What is the value of cross training? Why do I consider it essential to development as a budoka?
There are tremendous benefits to getting out of your comfort zone and doing things that are new and different. Every art is built on assumptions about the armament, training and intentions of your imagined opponents. Judo is great against the kind of attacks that are assumed. Judo training against weapons is pretty lousy. Shinto Muso Ryu is fabulous against guys with swords. We’re a little less sure of what to do against spears and grapplers.
Classical Japanese systems originated in an era when people were assumed to be armed, and wearing armor was common. For both reasons, empty hand striking arts never got started. It wasn’t until Okinawan empty hand arts were brought to the main islands of Japan that empty hand striking was seriously considered. By the time that happened in the early 20th Century, armor was mostly relegated to history and Japanese society was peaceful enough that few people went about armed.
Martial arts developed to solve specific problems. The great sogo budo 総合武道 of Japanese history - arts such as Katori Shinto Ryu, Kashima Shinto Ryu and Kashima Shinryu - all evolved in a particular era with very clear needs. In the centuries before the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan and enforced peace, war was the norm. Warriors were not specialists, but generalists, learning a variety of weapons in systems where the fundamental principles were applied to everything, whether they were armed or empty handed. Combatants were most worried about surviving battles where they would be armored and facing a variety of weapons and foes.
After the Tokugawa forces brought peace to Japan with musket barrels, martial arts continued to be practiced. New arts arose to suit the new conditions with different expectations. The concern was no longer armored foes on the battlefield, but duelists, angry drunks, thieves and rebellious peasants. The arts that developed in this period reflect very different expectations about the sort of violence people would face.
Every art makes assumptions. Sometimes we don’t even notice them. When I first started judo, a friend who was doing an art that makes different assumptions showed me some of my assumptions about what people would and would not do. I then learned that competitive judo’s assumptions about the opponent’s face don’t travel well. It’s a good thing to have your assumptions challenged.
Competitive judo has a polite rule about not attacking the face. It’s a nice rule, particularly for all the randori (grappling sparring in judo) that we do. Going to work and going on dates with a face covered in bruises all the time would be less than ideal. When you train like that all the time though, It’s easy to forget that not attacking the face is nothing more than a polite agreement between practitioners. My friend Paul didn’t train in an art with any such agreements, so he casually reached up and moved my face.
Forgetting that these sorts of assumptions are made for the safety and comfort of long term practice is simply and quickly corrected by training with folks who have different standards of what is polite and respectful practice. Being a judo guy, training with a friend who does TKD does wonders for exploding unconscious assumptions on both sides. Judoka don’t have an aversion to getting a hit a few times if that will allow them to close and throw. Strikers will be happy to make a mess of your face long before you get close enough to throw them. Strategies that work well in the narrow confines of your home art can become disastrous as soon as you step out of the dojo.
A little cross training can open up whole vistas of realizations. Judoka make all sorts of assumptions for training purposes that are silly outside the dojo but are perfectly reasonable from the perspective of making regular training safe. For example, we don’t make an assumption about when the fight is over. It’s over when both people agree it’s over, especially in dojo randori where you’re not competing for points. That became interesting for me when I started training with aikidoka from time to time. Many people in aikido assumed that once uke was off balance and being thrown, the action was over. I didn’t know about that assumption, so I surprised quite a few people when I counter attacked while being thrown or even as I was being slammed into the mat. That’s not a problem with aikido, it’s a problem with training. Since then I’ve gotten to know some great aikidoka with exposure to judo. They enjoy my attempts to counter attack in the middle of their techniques, and the challenge of finding ways to stop me.
Another eye opening experience was when I took up jodo. I’d played with some methods of taking weapons in judo and aikido. I thought I understood something. Then I started training with jo and sword. I quickly came to a new understanding. I understood nothing about weapons, spacing with weapons, or timing. Unarmed spacing and timing is a different beast from armed spacing and timing. My teachers could reach me at distances where I was sure I was safe. That staff was in my face before I was even aware they were moving.
You don’t have to go so far as to take up another art to gain significantly from cross training. I’ve learned loads from getting thrown around by my friend Chuck (yes, that’s really his name). Chuck does an interesting style of jujutsu, and he was happy to test all of my assumptions and preconceptions. I would say brilliant things like “You can’t do that.” and Chuck would promptly do it to me. I’ve been rolled, pinned, mashed and chucked all around the dojo, learning the whole time. I haven’t taken up studying Chuck’s style of jujutsu, but I’ve learned loads from playing with him.
Just doing something outside your specialty can open your eyes and clear out myths. Kim Taylor used to host the best cross-training event I’ve ever been to. He invited all sorts of senior teachers from various koryu to Guelph, and we’d each teach a 2 hour introduction to some aspect of our art. Then we’d go try everyone else’s stuff. In one weekend I got to do jujutsu and naginata, a couple of styles of iai, maybe some jutte or spear, and a little kyudo. Afterwards we’d all go out for dinner and quiz each other about everything we’d seen and try to get answers to some of the million or so questions that leapt into our minds while we were trying all of this new stuff. I saw experienced aikidoka go from thinking they knew something about swords to deciding that they really needed to take up a sword art. I saw sword people conclude that some of those “dinky” weapons weren’t so silly after all. Lots of people from all sorts of arts developed an interest in jodo. A particularly thick-skulled judoka who was sure he’d seen pretty much all there was to see in Japan got schooled in just how limited his experience really was. For three days we’d train and ask questions and then train and ask questions some more. No claims of superiority, just loads of honest curiosity and a willingness to have all of our assumptions and preconceptions shattered.
I believe cross training is critical to fully developing your understanding of budo. If you only do one thing, that’s fine. If you only know about one thing though, that’s not. Get out of the safe zone of your dojo and go play with folks who do something different. We all look great at home where everyone moves and reacts the way we assume they should. What happens when people don’t move and react as we expect? Does our art fail us, or do we fail our art? If we don’t get out and challenge our own assumptions by cross training from time to time, we fail our art.
Having preconceptions and making assumptions about what will work and why is unavoidable as long as we’re human. Not doing anything to challenge those preconceptions and assumptions though is is a sad failure of our duty to our arts and ourselves. It’s especially sad when it’s so easy to find a way to check our thinking. Sign up for an open seminar with a different martial art. If you do empty hand stuff, try a weapons art. If you only do weapons, try an empty hand art. Step out of your safe zone and do something completely different. You may be amazed at what it can teach you about your art.