treated with the same skepticism and critical eye that you would use for videos of traditional arts. Conceptually, I have no problem with their growth and existence. That’s really more a matter of what consumer’s desire. Traditional arts involve a full spectrum of drills, forms, fighting, etc. and some people don’t want to get involved in all that.

Much in the same way that scammy traditionalists will fake and embellish whom they trained with, “modern” fighters will fake and embellish their military service as well as their real fighting experience. These individuals will create false pro fighting records, phantom street encounters, military assignments, etc. etc. Once again, the buyer must beware.

6.) Going back to the newer styles (eg Krav Maga, SCARS, etc). I’ve seen a lot of promotional literature that emphasizes the speed of their training. Very often this is set in implied opposition to the traditional martial arts (adverts to the effect of “Why spend 15 years in a dojo when we will teach you what you need to know in the quickest most efficient way possible).

Is this because these styles are purely focused on combat technique and the traditional martial arts are more holistic in nature, and therefore have more knowledge to impart? Or is this just a way for an instructor to differentiate himself from the competition?

Some of it is marketing and some of it is factual . A large portion of individuals who buy these aggressive modern products are looking for a quick solution to their problems. They want the nastiest techniques that they can learn in a few sittings. Therefore, the makers of these videos key in on how quickly it takes to learn the techniques. It’s like a lot of other products that address complex art forms or skills. Think about materials that are supposed to teach you how to play the guitar or learn a second language in X amount of days or weeks. How often these products work, I leave to your judgment.

That being said, there are a lot of foundational things in traditional arts that modern programs do circumvent. Traditional arts will often spend lots of time on stances, basics, forms, etc. etc. Modern arts tend to go right for the techniques of doing damage. There is something to be said for these modern methods. After all, we don’t see Marines and Navy Seals doing kata and moving up and down dojo floors in stance. There’s no time for that.

Modern military programs need to install as much combative programming as they can in a short amount of time. Therefore they cannot slowly build soldiers in a gradual way. Furthermore, mental programming is significantly different for a soldier than a civilian. A soldier can use different levels of force in their environment and have a broader array of tools available to them, all while utilizing a soldier-specific mindset in order to survive.

Traditional arts use the slowness of their teachings to weed out excessively violent individuals who are likely to misuse the art. The gradual progress of development in traditional arts can result in significant power and effectiveness, but in addition provides a window for character development and philosophical theory. Needless to say not all traditional styles and schools do this well, but the opportunity is there.

One individual I study with, Major Bill Hayes, is a Vietnam Marine Veteran. He is also a 7th Dan in Shobayashi Shorin Ryu, a very classical style of karate. He was directly involved in the development of MCMAP and it’s growth over time. His karate is absolutely combat effective, so much so that he is a highly utilized resource for many “modern” fighting systems. This is true of other individuals as well (a surprising amount of modern techniques and programs are developed off of traditional styles). But I doubt he would substitute his karate in for MCMAP. The needs of the soldiers are different, and MCMAP is developing to try and meet those needs in the time allotted.

I think video-goers need to be honest with themselves regarding what they need, what they are willing to invest in the process, and what real-life resources they have available to them.