The difference between tough and stupid in martial arts is a very thin line.
I’ve heard a lot of stories from my seniors and teachers, some of which are true, some of which are probably apocryphal, about physical toughness in budo training. Those tall tales notwithstanding, in my old age I’m figuring out that in reality, as far as my own training is concerned, there’s a difference between tough and stupid. Oh, yeah, and then there’s crazy.
If you go to YouTube and watch a video of the judo legend Kimura Masahiko, you’ll see the definition of tough bordering on crazy. Kimura was one of the toughest martial artists alive in his prime, an opinion first voiced to me by Donn F. Draeger, who was no slouch himself. Kimura was one of Draeger’s teachers, and the stories he told me of Kimura’s grueling training sessions would put them on a par with any pro boxer or wrestler’s prefight training schedule, and then some.
In the video I saw, the narrator (an American judo player) spoke matter-of-factly of Kimura’s students doing 600 push-ups a day. For warm ups.
Draeger told me he once had a cold that was so bad he thought it was turning into pneumonia. Kimura appeared at his house, took one look at him, and said he should quit lollygagging around in bed and get to the dojo. He even helped by dragging Draeger out of bed and scolding him for his laziness. At the dojo, Kimura dumped Draeger all over the mats, all the while scolding him for being too soft and mushy.
That kind of training is so tough, so intense, it borders on crazy. But you know, if you wanted to get to Olympic-caliber toughness, if you wanted to be as tough as Kimura, that’s how you trained.
Another example of toughness:
One of my Takeuchi-ryu sensei said that he used to sometimes wonder if he was coming back from training in one piece. The training was that tough. Although it was mainly “just” kata training, he said the speed at which the higher ranking students trained was at the speed of “reality,” and that they applied a good 75 percent of the actual strength it took to dislocate or break the bones of their partners. They were so skilled, they rarely endured or gave debilitating injuries, but it was scary how close they could get.
That’s pretty tough.
Then there’s stupid. I overheard two of my students talking about a martial arts style they both used to train in. In hindsight, they agreed that their old school might have taken the idea of “tough” a bit too far.
For example, one of my students said there used to be a young woman in the class, barely five feet tall. They were practicing a move where you would get behind the opponent and pick him up and slam him down with a sort of body slam. They were practicing in a rented hall with a solid concrete floor, no tumbling mats. The woman’s partner didn’t make allowances for her lighter weight and shorter stature. He upended her and threw her face first into the floor, instead of on her side, and knocked out all her front teeth.
I interrupted, saying something like “Why weren’t there mats? Why didn’t they take it step by step at first so they knew what they were doing and nobody got hurt?”
The student shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, you know. That’s how they thought. You gotta be macho in martial arts. No need mats. Tough it out. Go full blast from the start. The poor lady, though, she was young and pretty but she got all her front teeth knocked out.”
He went on to say that a lot of students got so beat up in free sparring, which was so wild it was nearly out of control, that they couldn’t go to work the next day, losing valuable income. A lot of people quit, he said, because the training was too rough and tough. They couldn’t train and go to work at the same time.
That, I would submit, is not tough. That’s stupid.
Unless you’re a prize fighter, professional athlete, attempting to get to Olympic-style competition level, are independently wealthy, are in military or law enforcement and training for life-and-death fights, or are simply young and gung-ho and have parents who can take care of your medical bills, you have to pace yourself so you can get up the next day and go back to work to support yourself and your family. That’s the sad truth of budo training for most of us average slobs who have to work at some separate day job for our daily bread. Budo training has to be paced so we can still get to work.
You can, of course, still endow the training with a modicum of “toughness,” according to your capabilities, but it has to be worked towards, not engaged in from the first day, and it has to make sense. You don’t knock out someone’s front teeth because you think that’s “tough.” That’s sadistic. You get some darned mats. You train to avoid needless injuries. People get injured enough even WITH all sorts of teaching and training safeguards in place. You don’t have to make it any easier to get hurt. That’s just senseless.
Training for an hour or two without a water break in normal weather, steeling yourself to endure the ordeal slowly over time, is good for teaching your body to conserve energy and build endurance. However, forcing a newbie with no endurance to train like this under a blazing summer sun with zero humidity and no shade is just asking for a sunstroke.
Sparring at near-maximum speed and strength with other people who are at the same level or higher than you are builds up your skills and toughness. Beating up students who are obviously below your caliber, without giving them a chance to develop their meager skills, is not making them “tough,” it’s just sadistic. And it’s stupid. Before that student can develop his/her skills, you’ve discouraged him/her and maybe lost a training partner. That’s stupid.
Carefully working towards near full-speed and full application of a technique under supervision and control is pretty tough. Doing a technique half-arsed, wild and out of control so that you hurt your training partner is not tough. It’s stupid.
In my younger, more carefree days, I had the good fortune to train with some topflight budo folk in competitive martial arts. I remember the time I sparred with a former All-Japan Karate tournament winner. The first time he punched me, I was knocked right on my rear end. I had never been hit by anything so well-timed, so fast, and so powerful before. But I wasn’t permanently injured. He hit me in a legal target zone, not in my throat, groin, or other dangerously weak structural area. I managed to get up and keep on sparring. As he built up my skills, I managed to train harder and harder with him, until in some sessions we were going full blast, and we were sparring, as he said, “like back in Japan,” and he would grab my arm or leg if I was too slow retracting it, throw me, and then we’d end up grappling on the mats, no quarters given or taken, going for pins, arm bars or chokes. But he built me up to that point. He didn’t just knock me down and knock me out from the outset. He didn’t deliberately try to injure me or hit me in illegal and easily damaged body areas.
I was also very lucky to have trained with members and coaches of one of the United States’ Olympic judo teams. The judo players needed people to work out with, and I happily volunteered. The first time the player in my weight class threw me, I felt like I had hit the mat so hard I must have left an impression of my body all the way through the mats to the hardwood floors to the ground under it, all the way to China. It was one of the fastest, most unstoppable throws I’d ever felt. It was a tough throw, but it wasn’t a sadistic one. He didn’t deliberately attempt to maim me by throwing me in a wrong way. Because I did a textbook ukemi (breakfall), I only got slightly winded…and dazed from the speed of the throw and the sting of the impact. Nothing else, except my pride, was injured.
Those were tough sessions, but save for strained muscles, a cut lip now and then, and inevitable spot injuries, I actually made it through those days with less hurt, injuries and pain than what I endured during my high school days playing football or wrestling. My budo teachers trained me tough, but smart.
Nowadays, I’m usually the teacher and I try to inculcate the lessons I’ve learned from the best of my teachers. I try to pace my students’ training to challenge them, but not to abuse or brutalize them. Toughness has to be built up, along with skill, endurance, speed and strength. Some of my students have more ability and can advance faster than others. Some of the students may never reach much higher than where they are because of some kind of mental, physical or personal problems.
But I hope, by positive encouragement, to train them to become tough, not stupid.