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Martial Ability: What it is and How to Acquire it

by Dean Clerc

     Have you ever heard a martial art practitioner say "Fighting could be considered a form of art."? Think about it…....fighting as a form of artistic expression!?!  Seemed rather absurd, or so I thought when I first heard it years ago. In light of the fact that no explanation was provided at the time in support of the claim, it was thought to be nothing more than the ramblings of someone intent on glorifying violent behavior.

     Several years have now passed, and what was once thought to be a rather daunting task to defend such a position has all but faded away. I now believe that fighting can indeed be elevated to a form of artistic expression. That being said, I also believe that individuals whose behavior lends credence to such a claim are extremely rare and are limited to only the most passionate of martial artists. These are the martial artists who are the most deeply committed in their pursuit to acquire "Martial Ability".

     What is Martial Ability? Martial Ability is a term used to represent the ability of a martial artist to efficiently apply principles-of-engagement (note 1) in a spontaneous manner during combat-oriented situations. Martial Ability is a highly advanced phase of development to which many deeply committed martial artists aspire in their pursuit of achieving their full potential.

     In order to genuinely understand how Martial Ability is acquired, there needs to be a willingness to look beyond the dictates associated with the various styles of martial art; a desire to look beneath the ego-laden facade that oft surrounds even the most venerate of martial artists and deep into the mind to discover the impetus for their actions. By doing so, you are apt to be one of the fortunate few who have tapped into something of such enormous significance…something of such importance that it could dramatically alter your perspective on life for the better.

     In addition to being in tremendous physical condition, there are two attributes of significance that are shared by all martial artists who are deeply committed in their desire to acquire Martial Ability. These attributes are:

  1. A heightened level of awareness of their surroundings.
  2. The capacity to maintain a heightened level of awareness during the most extreme of situations.
     Why is it so important for an aspiring martial artist to acquire a heightened level of awareness of his surroundings? The answer is: there's an intrinsic relationship that always exists between your body position/movements and those of an adversary's. The effectiveness of any martial art technique, regardless from which style it is derived, is highly dependent upon detecting and adapting to these ever-changing movements.


     Reading drills, awareness exercises, listening drills, and positive visualization exercises (note 2) are all excellent means by which to learn to extend your focus outward, and in doing so, heighten awareness of your environment (i.e. surroundings). These training exercises can be easily modified to fit into your own personal training routine and are most effective if performed, at least initially, under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable instructor. Be advised that these training techniques are meant to supplement, not replace, an aggressive physical conditioning program.

     One of the most effective ways of learning to extend your focus outward is by participating in training drills in which you are blindfolded and required to counter the actions of an assailant during random self-defense situations. The feedback is immediate and the experience is invaluable. This training exercise can be a highly effective means of redirecting your focus toward making fundamentally-sound decisions and will reinforce the understanding that the effectiveness of any technique is highly dependent upon the circumstances that comprise a given situation.

Figure 1: Training exercise performed while blindfolded

Figure 1: Training exercise performed while blindfolded

     Such training exercises can play a major role in altering the way you view yourself and your relationship with your environment. You'll eventually progress to a point where, rather than viewing yourself as though you are "separate from" the environment and resorting to elaborate means of forcing yourself onto situations, you'll perceive the environment as though it's something of which you are an integral part, and you'll willingly allow your awareness of each situation to dictate your actions. You'll appreciate the value associated with being mentally and physically pliable. Such a change in perspective will manifest itself in terms of a dramatic improvement in your ability to efficiently apply principles-of-engagement, when subjected to self-defense situations that stray from what you are typically accustomed.

     The extension of your focus in an outward-directed manner will enable you to detect behavioral patterns in the body language of an assailant. This is called "reading." Such information provides valuable insight concerning what adjustments would need to be made on your part in order to effectively counter the telegraphed movements of an adversary. When these adjustments are made on-the-fly, they are called "spontaneous adaptations."

     An example of spontaneous adaptation taken from a professional sport would be: an NFL quarterback calling an alternate play (i.e. audiblizing) at the line of scrimmage as either a strength or a weakness is detected in the defensive alignment. Another example of spontaneous adaptation would be: the same quarterback who, upon detecting that all of his eligible receivers are covered, automatically locates and throws the ball to the designated safety valve. Making adjustments such as these in a spontaneous manner requires that the quarterback be aware of what's going on around him at all times. So in much the same way that an NFL quarterback is expected to make these adaptations on-the-fly, so too is the martial artist expected to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances with which he is presented.

     Maintaining a heightened level of awareness of the environment is the more challenging of the afore-mentioned attributes for the martial artist to master. The primary reason why there's such difficulty associated with retaining a high level of awareness is that practitioners become too emotionally involved during a confrontation. This should come as no surprise because people by their very nature are highly emotional. Sudden exposure to a legitimate life-or-death situation only exacerbates the situation.

     However, martial artist practitioners, who are truly committed to achieving their full potential, know that uncontrolled emotion blocks the reading process and clouds their ability to exercise good judgment. They also recognize that an outward-directed focus is highly susceptible to being broken during times of high physical exertion and especially while enduring heavy physical contact.

     A relaxed state of mind and body is absolutely essential for the martial artist to retain a high level of awareness. Elite martial artists know that by focusing their mind on a single solitary thought, (ex: visualizing an image of successfully striking through a stationary object, or focusing on the body language of an assailant during a real self-defense situation) they can emotionally detach themselves and, in doing so, maintain their poise while in a hostile environment. Controlling their emotions, and redirecting what they place their focus on, enables them to retain an extraordinarily high level of sensitivity to what's going on around them.

     Clearing the mind of all extraneous matters makes it possible for the martial artist to keep his composure during an altercation. Any thought causing his focus to wander from the moment must be eliminated. Likewise, ego must be abandoned, as it only offers a better cage. Dwelling on the past, or becoming preoccupied with the uncertainties associated with the future, is pointless. Adopting such a completely focused mindset allows the martial artist to emotionally desensitize himself and enables him to spontaneously flow with whatever is presented as one moment unfolds into the next, even during the most extreme of situations. In this vein, the martial artist is no longer fighting anything.

     Perhaps that's where the true artistry lies…...being totally immersed in the moment, being free of all preconceived notions, inhibitions, and shades of self-doubt, adapting spontaneously in a free-flowing manner even amidst the most trying of circumstances. Or perhaps it's the transformation that occurred in a person's life that led him to acquire such an extraordinary level of skill at defending himself. Maybe that is where the true art lies. Whatever the case may be, I now have a greater appreciation for why some martial artists, those who are the most deeply committed in their pursuit to acquire "Martial Ability", go to such extremes to acquire it.

Dean Clerc
1st Degree Black Belt – Kenpo Karate
Author of The Mindset of a Martial Artist

note 1:  Principles-of-engagement vary from one style of martial art to another. Consult your instructor concerning which principles-of-engagement are applicable to your particular form of martial art.

note 2:  Reference The Mindset of a Martial Artist (ISBN 1585004200) for sample drills and exercises

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