Following neatly on from my previous post, this will (partially) address the (complex) question of how to begin one’s training in the martial arts.
My idea of the best way to begin studying the martial arts is in many ways based on the deficiencies in my own start. As stated in my initial blog posts, I spent (or sadly, mis-spent) much of my precious youth in the meaningless and wasteful practice of Japanese and Chinese martial arts styles that did not have any application to real-world combat. Following these ignominious beginnings, I began to move towards the practice of reality-based training.
However, throughout my training, I had dabbled in grappling styles. Very early on after I began training, I learned from a Gung Fu instructor who was also a Judoka (practitioner of Judo), and supplemented his teaching with a healthy dose of locks and strangles, and some basic throws & ground reversals. I was to learn later that these small snippets of reality had in effect saved my martial-arts life, so to speak. Without this grounding in practical applications, I would have had to re-learn everything entirely when later I started training in true martial arts.
Once again- and I cannot belabour this point enough- this is not to say that every little piece of the Gung Fu I learned was useless. Far from it. There are training methods within Wing Chun (and many other traditional Chinese styles) that are exceptionally useful for building fast-twitch muscles, good reflexes, in-fighting postures and hand-fighting for clinchwork. I use routines and some of the techniques from Wing Chun to this day. And this is not an idiosyncracy that only I possess, you’ll see champion fighters like Erik Paulson talking about incorporating Lap sao control on the ground. Paulson is a consumate fighter, and has considerable skill and experience in all areas of the martial arts. Men like Paulson go with what works.
What I AM saying is that I didn’t understand the application of the few Gung Fu techniques that work, until I’d been training in real, complete arts for several years. And there’s no way I COULD have understood these Gung Fu applications without training outside Gung Fu. In other words, the question is: why bother training in Gung Fu at all?
If one must dabble in exotic, stylized arts, the only sensible way I can see to go about it is to experiment with Gung Fu when one is already an accomplished fighter, i.e: when one has spent many years training in competition-based striking and grappling styles, and has incorporated aspects of Self-Defence training as well. Then one will be in a position to objectively evaluate the quality of what one is being taught, and using one’s own experience of actual physical violence as a base, objectively and scientifically decide what application each move can be put to. (If any.)
So how should one start? I’ll detail my opinion of the best “career path” for a martial artist starting to train when an adult, and also the best pathway for those starting as children.
For a child I’ve always recommended Judo. It’s a simple, stripped down sport art. Quite rough, but not too rough for the average child. Throws on crash mats, but no striking, so impact injury risks are limited. Having said all this, I don’t agree with forcing a child to engage in martial arts as a pastime. If a child doesn’t enjoy training and is forced to train anyway, they won’t get anything out of it, and it may turn them off training for life.
I don’t think kids hitting each other is a good idea. If you must, have them punch pads & bags instead, but be mindful of their still-developing joints.
For an Adult:
For an Adult, the training will be difficult. Healing will be slower, body mass will be higher and therefore falls will hurt more and another person using their body-weight against one will be that much more difficult/painful. However, adults have one advantage: They’re getting into the martial arts because they themselves want to. (I have lost count of the child martial-artists I’ve seen give up training upon reaching adolescence, simply because they never really wanted to do it in the first place. It was always their parents who were making them train.) Motivation should be higher, in this case.
To begin with, I would recommend an initial grounding in a grappling art. I would begin with something along the lines of a Wrestling/No-Gi Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu combination. Dabble in gi-fighting if you must, but on the whole, very few people in 2010 wear tough enough coats to make collar throws practical as self-defence. Neither do any of the really interesting MMA contests involve the gi. However, learn Greco-Roman Wrestling, and you can take ANYONE down, whether they’re wearing angry white pyjamas or not.
However, I would start to cross-train very early on (maybe a couple of months in) in light-contact boxing/kickboxing. Styles are unimportant at this stage, I would go with anything from San Shou to Muay Thai, provided you don’t get hit too hard as a beginner. A negative experience at this stage might put one off. The reason for the early cross-training is that one must integrate the striking and grappling portions of fighting as soon as possible, and as an adult it’s safer to engage in striking arts than it is for children. The only way you will know if a school is mature and acceptable is through exploring, researching, and trial and error.
I would continue this training for a period of at least a year with a couple of sessions per week. Once one is familiar with the basics of combat and has a good idea of what the human body is capable, then I would increase the intensity of the striking training, and start training at a reputable MMA gym, alongside amateur and professional fighters.
I would then consider introducing weapon-based arts and Reality-Based Self Defence (RBSD). I would train in a reputable weapon art like Filipino Kali or European (Olympic style) fencing and research the school deeply on the internet before even going along to have a look.
On the RBSD side, I would avoid sensationalist “super special forces ultra killer” schools like Krav Maga, and would likewise avoid gangs of obviously delusional charlatans like the Systema clique.
It’s tough to find a good RBSD trainer. As a general rule, I’d avoid ex-military instructors (or those who claim to be ex-military), as being a soldier means exactly diddly-squat when it comes to either unarmed combat or urban self-defence skills. I would instead train with an ex-professional like a police officer or doorman in people-skills and situational control. Try to find someone who can verify their credentials, and doesn’t mind doing so. Try to find a policeman/doorman who has never had a single fight, rather than one who has had three-hundred fights; remember that Self-Defence is not about fighting.
I would train pre-emptive striking, but not for very long, (it would be nice to end a fight with one blow, but sadly this rarely happens) and I would do at least two or three months’ worth of role-playing in areas of deception, criminal approaches/interviews. Then I would drop the RBSD unless one needs a refresher or feels as though a particular area needs work.
After three to four years, only then would I start to think about trying out all the kewl and groovy kung-fu fighting styles that one saw in the movies when one was young. Before this point, they can do no good, and might in fact do some harm.
After this point, they probably still won’t do any good! But at least you’ll have the necessary experience to combine with your critical thinking faculty, to protect yourself from harm.
Incidentally (if you fancy cross-training by pumping up your critical thinking muscle) for an excellent workout in intellectual self-defence, I recommend reading Manufacturing Consent by Herman & Chomsky. Without learning the right way to think, how can one ever hope to learn anything?