How To Choose A Martial-Arts School

The responses to my progress report on searching for a new martial-arts school made it clear that many people are interested in advice on this topic. The problem is especially difficult for new students choosing a first school, as they have yet to develop the kind of trained eye that can evaluate technique.

I have been training in empty-hand combat and contact weapons since 1982; more or less continuously since 1990. I have studied shotokan, tae kwon do, aikido, wing chun kung fu, and Mixed Martial Arts at five different schools and trained in sword-centered Western Martial Arts at two more. Along the way I’ve picked up bits and pieces of iaido, kenjutsu, escrima stick fighting, penjak silat, shaolin kung fu, Greco-Roman wrestling, Okinawan karate, naginata-do, and lua. I hold a black belt in tae kwon do and have been an instructor in multiple styles. I report these things to establish that my experience of styles and schools is very broad, equipping me to give useful advice on how to choose one.

This how-to will be aimed mainly at people new to the martial arts trying to choose a first school, but the questions I suggest can usefully be asked even if you are a much more experienced student.

The first thing you need to do is decide what you actually want.

Different schools and styles answer to different purposes. When speaking of these, martial artists commonly describe three categories: combative (practical self-defense), sport (competitive fighting), and do (self-control and self-improvement; this may just mean physical fitness, but in some arts shades into meditation and mysticism, most often of a Buddhist or Taoist variety).

The very first thing you should do is to figure out the relative importance of these paths to you, so you can judge each style and school on whether the priorities of the school match your own. Styles vary on this, and individual schools within any given style vary among themselves.

Suppose, for example, you’re like me (strong interest in the combative aspect, secondary interest in the self-improvement end, no interest in sport competition). A wall of trophies and ribbons at the school suggests that the art will have artificial technique restructions to make it safer for tournament fighting. This may be a bad sign; sumi-e paintings or Buddhist imagery on the walls would be better.

But in our internetted age, the first active step in your search (especially if you’re a newbie) is probably going to be a web search for schools near you. That’s OK, just bear in mind that the marketing glitz (or absence of same) conveyed by a school’s web presence is not at all correlated with the quality of the school. Start by shortlisting three or four that are conveniently located near you.

The next thing about choosing a school is that you must do it hands- and eyeballs-on. Visit each candidate school and least watch a class; if the school will allow it (and they usually will) participate in a class. Call to schedule this so you can be a guest in one that is suited to your skill level. You may need to sign a liability waiver; do not be over-concerned, as serious injuries are very rare (more rare than in, for example, golf).

The first and most important thing to watch for is quality of instruction. A style that is otherwise not a great match for you can be worth pursuing if the teaching is exceptionally good; conversely a style can be an excellent match for you but its school a poor choice if the instruction is inferior.

Evaluating the quality of teaching is especially important for newbies, who don’t yet have the eye to evaluate things like quality of motion. Here are some things to look for:

Do the instructors attend to individual students and solve problems, or are they running canned drills with little feedback?

Do the students look focused and attentive? (Bad sign if adults don’t, but don’t mark the school down if children look a bit scattered.)

Are senior instructors on the floor teaching, or have they delegated the grunt work to less-capable junior instructors?

Do you see the students helping each other? (This is generally a good sign, but if you don’t see it, it may only be that the school is strict about who can give instruction.)

Closely related to these are questions are about the general atmosphere of the school. Trust your gut about this; if something looks or feels particularly wrong – or particularly right – you may well be picking up on important information unconsciously.

Do the students treat their instructors and each other respectfully? Are they smiling when they start class, and when they leave? Is the school clean? Does it smell good? (Don’t discount this; humans emit different pheromones when they’re under negative stress than they do when they’re happily adrenalized, and your nose can tell that difference.)

Is the median age close to yours? This matters because physical capabilities change significantly as we age, and the instructor will be teaching to the median. Mixing preadolescent children with adults doesn’t work at all well; while you won’t see that often, less extreme age differences can create some issues if you happen to be among the outliers.

If it’s a striking art, do the students spar to contact – that is, are they actually touching each other when they strike? I think this is quite important. Without regular contact sparring, developing precise force control and the ability to deliver power is difficult. Some schools avoid this either for liability reasons or because students (or the parents of students) find it too intimidating. I think you should avoid such schools.

If it’s a grappling art, the analogous question is: are people actually throwing each other around? Without this, throwers don’t learn how to do it right and throwees don’t learn how to fall properly (that is, dissipating the force so the fall doesn’t hurt them).

Beginners often think that choosing the right style is extremely important. Relax about this, if only because empty-hand arts tend to converge with each other at their high ends – style defines where you start, not so much where you finish. And, overall, quality of instruction is the most important metric.

That said, you may need to be careful about style choice if you have an actual physical handicap. (I, for example, have a mild case of cerebral palsy that gives me range-of-motion issues in my legs and hips. This makes me a poor fit for a style that involves a lot of high kicking.) If you have a handicap, don’t try to struggle with it by choosing a style that relies on motions difficult for you; trust me, you’ll eventually get quite enough challenge advancing in an art you’re equipped to do well.

There are several qualities of martial-arts styles that can help you decide how well they will fit you. One important one is how well a style fits your build and the distribution of your strength. You should get a read on this by watching or (better) participating in a class and learning whether the movements are comfortable for you; but here are some principles:

If your strength is mostly in your arms and shoulders, you are likely to be served best by a striking art such as karate or boxing or kung fu. If your strength is more in your legs, a style with a lot of kicking (tae kwon do, muy thai, savate) may suit you better. If you have a lot of core (hip and torso) strength, a grappling style (ju jitsu, judo, aikido) may be for you.

Psychology is important, too. Do you like to fight at range or close in? Are you naturally aggressive, or does the idea of flowing like water and using the opponent’s force against him/her appeal more? Do you like using your strength, or prefer to move with precision and delicacy and apply minimum force for maximum result? There are styles that match every combination of these. If you can’t read where a style falls on these axes by seeing it done, ask a practitioner.

For example: If you’re aggressive, like to use strength, and like to fight close, the tiger form of Five Animals kung fu probably fits you. If you like to fight close but prefer to flow and use minimum force, on the other hand, aikido or judo will probably suit you. If you like to fight at more distance but are aggressive, tae kwon do or kyokushinkai karate may be the right sort of thing.

Yet another important variable (especially if your focus is combative) is how long it takes to achieve practical combat proficiency in the style. This is difficult to quantify because it depends in part on how frequently you train. But some styles have a reputation for fast takeoff to proficiency – krav maga and wing chun, for example, are often said to get a reasonably diligent student to combat proficiency in less than 18 months; at the other extreme, aikido and Shaolin and others among the more elaborate kung fu varieties are notoriously “10-year” styles. Most styles are intermediate, with combat proficiency developing at 3 to 6 years in.

So, why would you study a long-takeoff style at all? Mainly because the short-takeoff styles also top out sooner; they get you to proficiency faster by focusing on a handful of techniques, sacrificing breadth and finesse. Long-takeoff styles will often give you a bigger toolkit and more tactical options.

So far I’ve been mainly speaking of Asian martial arts. But there is a western martial arts tradition, too: boxing, wrestling, and various weapons arts centered on European medieval and Renaissance swordsmanship. Do not discount these as potentially interesting styles; they are increasingly cross-pollinating with Asian arts in interesting ways. Mixed Martial Arts combines Western boxing with Asian grappling. I train at a school of Western sword that combines Western historical sources with Asian-derived hand-to-hand and awards Asian-style belts. This sort of thing may be available to you; all the same considerations in choosing a school apply.

Now I’ll get into some areas of controversy. All schools insist that their practice is safe, and generally speaking this is true – serious injuries are very rare. But there is an unavoidable opposition between complete safety and learning to be combat-effective. I expressed one aspect of this when I noted that some schools won’t routinely spar to contact or do actual throws, and recommended they be avoided.

