The new normal. We are hearing it a lot these days. The COVID-19 pandemic is going to go down as one of those events that change things forever. A new normal. Many of us remember what it was like traveling by airplane pre-9/11. Keep your shoes on. Having that half full water bottle in your bag was no problem. You could even greet family members at the gate. People under the age of 25 will have no recollection of this. The current air travel procedures are their normal. Many things will change and not go back to “normal”.
The martial arts have gone through events before that have altered their course. Hundreds of years ago, martial arts techniques were passed on from teacher to student. There were no formal styles or studios. Information was passed on through generations via word of mouth. Passing on information this way can lead to things getting lost or misinterpreted. After 25 iterations of teaching Pinan/Pyung Ahn forms it can easily be seen how they turned into something entirely different than what they were originally intended to be…purple monkey dishwasher (Simpson’s reference anyone?). This is not a specific altering event, it is simply the state of things. When you add the following events into the mix, you get “new normals”.
Before going further, I want to make sure everyone knows that I am not comparing any of the events below to the one we are going through now. Some of these events are terrible, like the current situation, and others are not. My point is to illustrate how these things created new normals in martial arts.
- Funakoshi’s systemization and structuring of karate in order to teach it to the masses. To be successful in teaching a lot of people of varying abilities and interests, many things had to be left out of this new, structured approach.
- Japanese occupation of Korea. When Japan overtook Korea before World War II, one of their goals was to obliterate Korean culture and history. They wanted to assimilate Koreans into Japanese. In doing this, many documents and history of Korean martial arts was lost forever.
- US bombing of Japan during WWII. As part of its pacific campaign, the US firebombed the bajeezus out of Japan. The tiny island of Okinawa was one such casualty. Okinawa is considered the birthplace of karate and much of its history was lost.
- US soldiers returning stateside after WWII and Korean War. Many US servicemen learned various martial arts while stationed in Asia during these wars. When they returned, they wanted to continue the training so the brought over their instructors or started teaching themselves. Teaching Westerners is a much different situation, requiring things to be done differently again.
- Kids martial arts boom of the 80s. The Karate Kid and Ninja Turtles hit the scene and kids everywhere (including me) started martial arts. Prior to this not many kids did martial arts due to the hard, physically demanding, disciplined approach. Martial arts studios started realizing a lot more money can be made teaching kids and things were once again altered.
There are likely more that I am missing but these are the ones that I came up with off the top of my head. We are now in the midst of another altering event leading to a new normal, the COVID19 pandemic.
There is not one martial arts studio in the entire world that can stick around doing things like they did before the pandemic. This is a fact. How can you apply a self-defense technique on someone from 6 feet away? Can you teach a technique when you can only see 2/3 of the person on a screen due to online classes? How can students learn something exactly the right way when most are doing online classes and restricted to a small space?
We are all adapting in order to survive. I fear that this is going to be a permanent new normal and the old ways of martial arts will slowly fade away and be forgotten. I like throwing people. I like seeing the look on someone’s face when I kick them in the head (with control of course…most of the time). If martial arts turns into an activity that is done without a partner from now on, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love basics and forms. However, applying those basics and forms is where it is at for me.
The one thing we have going for us now is that we live in an age of communication and education. We all can easily document via writing, videos, recordings, social media, etc. what we have learned. I for one am doing much more documentation during this time in order to preserve the what, why, and how of martial arts as I was taught. I don’t want our knowledge and wisdom to be washed away because of the “new normal”. Please join me in documenting pre-COVID culture whether it is in martial arts or any other significant aspect of life. Hundreds of years from now, I hope people can say “We do it this way today because of COVID19 in 2020.” If you ask someone why something is done a certain way in martial arts (prior to COVID) you often get either “I don’t know” or a made-up answer. Let’s be sure our future generations have the right answers.