There are certain moments that define the path you take when studying a martial art. An experience, a conversation, a demonstration–every now and again something happens that changes the way you look at how and what you study forever.
One of these events happened when I first began studying Kung Fu at the University of Washington. I had chosen the club there because it was small, intense, and dedicated to practice. I was thinner than I am now (who isn’t?), with little muscle or even much physical ability save for an annoying tendency to refuse to quit. The people I trained with often outweighed me by a good 30 to 50 pounds. Some of these guys were used to getting into street fights on a pretty regular basis. But they were good guys, and they were fun to train with.
But one day, I was sparring with one of the senior students. Our sparring system had the mentality of “If you got hit, it was because you didn’t block.” I’m sure this student pulled his punches a bit to give me a chance–but not by a lot. I was getting knocked about pretty good, with my forearms barely able to deflect the tremendous power of his fists. A few times, he even connected with my jaw, sending me reeling. To my credit, I refused to quit, getting up each time and trying to not just defend myself, but go on the offensive as well.
Afterwards, when class was over, this student came up to me. “You have good spirit,” he said. “But you should probably remember that you’re really never going to win a fight. Unless you really start working out and bulking up, you just won’t have the strength to defeat a larger opponent. The best you can hope for is to make it not worth the guy’s time to try to take you on.”
I nodded as he spoke, in an effort to appear like I understood. But in reality, I didn’t. I wasn’t studying self-defense to lose. I wasn’t studying to simply make my attacker shift to an easier target. I wanted to win! Why should victory go to the largest person, or the most muscled? There had to be something, I thought, some self-defense system, that would allow me to learn how to defend myself in a way that leveled the playing field, that negated differences in size and speed. I started looking around at different martial arts, and came across Kokikai Aikido. It was then I learned that, by studying things like posture, structure, timing, and rhythm, you could engage an opponent in a way in which it didn’t matter whether they were bigger or faster than you were. What mattered was how well balanced you were, how calmly you could assess the situation, and how well you could apply technique that disrupted your opponent’s structure to the point that they were simply unable to use their power effectively. Was it easy? No. And it still isn’t. But it works.
I bring this story up because I often read and hear about how martial arts require a certain level of physical ability; that without this physical ability, you will likely not win. Of course physical ability is important–on that point I agree. But I think these statements fail to recognize that there are different types of physical ability. If you find yourself studying a martial art in which you think that failure, or at the very least, limited success, is your best possible outcome because you do not have the physical abilities necessary to apply the techniques of that art successfully, then I encourage you to look at other martial art systems. I am willing to bet that there is at least one that contains a set of principles that make sense, a strategy that is proven effective, and a training methodology that will allow you to study effectively. For me, I found these traits in Kokikai Aikido, but, as the saying goes, “your mileage may vary.”
As one of the first martial arts instructors I ever met once said: “It is not the martial art that wins, it is the martial artist.” Never be willing to settle for less than the victory you want.