A related controvery is over how much safety equipment should be worn when you spar in a striking art. The advantage of wearing a lot of padding is that you’ll probably never get a bruise, and it makes the dojo’s insurance company happy. I, on the other hand, consider the right amount to be very little – maybe a groin cup, maybe a mouthpiece, maybe light gloves, but I frown on body or head padding – because I think that if I don’t at least occasionally take or give a hit that hurts, I’m not actually learning anything but dancing. And neither is my partner.

I think (and I’m speaking as a fairly experienced instructor, here) that this applies even to white belts. Good force control – delivering exactly the power you want to to exactly the place you want – is something you should be learning from the beginning. Taking hits and throws, and learning to tell pain that’s just pain from pain that means you have taken damage and should stop doing that, is also something you should be learning from the beginning. I think sparring ‘bare’ or with minimal protective gear promotes both objectives. But plenty of people disagree with me on this – though I also suspect that for many the ‘disagreement’ is largely a pretense that’s a form of appeasement to the liability insurers.

If you choose a striking art, one of the things you need to decide – and choose your school for – is whether you’re willing to take a few lumps to actually learn how to fight. If so, you’re closer to my philosophy and are going to want to find a school that goes light on the padding, or is at least willing to look the other way when more advanced students spar without it. If you’re not willing to take lumps, schools that will pad you up enough that you can barely move lurk in every other strip mall.

There is controversy of a completely different kind about martial arts “traditions”. I’m not going to get into all of the complicated reasons that martial arts erect elabrate mythologies around their own history, but I will say this: if a school you’re evaluating makes a big deal about being the One True and Only Traditional Lineage of the Foo Bar Style…ignore that. You might want to even give the school minus in your evaluation points for trying to flimflam you; you’ll be right about that far more often than you’ll be wrong.

A note about chain and franchise schools. They’re not all bad – I’m considering one now – but you’ll generally get better instruction at a standalone school where the founding master is in residence.

Finally: the days when having a round-eye as an instructor in an Asian art automatically meant you were getting second-best were already nearing their end when I first dipped my toe in these waters, thirty years ago. By the time I started steady training in 1990 those days had ended. Today many “Asian” arts are in better shape here in the U.S., with more students and more capable instructors, than they are in their home countries. (I have seen evidence for this first-hand in Asia – I think it’s related to the larger size of the U.S. market and the higher average wealth level here, which means we can support more specialists than they can.)

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of junk out there, but your instructor’s ethicity no longer correlates with junkiness in any significant way. That’s one less thing to worry about when you’re evaluating a school.

UPDATE: Some worthwhile suggestions for women.

71 thoughts on “How To Choose A Martial-Arts School

  1. That’s a fair overview.

    (my preference is judo as I find it a tremendous amount of fun)

  2. When I was a kid, My mom took me(and my sister) at the judo school. From what You said, it should have been an ideal choice to me(I like to use other’s move than being directly aggressive, & I like being close to my opponent – event when playing Worms, I usually crawl to him to throw him in the water instead of using noisy & unelegant guns…..).

    Yet, I sucked, & finally gave up, for a completely unrelated reason : I was allergic to the carpets, especially dust that was inside. I ended up playing Ice hockey, as there is no allergic component in water ice….. I liked a lot. That’s not a combat art per se, yet you learn to defend yourself & not fear violent contact(rule number one of ice hockey : when comes time to checking, the one who fears will lose & feel pain. The other will win & feel the pleasure of controlling the puck).

    So, environment is important, more than a matter of smell. You have to feel well in the room. I did learn much more in ice hockey because I felt WELL on the ice, and ILL in the dojo. Not because judo was unadapted, or teacher was bad(teacher was excellent, and judo suits my style)

  3. Some minor additions, if I may:

    If you are a woman and at all interested in combat (as opposed to just sport or do), avoid schools that offer separate classes for women. The *vast* majority of times that one will need to apply martial skill in the real world, it will be against men. Not training for that, or insisting that one can train for that with a 5’2″ lady, is moronic yet common. Furthermore, segregating the sexes in a martial arts school indicates that either the instructors are not comfortable enough regarding body contact with female students to teach the whole curriculum the way it should be taught, or the school is so afraid of losing the subset of women uncomfortable training with men that they are willing to play along with the farce that violence (which is what we are training to deal with) is ever fair or neat.

    If you have a child, try to study the same art at the same school, at least at first. Bonus points if the school has family classes where parents and children can train together. Not only does this allow you to better help your child with his or her practice at home, but more importantly you’ll come to know one another’s habits and capabilities very well. In a real self-defense scenario, that can be invaluable.

    Also pay attention to how much and what kind of conditioning the school does. My personal comfort level is that bare contact (including very hard bare contact) is awesome and necessary, but I have no intention of beating my hands against a hard surface (like improperly constructed makiwara I have seen) until I can no longer easily pick up and work with seed beads or do other very touch-dependent fine motor activities.

  4. I wish my son and husband still went to their excellent shotokan school in cupertino. (And he had a spectacular shodoo teacher, too… ). But no, we moved. I hoped to do T’ai chi, due to my love of the Tao te Ching — there is a place near there that does combat-oriented T’ai chi, not old people exercise T’ai chi. ;) I have basically no hope of finding a place like that anywhere else, I think. I wonder if I can find a decent Aikido school here. That would probably be best for me, and after 3 kids, my core is very, very, very weak. :(

  5. I thought it would be interesting to see what martial arts you would recommend, Eric, since I knew you were interested in the combat aspect and bladed weapons. Having lived in the southern Philippines for quite a while, I had the opportunity to study Escrima for a couple years in a local school that had a strong interest in preserving its cultural aspect (In some ways, learning a martial art outside of its culture is like meat without sauce, you get what you need but may miss some of the real flavor). That meant that sticks were just for training and the focus was on learning to survive a fight with bladed weapons, from traditional Filipino swords to small knives, and improvise with practically anything, like car keys. I was glad to see it made your list :)

  6. (my preference is judo as I find it a tremendous amount of fun)

    Fun as in ‘?’? I’m always looking for ?, but not ?, well, maybe if the style is looking for it, but not real ? since the insurers would probably frown upon it (not to mention the cops.) Definitely not looking for ? (Eric mentioned something about paying attention to the smell.) It would be interesting to find ?, but, Eric certainly wasn’t referring to that kind of fun (unless drama schools teach martial arts…)

    Links for definitions:
    ?: http://kanjidict.stc.cx/4A2C
    ?: http://kanjidict.stc.cx/5166
    ?: http://kanjidict.stc.cx/4A31
    ?: http://kanjidict.stc.cx/4A35
    (How is it “fun”? … look way over to the right of the page.)

  7. Hopefully ibiblio didn’t just actually eat up my kanji and spit out question marks… But, anyone who’s really interested should have no trouble piecing it together from the links (well, not much more trouble than they would have had if it worked write in the first place.)

  8. This whole series is timely because I’m going to be trying out Krav Maga on Friday.

    I’ve noticed my balance and coordination has been falling off a bit lately. The muscle memory that I still had from doing TKD ten years ago seems to have suddenly disappeared. I blame the CrossFit I’ve been doing for the past few months: I’ve put on a bunch of new muscle mass, and now I need to relearn how to use it. So, time to get back on the mat.

    Here’s the place I’ll be checking out: http://bmdacademy.com/

  9. That is fantastically more detailed than I expected when I inquired. Woot.

    Less wootable: A brief web search of my surrounding area reveals pretty much nothing but karate and TKD. Not that I have anything against them, just not much in the way of options, and if TKD is as inhospitable to the physically inflexible as I’ve heard, none at all. There’s a couple places further away doing Wing Chun and Hapkido, but crippling traffic around here probably rules them out. Oh well, I’ll make do.

