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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

The Dilemma of the Modern Martial Artist

There's a tendency to decry modern martial arts training as soft in some quarters.

That is, modern martial artists wouldn't be able to cut it in the old school blood-n-guts training that our teachers and their teachers endured back thirty or forty or fifty years ago.  That modern martial artists are too weak to train without air conditioning or heat. That they aren't willing to work hard, and that they can't or won't take a hit, and are afraid of injury.  Modern martial artists are, to some, weaklings.

In some ways, I think this is true.  I think there is a tendency in some martial arts schools not to ask a lot of their students physically. The focus on kids in martial arts schools, along with the notion that asking our children to earn things and learn about life's disappointments is somehow wrong, has sanitized much of what we do.

But there are a certain number of assumptions behind that desire to train the way I just described that I don't think really apply.

Take myself.

No, I really don't want to train all the time in a garage or park.  I live in Missouri, where it can thunderstorm at the drop of a hat, our summers are as hot as any I experienced in Texas and Mississippi (it's a matter of duration, not intensity), and our winters can get bitter, BITTER cold.  I can and do train that way once in a while, sure.  But every time I train? No thanks.

No, I don't want to be constantly recovering from injury.  I'm in my 50's and it takes me a lot longer to heal than it does younger people.  So no, I am not willing to go all-out and get beat up on a regular basis just to prove that I can or that I'm tough or whatever.  I'd train maybe twice a month if that happened, and I don't want to be off the mat that long.

No, I don't want to train injured and risk temporary problems becoming permanent.  Part of that old-school culture was to do so, and the people who did that ended up paying for that for the rest of their lives in surgeries or pain or lack of mobility as they aged.

No, I don't want to have to spend a lot of my time explaining my injuries.  As a woman, I always have to do so.  Injuries on women - bruises in particular - are often assumed to be the result of domestic violence.  Add that to having a professional job... and it looks weird. It's probably okay if you're a cop, or a firefighter or something, but people in, say, financial planning, or banking, or accounting, or sales, or even computer jobs  aren't expected to walk around limping, with cuts and a black eye on a weekly basis.

No, I'm not training to be a fighter.  I train for a lot of reasons, but fighting isn't one of them.  So nope, maybe I can't take being in fights.  Great, because I do not plan to get into any.  My plan is to avoid fighting whenever possible, and if I have to engage in violence, do so and get out as fast as I can.

This is the dilemma of the modern martial artist.  On the one hand, we want to be as tough as those who came before us and a part of each of us would like to believe we could cut it in those kinds of schools.  On the other hand, modern martial arts training means training in relative comfort so we can focus on what we're learning vs. fighting our environment (we're not in boot camp, y'all).  We benefit from modern sports science and medicine.  And I bet we'll be able to train actively into an older age than many who came before us.

I don't live in the world as it existed fifty or a hundred (or a thousand) years ago. I can't predict the future, either, so I train for my own environment, one that I will probably remain in (modern American suburban life). I'm not a soldier and I'm unlikely to be one.  I do not have a profession where I will need my martial arts skills on a regular basis, such as being a police officer, military, or other such professions.

I'm a modern martial artist living in modern times in an advanced country.  I train in air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter.  I train where clean bathrooms are available, and mats that aren't likely to give me an infection, and equipment that isn't dirty or improvised or dangerous.  I have the option to train where I don't have to be a "fighter".  I am not required to get beaten in order to learn.  I have the benefit of modern medicine and sports science to assist me in my training, and therefore, I am stronger and in better shape than someone exactly like me fifty years ago, all things being equal.

You could say that Arnis training is the OLD old-school. I found this meme a long time ago; if you know the source let me know.

Doing all of this doesn't make me soft or weak or lesser than those who came before me, it just makes me lucky enough to live in a time and place where those things are common and we have all the options available to us to train how we wish. You think those folks wouldn't have chosen our cushy modern life if they could?

Those old-school dojos do exist - garage dojos are common and if you look hard (they don't tend to be well represented online, go figure) you can find them.  My teacher came up in one (and it still exists) and he started out teaching in his garage before he got the opportunity to teach in a Rec Center.  Heck, if you want to train like that, you can start your own group, if you like.  It doesn't cost much to find a park or to empty your garage and create a training group on Meetup. Just make sure that if you do that old-school hard training, you've got a really good liability waiver... and a lawyer.

I believe that not asking much of your students is cheating them. There is a middle ground between dancing on a mat with no contact at all, ever, and getting beaten to a pulp until you learn how to block. 

Physical fitness and risk is part of what we do, and we can't and shouldn't try to make what we do perfectly safe.  Perfect safety means no negative feedback and no pressure testing, and that's bad. We should get a good workout - whatever that means for your art, as it can vary - in our classes.  That's a given.

But you don't have to prove how tough you are by training in primitive conditions and getting beat up every other day, either.

Do you think modern martial artists are too soft compared to the folks training forty years ago or so?  Or are you okay with living in modern times and training like it?  Let us know in the comments!

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