Martial and Tactical Muse : Concept vs Technique


It’s strange how the sound of silence of the wee hours of the morning awaken the thought processes. Well, when I say silence, I mean that in my side of the world everyone is asleep. But I’m here typing while listening to a 2 hour mix of Celtic music.

To be honest I have been wanting to write this for some time but never got around to it due to me running up and down with the daily demands of life. But finally I decided to sit my butt down and write it before heading to bed.

Lately I’ve come across a Youtube channel for Izzo Tactical Martial Arts. The person in question is a man called Dominick Izzo who trains in Wing Chun in the Chicago area.

I got to know him via Paul Ingram of RFA Martial Academy. Paul spoke of Izzo and therefore I decided to check the latter out.

Now just so you know, I’ve never met these two gentlemen in-person. All I’ve done so far is watch their videos. But I have to give them the credit for putting up videos that help guide me. Anyone who is in the area who is interested in the arts they are practicing, do check them out.

Now Paul is a martial artist that I respect. As a person who’s practicing the system he is practicing (and teaching) as well, I see that he is one who adheres to the system. His forms and footwork are done and practiced properly. I therefore watch his videos for references – be it from footwork to weapon manipulation to sparring and combat applications.

Now Izzo is another remarkable individual. What drew me to his videos was the fact that he has an attention to detail. He questions his training and as he puts it, “pressure tests” them. He has the eye to see what is missing, and above all, is a humble person and is willing to share his knowledge and keep an open mind to further develop his skills as a Wing Chun practitioner.

Perhaps it was his history and experiences in law enforcement that gave him his insight of true combat. I’ve no idea. But the one thing I admire is that he has come to a point where I believe all martial artists should aspire to be.

And this is what I’m sitting up here typing about. It isn’t about learning techniques, but about learning concepts behind the techniques. That hidden nuance, those hidden truths that hides beneath the obvious. The abstract, the conceptual.

I have been practicing my craft for 3 years and still encounting (well there were periods of gaps in between here and there, but I do what I can). I have a great instructor who has taught me well.

As mentioned, it isn’t so much as techniques that I have been taught as it is about how he has taught me to have an open eye. To observe and to find the details in the drills I practice. He has taught me to question that which I practice and ask why is it that we do what we do.

These 3 years of not only physical and technical, but also mental and philosophical training have brought me to the point I am today.

As a martial artist, I am now in a state where I do not see just technique alone anymore. I have acquired a kind of sense, or heightened awareness, however you want to call it. When a drill is being practiced, regardless if it’s the same drill that I’ve done countless times, I now approach that drill from a whole new perspective.

I question my forms, my footwork. Why am I doing this? How come I can’t bridge into the opponent? Is it due to my angles? Or my footwork and ranging?

How come I do not have the power in my strike? Is it due to my form and posture? My center of gravity? Am I missing that twist of the hips that transfers that power from my core?

Do I trap on the elbow? Or the forearm? Do I tap or check at the wrist? Do I strike at the pivot point which is the shoulder to cancel out an incoming strike?

Do I bridge in to control timing? Do I step in or side step? If I tilt my weapon, is it a wrist action or elbow joint action?

It’s all down to these details that I suddenly gain an awareness and sensitivity too. And watching Izzo’s videos further solidified my resolve to go on in the direction I’m now heading to.

I start to dissect my drills and its sequences. Every single thing is scrutinised. And then it goes beyond that. I then ask why are we practicing the drill this way with an emphasis of the details? Why this manner?

This is when one as a martial artist starts to bridge that gap to cross over to the land and state of concept.

We step in with our body while striking because we want to put our body weight into our strike, making it act as a force multiplier. We bridge in because we want to govern timing and range. We step in such an angle because it is the safest possible direction to go in the split moment of attack and transition from the opponent. We hold our weapon this way because it forces us to use a different muscle group because it is much more sustainable in a real combat situation in terms of stamina conservation when you have to go against multiple opponents while being very worn out by combat stress and after effects of adrenaline rushes.

Everything is connected to one another. If there is one thing I learnt as a martial artist now, is that technique isn’t the way to learn the martial art. It isn’t about following a string of drill movements or kata or forms and taking that as the way to defeat the opponent.

They serve as a bridge for us to cross to the concept and idea behind their execution. To be able to grasp that abstract knowledge. Techniques serve as a tool for us to reach out to concept because they materialise and make tangible the hidden knowledge. And the best way to make it all work is to observe the technique, internalise it.

Why is this done this way?
And in a real combat situation, does it work?
What happens if it doesn’t work? (This is a key and very important question to be mindful of).

Of course, above all else, a student must make sure that his / her teacher is teaching the art / craft / system correctly. That in itself is another story and bag of snakes best left for another post.

Now, when a teacher is teaching his / her student, said student might realise that some drills or forms don’t work in a real combat situation. That is a good sign. He or she is picking up something with their questioning of what is being taught.

Why are we learning something that doesn’t work?

Now here comes another thing a student must also do that is important. Stick around the class and learn more.

Because sure, an ‘advance’ technique might prove to be better than an earlier technique taught that doesn’t seem to work. But that earlier technique might actually be something that is needed to be learnt and practiced because it serves as a foundation and stepping stone as well as the start of a path to develop the advance technique.