    I stand more or less where you do on the combat/sport/do continuum; I’m curious where those fit on it. (or any others, for that matter, is there a list?)

    (I’m also curious, on an entirely off-topic note, whether you’d have similar recommendations for aspiring music players; another interest I intend to take on as soon as budget allows it, and that I understand you share.)

  10. Thanks, that’s good info. I’m no martial artist, but I have studied some judo and TKD (in that order, which IMO is better than the other way – off topic but Eric I suspect that the subject of what order in which to study multiple arts would be an interesting subject) and have thought about training again. This helps.

    My priorities are in descending order practicality (combat skills), self-improvement (fitness, discipline, self-mastery) and sport. That last one not at all.

    I’m not small or weak (6′ 200lbs) but not huge or powerful either. I haven’t been in many fights, but I find that I instinctively close to bad-breath range. I’m proportionally stronger in my legs (even more so than average). You might think judo would be ideal, but I find it isn’t sufficiently aggressive for my tastes. Any suggestions?

    BTW, the aikido fan who suggested that *everyone* could benefit from learning to fall was on to something. The single most useful thing to date that I’ve taken from my martial arts experience is learning to fall, which is the first thing they teach you in judo (obsessively, it’s important). I fall well, which has saved me from injury more times than I can count particularly in some severe icy New England winters in the late 90′s.

  11. I’m not going to get into all of the complicated reasons that martial arts erect elabrate mythologies around their own history

    Actually, I’d be quite interested in reading that post.

  12. >if TKD is as inhospitable to the physically inflexible as I’ve heard, none at all.

    It’s not an easy style if you have range-of-motion issues, but I earned a black belt in it. So: hard work, but possible.

    Also, TKD varies a lot. Low-end TKD schools are the pits, but a good one (like mine) teaches a really solid striking style with a fairly wide range of techniques – not as wide as Shaolin or some other Chinese systems, but a decent toolkit.

  13. If it’s a close-contact grappling style you’re after, choose the school with the cuddliest women.

    If it’s a full-contact sparring style you’re after, choose the school with the most pinkos.

  14. Serious question : Has there been an identifiable martial arts renaissance since the mid 20th century? I would argue that there has not…the closest argument counter to that might be the emergence of MMA, but I don’t consider that a renaissance…more a ‘rehashing’

  15. btw – I specifically mentioned “mid 20th century” because of the various inventions that occurred during the WW2 era, prior to which I am not sufficiently historically knowledgeable to be a good judge.

  16. >Serious question : Has there been an identifiable martial arts renaissance since the mid 20th century?

    At least one renaissance is going on right now, in western martial arts. There are a hell of a lot more decent swordsmen around than there were fifteen years ago.

  17. >If it’s a close-contact grappling style you’re after, choose the school with the cuddliest women.

    No, I’ve been in grappling practice with women who turned me on, and I didn’t like it. Too distracting. Too difficult to think about what I was actually there for.

    But there can be more uncomfortable variations on this theme. At one school I was occasionally partnered for grappling practice with a woman who I think was a minimal-brain-damage case. Rather dimwitted, legally blind, and a few more subtle deficits – including an inability to suppress or mask strong sexual arousal when she grappled with me. This would have been easier to ignore if she had been ugly or unpleasant, but she was sweet-natured and pretty; I liked her quite independently of the fact that she was kinesically yelling “take me you big strong male” at me whenever we were on the mat (and no, I don’t think she was aware she was doing this – the signals were involuntary or semi-involuntary stuff like pupilary dilation and chest flush and scent cues).

    It required quite a lot of self-control on my part not to respond – I had to remind myself constantly that giving her what she wanted could not even possibly end well. Most of the time I enjoy being attractive to women, but that particular kind of experience I do not ever want to have again.

  18. Eric,

    Very good and comprehensive overview of key factors in choosing a school. Kudos!

    If I may suggest one additional factor — the direct portability of your training to other schools when vacationing, traveling for business or just moving. I don’t mean whether the stuff you are learning is helpful at your next school (it certainly will be), but whether your current skill set and rank mean anything at your new school. Some martial arts (Judo and BJJ to my knowledge, surely others I’m not as familiar with) are fairly homogeneous in practice and you can go to any school, introduce yourself to the instructor and take a class as the rank you are at home. You’ll be expected to live up to that, of course, but that’s pretty fair, I think. Other arts have various associations with serious political differences that would prohibit your being able to train as a guest at another, non-affiliated school. TKD had this issue for me. I was fine as long as I was at a related school, but otherwise, I was out of luck.

    If you don’t travel for work, this probably is no big deal. However, being relocated a couple of times and spending a lot of time on the road has made this an interesting factor for me.

  19. >TKD had this issue for me. I was fine as long as I was at a related school, but otherwise, I was out of luck.

    Yeah, there’s a whole lot of variation, political and otherwise, in TKD. By the time I got my black belt (at the Dragon Gym up in Exton) I was beginning to understand how different the TKD I was studying was from the Korean version or what you’ll find at many American dojangs.

    I think the incident that really brought it home was when the Korean national TKD demo team came in and did their road show (this would have been sometime around 1996-1998, I think). Lotta high-kicking and board-breaking, but I noticed two things. The minor one was that their breaking boards looked like tissue paper – not the inch-thick white pine I was used to but a quarter-inch of something that seemed softer. The Koreans weren’t pushing any power by my school’s standards. Our kids broke harder than that.

    (Not long afterwards I read in some martial-arts rag that American TKD students are on average significantly larger and stronger than their Korean counterparts, and that this has influenced the evolution of the style in the U.S. What I’d seen began to make sense. By Korean standards, pretty much everyone in the U.S. does freight-train karate.)

    The major one was that it was all feet. No hand strikes at all – and that really startled me. We were taught to fight hands and feet both, but the Koreans didn’t even do a proper guard with their hands. I had not really understood before how kicking-centric old-school Korean karate is; with my spastic legs I couldn’t have hacked it at all. Seems I had the good luck to land in a school well off even the American median where use of punches is concerned.

  20. Great post – much good info.

    I think the best single point is: You certainly want to see students smiling as they leave – it should be a positive experience.

    I have a few comments using (you guessed it) Wing Chun… shining a light from a different direction, so to speak.

    Do you like to fight at range or close in?

    Wing Chun is very close in and many people seeing this think it odd and dangerous. But while you quickly become accustomed to it, attackers may find it not what they are expecting or have trained for – this is good for you.

    If it’s a striking art, do the students spar to contact

    My school is… zero contact but, for the chain of punches at the end of almost every defence, the attacker would put up a palm near their face for the defender to light-contact punch – you do get the depth experience. I basically agree with what you say about contact in combative arts, but Wing Chun should work for a light 15 year old girl defending against a big man – it you get solidly hit, you lose. If you can react to the attack as he is moving in, you should be able to get a defence up and then start doing interrupts until you can do real damage as I have described (ad nauseam) before. Either way, the fight is probably over in 10 seconds. (Then “Run Away! Run Away!”)

    Yet another important variable (especially if your focus is combative) is how long it takes to achieve practical combat proficiency in the style…. the short-takeoff styles also top out sooner

    Wing Chun does “top out sooner” because it is a fairly small art – there are way fewer things to learn than the opposite end – Shao Lin (all 5 animals). But like playing the piano, physically there isn’t much to it, but you can keep getting better for a long, long time. One beauty of Wing Chun is that, particularly in the early days, including the first day, you learn a couple of new defences in most classes and walk out feeling like you are better than when you walked in – it is a blast.

  21. @ Wineslayer

    Various schools/traditions/organizations of karate are organized enough that they would be transportable. I don’t know much about it, but Shotokan would be an example.

    I personally don’t care for karate – it is “slow take-off”. Part of it is just my personal opinion – it is a “hard” (vs. “soft”) art – they tend to be power against power. If you are powerful, this could be good, of course.

