The Dysmorphia of Martial Functionality & The Elephant in the Room!

I get asked all the time what do I think about X martial arts instructor, X style or method of martial arts. With the advent of social media, I made a decision that I would never comment by ‘name’ on other people’s work in the martial arts industry. The truth is, not only have I had my fair share of people taking a short video clip that may surface of my work totally out of context, but I am well aware of the martial trolls out there that just like to be assholes. I don’t want to be one of those guys. Notwithstanding, there are so many keyboard warriors these days, some of which are proclaimed experts in the field of martial arts themselves who love to trash talk other people’s work on social media — yet never produce anything of value themselves. At the very least, if you going to call out someone by ‘name’ and attempt to discredit what they are teaching, you should offer a visual counter method of what you believe would work.

This week was just another week on social media where someone’s video of them teaching a specific approach to a martial problem was criticised. Some people even wrote a lengthy blog article on what was wrong with what this person was teaching, calling him out by name. This specific event seemed to get more coverage than usual, as the person in question had received positive endorsements from other notable martial artists (thats for another blog article). I have no issue with people, even my contemporaries taking this specific person and their approach to task. If you are going to upload a video on a social media portal, expect that video to be scrutinised.

Many of the criticisms that were labelled against this particular individual and what he was teaching was I feel a fair assessment of the lunacy that was being presented. I actually don’t have much more to add in that respect. But the reason I am writing this, is because for all the very valid points made, it seemed that critics focused solely on the lack of martial functionality. Most of the critical responses then, remained in the realm of the physical (i.e., that would never go down like that in a real fight etc). All very valid points, except, I haven’t seen anyone address the Elephant in the Room!

The Elephant in the Room!

I watched that video too. Now maybe the person teaching really believed his own Kool Aid, or he was simply delusional. This may very well be the case (I don’t know the guy — but then there seems to be a lot of those ‘guys’ out there — surely way to many for all of them to be delusional right???). But what hadn’t been discussed is that there is a segment of people out there teaching martial arts (and training in it) who actually avoid functionality on purpose. They say what they are doing is reality, but they actually don’t want it to be real at all. I know that sounds insane, but bear with me.

I have seen this in my own trainers program. Everyone wants to be a bad ass, teach others how to kick ass, until they get punched hard in the face. What has always fascinated me, is that I have seen guys go from my program, where they have not only been exposed to functional martial arts, trained against resisting, uncooperative opponent/s — and where they have been educated time and time again about the difference between functional versus impractical (i.e., bullshit martial arts methods) — yet, then leave and go right back to the bullshit. This ‘going back’ then either lean’s towards the realm of reality based/unarmed combatives approaches where the demo’s are great but nothing is ever tested (even though they proclaim it has), or the more flowery traditional martial art systems that are akin more to a martial dance, than the reality of the fight.

I have always found that kind of behaviour really peculiar.

Why would someone go from a method that is functional, where testing your skills against an uncooperative opponent/s was the norm, and then leave, and go to martial arts methods that are often divorced from the reality of the fight? Or, avoid pressure testing all together in favour of always looking cool on the demo guy who doesn’t really fight back? The people I am describing here as noted, should know better, because they have been exposed to a method that advocates functional training first and foremost. Unless….Unless of course that’s the very thing they really didn’t want to experience in the first place. It’s going to sound insane again, but there are people out there that want to train and or teach martial arts but don’t actually want to test what they do for real.

Many of these guys who have left my program for bullshit martial arts methods, where the guys we always struggled with to get them to actually engage in pressure testing their skills. They had no issue doing drills where they couldn’t really mess up, but then when it came to actually performing those skills in reality, they needed to be pressed (or kicked in the ass) to spar. If we did get them to spar, they were the first to complain if it was a little too hard for their liking (even when it really wasn’t). They were the kind of guys who loved to tell other people what to do on the mat, and what it took to be the real deal — yet never wanted to be the people who actually consistently performed themselves. If they did perform, I watched them purposively take on opponents they knew before hand they could probably beat. I have always found it hilarious when I have noticed one of these guys dance around me for a whole hour during a sparring session, purposively avoiding sparring with me or anyone else for that matter who had game.

So what’s my point then?

Outside then of the lack of functionality often portrayed by some martial arts experts out there — what’s really going on is more than just the obvious physicality of what they teach that doesn’t work. The real reason they hide behind this facade of false martial expertise, is because they don’t actually want to be functional to begin with. To perform against someone who fights back, against someone who fights back unrehearsed, you then have no choice but to confront all of your inner bullshit too (in other words, being truthful to functionality, goes way beyond the physical).

Nowhere is this more evident than in live sparring. Sparring someone who brings their A game or anyone who offers you a real challenge isn’t easy. It can be a very uncomfortable inner experience. People are likely watching you too (and if you doing badly, your Ego doesn’t like that at either). There’s really no where to hide when you play the game for real. Who you truly are, not the badass you pretend to be, will be quickly exposed. Sure you can pretend you stepped off the mat once again because that bad shoulder injury came back, but all who perform around you know better.

