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Jack of All Trades, Master of None


Over the years we have seen various problems arise from individuals trying to "cross-train" in multiple martial arts, and as a result we discourage the unsanctioned participation in external martial arts or events. Some of our reasons include our insurance liabilities, the regulations of our parent organisations and last but not least, the fact that practicing conflicting styles tend to hold students back from progressing. In this article we'd like to expand on that last point and the philosophy behind it, as it is meant to help rather than to limit our members.


There is a common phrase, "Jack of all trades, master of none". In a martial arts context, it refers to the potential downfalls that may come about from an improper approach to learning multiple styles or martial arts, commonly referred to as cross-training. Now, before you protest, consider the following points.

  • Yes, we do agree that it is good to be knowledgeable of other arts.

  • No, we are not saying that you cannot benefit from training in other arts or with other individuals.

However, there is a proper and an improper way to do so.


The Improper Way


So what's this improper way? Well, this is where the practitioner dabbles in different styles or schools without truly developing expertise in any. This becomes a waste of time, and potentially years in of a practitioner's life.


Our instructors have witnessed many individuals over the years who have argued for the benefits of cross-training yet they failed to live up to the hype. On the surface it seems harmless. However, even if they could give enough time to each martial art (which is difficult with only 7 days in a week), there is a high probability that they usually run into another issue - the matter of conflicting practices and principles. These conflicts lead to confusion in the student, which only serves to frustrate them as they struggle to progress in the curriculum of either system.

The vast majority of people trying to keep up with this type of cross-training usually fail. The low rates of success are so evident, that we'd gamble and say that 99% of people attempting to cross train in this fashion never achieve seniority in any of the arts in which they train. In fact, most would drop out of one, if not all of the styles they're cross-training, within a year or two. Others, may last a little longer before giving up or being distracted. This may also be due to a lack of discipline or commitment, but we believe the strategy is inherently flawed to begin with.


The Proper Way


So what is the proper approach, if one exists? Our philosophy is simplified as this,

"We should try to get a deeper grasp of our own art before we attempt to explore others."

This means that we should aim to have a very strong foundation and thorough understanding of the particular skill-sets presented in one martial art, before going on to explore another.


To elaborate on this point, let's use the example of a student who starts to study new languages such as spanish and italian, simultaneously. In this hyperthetical scenario the student has absolutely no prior experience in either spanish or italian. To gauge their chances of success we should ask the following:


1. What is too much? How many languages are acceptable to study at the same time? For most people one new language is challenging enough and takes years to master.


2. Are similarities always helpful, or are they confusing? For example, look at words estación and stazione. They both mean the same thing, but how easy is it for a beginner to confuse the subtle differences, especially if there are dozens or hundreds of similar pairs of words?


Likewise, these differences also occur across various styles of martial arts and can be very easy for a beginner or even intermediate student to confuse or take for granted.


3. Are similarities actually 'the same'? There are words in spanish and english that sound the same but have completely different meanings. For example, 'pie' is a type of food in english, but in spanish the same spelling means 'foot'.


Likewise, the pre-arranged forms of karate, tae kwondo and kung fu can often have movements that look similar, but have completely different applications.


4. What are the differences, and are they reconcilable? Junior students often aren't aware of tendencies they are developing when learning something new, and how it may be contradictory to the principles of another system.


Now who would you say is best suited to answering the questions above? Is it the junior student with little or no prior experience, or is it their language teacher? The answer to this should be obvious. It is the experts like the teachers who determine what course of studies is most appropriate for a student, and what is not.


But our organisation practices multiple arts. Isn't this hypocrisy?

Well, no.


Looking back at the language school analogy, we understand that it is a student advisor or teacher who is best equipped to say which course of studies is most feasible, and then to support the student as they undertake these studies. Likewise, if your association teaches multiple martial arts, then it'd be best placed to advise if their simultaneous practice is feasible, given sufficient time and effort. They'd also be better equipped to help you find balance while you train. An example of this support in our organisation is when we sometimes have exams for different styles in different months, to avoid the clash. Furthermore, the headmaster (chief instructor) of your group will have determined from his own experience that the arts being taught do not have any fundamentally incompatible principles.


Compatibility


There will be some martial art styles external to your group that directly contradict each other or the style you already practice. Sometimes differences are in more than just physical techniques. They can often be philosophical or tactical differences. For example there is a popular modern system that argues with anecdotal evidence that 'most fights end up on the ground'. On the contrary, many older martial arts and even modern militaries see ground fighting in real combat as a desperate and risky situation, one which should be avoided or only done as a last resort.

On the other hand some arts can share compatible principles and tendencies. For example, the style of Shito Ryu karate has principles that are both 'soft' (supple and yielding, not relying on brute force) and 'hard' (more direct power). Because of this, in our organisation it is easier for us to help Shito Ryu students to adapt to jujutsu training if they wanted. Another example is the Wado Ryu style of karate, which was created as a fusion of jujutsu and karate. This therefore allows its advance students to better appreciate and explore traditional styles of jujutsu.

Technical Side Note: While it may not seem obvious on the outside, the use of the seika tandem (centre of mass and energy), taisabaki & ashi sabaki (body shifting & footwork) and principles of zanchin, are similar across several styles of jujutsu and 'softer' styles of karate. On the other hand, kamae (combative postures) are mostly different. The concept of kiai in karate and jujutsu are also very different. Instructors knowledgeable of all the arts in question, can better help you to distinguish them and guide you accordingly, to avoid confusion and the formation of bad habbits.

Summary


In summary, we'd say the risks posed by cross-training in martial arts the 'improper way' are highly detrimental to practitioners' development. This is especially so for less experienced students, and they should accept the guidance of their teachers on the matter. If you are not an expert and you have extra time to train, you should give more to what you already do, instead of over committing to cross-training and spreading yourself too thin. Only after a practitioner has achieved a deeper grasp of their own arts, will they be sufficiently equipped to benefit from exploring other arts in 'the proper way', if they so desire. Their understanding will be deeper and they will be more capable of appreciating stylistic differences.


In any case, when chosing from sufficiently evolved traditions, the most experienced martial artists usually come to the same conclusion:

Expertise is more about the martial artist than it is about the martial art.

Within traditional martial arts like karate or japanese jujutsu, there is usually so much depth of technical and philosophical knowledge, and so many expert practitioners to interact with, that there is enough to feel challenged and be mentally stimulated for a lifetime!

Your feelings after reading this?

  • I agree with all or most of what's said.

  • It's interesting and has changed my views on the topic.

  • I have opposing views to those presented.

  • I don't have a strong enough view to comment


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