Book Review: ‘Wrong Fu’ by Jamie Clubb – Garry Smith

First let me make clear that Jamie and I have never met, we have corresponded and talked but not in person, and no money has changed hands. I have read, quite literally thousands of books, I am pretty widely read. I have reviewed many, many books, most I have enjoyed, some that have been more than that, ‘Wrong Fu is one of the latter’.

I edit Conflict Manager Magazine and work closely with a couple of the people mentioned in this book. I teach Ju Jitsu, I have graded to 4th dan and I run the Academy of Self Defence. I know my mMA and my SD are different creatures, there is a little overlap so I just about completely agree with the messages delivered in this book.

The amount of research and underpinning knowledge necessary for Jamie to write this is extraordinary. I was once an academic, I was immersed in a world where opinion was fine but needed to be based on evidence. Jamie draws on some fantastic sources and refers to many theoretical models to identify and argue against all the major problems that exist in the MA/SD world.

However, it is not a rant. This is an incredibly concise observation of some quite complex issues and fallacies, they need challenging and this book contributes to that process. I loved it. Like any great read I will let this swish around and return to read it again another time.

I am looking forward to Enter the Bull, (even though I have trained with Master Ken and did the tiger pose, I use the pic to make my students laugh).

Final point, when I took over the teaching of Ju Jitsu nearly 4 years ago the first thing I did was scrap the use of the ‘Sensei’ title, our students call me Garry. Stop the bowing, scraping and kneeling in rank order, we still bow with a nod but stood in a circle and make it clear we did this for fun, we are not warriors, failure is inevitable and should be embraced as much as success. We are growing steadily. The MA/SD world would improve more if people listened to Jamie Clubb.

Reviewed by Garry Smith.

Clarification, Scepticism and Individuality Part IV – Jamie Clubb


Martial arts were created as tools to serve people. They are not tangible entities. They are ever changing concepts, shaped by individuals. They evolve and mutate all the time whether the teachers want them to or not. No one person trains, practises or teaches exactly the same way as his teacher. Indeed, we have countless examples of teachers changing the mind regarding the emphasis or even core concepts of their system over time.

Does that mean each and every student should be taught in their own unique fashion? Unfortunately, and this goes against the innate human desire to be seen as an individual, despite countless studies and a huge amount of popularity, there is no empirical evidence that argues tailoring a teaching style to a student’s supposed learning style is effective. Furthermore, it has been argued, that purely by playing up to a person’s apparent strengths and preferences means that they never get a good opportunity to address their weaknesses. Nevertheless, combat reveals that different people fight differently. We all have different combat personalities and this can be seen throughout the history of interpersonal violence. Humans have thrived as a species due to the many ways they can adapt. So how do we correlate this information?

When it comes to cross-training the individual is running their own show. They are building new data based on previous experiences. Putting an individual at the centre of their education needs to be done with care and with caution. Individualising training shouldn’t be about pandering to their wants, preferences and prejudices of one person – be that person yourself or your student. Rather it should be an exploration of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. A combatant will develop their own style. The way that style is learnt and developed should not be through a straightforward agreement between teacher and student. The teacher seeks to prompt the student to take responsibility for his own education. He acts as an honest advisor, an unbiased critique critic and a supportive coach. He doesn’t seek to adapt his teaching style to the perceived niceties of a student’s learning style or to feverishly consult a catalogue of categories that some supposed education expert has conclude, but he provides an environment that prompts the student to find his own way.

The student cross-trainer uses his individuality to better understand what works best for him. This is where cross-training defines itself as being more than a sum of its parts. This is where the hours of solo training comes in. This is the time spent recruiting various different partners to test and train outside of formal lessons. Individuality in learning is most successful when it is underpinned by clarification and scepticism. An individual often discovers what he needs through clinically testing what he thinks he wants.

[1] See my chapters “The By-Product Myth” and “The Calypso Effect” in my e-book “Mordred’s Victory” for in depth discussions on how martial artists often get side-tracked in their training objectives.

