Are Traditional Martial Arts Useless For Self-Defense? Part 1

July 20, 2016



7 minutes read

Andrew Raynor Dover NH

Quick Background

There are many strong voices in the self-defense community criticizing so called “traditional martial art systems”, from a perspective of self defense. These “traditional” systems commonly include karate, kung fu, aikido, taekwondo, hapkido, ninjutsu, and many others.

The reasons are legion, but often include claims that so called “traditional” systems have ceremonial elements that are unnecessary to the point of encumbrance, unrealistic and/or outdated techniques, ineffective training-methodology, as well as generally incompetent and ignorant instructors.

In short, the content is useless and the training is even more useless.

The support for these claims vary. Sometimes the support is considerable and the premises and arguments and conclusions are intelligent, objective and educated, but most of the time… more less than more so, to put it mildly.

There is much to be said about all of this. The whole idea of “traditional” vs the “modern” or “contemporary” systems can very much be problematized, as can the concepts of “ceremony” and “contemporary violence”, along with many popular ideas about the history of martial arts, the difference between the value of systems and movements vs the value of instructors and applications, and so on.

For a discussion on the last of those points, read the last section of this article.

Beyond this, every movement, every ceremony, every technique and every exercise can be thoroughly discussed, as can the overlaying methodologies, the factors looked at when determining the competence of an instructor, etcetera.

Now, in many of my articles and videos, I directly or indirectly promote aspects of training that are commonly associated with what is commonly thought of as “traditional” systems. The goal, however, is never to promote the systems themselves. Most instructors are, in my limited experience and to the best of my knowledge, absolute crap, from a self-defense perspective, completely regardless of what they try to teach, be it Shaolin Kung Fu or Muay thai, so I’m not a defender of any system in its entirety.

My goal with this is merely to adjust an attitude that can be satirically summed up as:
*Small group, t-shirts, instant eye-gouging, ex-military instructor = good system
*Uniforms, ceremony, striking in the air, elements of foreign language = bad system

In other words, my goal is to take the focus away from the form of the entire system, and direct it instead towards the function of its parts, and to make that focus objective and educated.


In this particular article, I will try to give some more or less educated perspective on one particular aspect of “traditional practice”: Ceremony.

Exactly what “ceremony” means is rarely ever specified by the critics. The point so commonly trumpeted is simply that traditional martial arts “focus too much on ceremony”, instead of teaching the students how to fight, and that this is bad.

So, let’s begin by defining ceremony. Trusty old Google defines it this way: “(…) ritual observances and procedures”.

… so what does “ritual” mean?

Again, I present you with part of Google’s answer: “A (…) ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order”.

The definitions are parts of themselves, but still give us an idea. A “ceremony” is a prescribed action or norm, within a specific context.

So… a good school of self-defense is one in which there are no norms in terms of behavior, appearance, and so on?

Let’s take a look at what in my experience are common norms even in the most scaled-down, backstreet, badass gyms, regardless of system:

*You show up in clean clothes, that don’t have rivets, Velcro or anything else your partners can hurt themselves on, and that are appropriate in the senses that they are not too revealing, don’t carry any images or messages of exaggerated obscenity or hate, and that seem suitable, and aren’t, say, a bathrobe, cape, long dress or a tuxedo.
*You greet your instructor and your fellow students in a friendly manner in the beginning of the training, and you say goodbye when you leave.
*The instructor marks the beginning and the end of the training, somehow, be it something as simple as “ok, let’s start” and “and that’s all for today, see you tomorrow”, and the instructor marks also the transitions between different parts of the training, say for example a transition from warm-up to drilling to sparring.
*You try to not hurt your partners excessively during training, and if you do by accident, you apologize.
*You ask questions, but you don’t mouth off to or question your instructor or senior students, when they try to help you.
*If you spar, you do so by agreement, as opposed to just suddenly jumping on someone from behind and start sparring on your own initiative.
*When a sparring-match is agreed on, the participants acknowledge each other before attacking, be it by nodding, touching gloves, or some other gesture.

… the list could go on.


In the next and final part, we take a look at some common ceremonial elements of traditional martial arts, and try to make a point.

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Andrew Raynor Dover NH

Andrew Raynor

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