    The more traditional the school, the more Japanese it tends to be – shouted orders and higher ranks sometime pick on the lower ranks – it is part of the perks of rank.

    There are all the stories of karate guys getting the shit kicked out of them by actual tough guys in bars, but I imagine that this is partly just because Karate has been around in the West a long time so there are a lot of Karate guys and Karate stories.

    To try to drag this back to the matter at hand, I think you would find some forms of Karate very transportable – more than any other art (because of the tournament aspect, primarily, I think).

  22. “There are all the stories of karate guys getting the shit kicked out of them by actual tough guys in bars, but I imagine that this is partly just because Karate has been around in the West a long time so there are a lot of Karate guys and Karate stories.”

    No, the stories are true. There’s a huge difference between sparring in the dojo and actual brawls. I’ve broken up fights where the men involved were landing unbelievably hard blows on each other, yet they kept right on fighting. Cops told me stories of some who took multiple hard shots from a nightstick, then needed six more cops to subdue them.

    These guys will kick your ass. If you possibly can, “Run away! Run away!”.

  23. ESR, are you planning on writing anything on Libertarian / Anarco-Capitalist / Free Market any time soon?

    Also thank you for this post, *very* useful information.

  24. re: Karate guys in REAL fights

    No, the stories are true.

    I have long suspected that this was the case, but I wanted to give Karate the benefit of the doubt and see if I got a response like yours.

    Karate is too hung up on tournaments, ranks and “Karate Spirit” – I heard of a grading from one of the guys being graded in which a very high level guy came into town to either conduct or watch over it. The actual grading consisted of everyone (multiple levels) running up and down a long steep hill over and over – nothing to do with the martial art at all – it was the spirit – the willingness to suffer to fit in that was being graded – this was all very Japanese in cultural style.

    I have made comments about Japanese-ness a number of times. I have nothing against Japanese people – they just have a culture that is VERY different than the West, contrary to the opinion one cam form if you visit. Their culture is based on EVERYONE fitting in somewhere (ex. the gangsters operate some of the extortion industries) – it is an exception to ESR’s observation that special interest groups capture the ministry; in Japan, the ministries capture any special interest that is too strong to ignore or stomp – it is they who say things like “We are one people in one country in one time zone in one culture” which isn’t actually true but that is their story. I certainly have nothing against them as a “race”, and as individual folks, they tend to be great, but the culture in Japan is…. very different, and this is reflected in Karate.

  25. >There’s a huge difference between sparring in the dojo and actual brawls.

    That is very true. The differences have been analyzed in depth in Rory Miller’s excellent book Meditations On Violence.

    Miller is both a skilled martial artist and a full-time practical violence specialist, working as a prison guard among other things. He explains – with extensive documentation – that martial artists often fail in coping with real-world violence for very specific reasons. One which will stand as an example is that martial-arts training usually fails to stress-inoculate students so that they can respond rather than freezing up in the first crucial quarter second of an attack, which in the real world is likely to come in faster and more brutally than a dojo trains for.

    Miller’s book is only a few years old, but it is already changing training methods. I have personally pushed it into two different schools; I think it should be required reading for all martial-arts instructors.

  26. re: Martial artists in REAL fights

    fights where the men involved were landing unbelievably hard blows on each other

    For someone like me to punch someone like you’ve described in the head would be… worthless isn’t the right word…. they wouldn’t even notice.

    It could help to punch up into the armpit or even better, the throat or do an eye jab. Perhaps they would notice a Bic pen driven up into the arm-pit… which would take a lot of luck. Most projected outcomes would have me out of the game when I took the first blow.

    My art is no good against guns and it isn’t really much better against REAL tough guys.

    The best bet for someone like me is to totally avoid those sorts of people and those sorts of bars. It has worked for me for decades. (Fortunately, I don’t do bars, so that helps.)

  27. I always tell girls that athletics is a woman’s self defense sport. The upside is that most actually like running, contrary to fighting. The downside is that it does not teach to recognize danger and spot escape routes.

    About the short/long term sports. Even if you are very good (10 times as good), your half life is around 5 life or death battles. The short term schools, Krav Maga and Systema, were developed for those send into battle. They needed to finish training before being taken out in action. The long term schools try to concentrate on reducing risk. Some, like Aikido and Judo hardly teach first strike or attack technics.

    About European styles. If you look carefully at the battles fought on ancient Greek marbles you might be surprised (eg in the Britisch museum).

  28. To be honest, what my art gives me more than anything else is a sort of peaceful confidence and… being able to be totally relaxed showing zero fear. It tends to confuse your basic punk, particularly the sort of young punk that would hassle someone like me – 50s, silver hair, but dressed all in black – something that I don’t really understand – it started once I got into kung fu, where black is the basic color… it just feels right to me for some reason…

    Robbery and mugging and crazed “goblins” have never been a real threat anywhere that I have lived. Young punks that would hassle a middle-aged guy like me lose their confidence when they sense that I peacefully have zero fear.

    Real tough guys – I can maybe do the peaceful zero fear thing as long as I am not a target. I just have to avoid drawing the wrong kind of attention to myself and never get into an actual fight with any of them. Best to just stay out of their way and out of their bars.

    But even with the REAL tough guys, what I can do (and have done a couple of times), maybe, hopefully, is sort of radiate peacefulness in a way that doesn’t seem like either a challenge or cowardice. Again (like them, in this case), I stand outside the normal hierarchy of society – I can be odd without (hopefully) becoming a target.

  29. >For someone like me to punch someone like you’ve described in the head would be… worthless isn’t the right word…. they wouldn’t even notice.

    They’d notice if I punched them, you betcha. The question is whether I would be able to enter the mental frame required to execute that punch before something seriously bad happened to me. Having fists like triphammers isn’t relevant if the punch never lands.

    The problem most martial artists have isn’t that their methods of applying force don’t work. It’s this: martial-arts training conditions people into expecting that violence will happen in relatively stereotyped ways, and when you have time to get mentally set for it. Real-world violence breaks both of those assumptions. Furthermore, most martial artists have not trained to fight when they’re so adrenalized that they start getting physical symptoms like tunnel vision.

    These are serious issues. I’ve paid more attention to them than probably 95% of martial artists, but I’m still far from sure I’ve integrated the right kind of challenges and mental preparation into my training. I do have some (successful) experience of coping with real-world violence, but not enough to feel super-confident.

    I will note that in one scenario discussed earlier in the thread (home invasion) scream and leap are the right tactics partly because in that situation you can seize the initiative and be the shocker rather than the shockee. The diciest thing to cope with isn’t that, it’s being attacked when you are in Cooper Condition White – not expecting it at all.

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  31. The diciest thing to cope with isn’t that, it’s being attacked when you are in Cooper Condition White – not expecting it at all.

    It’s interesting you bring this up, given Cooper’s claim that you can stay at yellow all the time. It sounds like you share my suspicion that that’s BS. Maybe Jeff Cooper’s lifestyle actually allowed it. But I highly doubt that I could manage to stay at yellow while, say, hunting down a segfault in a 2GB core dump.

  32. “The major one was that it was all feet. No hand strikes at all – and that really startled me. We were taught to fight hands and feet both, but the Koreans didn’t even do a proper guard with their hands. I had not really understood before how kicking-centric old-school Korean karate is.”

    That’s very useful information. I have strong legs and weak upper-body strength, so arts that are mostly about kicking are likely to let me do more damage. I think many guys wouldn’t even notice a punch that I threw.

  33. @ ESR

    They’d notice if I punched them, you betcha.

    I have taken the soft path that also works (in some scenarios) for 16 year old girls and old Chinese women. I have a real talent for wing chun while being physically lazy. I haven’t trained seriously for many years – I play with the techniques, the style, the mindset. The mindset helps me prevent fights from occurring (in some scenarios).

