Another instructor (from another art) brought up a discussion recently about integrating multiple martial arts to create a “personal hybrid”. That discussion brought out a lot of good points, so I want to share some of what I think are the key points. This is a good topic for anyone who wants to study multiple arts simultaneously, already has training in one art and wants to start another, or simply wants to cross-train with sparring partners and at seminars.
Pros and Cons of Cross-Training
If you want to become an expert at one thing, you should focus on that one thing, right? Well, perhaps not entirely. In almost every field – including scientific study – some of the understanding and advancement comes from borrowing concepts, ideas, and viewpoints from outside the narrow field of expertise.
The best Nihon Goshin Aikido practitioners I know have all experienced some training in other arts. The best Tae Kwon Do practitioners I know have all experienced some training in other arts. The best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners I know have all experienced some training in other arts. Perhaps the only exception might be those who are specifically training only for competition (not for deepest comprehension, nor for self-defense). I say “perhaps”, because the best competitors I know are all cross-trained as well, but I’m not sure how much that cross-training helps within the ruleset of competition.
There is a potential downside to cross-training. If someone gets into two arts with conflicting principles, it can slow down their development in both arts. But that’s not always the case. In most cases, cross-training brings a different viewpoint, another way of getting to a given technique, and a window to some of the weaknesses in your primary art. And, yes, your primary art has weaknesses. They all do, and are often best exposed by other approaches.
How much should I cross-train?
This is a more personal question. If you want to become the best you can possibly be, then cross train extensively. Do it often, with the best practitioners and teachers you can find, and put a lot of effort into it. However, not everyone can set aside the amount of time that would require – we have lives, after all.
So, my recommendation is to start with one of two approaches.
The first option is to pick a primary art, and train it exclusively for a period of time until you start to develop some basic competence (a year or so is usually about right). Then start attending seminars and workshops in other arts, or find some experienced training partners to start sparring/rolling with. This doesn’t take a lot of extra time on an ongoing basis, and can yield some quick insights into your primary art. When selecting workshops, look for a wide range of arts. Go to some workshops in very similar arts, some in very different arts, and some in arts you know nothing about. The mix will change your view of the art you train in.
The second option is to start the same as the first option, but rather than just going to seminars, pick up a second art. You might train it as much as the first, or you might train it half-time (so, maybe 2 classes per week in your primary art, plus one in the secondary). If you choose this route, choose a secondary art specifically to compliment the primary art. If your primary art is almost exclusively grappling, then the secondary might be a striking art – and vice-versa. This can extend to fully training in both arts, though I recommend treating one as your primary art, even if you put equal time into both. This lets you build your personal style around a core.
Building your personal style
Now that you are gathering these principles and techniques from different sources, what do you do with them? Well, the first thing you don’t do is bring foreign techniques into a regular class without warning. Don’t go to a wrestling seminar and suddenly start doing single-leg takedowns in the middle of Shotokan sparring. The idea is to adapt your personal style with the learning, and to use that to make adjustments to how you react, but to still practice the art the class is practicing. There may be times to bring those other techniques in, so long as your instructor and the other students have cleared it. This is for both safety reasons and to avoid confusing other students.
Most advanced practitioners (define that how you will) will share whatever cross-training insights they have with partners from time to time. If your instructor allows opportunity for this in regular classes, use it to share and learn from others’ cross-training. You can also get together outside class with other students of about the same level to practice and share ideas.
Much of my own understanding of Nihon Goshin Aikido has been informed by what I’ve learned in cross-training and seminars. Sometimes it was a principle I hadn’t really grasped until I saw it used in another style. Sometimes it was a slightly different movement that helped me understand why we do what we do. Sometimes it was seeing where other arts had an opening we didn’t (and, of course, vice-versa).
Most instructors can help you integrate some of the concepts from other arts into what they teach, assuming they’ve done their own cross-training over the years. If you plan to cross-train, you’ll want this kind of help from at least one of the instructors involved. If you know this going it, find a primary instructor who can help you integrate.
Gerry Seymour is the founder of the Self-defense Academy of Western NC, in Hendersonville, NC.