How Martial Arts Students should be taught: Part 1

I would like to mention some things from Taiji Chuan’s training, but that would be using my internal knowledge, which people who don’t do that type of training won’t easily understand. Dan may understand it and see the connections I pulled, but that’s a different matter.

Instead I’ll use something akin to TKD, JKD, or hapkido. A few specific training methods should illustrate a few of my claims.

In general, the number one issue I have had with Korean or Japanese martial arts teaching (philosophy) is the attempt to acquire both mastery and technical proficiency at the same time. Moosool combined with mooye combined with moodo, using Sanko’s terms here. The way the training system is set up, it tries to push a student into these things all at the same time. And they get none of it as a result.

The many many techniques martial artists currently practice, were not designed with “moosool” in mind. These were techniques designed to counter other techniques. They are too complicated or advanced for merely technical proficiency. They are instead more geared towards moodo or mooye (such as aikido transformed from aikijutsu). Basic technical proficiency starts from learning the simplest, most basic, movement: gross motor skills. As fighters became more advanced and started using counters to techniques, counters to the counters had to be created, thus they became “complicated”. Thus a fighter that can counter, defend and counter attack, counter the counter, attack while defending, is near or beyond the point of mastery because it assumes the advanced student has the basics down. The Ancient Chinese arts achieved highly advanced internal concepts as early as 500 BC, if not before. Before the development of Wu-Shu, Neigong, Neijia, Yu Nue’s sword theory, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and so on and so forth, fighters spread their fighting techniques by word of mouth and a famous fighter was always known for his “technique” that he had honed to perfection. “Sanko the Kicker” may be the title appelated by popular appeal. These ancient mercenaries and fighters were not masters, but very proficient technicians that focused on one thing, and made it work. Proven by the fact that they were alive to tell about it. This then developed into advanced styles such as Taiji Chuan, Xingyi, Baghua, where the focus wasn’t on technique, but on dominating the battlefield strategically and logistically. So that even if you lose a tactical battle, your position is still so strong, you win anyways. The early basic fighters used the simplest moves they could find, trained it to high levels, and used just that. These were then “collated” together by schools or individuals, and transfred via forms or memorized patterns. Thus a good fighter could learn a lot just by doing the forms a few times, but borrowed techniques were never as effective as their namesake’s original developed skill/waza/jutsu.

By having low level students drill in these techniques, they are in essence dividing their time between different goals: the long term goal of mastery and the short term goal of technical proficiency (it works). Modern first or even second world students are not particularly born from a warrior culture nor do they undergo warrior or soldier training, necessarily. Thus they not only lack the physical attributes but also the mental attributes that the ancients took for granted when they created forms and teaching methods to transfer knowledge of techniques. This is combined with the fact that the ancient methods of self defense were lost in translation when karate migrated from Okinawan to Japan and then to Korea. Even if you had the ancient methods step by step transfered from the past, to today, you would still have issues. Just not as many as we see today with McDojos.

A rock to the back of the head “works” but it’s not considered mastery. A stomp to the head “works” but it isn’t considered to be a technical skill. Jumping into the air and landing with both feet on someone’s torso/body, will do more damage than 10 minutes of “ground and pound”, but it’s not considered a “technique”. What “works” is what “works”. And what first worked was Cain murdering Abel, or some caveman figuring a sharp obsidian stone or a rock could kill someone faster than his bare hands. Technical proficiency should never be about achieving mastery nor is it self defense via “proportional force”. That’s like putting the cart before the horse. Proficiency must be acquired first, else the things that were derived from mastery cannot be utilized by the student. And in terms of proficiency, the historical development was that lethal force methods came first, then non-lethal crippling/maiming blows, then non-lethal non-crippling techniques. In modern martial arts, they do it completely backwards. First they try to get a student to mastery and technical proficiency of the most advanced, most complicated material first. Then they work backwards in the timeline.

An example of a training method used is in TKD and karate: “one step sparring type drills“. I’ll use an example from TFT for comparison.

There’s a tendency on the part of MAs to think this is scripted or rehearsed, like one step sparring. It’s not, however. Those with a sufficient level in observation skills can see why. These students know what is about to happen about as much as Dan knows will happen in his kitchen training. Spontaneous reflex response based upon immediate judgment and reality. In the beginners case, it isn’t “immediate” but laggy. They’ll improve with time. The ruleset is very simple. Two turns as the attacker, two turns as the uke/reaction partner. Same as seen in Japanese arts even. But used in a very different fashion.

