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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

Shenanigans: Your Martial Art (and Mine)

My teacher and I had a conversation a while ago about weapon arts and what we see, specifically in forms. I had trained long enough to the point to where I can see what he sees and understand what's happening.

And what he's seeing is what we on this blog call Shenanigans.

You might call it nonsense. Or to put it more bluntly, it's bullshit.

Once he called my attention to it - what to look for, and why to question it... I'm seeing it, too. And I'm seeing it everywhere. Including my own art.

We all know there's some spectacularly awful martial arts and martial artists out there. It's not hard to find, and it pops up in our social media feeds all the time. But in this case, I don't mean these obvious frauds and fakes.

I mean the real deal, honest-to-goodness, serious martial artists - you and me - and real, deal, honest-to-goodness forms.

Shenanigans and nonsense in the martial arts is an endless and popular topic in our larger community. There's web sites, forums, numerous blogs and blog posts, discussion groups on social media of all kinds, podcasts, magazines... there's no shortage of conversation about this stuff and it's been going on as long as there have been martial arts, I'm sure.

But the truth is, the more you look at your own art with the same critical eye you cast towards other arts... you're going to see shenanigans there, too. It's not just weapons, mind you, it's empty-hand, too.

I know, I know, your art is perfect, and your teacher is infallible, and the founder of your art was an unbeatable genius that could do no wrong. I agree whole-heartedly, because that's true about MY art and teachers, but humor me for a minute.

Sometimes we outsiders don't have the right context and are misunderstanding what we see in styles we don't train in, so we might believe it's nonsense when it's not. We tend to treat other styles with a bit of skepticism because, well, they aren't training what we are training and therefore it must be inferior.

Now apply that skeptical approach you take to other styles and apply it to your own.

Pretend you come from a completely different martial art and are evaluating how to defeat you in a fight - look at it with an open mind. Be honest - try to find the weakness, the counters, the flaws in assumption and execution.

Assume your teacher is not perfect. Assume your founder is not perfect. Because they aren't and weren't. They're people, like you and me, and not some magical super beings.

You're going to find some nonsense there.

Does that mean your whole art is nonsense? Does it mean your teacher and your founders and martial arts ancestors are frauds and idiots and unworthy of your loyalty?


That applies to other styles. Does one interpretation or technique that's... questionable... negate everything they do and teach?


But it doesn't mean you can ignore or excuse the manure in your own yard because their yards are all piled man-high with the stuff.

For example, do you have some techniques or drills that...

... require a lot of things to go right in order to make it work?

... have REALLY easy and obvious counters?

... assume that the attacker will always respond in a specific, proscribed way?

... block a weapon (not the weapon arm, the weapon) with an unprotected body part?

... require a very compliant uke in order for it to work?

... can't be explained to do anything reasonable other than "it looks cool" (and don't stretch it... be honest)

I'm not talking about gaps in training (such as no ground work for a striking art), or strategic choices (like certain types of baiting or choosing speed over power)... I'm talking about "If you do this technique exactly the way it's taught, can it actually work against a resisting opponent?" If it requires the intervention of a higher power or an extraordinary amount of luck for something to work... my friend, it's shenanigans.

So, why does this happen? How are we allowing bullshit into our arts?

I think this is a complex problem - if it were simple, there wouldn't be any of it to worry about. But here's my speculation on how it happens:

1) Shifting Context

Martial arts are generally developed for specific conditions, situations, and cultures. When removed from that context, it can be very difficult to understand the practicality of what's being taught. Thus, to modern eyes or different cultures, it becomes nonsense.

2) Boredom

When you do an art for decades, you start to become removed from the pure practicality of the art, because the practical, lower-level stuff is boring after all that time. So things get made up that may be more of a physical and intellectual exercise vs. a practical technique. And then people who aren't at that high level with decades of experience see and learn the technique, not understanding it for what it is, and start thinking it's supposed to be more than a simple exercise, and it becomes nonsense.

