What makes a style?

The following post is adapted from a comment I made in a discussion over at MartialTalk.

Some folks were having some argument over the definition and the boundaries of a martial arts style. One perspective which came up is that a martial arts style is a discrete, static thing in itself – an integrated collection of principles, tactics, techniques, and training methods formed for a specific purpose in a specific historical context. From this perspective, new material brought in by an individual instructor which isn’t tied to that original context isn’t actually part of the system. From this perspective, making any significant changes to the principles or tactics of the style means that you’ve basically made a new style and abandoned the old one.

This is a valid perspective and useful for many purposes. It helps to understand why things are done a certain way in a particular art. It explains why many new arts created by wannabee grandmasters fail to amount to much. Often these would-be Bruce Lees throw together techniques and drills derived from arts with very different foundations of movement principles and tactical doctrine resulting in pieces that fail to add up into a coherent whole.

A different but still valid perspective is that this Platonic ideal of a martial art doesn’t actually exist anywhere in reality. There are only individual human beings doing whatever it is they do at different points in their lives and choosing to call it by various names. Without those individuals, there is nothing in the real world that you can point to and say “this is Goju Ryu, this is Tai Chi.”

From this perspective, you start to realize that a “style” can evolve in its techniques, principles, tactics, and training methods while still retaining the same name. It can evolve in the practice of a single practitioner over years of study. It can evolve as a series of teachers and students adapt the art to their individual needs and sensibilities. This evolution doesn’t have to be linear, it can be branching in different directions – within a community of practitioners of a given “style” there may be individuals applying different principles to the “same” art. Conversely, there may be individuals who are training in essentially the same way as each other but calling their system by a different name because of political splits between teachers.

Realizing that humans are often inconsistent helps to understand why some styles are not truly integrated in their principles, tactics, techniques, and training methods. I’ve seen schools where the kata used one set of movement principles, sparring used a different set, and the “self-defense” techniques used still another. Being descriptive rather than prescriptive, I’m not going to claim that these people aren’t practicing a real style (or that they’re practicing 3 styles under one name). People do what they do and they can call it what they like.

To put all this in concrete terms, I’ll look at my current primary art, BJJ. Putting aside Gracie family spin as much as possible, here’s my current understanding of BJJ history:

BJJ started in the 1920’s with Carlos Gracie, who had a foundation of only around 3 years of judo training. In the ensuing decades, the Gracie family (especially Carlos’s brother Helio) and their students developed the art into something uniquely their own. The primary crucible for this development was fighting. Specifically, it was fighting (for the most part) unarmed, one-on-one challenge matches in a culture heavily influenced by concepts of honor and machismo. In this context, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu practitioners fought thousands of fights in the ring, in the streets, in dojos, and on beaches. Most of these fights were against non-jiu jitsu practitioners (either street fighters or exponents of other martial arts). A large part of these would fall into the category of “social” violence for status and dominance. Rules were largely informal and socially enforced. (If we’re fighting and your friends jump in to help you, then my brothers will jump in on my side. If you bite or eye-gouge me, then I’ll get a dominant position and bite and eye-gouge you back.)

From this experience, the Gracie family developed an art with a coherent set of principles (relaxation, leverage, patience), tactics (control the distance, clinch, takedown, finish with ne-waza, staying safe from strikes all the time), techniques (originally from judo, but refined from experience, with more techniques added over time from other sources), and training methods (heavy on the sparring) for a specific context (challenge fighting in the macho Brazilian culture).

Even at this time, however, there was more to the art. The Gracie curriculum included a number of self-defense* techniques for dealing with unarmed and armed assaults in a non-challenge setting. Though not as well documented as the challenge matches, we have anecdotal testimony that these techniques were used successfully on a number of occasions. These used the same physical principles as the rest of the curriculum, but did not necessarily rely on the same tactical doctrines as were used for challenge matches. Strikes were part of the art. (Helio Gracie won one match by knocking out his opponent with a side kick.) In addition, over time a number of high-level practitioners started viewing jiu-jitsu as a vehicle for developing moral character.

*(By self-defense in this context I mean just the physical methods for dealing with an assault, not the larger study of avoiding the assault in the first place.)

In 1967, sport BJJ competition was introduced with rules and a point system. Originally the points were intended to reward actions that would be effective in a real fight. Over time, competitors began focusing on tactics that were effective within the confines of the rules without regard to combat effectiveness. As more and more practitioners began preparing for competition, many of them began neglecting major aspects of the art such as throws, striking, and striking defense. Instead they devoted that time and energy into perfecting increasingly sophisticated grappling maneuvers which are effective under the rules of the sport, but questionable for real fighting.

At the start of the modern MMA era, BJJ practitioners were able to win fights by using the classic Gracie jiu-jitsu tactical doctrine – control the distance and then get the clinch and takedown without ever having to engage in the striking range. Over time opponents learned and grew adept at distance management, takedown defense, and regaining the feet after a takedown. Nowadays that doctrine has been largely abandoned in high-level competition. MMA fighters train to handle all ranges and regard BJJ as something to use only while on the ground. (This approach is not limited to MMA competitors. I’ve had at least one high-level BJJ black belt tell me that he would never choose to go to the ground in a real fight – but that if someone takes him down they have a surprise waiting for them. Mind you, that individual is highly skilled at stand-up methods.)

In the interest of brevity I’ll omit details about methods from other arts which have migrated into BJJ and the adaption of BJJ methods for law-enforcement.

So all that said, what is BJJ? What is its purpose and context? What are its tactical doctrines?

Is it a complete method for fighting challenge bouts?
Is it a method for physical self-defense?
Is it a sport with a specific rule-set?
Is it a component in a larger set of skills for MMA or self-defense?
Is it a fun way to exercise?
Is it a vehicle for personal self-improvement?

My answer is that it can be any and all of these, depending on who is practicing it. I teach my beginners class largely from a self-defense standpoint (including some basics of avoidance and escape), but I try to lay the foundation for students who want to explore the rest of the art. I practice myself primarily for enjoyment and self-improvement, but I’m exploring the sport aspect for the sake of grasping the art as a whole.

I suspect that you could examine a lot of arts meaningfully from this sort of perspective.

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2 Responses to What makes a style?

  1. sandhillsbjj says:

    I’m really enjoying your writing and insights

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