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Addressing Differences in Martial Arts Styles | Pacific Wave Jiu-jitsu

Addressing Differences in Martial Arts Styles

After all the recent training with instructors of other styles of Jiu-jitsu, it was interesting for me to note the differences in philosophy when it comes to teaching the art. It seems to me that there are two main approaches to a martial arts style, with their own benefits and drawbacks. They are as follows.

1. The Specialists. In some martial arts styles, they take the approach of choosing a particular skill and putting the majority of their focus on it. BJJ focuses almost entirely on sport ground grappling. KoKoDo Jujtutsu focuses primarily on pain compliance using joint manipulation. Yoshinkan Aikido, on the other hand, has a slightly different take, focusing on body structure control using joint manipulation. The list goes on. Specialists usually focus on a skill that requires a lot of training in order to become proficient (i.e. a fine motor skill). The advantage of this approach is that students of a specialist style become really good at the particular skill that is focused on and when a high level of skill as attained, the students may learn to apply that skill within a wide variety of defensive contexts.

2. The Generalists. Other martial arts styles focus on a wider variety of skills, with the goal of teaching people to apply their skills in different defensive contexts. My style, Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu is one such example. We teach with the goal of transmitting practical self-defense skills therefore our style comprises of striking, takedowns/throws, ground defense, and weapon defense. To make up for the broadness of our base, our core curriculum is designed to use more gross motor skills (especially striking and certain types of takedowns/controls) to make them easier to learn and apply, whereas fine motor skills are taught more as advanced training. Shorinji Kan Jiu-jitsu is another example. They teach also teach the same types of skills as I listed above, but with a stronger focus on throws and joint manipulation as the core of their curriculum.

Neither type of style is right or wrong. Take the metaphorical knives I used for each category. Is one “better” than the other? It depends on the context. If you want to have a sharp knife that’s great for cutting food, the Ginsu is the superior knife, even if it may fall short in other contexts. But if you need a tool for a variety of purposes, Swiss Army Knife is a better choice for convenience, though it may fall short when compared to the associated tools specifically designed for one purpose.

I think we’re best served by having both types of martial arts styles. As a practitioner of generalist style, I appreciate having the opportunity to go to specialist dojos to further hone specific skills. I’ve trained in BJJ, boxing, joint manipulations specialists (Jiu-jitsu and Aikido), etc, all of which have contributed to my learning. That being said, I will always appreciate the base that Can-ryu has given me as a generalist school.

Now I’ll turn the question over to you. What type of style do you study and why?

Comments (10)

10 thoughts on “Addressing Differences in Martial Arts Styles

  1. Just because you're not focused on a single martial arts skill, doesn't mean you don't learn anything useful in a generalist style. The Samurai were instructed in a wide variety of skills both armed and unarmed. The police and military also learn a variety of skill sets.

    Many of the skills you learn in the martial arts complement each other too. Becoming good at striking can help with your locking skills because of the body sense you learn, and vice versa. It's not the same as trying to become a professional tennis player while also trying to become a chess master.

    I still maintain that both style types have their place.

  2. I disagree with Tim: a proverb doesn’t prove anything and everything depends on the context you apply it to. Just look at the early days of MMA-competitions: there were boxers, karateka, sumo-wrestlers… all experts in their respective styles which were usually quite narrow. They were defeated by the Gracies and their expertise in one area did nothing to save them. Later on strikers learned they had to posses some basic wrestling skill in order to counter grappling which led to grapplers learning striking… Nowadays there’s pretty much a consensus you have to be apt (= posses a basic skill level) at all the ranges even though one or two might suit you better. Bruce Lee advocated the same thing for street fighting as do modern reality based systems such as krav maga: Lee studied judo, studied savate, studied ju-jutsu, studied kali just as krav maga was formed out of influences of many arts. In the old days of warfare in feudal Japan the samurai had to master the ‘bugei juhappan’ or the 18 skills of war which included the use of the sword, halberd, spear, bow, shurikens, empty hand skills up to and including theoretical subjects such as metreology and strategy. No one who has to stake his life and health on his skill will want to leave weaknesses in his defenses and hope and pray his expertise in one area will always carry the day. A modern example: these days it’s popular (especially in the US where they’re freely available) to claim a gun is superior to anything else and thus the ultimate in SD. They’re partially right: at a certain range the gun is superior to anything else but if you can’t draw your weapon before they’re upon you that gun becomes useless and you’ll be toast if it was all you had to defend yourself with. Who cares you were the best marksman at the range when you didn't even get to fire your weapon?

    If you know or you see from the way he moves he’s a specialist in one area it would be wise to immediately maneuver to exploit the adversary’s unfamiliarity with that range, similar to an army striking at the weakest point in the other side’s defense. He maybe the best boxer in the world but if he has no training in ground fighting and you can take him down he’ll be almost helpless.

