Seeking Instruction


Through observing and experiencing combat at some level, you internalize the dynamics of a fight. In doing so, you gain the ability to separate useful from useless techniques. When this is accomplished, the world of martial arts knowledge becomes an open library for reference and inspiration.

A formal school is a valuable resource. For many, it is the only way to effectively study martial arts. This is especially true for the novice. Even so, you should not rely on merely being taught. When skills reach the point of actual application, you must think for yourself. It is your responsibility to actively learn, rather than passively following instruction.

It is no secret that there are many substandard dojos. I do not think that this is an affliction of modern times. Things change very little in the long run. Whether or not weak schools were so prevalent, there have always been good and bad instructors, strong and weak styles. The devastating skills of the martial arts still exist today, as all things of quality do, amidst the sea of lesser imitations. It is up to you to recognize the real thing when you encounter it.

An instructor does not have to be perfect at every skill, but his overall ability must be honestly assessed. If he is proficient at forms, but obviously misunderstands fighting application, then he has missed the purpose of true combative arts. Conversely, a naturally huge, strong, or fast individual can be a formidable fighter, but without knowledge of certain skills, he is not qualified to represent a system. He cannot teach students how to be naturally big, strong, or fast.

It is fortunate if you manage to find an instructor who is skilled in fighting, but this is not always the case. Many instructors can teach the methodology of an art without possessing the ability to actually apply it. This does not necessarily mean the instruction is not valid.

A good instructor does not necessarily need to be able to apply combat skills effectively. For instance, he may be too small, too old, or both. What he must absolutely be able to do is guide you to effectively apply the skills. Seeing what a prospective instructor can personally do is fine, but seeing what his students can do is the most relevant concern. It is common for an excellent coach to be physically outmatched by his top students. This is a good sign.

Poetry of Martial Arts

Learning the martial arts is often likened to learning a language. You can memorize the alphabet, yet still be unable to form words. Individual words can be mastered, yet grammar can remain poor. Writing and speech can be technically proficient, yet you may still be unable to write good poetry. In the martial arts, learning all the techniques and routines does not automatically make you a skilled fighter.

Like poetry, only so much can be taught. It is up to the practitioner to make good use of his “words.” While instructors may be able to bring students to a basic level of proficiency, it is ultimately up to the practitioner to make his skills effective. Just as a good poet can gathers words and ideas from experience, a good martial artist must be able to learn from observation and experience. In this way, any school or teacher may be of use in progressing your skill. You can observe the strengths of an instructor’s techniques and extract the essential elements, adapting them and eliminating the faults.

You must develop your own sense of what is practical. This can be learned through live experience, testing and competition. You must constantly test your skills to ensure they are developing properly. A single fight, even a sparring match, can teach you more of the true nature of live combat in a few minutes, than years of training alone in a vacuum.

Combative Martial Arts

The term “combative martial arts” is technically redundant. The word “martial” refers to war, which would seem to be inclusive of combat in some form. Martial arts, however, have come to encompass all manner of styles which no longer emphasize the development of fighting skill. For this reason, I must make a distinction by specifying combative and non-combative martial arts. Opinions expressed for one, are not necessarily valid for the other.

Though this site is primarily focused on the topic of conditioning and breaking, it is important to discuss the basic, effective practice of martial arts. This is not a digression from the topic of tameshiwari. I wish to impress upon you that genuine tameshiwari is indeed a training method for fighting and not a study of parlor tricks. To discuss tameshiwari without considering fighting theory is to entirely miss the point.

You must not forget that breaking is not intended to be a stand alone skill. To practice breaking without relation to combat application is just as faulty as practicing forms without visualizing the applications of the movements. Though one may practice true fighting without breaking, one cannot practice true breaking without keeping fighting in mind.

I will not get into a discussion on particular fighting techniques, as breaking is not limited to any particular style of fighting. Tameshiwari is a tool to be applied in any number of striking styles. It is not a system of fighting, but an approach to fighting. The attributes developed in this form of training should be channeled through your chosen striking art.

Strike to Incapacitate

With powerful striking, you always have ‘a puncher’s chance.’ You are never more than one strike away from victory at any time. I often tell people, ‘don’t hit to hit, hit to break.’ By keeping this in mind, one will generate full force strikes. While sniping skillfully at targets has its benefits, it is extremely useful to also have the option of smashing through an opponent’s defenses even when he thinks he is completely covered.

Another thing you must consider are the distinct differences between causing pain, causing injury, and actually incapacitating an opponent. The three can go hand in hand, but do not always. It is bad strategy to rely solely on the manipulation of pain inducing nerve points. In combat, determination and adrenaline are powerful forces. Pain tolerance is tremendously increased. Likewise, inflicting injury alone may not stop an opponent. One may brush off punches to the body in the heat of combat, only to find later, massive bruising or broken ribs. People can even sustain knife and gunshot wounds without realizing it for several moments.

