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Developing Rational Standards For Evaluating Your Own Art and Others

Tony Annesi

PART II: In which we investigate the standard of Self-control and see how one may be able to judge a martial art objectively using its own subjective standards.

In Part I of this article, we discovered that to judge a martial art by the standards of Combat Effectiveness, Physical Conditioning or Aesthetics, one must first define what one means by these terms and determine the situations in which they apply and then one must find a school which uses similar definitions and creates similar situations.


As a young gentilhomme, I had a occasional problem with my temper. One half of my nature seemed to be "Anglo-Saxon," adhering to a tradition of self-restraint. At times I enjoyed practicing emotional internalization when I felt it was for my own good: I did not drink too much at parties, never became raucous at ball-games, and seldom showed any emotional reactions at work. Some call that inhibited. But my other half seemed "Mediterranean" and found self-expression easy. Occasionally the two halves clashed about the appropriate reaction to a social situation but, for the most part, each half appreciated the quality of openness or restraint in the other. Occasionally, when I would bark at a girlfriend, then apologize to her with tenderness, the opposition of my two halves would be frustrating.

Deciding to investigate the claim that martial arts improve self-control, I read every book I could buy or borrow on the subject. Most books described physical actions and contained little on the philosophical teachings of the systems, but the few lines of philosophical bromides tended to repeat each other: "greater self-confidence leads to greater self-control," "as the student attains a higher rank, his self-control improves," "improved self-control occurs as character develops at the higher reaches of the art." Just how this comes about was not mentioned. Well, if the secondary sources canít help, go to the primary ones. I eventually studied judo, although at the time I was unaware that self control was a motivation.

Most martial artists suggest that their system develops self-control, but, if pressed, they admit that they do not know quite how it happens, except for the standard, "greater self-confidence leads to greater self-control" But how would this confidence in fighting ability keep me from yelling at my girlfriend? I could already outscore her in a fist fight! My college texts suggested that perhaps I needed to have less self-control, but I felt terribly uncomfortable and sometimes guilty when I let the external command me.

If we set aside the philosophical teachings of a system, the questions becomes, what sort of physical regimen best develops self-control, and how? There are generally two methods, the hard and the soft1, as exemplified for me by karate and aiki-ju-jutsu, respectively. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

I was aware that self-control is helped both by physical control (since the body influences the mind as much as the mind influences the body), and by reinforcement, somewhat like a religion might reinforce ethical behavior. Soon I discovered that although I was practicing potentially violent arts, I was not doing them correctly unless I was doing them safely, which meant ethically. In karate, pulling one’s punches insures the safety of one's partner; in judo, supporting one’s opponent after throwing her/him accomplishes the same end. The "hard" method challenges you with potential violence and dares you to control it.

Part of the philosophy of the aiki arts is to control the opponent, preferably without any damage either in the dojo or on the street. But is self-control really developed if never tested? Would the externally applied excitement (often pumped up purposely during a karate practice and kept down during an aiki practice) — would this excitement cause one to lose effectiveness on the street if one was not used to it in the dojo?

Good karate gives you the adrenaline that a real self-defense situation (or any really tense situation) might, then it dares you to control yourself, tells you it is wrong not to control yourself, but seldom has you practice gradual or slow movements to develop that self-control. It seldom uses the body to reinforce the mind, rather it uses its philosophy to counteract its physiology. It presents you with a living paradox to deal with. The aiki-arts, on the other hand, give you the practice which helps develop physical control, but seldom test it by psyching you up to a high-adrenaline state. The aiki arts use their physiology to complement their philosophy but create a living irony by not testing themselves in a realistic self-defense or similarly tense situation.

I found that the physical workout in both karate and aiki-ju-jutsu relieved some of my tension and that being in shape helped me think of myself as more ready to handle any eventuality. As my self-defense abilities grew, so too did my self-confidence, and I found that I exemplified the bromides of the books I had read. They were no longer bromides to me because I understood the process that was occurring. I was gaining self-confidence by facing the ironies and apparent paradoxes of training. And I was constrained to do so within the self-control parameters expected in the dojo. My physical skills developed and both class and teacher reinforced my self-discipline: the class by emulating me, the teacher by using me to demonstrate with.

I still had some problems adjusting my self-control with my desire to let it all hang out, but now I felt that it was a problem I was dealing with, and that even a solution which failed was not unproductive. As with a basic block, if a solution did not work, I would at least learn what could be done instead. I could understand the advantages and disadvantages of the move and then have the information to make a choice: adapt the move or opt to use a different one. I began to respect other martial arts even if I rejected them for my own personal use, because I understood what they were trying to accomplish and how. I began to have this respect for people, too.

