Friday, January 02, 2009

What is expertise in a martial arts context?

It used to be commonly thought that the mysterious black belt was 'the expert' at their martial art. Sometimes they are called 'Master,' which is a term that really sticks in my craw but that's probably just a personal glitch. For instance, it would seem normal to me to call a Spanish or Italian fencing instructor, Maestro.
Also, there's the public perception that the black belt is the ultimate goal of the martial arts - an ending point - graduation - induction into the mysterious inner circle. But if the black belt does not signify expertise, then what does expertise in martial arts even mean?
  • Neither expertise nor the black belt signify that you can beat up all comers. On any given day anyone might win a fight. But, after 10 years practice (per Malcolm Gladwell), the martial arts guy should rarely be so outclassed that he doesn't know what happened to him when he does lose, and he should be able to formulate a plan to get better at whatever got him beat up.
  • Expertise means that you have seen the whole system and have seen it in enough variations and practical scenarios that you can make it work pretty good. This generally doesn't happen until about 4th degree black belt (or the equivalent). Some folks say it isn't until 6th degree black belt.
  • To me, expertise signifies the ability to not only do the deed, but to discuss and explain and teach it.
What does martial expertise mean to you?


  1. I would agree with your idea of expertise: "The ability to not only DO the thing, but to be able to discuss, explain, and teach it."

    I would add one other component: knowing the art so well that you're able to express the principles in it without being tied to the techniques. For example, accomplishing a particular throw, that looks nothing like a textbook example, but is that throw in its essence. To put it another way, you know the rules so well, you know how and when to break them. Maybe what I'm talking about here is artistic expression...being able to color outside the lines, or ignore the "golden ratio" of composition. Maybe it's the difference between the junior high kid playing "Frere Jacques" on his flutophone vs. John Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things"...maybe it's (to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis) no longer counting the steps and just dancing.

    I suppose I'm unqualified to speak to martial arts expertise, but these are the things I think of regarding expertise in other arts I'm more familiar with, such as music, or painting. It's certainly something I'll shoot for in martial arts as well.

  2. I guess that an expert would be the equivalent of "shihan" in the aikido organization I used to belong to. The title shihan was bestowed at 6th dan. At that point the person would know all the named techniques in the style, and be able to answer any technical question. The shihan would be considered an expert on the physical expert of aikido, but had not yet fully mastered it. Full mastery was recognized with the 8th dan.

    In taijiquan, it's not so clear. We have no ranking system; at least not one that I'm aware of. There are levels of certification for teachers though. I guess an expert is someone who is certified to teach the advanced level material.

  3. It is common knowledge that you can judge the integrity of a group of people by asking the question "Who's the master?" and gauging the number of correct responses...

  4. I would first ask an allied question: What is competence in a martial arts context?

    In martial arts I would say that physical competence involves not only learning the movements, but internalizing them to the extent that they truly become "second nature".

    Expertise of course lies beyond competence, and might include the ability to spontaneously invent variations, trouble-shoot, problem-solve, understand and explain underlying principles, and transfer the skills acquired in martial arts training to the rest of one's life.

    So there are many dimensions and degrees of expertise.


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