Battle of the Century – Whose tradition is traditional?

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“That’s wrong! Let me show you the ‘traditional’ back stance, front kick, foot sweep, [INSERT MOVE HERE].” People call upon tradition to disparage other martial art styles to a degree I find shocking. Unless you can trace your lineage back to the Bodhi Dharma then I am not sure what stake you can plant in the ground about one tradition being more traditional than another. Many traditional styles are relatively modern and there are controversies on their true origins. Getting wrapped up in arguments and controversies doesn’t help anyone grow in martial arts. Just because a style is modern and may or may not have ancient origins does not make it ineffective or less “traditional”. It is okay to be proud of your style and hold true to the traditional nature of it. However, that pride does not make your style more traditional than others.

It is easy to see the similarities in certain moves from different styles. Some people then take another step and observe the differences then claim that those differences are “wrong”. If one is evaluating the execution of a kata and the practitioner mixes styles in that execution, the performance of that kata is wrong. The kata was not performed correctly. That does not mean the technique is inferior (or “wrong”) when executed by a practitioner of the other style. Martial arts evolve in a crucible. The moves are tested over time. If a move proves to be ineffective, it has a tendency to be eliminated.

This is not to say that watered down versions of traditional styles are effective. A modern interpretation of a traditional style can be weaker than the original. That weakness is the fault of the teaching style not the martial art style itself. Short cutting training and testing helps no one. Modern societies get softer as they become more affluent. The softer nature of people and the litigious nature of society create an environment where softer versions of martial arts can flourish. We also have this fetish that everyone needs to win. Martial arts training is hard for a purpose. Not everyone is going to make it to black belt and that is okay.

The most common way an art gets watered down is the reduction or elimination of moves that are difficult to master. You can see this in tests that allow students to advance without a full mastery of the requirements. The degradation is manifested in sloppy chambers and stances. It can also occur in schools that only test students on the latest requirements rather than all the requirements from white belt to the belt level being tested. If you only test the student on the purple belt requirements, not white through purple, the student has a tendency to only practice the more advanced requirements and ignore the foundation requirements. If you have students that are only proficient in the latest requirements, you are not passing along your tradition adequately and your style will get watered down over time. Instead of wasting your time expressing how great your style is as compared to others, you should spend time training and understanding your style including your lineage and its history.

It is important to know the history of your style. As a martial arts practitioner, you have the responsibility to preserve your tradition and understand your system. Martial arts are passed from teacher to student. If you do not know your style inside and out, you risk passing down a watered down version of your style. Style history can be hard to find because the loudest voices, not necessarily the most accurate, are the ones recorded. If you spout off about your style without knowing the history, you risk being embarrassed by disparaging a martial art style only to learn that your style was influenced by, if not loosely based on, that style.

Fighters fight. Martial artists try to grow through their training. Arguing about whose style is better comes across as a “my dad is better than your dad” argument. It is important for us, as a martial arts community, to appreciate our similarities and differences. There are many traditions and they have all made it through the test of time. It is important for us all to preserve the traditions and not let them get watered down by people afraid to get hit in the face or think that belt tests are too hard. Let’s all appreciate each other; train and live with intention; and be a strong and united martial arts community. We can fight each other in tournaments.


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