Is hierarchy destroying the Martial Arts?

A system of hierarchy is something that the Martial Arts, and especially traditional Martial Arts, are built upon. While the elusive and often coveted Black Belt (gasp, oooh, ahhh) should not be the main goal of training, it is often a useful motivational tool for those who struggle with self-discipline and attending class, especially after the initial high of learning a new Martial Art has worn off. So while hierarchy, or belts and levels can be a fantastic tool within the Martial Arts, there are also some drawbacks which are often overlooked or not address.

Black Belt Is hierarchy destroying the Martial Arts?

Levels or grades can be intimidating for those just beginning in the arts.

I am sure we all remember our first ever martial arts class – walking in to a sea of white pajamas, feeling completely out of place and wondering why the hell you walked through the front door in the first place. Let’s face it. Walking in to a room full of people willingly kicking, punching and throwing each other about, and agreeing to participate when you have no clue what you’re doing – can be a little scary.

Of course, those of us that teach know this and should instantly make the new person feel super welcome. We should let them know there is nothing to worry about and that we won’t go in to full on sparring until at least week two right…?

It can still be a little scary however, and the presence of colored belts or grades adds to this intensity. The black belts are the ones to be avoided at all costs as they are basically ninjas and you can just stand at the side of the class with the other white belts, desperately trying to remember your left and right as a fully grown man or woman. All while doing your best to ensure you don’t make a nasty stain in your beautiful new white gi bottoms…

At no time is this more prevalent than at major seminars. I have been lucky enough to attend a number of seminars with high ranking instructors in various martial arts and often saw the instructors gathered together. Black and brown belts together, and then lower grades together, both in training and socially after.

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In training at these events, if you can pluck up the courage to ask a brown or black belt to train with you as a beginner, this can be a big deal, but I remember seeing the disappointment on their face at being paired with a lower grade. The clock watching from them began and you could tell, they just weren’t feeling it. This obviously left me… and I’m sure other beginners, feeling a little dejected! I seemed to be an annoyance and someone holding them back from really achieving the maximum in their training, and this happened on a number of occasions, not just with myself, but with many other lower grades I talked to. Black belts trained with the black belts and the white belts trained together slowly mastering the art of putting one foot in front of the other without falling over from nerves.

This seemed an unspoken rule but saying this I have been to other seminars where the visiting instructor has actively encouraged the senior grades to train with the lower grades for a while, before then training with someone equal in terms of experience. This does however, seem the minority, not the majority.

This – as stated above, also translated to hierarchy off the mats at the socials afterwards. The post training beer at the local boozer and meal would see a similar situation. Instructors and high ranking students sitting on a table together, laughing, joking and drinking. While lower students would often be on a separate table, missing out on the experiences and stories from the high ranking instructor’s years in the arts. It seemed as though this almost had to be earned in a way – an almost VIP to hang around with the cool kids!

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Is this the way it should be?

Levels or grades can lead to some delusions of grandeur.

We have all done it and all been there. The new “black belt dickhead”. You’ve just got your black belt, you think you’re the dog’s danglies. You walk into the dojo, chest out, head high, smiling and nodding to all the stupid lower grades that know jack shit.

This could last a day, a week, a month, but at some point – you will realize. You are not the dog’s danglies, your head will go down, your chest will sink in and you will realize you are that dickhead you took the piss out of when you were a white belt. The guy who thinks he knows it all!

For some this can take quite a long time to realize. For others, they have yet to realize…

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But in terms of the arts, this can be an issue. As a black belt, you instantly want to start teaching and imparting the knowledge you have acquired. But here’s the thing. It may not be all that good!

Sure you have a black belt. But that just means you have put the hours in and know the techniques/requirements to pass the grade. Oh my friend, the journey is just beginning ad you have such a long way to go until you are ready to impart the knowledge you think you are capable of!

Sure you can help out with some basics, but trying to teach too much too soon can just be more detrimental than anything. You can teach bad habits which then need to be un-learnt by the student. Or, heaven forbid, you teach something that is completely the opposite or in contradiction to what your instructor is trying to convey, be it in a class or seminar.

For some, black belt means you are ready to teach and nearly at the end of your journey, this is completely the wrong attitude and can be a problem with having this hierarchical nature in the martial arts – especially the traditional ones.

At the end of the day, we are all just students

We are all just students of the martial arts at the end of the day, whether you have been training for one month or for 10 years, you still want to just improve yourself and learn more. The best teachers and martial artists are those that continue to learn even though they are considered by many to be at the very top of their game. An excellent example of this can be Guro Dan Inosanto. In an interview done with one of his top students – the legendary Bob Breen in my book Martial Masters Volume 1 – Bob talks about Dan’s day to day routine and how he is constantly on the go and learning new arts, be it in striking or ground such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu!

Hierarchy can sometimes hinder this when we think we have reached the illustrious black belt, we can rest on our laurels and chill. This should be where the training really ramps up, test what you know, evolve it, develop it and make the style uniquely your own – Bruce Lee Style.

How many of us truly do this however, and how many of us simply think we know what we are doing now all due to the fact we now have a different colored bit of cloth around our waste? We all unfortunately have an ego, and we all like it when that ego is massaged, especially on the mats.

