Creativity in Martial Arts

As with many martial arts, Nihon Goshin Aikido is taught in a structured atmosphere, with specific constraints regarding usage, movement, and application. The beginning student is told precisely how to perform the techniques and stances at every step of the way. Yet, when an advanced martial artist demonstrates even a minimal level of mastery, it becomes obvious that there is a great deal of creativity involved in his defense.

How, then, does a student progress from the structured, clearly delineated way in which the art is initially learned to the free-flowing, creative, seemingly boundless version of the art demonstrated by the advanced martial artist?

There are many factors that will influence a student’s development toward a personal style of defense and the ability to be creative in his chosen art: his background, his instructor’s style, the ability and personalities of the people with whom he trains, and much more. But there are ways to help students learn to be creative within the art.

Creative Exercises. Many of the exercises (or assignments) used in most martial arts schools are extremely structured, and allow for little creativity. This is done on purpose, since it forces students to work on techniques and motions they may have problems with. Thus, it’s not a bad thing that most exercises are very structured. Adding in a few exercises that require the student to make decisions in a creative manner will help students learn a creative approach to self-defense, and will also help foster the student’s understanding of the art. There are many exercises that could be used for this purpose, but I’ll provide the two simplest examples that come readily to mind:

1) Give the students an assignment that only goes to a certain point. For instance, you might instruct them to use a two-handed block, while blending, against a backhand attack. Once they are properly moving and blocking, tell them to finish. They are allowed to parry, reverse, strike, throw, or whatever. Their only limits should be safety and reliability.

2) Give the students an assignment to work on defenses against backhand attacks, but give them no further instructions. Let each pair decide how to approach the exercise. This forces them to consider defenses for themselves, and removes the constraint of thinking which defense they are “supposed” to use.
Of course, in both exercises, the instructor must provide input to help the students understand whether they’re making good choices or not, but beyond that, it’s best to keep to the shadowy corner of the dojo and let them work.

Explore the Options. Once a student has learned the basics of a technique, discuss the ways in which the technique fits in with the other techniques they’ve learned. Have students work in pairs (or threes, with an observer) to find different ways to get to a technique, or different ways to finish it. Combine techniques. In NGA, you might start the Arm Bar classical technique, then at the mid-point, shift to a Front Wrist Throw finish. It sounds strange, but the combination is usable, and working with such combinations from time to time will help a student to recognize ways to recover from “spoiled” techniques.

Don’t Stop. Once a student has a reasonable repertoire of techniques, the instructor should encourage them to use their creativity and develop a good flow of motion when practicing a defense. If a technique isn’t working, rather than simply stopping, the student should look for a way to solve the problem. At first, this will mean pausing to examine the situation, deciding whether to repair the current technique or transition to another, and executing the decision. After some time, the student will begin making these recoveries without a significant pause, and without lengthy thought.

Of course, there are many other ways instructors can help their students learn to use their arts more creatively. These are but a few basic thoughts, and each instructor should take the time to plan their lessons so that they incorporate some creativity in what they’re teaching.

And if you’re a student in a school that’s not offering much creativity, then it’s your job to make sure you learn how to be creative in your art. Take these basic ideas here, and find a student you trust to work with you either during open mat time or outside the school. Then, just get creative!

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Gerry Seymour is the founder of the Self-defense Academy of Western NC, in Hendersonville, NC.

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