Snapshot Moments

When it comes to explaining a failure or success, a lot of people resort to for the simplest explanation and, often, without much critical analysis. An example of this would be the “Bambino Curse” as a way to explain why the Boston Red Sox endured such a long period of futility from 1919 to 2004. The frustration of Red Sox fans during this period was surely not helped by the fact that their hated rivals, the New York Yankees, won multiple World Series titles during this same period.

According to legend, after the cash strapped owner of the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for cash, a curse descended upon the Red Sox for that sale. Over the years, it grew into a folksy explanation for the Red Sox’s failure to win the World Series since 1918. I’m sure that there were some people who actually believed in this curse. But it bugged the hell out of Boston fans that the Yankees were having all the fun.

A few years ago, a sportswriter wrote a book aimed at debunking the “Bambino Curse.” In particular, he analyzed the player personnel decisions of both teams between 1919 and 2004. He determined that, over the long term, the Yankees consistently made superior player personnel moves, which enabled them to win multiple World Series titles. So much for the Bambino Curse.

A similar kind of analysis can be applied to martial arts, particularly with regard to what I would call “snapshot” moments. How many times have we heard the story of a martial arts master defeating another martial arts master and thereby claim that his style is superior? Many times. Not surprisingly, many followers of the victorious master would take refuge in this “fact,” claiming that because of that master’s victory, their particular style was the end all-be all. This often can be perpetuated for several generations. This sometimes leads to undesirable side effects. One such foreseeable side effect is that by virtue of the “superiority” of the style, practitioners may become prone to thinking that they don’t have to practice as much.

Naturally, what’s missing is a critical analysis of the factors behind the hypothetical master’s win. Was it due to the “superiority” of the style? While I would not discount that factor, I think that other factors would be more important. One such factor would be the element of accumulated practice time at a particular martial art. To use a simple explanation, let’s suppose that Able practices 10 hours per week, while Beta practices 40 hours a week. Both have practiced their respective styles for 5 years. I would put my money on Beta just based on accumulated practice time. One cannot over look the importance of accumulated practice time. Go back to my earlier post about the growing academic field of “deliberate practice” which has essentially debunked the notion of “in born talent.” The greatest determining factor in success is just hard work.

So, I don’t necessarily believe that a master’s victory is due to the “superior” style. I would wager that hard work and accumulated practice had a lot more to do with this than any other factor.

Let’s look at it another way. Let’s use the example of Arnis. It’s been said that Arnis players, who practice their art consistently, often reach their prime in their 60’s. Admittedly, this observation is more anecdotal than scientific. Still, based on what I have seen, I believe this to be true. Let’s say that Able is in his early 60’s and Beta is in his late 40’s/early 50’s. In this hypothetical, Able beats Beta. At a glance, one might say that Able was practicing a superior version of Arnis than Beta was. In my view, that answer is too pat. While the amount of accumulated practice time would probably explain Able’s win, one cannot ignore the fact that Able was in his prime and Beta was not. Hence, the title of this post. This encounter was just a snapshot at a particular point in time and does not necessarily mean that Able’s style is superior.

What if we fast forward to the future to when Able is 80 years old and Beta is now 65 years old? Able is facing the ravages of old age and slowing reflexes while Beta is now in his Arnis prime. In this hypothetical, Beta probably wins. One cannot alter the laws of nature or Father Time. We are all going to get older and our reflexes are going to slow down over time. Forget about the Hollywood fantasy of Yoda imposing his will on a younger Darth Vader. Let’s face reality here. This is yet another example of a “snapshot” in time. Nothing is ever fixed in stone.

This is yet another reason why I have come to question more and more the notion that a style or system is superior over others. As Bruce Lee once said, “there are no superior styles; just superior fighters.” The implication is that one would be foolish to puff one’s chest out and say “XYZ is the end all/be all.” It’s dangerous for the reason that it might lead to the delusional self justification that less work is required due to the supposed superiority of the style.

This is not to take away a person’s love or passion for the style that he/she is studying. If one loves XYZ to the point where it is practiced constantly, more than likely that person will have the skills to be able to defend himself successfully. However, if that person is inconsistent in practicing that style, his chances of success are correspondingly decreased.

In the end, it’s all about practice. As Professor Remy Presas would say so many times, in his uniquely charming Filipino accent, “you must flactice.”


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