Martial arts schools are now everywhere and practiced by just about everyone, according to Sulaiman Sharif, author of “50 Martial Arts Myths” (New Media Entertainment, Ltd.).For children, they’re often the first choice when it comes to picking extra-curricular activities. They get to dress up, leap and kick, and work off excess energy while learning to defend themselves from school bullies and forgetting, for a while at least, that they own a Wii. And for grown-ups, martial arts can be an important way for both men and women to learn self-defense, to keep fit, and even connect with an ancient tradition. Many people think they know something about martial arts, but here are five facts about one of the country’s most common pastimes that few realize:
• Martial arts reduces aggressiveness in students. Martial arts might be about self-defense, but it would be no surprise if an activity whose main goal is usually to deliver a blow to an opponent increases aggression in the people who practice it. In fact, though, studies have found the opposite to be true. The longer students perform martial arts, the lower their level of aggression.
A number of explanations have been put forward for that result. Some experts have argued that martial arts training raises self-esteem, heightens confidence, increases empathy, provides a sense of peacefulness, and improves well-being. They argue that martial artists are likely to become more aware of rising anger in others and to deflect situations that could lead to violence. Others point to calm teachers as models of non-aggression for students to copy, while a third group notes that much martial arts training involves practicing routines rather than actually hitting people. Whatever the reason, martial arts training reduces the likelihood of a fight taking place and improves the chances of winning one.
• Girls are often better than boys at martial arts. Although success in a real fight depends on physical strength as well as fighting techniques, when it comes to learning those techniques, girls – at least until their early teens – often outperform boys.
Part of the reason is that young male students tend to be more attracted to the machismo of fighting skills. They’re more likely to play around in class and less likely to pay attention to practice. Girls, on the other hand, tend to benefit from extra flexibility, high-kicking their way past their male classmates – at least until the boys get older, stronger, and more serious about their training. Then, power and weight aside, the honors are even.
• Belts and dans are poor measurements of martial arts skill. The belts martial artists wear might be a sign that they know some fighting skills, but they’re not an accurate display of their abilities. The belt system itself is little more than a hundred years old and began with just two colors – black and white – which is a scheme still used in karate and aikido.
The real problem is that different disciplines and organizations use different testing requirements, and some schools earn extra revenue by charging for frequent – and often unnecessary – exams for progress to sub-levels. In general, the darker the belt, the better the fighter, but it’s impossible to say how good the fighter will be, and plenty of disciplines, such as silat, sambo and muay Thai, have no belt rankings at all.
• Anyone can study kung fu at the Shaolin Temple. While the local martial arts school might be a good place to train – provided it has a good trainer – the most dedicated students often dream about studying at the Shaolin Temple, a place rich in martial arts history and mythology, and a place reputed to hold the most vital secrets of fighting skills. It’s where the top kung fu experts have always trained, undergoing years of hardship as they pick up skills from experienced masters.
In fact, though, anyone can train at the temple in China’s Henan province, which is now run as a business by a monk with an MBA. Around 30,000 students are believed to study at the temple and the dozens of schools in the area each year, many of them from abroad. To become a graduate of a Shaolin Temple martial arts school, all you need is a passport, a plane ticket, and a checkbook.
• Western martial arts have a tradition as rich and varied as eastern martial arts. For many martial arts enthusiasts, there’s only one direction to look when it comes to choosing a discipline: east. Whether they want to learn karate, kung fu, aikido or jiujitsu, these students often believe that the only types of fighting skills worth learning are those with their origins in Asia.
But the West has its own tradition of martial arts and one that’s as valuable and as effective as the disciplines from China, Japan, and Korea. Pankration, for example, is an ancient Greek form of wrestling practiced more than two thousand years ago whose influence is still seen in Greco-Roman wrestling. Savate is a French kickboxing style as dangerous and as devastating as Thai kickboxing. And the various forms of fencing are all derived from the swordfighting and dueling of the Middle Ages. Modern martial arts schools might owe a lot to Eastern fighting techniques, but if you want a form that’s closer to home, there’s plenty to choose from.
Success at martial arts depends on learning the moves and practicing them until they’re second nature. It’s about knowledge as much as strength, power, and discipline. The importance of that knowledge extends to an understanding about martial arts as well as an awareness of the moves, kicks, and blows that every fighter needs to study. These five, little-known facts help martial arts enthusiasts to understand better their discipline in particular and the world of martial arts in general.