Instead of using a round house or side kick in TKD’s one step sparring, I would reduce the complexity and remove the elements of mastery from the curriculum for students that cannot as yet benefit from such elements. Instead if someone needs to learn how it feels to transfer power, using a palm thrust powered by the legs is just as good. And much simpler. TFT’s training system seeks to eliminate habits from the get go. No emphasis on any single technique, although many people seem to favor a certain sequence, if only because they want to work at it to improve. The idea is to take a simple move, learn it, apply it in absorbing principles, then discard the technique and find another technique that expounds on a different principle. Because fine motor techniques and techniques designed to “counter” other trained martial arts or ones that use advanced concepts forged through historical experience is absent, one can focus exclusively on proficiency without interference from the long term goal of mastery. In essence, they conflict and mutually annihilate each other. Mastery requires that a person reduce their habits. Proficiency actually tends to increase a person’s # of habits, until the point they are comfortable enough that they can get rid of those habits.

By teaching elements that require mastery, while a student has yet to achieve proficiency, is like a beginner in aikido. He’s not going to learn as fast as someone who already knew lethal force applications H2H that also went into aikido (such as a kenjutsu practitioner that learned aikijutsu as a backup in case of disarms/grappling/takedowns). The difference in rate isn’t because one is smart and the other dumb, or one is talented and the other talentless. It’s based upon degrees and orders of progress. One was out of order, the other was in order.

I see the same thing, dramatically simplified, in Tony Blauer’s SPEAR system.

Bruce Lee’s story is an interesting one and does factor heavily into the whole issue about learning through a pattern and learning through self discovery (freedom). We’ll continue with that later, hopefully.

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3 Comments on “How Martial Arts Students should be taught: Part 1”


  1. “In general, the number one issue I have had with Korean or Japanese martial arts teaching (philosophy) is the attempt to acquire both mastery and technical proficiency at the same time.”

    I hope that my discussion on Moosool, Mooye and Moodo did not bring you to this conclusion, for the purpose of that post was to show that these things do not occur at the same time, but over a very long period. (I’m speaking of course here from an ITF Taekwon-Do perspective.) Typically the ITF pedagogical paradigm suggests that one only really have good Moosool after about 10 years of practise, generally by the time you get your 4th Dan. While you may have started developing Mooye already, true Mooye will only occur once their is a very good Moosool foundation. In ITF one is only called a master at 7th Dan! (Unlike most other styles where one can start using the “master” title from 4th Dan.) The idea that Moosool, Mooye and Moodo are expected at all levels from the get go is not an appropriate assumption for ITF TKD at least and I don’t think for Hapkido either — at least not as I have trained it here in Korea.

    My Moosool, Mooye and Moodo article need to be read in conjunction with the article on the instructor titles used in ITF Taekwon-Do: http://sooshimkwan.blogspot.kr/2011/01/instructor-master-and-grandmaster.html

    I cannot talk much about WTF style taekwondo or Japanese styles, as I am not thoroughly trained in them.

  2. ymarsakar Says:

    Exactly so. There is an “ideal” progression. But when that progression is dead lined by distractions or inconsistent training patterns, what results is not the ideal but something that falls far short. Since humans are mortal and flawed, it is very easy for us to become waylaid or mislead on the Path, whatever you call that Path or its Goal. There are never enough people on this planet that can teach, transfer knowledge, and guide people, compared to the people that need this help/aid.

    Form follows function. When a form is said to be constructed from the end goal, and based upon the end goal, yet a beginner not even in sight of the end goal does it, this derails the train from the rails.

    The post of yours in question simply gave me the Korean terms, so I communicated using that as a shortcut for the bridge of understanding between you and me, us having come from different backgrounds and language/culture based arts. But these ideas or conclusions I have had for a couple of years now based upon other things.

    I do not mean that instructors expect proficiency and mastery at the same time from beginners. What I mean is irregardless of what instructors think they are doing, the function of their training tools are being used for produces that exact thing. Even if they don’t intend to do so. The effect of delays in students are caused by the misuse or misunderstanding of training tools, just as the misuse of a car or gun causes the effect of accidents whether people intended it or not. While many accidents are avoidable, some are not. Such is the same for the challenges facing a student. Not all can be removed, but more can be removed than is the case in the world of modern martial arts.


  3. […] need apply for a master. In the past I’ve written a more extensive amount on how martial arts should be taught to facilitate this goal. Having the right goal is certainly critical and important. If your goal is […]


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