Where Science and Art Diverge


Unlike a performance art or strict science, grappling presents a constantly changing puzzle that needs to be solved in the form of a fully resisting opponent.

Much of art and science can be considered an individual pursuit, with the practitioner honing a skill or developing theory on their own. A martial art is distinctly different. There is always another party in the equation, that of the opponent.

My intention in this piece is to explore the distinct mindset required that sets a martial art apart from science and art.

It’s very easy for us to over-intellectualize martial arts. Broad theory is often favored where narrow practice can solve the problem presented to us. In any martial art, be it striking or grappling in general, the goal is to neutralize an opponent. Very rarely does a martial art’s function extend past this seemingly simple goal. Of course, as we delve into any martial art, the multitude of ways to achieve such a goal are near infinite, yet the goal remains the same.

In this goal, martial arts are distinctly different from arts and science. To equate a martial art to either is an exercise which likely has origins in a scenario where the martial art has been removed from its primary function. The reality is that the majority of people who practice martial arts have never been- and will never be- in a self defense scenario which requires them neutralize an opponent. Even competition is not the same, as two trained competitors are willingly engaging in a match with rules and limitations. This is martial arts extended and distanced from their true purpose.

The reason I preface this exploration with the seemingly obvious goal of self defense is because this should be a prime objective in our minds whilst we train or compete. Are you effectively defending yourself? Did you effectively neutralize the opponent?

These are the two thoughts that underpin any theme of growth or improvement I make in my own training. These are the two primary objectives I take into my training & competition mindset. Every time I’ve made steps forward technically, it’s because I have been objective based in my training. Any innovation I’ve made has been in pursuit of achieving some or both of these goals.

As much as I love the idea of things like “flow state”, or zanshin, I’m not convinced that this is a mindset one should overtly be pursuing within a martial art. It’s of the utmost important that one fixes their mind on the goal of neutralizing their opponent quickly and effectively. Without dedicated thought towards this and intentional physical impositions, nothing can be achieved except being consumed by your opponent’s awareness and intention. Due to this, the state of no mind, in my opinion applies much more accurately to Art than to a Martial Art. We risk over-intellectualizing effective martial arts when we begin to rely more on broad theory than effective application. Lest we go the way of Aikido, chi knockouts or kata, I believe it’s of the utmost important that we don’t forget the underlying and urgent purpose of a martial art; to defend oneself.

One could argue that only regular training can equip a person effectively to protect themselves. This argument often falls on deaf ears, especially with those who are abstracted from any scenario where they even feel unsafe, let alone need to defend themselves.

It’s important to remember that regular training serves to swing the odds in your favor, it doesn’t guarantee you anything. Being fitter and faster than everyone is the only way to be totally safe… provided there are no external factors like weapons, environment or number of assailants. Your best chance to defend yourself is to be extremely fit and train using every tool you can to defend yourself effectively with. Even then you’re not guaranteed complete safety.

As much as I love the lore, story and conceptual theory of grappling as a martial art, I think it’s important to have reality checks in place. The bottom line is that if I’m not able to defend myself with my practical skills, no amount of theoretical knowledge will save me. The two aren’t mutually exclusive; many a practitioner has great technical prowess without the depth of theory and many a practitioner has limited technical ability but reads like an encyclopedia of theoretical knowledge they cannot put into practice. Practicality should be foremost in the mind of any effective martial artist.

Thanks for reading.


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