Systems vs self experience, invention and mixing & matching

Originally, I had wanted to write a reply to Shadiveristy’s video The Problem with HEMA, although excellent replies were made by Dave Rawlings, Martin Austwick and Matt Easton before I had the chance[1] [2] [3]. After giving it some time, I thought this was a good opportunity to address an idea that is present in Shadiversity’s video, and that I’ve heard from many other people as well.

HEMA treatises represent a deep well of useful and valid martial information, but there are often people who believe that their own experience with sword fighting is somehow more useful and valid than the information that can be found in those treatises, or the information that can be gained from HEMA instructors.

“You know what works best for you”

This is one of the most common reasons giving for mixing and matching techniques from different source materials, or techniques that are not from any source material. The rationale that every individual knows what techniques work best for them in a fight, and that therefore, they should use those techniques while not using any techniques that don’t work them, seems sound at first glance.

The practice of martial arts however; is at least in part the practicing of techniques that are new and that might seem uncomfortable or unusual at first. If a technique doesn’t work, the best option may be continuing to try to make it work rather than give up on it entirely.

If a technique doesn’t work for you, then this may be because you don’t have the right sort of build or height for it; or it may in fact mean that you simply don’t have the right structure or understanding of the technique. It may be that you are trying to carry out the technique at the wrong time, or the wrong distance, or that you haven’t set up the technique correctly.

With a certain level of experience, I think someone can say a technique doesn’t work for them, but without that experience, I think this excuse is a lazy answer.

Further, I believe that often people do not know what works best for them. I have seen many people without sufficient understanding of martial arts, or without sufficient analysis of how they fight, repeatedly make very poor decisions, and use the same ineffective techniques over and over again. Anyone who has done martial arts for any length of time will doubtless have seen the same. Some people do have a good understanding of what techniques they can use, and why, but many others do not give it enough serious thought, or have their perspective skewed by other reasons.

So while everyone should know what works best for them, this often doesn’t apply in practice. Many people keep doing things that do not work for them, even though they should theoretically know better, and this reasoning can easily be used as an excuse to not practice techniques you find difficult.

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own”

Many people like to refer to the famous quote from Bruce, and claim that under their martial philosophy, rather than studying a system, they will take whatever techniques they like from wherever they find them, abandon anything they don’t like and add some random things they made up themselves. This attitude, which I believe is counter-productive, is often granted some apparent legitimacy because it was professed by Bruce Lee.

One of my favourite martial arts books is The Straight Lead, which argues that this understanding of Bruce Lee’s advice is deeply flawed, and is not at all what he intended. That book argues the point very well.

Over the years, some have misinterpreted Bruce’s words regarding personal expression to mean “anything goes” – that by taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that from many different arts they are practicing JKD. Ironically, this leads to the very surface knowledge and mechanical conditioning that Bruce was railing against. Jeet Kune Do is not the pointless accumulation of knowledge. Simply taking elements from other arts and placing them outside the context of their original systems is not only illogical. It’s also disrespectful. Bastardizing other arts with no rhyme or reason leads to the must surface and shallow levels of understanding. Does the perpetrator know the underlying mechanics and principles behind a pilfered technique? Does he know how to use it in a combative situation?[4]

Exactly what Bruce Lee did or didn’t mean is not that important[5], but I believe that as an experienced martial artist he would understand there would need to be some order to the process of learning martial arts; a chaotic and haphazard method of borrowing many techniques from many different systems would only mean that you would be left with a surface understanding of those systems and those techniques.

Martial artists definitely can study more than one system. They do need to actually study systems though, as opposed to looking at them briefly and paying them lip service, and they must therefore limit the amount of systems they study. At a certain point, it simply becomes impossible to study yet more styles in depth. If you want to truly understand the systems you practice, you must stick with them, train what they want to train, and do not continually wander off to find something else from yet another system.

Finally, it is worth looking at another quote, this time from Joachim Meyer.