The ultimate goal in a physical conflict is to incapacitate the opponent. This may or may not bring injury with it. A killing blow will incapacitate and opponent, as will a harmless blood choke. The degree of injury inflicted will vary according to the situation, but incapacitation is the name of the game. Striking is usually the quickest method of accomplishing this, and a knockout strike to the head is a reliable technique.

Mostly everything from the neck up, other than the top of the skull, is very vulnerable. It does not necessarily require a powerful strike to this area for the desired results, and this provides support for those who argue that breaking power is unnecessary. If you have seen many fights though, you probably realize what little effect a strike to the head can actually have. The effectiveness of an already mediocre strike can be tremendously reduced by the movement of an opponent. A very quick, relatively weak strike can seem impressive in a demonstration, but in real application, the other guy is not just standing there like a tackling dummy. If he flinches and moves, the power of the strike will probably be reduced and you may achieve only a glancing blow.

It is amazing what someone can withstand in the heat of combat. If you tap yourself in the head with a knuckle, it already hurts a little. This might lead you to the false conclusion that only a bit more power is needed to inflict serious damage. Something instructors will do to impress students is add a little extra force in their demonstration. They purposely rough you up while showing a technique. By playing it off as light contact, they intimidate you into thinking that if they were really trying, the move would be devastating. This builds false confidence.

Remember, lots of stuff can hurt in a demonstration, when you are not in fight or flight mode. This does not necessarily translate to a lethal technique. Even worse, attempting a full force application of the demonstrated technique may result in injury to yourself if your anatomical weapons are not conditioned.

Once again, hurting and incapacitating are different things. Sure, an opponent will not enjoy getting hit in a fight, but it may not stop him. If you land your best shot on the attacker and he does not go down, you are left in a very disadvantageous position. You have already wasted your best opportunity to end the fight and you may well have injured your hand in the process.

By developing true breaking power, you maximize the potential for your strike to stop an attacker.

Size and Skill

Physical size is a significant factor in combative ability. A larger individual possesses greater weight and, often, greater strength. Obviously, someone who cannot efficiently handle his own weight is hampered by his size, but so far as size increases power, it is certainly advantageous.

If there were a martial arts conditioning method that could make you physically taller and larger, you can bet it would be a popular system. Nothing can make you taller, but training can make you larger in terms of muscular development.

Muscular strength is an asset as long as it does not restrict movement. If you are muscle bound, you will be too slow and stiff to reach the opponent.

This also applies to people who are too tall. There is a point where height is going to be disproportionate to the strength one can develop. A stocky individual will be stronger than a lanky one of the same weight because the lanky person’s muscular power is diffused by poor leverage in the limbs. Tall people also tend to have some joint instability, resulting from rapid growth, so some explosive movements can be problematic.

Aside from these considerations, the larger individual’s greatest weakness is often inferior training. This is partly due to the fact that larger people feel less compelled to develop a high level of skill. Such a person relies mostly on his size to manhandle opponents and, in neglecting technique, does not make full use of his natural advantage. A large practitioner who trains diligently to develop true technique is very formidable. Yes, larger practitioners may find it more difficult to perform flips and acrobatics, but these things are not necessary in a fight.

You must also not allow your pursuit of skill to lead you into neglecting the obvious advantages of size and strength. There is a tendency to completely reject strength in an attempt to focus solely on technique.

Strength and technique must work synergistically. Technique is not the rejection of muscle power, but rather the most efficient means of applying that power. Technique channels power. They are to be used in conjunction. Do not develop the mentality that the use of strength and external power is sloppy and constitutes forcing a technique. You risk the unfortunate development where a supposedly highly trained person is overwhelmed and overpowered by an untrained opponent.

Pure stylists become so devoted to preserving the integrity of a technique that they abandon the common sense of instinctive fighters by denying the strength aspect. This can be seen when someone practices a hundred and one different types of blocks, but then falls victim to a simple looping haymaker. They forget how to cope with more brutish attacks.

Do not become so engrossed with the minutiae of what you are doing, that you fail to see the big picture. If you can force a technique and finish a fight, then do it. Things do not always work out beautifully in a live fight. If there is one ugly technique that works every time, there is no shame in using it. When it stops working, that is the time to employ more sophisticated tactics. Reach for the simplest tool first.


The body learns through repetition. When you attempt to apply a new technique, it is likely you will fumble as you consciously walk through the steps. Once the body has repeated it enough times, the movement becomes natural and fluid.

The idea behind performing kata is to train the body to move in specific ways. If the kata is appropriate to the system, the actual combative techniques are based on the habitual movements you develop.

This is why certain systems clash and should not be trained simultaneously. For example, if an attacker throws a punch at your head, you must either block with a karate technique or a boxing technique. The two are significantly different. Trying to decide which to use at the last moment will result in no block at all.