[1] Ibid.

[1] See my chapter on “Attribute Training” in my aforementioned e-book to understand how to get the most out of these lessons.

[1] My chapter on “Specific Training” in “Mordred’s Victory and Other Martial Mutterings” details the importance of specialised pressure tests.

[1] I have a chapter on “Solo Training” in “Mordred’s Victory and Other Martial Mutterings” that can help provide more insight into this often abused side of learning.


Clarification, Scepticism and Individuality Part III – Jamie Clubb



Critical thinking is woefully absent from the martial arts world. Martial arts subculture is largely based on a simple principle of following a teacher without question. Likewise, the system or style is considered to be sacred. Nevertheless, critical thinking has played a huge role in the development of virtually all martial arts. Every system or style has its root in one teacher’s critique. All the great founders were sceptics to some degree. However, they were also human and prone to seeing everything from their perspective. As time moved on they became surrounded by sycophants and further entrenched in believing their way was the only true way. Martial artists have done a great job of bringing scientific concepts into the refinement and progression of their systems, but few have fully embraced the scientific method as a whole.

The martial arts cross-trainer needs to apply critical thinking on his journey. This can make the quest quite lonely as our natural instinct is to try to find a tribe. Martial artists who switch styles will typically regard their new style like a new relationship and convince themselves that everything about the new class is better than the last one. On the other side of the coin a good number of martial artists will spend their time cross-training telling everyone about the greatness of their base art. Rather doing their best to completely absorb new material they will preach to their unfortunate training partner about what they do and why they do something in the main system they train. The critical thinker needs to be wary of both these temptations. He engages with the material and then later properly questions it with a rational and logical mind. Through this process the individual cross-trainer should understand that there is no certainty that anything will work, but he will also start accumulating a list of the most probable options.

Due to the tribal nature of martial arts and the lack of overall transparent regulation, irrational thinking has touched virtually every system of combat in some way or other. Pre-scientific ideas have persisted to be a part of many martial arts systems. Sometimes they remain as part of an appeal to tradition argument within the various schools wishing to continue a lineage. However, many modern systems don’t need such an excuse to buy into all sorts of quackery and unproven pseudoscientific concepts. Likewise, philosophical and religious concepts have been forcefully melded with the practice of martial arts and absorbed as absolutes. This dogma takes many different forms and appeals to novelty are just as responsible as appeals to tradition for their continued propagation. Cults of personality have also arisen where followers support the belief that their leader can never be wrong. The martial arts cross-trainer needs to be able to recognise these factors both in others and in themselves.

However, there is at least one caveat the eager sceptic or critical thinker must take on board before he questions everything: be wary of pseudoscepticism. The pseudosceptic denies rather than doubts. He is more of a cynic than a sceptic or is keen to cast scorn over anything outside of his own narrow view. They mask their confirmation bias with scientific sounding language, but fail to adopt the scientific method. They might apply a double standard by applying keen scepticism to one concept and yet not to his preferred choice. However, on the other hand, he might attempt to bolster his argument by attempting to drag down a view accepted by mainstream science as an equal opinion. Reasoned and informed questioning should be a regular part of healthy learning.

Scepticism allows the martial arts cross-trainer to truly free their mind and to resist certainty whilst allowing logical methods – such as Occam’s Razor and the Scientific Method – to lead them to the most effective solutions.


Clarification, Scepticism and Individuality Part II – Jamie Clubb


There are several reasons why we find clarification missing from a typical martial arts class. Suppression by governments, suppression by occupying powers and prevailing tastes have led many martial arts teachers to become creative in the way they have justified teaching violence. Desires to blend in personal views of religion and philosophy became so strong within the Asian martial arts subculture in the past century that many have come to accept a pseudo-history whereby martial arts were not skill-sets simply designed to subdue and/or neutralise the enemy. In the west, middle and upper class intellectuals felt a need to justify their training in violent activities such as boxing, wrestling and fencing, and welded on their own philosophical validations. Such validations were then made to retrospectively stretch back into a respective country’s history with the comparable 19th century romanticisation of medieval chivalry in the west, bushido in Japan and xia in China. Another motive to obscure the objectives of martial arts classes is the often commercial need to appeal to a wider audience and to offer more to retain students.

