This article is not about whether modern combat-oriented arts – and Defence Lab specifically – are better than the more traditional martial arts – or vice versa.
However, it does ask some difficult questions about whether something like Defence Lab is more in tune with modern society – and therefore likely to succeed in the longer term . . .
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The traditional martial arts are often said to be suffering. Many (although by no means all) instructors are finding it difficult to attract and retain students. The US-based Martial Arts Teachers Association estimates that the number of schools in the US has fallen from 20,234 in 2013 to 15,896 in 2016.
The following 2014 graph shows overall search traffic via search terms on Google. Martial arts is the blue line and MMA the red line.
What are we to make of this? On first sight, Defence Lab might seem to be the anathema of true martial arts. It’s a slick, heavily standardised, strongly marketed franchise, with branded jewellery and other accessories for sale on its online store.
But much as I adore my own “old-school”, very Japanese-influenced Karate dojo, I can’t help but be fascinated by what these guys are up to.
Firstly, I covered Bob Breen’s 4D Combat System London launch event earlier this year; and was blown away by the clean professionalism and almost scary intelligence behind his new system; which is cross-branded with Defence Lab, alongside Phil Norman’s `Ghost` system and Eddie Quinn’s `The Approach’.
Secondly, Dan Holloway, Lead Instructor at Defence Lab Lincoln has become a valued online friend this year, as a fellow blogger. Dan by the way has variously studied since the age of six in Karate, Aikido, Jiu-Jitsu and Boxing, as well as MMA, KFM and Matt Frost’s Renegade Street Tactics programme
So when visiting friends not too far from Lincoln recently, I stopped by Dan’s school to find out more about DL – and explore the implications of this aggressively commercial approach to the martial arts, where students wear branded tracksuits to train.
I spent the evening with Dan, assistant instructor Steve Stacey and their students; and took in a kids’ class, an adults’ class – and some great conversation about it all.
Here are ten areas where DL seems to be actively engaging with the spirit of the age to assure its own success – in a way that many traditional dojos may not even be dreaming of right now . . .
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Like it or not, standardisation and mass-production are often seen as desirable nowadays. That’s how we let big supermarkets destroy small, independent local shops. That’s why the Les Mills programme has crowded out quirky, individual-personality-based aerobics classes from many leisure centres.
At first sight, DL’s standardised approach may feel uncomfortable But it’s arguably only a modern evolution of what’s already been happening in the martial arts over the last century or so. Teachers such as Gichin Funakoshi (Karate) and Jigoro Kano (Judo) started the process – which has continued ever since.
Paul Bowman explains how Funakoshi standardised Okinawan Karate and got it accepted into Japanese secondary schools and universities through:
standardised uniforms, formal lesson structures, fixed syllabi and the coloured belt ranking system [and] rhythmic, repetitive straight line drills and nuts and bolts approach.
A heavily standardised offer like DL will appeal to many – and be unattractive to others.
Ideally it would be part of a diverse range of classes available, including high quality independent martial arts schools, pursuing their own lines of enquiry.
However, the future of the latter schools may be at risk. And bringing these risks out into the open for discussion is one of the drivers behind writing this article.
2. Quality control
One big question I had for Dan was about quality control. How can we know that instructors aren’t just paying for the brand and then teaching poorly? He explained:
We have regular weekends with Andy and the crew to see how everyone is getting along and train with the top guys to further our own skill knowledge and ask any questions we might have. The Defence Lab network is also fantastic and there are a number of people on the end of a phone if any questions are needed.
We also cannot grade our own students and a board of examiners sends someone to our gradings to maintain the level is high and we are not being biased in terms of passing our own students.
This sounds good, although it’s no absolute guarantee of quality. But then, neither are the quality control measures in many traditional schools; hence the huge variation in quality between clubs.
In any case, this article is about how DL seems to be responding smartly to the modern world; and I believe that the quick, easy way Dan was able to articulate these controls and safeguards, would give convincing assurance to many prospective students or parents in today’s demanding consumer society.
