This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…”, check out this article by writer Kyle Robertson on Karate and Martial Arts.
Karate and Martial Arts
by Kyle Robertson
Purpose and Philosophy of Martial Arts Training
Many people see the martial arts simply as an exercise of strength and skill. However, this is far from the truth.
While it’s true that a major goal of martial arts is to learn self-defense techniques and improve physical stamina and conditioning, a large philosophical component is also involved.
At its core, mastering the martial arts is supposed to put one more in touch with themselves and in harmony with the world around them. Most martial arts practitioners also value community service, outdoor activity, and contemplative exercises such as meditation.
In addition, many people base their understanding of a martial arts fight from what they see in movies with stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Chuck Norris. While the various techniques demonstrated in these movies are sound for the most part, the depiction of martial artists taking part in prolonged fight scenes is not.
For a true martial artist, the first goal is always to avoid conflict whenever possible. However, if action becomes necessary, the goal of training is to enable someone to, when confronted with a physical threat, to block an attack, and then use full-body motion to land a single focused blow to a vital point on the body (groin, neck, solar plexus, etc.).
When performed correctly, all a martial artist should need is a single move to render an opponent helpless.
For a true martial artist, force should not be used wantonly or freely, but only in defense of life when no other alternatives are present. A martial artist trains to make their entire body, not just their hands and feet, a weapon that is ready for use at any time.
Most techniques will not be effective unless they have the power of the entire body behind them, as well as in-depth knowledge of how the body itself works. If done correctly, this can lead to victory in a fight for a martial artist over an opponent who is much larger and stronger than they are.
History of Martial Arts
The history of martial arts is immensely complex and rich, as the practice has been going on all over the world for thousands of years.
Most martial arts evolved from soldiers in combat being taught certain techniques to improve their skill and get a leg up on the enemy, particularly without having to use a weapon (thus the idea of an empty-handed warrior).
In some cases, peasants taught themselves who to defend their villages using only empty hand techniques or farm implements. In more modern times, some martial arts also have a more performance component and are used mainly for friendly competition rather than self-defense.
Most martial arts have roots in the Asian continent, with China (Kung Fu), Japan (Karate), and Korea (Tang Soo Do) all developing various arts that were later exported to other countries.
However, there are other places that have developed them, including Latin American nations (Judo, Jujitsu). For a long time martial arts teachings were restricted to the elite of society, but in more modern times have gained acceptance with the general population.
Skills Learned in Martial Arts
Physical improvement, including conditioning, timing, technique, strength, and agility are all developed in the martial arts, with the goal of making the body a weapon and all parts of the body to be toughened as much as possible and function as one in a fight.
Mental components are also taught, including concentration, obedience, self-control, memorization, reflexes, and self-confidence.
Finally, spiritual growth is a big part of martial arts and can vary between disciplines: however, some common values and beliefs include patriotism, humility, respect, integrity, honesty, and above all perseverance.
In addition, most martial arts schools teach students techniques both in their native language and the language of the art’s origin, making students fluent in another language.
For sparring purposes, most martial artists carry some kind of sparring gear with them—foam padding for the feet, hands, head, and shins similar to what boxers and other athletes might use. Mouth guards and groin cups are also recommended.
Martial artists are also taught to use several different weapons depending on their skill level—most students start with a simple staff, and then move on to bladed weapons including knives and swords, with nunchucks and even canes as additional possibilities for higher levels.
A universal requirement of martial arts is a class uniform consisting of usually loose-fitting white jackets and pants, along with a colored belt symbolizing the student’s rank in the art.
Breakdown of Training Components
There are many different parts of martial arts training, all with their own specific purposes. Some common components include:
Drill and Conditioning—conditioning can include basic exercises like push-ups, crunches, sit-ups, and stretching, while “drill” consists of instructors giving commands for single or combination techniques for the purpose of group practice.
Forms—forms are long, organized strings of techniques with a definitive starting and ending point, usually symmetrical, meant to simulate an actual fight, and are one of the most recognizable and common components of martial arts. They can be performed both with and without weapons.
One-Step Sparring—this controlled sparring simulates attack and defense, with pairs of students. One student attacks either by punching or kicking while stepping forward, while the other steps back and defends with a set technique, of which there are usually many different options (students may have to learn and memorize 30 or more different moves).