Or, it is something you have to practice so that when the advance comes, you can fully appreciate its efficacy and use. Or, one may realise that what lies beneath the so called ‘advance’ are actually elements of the basic technique that you learnt before it.

If you look at the whole thing conceptually, you realise that the earlier technique serves a purpose. But to catch the hidden concepts, one has to have eyes open and observe and question. Curiosity is key and an element never to be left out.

This applies not only to martial arts but to other arts and practices as well.

You learn to paint with a brush on canvas before using a Wacom tablet because you need to know about traditional media and how it reacts to various materials. You need to see interactions of paint on paper before you can replicate it digitally to make it look authentic.

You need to study and grasp the concept of image processing before going into film processes.

You need to learn how to walk before you can learn to run. You learn the concept of movement before mixing it up to further bring it to another level.

That’s why there’s a saying that everything that is done well is all down to good foundations and basics. Basics basics basics. Because everything else that comes after is built upon it.

As my instructor said :

“There is no advance. Advance is just a combination of basics. So basics are very important.”

The level of awareness is key. The more aware a student is to the tiny details and the concepts behind the techniques or drill, the better the student can go deeper. And when such knowledge is uncovered, it leaves a very profound and lasting impression. That is the power and joy of discovery. Retention of knowledge is best done via self discovery.

I am currently at a state where I’m still practicing my basics, making sure my forms and especially footwork is correct. With every movement made, I observe as much as I can and take notice / heed of all the tiny things. I feel every muscle pull, every tension point, observe body mechanics and how they work and why. Trying to gel and connect all the physical aspects of my actions to its conceptual counterpart.

It is actually a beauty of design. Design is art with a function and reason.

Everything has a reason for it to be done the way it is supposed to be done.

Why do TKD and Chinese MA students do horse stance. Why boxers keep their hands up the way they do instead of others positions. Why practice footwork, moving in specific ways. I can go on and on.

Another thing that Izzo did that opened my eyes was him putting up videos of Wing Chun vs *insert MA style*.
Now, these segments aren’t just your typical “do this to defeat this person”. What is important is to see the idea and concept.

Being a Wing Chun person that he is, he has stated many times not to do this or that for reasons that I found was an eye opener. Because all those reason’s lead to a singular concept that is all-encompassing to the art itself.

“You do not play the game of your opponent”

That blew my mind and made me realise that everything that I was taught in my system was done the way it was supposed to be because it adhered to the concept behind it.

For instance, my system does not have as detailed empty hand moves and techniques as many other arts / systems out there. But why? That’s because at the bottom line of it all, our concept is about “mobility and blade fighting”.

Our emphasis is in footwork and ranging in and out. If I am out of range, the enemy can’t hit me. And no, I do not want to be hit as I train in a blade mentality because blades and flesh do not complement each other well. It’s a marriage disaster that will leave one hurt badly.

Do I want to learn 20 empty hand techniques and use them against a blade? No. Because the blade suddenly changes the playing field and you realise there are a lot of things that cannot be done.

And as mentioned why are the techniques simple and not as detailed? Because it is a combative. It is kept as simple as possible because it has to be functional in a real combat situation. We have to remember that in the midst of chaos during combat, adrenaline pumping through our system riddles the brain unable to remember a lot of techniques. More often than not we fall back to basics which are the most simplest and straight forward of movements. There is of course mental training and conditioning that can make you focus, but you realise that strings of techniques don’t work very often because every attacker attacks differently.

The idea isn’t to take the whole string of techniques as the actual way to beat the fight, but rather, to break down its individual elements and realise that each piece of the puzzle becomes a viable option instead to be used when the opening presents itself. The idea of breaking down the long complex string of techniques or drill into its basic elements is a concept in itself that a student should grasp.

The drill and technique taught teaches the student that, “hey, you can move your body in such a way”. Then it is further supplemented with the understanding that “at a point in time, you can take this punch from this drill to be used in this situation”. Or “this sidestep when you see such an attack coming”.

Izzo too has that eye for concept. He mentioned in a couple of his videos about a simple concept that went like this :

Wing Chun is a striking art. So we have to go in and strike. If we try to trap a person where trapping is their game (like say a wrestler or grappler), we are going to be in trouble. We don’t want to play the opponent’s game but force the opponent to play our game.

And his emphasis on questioning what was taught to him further garners respect from me for he sees the art not from a technique point of view but instead the idea and concept behind what is supposed to be taught. You then realise that all the techniques learnt has their purposes.

It’s like learning the alphabet. The alphabet series in itself is meaningless but each individual alphabet or element in that series must be put together in the right arrangement and time to form the right sentences and words. But you can’t use words and sentences without learning the alphabet first. See the picture?

It brings me to this state of wonderment as I connect the seeking of knowledge to how our living world works. You realise how much knowledge there is and how complex we as human beings are, what we are capable of doing.

It suddenly becomes a yin and yang thing. Where in complexity lies simplicity. Simplicity begets complexity as many simple elements combine together. The best way to solve complexity is to use simplicity as much as possible which in reality, simplicity is actually complexity turned ‘lite’ due to the ‘trimming’ of the unnecessary and taking what is needed which is basically simplifying that which is complex.

Cheeky wordplay I know, but it is amazing to see this dance that is a part of the human condition and its interactions with the living world around it.