Attributes – Do you have what it takes?

AttributesTraining in the Martial Arts

During my life in the martial arts I have been aware of a number of long-running debates.  One of these is the question usually phrased as “What is the best martial art?” to which I usually answer, “For what exactly?”, as the context has a great deal to do with defining ‘best’.  You may have already read the posts I’ve published on the ideal martial arts for children or for law enforcement professionals.

Attributes – in one sense of another – seem to speak to those questions and other issues I’ve heard debated all my life.  The creation and dissemination of JKD has been and remains an enormously important factor in fuelling the three most commonly argued debates around the topic of attributes:

  • Stylistic attributes, or how do you define any given martial art?
  • What is the best attribute – or mix of attributes – to have as a martial artist?
  • Supplementary Training and Conditioning – do you do the art to get fit, or do you get fit to do the art?

What Style?

Let’s deal first with the attributes that define a given martial art style, that is to say what characteristics distinguish, for example, one karate style from another?  Taking my main style of karate, Wado-Ryu as an illustration, I used to describe Wado-Ryu to my students as “guerrilla warfare for one” or “hit and run fighting”.  This is a description of it in strategic terms.  We can talk about its mobility, speed of delivery and evasiveness as some of the defining elements of the style – these are tactical attributes i.e. these are still qualitative elements needed that make it possible to deliver the overall strategy, which is to evade, periodically crashing range executing rapid fire combinations, then equally quickly disappearing out of range once again.  A Wado fighter does not stand his ground; he should “not be there when the punch arrives”, as I am fond of saying. 

In order to be mobile, evasive and quick, the footwork has more in common with Kendo than it does with say, Shotokan or Goju-Ryu karate*.   This should be unsurprising as its founder, Hironori Ohtsuka, was Menkyo-Kaiden (or the holder of a Master’s teaching licence) in Hontai Yoshin Ryu Ju-jutsu, before studying with Gichin Funakoshi, whose favourite student he was said to be by contemporaries.  I tell my students that Wado-Ryu is therefore Ju-jutsu ‘wearing the clothes’ of Karate. 

This is not a criticism of the art, but I think the best way to become a good Wado stylist is to understand that it is essentially a grappling art in structure, overlaid with a striking art’s material.  The water is further muddied by the fact that unlike Shotokan (Funakoshi’s creation), older Okinawan styles are in fact, around 60-70% grappling material, and that Ju-jutsu is essentially an unarmed version of a sword art – hence the large amount of defence against tanto and katana in advanced stages of Wado-Ryu, and the fact that the style contains a number of Aiki-style wrist-locks and throws.

Isolating the characteristics of any given art gives one a set of attributes or qualities   that represent an archetype or template for the art, and makes it possible to identify the technical characteristics of the style.  Arguably, an art is most successful when the strategic and technical attributes defining it stylistically are consistent with the material represented by the techniques and their manner of performance. 

What Attribute(s)?

The rise of JKD as an iconic form of hybrid system helped to make cross-training in the martial arts a commonplace from the latter third of the 20th century onwards.  It isn’t – and wasn’t – unique in that regard; many martial arts in history have been a synthesis of multiple styles and systems, but that approach to system development became ever more prevalent as communications technology made it easier to be exposed to, and influenced by, more and varied material.  Small Circle Ju-jitsu – like JKD – is a principle-based system of training, and the breadth of training undergone by Profs. Wally and Leon Jay informs its continuing development, just as Prof. Okazaki’s Kodenkan Ju-jitsu (the core art from which Small Circle derived) was an eclectic art composed of elements derived from his own vast and varied experience. 

The Significance of Cross-training

Cross-training is a significant vehicle for developing a larger range of physical and mental attributes than one would gain from studying a single art or style.  There is nothing wrong with being a specialist, but specialism is more successful if the attributes required by the style and the individual stylist coincide.  If you can find the art that is built most closely for your own particular needs and strengths, then you are fortunate as it is likely to be the ideal vehicle to fulfilling your potential.

In seminar teaching, when there is time to explore such issues, I like to set the following exercise: using a blackboard or whiteboard, I write up a list of attributes, and then I ask the attendees which they think is the most valuable.

Below is one such list:

Strength                                 Power                         Balance                     Flexibility

            Speed                                                Mobility                                  Agility            

Rhythm                      Co-ordination                       Timing                        Stability

Almost invariably – particularly amongst the younger attendees – the answer comes back as ‘Speed’.  On one occasion in the late 1980’s, I was co-teaching a seminar with Sifu Gary Stringer at Sifu Nino Bernardo’s seminal Wing Chun kwoon, the Basement in London.  As was often the case, a number of young men all agreed that ‘Speed’ trumped most other attributes.

In response, I first pointed out that ‘Speed’ wasn’t all that specific an answer; there are many kinds of speed: speed of perception of the incoming attack; speed of selection of the response (reflex); and of course, speed of performance.  Well, naturally, they had meant ‘speed of performance’ when they chose ‘Speed’ as their super-power!

So, Sifu Gary and I stood facing one another and I asked him to deliver a short, lead-hand punch to my chest.  I slap-parried the punch; I asked him to do it repeatedly, each time a little faster.  As he punched faster, I parried faster, each of us moving a little more quickly each time, until I parried even faster than Sifu Gary punched, whereupon there was a resounding smack of fist on flesh – Gary really is fast and he can hit tremendously strongly from only inches away!  So, rubbing my chest somewhat gingerly, I asked “What went wrong?”, only  to be met by puzzled silence.  “What attribute was missing?”  A few moments later, a slow grin dawned on the face of one young man; “Timing”, he said.

I tell that story to illustrate two things:

  • Generally speaking, no single attribute trumps any single other one – it’s the combination of attributes and the circumstances in which they are brought into play that count.
  • You have to know what circumstances you are training for before you can select the attributes to train!