    Fortunately, I don’t travel as you do, I am not a public figure as you are and I live in a society that simply has less violence.

    You have put a great deal into the martial arts and have gotten a great deal from it – great physical and (I assume) psychological abilities.

    I have (mostly in the past) taken advantage of my talent and now I have the ability to… make punks not understand where I am coming from and make them want to move on. All things being equal, I can also deal peacefully with bikers – with some luck in a situation that is neutral to begin with.

  34. >It’s interesting you bring this up, given Cooper’s claim that you can stay at yellow all the time. It sounds like you share my suspicion that that’s BS. Maybe Jeff Cooper’s lifestyle actually allowed it. But I highly doubt that I could manage to stay at yellow while, say, hunting down a segfault in a 2GB core dump.

    Precisely. Sometimes I have to concentrate.

  35. >The problem most martial artists have isn’t that their methods of applying force don’t work. It’s this: martial-arts training conditions people into expecting that violence will happen in relatively stereotyped ways, and when you have time to get mentally set for it. Real-world violence breaks both of those assumptions. Furthermore, most martial artists have not trained to fight when they’re so adrenalized that they start getting physical symptoms like tunnel vision.

    EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT POINT!!!!

    May I recommend Geoff Thompson’s books on personal self protection as highly appropriate reading in this regard?

    I have trained a technique my instructors called a step-off punch. The mechanics of the punch aren’t as interesting as the situational context for its application. The idea is to hit an aggressor first, while their violence is in the potential, rather than kinetic stage. We could probably debate whether this is a good idea, given legal implications of starting a fight and what not. (I couldn’t suggest you should punch people that look like they might start trouble, but when an encounter escalates to the point that you are fearful for your or your family’s uninterrupted good health, there is just cause for self defense. It is not an attack that preempts a threat, but one that preempts the physical manifestation of that threat. I don’t believe there is a requirement that a bad guy hit and damage you before you are allowed to defend yourself.)

    This act of hitting the bad guy first is unbelievably hard to do in real life. We are, most decent humans, good guys and fundamentally think that is just wrong. We could want to, but would, in most circumstances, be frozen is some cognitive dissonance before the thug’s fist/knife/whatever helped us resolve our conflict and fight back. I have never done it and won’t represent otherwise. I would like to think I’m ready to in the right circumstances, but I won’t know until I know — and I hope I never know. I do, however, have the acquaintance of people that have trained in this way and have used that training to their great advantage.

    The idea is that you establish a “pre-shot routine”, to borrow a term from golf. In golf, before making a swing at the ball but after deciding what you want to do, you step to the ball, address the ball with the club, waggle or not, make a forward press or not, cock your head a little or not — in exactly the same way every single time. That routine takes away some of the focus on possible outcomes from the shot you are about to make and lets your body just do what it know how to do. This are similar analogs for all sorts of sporting activities — shooting, archery, free throws, etc.

    The way that I learned this was to ask a question — to use my mouth first instead of my adrenalized, twitching muscles (a bouncer friend told me his left leg used to twitch uncontrollably when violence seemed imminent). I would have already have had my hands up between the thug and me, palms out and arms as relaxed as I could make them. After the question, I step slightly toward my dominant hand to load that side, then explode with a stepping overhand to the bad guys jawline. The point of the question is to slow the reactions of the bad guy — make his brain click a couple of times as he’s trying to figure out what I’m asking and why (he doesn’t care, but processing the question is sort of automatic and he likely won’t be able to help it). It may also open his mouth if he starts to answer or react verbally, which can make him more susceptible to being knocked out.

    As a pre-shot routine, this is the same question every time – -practiced with a partner before exploding into a mitt held at face height. I practiced this over and over for a time and writing this reminds me I should refresh that from time to time. The idea is that you can’t decide to hit, but you can decide to talk, which starts a familiar process you CAN do, which includes hitting your enemy as hard as you can in the face.

    A bouncer I knew used the phrase “It’s going to be okay” as his trigger. A good friend was fond of “Why didn’t you call me?” I always like a simple “So, what time is it again?”

    This is designed to help a trained martial artist break the stereotypical response pattern rather than having it broken by the bad guy, to their surprise and chagrin.

  36. Some comments on an excellent thread…

    I notice a lot of people saying “karate” without paying attention to the distinctions as if all karate is the same. That is somewhat like saying “kung-fu” and not distinguishing between Shaolin and Wing Chun. There are a number of different styles of karate from hard linear power styles to flowing avoidance styles. I find they group into “Okinawan” and “Japanese” styles but there is also variation in those themes. The differences between e.g. Uechi-ryu, Shotokan and Ed Parker Kempo are *very* pronounced but they’re all called “karate”.

    As for karate being ineffective in real combat — one of the issues with any style of martial art is that you actually spend most of your time training to *not* hurt someone. (Your sparring partners stop dancing with you if they’re actually taking damage.) Another is that a lot of the techniques I’ve learned, at least, are about doing real damage up to death. These are not really appropriate techniques for a bar fight. Perhaps a “tough guy” has an advantage simply because they don’t care about how much damage they do. So, in a way I’ve trained quite a bit, but *not* for that kind of combat. (My style of karate is eclectic but boils down to an Okinawan hard style with strong emphasis on effectiveness.)

    On contact sparring — I’m not interested in a school that doesn’t do contact, and I prefer hard contact. You can learn very, very bad combat habits from too little little or no contact. A block has to be a BLOCK. If someone is really punching you a light block will do nothing. You don’t want to be on the bar room floor whining “but it always worked in dojo”. I don’t tend to go full contact because I want to train for a long time and I *don’t* want to damage my body (or anyone else), but a lot of observers have thought we were sparring full contact.

    And last, on practicality. While round-eye instructors are not a problem, one thing issue is that we’re pretty much past the point where anyone teaching has direct experience in combat situations (i.e. where choices are life and death). Yes, yes, my Sensei is an ex-Marine with 3 tours in ‘nam, but most of that training isn’t about bare-hands combat. I don’t bemoan that there are very few death fights anymore, but I do recognize the consequences.

  37. >I notice a lot of people saying “karate” without paying attention to the distinctions as if all karate is the same.

    That’s true. So let me clarify that when I say “karate” without qualification, I’m thinking of Japanese and Okinawan linear-power styles and their Korean derivatives…as opposed to (say) kenpo karate which was influenced by Fujienese kung fu and is softer, more redirective. These harder styles fit the images that non-martial-artists have in their minds when they think “karate”.

    >(My style of karate is eclectic but boils down to an Okinawan hard style with strong emphasis on effectiveness.)

    That’s the sort of thing I mean, yes. I have little doubt I would fit in well at your school.

    >A block has to be a BLOCK. If someone is really punching you a light block will do nothing.

    True, but with qualification. If you know how to do it properly, a redirective block can be “soft” but still effective against a hard blow. I’m not 100% at this myself, mainly because schools that teach soft blocks seldom do hard sparring and schools that do hard sparring seldom teach soft blocks; thus, I’ve had only limited opportunities to practice. But I’ve done it often enough to know it is possible.

  38. “Miller is both a skilled martial artist and a full-time practical violence specialist working as a prison guard among other things. He explains – with extensive documentation – that martial artists often fail in coping with real-world violence for very specific reasons. One which will stand as an example is that martial-arts training usually fails to stress-inoculate students so that they can respond rathe than freezing up in the first crucial quarter second of an attack, which in the rea world is likely to come in faster and more brutally than a dojo trains for.”

    There’s another factor that you all should be aware of. You do not train with, nor are you experienced enough, to deal with sociopaths. Their big advantage over you is mental; they don’t care what they do to you. They are dead, inside. Normal people don’t get this. It’s just one of the reasons it takes five years of full-time work to make a good cop.

