How Important are the Basics in Martial Arts Training?

When I was just getting started in martial arts at the age of 16 in Tang Soo Do (a Korean style of ‘karate’), I used to hear my instructor talk about the importance of basics in learning the art he taught. Since then I have read and listened to other instructors talk about ‘basics.’ Apparently, I was good enough that I reached First Degree black belt in three years in Tang Soo Do. I never heard my instructor say whether he thought I had trained enough basic techniques.

The practice of basic techniques can be quite boring. It never seems obvious to the student practicing basic techniques why an instructor would put a student through that. One of my senior students told me the other night that he thinks our students just assume we just want to “torture” them by making them work on basics for any length of time. In addition, working with a lower ranking student can be a learning experience apart from what one might expect! Others think we are just holding them back.

I used to think how monotonous it was to hear high ranking instructor go on about ‘basics’ all the time. It was so much more fun to practice applications, chi sau, lat sau (free hand fighting), etc.

The fundamentals, which is just a more complete way to describe basics, must be solid before moving onto more advanced techniques.

In nearly every endeavor, if one wants to be successful in that endeavor by exhibiting accepted skill levels, basics training is a necessity. In fact, it is necessary to return to basics’ practice periodically in one’s career. An instructor who jumps a student ahead to advanced techniques before they are ready are effectively killing that student’s long-term chances of reaching accepted skill levels for Wing Tsun or any martial art that has a long tradition for effectiveness. Unfortunately, I am seeing this happen a lot these days.

Lower ranked students believe that advanced techniques are somehow being kept from them because they are secret or more effective. Oddly, the most effective techniques in Wing Tsun are the one’s taught first! Advanced techniques have the fascination and the mystique. However, advanced techniques are advanced because they are more difficult to learn and more difficult to apply, not necessarily more effective. Going further, advanced techniques are not as commonly used in real fights. Often, they are ‘special circumstance’ techniques.

The truth is that a practitioner that has mastered the simplest movements within the basics of a system can be more effective than someone who has jumped ahead and tried to learn techniques that they were not ready for or qualified to learn at the time.

One of the things that martial arts is expected to teach is patience. This is being removed from the lesson plans of many in the martial arts these days. It has the effect of losing the reputation for effectiveness that these arts have worked for, for generations. Contrary to some modern thinking, one cannot learn several martial arts at one time effectively for real application. Once you experience a real attack, those quickly ‘learned’ movements quickly become ineffective.

If someone says that your martial art is ‘no good’ or ‘doesn’t work,’ you might blame it on lack of basics training with the students of that martial art.

-Sifu Keith Sonnenberg