The traditional martial arts can be a great place to have your ego massaged as once you reach black belt you are sometimes placed on a pedestal and thought to have more knowledge than others. This is fine until it’s tested and if you can back up the goods, awesome, if not. Your ego may be a little bruised rather than massaged.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a great example here of an art that has adapted more to this hierarchical system through competition. Any newbie walking into a new BJJ class should know that they will be tapped out… a lot. It is part of the process and keeps your ego in check from the get go.

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Even at black belt level, competitors still compete or even just roll with their students, and it takes one mistake to be caught in a submission and realize that you are not invincible and some sort of black belt demi-god! Sure you should be tapped out WAY less than a white belt, but it can still happen! Yet how many traditional martial arts have this same mentality where the instructor is shown to be a mere human?!

For me, martial arts are about ego checking and we often tell our students to leave their ego’s at the door when they train. How many instructors follow through with this too however…?

Always interested to hear your thoughts… Let me know!

Why Aikido has lost its relevance…

It’s been a while guys I know and I apologise for this! It’s been a busy time building my business and just general life along with a lack of inspiration for posts recently, but we’re back and you can start seeing more from The Martial View again.

I was scrolling through Facebook a few days ago as I tend to do along with most of the global population when I saw that Steven Seagal was coming to my hometown of Lincoln for an evening with event…

Intriguing I thought and although I’ve never been a huge fan of his personally I thought I’d read on and see what people thought…

Wow that guy is not popular haha! So many derogatory comments on him as a person, his films and also him as a martial artist. This got me thinking… Why has Aikido become in a way, the laughing stock of the martial arts?

I’m a big fan of the art, having studied it for over 20 years and holding a 3rd Degree black belt in Yoshinkan Aikido but that doesn’t mean that I also can’t see its (eek, many) limitations! But just when did Aikido go from being a well practiced and respected martial art to losing it’s credibility and more importantly, why did this occur?

Did it all go wrong? If so – where?

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The founder of Aikido – Morihei Ueshiba was born in 1883 and died in 1969. A passionate martial artist, he mastered the arts of Daito Ryu Aikijiujitsu, as well as Ken Jitsu (Sword) and Jo Jitsu (Staff) as well as being a deeply religious and spiritual man, following the practices of the Omoto Kyu and it’s founder Onisaburo Deguchi. This martial influence, combined with his spiritual beliefs, led to the development of what would become Aikido.

When Aikido was first being developed, it was a highly sought after and popular martial art in Japan. Indeed you had to have two referrals from current students in order to study, and many famous martial artists from other styles regularly came to the Hombu Dojo to train with Ueshiba Sensei.

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A young Morihei Ueshiba

To understand what changed, it’s important to look at the roots of Aikido and therefore Daito Ryu Aikijiujitsu. Jiu-Jitsu as an art was originally developed by the Samurai to defend themselves in battle if they lost their weapon and therefore focused on the weak points of the body when armor was being worn. However, when the Samurai class was disbanded in 1868, jiu-jitsu and other martial arts began to be seen as distinctly uncool and irrelevant to society as a whole.

Many martial arts teachers at that time then ceased to practice their art finding it impractical yet there were a few exceptions – one of whom was Jigoro Kano who not only started to practice Jiu-Jitsu but mastered it and developed it to fit a more modern era, and hence Judo was born.

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Jigoro Kano – Founder of Judo

Kano competed against many other styles of Jiu-Jitsu, consistently winning and showing its ability as a martial art not to be messed with, so much so that he sent his top students across the seas to the USA where there was no Donald Trump and so the Japanese were free to come and show the martial art of Judo in various competitions.

In 1914, Judo hit Brazil and in 1917, one Carlos Gracie was introduced to Jiu-Jitsu and I’m sure you can see where this is going…

Carlos continued to study Jiu-Jitsu and pass it on to his brothers, one of whom was Helio Gracie, who, as a skinny child, was unable to perform many of the techniques required of him. This led him to adapt the techniques to overcome his physical boundaries and hence the foundations of what we now see as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) emerged. This art was so effective it led the Gracie brothers to start hosting a no holds barred competition, style vs style called Vale Tudo where they cleaned up at competitions! When they went to promote this style in the USA, the name Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu emerged to differentiate between the traditional Japanese style.

Then 1993 happened which I am sure we are all aware was the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event. This aimed to pit style against style, striker vs grappler, striker vs sumo, sumo vs the salad bar etc etc and see which art would come out on top. Guess what – Royce Gracie smashed through the competition and BJJ was crowned victorious.

How fair the contest was is now in debate after the video below from legend Bill Superfoot Wallace aired a few home truths after he commentated on the first UFC, but no-one can doubt that BJJ is a functional martial art for sports and competition and was a main influence on the development of what is now known as MMA combining striking, wrestling and grappling.

Hence function and applicability became the basis of modern MMA and martial arts in today’s society.

