Understanding context

Discussions on martial arts forums frequently turn into arguments about the nature of “real fights” or “real violence”, as if that nature could be summed up in a sound bite supporting the speaker’s preferred approach to training. Realistically, the topic of violence and how to survive it is a massive area of study – in fact so huge that no one on this planet is expert in all of it. Consider the following examples:

Two school children tackling each other on the playground while the kids around shout “fight! fight! fight!”
A battered wife trying to fend off an abusive husband
A SWAT team raiding the house of a suspected drug dealer
Two drunk idiots slugging it out on a bar room floor
A team of bouncers working together to eject said drunks from the premises
A squad of infantry advancing under fire
A teenage girl trying to dissuade a date rapist
Two professional MMA fighters facing off for a championship
Two samurai of the Edo period facing off in a duel of honor
A street gang putting a beat down on a couple of strangers for wandering into the wrong neighborhood
An unstable individual who feels alienated from society running amok in an attempt to kill as many people as possible
Two friends coming to blows over hurt feelings
A mugger brandishing a knife in order to get money for drugs

These are just a very few of the forms physical violence can take. Some involve weapons, some do not. Some are one-on-one encounters, some involve groups. Some are life and death, some are not. Some involve professionals who are prepared for the encounter, some involve untrained individuals who are taken by surprise, some involve both. There are certain commonalities between many of these situations. There are also many important differences – the techniques, tactics, and preparation that are appropriate for one may be totally wrong for another.

Martial arts are just as varied. They were developed in different times and places by different individuals facing different needs and challenges. Much of the argument about whether a certain martial art or a certain technique “works” could be resolved by understanding the context that art or technique was developed for. More importantly, if we as martial artists don’t understand the context our art was developed for then we are likely to get in trouble applying it inappropriately in the wrong situation.

Understanding the context of a martial art can be tricky. The “history” passed down by many martial arts instructors is wildly inaccurate. Myths are built up around speculation, hero-worship, and wishful thinking. It is necessary to gather information from as many first hand sources as possible and then apply critical thinking.

(For my Tae Kwon Do friends, I’m sorry, but flying kicks were never used to knock cavalry soldiers off their horses.)

For an example of understanding context, let’s look at a particular class of technique – standing wristlocks. Wristlocks are common in jujutsu, aikido, hapkido, chin na, and a variety of other arts. In recent years, there has been some criticism of their validity as a realistic tactic, because we have never seen them used successfully in MMA. In decades of competition with thousands of fights between skilled martial artists no one has ever pulled one off. If you try the experiment of applying any standing wristlock in a hard-contact sparring session, you will find it exceedingly difficult.

Yet on the other hand, I’ve heard testimony from police officers, bouncers, and correctional officers that they have successfully used wristlocks in real-life confrontations. What’s going on? The standard response from the anti-MMA crowd – that MMA is just a “sport” with rules – doesn’t seem relevant. Wristlocks have always been perfectly legal in MMA.

The answer comes when you realize that standing wristlocks are a grappling equivalent of a sucker punch – something that you hit the other guy with before he realizes the fight has started. Many fights are preceded by a period of trash-talking, posturing, and shoving while the participants build up a full head of steam. A skilled practitioner can use that opportunity to slip on a wristlock and gain control of a subject before the punches start flying. On the other hand, if you try to apply a standing wristlock to a competent fighter who has already begun fighting your odds are not good. That is not the context these techniques were developed for.

If you understand the context that your art was developed for and you understand the rules that apply to different forms of violence, then you have a good chance of knowing how and when to use your training appropriately. I strongly recommend that any serious martial artist go beyond the practice of physical techniques to study this in depth.

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2 Responses to Understanding context

  1. Really nice post Tony! Love your blog!

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