I stayed away from drinking parties and instead went to movies with my girlfriend and laughed uproariously. I did not apologize for either action. I made a mental list of the martial arts by-words that made little sense to me at first, then foot-noted them with my own summary: "In a supportive and challenging environment, facing the challenges of training and resolving the paradoxes which appear produces both better technique and greater self-confidence. Better technique requires greater self-control physically, better physical control added to improved self-confidence leads to a strong and gentle character."

If one is to judge a martial art according to how well it imparts self-control, one must understand what elements of an art’s practice — what techniques, philosophies, traditions, expectations, strictures — a practitioner will experience and how they may positively effect her/his psyche.


Each system, in emphasizing what it favors, must de-emphasize something else. Martial artists must make judgments about other systems as well as their own, otherwise they cannot know which is best for them, but they must simultaneously realize that what is best for them is not necessarily best for everyone. Judgment is essential. Prejudgment is foolish.

Pretending to Switch Schools

How many practitioners are as critical of their own style as they might be if they were considering changing schools? How many are as understanding of another art as they might be if they were considering changing schools? The mental game of pretending to switch schools can help you appreciate what your have and still respect what is practiced beyond your dojo/dojang/kwon walls. It will also make you aware of what you personally are seeking in a martial arts school. Unlike normal products in the marketplace, martial arts schools which teach established traditional styles do not seek to satisfy the consumer.2 They must be understood on their own terms.

If you consider martial systems to have developed in order to reach a specific goal or solve a specific problem, you merely have to identify that problem to comprehend the rationale of the system. Although this cannot produce perfectly accurate results, it is an exercise which will make the student aware of the historical development of an art and simultaneously give him standards by which to judge the art, namely those which present themselves in the art’s history. Think of ju-jutsu developing to give an unarmed samurai a method by which to defeat a swordsman whose armor prevented a punching attack; or judo developing to de-brutalize a ju-jutsu gone astray. Think of iai-jutsu (quick draw sword art) evolving to make ken-jutsu (sword art) more practical and quicker; or kobudo weapons evolving from the farm implements of the disarmed Okinawans. In fact, systems developed in many ways, some deliberate and intellectual, some by accident or misinterpretation. Some were consciously created, some simply evolved.

Pretending to switch schools can help your accept the premise that martial arts can be thought of as one whole, the whole of "fighting". Ju-jutsu gives us throws, karate gives us strikes, kobudo gives us weaponry. Various arts fill the holes in the whole, if you will excuse the pun. That keeps the whole together but also delineates the pieces from the surrounding puzzle, simultaneously unifying and separating the arts, like towns which make a state, or states which make a country.

Equality Equals Mediocrity

But if all the arts are equal parts of a whole, how can we avoid accepting anything at all which claims to be a martial art? How can we not accept everything as equally good? Are there to be no standards of performance, no "better" or "worse"? If everything is equal, then the excellent must be ignored and the terrible can claim to be equal to the rest. Why should chess or rife-cleaning not claim to be martial arts?

That the martial arts can contain a wide variety of concentrations does not excuse hem from having a specific meaning, even though the definition may be difficult to word.

A Working Definition

A Working definition of a martial art (which I admit is not perfect) is a physical activity based on the skill of personal combat; let us examine this definition.

You may notice immediately that I have mentioned "physical activity" and not mental or spiritual activity although many martial arts contain both. That which all martial arts have in common, however, is physical activity, something which must be at the base of the definition. It should be need also that spiritual activity is a function of mental activity which is, in turn, a function of physical activity. Let me explain.

There is no real body-mind dualism. Certainly the trunk and limbs of the body depend on the functioning of the mind, but the mind too depends on the body. Today’s emphasis on eating correctly for clearer thinking or controlling body posture to produce mental attitudes suggests a mind-body unity. In other words, the "physical activity" of our definition, implies mental activity.

The second part of our definition states that the physical activity is based on certain skill. Based on does not equal identical to. Thus we do not define martial arts as actual combat. Even Thai-boxers whose sport is one of the most physically damaging would not consider what they do actual combat. It is undoubtedly true that at one time martial practices were the training undergone in order to enter combat, but even in those days would the actual blood-letting itself be considered an art? The skills of personal combat are not the same as the goals of those skills. Modern martial artists may want to train themselves to be able to destroy an opponent, but they do not train to actually destroy an opponent. Martial artists are not street toughs nor war-zone commandos.