Here Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective may be useful in understanding this phenomena. Goffman noted that the interaction between performer (in this instance the martial arts expert) and the audience (lets say students/seminar participants) is in itself a performance which is shaped by the environment and the audience. Here Goffman meant by ‘performance’ as referring to all the activity of an individual in front of a particular set of observers, or audience. This performance is further constructed to provide those towards whom it is directed with impressions (or what Goffman referred to as impression management) that are seen as consistent with the desired goals of the performer. As Goffman writes, “What is important is the sense he [the martial arts expert] provides them [the students] through his dealing with them of what sort of person he is behind the role he is in” (Goffman and Berger, 1986, p. 298).

In this sense, individuals manage roles they perform within specific social setting (e.g., the martial arts expert in front of his students) and as such, he attempts to manage the impressions he creates on them. Goffman called this the “front stage” self, where we display different kinds of behaviours depending on where we find ourselves, and specifically when we know others are watching or are aware of us. The “front stage” self then is played by, for example the martial arts expert — where he attempts to maintain a self image that is acceptable to others, and is in accord with social/situational expectations peculiar to that environment (i.e., what we expect a badass martial arts expert to be).

However, there is in addition a “back stage” self, where we can either prepare for a front stage performance, or put our front stage self aside completely. How we behave back stage is freed from the expectations and norms that shape our behaviour when we are front stage. While the front stage self is often unconscious, seeking to adhere to social conventions and expectations relevant to that specific situation — the impressions made in this social performance when intentional, can be monitored by the performer (i.e., martial arts expert). In doing so he is able to then direct the audience (i.e., students) in the direction of a given goal (i.e., making people believe is truly that badass martial artist).

Said another way, the back stage self could be considered who we really are when no one else is around or watching, whilst the front stage self is who we want everyone else to believe we are.

The Dysmorphia of Martial Functionality

So again what does this all mean?

I think there is a lot of bullshitting going on in the martial arts world, especially by those who proclaim to be experts. It’s an act. Deep down I believe they all know it’s an act too. Many try to hide the act behind the facade of looking mean, by beating up demo partners who don’t fight back, or sounding all tactical like they obviously know what they talking about. They are also very careful to choose an audience that will maintain their “front stage” self. This particular guy who was taken to task this week on social media, would never accept an invitation to teach a seminar at a well respected MMA gym. He knows, those guys will ask him to show that what he teaches actually works. The questions they ask will be tough. He knows deep down if he is asked to show that what he teaches works against resisting opponents, he will likely fail, or at the very least it will look nothing like what he taught. Not surprising then, in some of the comments about this individual it was noted that when he is asked a hard question in a seminar, he proceeds to hurt the person who questioned him. Of course that will put to end anyone who challenges the front stage self he is pretending to be.

Bottom line, I think there’s a segment of the martial arts community and those that teach, that actually don’t want what they do to be functional, because that would mean they would have to not only allow others to see their back stage self, they will have to deal with it head on themselves. So outside of the obvious physical nonsense of what some martial arts experts are teaching, what is going on, is far more sinister.

The Truth Ain’t Easy Baby

I am going to be brutally honest here, I can see why so many martial art instructors slip back to the bullshit, even when they have been exposed to the reality of what really works. It’s fucking hard facing up to your shadows every day on the mat. I have had my fair share of ups and downs. I still question my abilities weekly. Lining up your back stage self, with your front stage self, is damn hard work. Authenticity isn’t easy!

Personal performance is a roller coaster ride. Somedays you think you have cracked the code of functionality in your martial arts skills, the next day you can feel like you lost it all. It’s also easy to present a front stage self, that everyone around you is to scared to challenge, because then you don’t have to deal with your backstage bullshit. In Goffman’s view, the self is a social construction, suggesting that there is no ‘real’ or ‘actual’ self, just an ongoing and dynamic performance of the same (which shifts from context to context at the very least). For example, the front stage self I was back in the early 2000s when I first blasted onto the worldwide stage is a far cry from the self I am trying to be today. Back then, I felt the only front stage self I could show was to be the meanest guy on the mat. Anyone who challenged my front stage position, I did my outmost to kick their ass. What students didn’t know who attended my early seminars, was that I was bullshitting. I was a scared little boy, trapped in a grown mans body. But at least, I put my butt, and what I taught on the line to be tested.

While looking back there are tons of things I would have changed, I doubt I would have grown as I have as a person, as a martial artist, had I not put my money where my mouth was. But as I have noted, it hasn’t and still isn’t easy. When you are seconds away from getting your ass handed to you, in front of an audience that you just tried to convince that what you taught is the shit — you can at times end up seriously questioning your ability — it’s excruciatingly painful.

But in confronting you back stage self for what it truly is, head on, on the mat through live training, through performance, by playing the game for real — is what I believe it is to be a true martial artist. Even if you train for the truth in the fight, you often, like it or not, have to question your front stage self. It’s so easy to take the easy path of avoiding the truth of martial performance, because then you never have to take a hard look, or even confront both your inner bullshit, and the bullshit you teach. So while it is clear that there are people out there teaching utter nonsense, passed off as functional martial arts skills — maybe what we have to reflect on what is really going on isn’t simply the obvious flaws of functionality. Maybe what is going on is equal parts reluctance by some to face up to their insecurities, fears, and lies about who they truly are.


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