Colloquially called “one-steps”, these techniques can also be extended to two-steps and three-steps by adding simple blocks and more attacks before the actual required technique. These can also include how to defend against weapon attacks, like a staff or a knife.
Free Sparring—probably the most recognized component of martial arts training, free sparring puts a pair of martial artists in a ring with multiple judges and allows them to engage in real-time physical combat—albeit usually with padding and protective gear.
A point system is usually used to track who wins a match, with only certain areas (chest above the waist, side of the head) being acceptable to hit and others (back, legs, groin, face) being unacceptable.
Self-Defense—self-defense techniques differ from one-steps because no actual attack is involved.
Instead, one student uses a number of different grips or holds (headlocks, bear hugs, wrist grabs, etc.), and the other student is expected to free himself or herself while incapacitating their opponent.
This is usually accomplished through varying methods of joint locks (again, a student usually learns from 20 to 30 different techniques) and requires much less physical effort, but rather a good knowledge of body mechanics and motion.
Breaking—whether it’s wood, concrete, or another substance, a good martial artist is expected to be able to use nearly any technique they learn to break something. It is generally accepted that if you can break a wooden board, you can break a bone.
Breaking has a large mental component as well as a physical one and requires full-body motion to be successful, and so younger students often struggle with it at first.
Break-falls—part of learning how to fight is learning how to take a hit, and therefore how to fall.
Break-falls are taught to lower the chance of injury from falling, with several variations (front, back, sides, and rolls), and to break common but bad habits like trying to use a stiff, extended arm to brace yourself while falling.
Meditation—most martial arts also have forms of quiet contemplation, where breathing exercises are used to slow a student’s heart rate either after or before exercises and relax them for physical or mental reasons.
Promotion and Ranks
The concept of ranks and promotions, showing a student’s progress in achieving mastery of a martial art, vary from art to art.
There is usually a certain amount of class time needed to become eligible for promotion to another rank, along with both a written test and a physical test to ensure physical and mental competence with new material.
With each new belt level, students are expected to learn and master new forms, one-steps, and self-defense techniques among other things, and expand their general knowledge of the art and its history and traditions.
Students usually progress through different colors of belt showing their level of mastery, starting with the basic white belt. Progression order and colors used are different for every martial art, and can include colors like orange, yellow, green, blue, brown, and red.
The final goal of any martial artist is black belt, showing true mastery and the ability to pass on martial arts knowledge to others. There are also different levels, or “degrees”, of black belt, which can be advanced through with time, leading up to the rank of master.
Obtaining a black belt can take the average student anywhere from 3 to 6 years. A master’s rank can take 20 or more years of constant training to achieve.
Where Training Takes Place
Practice of martial arts techniques can take place almost anywhere, from inside the home to an outdoor venue like a park or yard.
Most organized classes, however, take place in a central location or studio (sometimes called a dojo or dojang, among other names).
Students are highly encouraged to practice on their own time outside of class in order to improve their competency and techniques.
Protocol in Martial Arts
While individual martial arts instructors can have varying level of comfort and familiarity with their students, all martial artists observe a strict code of personal decorum and protocol that is expected to extend into their dealings with others in everyday life.
Most martial arts classes are very structured and have an orderly, almost militaristic feel to them. Titles like master and others are very important, and younger students are always expected to show deference and respect both to their superiors and their elders.
In some disciplines, students are encouraged to refer to their instructors as “sir” or “ma’am”, while others simply use earned titles like master or sensei.
Who Can Become a Martial Artist?
Anyone! That’s the beauty of the martial arts. While it certainly helps to have a certain level of physical mobility and stamina which allows younger people to perform techniques more easily, the point of the martial arts is that anyone, no matter how old or young, strong or weak, can capably defend themselves when taught correctly.
This involves being aware of the limitations of your own body and making some techniques that may not come as easily work for you. It also requires a great deal of mental toughness, patience, and perseverance.
Many instructors are fond of saying that the only way a student will fail to make black belt is if they quit first.
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Kyle Robertson lives in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area, and is the author of such works as the historical fiction/crime drama The Showstopper! and the young adult fantasy/satire “Camp Ferguson” series (Camp Ferguson and Jack Ferguson Strikes Back).
He doesn’t like to confine himself to any one genre and enjoys writing and crafting stories of all kinds.
In his free time, he enjoys playing games of all kinds, listening to or playing music on his guitar, devouring movies and TV shows, going on outdoor adventures, and working to improve himself in the martial arts.
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