Because of my emphasis on clarification I make my teaching service-driven. I begin any course – be it a one-to-one or a seminar for a group – by asking my client what they specifically want and offer an honest answer as to how I can best fulfil that demand. If I agree to take on the client I can then stick firmly to our agreed objective without risk of either of us deviating. I deviate and tangent enough within a subject, so I am grateful for those parameters to keep me in check.

I recall once being asked by a small group to teach a martial arts course. The attendees really weren’t sure what they wanted, but it appeared that their primary interest was to undertake a fitness activity. After we worked out a rough definition of what sort of fitness they were after we agreed upon a combat conditioning course with a leaning towards Muay Thai. All went well until just after the first class one member of the group made a passing comment about what they could now do if someone tried to attack them. The comment was made half-jokingly, but nonetheless the group immediately began a serious hypothesis on how they would apply the skills they were learning and followed this with an honest evaluation on whether they would a) remember them and b) have the courage to use them. The entire conversation must have lasted less than two minutes before I felt I had to interrupt. I quickly explained that, as per my brief and our agreement, the course they were embarking upon was not for self-defence. It wasn’t really a Thai Boxing course, but used aspects from this art as an engaging way to improve cardiovascular fitness, strength and flexibility. I explained that if they wanted to learn practical self-protection I had a course that focused on this discipline.

What put them off then, as it had done when I first offered it, was the two most important ends of the self-protection training scale. Good self-protection training consists of mainly personal security non-physical “soft” skills. At the other end good self-protection training should include some form of pressure testing. Both are quite simple and straightforward, but aren’t necessarily comfortable. The former can be boring and difficult to absorb for someone who doesn’t have much interest in psychology, behaviour science, criminology, criminal law or the adaptation of warfare/law enforcement strategies. Besides, they can be difficult to apply and can override certain behaviours outside of the class. It is one thing to practice your combination work on the heavy bag or to go through katas, but it is another to properly assimilate a self-protection mind-set into everyday life. Pressure testing is usually not popular with many who don’t have a predisposition for this type of combat. Self-defence pressure testing should be a form of very intensive asymmetrical fighting and that isn’t usually a very pleasant experience.

Physical fitness is important in self-defence, but is largely a by-product of punitive mental conditioning through various ordeals and the development of good physical “hard” skills. Many civilians don’t really want actual self-protection or self-defence training they just want to produce a physical expression against their fears of interpersonal violence. This is easily catered for by hitting pads and performing techniques on compliant partners. One can see why so many martial arts teachers are tempted to leave it at this stage and exploit the demand for delusion in the market. There is almost an unwritten and unspoken contract between the student who asks the teacher “Tell me a lie that will make me feel better” and the teacher who justifies his willingness to do this by obeying the economic law of supply and demand.

Be clear about the purpose and context of your training. It’s a simple rule that is easily forgotten.[i] Whether you are approaching a new class, training with a new teacher, beginning a certain exercise or training a particular technique, the cross-trainer needs to be clear about his objective. He needs to be clear about why he is dedicating his time and energy into this particular area of study. It is naïve to rely on even the best of teachers to take you exactly where you want to go. Unless the teacher is helping to manage your personalised cross-training programme, he is going to have a different agenda. His job is to teach you the discipline you have chosen in his own way. If you are undertaking one-to-one training he will tailor it more to your demands, but it is still a lot to expect him to understand how this experience will fit in with your overall martial arts education.

