This is something I originally wrote on my older blog, about 5 years ago. I’m fairly shamelessly reposting it here because my views on this haven’t changed (that much) and it’s still quite relevant. I’ve added a little bit at the end so I don’t feel completely lazy 😉
I got a question on time frame the other day. Someone asked me how long it would take them to see results if they started training. We talked about it a bit but it’s actually a difficult question to answer. In this case they told me what they are currently doing, their state of fitness and level of interest. And I know what my classes are like. When it’s a general question, it’s harder.
What is the time frame for learning martial arts? I’m not actually asking, it’s a silly question. First we’d have to define what we mean by martial arts exactly, they all contain different skill sets. Do you include violence dynamics? Classical weapons? Knowledge of history? Acrobatics? Physical fitness? Music (e.g. in Capoeira)? Philosophy? Physical skills only? Which ones? Do you need to be able to fight? In what conditions? In a competition? What level and rule set?
Then we need to work out how it is assessed, gradings have a wide spectrum, from technical demonstrations (or on-line certifications) all the way to gruelling multi-hour ordeals and even some patently insane stuff. Many include minimum practice times between them, regardless of ability.
And how do we judge practice? How many hours/days/years? Under what conditions? Do we base it on history (iffy, records in martial arts tend to be crappy)? If so, from when? 15th century Japan? Post-war Okinawa? Are those still applicable today?
Note that I’m not trying to answer any of the above questions, but they are things we need to consider.
Based on their individual style, school and practice and considering these factors, no two people will come up with the same answer. Mine will be different from yours. I have different answers for different things. If I disagree with someone else’s answer, I will try to at least ensure we are asking the same questions. Full transmission of a historical style is a different thing from basic physical competence. “Mastery”, if such a thing exists, of the intricate mechanics of a style is different than basic self defence ability, is different from the ability to fight in a cage. Teaching ability is different again, so is the ability to apply the lessons in your daily life and interactions.
I’ve been grappling with these thoughts for a while. There are various schools of thought on whether or not there are short-cuts within the martial arts that can be used to accelerate the process. Personally I’m ambivalent on the subject. There are no short-cuts that take out the need to work hard. But there are certainly instructional and practice methods that are a lot faster than others. It is like that in almost every area of life, why should martial arts be different? And if you just got a little internal glitch when reading this, that’s probably something you should think about in some detail.
I bring this up now because at the seminar in St. Andrews I saw two people with no training background in 6 hours get to the level where we could have taken them to most martial arts schools, told people they were advanced practitioners, and it would have been believable. They could have wiped the floor with many so called martial artists. How is this possible? A couple of things. I’m not entirely sure about the mechanism, but there are a few noticeable factors. These are my best guess, so take them with a grain of salt.
Motivation. The people who did well really wanted to be there. Wanted to know the information, wanted to get better not look better (this is an important difference). In the middle of the course was the theory portion, and explanation of the seven factors of self defence training (See “Facing Violence” for details). The people who got really good showed noticeable interest, and a very noticeable improvement in physical performance after the talk. Other people went the other way, information overload or getting scared maybe? Not sure, but either way, it was a factor.
Principles & play based teaching is another big one. Getting your body to move in the exact specific way to perform exact specific techniques just right takes time. Then learning to apply the lessons from those techniques to be able to improvise takes more time. Good principles based teaching avoids this issue. Let people explore the principles, let them play, and they get really good really fast. The downside is that it’s very hard to measure so it makes grading and assessment hard. Also difficult if you need to pass a style down just-so, because the expressions of the principles will be slightly different for everybody. Not an issue in seminars like this or for self defence really, unless egos get involved.
“Play” is actually another huge one. It’s how we naturally learn and improve, and it’s fun. I’m not sure when we as a species had the bright idea that play and learning should be two separate things, but it wasn’t our finest moment. When we separate them we get it in our head that f you’re having fun and exploring, you’re not “really learning”. And if you’re really trying to learn something, you are not supposed to play and have fun. It’s idiotic, to put it mildly, and the effects of reversing it are spectacular.
So, if you’re reading this, think about the time frames you have in your head. What are they assumed to refer to? What do they actually refer to? Do those two match or not? You might find that there is a disconnect. It could go either way, you might think that long time frame was ridiculous, until you actually look at what is expected to be learned and realise it’s appropriate. Or you might realise that the thing you actually want to learn could take way less time than you thought, because the assumptions don’t reflect your actual needs.
The 2021 stuff:
We place such high value on “time in practice” in the martial arts that we often miss one very crucial point: The quality and nature of that time matters a whole lot. Research in fields such as medicine and counselling has shown that once people get to the level of “good enough” (within the constraints of their environment or in their own estimation), they tend to stop improving. Without deliberate effort and effective continuing education, there is very little correlation between time in field and applied skill.
That is not to devalue the impact of time. Of course in general experienced martial artists are better, and partly that is because the nature of martial arts encourages constant development. And considerable time spent in focused practice is an important component of high level skill, that is well established.
But on the other hand if you’ve been in the martial arts world for a while you have surely seen people with decades of experience who have been coasting by for most of that time and are… not as good as they or their followers make them out to be.
I guess my point is that it is important to look at what people actually do, not just how long they have been doing it, and to make sure in our own practice we are pushing our envelope a little bit consistently to avoid stagnation.