The chiefest reason that I have assigned some devices to one posture, others to another, is so they can be discussed in an orderly fashion. Also these devices are not so set in stone that they cannot be changed in practice—they are merely examples from which everyone may seek, derive, and learn devices according to his opportunity, and may arrange and change them as suits him. For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot all have a single style in combat; yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis (emphasis added).’[6]

This quote tells us two things: that even within a single system there exists the scope for improvisation without needing to go to other systems, and that Meyer did not believe in a free for all either. While he wanted readers to improvise, he also wanted his devices to be ordered, and for students to recognise that even if not all students would have the exact same style in combat, they would all need one single core framework.

Martial systems are cohesive

A martial art system is exactly that: a system. A well designed system should fit together well, presenting a series of options to address different tactical scenarios with one guiding framework behind them. If you are not practicing an actual system, then you do not have that one guiding framework that tells you to how to re-act in new situations, and you may be missing an important technique which would have helped you in some specific situations.

In the same way that you could not take a novel, and replace one of the chapters with a chapter from an entirely separate book and expect it still work as an effective story, you cannot remove core parts of a system, or add techniques or principles that run contrary to the original system, and then still expect that system to work efficiently and effectively.

This is not to say that you must perfectly replicate whichever system we study, with no potential for change. We must first start though with a solid core understanding of a system, and use that understanding to judge what techniques, principals or approaches we can make use of without affecting the cohesiveness of our primary system.

The experience needed

It is my impression that very often the type of people who are interested in mixing and matching systems, or in inventing their own systems, are less experienced martial artists. A less experienced martial artist may think they know many techniques, and might excitedly go in search of more techniques, whereas a more experienced martial artist is likely to have a greater knowledge of what they don’t know, and more understanding of what they need to keep working on to apply their primary system more effectively in a fight.

Most of the people, in my experience, that have wanted to mix and match have generally come to stick to a more cohesive system over time. Perhaps when a martial artist becomes very experienced, then they could start to think about mixing and matching again. Until they have that wealth though, I would argue that they are not necessarily qualified to determine what they should be mixing and matching together.

Reading through HEMA books is too hard/takes too long

One final reason for people to improvise and to mix and match is that they might recognise that the treatises have valuable information, but they simply don’t have the inclination to read them. At a beginner level that is fair enough, but a beginner does not need to work this all out themselves. They can travel to a local HEMA club. If there is no local club, they can go to a further club every now and again. They can attend international events, with high quality instructors. They could book some of those instructors in for private tuition, and they could rely on the instructor’s experience, and more importantly the instructor’s knowledge of martial systems, rather than on their own.

 

Mixing and matching is tempting for beginners, however; it is almost always an inferior option to simply sticking to one cohesive system. Generally, if someone is inventing techniques and mixing & matching others, this is often a sign they do not understand how martial systems work.

 


 

[1] The Problem with the Problem with HEMA, a response to Shadiversity

[2] Adding new techniques to HEMA / traditional weapon-based martial arts

[3] My reply to Shadiversity’s “The trouble with HEMA” video

[4] Teri Tom. The Straight Lead: The Core of Bruce Lee’s Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2005. Page 185.

[5] Although I would encourage anyone who wants to quote or reference Bruce Lee to justify their martial behaviour to investigate exactly what Lee meant

[6] Joachim Meyer. “Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen Ritterlichen und Adeligen Kunst des Fechtens”. 1570. In: Jeffrey Forgeng. The Art of Combat: A German Martial Arts Treatise of 1570. London: Frontline Books, 2015. Page 137.

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One comment

  • Thanks for the article, very interesting to read.

    There may be another angle on this? As a beginner learning different things, perhaps from different systems I’ve found there is a desire to want try things out in sparring so there is a pitfall, intended or not, to get things mixed up. A guard from this creeps in, footwork from somewhere else. Perhaps not from any great desire to create what I call a “FrankenHEMA”, but still odd little fusions occur. Unraveling or keeping things “pure” is to put it mildly, vexing.