Besides you don’t really want him to do that. You want him to teach you what he knows best. For example, imagine asking a Western Boxing coach to improve your Muay Thai punching techniques. In principle, this is a great idea. However, you are not really getting the most of his experience and knowledge if you insist on having you both stand more square on, change footwork and to limit upper body movements in line with Muay Thai. Your purpose here is to train in Western Boxing as if you are a western boxer. Outside of the lesson it is time for you to put the work in and see how it applies to your Muay Thai game.[ii]

Being clear about the purpose of any exercise is crucial for a cross-trainer. Being actively involved in different disciplines calls for strict and mindful time management. Objective defines an exercise – be it to test a single technique or test one’s abilities in a certain area. If the agreed objective of a technique exercise is test the efficiency of a rear naked choke then it is pointless to continue with another technique when the choke has been thwarted. A better use of time, energy and resources would be stop and restart. Unfortunately the cognitive reasoning of the brain often takes a back seat once matters get heated in a physical situation. It is quite common to see a pressure test centering on take-down defence deteriorating into a ground game.[iii]

The same attitude should be carried over into your solo training. This is where a lot of the good work is done and also wasted. It can be mentally tough enough for most people to take the initiative to train properly outside a class in the first place, be it alone or with a fellow student. It is even harder to then apply cognitive thought processes to encourage greater skill development and continued learning outside of a classroom environment. The cross-trainer has to go beyond what has been prescribed in lessons. He needs to do more than rehearse routines to fulfil grading criteria and needs to do more than improve his physical fitness. However, this takes a special extra kind of effort and a lack of commitment to this type of effort is what leads to the cross-trainer becoming confused with the various tools he has at hand. It is much less taxing on the mind to just lose one’s self in the superficial demands of an undetailed workout.

So the heavy bag ends up being used as a one dimensional repository for any random move the student chooses to throw. Shadow boxing becomes a freestyle dance of favourite movements. Focus mitt holding becomes a more energised version of the punching bag situation but little more. This comes from the person training not having a clear plan in their head and therefore not getting the most out of their training equipment, their training partners or themselves. If you are going to use the bag as a stand-in for a training partner then you are going to need to imagine the fight and stick to certain target zones so that you hit accurately. You also going to have to move with the bag or around the bag, depending on the context of you are training. You are going to have to plan your rounds or sets. Is this going to be about technique, improving speed or developing raw power? Are you going to theme your workout as lessons are often structured? What other equipment are you bringing into your training session?[iv]

Clarification defines the purpose of what you want to do in all that you do. Begin with a clear idea and make sure you return to that idea as often as possible.

[i] Ibid.

[ii] See my chapter on “Attribute Training” in my aforementioned e-book to understand how to get the most out of these lessons.

[iii] My chapter on “Specific Training” in “Mordred’s Victory and Other Martial Mutterings” details the importance of specialised pressure tests.

[iv] I have a chapter on “Solo Training” in “Mordred’s Victory and Other Martial Mutterings” that can help provide more insight into this often abused side of learning.


Clarification, Scepticism and Individuality Part I – Jamie Clubb

The Three Missing Fundamentals to Clear, Purposeful and Bespoke Combative Training

Part 1 – The Cross Trainer and the Information Age

The Information Age aptly describes the era of the modern mainstream martial arts cross-trainer. Unfortunately The Confusion Age is an equally fitting title. The meteoric rise of the internet has provided most in the developed world with more instant access to knowledge and data than ever before in the history of civilization. Similarly, training in multiple combative disciplines is no longer the practice of the hard-core martial arts enthusiast or the heretical renegade who is forced to travel huge distances across the country and even the world to seek out knowledge. Today not only is there an unprecedented variety of fighting arts readily available within a geographical region but we have seen the proliferation of full-time martial arts training centres, where cross-training is actively encouraged by gym owners and embraced by certain clubs that offer training in different systems by guest teachers.