Finally, the words 'personal combat' in our definition contain the possibility of using weapons as long as they are not weapons that can be used against a large group or at a terribly long range. Biological and atomic warfare do not fall within our definition. It is true that in feudal Japan, troop deployment and strategy were considered one of the martial arts (senjo-jutsu) as was the art of field fortifications (chikujo-jutsu); and after 1600 when firearms were introduced, the use of these non-personal weapons also considered an art (ho-jutsu). In a very broad sense, all war-related skills can be considered martial arts, but in our modern usage, they are not part of our studies. The only long-range weapon which may be rightfully exempted is the bow and arrow; not in the Western manner in which archery is related to the skill of target hitting at a distance, but in the Japanese manner (kyudo) which attempts to develop the strong and clam spirit of the warrior. In kyudo the shooting is the martial art, but the shot is not.

Definitions = Standards

A definition is in essence a standard by which something measures itself. More specifically, in the field of martial arts, definitions for each individual art explain it and give standards by which to judge it -- the standard by which it judges itself. The value of a system is not completely determined by, but is directly related to, how logically its specific techniques (the physical activity of our general definition) fit together consistently with its primary principles, whether principles of fighting or of philosophy.

As an example of testing the consistency of fighting principles, consider how each karate style performs its basic stances and evaluate the strong and weak points of each, then observe how each style performs its basic blocks an strikes. Since stance influences they theory of strike and blocks, both should fit together well; to the extend that they do not, the system violates itself. The karate systems which emphasize high kicks, for example, should not practice movements like those which emphasize rooted punches. If they do, either their training is inefficient or their emphasis is not so completely on high kicks as their reputation suggests.

As an example of testing the consistency of philosophical principles and physical actions, consider how aikido’s method of training relates to its philosophy of non-violence, allowing the opponent to defeat himself without permanently damaging him. Aiki- techniques can be made very painful and can include more strikes than are normally practiced, but the system is generally fluid and painless because of its adherence to its philosophy. It is true that branch styles of aikido may emphasize a different philosophy: Tomiki style, for instance, emphasizes sport form, and Yoshinkan style is closer to self-defense application, but since they state that those are their standards, they should be judged accordingly. some karate people consider aikido a useless system because it "cannot be used for real self-defense" (read, "...for slugging it out"), yet it is not the techniques they disagree with, but the philosophy of the system.3

Blindly Accepting an Inheritance

Inherited teachings and traditions strongly Affect a system's, and in turn a school’s, basic techniques and principles. Unfortunately, few practicing martial artists really know their style’s inheritance, thus they blindly follow what they think their ancestors set down. ("You must kick only to the knee. Otherwise you are practicing a different style!") Ironically "thinking" is exactly what they do not do. To evaluate something fairly there must be standards by which to judge. To determine a standard, one must get those neural impulses and chemical interactions flowing, and not just by physical exercise or eating the right things. After all, without the cognitive function, how can we judge what physical action to take or what is the right thing to eat? In other words, a martial artist must think, not just accept like a soldier. "martial" implies soldiering, but artist implies use of the mind.

A Narrow Viewpoint and A Wider One

Evaluating a martial art by its own standards, however, does not stop me from making a further determination about its worth to my own needs. I can respect an art for being consistent to its own standards but at the same time reject it for my personal use. Thus I also can evaluate with a view wider than each individual art affords me, but without the bias of looking through the stained glass of my own chose method. No. I will not consider all martial arts equal if equal means having the same value for myself, but I will consider them of equal stature in contributing to the whole, provided only that they adhere to a reasonable definition of "martial art."

To judge a martial art for my own use is imperative; to expand that judgment to include its value to others or to the field of martial arts in general is ludicrous.

If there were one all-encompassing martial art which could satisfy everyone’s goals in the major areas enumerated in part one of this article, i.e. the four dominant areas of initial motivation:

  1. combat effectiveness / self-defense
  2. physical conditioning / health
  3. aesthetics / skill in performance
  4. self-control / mental development

that martial art would have to be sub-divided to be taught effectively. But then each person might just go off to develop only his/her favorite subdivision and we would be back where we started.

Martial arts need not be in competition with each other if martial artists realize that each art contributes to the whole. That whole has no name, no country of origin, no specific uniform, school, stance, pre-arranged forms, technique or method of training. It can be measured by a tournament trophy, survival on the battlefield, or escape from a potentially troublesome situation. The whole itself is only the martial segment of human nature.


  1. Hard and Soft here may apply to the training of any martial art. I use Karate to exemplify hard and Aiki to exemplify soft, but Karate can have soft movements and soft training and Aiki can have hard movements and hard training.
  2. Those which do seek to satisfy the consumer tend to do so by appealing to their misconceptions or whims, but they still cannot satisfy every desire. They turn off, for instance, those who want to practice an art with deeper roots, or those seeking an art with more exclusive standards.
  3. It is interesting to note that, probably due to their de-emphasizing aggressiveness, aikido people do not generally make the obvious counter-argument that karate is useless because it cannot control the opponent without damaging him thus in application would just bring a lawsuit down upon the practitioner.

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