When you are already familiar with a particular style of fighting, it can be very difficult to make a transition to another. This is most true when the two styles are drastically different. Much like learning a second language, there is a tendency to retain an “accent” of the original style even after years of studying the new one. If you decide to always use a western boxing style cover or parry, then stick to shadow boxing and forget the kata. It will only serve to confuse your body.

The Basic Skills

Realistically, one can never fully master a martial art. There is always room for improvement. However, with a good understanding of the essential aspects of the art and, most importantly, a functional ability to apply it in a practical means, one may rightfully claim a level of mastery. This is defined as comprehensive knowledge or command of the skill. To achieve a “master’s” rank may be likened to earning a master’s degree in academic schooling. It does not mean one is the best at something, but it should indicate what may be deemed an expert level of accomplishment.

Do not become overly concerned with whether or not you can master a total martial art. It is better to focus on developing and maintaining even a limited set of martial skills. During a confrontation, your opponent will not have any concern for what formalities you may have missed from your chosen style.

You may well be able to stop all opponents with a very limited knowledge of a system. It takes only one good shot to end a fight. Prize fighters often gain a reputation for one or two strong attributes, around which they build their entire career.

The basic skills form the foundation from which you execute all techniques. Martial artists fail at fighting when they lack one or more of the basic skills. They lack conditioning. This is not only the hardening of the anatomical weapons, but also encompasses flexibility, muscular development, balance, movement, speed, timing, an so on.

These skills, or attributes, require constant development and refining if they are to be maintained. People mistakenly claim to “know” martial arts. This is relevant in a teaching capacity, but the intended implication is that “knowing” martial arts equates to competent self-defense ability. Knowledge alone is not sufficient without active training. Understanding how to kick and punch is of limited use unless the body can meet the demands of application.

Certain skills, are emphasized more or less, depending on the particular approach to fighting. When it comes to striking systems, damaging force is the requirement, yet it is this very force that most would-be strikers lack. Very often, these practitioners actually manage to land some of their blows. The problem is, the strikes fail to stop the opponent.

There is debate regarding the need for exceptional power when pressure points are struck, but realistically, most practitioners will not be able to strike such targets accurately in a live scenario. Even under ideal circumstances, pressure points which may be painful when manipulated in the dojo, will not necessarily be effective against an enraged attacker. One can theorize indefinitely, but theory must be tested through experimentation.

If you discover that you actually can reliably incapacitate opponents with pressure point attacks, then you have a rare ability. If not, you might consider conditioning yourself to generate real knockdown power.

Self Defensiveness

If a technique seems weak to you, do not simply accept it because it is a traditional teaching. Practitioners become so defensive of their chosen art that they blind themselves to its faults.

Assess your skills honestly and discover whether the fault is within the technique itself, or in your misinterpretation of it. If you do not understand how to properly apply it, then it is not useful, at least, not for you. There is always the temptation to settle for bad technique because it requires less effort.

Others judge you by your weaknesses. Even if you have many proven techniques and only a few questionable ones, critics are quick to point out the ineffective aspects of your system. While this is not completely fair, it is a predictable reaction. If you can hold yourself to such a standard, it will allow you to weed out any vulnerabilities you may have otherwise overlooked.

In order to avoid getting swept up in all the half-truths, you would be prudent to ground yourself with basic skills.

Forms and Formalities

A combative martial art is a discipline and, as such, can be used as a method of culminating strength, control, and inner peace. Still, let us not forget that the primary purpose of a martial art is the development of practical fighting ability.

I strongly believe that this ability is intertwined with the other spiritual and mental benefits of martial arts. The development of fighting skill holds you to a more accurate and authentic practice of your chosen system. To reap the full benefit of a discipline, you must seek to understand it in its true form. Otherwise, you are merely dabbling in a parody. One must master fighting in order to master a combative martial art.

Economics and a “supportive” attitude may tempt an instructor to advance unqualified students simply because they have “paid their dues.” Over-ranking students does a disservice to the art. Incompetence spreads exponentially as unqualified practitioners go out to teach others. It fosters the cycle of dilution and consequent revision of countless systems.

New names are usually employed to uniquely distinguish each revision. This results in a thousand styles, or a thousand names really, all based on the same core techniques and hoping to accomplish the same goal.

Styles have different forms and formalities which make them appear unique on the training floor, but most times, once practitioners step up to fight, you cannot easily determine who is representing what style. The effective applications boil down to the same basic techniques.

Most martial schools share the same kernel of truth because they are all based on achieving effective fighting skill. Lots of excess baggage gets packed on in the process of revision and re-revision, with each new master presenting his own interpretation. There are plenty of genuine and useful insights thrown into the mix, but there is also a lot of junk.