There is a flawed assumption that this age of information and cross-training should lead to the enlightenment of more people. Unfortunately such wishful thinking is without reckoning on human nature. Our cognitive reasoning is beset by a range of biases that shape how we filter and view information. Our tribal instincts push us towards the comfort of others with similar biases to reinforce our views. More access to information also means more access to misinformation and disinformation. The pursuit of knowledge can easily be derailed by the propagation of falsehoods and myths, especially if there is cognitive comfort in these stories. Furthermore, the sheer volume of information – even good information – at an unprepared researcher’s fingertips can often result in learning little more on his desired subject than if he hadn’t switched onto the internet in the first place.

To muse over metaphors once again, it is unsurprising that the phrase “surfing the net” became popular during the internet’s formative commercial days. If progress in any aspect of civilisation can be seen as a steady narrow current of knowledge that often has to gradually trickle its way around and often through hard rocks of prejudice, tradition, irrational protectiveness and fear in order to become established into the main stream (forgive the pun) then using the internet can be compared to handling a tidal wave. Rather than having to handle and carefully manage the gradual, steady flow of information used to fill a gulf of ignorance, the unprepared researcher is overwhelmed by a forceful mass of data that washes over him. Struggling for breath in his effort not to be drowned in the overload of facts he becomes numb to everything. He becomes confused. He becomes prey to his own bewilderment and also to the sharks of disinformation, which thrive and swim in the sea of knowledge. In the blinding chaos that is information overload the flailing researcher may even mistake such sharks for a valid float. Here is where conspiracists, pseudoscientists, pseudohistorians, archaists and purveyors of Bullshitsu strike progressive learning down. Yet we still have the skilful surfer or rider of the waves who has a far better chance at negotiating all the information available. Such individuals are no less vulnerable than the drowning non-swimmer – surfers still drown and are eaten by sharks – but they have developed skills and therefore have more available tools at their disposal.

The directed cross-trainer is comparable to the scientifically minded researcher. He can entertain ideas without being threatened by them or absorbed by them. He does well to ride the waves of information in the direction that will not overturn and engulf him; he won’t get drawn off-course to attractive islands and forget his way and he is experienced at spotting the sharks of disinformation.[i]

Below are three fundamental areas that are often not taught to students wishing to pursue cross-training. Whilst it is commendable that instructors encourage students to seek out different disciplines and research for themselves, many get discouraged when they start becoming confused. Confusion is entirely unnecessary if we think about what constitutes cross-training. As children we study multiple subjects in our most formative years often with different teachers who have different approaches. When we play sports, we learn many different games. Most occupations can easily be broken down into several different disciplines and skillsets. We know that historical martial arts practice comprised of cross-training and comparisons might be fittingly made with today’s military. The tribal nature of martial arts has led to the creation of a structure that makes students and teachers often feel unsure and vulnerable again when they train outside their usual art. Others ride through this anxiety and even embrace other arts, sometimes completely abandoning old systems for new, but struggle to blend different skillsets.

[i] See my chapters “The By-Product Myth” and “The Calypso Effect” in my e-book “Mordred’s Victory” for in depth discussions on how martial artists often get side-tracked in their training objectives.

Part II on clarification follows next week.


How Bad is your Bullshitsu Infection? – Jamie Clubb

“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” – Christopher Hitchens

I am currently in the process of editing, researching, writing and re-writing a multi-volume book entitled “Bullshitsu and the Fight to Make Martial Arts Work”. It is a project that I started around 2005 as an examination of the legacy of the R.B.S.D. (Reality-Based Self-Defence) movement, but has since evolved into a critical overview of martial arts subculture in general. My initial belief was that self-defence teachers were the modernist antidote to what had gone wrong in the combat arts. This left me with a huge scope of study, but I underestimated my task.