3. Use of ICT
There are no end of videos, apps and other resources now available to support martial arts learning (albeit of variable quality).
At its best, ICT can offer things that a human teacher can’t – for example the use of slow motion footage in demonstrations; and the option to review a demonstration (or fragment of a demonstration) endlessly – any time and any place.
Defence Lab takes the advantages of ICT to a whole new level. Its new Online University offers a comprehensive, constantly-updated library of lessons and resources, structured around a cohesive curriculum, and benefiting from systematisation, professionalism, and smart indexing / ease of navigation.
Many ICT-based martial arts resources don’t differentiate between “closed” skills, which are easy to isolate and capture on film; and aspects which probably aren’t suitable for video transmission. (Ben Judkins tells a half-amusing, half-terrifying story of the latter going wrong: Why You Probably Can’t Learn Kung Fu From Youtube).
The DL online university is very strong in this respect. It shows a clear understanding of what suits being taught via video clip; and focuses on systematic “deep dives” into these basics. It’s hard to tell if it will evolve to find a way of teaching the less tangible aspects online over time.
Learning a martial art via ICTs also has disadvantages, such as the lack of physical feedback from your partner, or correction from an instructor. Part of the DL vision is to be accessible to students with no physical access to training. This is a good aspiration in principle, but ideally the DL University would always be used as a supplement to live physical tuition – or at least used by two or more students who can physically explore the techniques together.
DL markets the fun side of its training heavily, and this clip of their 2014 conference looks like it was a blast:
Inside the DL online university, the material is serious, but Andy and his instructors clown around like little kids at times. It’s refreshing and nice, and adds to the interactive feel. But there’s a serious point at stake here too. When I wrote about the unconventional world of Lightsaber Combat recently, one reader commented:
loved the blog, YES lightening up the whole self important, superior side of martial arts is central – because all earnestness is ego battling, not soul surrendering. All truly wise teachers of all disciplines I’ve encountered are PLAYFUL
In any case, one of O-Sensei’s own rules for Aikido training was, “Always train in a vibrant and joyful manner”. Whether traditional or “modern”, martial arts clubs can benefit from letting their lighter side come through at times . . .
5. A 21st century brand
There’s a popular belief that traditional martial arts are not as effective as “modern” arts such as MMA, as fighting has changed. Whether this is valid or not, DL openly taps into this view:
Enter this decade and we see thugs with training. They are pumped up on steroids and other drugs and very often watch or even train in MMA, they attack in groups and will stamp on your head whilst holding a can of beer in one hand. Now this type of thug requires you to embrace these changes, it requires you to learn how to deal with more technical and potentially coordinated group attacks.
[…] We deal with weapon attacks, group attacks, dealing with those training and those who are stronger than you. There is no “wax on and wax off” here. It is functional and modern.
Another point worth noting is the DL uniform. I don’t especially love it myself, compared to a pure, white, hard-wearing gi, but the students I spoke to in Lincoln really liked it – several mentioned being able to wear it outside the training hall and even in social situations, as a big plus. Again the DL website exploits this:
Ask a person why they won’t train in martial arts and the uniform is a major turn off. To the outsider most martial arts uniforms look like muti coloured pyjamas […] At Defence Lab we are all about looking cool. That is why Defence Lab prides itself on having great designs, high-quality clothing and even awesome jewellery.
6. Freedom from politics
In the article on Lightsaber Combat mentioned above, you can read about a new, lineage-free art described as: a release from the politics of traditional martial arts . . . the sense of community is outstanding. DL appears to be aiming for a similar ethos, with its lack of belts and obvious signs of hierarchy; and the formal bow replaced by a more friendly “salute”.