And this folks, is where Aikido loses its relevance. The founder O Sensei, as already said was a deeply spiritual man and therefore disapproved of any form of competition, preferring to see Aikido as a way of uniting people together, rather than seeing who is the victor and who is the loser. A lovely sentiment I’m sure we can all agree – but a little tricky to navigate in the martial arts world…

Hence Aikido failed to develop through competition. It failed to be tested and therefore evolve through it’s weak points and even in training, partners work together to make the techniques work with very little if any active sparring or real resistance bar a few schools/instructors that do offer this. Aikido is steeped in tradition and spirituality which is exactly what the founder wanted, but does leave it open to criticism today as it has never truly been tested. Many of the top teachers also failed to develop themselves after the founder’s passing, wanting to respect and preserve the art he had developed. Some went off to study more of the spiritual side such as Koichi Tohei who practiced Ki Aikido otherwise known as Jedi Aikido…

Whereas others looked at more dynamic, precise and arguably more practical Aikido such as Shioda Gozo who developed Yoshinkan Aikido that was taught to the Japanese Riot Police and looked less at spirituality and rather body mechanics of putting yourself in a strong position, while putting your opponent in a weak one.

The problem still remains however that Aikido is steeped in Japanese tradition, even down to the way the techniques are practiced. As you can see from the video above, strikes are given willingly and usually pre-arranged as well as being traditional sword strikes e.g. Shomen Uchi (front strike), Yokomen Uchi (side strike) etc. Do they have power? Most certainly and just one look at Yoshinkan Aikido and the video above and I’m sure anyone can see the power as well as the evidence from knockouts in videos. Yet rarely do we see these techniques being applied in a real context to any great effect without the use of Hollywood effects and a certain Aikido practitioner with a pony tail, inflated ego and delusions of grandeur.

So

There are of course exceptions to the rule and I have been fortunate enough to train with some fantastic Aikido Sensei’s, most of whom also have experience of other martial arts however or at least train with others who also study other arts. These are the guys that are able to make Aikido work for them and adapt it to a real situation in terms of self defence. They arent stuck in tradition, but respect the art. They also understand however, that Aikido needs to evolve with the times if it is to stay relevant or risk becoming simply a way of staying healthy, much like Tai Chi has become to many, rather than a martial system.

Maybe it is time to see the roots of Aikido i.e. Jiu-Jitsu applied in a more realistic setting? Do wrist locks, shoulder locks etc work in the street? Arguably yes. But how? How many people grab your wrist in a street? How can you apply a wrist lock against a fully resisting opponent really wanting to hurt you?

Maybe this is what we need to see more of if Aikido is to be relevant…

Watch this space…

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A week to remember!

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Wow what a week it’s been! It’s been so good but all flown by in a blur! Firstly the Martial Artists Supporting Children with Cancer charity event in founder Lucci Del-Gaudio’s home town in Nottingham, then a BJJ masterclass by none other than the legend himself – Royce Gracie!!

Martial Artists Supporting Children with Cancer Nottingham

I’ll admit I was looking forward to this event for weeks. The Martial Artists Supporting Children with Cancer events have been around the country the past few months, raising money with awesome events with awesome martial artists, and this one was to be in Lucci’s home town of Nottingham so was extra special! If there was a who’s who of people I wanted to train with the UK, they were all at that event! The legendary Trevor Roberts was there teaching, the awesome and inspirational Eddie Quinn who I’ve been dying to meet for a while, the fantastically practical Russell Jarmesty and the awesome Sifu Peter Mogridge among many others! Defence Lab was there being represented by the talented Charles Hartnett and Mikey Wright, Anthony Pillage was there as ever showing his support and a wealth of knowledge and talent was all placed in a sports hall in Nottingham.

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Highlights? Eddie Quinn was top of the list for me, teaching an inspirational and fun seminar where he tried to condense 3 hours of info into 1 hour! We even got to play a game of Dodgeball and it was great to see a whole room full of well known martial artists dodge, duck, dip, dive and….dodge, then translate this into their striking! Russell Jarmesty was another one I was looking forward to meeting having chatted with him a few times online, over the phone and seen his stuff like his `Mean Streets` app, check the review here. He didn’t disappoint and did a great little section on practical jiu-jitsu he tested working on the doors.

What an awesome day!!

Royce Gracie Seminar

Wow, what can I say. It’s not everyday you get to train with legendary UFC winner Royce Gracie. Basically the guy that kicked off MMA and made Gracie Jiu-Jitsu the force to be reckoned with that it is today. The event was awesome, catching up with friends at Anthony Pillage’s fantastically well equipped academy in Coventry and learning some BJJ from the very best! We looked at takedowns, chokes, armbars and defences, giving a great overview with various levels attending from those in their BJJ gi’s and blue/purple belts, to others who had never done BJJ in their life. Energy, awesome, instructor, awesome, facilities, awesome, overall….awesome!

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It’s going to be a great few months of martial arts, from awards dinners (nominated for an MAI Hall of Fame), to trips abroad, to trips around the UK seeing friends and learning more!

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1st November we have our next Martial Artists Supporting Children with Cancer event in my home town of Lincoln! We have 10 awesome instructors lined up that I had a hand in picking and a great mix of styles! All done in the great Function First Academy! Be there people!

MASCWC A week to remember!