I expected to find charlatan instructors who had either been corrupted by commercialism or were hopelessly deluded by their own mythology. However, what I discovered was that critical thinking is a cold and hard tool of reasoning that has no loyalty to style, teacher, tradition, testimony or anecdote. It isn’t impressed by an individual’s level of experience or where they have taught. What I found was something that did not filter out a bunch of villains and nutcases, but a condition that permeated every part of martial arts subculture including the R.B.S.D. movement. Even when I deconstructed the most notorious controversial figures in the martial arts world, I often found uncomfortable reflections.

A lack of overall regulation, the persistence of tribalism and a general under-appreciation of the scientific method has allowed something comparable to a social virus to mutate and break down walls of logical reasoning in many a hardened fighter or reasoned teacher. I called it Bullshitsu, primarily because it made a mildly offensive title for my book, but also because it was a good martial art portmanteau equivalent for what many sceptics have used to loosely bracket all sorts of nonsense and magical thinking in society.

My sales blurb to one side, below are a selection of some reoccurring questions that I have found that help to identify the existence of Bullshitsu in one’s training, learning and teaching.

What do you know about your system’s history?

Even a modern system has its roots in something and will be modelled on the experience of an individual that has then been taught by someone else. As techniques and concepts are passed from teacher to teacher, changes are invariably made. Many martial artists rightfully argue that they are continuing a living tradition that they can prove has an unbroken lineage stretching back for generations. Others are trying to reproduce a system that died long ago, sometimes as an immersive historical investigation. In both instances a type of irrational thought that psychologist Bruce Hood calls “essentialism” often takes place. Nothing, not even physical objects, can age without some form of change taking place. This isn’t to discredit individuals who try to preserve a tradition or resurrect one, but to acknowledge the inevitability of constant change influenced by a wide variety of forces.

A third group, which operate alone or as part of the other two, are those who believe in and/or propagate martial arts mythology. These are individuals who put their faith in the word of teachers who have no evidence to back up the roots of their art. Many martial arts have attached their origins to unprovable lineages, sometimes stretching back to pseudohistories about the Japanese Ninja, the Korean Hwarang, the Chinese Shaolin Monks, the European Knights Templar, the Russian Kossaks and many more besides. Ethnocentric ideas of hyperdiffusionism have put forward many creation myths where one country is seen as the root for all martial arts learning. Russia, Greece, India and China all have persistent martial arts creation myths. Despite the fact that any culture with access to wood has independently developed a hunting bow seems to escape this mind-set.

Understanding what the evidence tells us about a system’s roots and its evolution helps prevent us from operating off a false premise.  

Have you ever properly questioned your teacher?

Many martial arts operate in a tribal hierarcical subculture. The person at the top is the seat of all knowledge and so it goes through his most senior instructors the various instructors under them. It is a top down system of control. If the chief instructor changes his mind on something, which virtually all of them do to some degree, the entire martial art he heads changes with him or splits off in protest. If he dies then his named successor takes on the mantle and so on. Other instructors do have a say on matters, especially if they suddenly prove themselves to be successful, but the changes are often subtle. There isn’t usually an established or respected line of feedback coming up through the ranks that will have a regular impact on the head instructor. Meanwhile, in an even more tightly controlled environment, within the classroom the student works to please the instructor (or a grading panel) more than improving their actual education in the martial art.  

Pretty much every system of martial art in the world is somehow the result of direct or indirect cross-training. Tribal protectiveness led to many associations and clubs to ban their students and instructors from training elsewhere. We live in supposedly more open times, where cross-training programmes have become more common. However, what has happened now is that it is often the club that controls the cross-training, providing experiences in other arts to retain their students’ interest. Even systems that pride themselves on progressive and open-minded cross-training tend to stick to the same predictable martial arts systems.

Having a teacher who is above being questioned can lead to all sorts of problems. I have seen combat sports teachers and even world champions buying into pseudoscientific remedies and endorsing self-help ideals that have no basis in actual proven application.  Likewise, I have seen both traditional and modern martial arts teachers use their authority to endorse both sides of the political spectrum. What’s worse is the way such politics get integrated into the actual teaching.