Martial artists have always trained specific attributes to further their technical development.  Okinawan karate-ka practised their punches and kicks on a makiwara, a striking post rooted in the ground.  The makiwara was constructed in such a way that only a very focussed strike will move it at all, but if you do deliver that strike correctly the post vibrates!

In Wing Chun, the butterfly knives form isn’t, in fact, designed to teach you how to use them as weapons; it is a form for practising your elbow placement on the centre-line.  Likewise the six and a half point pole form is not a long-staff weapons form; the pole is simply a tool to learn to express jing – a manifestation of chi power delivered beyond the body and into the target.

Conditioning & Fitness Training

The debate around physical conditioning and fitness is another aspect of the attribute question.  When I began training in karate, my instructors were experienced Goju-Ryu practitioners, but the club split and two out of the three instructors began to convert to Wado-Ryu.  Despite this, they naturally retained a number of attitudes and practices from their previous experience.

In the middle of each lesson we would have a conditioning session – rather like the muscular strength and endurance (MSE) section of an aerobics class.  This typically would consist of 200 knuckle press-ups, 200 sit-ups, 200 reverse sit-ups and 200 leg-raises – all performed in rapid succession, and at a punishing pace!  This was as much to develop mental toughness as our muscles. 

Partly as a direct result of Bruce Lee’s influence (he was a demon for training and James Lee made many wonderful pieces of apparatus for specific training needs), many martial artists nowadays place as much importance on aerobic fitness as they do on technical proficiency.  In contrast, the nature of a karate lesson is essentially anaerobic – so whether you are practising a kick, a punch, a combination, or a piece of semi-free fighting, you will characteristically begin slowly, gradually increasing the speed of your performance of the techniques with each repetition.  As a combat form, an actual violent encounter utilising your karate skills shouldn’t last more than seconds – ‘Ichi-go, Ichi-e’ as the old timers used to say (‘One Encounter, One Chance’) – so it is entirely logical that karate didn’t place a premium on aerobic fitness.  However, the opposing logic goes: the greater your aerobic fitness, the harder and longer you can train, and if a fight lasts longer than you expect, or hope for, you still have some fuel in the tank – this was the conclusion reached by Bruce Lee after his famous fight with Wong Jack Man.

Simply perform or prepare?

So, do you simply perform the art – basics, forms, free-fighting etc. – in order to let the art mould your body and mind to be fit to perform the art, or do you supplement your training with a variety of other exercises?  Professional athletes in various fields will often vary their activity for the following reasons:

  • A new practice will frequently produce a training effect more quickly, even if its mechanical elements closely resemble your normal routine – just by doing things a little differently, the body is forced to adapt to the altered stimulus dynamically.
    • Some years ago, a professional tennis coach asked me to work with some of his players and his assistants.  Now I had little or no knowledge of tennis beyond watching Wimbledon each year.  So, in addition to teaching them visualisation and mental rehearsal techniques, I taught them the basics of Eskrima.  In a forehand lateral stroke with the stick we would be opening up the body, particularly the shoulder, chest and hip, in contrast to a tennis forehand ground-stroke, where the player would typically have his left foot in front when making the stroke with his right hand.  You could argue that this would simply confuse their body mechanics – after all, they have their own technical reasons for the way they strike the ball – however the intention wasn’t to offer a competing way of making the shot, but to offer their muscles and senses another experience to be contrasted with their ‘normal’ model.  In doing so, they became even more aware of their own ‘ideal’ mechanical model when they returned to normal practise.
  • The simple unfamiliarity of something new requires the mind to pay attention differently and this itself may bring further insights to your perceptions of your regular practice.  We all experience ‘training plateaux’ during our developmental curve, where we simply don’t appear to be improving periodically, then something clicks into place and we can move forward again – a change in routine can reduce frustration and produce that new impetus.
  • A different discipline will alter where exactly the stresses on the body act – again this may provoke a training effect response within the body systems more efficiently, and the change in the focus of stresses may relieve the body of strain, as well as teach you something new.

One word of caution with regard to supplementary training – do your research, and be clear on what you explicitly expect to gain from the new activity. 

A good example would be weight-training – if you simply did a standard ‘body-building’ routine for the major muscle groups, you would undoubtedly get stronger overall.  The downside might be that if you were a weapons stylist, and you didn’t thoroughly understand the specific effects of particular resistance exercises, you might increase the size of say, your biceps, but change their shape – the more rounded shape produced by a given version of a bicep curl could reduce the range of motion within which you are strong, taking you away from what my grandfather used to call ‘a swordsman’s muscles’ i.e. more oval, giving a larger range through which one could apply significant leverage.

Conversely, if you study an art which relies heavily upon skill and power in kicking, it may well be useful to embark upon a regime of squats, squat thrusts and lunges, with or without added weights.  By way of contrast, my wife tells of a holiday in Thailand on her way back from training with Master Wong Shung Leung in Hong Kong for five months.  She was watching some young boys practising their Muay Thai round kicks on banana palms – what really made an impression, she said was that although several couldn’t have been any older than eleven, they had the legs of ‘a Premier League footballer’ apparently grafted onto the upper body of a child – a clear example of the art moulding the development of the body to its requirements.

Personally, I think an additional training programme of varied exercise, such as running or resistance training of some sort, has certain advantages.  If nothing else, varying one routine staves off boredom – increasing motivation and commitment and helping to prevent injury, but only the individual student can take this decision.

Let me know what your own experience has been?

(*Note: this shouldn’t be taken to imply that individual Shotokan and Goju-Ryu stylists can’t be all of these things – merely that these are not high on the list of prized qualities in these styles)

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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