The article also explains that traditional martial arts have often been co-opted into promoting and transmitting the culture and values of a specific country. However, Lightsaber Combat doesn’t “belong” to any country – not even the USA where the Star Wars movies originated. It’s been picked up with enthusiasm all around the world. Its values are “universal” and culturally neutral, being grounded more in generic human psychology than any nationality. These values therefore appeal across a range of cultures.
This shift feels like a modern-day, “zeitgeisty” development – and DL also appears to promote this cultural neutrality.
DL also appears to want to stay away from the “hater” side of the martial arts, proclaiming on its website:
You won’t find DL instructors on the web talking about which style is best, who is the toughest or even trying to talk a negative view around.
The reason behind this is simple; they are too busy teaching people that want to learn!
Metacognition (thinking about thinking) is very much of a buzzword right now – I’ve written recently about how martial arts training can develop it; and here’s a news item on its use in UK schools, from the BBC.
One of the most intriguing things about the DL online university is that it actually resembles a miniature university course in some ways, as opposed to just a collection of videos. The materials are themed and sequenced over the weeks, and supplemented by secondary resources.
Andy and his instructors often guide us through analysing and critiquing a technique (or in their colourful words: “tearing it to pieces”)
Andy also asks a lot of hard questions of the viewer too, which is kind of unnerving. When watching a video, it’s easy to slip into just consuming it passively. But every time you start to relax and feel comfortable, Andy suddenly breaks off and says something like So why do you think that is? or Do you think Grek’s technique was correct there? – and stares unsmiling into the camera, giving the viewer an unexpected jolt.
Teaching metacognitive skills is by no means the sole preserve of Defence Lab. But it’s a valuable offer in this day and age; and one that any school might do well to promote more explicitly in its marketing
8. Promotion and marketing
Defence Lab has a provocative, breezily honest article on this topic, on its own website:
The martial arts world has a tough time accepting the fact that they are really terrible at getting people into martial arts. Yeah, sure they can kick ass and protect themselves but when it comes to actually selling martial arts they tend to be really bad!
[…] The future of martial arts is not about styles or systems it is all about how you promote martial arts to those that would not normally take up the activity. It is this that will dictate the future and the best promoters will ultimately be the ones that shape the future of the industry.
[…] This is why Defence Lab is growing faster than you could imagine! Not because the system is the best because we know there are a lot of great systems out there. It is growing because […] Defence Lab has developed a system of martial arts promotion, sales and business skills that has encouraged hundreds of people from different countries to try martial arts.
9. Evidence base
Another hallmark of the modern world, including modern martial arts, is a demand for evidence (although in many other spheres of life, we can be disappointingly uncritical at times). Many things demand an “evidence-base” now, including medicine, education, social welfare, criminal justice and management.
Andy and his team put a lot of focus on presenting the genesis and evidence base for DL, which they say has evolved from other martial arts, and from their own research, study, feedback and training.
One of my favourite parts of the online university was the sequence of video clips tracing the development of DL’s signature “shapeshifting” technique: from first noticing how human beings instinctively cover their heads when under attack; to using this same stance to simultaneously protect yourself, and attack with the elbows (as the Pensador technique of the Keysi fighting method); through further investigations and refinements leading up to the current form:
No martial art has yet given evidence that it’s more effective than all others; and on the technical side DL has its fans and its critics – just like any other art. But having such a thoughtful, detailed, “scientific”-sounding creation story to share, is yet another detail that makes DL feel fresh, modern, distinctive – and marketable.
10. Ethics for the modern age . . . ?
It’s hard to evaluate the “ethics” of anyhing in a black and white way; and Defence Lab is no exception. On the one hand, it’s unapologetically commercialising the martial arts. On the other hand it’s sharing the life-changing wonders of martial arts training with a wider audience, which is something most of us only dream of achieving.
It’s also hard to comment, as DL doesn’t seem to have any explicit code of ethics. It has a single value statement: We study violence so as to escape it, prevent it and if all else fails, utilise it ourselves to survive.