    I strongly favor becoming a well-rounded martial artist and I agree with Lori: building a broad foundation doesn’t mean you’ll be incompetent as long as you don’t try make it too complicated because then you will fail through a lack of training. Keeping it basic and simple usually is a better strategy than trying to be fancy and certain skills can be learned quickly (basic boxing for example: in 6 months you’ll make a decent fighter if you’re committed enough and you have a good instructor), others take longer but both will be improved upon as time goes by. Most of all learn to integrate what you’ve learned: if you can do that and flow there’s a very good chance you’ll beat specialists even though you’re clearly inferior to them in their forte. Don’t box with a boxer, don’t grapple with a grappler, don’t trade kicks with a taekwondoka… A well-rounded opponent will always be more dangerous than a specialist since he has no obvious weaknesses and you’ll never know what trick he has up his sleeve.


  3. I've been lucky enough to have trained with specialists and with generalists. My particular style leans towards the generalist end of the spectrum. I have flip flopped over the years over which is superior. As you said, each has its strengths and weaknesses.

    I've settled on being a generalist. We have a huge number of techniques to learn and it takes time. That being said, the longer I study, the more I realize that the sheer number of techniques on our curriculum is not meant to overwhelm, it is meant to teach principles over specific techniques.

    I agree with Zara that you shouldn't box with a boxer, grapple with a grappler etc. I have always enjoyed the fact that my style creates options.

    My personal view is to be a generalist, but to study with specialists whenever I can. I feel this way I get the best of both worlds. Great post and comments.

  4. In my opinion a pure self-defense style can’t afford to specialize too much, skip certain ranges or over-complicate things: Murphy’s law states that what can go wrong will go wrong, at one time. While this is clearly not a scientific law (way too vague for that qualification) it does correspond to experience and the more moves you have to use to subdue an attacker the greater the chance of something going wrong or him taking over. You don’t know how you’ll be attacked and thus you must prepare for everything that is conceivable (obviously the statistically most common attacks first) so both long range, medium range as short range (both stand-up and ground) should be trained and preferably equally. To specialize too much in one category of techniques is also a bad idea since certain techniques lend themselves better to certain situations than others and in some situations it’s just not feasible to break someone’s nose but if that’s all you have in your arsenal than you either have to do nothing (doesn’t solve the situation) or hit him which might land you in trouble with the law, especially when no-one was around and it’s your word against his. In those situations a lock should suffice and if he resists you can still hit him if necessary.

    In some situations throws are entirely viable (an attacker coming up from behind offers a great opportunity for a hip throw) and it might even mean your only sensible counter-offensive (being pulled to the ground for example, either you fall very hard and/or land in a bad position or you perform a sacrifice-throw that will lead to him falling hard and/or landing in a bad position). Still: if you specialize too much in these techniques your response will be limited and you will take huge risks in situations where your favorite category of technique is less appropriate or even downright dangerous, except maybe if you have achieved a very high level (maybe 10% of practioners) and you can compensate. Judo has many advantages and judo randori and their combinations of throws or throws and holds are very good and useful but if you don’t have the skill, training and experience to fend off someone who comes in punching or kicking all your nice and finely honed throws will be useless since you’ll get hit and he’ll take over (hitting someone is a very effective way of stopping what they’re doing or trying to do by destroying their confidence and concentration). Same deal with karate (unless you’re very well trained in bunkai), boxing (what do you do when someone takes you in a headlock, what with weapons, or the ground or…) or any art that is too specialized. I’m not knocking or disrespecting these arts and you are right it pays dividens to train in them to augment specific skills (who knows better how to throw than a judoka, who punches better than a boxer…) but in my view they’re just too narrow to be very useful and I’d get bored too quickly. …

  5. What I want to do is to train in a number of effective styles: both to discover how to defend against them (if you’ve never encountered a good wrestler or MMA guy in all likelihood you won’t be able to effectively defend his shoot, if you’ve never sparred a boxer you have no idea what you’re up against) and pick the elements that are useful to me and use them as building blocks in my personal system of self defense. If later on I can teach this to others and let them benefit from my experience all the better but for now I just want to train as much as possible and get as good as possible. I feel I’ve wasted too much time in one system and should have started doing cross-training years ago. No single art has it all and Lee’s maxim is still one of the best and most profound principles in the MA: ‘absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is essentially your own’. In his field the guy was a genius and while it’s true he copied a lot from eastern mysticism (Zen-Buddhism, Taoism…) he was a deep thinker and one who practiced what he preached. I don’t know whether he was the best fighter in the world at the time, that’s impossible to gauge accurately, but he was certainly a man who made the most of his natural attributes, experimented more than others and trained insanely hard.

    Just my thoughts on the matter,


  6. Depth versus breadth. if you don't learn how to control your body — knowing a bunch of techniques and variations — is useless. If you know how to control — you only need a handful of techniques. Those that always want to "learn something new" are also typically the ones that are missing solid basics.

    Specialists learn control, and can translate that control to other venues. Generalists learn control too — but only those that study their arts deeply — that control can then be translated to specialist forms.

  7. I am a specialist in Karate and I really, really trained hard for this and I feel good about it. For me specialist is better in some ways than being a generalist. Generalist is focused with so many techniques so their time is divided among the techniques.

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