Commonality And Uniqueness in Systems and Styles

The following is an extract from a chapter of my forthcoming book – “Form & Function” .  I’ll be publishing other extracts over the coming months; I hope you enjoy it, and find it informative.

Most martial artists see their system or style as unique, and on a certain level this is true.  Certainly the experiences of any given artist in training are unique – no one else can truly share the same experience as another. This is true on a number of levels. To begin with, we bring to our studies unique sets of previous experiences.  These prior experiences are part of what makes us unique individuals.  So, when presented with the experiences of learning an art, we cannot truly start on a level playing field.

Next it is true, that two individuals when presented with the same external experience will not perceive that event in the same way.  Biology plays a key role here – it is not possible to perceive exactly what another sees simply because each of us has individual characteristics to our eyesight, and our brains process the incoming signals from the optic nerve quite
differently to that of another person.

Additionally, our prior experiences have led us to make a number of generalisations, and
these will act as filters on our perception of the experience, leading us to different conclusions about the event and what, if anything, we can learn from it.  I will discuss the role that these internal filters take in our learning experiences at a later stage, but suffice it to say, that these pre-conceptions can be both negative and positive depending on how and when we apply them.

Despite the uniqueness of the individuals involved, martial arts can be, and generally are understood as being able to be categorised into systems and sub-systems, or styles.  These systems and styles, these general and specific approaches to the challenges posed by the chaotic process of combat had to come from somewhere – nothing grows in a vacuum.

This brings us to the starting point for my analytical model of the martial arts.  Even though all arts were created by an individual, or group of individuals working together, or developing further the work of previous generations, I believe that we have to start with the macro level.  Try thinking of it this way:

  • We share a physiology, neurology and anatomy with our fellow human beings that stretches back in time, much further back than we need go to observe even the most ancient of surviving martial arts
  • The laws of physics act on that shared physiology and anatomy more or less equally – true, some artists are so athletic or so skilled that they appear to
    transcend those laws at times, but they don’t!

So, why do individuals create radically different martial arts at different points in time?Why do they, or their successors, develop them along particular lines? It is true that the human body is only capable of certain types of movement, even allowing for all types of
external and internal factors.

Within that range available, we have a freedom to choose some tactics and techniques
over others.  Why and how do we make those choices? Well, in learning, as in so many areas of life, context is as crucial as content.

Within my martial arts family, we delineate the external factors that form our model of martial arts creation thus:

  • Physical Anthropology – before anyone mistakes this as a racist statement, I would like to emphasise that all cultures, regardless of race or religion, have created highly effective martial arts.  I simply wish to acknowledge that the group
    genetics of a person’s background, as well as their personal genetics, have some influence over the type of creative choices they are likely to have the option of making.  We will explore this more deeply later in the text…
  • Physical Geography – the environment in which you live, its climate, and the way you adapt to that environment.  Where physical anthropology affects the tool-set you start out with (nature), the physical terrain, in which you live and fight, cannot help but partly shape the art you practice (nurture).
  • Physical Laws – even though there is a relatively wide band of human performance at any activity, we are all ultimately subject to these laws.
  • Social Anthropology – the history of the culture of your society and its current state.  The way that people organise themselves socially in its broadest sense.  This encompasses such factors as political, social and economic arrangements, religion and ethical values.
  • Technology & Resources – regardless of whether the technology is high or low  by conventional measures, the sophistication of weaponry lies in the appropriateness of its use in the circumstances prevailing.  One of those factors may well be the availability of certain metals, or horses, either of which would partly define preferred weapons, tactics and strategy.
  • Methodology – this is usually defined in part by the philosophy, technical understanding and specific experience of the exponent e.g. how much exposure to what level of combat does he/she have?   What role did they play in that experience; what kind of prior training for such circumstances did they receive, and was that training effective?  A police officer will approach a confrontation differently to a soldier, and therefore has to train for that confrontation in a significantly different manner.


My grandfather used to say that a martial artist had to question everything in the course of a lifetime’s training.  He also used to say that some questions can be more useful than others: where, when, what, how and why?  All of their negative versions are useful questions to ask too.

Kalis teachers will often characterise combat as being reducible to three variables: range, angle and technology of the weapon.  Sounds simple doesn’t it?  It’s not only valid, but also an elegant statement of core principles.  These three variables form the basis for a highly complex, mathematical and geometric model of the arts, and how specifically to train for them most effectively.  I havel referred to this highly effective model previously in past blogs and will again – repeatedly – during the course of the book and coming blogs.

©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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