Encouraging critical thinking as part of a teaching process is not about being ridiculously liberal in a class and allowing argumentative timewasters to nit-pick at an instructor. Argument for the sake of argument is just pseudoscepticism, which can be as damaging as unthinking credulity. However, encouraging an environment where students can investigate, question and feedback is progressive and makes martial arts more in line with science than a belief system.

Do you have any sacred cows?

Martial arts are full of concepts that have come to distinguish individual styles. It’s easy to see it in the traditional martial arts. Some stick rigidly to linear principles of movement, others throw their lot in exclusively with circular movements, there are those who focus everything off the centre-line principle and some have compulsory set forms; then there those who place their belief in the existence of esoteric energy. Finally we have the various philosophies – religious and otherwise – that have become welded on and intertwined with the teaching of martial arts.

Modernist martial artists might scoff at such adherence to certain structures or belief systems, but they would be wrong in thinking this was something restricted to traditionalists. The R.B.S.D. world has accumulated its own stockpile of concepts that are often referenced as if they were holy sacraments of knowledge and wisdom. They are often linked to the mid-20th century luminaries of the USA. From the military we have Colonel John Boyd’s O.O.D.A. Loop, Sergeant Dennis Tueller’s Drill and Lt. Colonel Jeff Cooper’s Colour Code. From psychology we have Hick’s Law created by William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman and Guthrie’s Law theorised by Edwin R. Guthrie.

How often are these theories held up to scrutiny? How often are they questioned or properly tested within martial arts/self-defence lessons? Yet all have been readily questioned outside of the R.B.S.D. subculture with mixed conclusions. Times move on, a society moves on and so does science. Critical thinking martial arts are not dismissive of established principles, but they don’t accept panaceas and are wary of certainty in the context of teaching.

Perhaps your sacred cows lie in people. All the great martial arts pioneers had their faults and often questionable belief systems. Accepting them as fallible human beings and understanding what influenced their decisions allows you to take more responsibility for your training. We can honour a person’s work without having to slavishly defend all their idiosyncrasies, quirks and ideals. We can even separate art from artist in some instances. However, believing in total inerrancy of a leader – even if that inerrancy is focused on the area of their expertise – promotes cult-like thinking and prohibits rational progression.     

Do you practise pious fraud?

I have an entire article/chapter dedicated to something I have come to call “Jessop Thinking” in the martial arts world. It is named after the main antagonist, Colonel Jessop, in Aaron Sorkin’s famous military courtroom drama, “A Few Good Men”. The part was memorably played in the movie adaptation by Jack Nicholson. Jessop’s notorious “You can’t handle the truth” rant in court, which ultimately leads to his undoing, is based on his self-righteous belief in practising pious fraud. He thinks that his huge responsibilities heading the Marine Corps at Guantanamo Bay permit him to lie as he sees fit. Martial arts teachers often have the same arrogant assertion. They will tell stories about things they don’t necessarily believe to be true, as if they were true, in order to help keep a student’s dedication. Whichever way you look at it, the matter is a violation of trust. This problem combines the false premise issue that occurs when a martial art gets mythologised with having information controlled by teachers who are seen to be above criticism.

Do you rely on appeal arguments?

The martial arts subculture is riddled by appeal arguments. Appeals to authority ensure the cult-like subservience to the top down process, including total veneration of a style’s founder, living or dead. Appeals to tradition or antiquity enforce the “time-tested” myth. The survival of a system can be down to the influence of its practitioners or their ability to adapt it to the changing mood of the time, rather than the value of what is being taught. Appeals to novelty enforce the idea that just because something is modern it is also somehow better. New doesn’t automatically mean progressive. This brings us onto appeals to popularity, which is very common in the martial arts world. Like any other human being, martial artists are susceptible to trends and get caught up in them without engaging critical thinking. The popularity of a martial art, regardless of whether it is being picked up by law enforcement or the military, is usually down to its marketing rather than any a measurement of its effectiveness or efficiency.   

