Masters on Change

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Here are some quotations regarding styles from three of the most influential martial artists in history:

“The art does not make the man. The man makes the art.” – Gichin Funakoshi

“You limit a style by labeling it.” – Bruce Lee

“The style serves the student. The student doesn’t serve the style.” – Joe Lewis

Despite my roots in tae kwon do, my responsibility is to my students, not tae kwon do, kickboxing, Joe Lewis Fighting Systems, or any other source of information. My job is to create the best black belts possible in a school that authentically represents what I believe in. In large part, that responsibility is expressed through my curriculum.

When Does a System Freeze?

The history of the arts, however, is the tendency to freeze a curriculum and then resist any change or suggestion of change. I love Shotokan and know that the reason I did so well in forms division was my adaptation of the core elements of Shotokan, which is deeper balance and more powerful and crisp blocks and punches than my root system of tae kwon do.

We have the great system of Shotokan because of the work of Gichin Funakoshi. In fact, the genesis of Shotokan is in the massive change Funakoshi’s made to Okinawan karate. He radically changed the recipe book, yet for the most part the book has not changed since.

It’s also entertaining to me to see modern Jeet Kune Do teachers argue over what is real JKD. If anyone didn’t want his system to freeze, it was Bruce Lee. He was way ahead of his time in his approach to creating a practical martial art that was not confined or restricted by history.

Joe Lewis is someone who has continually updated his material. Recently we trained one-on-one for the first time in over a decade. He had me fire some of the excellent Joe Lewis Fighting Systems’ combinations on the bag in my garage. He stopped me and started to show me how to throw a straight right hand. My mouth kind of dropped, my eyes got wide, and I shook my head in disbelief. He said, “What?” I said, “That is the exact opposite of what you taught me in the 80s!” He said, “What? I’m not supposed to evolve?” It was the perfect response.

Here was a 60-year-old black belt who was in his fourth decade as a worldwide recognized pioneer and superstar, but in his mind, he is in his fourth decade of evolution. While I’m on the subject of Joe Lewis, let me also mention this. Joe is a very traditional martial artist. I am, too. We don’t express our traditions by holding on to techniques or rituals. We express them by making sure our students: execute with proper form, can defend themselves and develop the tenacity to never quit.

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