Do they have the whole system? Who cares.

It doesn’t matter if they have the whole system. They just need to make you better than you were

When searching for a teacher of a specific art, prospective students have an image in their head, and a natural question is, “does this person have the whole system?” They are thinking tiger-emblazoned sleeveless gis, catching swords with two fingers, the whole bit, even if they don’t know they are.

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You need the whole system if you want to freeze people. Plus, you don’t need to put in as much time with footwork when they’re frozen.

And it doesn’t have to be just esoteric kung-fu styles that engender the question. Even with something as, ahem, ‘practical’ as BJJ, those kinds of students still envision tapping out a Gracie relative one day with the secret inverted oblique lapel-leveraged arm bar.

For sure, there’s something to be said for someone who has a true understanding of the art and its applications, but that’s rarely a point of curriculum and more on training focus and quality of instruction. So let’s look at some motivations for asking the question:

    • Ring fighting ability. We know (one could say kind of the point of the UFC) that you don’t need a lot of theoretical instruction to perform well in the ring. Grind, toughness, good team—2 years and 10 fights is way ahead of 8 years and 0 fights. Sad, but true.
    • “Real” fighting ability. Different arena, but same principles. You can’t reliably test this without some sort of context, which amounts to rules, which makes it a ring fight without a ring. Most systems that tout their practicality also tout their simplicity, so having the whole system, even by the people selling it, is not critical. And as many of our more level-headed mentors say, if you want to fight a real fight, join the military.
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    The hero rarely has the whole system. That’s actually part of the journey.


    • Theoretical fighting ability. This amounts to knowing all the optimum counters to moves learned the level before. This is useful both for fight coaches and hobbyists enjoying the game and beauty of the arts.This is in some sense, a more reasonable question now. There are 2 categories:

      i) Do you know the principles that allow you to find your own answers?

      ii) Do you know the curriculum, which amounts to sample answers?

      You’ll notice that you really only need to get to i) to be a functional and evolving coach. In fact, and here is why we see some black belts that suck, i) is far more important than ii). There are many who go through ii) pursuing rank and respect and the “whole system”, but are never given i). Kind of a dick move on the instructor’s part, but they hopefully have their reasons. It’s like memorizing the multiplication table up to 12, but never actually learning how to multiply.There are those who feel that you need the whole system for the advanced theory to make your art work. Or that the advanced theory nullifies all that came before. If so, by modern standards, it’s a shitty art taught by a jerk. There’s a saying that mastery is just applied basics. You do need to put in the time to make any of it work, and it’s that time, not the theory, that’s doing the heavy lifting.

  • Cultural completeness. I’ve written before on the fetishization of martial arts and appropriation of Eastern culture, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting to preserve and pass on as much as possible. So much is lost in just 4 generations. However, this is rarely the true primary goal.
  • Future advancement. This is where I think many people get stuck. If you live in a large city and want to study a fairly well-known art, your teacher should ideally be at least 10 years ahead of you. By the time you need more, hopefully she has more, or you’ve both matured enough that going somewhere else isn’t weird. You don’t need the whole system on your first day—you can’t even tell your right from your left yet.
  • Marketing. Related to the previous point, what better way to pooh-pooh your competition without having to go fight them or teach a group side-by-side…a certificate on the wall!

There are styles like wing chun that present the whole system very quickly. Then just practice. I love that. Still, people have a way of twisting it to drag out one-ups-manship opportunities. And that’s when you see people being petty and weird, or artificially hiding and dragging out the process.

Find a teacher and group you can click with—that can push your comfort zone without making you fundamentally uncomfortable. Make sure their quality of movement is high and the rest will fall into place, even if you do have to move on one day.

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