This could be an area of concern, as the ethical side of the traditional martial arts is so important; and could potentially be “lost” in this creation of a brand new art. The ethics are definitely there at this moment in time from what I’ve seen – Dan and Steve’s class seemed to be a model of kindness, inclusivity and diligent study.
But how far is this because the first tranche of DL teachers already have a traditional MA background, and are therefore steeped in the associated values? And if so, how sustainable might it be in the longer term?
But is it effective in a fight?
To be honest I don’t know; and wouldn’t presume to make a judgment on the basis of just watching a couple of lessons and some of the online university clips. All I can see, is that Dan, for whom the martial arts are a genuine vocation, talks about having finally found what he’s been searching for.
Dan’s student Julie also talked of a long journey via Aikido, Judo, free style and Kung Fu, in addition to over 20 years of teaching Karate. She said:
Karate is in my blood, a part of me, I miss it. It was a very hard and tough decision, and I still feel pulled to return, but DL is where I need to be right now.
Defence Lab gives me a different angle on things. I’m learning to try and react to things instead of thinking about them. I’m naturally inclined to think a lot, but here I’m learning to feel.
And I’ve spoken by phone to another DL instructor this week – Tahir Ahmad – who has been through a lifelong search for the “real”, via various martial arts. Tahir now feels he’s found what he was seeking in DL – you can read his story here.
Then on the other hand, of course you have all the usual haters on Internet forums:
I think it is a deeply flawed, style over substance, flashily marketed, baseless, unrealistic, inefficient, “look at me!”, made-for-Hollywood, sad parody of actual martial arts, self defence systems, RBSD, and everything else it’s pretending to be.
I’m not even going to try to adjudicate between these different views, as someone who hasn’t actually trained in DL. Perhaps it will just suffice to conclude that: like any other martial art, DL “works” for many people and “doesn’t work” for many others. There’s no black and white answer, otherwise we’d all know and agree on the best martial art to study (which we don’t, or else we wouldn’t be constantly sniping at other styles for being “not real”).
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Writing this article as a Karateka feels sad in a way – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Ideally there will be room for all of us to thrive. But in any case, the distinction between “old” and “new” martial arts is not as clear-cut as some might think. Ben Judkins writes:
While the Asian martial arts often project an air of great antiquity, the truth is they are reinvented in every generation […] As society changes and evolves the martial arts are re-imagined and recreated. Only in that way can they can continue to thrive.
[…] They evolved to survive in the past and I am sure they will be able to do it again in the future.
Nevertheless, this process is far from automatic. It requires much reflection and wisdom. It also requires a good deal of insight about what potential students actually want and a fair amount of luck.
So if modernity represents a devastating attack on the martial arts, then perhaps we should consider taking an “Aikido” approach and blending with that attack, rather than bemoaning and resisting it. Whether you like what they’re doing or not, Defence Lab has blended with the values and reality of the modern Western world, and turned these to its advantage, to a stunning degree.
So don’t be too quick to judge these methods negatively – or disdain to steal from them if some aspect(s) might be usefully applied to your own school.
After all, if we’re concerned as martial arts practitioners with “what works” and “how to be victorious”, then perhaps this should not just be confined to physical techniques – but also to the thorny and emotive (but urgent) question of protecting the life and dissemination of our art . . .
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- Bob Breen 4D Combat Seminar
- Ten ethical reasons you should exploit martial arts myths to promote your school
Logen Lanka (Way of Ninja) has also written an excellent, detailed review of the Defence Lab Virtual HQ (online university)
Disclosure: I have no financial or other interest in the work of Defence Lab, and have disclosed above that I’m friends with one of the UK lead instructors, who also holds the role of Social Media Consultant at Defence Lab. Dan therefore has an interest in this article on two counts; although it was my own desire to write it, and he didn’t input into it beyond answering the questions I asked him. I will also disclose that Dan arranged for me to have free temporary access to the DL Online University, to help with writing this article.