I’m not sure how anyone can have the smug confidence that what they are doing is one hundred percent the right thing. I do believe in self-confidence…what I’m talking about is the confidence that allows you to feel like you have the right to criticize someone else’s approach to western martial arts. People who have only a few years exposure, a decade at most, flippantly sorting people into slots and patting each other on the back over interpretations of a long dead art that is only just starting to see real signs of coming back to life.
I’ve learned a lot watching the UFC grow and change. It was clear from the beginning that BJJ was the ultimate art, and no one who trained in anything else, or trained in any other way, had a hope in hell. Wrestling was for muscle-bound lunkheads, completely misguided by their incorrect training. Striking arts were only for deluded fools. Now…wrestling is the heart of the cage. Strikers are feared. And BJJ is a back-pocket skill…you always carry it with you, because you might need it some day.
Training in so many martial arts growing up, I learned to appreciate the point of view each new art brought me. Each style saw the world in a different light, and was capable of surprising other styles. I could be confident my mother art would carry me through all the new challenges, but it grew and changed as I learned to see in new ways. Things that were wrong or weak in one style could become powerful when interpreted by another. In a parallel to cutting versus thrusting, Shotokan derided the looping punches of boxing as foolish, because they exposed the centerline and wasted time. When I later learned boxing, I saw how the footwork turned that weakness into a strength.
When I develop and modify my interpretations, it’s with an eye towards understanding the weaknesses. I see my Italian arts from the eye of the Spanish practitioner. Or a modern sport fencer. Or the veteran SCA tourney fighter. I can assume Capoferro’s Terza perfectly…I know it so well I can teach it to students in my sleep. It’s an intimate part of my rapier heart. But I can see it’s weakness through the eyes of others. What weaknesses are a result of the method of practice? What result from an improper interpretation? What weaknesses are inherent in the platonic ideal of the stance?
Once I understand what other people see, I have to decide if they are real or just a false understanding brought up by biases. If they are false, then I’ve found a tactic to teach my to students. If they are real, then I have to decide…do I modify the guard, or just directly tell students, “Here, this is a weakness in this guard. It can be exploited this way, so be cautious. Here is a backup you can use if your opponent seems ready to exploit that.” If it’s a flaw in our ability, our physical makeup and practice? Then I have to create a series of drills, or develop specific exercises to overcome that.
Every single thing I teach gets put through this process before it becomes part of class. And every quarter or so, I take some time to study and assess what we are doing, and see what needs changing. It’s taken me fifteen years of working with the art of the sword to develop this process, after seventeen years of unarmed training. And still, not a day goes by without me cracking open a manual…opened a thousand times previously…reading the words of a long dead master and thinking, “Shit…I don’t know a damned thing.”
And yet I can go to any HEMA/WMA forum or group, and find a bucket full of people congratulating each other on how much better their practice and approach is to some poor/evil/misguided/wrong chump who isn’t part of the in crowd (I get my share of critique, but I’m not alone). With all my knowledge and experience, I don’t have this confidence. Honestly…it makes me question my own approach. I cannot speak about my art with such confidence. I can’t quote passages at the drop of a hat to answer questions. It makes me feel a bit ashamed, I will admit. It’s a shame that drives me back to the books, back to class. It puts a sword in my hand and a book in front of my face, it makes me search all of the internet for wisdom from any corner I can find.
I keep looking for the thing that can give me that confidence, the thing that can make me better than better.