    Most of the folks that get arrested are just stumblebums, but there are enough sociopaths out there to avoid all undesirables. Don’t go off confronting Vinnie Broken-nose or Joey Baseball-bat. The cops might find you in the trunk of a car next to Lenny ‘The Scumbag’ Baggiulo.

  39. I’ve written some very similar advice in a half-written (oh, who am I kidding; quarter-written) book on Wing Chun. Emphasis on already written, so when the book is published, the similarity doesn’t come from plagiarism.

    Also, because your advice is so close to what I wrote, allow me to say: Thumbs up! I completely agree!

  40. I would like to add (or repeat) that in Wing Chun, soft blocks don’t have to be “redirective” – they can be “interceptive” but with geometry such that the defender has good mechanical advantage (facing the point of contact) and the blow is intercepted at a point where it has practically no power – sorta like the blocks Kirk used against round punches in the first Star Trek series.

  41. Kirk didn’t face the point of contact (so he had less mechanical advantage) but geometry ensured that the blocks worked (with minimal strenght required).

  42. I think I should clarify on blocks: I did not intend to assert the superiority of “hard” over “soft” blocks. Though training in a hard style, I prefer soft blocks or maneuvering so that geometry renders a strike ineffective. Hard blocks HURT, can leave you with a spectacular set of bruises and a lot of gratitude that your bones are still intact. (THANK you Sensei for that lesson :-)

    That was actually my point. If you want to train to deal with committed, forceful attacks you need to occasionally train in that environment so you know how your techniques actually work, whether hard or soft or whatever.

    Tag and no-touch sparring can be fun and there *are* skills carryover and reasons to do them, but at best it leaves you ignorant of some domains and at worst it can give you dangerous misjudgements about yourself. My skills don’t fully carry over either — I hardly think I could just jump in and join a commando or be a prison guard (or even a bouncer), and I suck at tournament point sparring. I do think there is enough carry over that I’ll be able to keep myself safe in a number of situations, but that is mostly theoretical.

    Incidentally, one of my points of amusement when studying Aikido was that Aikido techniques tend to be *much* more effective with a committed attack and a lot of them work fairly poorly against a lackadaisical attack — rather the opposite of karate.

  43. They’d notice if I punched them, you betcha. The question is whether I would be able to enter the mental frame required to execute that punch before something seriously bad happened to me. Having fists like triphammers isn’t relevant if the punch never lands.

    I’m going to have to check out Miller’s book. (Not having read the book….) Thug/banger types tend to have the advantages of experience, training (practical, er hands-on) and knowing how to handle pain (part of their unfortunate experience). There are powerful social inhibitions against using real violence, and most people have them which is for the best. IMO the real advantage bad guys have is that they don’t have those social inhibitions- either they never had them (real sociopaths, who even gangsters find sick and revolting) or they’ve practiced for years to get rid of them.

    Good guys tend to hold back, hesitate… until something finally clicks inside when the reality of real danger sinks in. There’s even a trope that covers it in martial arts movies… see what happens before and after the good guy gets hit (always a little shot that makes their mouth or nose bleed a little) and tastes his own blood. So yeah that’s a problem.

    Of course it also helps to remember, that those thugs don’t wear giant ‘S’s on their chests. Each and every one of them can be, and has been before, beaten. And they may not care even a tiny bit about your life, but they (barring serious drugs, then all bets are off) care about their own quite a bit. And not one of them is bulletproof.

    Furthermore, most martial artists have not trained to fight when they’re so adrenalized that they start getting physical symptoms like tunnel vision.

    I’d be curious to hear more thoughts about this.

  44. Incidentally, one of my points of amusement when studying Aikido was that Aikido techniques tend to be *much* more effective with a committed attack and a lot of them work fairly poorly against a lackadaisical attack

    THAT is the essence of the “soft” way….

    In Aikido, if your opponent doesn’t give you some commitment in the form of momentum coming in at you…

    In Wing Chun, if your opponent doesn’t give you some commitment in the form of motion coming in on you….

    you just don’t have much to work with.

    In Steven Seagal movies, where his art is (based on?) Aikido, he says stuff like “OK big boy, show me what you got”… He has to get some real commitment from an attacker so he can deal with it with minimum effort/risk and maximum results.

    rather the opposite of karate

    …which is the essence of the “hard” way…. overcoming an attack by overpowering the attacker.

  45. @ESR

    Thinking about my last comment about the hard vs. soft way…

    As I have said, I have chosen a path that works, in some scenarios, for old Chinese women.

    I don’t see myself becoming Chinese and I have no immediate plans to become a woman, but I am expecting to get older… I am 53 and I gather that you are a couple of years older than I am.

    They’d notice if I punched them, you betcha. … Having fists like triphammers…

    You are clearly comfortable about taking advantage of your extraordinary upper body strength. That is good… hell, great, when combined with your skills and experience.

    I find that my strength and muscles are in good shape, but as I get older, it is my tendons and joints that feel it…

    I had initially thrown my vote in for you to go for Mr. Stuart’s F.I.G.H.T outfit, and that may still be a good option for a while.

    But, it occurred to me that maybe now is the time to at least think about mellowing out a little and pursuing the Shao Lin path…
    - slow-takeoff doesn’t matter in your case
    - it is a big art – practically never run out of stuff to learn
    - you will love the art physically and spiritually
    - it will carry you further as you (and your joints) age.

  46. > I am 53 and I gather that you are a couple of years older than I am.

    54. And I have a continuing low-grade worry that I’m going to start having joint issues and losing muscle mass, but it’s not happening yet. Can still power up with the 20- and 30-year olds, thank Goddess, and it looks like I may keep that for a while yet. Genetic luck – the males in my mother’s family are notable for remaining hale into extreme old age. A few years ago one of her brothers became a U.S. senior pole-vaulting champion in his 70s.

  47. Can still power up with the 20- and 30-year olds…. A few years ago one of her [your mother's] brothers became a U.S. senior pole-vaulting champion in his 70s.

    That is great for you and… extraordinary for your uncle.

    Well… F.I.G.H.T. seems to be fast-take-off and small… you could probably take what it has to offer in a year or two – or more if you like doing it.

    I just have this theory that the Shao Lin path is where you will want to end up when it is time to slow down… although maybe only if you can negotiate not doing the higher kicks. Hell, you have nothing to prove – I imagine that you don’t even really care about grading so long as you can continue to learn. It would be good to be a senior by the time you are an elder, so to speak.

    Have you made progress with your trilemma?

  48. >Well… F.I.G.H.T. seems to be fast-take-off and small… you could probably take what it has to offer in a year or two – or more if you like doing it.

    Yes, F.I.G.H.T. now and Shaolin later is an option Cathy and I are considering, and I think the most likely one at this point. But we’re still investigating alternatives because the process is interesting and something might surprise us. We’re going to visit a Systema class and audit Tang Soo Do at Iron Circle, at least.

    >I just have this theory that the Shao Lin path is where you will want to end up when it is time to slow down…

    This seems not unlikely.

    >I imagine that you don’t even really care about grading so long as you can continue to learn.

    That’s right. Really my only reason for collecting black belts at this point is that I enjoy teaching and a lot of people want you to be able to show one before they’ll take you seriously.

  49. >I’d be interested in the assembled experts’ responses to http://io9.com/5918644/swordfighting-not-what-you-think-it-is

    Spot-on, I’d say. John Clements (the author) has been one of the key figures in the Western Martial Arts revival of the last decade. He teaches a sword art pretty similar to what I’ve been training in since 2005. (Mine has southern Italian roots; his is more from German sources.)

  50. An observation from a limited perspective if I may and a question for esr:

    The whole “karate in a bar fight” thing is an example of training at cross purposes, I think. A bar brawler (or more generally, a “street combatant” – what Rory Miller refers to as a Thug) “trains” to inflict pain and physical damage on an opponent in a social combat environment, whether that be an actual bar or a casual game of Knock Out on some non-descript city street. I’m confident any MA student reading this will confirm that that is precisely the training behavior virtually any commercial MA school in the US (and the two Asian schools of my personal experience also) will prohibit and that persistently doing such behavior during class will get a student permanently dismissed from training.

