This is the fifth article in Reader Week II. Author Adam Cave is a nidan in Taekwondo and sandan in RyuTe. He is the lead instructor at Raleigh RyuTe Karate and authors a blog called Solo Keiko. In this article Adam discusses the potential hazards with constantly collecting more material, and how specialization can lead to more effective technique.


Freedom From Choice: The Dangers of “More” in Martial Arts

I recently watched a TED Talk lecture on youtube by Barry Schwartz. In his book “The Paradox of Choice,” the author takes on the concept of freedom in Western Civilization. According to Schwartz, we define freedom as having unlimited personal choices. The paradox is that the vast numbers of choices we now face every day have a tendency to cause self-paralysis and limit both our freedom and our happiness.

These are big ideas and the video is well worth watching. But what does it all have to do with martial arts? To my mind, everything. Start with the thousands of martial arts styles being practiced today world wide (hundreds, possibly, in your own community). From the hugely popular to the esoteric, from classical to traditional to modern and hybrids, there is no shortage of ways to defend ourselves. Internal, external, hard, soft, Eastern, Western: the list keeps growing; a clear case of globalization at work.

Now consider the hundreds of techniques found in every methodology. There are innumerable kata, training exercises, and drills to help us learn. Each style has multiple instructors who focus on differing aspects of their art. With this many choices and this much material, where do you begin? To make matters worse, as a peaceful member of society, not seeking out conflict, you may never know if you chose right. At least you won’t know until it is far too late to change (This article assumes that you, like me, want your martial arts to provide you with at least some improved self-defense skills).

martial arts choicesIt is high time we start questioning whether all this choice and all this material is making us better or worse martial artists. The cynic in me sees it all as marketing strategies to gain and keep dojos full. Business-minded instructors, lacking depth of knowledge, go out and “acquire” new material that their students have not yet seen. But I am sure there are also many teachers who truly believe that real self-defense requires a broad base of knowledge.

One of the most common mantras in martial arts is that techniques have to be practiced repeatedly until they can be done without thinking or they will never work in real life. I completely agree. But, to train any movement that much, requires a great deal of time and, if you are constantly learning new material, you will never have enough. Each technique becomes part of a long list that can be recalled but rarely can be done well without thinking about it first.

Although this may be a harder sell, the better option is, literally, less options.

Advice on Getting Less

Begin by choosing one art to study. Commit yourself to the strategies and techniques of that art. This may still be a mountain of material but at least it all falls under the same umbrella. To make matters simpler, continuously look for one, overriding logic in every move you do. This will help you see the similarities between movements and techniques that otherwise, might appear quite different. In a fully developed art, the movement of the hands, body, and feet should all be coordinated and flow easily together. If you train to make a core set of fundamental skills second nature, you will actually be able to use a broader range of techniques as long as they are all built on those same fundamentals. Eventually, what to others may appear as many differing techniques, to you should all seem like subtle variations on the same thing. This is the type of skill set that you can count on in a fight because you won’t have to think about it. Instead of being paralyzed by too many choices, you will move freely and instinctively using techniques that you have real confidence in.

martial arts posesAs an avid lover of all martial arts, I don’t want to kill anyone’s enthusiasm for learning new things. Some amount of variety is necessary to keep us motivated. The key will always be how well we can integrate that material into our core discipline.

In the end, what we do to protect ourselves is deeply personal and it will not matter how it looks or who it impresses as long as it works. The thousands of martial arts represent the work of thousands of individual people, each developing personal methods of self-defense that worked for them. Ironically, they all had the same threat in mind; a fellow human with two arms and two legs and possibly a weapon held in one of two hands. More choices will not help you beat this opponent. Deeper knowledge, of even a few techniques, will be a much stronger asset.