The Myth of Combatives Systems

For the longest time, you couldn’t open a martial arts magazine without seeing an ad for military hand-to-hand combat systems.

SEALS, SAS, Special Forces, you name it, somebody will teach you their secrets if you only pay $29.99 for their video…

That was a few decades ago. Today, you still see these ads, though the names and faces of the instructors have changed. What’s more, you see these kinds of products advertised all over the internet and especially on Youtube. I think it’s safe to say they have only become more popular over time and I’ve never given much thought to it but thanks to a bit of fate, I’ve started to take a closer look.

A few months back I was given an offer that I couldn’t refuse. No, it wasn’t from someone with a raspy voice and cotton swabs between his cheeks and gums, but from a master martial artist whom I have enormous amounts of respect for and who has a resume that is, well, quite frankly, amazing. Anyhow, I won’t get into the specifics of the offer but the jist of it was that we would train together for a year and then I would be evaluated but his instructor(s), awarded a rank based on my evaluation and then continue this process again and again over the course of how many years that we would and can be able to train. This is in addition to my “normal” training that I do with my long-time instructor.

In contrast, this past April myself and a bunch of my students attended a seminar by a very well respected instructor who has his own combatives system. Again, I will not mention names, not because I have something to hide but because I do not want to give an appearance of disrespect and also because I don’t want to give anyone the ability to say “You should have heard what Patsy said about so-and-so in his latest blog post”. So please don’t ask for specifics. Those specifics really do not have any significance to this post anyway. But if I were to be honest, I’ve pretty much hit a point in my training and skill set that you’re going to need to have something special to get me to attend your seminar and I’m going to have to be mighty impressed to encourage my students to come with me. So understand that this wasn’t some fly-by-night clown who we went to train with.

And sure enough, the seminar was most impressive. Good techniques rooted in sound principle. With a master instructor and underlings that were more than willing to share their knowledge. The seminar attendees represented a good cross-section of skills and prior training, both in his system and in other systems, with some attendees being very advanced in their own skills and some who are just beginning their own journey.

But a funny thing happened……

About half way through the seminar it occurred to me that not only myself but also my most senior students could learn this entire system in approximately 6 months. I know, I know, that sounds arrogant as all hell. And yes, I am aware of that. But allow me to explain.

I’ve learned, (and continue to learn) a nice variety of systems, both traditional martial arts and also military combative systems, but without question, I consider myself first and foremost a Hapkidoist. I love the art. Period. And I have achieved what I would consider a very respectable rank in a variation of Hapkido and I am well on my way to also achieving a very respectable rank in another variation of Hapkido. And with any luck I’ll be able to achieve rank in Aikido sometime during my journey as well.

But if I were to show you all of the techniques that I learned from the time that I put on my first white belt until the time that I achieved my (first) first Dan, and just ended there, and we got together 2-3 times per week in order for me to show you all of these techniques it would take about a year. Yep, one year. That’s it. Just one.


Wow, that has to be some bullshit “art” that you’re pushing.

No, I assure you, it’s not. In fact, it’s one of the most demanding variations of Hapkido that you’ll ever be exposed to. So why only a year? Well because take a look at my statement and read it literally. If I were to teach you all of the TECHNIQUES it would take about a year.

What I saw at that seminar was technique. Nothing else. Folks, allow me to let you in on a little secret. Techniques are simple. Anyone can learn them. Literally anyone. And it doesn’t matter the art. JKD, HKD, TKD, BJJ, any of them. Pick one, hell, pick them all, it doesn’t really matter. Techniques are simple and all of the arts pretty much teach the same ones. They just place different emphasis on different things. This is a fact and I can prove it. The human body hasn’t changed or evolved for thousands of years. Your wrist bends the same way as the way as the folks in the middle east did when Christ walked the earth. Their wrists bent the same way as they did when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt. Their wrists bent the same way as they did when the first settlements along the Tigres and Euphrates rivers were established. Their wrists bent the same way as they did when the cave men drew on the walls of their caves., and so on and so on. So if the human body hasn’t changed, why would the ways to attack it change? Yep. They wouldn’t.

But HOW we do it. Ah, that’s the secret. The theory behind the technique. That’s where the magic is. That is what takes so long to learn. How do I keep good balance? How do I move correctly? How do I drop my weight? Should I drop my weight? Do I move inside or outside? Should I do any of these things?

These are the things that take so long, so very long to learn. How do I control things in a physical altercation? That is the key to good martial arts. And things means everything.How do I control everything in a physical altercation? That can’t be learned in 6 months, or a year, or 10 years, or even a lifetime.

……….But I can’t sell that. I can however, sell 50 ways to perform a wrist lock for $29.99. (Another secret, there really aren’t 50 different ways to perform a wrist lock). I just have to figure out how to compensate for the obvious lack of skills that would be required to do these wrist locks properly. So, hmmm….what do I do?? How do I overcome this??

Let’s take a look at human behavior. How do we compensate for a deficiency? Oh hell, that’s simple, we just get aggressive. Really aggressive.

All of these “Combative” systems that I have seen. And as usual, I am being quite literal here, seem to rely on aggression to replace proper footwork, or positioning, or breathing. This is a big problem. Not only because it leaves the practitioner vulnerable, but because it enforces behavior that might not be in the practitioner’s best interest.

So why are these systems so popular? I think that it’s a combination of things. First of all, I think that we are in an age where we must experience instant gratification. The idea of learning from the journey is going away in a really big hurry. Second, there are fewer people (and parents) who feel that failure at something is a legitimate outcome. This disease of entitlement is consuming us. Third, the traditional requirements for respect, both in giving and receiving, are being ushered away and are being replaced with a really sad alternative. Therefore, traditional martial arts schools are becoming less relevant.

In truth, there are many more reasons that I could list but then this post would turn into a bitchfest and that’s not what I’m here to do.

Military combatives, and for that matter, combatives in general, are designed for a specific scenario and for specific people who are required to know a specific skill set. While Hapkido is well suited for most people, I wouldn’t use traditional methods if I was required to wear 100 pounds of gear and have to defend myself. I would have to modify it, simplify it, and generally dumb it down. Military personnel do not have the time required to learn how to hone these skills so therefore they don’t have the ability or opportunity to do so. The great equalizer to this is that if they were to have to deploy these skills they would most likely be going up against other individuals who are also receiving the same limited training.

For the rest of us however, that simply isn’t the case. If you are going to take the time to learn a system, then pick a system that you feel comfortable with. But don’t pick something that makes your ego feel good. That will only get you killed.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this post. Please feel free to comment.


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