    Two different objects of instruction – that don’t interact very successfully for one of them. It isn’t so much that “Karate” doesn’t work in a bar fight, as it is that karate schools don’t train students in a bar brawl environment or to those specific standards of combat success (both being very hard on the liability insurance and student retention rates you see). It is true, you fight as you train. This should factor into a potential students decision tree of school selection too, I think.

    @esr:

    I don’t follow the modern sword fighting scene very closely (don’t actively train at all), but I am aware there has been a relatively recent change in thinking regarding European sword training (and I would expect as a result, actual combat as well) schools vs Asian schools. My impression is that this largely relates to how the sword is involved in physical combat more generally – not just with other weapons, but the “unarmed” hand and foot fighting techniques as well (apparently the Italians were quite the innovators in the late 15th and 16th cent when it came to individual sword combat – aka: dueling). I’m wondering if you’ve had opportunity to think about how this basic training approach (call it the “combined arms achool” as opposed to the weapon, or weaponless, specialty school of thought) would apply to somewhat more modern weapons and combat equipment?

    Stipulated that there is a specific “gun-do” (Jeff Cooper, IDPA, etc), what do you think the syllabus of a school that taught some sort of self-referentially re-inforceing mash-up of all the western fighting schools might look like? One that involved fists and feet and reach-extension weapons from the stick to firearms, as well as modern body armor to “less lethal” weapons, and taught how to fight with each in a combined arms fashion. {I recognise this is the common conception of the Krav Maga “claim to fame” as it were, but no KM school I’m aware of teaches from this basic premise in the normal course of scheduled classes using actual weapons other than – perhaps – the IDF internal training, and I’m sceptical there; no time for something this extensive during recruit training nor a likely-seeming mission need even for special forces types – if there were such a need, they’d already be training for it}.

    If the liability and funding issues could be resolved, I think I’d have to seriously consider moving to within easy commute range of that school. An 18 to 24 month course of instruction (say, 3 days a week average) ought to provide a viable level of individual training, and mastering the variety of physical sciences that contribute to the technical processes could well take decades, not to mention the philosophical (dare I say mystical?) aspects.

  51. “54. And I have a continuing low-grade worry that I’m going to start having joint issues and losing muscle mass, but it’s not happening yet. Can still power up with the 20- and 30-year olds…”

    Not that I love hanging crepe…but the next time you are near a kiddie amusement park, go in and play a round of Whack-a-Mole. Some time after I hit the big five-oh, we took some kids to one of those, and damn if I couldn’t whack the mole more than once or twice. First it was the small print, then the reflexes, then the memory…I forget what came next.

  52. >I am aware there has been a relatively recent change in thinking regarding European sword training

    What happened is that a couple of decades ago John Clements and a few other people started studying the medieval and Renaissance European sources on combat training (what are now often called “fechtbooks”, even when they’re not written in German) seriously. And it turns out that if you read fechtbooks analytically and pay attention to the illustrations as well there’s a whole hell of a lot of information there – much more than we have on any Asian art from before the early 20th century.

    Years of patient experimentation and reconstruction work (often by people with prior background in Asian sword and empty hand) led to the development of replicable training methods. Clements published two books in the late 1990s that were very influential, and may have been responsible for the popularization of the umbrella term “Western Martial Arts”. Sword schools started to pop up everywhere in the early 2000s. I became aware of what was going on around 2003 and began training in 2005.

    >My impression is that this largely relates to how the sword is involved in physical combat more generally – not just with other weapons, but the “unarmed” hand and foot fighting techniques as well

    One of the things that you get from the fechtbooks is that they didn’t teach swordfighting in isolation, but as part of total combat systems that included empty-hand striking and kicking, grappling, and other weapons as appropriate. Many of the new schools (including mine) took this to heart and teach a very broad range of techniques. They have taught me to fight with sword and shield, short blades, single sword, bastard sword, sword and main-gauche – and there are a couple more techniques (symmetrical two-sword, zweihander, and spear) I haven’t gained proficiency at yet. All are integrated with empty-hand and grappling.

    >I’m wondering if you’ve had opportunity to think about how this basic training approach (call it the “combined arms achool” as opposed to the weapon, or weaponless, specialty school of thought) would apply to somewhat more modern weapons and combat equipment?

    What you’re talking about is basically the way that A-list militaries train special-operations troops. Actually, in the U.S. and Israel and a few other countries, a fairly large percentage of line troops now get more than a taste of this – it’s a consequence of all-volunteer militaries, you can’t normally train conscripts to this level because they’re not motivated enough. My first sword teacher was forner SpecOps. It showed.

  53. What you’re talking about is basically the way that A-list militaries train special-operations troops. Actually, in the U.S. and Israel and a few other countries, a fairly large percentage of line troops now get more than a taste of this …

    So how do you (or do you?) see this as possibly transitioning to a civilian market-based school?

    My first sword teacher was forner SpecOps. It showed

    My step-son is current spec-ops (US Army); next family get-together I’ll have to ply him with drink and mine his mind as it were. :)

  54. >So how do you (or do you?) see this as possibly transitioning to a civilian market-based school?

    I don’t know. But I’d sign up for it in a heartbeat.

  55. @esr

    Many of the new schools (including mine) took this to heart and teach a very broad range of techniques. They have taught me to fight with sword and shield, short blades, single sword, bastard sword, sword and main-gauche – and there are a couple more techniques (symmetrical two-sword, zweihander, and spear) I haven’t gained proficiency at yet. All are integrated with empty-hand and grappling.

    My first sword teacher was forner SpecOps. It showed.

    Mmm…how well do these guys do against top end SCAdians in straight up sword and board? Many top SCAdians I knew also did martial arts in some form.

  56. >Mmm…how well do these guys do against top end SCAdians in straight up sword and board? Many top SCAdians I knew also did martial arts in some form.

    I’ve fought SCA heavy weapons myself. Our technique is rather more sophisticated, but not designed for fighting hardsuit. Fighting hardsuit the weapon is essentially a club – not really bladed, and you can’t thrust for effect.

    I wasn’t ever ‘top end’ in SCA. I’m a strong intermediate-level student in the Polaris/Aegis form, able to fight with senior students and instructors on near-equal terms and win a respectable percentage of the time. If my experience is typical, we train people to a higher level of capability and with a much broader range of weapons than SCA typically does.

    This is not to say that I myself could take on a knight sword and board and win – the SCA’s elite is pretty good. But my instructors would fight on equal or better terms with the knights I’ve seen, and I could name three in particular who would take an elite knight without much difficulty. I discussed this with Ken Burnside (a swordsman himself, with exposure to my style and more knowledge of recent SCA fighting than I have) and he concurs. He correctly notes that we fight faster than SCA knights are trained to. And more aggressively – his conclusion without prompting echoed mine, which is that any of our best would be fairly likely to score a kill on the knight before he got up to speed.

    Choice of style changes the odds. I could not best an elite knight with his weapons, but I might be able to using sword and main gauche or two-hand sword. Maybe. (I’m not super-optimistic, but Ken says he thinks I’m underestimating myself.) If both of us were limited to short blades, I’d probably gut the knight like a fish – but that has less to do with Aegis/Polaris training per se than the fact that SCA doesn’t train for infighting while I’m particularly good at it. Our average student couldn’t do that, but would at least put up a creditable fight with single sword.

  57. If anyone’s interested in studying the swordstyle Eric is learning, speak up. We’re not limited to S.E. Michigan anymore. We have schools in Eastern Iowa (mine) and the Indianapolis area.

  58. >If anyone’s interested in studying the swordstyle Eric is learning, speak up.

