Don’t get hung up on history

This may sound a strange sentiment coming from me. I love history. I’m definitely not an expert on the history of my predominant martial art medium (karate), but I am relatively well read and have made a few observations on it in magazine articles and books in the past. When I read about the history of my art I don’t look at it from the perspective of someone who is native to the land of its origins, or speaks that language; but I do approach it with both a degree and a doctorate in history and an understanding of what constitutes good practice.

For many people it seems to be incredibly important who their teacher was, who taught their teacher, what each person’s seniority within the dojo was and so forth. Great importance may be attached to what has been written about their form of karate or its predecessor. This can often lead to fierce arguments as to what is right, what is wrong, what is pure, what is adulterated, and who is closest to ‘the original’, as if that is an arbiter of quality.

We should be wary of taking the ability or claims of past masters as fact. This is not disrespectful, if anything it is being respectful of our obligations to our own students.

Now I’m interested in what has gone before, but I take it with a pinch of salt. I treat claims and anecdotes without evidence in martial arts history as I would treat them in any other form of history. When it comes to the application of an art however, I prefer a scientific approach or, where that is not possible, an empirical approach.

Bear Hug Lift

Assuming success because of static training may result in failure in a more dynamic environment. This bear hug is mobile – that’s its purpose.

I want to know if the type of warm up I am doing is detrimental or beneficial to my and my students’ health, and that the pace and nature of the physical activity I do throughout the lesson maximises positive physical and mental development while minimising the risk of long or short term injury. I want to know if the techniques I’m teaching or being taught are suitable for the purpose claimed. I want to know if the teaching models I’m using are the most effective for promoting sustained skill development. So while I have an interest in history, I’m more interested in checking what I do and teach is compatible with current scientific approaches, or failing that the empirical tests of well researched literature in the field or appropriate physical testing.


Most of us have an over-inflated idea of how we might handle a non consensual attack. Here a Krav Maga practitioner gets surprised by one of my role-playing students. My students and I make mistakes and find flaws in our training too – that’s what gives us the opportunity to learn and improve.

The belief held by someone in the past, while interesting and informative, does not make that belief true.

A training method that was used successfully in the past is not automatically the best training method for the present.

A good teacher does not necessarily create another good teacher.

Being wrong does not diminish the value of a teacher in the past. Time has simply given you the opportunity to see the fault and make the appropriate adjustment.

I have written here before that we in the modern world have far greater opportunities to be superior and more knowledgeable practitioners than the icons of the past. We stand on their shoulders and we move onwards: training, researching, testing and learning in a global community of like-minded people.

The history of our arts is a record of its course to the present, possibly true, possibly myth, maybe some deliberate obfuscation and invention – it doesn’t matter. What is important is that you are here, now, training, learning, and hopefully moving forward to ensure that you are as good as you can be.


  1. John Rista · · Reply

    Excellent article which I fully agree with.

    1. Thanks John.

  2. Ashley Gouthro · · Reply

    Well done! Our sophistication is most definitely far beyond our ancestors’; I believe with our increased knowledge of anatomy and physiology, acute and chronic disease (especially related to muscles/joints,) we can give our students much more healthful instruction.

  3. Good points, well made.
    The other thing I’ve thought for a long time is that the defences developed for the age that the past master lived in would have been massively influenced by the types of common attack of then.
    The majority of people now live their lives in the western world on hard flat ground with buildings around. At the moment we live in an age where the next attack may not be one-one one, but one versus a crowd, so a different awareness is needed.
    We have a massive mixing of cultures, and if you look carefully enough, you’ll notice that people from distant cultures actually move differently and so will react in different ways in the physical sense… which then of course, includes how we move compared with how those past masters moved.
    I think all of these things need to be studied and adapted to make a MA practitioner more effective in today’s world.

    1. I’d give a cautious yes/no on that as it is something I’ve written about in the past. It is something of which people should be aware.

      Generally speaking, humans move the same way and under pressure naturally attack the same way, so there is a great deal of commonality in habitual emotionally driven aggressive and physical behaviours which apply to untrained or unplanned attacks or natural responses to pressure. However cultural differences can make a huge difference to premeditated violence and can have an effect on tactics (and responses) such as whether bystanders will intervene or not, whether groups will attack or not, the likelihood of unskilled holding and pushing going into more skilled grappling (predominance of grappling sports and experience in a culture in schools) whether certain targets are socially taboo, the likelihood and social acceptability of weapon use etc..

      As you say modern environments do have an impact on the desirability of certain tactics. A sacrifice fall backwards on a grass field or wet mud is not the same as on a tarmac or stone surface.

  4. “What is important is that you are here, now, training, learning, and hopefully moving forward to ensure that you are as good as you can be.”

    That does of course pre-suppose that this is actually what people want from their training.

    My experience is that this isn’t always the case. For some, the training is just a by product if anything (rather than a goal) of a mythology they wish to adhere to. If they follow the model to the letter then the mythology never needs to be questioned or tested and you can be comfortable with your place within it.

    1. Yes / No.:)

      The ignorance of some, the non-martial reasons for adhering to a particular group or mythology, the poor training methodologies employed in some groups etc. do not change the fact that in reality what is actually important is that you are here, now, training, learning, and hopefully moving forward to ensure that you are as good as you can be. 🙂

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