How tribal is your martial arts club and community?

This brings us onto something I call “Stylism”. Humans are naturally tribal. We operate in groups and as those groups grow they often fracture. Groups are bound by codes and practices. These same principles apply to martial arts subculture. Whether one group is trying to protect their business or their emotional investment, they often view other similar groups as being inferior. Martial arts “Stylism” is a complex subject and happens in many ways, but the following provides a rough view.

At the most microcosmic level there are those that see their club or particular branch of a style to be above anything else. We have seen this type of tribalism occur within many famous martial arts institutions and even within actual families. Then we move onto those who view their particular art to be superior to all others, the previous group often hold this view as well. Next we get an ethnocentric or nationalistic view, where everything outside of their chosen art’s birthplace is viewed as inferior or derivative. Finally there is the big three-way divide in martial arts between Traditional Martial Arts, R.B.S.D and Traditional Martial Arts. The distinctions are fair even if all three overlap. It can be respectively seen as a battle between traditionalism/classicism, modernism and postmodernism.

“Stylism”, when it is properly examined, hinders progression. It smacks of essentialism in that martial artists are forced to view their arts, systems and methods as tangible properties. There is a lot we all can learn if we become aware of our prejudices and the prejudices put upon us by our training culture. This self-awareness allows us to remove intangible obstructions and better research our training.      

When did you last make a mistake (and admitted making it)?

Humility is a common theme in martial arts. The western martial arts world endorsed it through their distorted romanticisms about chivalric knights. The eastern martial arts world pushed it through their melding of religion and philosophy at the turn of the 20th century. However, if you listen to the autobiography of most martial arts teachers you won’t hear much personal humbleness, unless it is the story about how they had nothing and made their way to the top. What you will hear is the incredible life story of someone who has always been right. He will have had his hardships and problems – perhaps a target of bullying and suffered from a disability of some description – but you will rarely hear about when he was wrong. Instead you will get a smug figure of authority who casts himself as an icon of wisdom in various anecdotal stories.

Such self-belief fits in with the Tony Robbins empowerment guru model observed by investigative reporter Steve Salerno. Empowerment gurus automatically believe they can advise on anything in life and they are self-appointed experts regardless of whether they have the specific knowledge, experience and education on any given subject. With the advent of social media, we have seen martial artists regularly using their position of authority in martial arts to preach on a wide variety of subjects – including politics – as if these subjects were mere extensions of their job role. Without apparently doing much impartial research they propagate to their martial arts flock conspiracy theories, urban legends, pseudoscience, pseudohistory, sensationalist journalism, quack remedies and their own personal politics. In so doing they are continuing a martial arts tradition that goes back to the turn of the 20th century, where we find the roots of Bullshitsu in nationalism, pre-scientific beliefs and the proliferation of pulp fiction.  

The average martial arts teacher obeys his tribal instincts and asserts an alpha position, exerting little discipline over his ego in this process. He will certainly tell you about humility, but don’t expect to hear about how he totally messed up a technique today or his second thoughts about a certain martial arts concept he has been teaching for the past 20 years. And so this model is copied by his students when they become instructors.

Cognitive dissonance is not something the average martial artist takes into account. Yet it is something we often see in the subculture of martial arts. When uncomfortable realities about a martial art – be it history, theory, science or practice – hit home, the typical response is for the devoted martial artist to go into denial, make excuses or fall back on what psychologist Carol Tavris calls “the engine of cognitive dissonance”, self-justification. What they don’t often do is learn, especially if this information has come from outside of their respective tribe. However, a teacher who acknowledges their mistakes is more likely to be able to relate and connect to their students. They have the best chance of being able to move forward with training and to gain more productive results.


My critical thinking journey into martial arts subculture is covered in my upcoming multi-volume book, “Bullshitsu and the Fight to Make Martial Arts Work”.