    As a result of some messy political/personal stuff, the school that I learned my basics blew apart in 2008; today’s Aegis and the Polaris Fellowship of Weapons Study are the fission fragments. Most of the instructors I learned from are now with the Polaris Fellowship of Weapons Study; David Campbell is with Aegis. The styles are extremely similar, and there are a few people who train with both groups.

    (Dave, in case you’ve wondered, the main reason you guys don’t see me any more is that Aegis has a habit of announcing its summer intensive after Cathy has made plans around Polaris’s. The time or two that there wasn’t one at all didn’t help.)

    The styles are diverging, but very slowly. Polaris is trying to incorporate German longsword technique over the Sicilan cut-and-thrust base – I’ve been having fun with that, as the weapon is a good match for my build and combat psychology. Dave, what’s new Aegis doing that I haven’t seen?

  59. >Eric: Take a look at the school Calendar.

    Boxing and Arnis, eh? Never seen it spelled with a final ‘e’ before.

    I don’t think you were there the year I taught basic arnis/escrima forms to a bunch of the Upper Specialties students, probably either 2006 or 2007. Teaching swordsmen that stuff was fun – they already knew how to move and strike, so they picked up the technique really quickly.

  60. Pingback: The right to bear arms | ITSOGS

  61. lol. If they’re working hard enough, the gym should smell disgusting post-practice.

  62. What if one is an old guy? I am in my early sixties, skinny, and out of shape. I am thinking of looking into Bartitsu, as they have techniques for an old guy and his walking stick.

  63. I have dabbled in more martial arts than Id like to admit in my 30 year career, so if I may make 2 suggestions only as starting points in choosing a school, take it for what it is worth.

    #1-Do not choose a teacher because he is the best at fighting or best at his art. Choose a teacher who you feel you can develop a re-pore with, and that means someone you would look forward to seeing “every single day” even if you won’t go that often. In the book called Mastery, genius is shown to have good mentors or teachers. The best mentors are not the best in their field always,but best at knowing or meshing well with YOUR needs and is supportive.(Some are supportive with “tough love”) Choosing a mentor or teacher should be done with more care than choosing a lover or business partner if you are thsat serious about Martial Arts. Also, feel free to try 2 or 3 different schools trial classes out, while you are going to the first one. How else will you know if your teacher is the great fit you think he is. Rule #44-If you have any doubt…there is no doubt. Find another teacher. Soon! Nobody in your area? Move!

    #2-If self defense and fighting skills are your main reason for joining the school, ask yourself, “Could I handle myself against someone who has boxed with experienced fighters for 2 years” after I am in this school for a similar amount of time?” Why is this question important…Most martial artists over 40 have seen and heard all the verifying evidence that whenever a boxer has taken on a martial artist from a kick/ punch art, the boxer won 90% of the time. Oh”But thats only in the ring you say.” So tell me..who would you rather have to deal with, Roy Jones or Evander Holyfields sparring partner, or an unknown guy with a black-belt in “something you cant pronounce”? Me..if I am in a bar being hassled by 3 burly drunks and I can have my friend who has knocked out the last 3 guys that messed with him in or out of a ring, or my Karate Black belt friend Ive never seen fight, Im going with my buddy the boxer almost every time. (Just try to get him on the ground!) *** They say most fights end up on the ground. That may be true…except if you are really good at ending fights quick,. Besides, I don’t want to train in any style that “only” fights on the ground. What if your attacker has friends? You are dead meat. That said many of the juitsu styles are very good for self defense. Again…look at the teacher and ask if he could probably beat a boxer or even some guy just out of prison with a weapon in his pocket. Could any of his students beat a good ring boxer? In case none of you know this, a good ring boxer could be in grappling,trapping and throwing range when the butt head who starts with him at the bar mouths off. But most times that boxer can still deliver an uppercut to the belly button that will drop his potential attacker right to the ground like folded up carpeting. End of fight… whether his opponent does Karate, Judo, Aikido, TKD, stick fighting, Ninjutsu or knitting. In fact,there are a very few boxing trainers that can teach self defense but they are a dying breed and almost impossible to find. I’m not saying to be a boxer, I just wish I took the opportunity when I was younger to train for a bit in that basic but manly art. Because if you cant hit hard or fast, its going to get known very fast in a boxing gym. In some Martial Arts schools, no one even knows how good the teacher or highest ranking student even is because they never spar or show what theyve got. That’s another thing…stay away from any school where all the students look like beginners and the teacher is always sitting down and never doing anything but barking out commands.

    Boxers are simply good gauges to use as a starting point. And BTW…..it wouldnt be a bad idea to take 6 months of boxing before or while taking any other martial art to make sure that when you hit some 220 pound drunk, he ‘will” feel it. And FYI…. a boxers punch has been measured against a Karate Mans punch many times in controlled documented tests, and over 85% of seasoned boxers have more punching power than Karate or TKD men with the same time in. Of course there are many exceptions.This is just a starting point! If you want to throw people around like Steven Seagal, and think you have a good school who can help you make that a reality, then go for Aikido or a throwing art. Just remember, guys like Seagal got that way from devoting their lives for 10 yrs in a dojo. A boxer who can knock you out can get that way in just 1 or 2 years. My choice for self defense???…..A Combat Art. Nothing traditional. One reason is they only focus on getting you home safely,not dueling or toe to toe Hollywood stuff. so if you are going up against a boxer(or any fighter) who would tear you to pieces, a good school will teach you how to make a quick exit or not let a guy like that get close enough to hurt you to begin with.Leave an email for me if you need any help with your decision. Good luck all! And for those who want to get involved in Martial arts for the spiritual aspect of it and you have much time to develop your self defense skills, ignore all Ive just said…but you still must find the right teacher as your #1 priority.

  64. LS, you are only 54. Don’t worry. Wait till you hit 55 like me and you really start to fall apart. Dont worry, age, wisdom and treachery, will always beat youth, speed and strength. -) But seriously, when I hit 55, after the shock wore off after a couple of months, I realized I had to use the one advantage I felt I could have over those Martial Artists who are younger. And that is, to have the mind set that every class has to count. No class can be missed. The mind must be honed to a point where even a Japanese Samurai, even a 25 year old black belt would be impressed. Then we will prevail. Key word now goes from “‘winning” which is young mans mind-set to “prevailing” which I think shows more seasoning and wisdom.

  65. Thank you for your post. I am at this spot with my children right now. One of mine has been in Okinawan Karate for a few years. We moved a couple of years back and did not find a local school in the same style, so we have been driving 40 minutes to take him to the classes. The issue is that I don’t think he is getting enough going only once a week (which is the only time we can make the trip), and I think he would enjoy doing ‘more’ than what is currently provided in his class. I have been looking into mixed martial arts as we have two schools fairly close to us, but I do not know how to gauge which may be better. One has more of a ju jitsu feel, and the other more of a tae kwon do method. The tae kwon do school is affiliated with several tae kwon do organizations, whereas the other I see no affiliations for (so I am not really sure how they base progressions or anything on). Can anyone tell me more about the schools that are not affiliated with these organizations/federations? I guess my biggest concern is starting them out here (ju jitsu style seems more suited for my son), and then not having a ‘compatible’ base if we move again or have to switch for whatever reason….or should I just stick to tae kwon do? (my biggest concern here is that he seems to enjoy the upper body involvement and from what I can tell Tae Kwon Do is more on the leg involvement).

    Any feedback is greatly appreciated.

  66. >I guess my biggest concern is starting them out here (ju jitsu style seems more suited for my son), and then not having a ‘compatible’ base if we move again or have to switch for whatever reason

    I advise not worrying about this. At beginner level, most of what you will learn is so basic that it readily transfers to other styles – stance, breathing, movement, mental focus. I would choose based on what he likes and the quality of teaching.

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