3) The Telephone Game (or "Chinese Whispers")

If you don't know what I mean by the "Telephone Game", watch this:

We have "lineage" in the martial arts, generally. We learn from our teacher, who learned from hers, who learned from his, and so on, to the originator of the art. Some lineages are longer than others. We know that in this method of conveying information, key pieces will get lost, such as a foot placement, or a changed target, or a different range, or a fine-tune on a stance... and it only takes something like that to turn a technique from useful to nonsense.

I think this also happens when techniques that require a higher level of understanding are taught to people not quite ready to understand the information. The understanding never comes (as it's been shortcut and lacks context), so key features of the technique gets lost or garbled as it's passed on.

4) Sport and Performance Arts Feature Creep

I am in favor of martial arts as performance and I think combat sports are awesome and great. However, "creep" of their techniques and tools are a huge problem for nonsense getting incorporated into our arts. Things that look cool or work when you wear safety equipment or are allowed/disallowed by rules don't translate as well to serious self defense. In my opinion, it's especially bad with weapons. See my teacher +Mark Lynn's discussion of the problem here and here.

THIS IS A DEMO, not something they would do in real life, people.

5) Lack of Pressure Testing

It's one thing to do it in air or against a dummy or stationary opponent. It's a completely different thing to do it against an alive, resisting, moving opponent. Without pressure testing - against both experienced and inexperienced people (so you can see how different people react), you might be propagating nonsense and not even know it.

6) Safety

In modern times, we can't just beat the heck out of each other as a general rule, and we definitely can't beat the daylights out of kids (and those are the majority in our classes, generally). So we do things for safety reasons (such as not going full speed, or pulling a punch, or striking way out of range). We have to make sure we get to the point where those safety constraints are removed to really understand how the technique actually works, otherwise, the technique becomes nonsense.

7) Hero Worship and Loyalty

We want to believe our teachers are above reproach. We especially want to believe that the founders of our arts are perfect. So, when we are taught or shown something that doesn't seem to make sense, we insist that somehow the fault is with us - it can't be with the technique, because the teacher would never make a mistake. And sometimes that is absolutely true. And sometimes... what you're being taught is nonsense.

Additionally, questioning the teacher can at times be interpreted as disloyal and rude. Given that we do not often build in a time and a place to respectfully question what we are being taught, it's no surprise that we end up discouraging any questions at all.

8) Misunderstanding Teaching Methodology

My teacher explained this to me, and it makes a lot of sense. This comes from the huge influence Japanese martial arts has on the overall community. In the West, we want our teachers to provide answers. But in Japan, the teacher shows the path, and it's up to the student to provide the answers herself. Thus, we misinterpret the teacher's showing of the path for the answer itself - and we propagate nonsense as a result of this misunderstanding.

I'm sure there are more reasons why shenanigans creep into our styles, but all of problems I listed above applies to each one of us in some degree.

What can we, as a community do about it? I think some of this is easily solved - pressure test what you do to verify it makes sense. If it doesn't make sense, what change can you make to make it work (i.e., is there a small adjustment that would make it work? Is it a matter of range, target, stepping off the line...? Be skeptical about what you see, question it, even if it's just to yourself, and prove to yourself that works.

I think, however, we have some cultural problems - hero worship, loyalty, obedience - that are much harder to address in order to remove the nonsense from our arts. I honestly don't know how to solve that one.

Thoughts? I'd love your perspective!

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Jan 15, 2020

A lot of good points made.    There is a lot of different reasons why people get into martial arts.  Physical fitness, meditation, confidence, self defense. 

The shenanigans can come in many forms. 

If you are studying a martial art to lose weight and getting fit you may be taking advice from someone who doesn't have the  experience or knowledge a personal trainer has. 

You might be be following bad advice that will lead to more harm than good down the road. 

If you are studying a martial art for self defense and your school only does choreographed forms and no live sparring, how effective can those techniques be if you're unfortunate enough to have to defend yourself in a…

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