How to Define Traditional Martial Arts Training


Or, Why Does This Race Horse I Bought Have Feathers and Quack Like a Duck?

Labels are really useful for telling you what’s inside the can. Just ask the parent of any 3 year old who got loose in the pantry. In today’s martial arts industry, however, labels are more like, well, a suggestion.





Take Mixed Martial Arts, for example. It’s mixed alright. It certainly is martial. But art? Some argue that categorizing street-fighting as an art is a stretch even if it is big on PPV.

 Or how about the common alternatively used term – Traditional Martial Arts? They too are martial. Are practiced as an art (i.e. interpretive skill). But ‘traditional’ it seems is very much up for grabs.

And don’t even get me started on ‘karate’. But, hey, this is America! What can you expect from a people who would stick a feather in their hat and call it macaroni? But, I digress…

Is traditional defined by the practice of classical kata (forms)? A growing number of karate schools with the word ‘Traditional’ in their name no longer even teach kata, neither ancient nor the paint-is-still-wet kind.

Rigorous discipline? Disciplining a group of 3-4 year old ‘Tiny Tigers’ is akin to herding cats, and the very attempt itelf proves rather unsettling for some parents.

Arcane philosophical wisdom? How about this poster slogan: “Your opinion means nothing to my foot.” (I seriously did not make that up.)

Acrobatic techniques? True, a few martial artists do perform them – and they’re about as dangerous as acrobats, too.

A “Mr. Miyagi” type sensei? Originally, most American martial arts instructors came in only one flavor: Drill Sergeant. More recently, it’s Game Show Host. (Personally, I gravitated towards Pirate Captain.)



What then actually defines ‘traditional’ martial arts training?

While such a thing does (still) exist, the question is how to spot it in the midst of all the artistic and marketing license?

For the answer, we turn to THE three universally accepted tenets that historically define the quintessential, traditional Japanese martial arts school – the dojo.


Everyone works.

The only easy day was yesterday. Novice or expert, all must always be striving to get better. Perfection isn’t just the goal, it’s the whole point of martial arts training. And nobody’s perfect – yet.

The dojo is not a playground. Except for the level of intensity, children are taught the same as adults. Training is always meant for education, often for recreation, but never as entertainment.

Neither is the dojo an arena. Students are thought of as lady and gentlemen ‘weapons’ and ‘instruments’ preparing for defense and success, not gladiators training for a laurel wreath.

Instructors work as hard as students. The only thing more difficult than learning magic is teaching it. Only con-men “phone it in”.


All start from the bottom.

The dojo doesn’t care if you’re Sensei’s wife, Bill Gates or the ghost of Elvis Presley. Everyone, no exceptions, starts from the bottom. White Belt isn’t just a rank, it’s a rite of passage. Only Black Belts get to clean the bathroom.

Speaking of rank. It is only valid within the organization that granted it – just like a college degree.  Another dojo may, as a courtesy, recognize your rank when you visit. But if you join them as a member, you will have to earn it over again. (Black Belts get extra credit for showing up wearing a white belt without being asked.)

Neither is experience or natural ability an exemption from the rule. It only means that, when starting from the bottom, more is expected of you.


Nothing is free.

… and nothing is for sale. Money pays for your place on the floor. Only perseverance and effort can pay for your training. Rank, for example, is recognition of the second notion; never the first. The same is true regarding the level of your teacher’s effort. You cannot buy your way into his “Black Belt Club”, but you can, and are expected, to earn it.

Dojo training doesn’t give students self-confidence. It forces them to earn it, and usually the hard way. There are no ‘high fives ‘ when you win, no ‘tapping out’ when you think you’ve had enough.

Respect is commanded; never demanded. The price is personal cost that comes with perseverance, effort, courage, integrity, endurance – and the year’s of stories that go along with them. The dojo is a crucible where no one is invisible. When bowing to each other, dojo people have no doubt as to why.

Testing procedures may vary from place to place, but one thing doesn’t: Standards must be met. What those standards are is the difference between Harvard University and “Bubba’s Business Educatorium” , but that those standards were accomplished is what’s most important. Rank says a lot about both who got it and who gave it.


But does it matter? 

The vaunted martial artist characteristics of (among many other things)…

·         Physical power and precision

·         Superior emotional intelligence

·         Sincere respect and humility

·         Indomitable spirit

·         Fierce determination

·         Iron self-discipline

·         Mental clarity and focus

… will ONLY be accomplished by the right process of training; not the mere fact of training.

it’s all about HOW you study and WHY you study – but not WHAT you study.


So, if people don’t get the martial arts they expected, it’s a good bet that they got a hold of the wrong can.