There are no superior styles, just superior fighters.
Many in the martial arts community have paraphrased the above quote over the years. At the outset, I would have to say that the quote is largely on target. However, a closer examination of this quote reveals a more nuanced understanding of just what that quote is talking about.
Let’s take this quote at face value. If you assume that all styles of martial arts are all equally well designed, then the phrase “there are no superior styles” may very well be true. But what if some martial arts styles are better designed than others? To phrase this another way, what if some styles are just badly designed or have poorly constructed curricula? If that is the case, then the assumption that “there are no superior styles” is incorrect.
I can speak from experience that, some martial arts styles are just poorly designed. For example, I know of one that requires you to learn 30 discrete self defense techniques per belt level. The curriculum was designed in a way that you had to know approximately 300 different self defense techniques by the time you tested for shodan. Very few of these techniques connected with others. How is the average student expected to call up the right technique at the right time in a self defense situation? I don’t think that’s realistic. This is an example of a poorly designed martial art style.
On the other hand, a well designed martial art style is one where the techniques and the concepts are broken down into easily digestible components and where the material is easy for students to remember. Easily remembered techniques tend to become instinctual responses and therefore gives the person a greater chance of success in a self defense situation.
So, I would argue that the idea that there are no superior styles is just bunk. Naturally, it comes down to who designed the system and wrote the curriculum for that particular martial art style. That brings up the topic of the quality of teaching.
For the purposes of this post, I will separate out the designer of the curriculum versus those who teach the curriculum.
As noted above, I believe that some styles are inferior to others largely because the curriculum for that style was poorly designed. So, even if you had a superior instructor, you are still stuck with a systemic problem; i.e. the poorly designed curriculum. To be sure, the superior instructor can sort out and break down the curriculum and alleviate the systemic problem. The optimal situation is when you have a superior instructor coupled with a well designed martial art curriculum.
In any case, let’s set aside the issue of the poorly designed curriculum or inferior martial art style. What do we look for then? We look for quality of instruction. Note that the above quote does not explicitly say anything about instruction, only about styles and fighters. I think that it is overlooking the role of good instruction. What if you have a person with average ability coupled with superior instruction? What if you have a person with exceptional physical abilities paired up with a poor instructor? We can speculate about who would prevail in such a confrontation. One thing for sure, the person with exceptional physical abilities would fare much better under superior instruction. I think that we can all agree on that.
So that means the “superior fighter” part of the quote may not be entirely true.
So what are we talking about here? I think that the real key to becoming a good martial artist is having a good instructor, regardless of style. Naturally the optimal situation is when you pair up a well designed martial art style/curriculum with an excellent instructor. But that does not always happen. You may end up with a good instructor in a bad systemic situation. Or you can end up with a poor instructor in a well designed system.
My personal preference is that I would look to see how good the instructor is. What makes a good instructor? My opinion is the following:
(1) The instructor has a deep understanding of what he/she is teaching. Beware of instructors who have only a surface understanding of what is being taught.
(2) The instructor emphasizes the basics/fundamentals of the art. Beware of instructors who teach immediate/advanced materials to beginners.
(3) The instructor breaks down the concepts/techniques of the art into simple easily digestible components. Martial arts is a lot like food. If you feed them small bites, they will be able to retain the material much more readily than if you were to stuff their mouths with food, leading to indigestion!
(4) The instructor emphasizes constant repetition of what is being taught. This would encourage a feeling of competency among the students. This would also serve as building blocks for the next level.
(5) When correcting a student’s technique, the instructor should focus only one thing at a time. If the instructor stops a student and gives them 5 corrections to work on, that will be counter productive as the student will become confused trying to correct 5 things at once.
(6) The instructor should focus on two or three themes/concepts/techniques per class. Make it as easy as you can for the students to be able to walk out of the dojo and remember what they worked on in class. I have seen instructors engage in a blitzkrieg style of instruction such that the student would remember very little the next day.
(7) Lastly, there must be a progression from one class to the next. Very often, I would repeat the same material or some variation thereof in the next class so that the students can remember the techniques and gain a feeling of competency. Unfortunately, I have seen instructors teach entirely different things from one class to the next. This leads to confusion and a weakening of their martial arts foundation.
In closing, I believe that the first part of the quote “there are no superior styles” is just plain old bunk. The fact that there are superior fighters rests on a shaky foundation. It may well be true if that fighter has superior instruction. Conversely, it may not be true in the case of where the fighter is paired up with a poor instructor.
I have had many conversations with many martial artists regarding the issue of instruction and I keep hearing the same assessment over and over…..most instructors do not know how to teach. Many assume that because they are good at martial arts means that they are good teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching is an entirely different skill set and takes years to learn. I have seen 8th degree black belts who could not teach their way out of a wet bag. I have seen 2nd degree black belts who are incredible instructors. One would be better off with that incredible 2nd degree black belt instructor. Unfortunately, there is the unspoken assumption among many that the higher rank the person is, the better teacher he/she is. Not true.