Every person is an individual with unique drives, desires, wants and needs. For that reason alone, there is NO martial arts style out there that is a complete, one-size-fits-all perfect martial art. So, let’s narrow the question down a bit and ask something a little more specific. Some might ask, “Which is the best martial arts style for __________?”
That might be an accurate question, but it does not take into consideration the one variable that will make the system work or fail; YOU! You need to match up whatever system you choose with several concepts. As we go through this post, we will cover each aspect to consider and how to make the right choice for you; the practitioner.
System vs Style
In a martial context, a system is a group of specific techniques designed for a singular purpose. Aikido is a system, Jeet Kune Do is a system, Shotokan Karate is a system and MMA (as it’s being used today) is a system. There are several hundred systems out there and there are more being created all the time.
Whether the cause of creation for all these systems was cultural, out of religious practice, out of cultural repression or simply seeing flaws in other systems and wanting to rectify those, someone somewhere got it in their head to create a martial art that would fit themselves and – hopefully – help others.
You provide the style… no matter what system you practice; or want to practice. You add style to everything you do in your own unique way. By adding the uniqueness that is you to a martial system, you better that system with your own personal signature; the properties, characteristics, attitudes and methods of performing the techniques that make you who you are. No two people are identical.
That is why it is important – no, CRUCIAL – to find a system that fits your personality and caters to your own uniqueness. Any system that asks their students to abandon their uniqueness in favor of doing something a specific way does not value that person and will only work to preserve itself.
The Four (4) Categories of Martial Systems
When choosing a martial system to learn and represent, you need to decide which of the four (4) categories you want to participate in and be associate with. Every martial system fits within one of these categories. It best to choose one that meets your current needs/wants or personality.
Sports/Competition – There is absolutely nothing wrong with a little healthy competition. Combat sports even date as far back as ancient Greece and Egypt; preparing soldiers for the rigors of battlefield combat.
Benefits: Pressure testing techniques under stress, desensitizing the practitioner regarding being attacked, a great outlet for aggression
Drawbacks: Equalized opponents, one-on-one opposition, directional limitation (the attack is always coming from in front of you), rules, stable/clean surface environment.
Battlefield Combat – Students are trained and practice to stay alive on the battlefield against front-facing and side/rear attack from single and multiple attackers.
Benefits: Weapons training in CQC (close quarters combat) environment; with and against, live sparring against resisting opponents, variable surface/condition environment training, solid cross-over to paramilitary organizations.
Drawbacks: Little civilian cross-over (soldiers are trained to kill the attacker), no proof of effectiveness (you can’t kill your training partner).
Traditional/Demonstration – It is good to preserve the history and past traditions of our ancestors. Traditional martial arts also provides great body conditioning and keeps the practitioners in peak physical condition.
Benefits: Promotes focus and builds confidence, great exercise, sense of accomplishment, little danger to practitioners, ability to work with weapons and tools
Drawbacks: No resisting opponents, little to no active sparring, focus on forms instead of situational adaptability, false confidence in real combat situations, little to no training against live weapons, flat/clean surfaces/conditions.
Self Defense/Personal Protection – Students are trained to survive an attack in civilian life. They face single and multiple attackers and are tasked with surviving and escaping. The focus is on returning home to their families rather than killing/restraining the attacker.
Benefits: Increased comfort in their environment (less fear), increased confidence, training with/against various weapon types, cultivating the proper mental attitude, improved social skills, variable surface training (within certain schools), reduced fear of getting hit, improved focus and objective training.
Drawbacks: Hard to find decent schools/teachers, McDojos (schools are promoting students to higher ranks too soon), Too often, students are allowed to believe complex techniques will work in combat situations. The majority of schools don’t allow for sparring/situational conflict training.
Can I Use a System Meant for One Category as Something Else?
Can you use Krav Maga (battlefield combat) or Shaolin Kungfu (traditional) for self defense? Of course, you can, but it won’t be nearly as effective. It isn’t because the techniques are ineffective – which many of them are not – but because the mentality the student trains to cultivate is ill-suited for that type of environment.
The Battlefield Combat Technician will find themselves in positions where they could kill the opponent, but must restrain themselves because of local laws that will get them put in jail for either manslaughter or use of excessive force. The Traditional Martial Artist will be even worse off when a situation occurs that they had not prepared for and they are either forced to improvise or they find out that the techniques they are trying to use are either too slow or lack power enough t get the job done.
The same goes for putting a Self Defense Practitioner in the ring/cage with a Combat Sports practitioner. The Self Defense Practitioner will – because of training and conditioning – be looking for a means of ending the fight and escaping. The Combat Sports practitioner will look for means of submitting or knocking out the opponent; winning.
All the systems and categories are good but they are intended for a specific purpose. The practitioners are well-trained for the purpose of that specific system. Can you cross over from one to the other? Again, yes, but be cautioned that there will be limitations to the effectiveness in the new environment that you have not trained for. It’s the same as using a butter knife for a screwdriver. You can do it, but it doesn’t work as well as a screwdriver the right size for the job.
Choose the Right Instructor for the Job
You might have found the perfect system for you. You have decided that one category or another fits you like a glove. GREAT!! I have some bad news, though. It doesn’t mean that all instructors are the same or that your personalities will mesh. The student has to trust the teacher and the teacher must trust the student.
The teacher needs to know EXACTLY what the needs of the student (singular) are be prepared to fulfill those needs and push the student to go beyond their current abilities. There is NO one-size-fits-all when dealing with students and it’s a delicate balancing act. Push a student too hard and you might lose that student. Don’t push them enough and that student might get hurt because of what you didn’t teach them.
The student also needs to feel like they are getting the proper amount of instruction for the amount of effort/money they are putting in. The responsibility also lies on the student to practice diligently, regularly and consistently. The student/teacher relationship is truly a symbiotic arrangement where one feed from and supports the other. This is not an easy match to find. A person might cycle through several instructors before they find the right one for him/her.
Know What You Want, Go After It and Don’t Quit
Practicing a martial system is NOT easy and it is not meant for everyone. It is the challenge of molding yourself into the type of practitioner you want to be that often drives the practitioner and keeps them coming back time after time even though there is discomfort, frustration and – sometimes – damage involved.
The trick is to pick the right category for you, find out which systems are designed for your chosen category, locate a qualified trainer that works well with the majority of his/her students and start training. Learn EVERYTHING you can. I can’t stress this enough.
There will often be techniques that you don’t understand. Ask questions but pick the right time to ask them. Right in the middle of a teacher’s explanation is NOT the right time. It’s better to take note – mental or on paper – and ask your questions when the instructor has the time to address you personally. That way, he/she can give your question the attention it deserves. Be cautious, though. If the question is about why something works and the answer is, “It just does”, the instructor doesn’t know the answer and you need to find someone with more knowledge and experience.
Remember that the techniques are tools in a toolbox. They can be mixed and matched as a situation requires. I once used a punch to block an attack and a wrist grab to bend the arm and hit the attacker with his own elbow. These are not things instructors teach their students. It was simply required by the needs of the moment.
Personal Note from the Author
I wish everyone who reads this the best in their training. I know – from experience – the challenges and rewards of a lifetime of training in the martial arts. NEVER belittle a system in a category you do not practice or agree with. The practitioner put in as much time and effort – individual dependent – as you do and they are just as skilled in their field as you are yours. Just become the best martial artist in your field as you can. Push yourself beyond your limits and reward yourself when you do. Happy training and we’ll see you on the other side.