Why practice a traditional martial art instead of a sports-based martial art? This is a question which is asked from time to time. It is often asked by someone who has already made up their mind about what they would prefer to do. Which is fine, because the answer to the question is really that simple: Do what you want to do. If all you want to do is fight in competitions, don’t waste time practicing a traditional martial art.
I tend to broadly define martial arts schools based on whether the focus in the training is on competition or not. Sports-based martial arts schools focus on teaching students how to win in competitions. Traditional martial arts schools tend not to focus on competition training but on teaching martial arts for other reasons. These reasons may vary but include such reasons as self-defence, cultural appreciation and personal development.
If you want to immerse yourself in the culture and history of the art, don’t enroll in a sports-based school, rather enroll in a traditional school that promotes the cultural aspects of traditional martial arts. If you are more interested in personal development than winning competitions, don’t enroll in a sports-based school, rather enroll in a traditional school which focuses on personal development. And, more controversially, if you are more interested in self-defence than competitive fighting, don’t enroll in a sports-based martial system. Rather enroll in a self-defence-based system or traditional system that focuses on self-defence application of traditional martial arts.
There are plenty of accounts of martial artists who have been put into positions where they have had to defend themselves and then found that they are unable to do so effectively despite decades of experience in a particular school or system.
Why is that? Is it because the system was ineffective? Is it because the individual was just not dedicated enough in their training?
I personally do not believe that either of these reasons are necessarily true. What I have found is that the martial artists in these accounts were often very dedicated and the systems that they studied were often very effective at what they were aiming to achieve for the students. Many of the martial artists in these accounts were long-time practitioners of very respected sports-based martial arts. So shouldn’t that have made them better fighters? Sure. In a competition. But here’s the big secret that everyone seems to miss.
Wait for it…
Let this statement sink in. It’s the truth. A self-defence situation is a survival situation, not a competition. There are no rules to make things ‘fair’ (such as no small joint locks, no eye-gouging, no bashing someone’s head in with a half-brick, no gutting someone with a blade, no calling twenty mates to help kick someone’s ribs in or shooting someone with a concealed firearm), there are no restrictions to the threat such as numbers of opponents, weight classes, sex, weaponry etc. and there are no judges who are going to step in to stop the fight if things get hairy.
When you enter a self-defence situation, you may not walk away in one piece or at all for that matter. This is a very scary situation to be in and without the right psychological and physical tools and training, it becomes increasingly difficult to survive it. In fact, the realization that death or serious injury is a very real possibility in the next few seconds is enough to throw someone into a tailspin if they haven’t prepared themselves for this level of threat.
This is where many sports-based systems fail. Time is limited in classes and there are only so many things that can be taught within the envelope of an hour or hour-and-a-half lesson a few times per week. If sport is your main focus, this will take up the majority of the time in each class. There will just not be time to teach students self-defence. Self-defence is not something that you can stick on to the end of a class as in “Oh, by the way, you can do this to defend yourself…”. Self-defence is a whole mindset and perspective which should be the pervading feature of a system if it is to be any use at all in a real self-defence situation.
This level of dedication is required if self-defence is your end goal. “Well, what about traditional martial arts schools which focus on the culture and on personal development? Aren’t their attentions divided?” I hear you ask. I am glad you asked that question. You see, the culture and personal development inherent in traditional martial arts actually evolved to support the main focus of the original traditional systems which was… deadly combat and/or self-defence!
A good example of this is the code of Bushido and the culture associated with the Samurai. This seems to be very traditional and very cultural at first glance. But this culture evolved for a specific purpose. The purpose was to prepare the Samurai psychologically to operate at optimal efficiency regardless of whether or not they were going to die.
Traditional martial arts schools which focus on self-defence and stand-alone self-defence systems can provide a student with the required tools and training to survive. Sports-based schools will not generally provide that kind of training because it is an unnecessary waste of precious time and resources.
Historically, traditional martial artists did fight in competitions to test their skills, so why am I making this distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘sports-based’ systems now? Well, in short, the rules changed. Many of the historic fighting competitions that we read about were actually competitions in which there were literally no rules. People would often get killed or severely injured in these fights. They would often have to sign a waiver document which acknowledged that they were aware that the fight could be ‘to the death’ and in some cases were required to provide funds for their own burial before participating. These fights were nothing like the competition fighting that we see today. By way of illustrating how these changes came about and how modern sporting competitions evolved, I’ll refer you to the following snapshot of part of the history of our Northern Long Fist lineage.
The Chang Chuan, or Northern Long Fist, part of our Chang Hong system traces its heritage back via Grandmaster Li Mao Ching who was taught by Master Han Ching Tan ultimately to Emperor Tai Zu of Song (927 AD to 976 AD). There are a number of online references to Master Han Ching Tan’s life, so I will not mention much about him in this article but for his involvement with the Central Guosho Institute established in Nanjing by the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China in 1928.
The Central Guosho Institute (also called the Nanjing Central Chinese Martial Art Institute), was established for the practice and nurture of Chinese Martial Arts. Along with the well-known Jing Wu Athletic Association, the Central Guosho Institute played a crucial role in the transmission of traditional Chinese martial arts into the future. At this difficult time in history, many of the traditional systems and approaches may have been lost if it were not for these institutes which strengthened, consolidated and propagated traditional Chinese martial arts via masters such as Han Ching Tan.
In 1928, the Central Guosho Institute held a national examination in Nanjing which attracted many Chinese traditional masters. During the first few days of the competitions that formed part of this examination, at least two masters were killed and many more seriously injured. The remaining contestants were not allowed to continue for fear of losing any more masters and the knowledge that they carried.
Master Han Ching Tan participated in the Martial Arts Fair that formed part of the Hang Zhou Exhibition during which the rules of competition were changed to favour practitioners of Shuai Jiao (a grappling system) over striking systems. Master Han conceded his fight to Wang Zi Qian (one of the Central Guosho Institute’s skilled Shuai Jiao experts) because they were on the same faculty. Wang eventually won the contest on points but was covered in injuries as a result of facing the striking experts. He went on to share his winnings with the 5 runners-up including Master Han in acknowledgement of the unfair advantage that he had gained due to the change in rules.
I find it fascinating that we have a record of even one of the small steps towards our more recognizable modern sports-based culture in this account from Master Han. It is clear that even at this time, society’s appreciation of human life was beginning to grow to a point where the old ways were slowly being abandoned in favour of safer approaches to competitive fighting. As our global culture has evolved, the need for rules, regulations, gear and training approaches that preserve human life in the ring has grown to a point where deaths and serious injuries in competition fighting are relatively rare. However, as a side-effect of this heavily-regulated and controlled approach to competition fighting, the reality of mortal combat has been lost. This has left many sports-based martial artists without the psychological tools necessary to function effectively under the threat of deadly conflict.
Written by Lester Walters, Head of Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia
The image used as the cover picture of this article is a group photo of organizers and athletes at the 1928 National Guoshu Examination. Source — https://chinesemartialstudies.com/2014/09/25/1928-the-danger-of-telling-a-single-story-about-the-chinese-martial-arts/