The importance of creativity in martial arts

Written by John B. Will

Because the martial arts are so entwined with cultural tradition and hierarchical discipline, creativity and thinking beyond the box this paradigm creates is rarely encouraged. But without creativity, what would the martial arts be today?

Creativity in the cage. Toby Imada sinks in a deep inverted triangle choke on Jorge Masvidal.

Every single martial arts technique had to be invented. No matter how complex, no matter how technical — a human being once created it. So is there room for creativity on the martial arts landscape today?

Well, not only is there room for it, without it there wouldn’t be a martial arts landscape. The creative process is crucial to the further evolution of the martial arts, for several reasons.

Firstly, the creative process ultimately leads to a diversion from the traditional approach to martial arts practice. It wasn’t all that long ago when such a diversion was seen as an aberration; a failure on the part of the practitioner to ‘settle’ for a particular style and a sure sign they had fallen from the path.

I clearly remember being labelled as ‘wayward’ and ‘confused’ by several notable members of the Australian martial arts community, being condemned for ‘mixing’ my martial arts training and being unable to ‘settle down’ to the practice of one particular style. I find it ironic in the extreme that these same martial arts honchos are now proclaiming their own expertise in ‘mixed’ martial arts. No, indeed, the creative approach doesn’t always meet with the approval of the establishment. As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed.

Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” In my experience, this is an accurate observation. Creativity, at its heart, is about cultivating a willingness to fail. It is about being okay with experimenting and being accepting of the bad results along with the good. If we only want positive results, we need to stick with known (and proven) practices; but in doing so we cannot expect extraordinary results or different outcomes. If we want those, we need to undertake extraordinary practice.

New techniques are developed by turning left where we would have normally turned right; by departing from our normal responses to given situations; by cutting ourselves loose from convention. The problem with this approach, though, is that such turns will most often lead to dead ends and we may even come off looking a little stupid. But every now and then our adventuring produces something worthwhile, something even better than the accepted or the mainstream.

Apart from coming up with new techniques, combinations and the like, by experimenting with new methods of training (e.g. new drilling methods) we can keep things a little more interesting. Changing things up a bit, in any training routine, keeps us mentally engaged, and this is crucial if we are to optimise both performance and outcomes.

There are, though, many, many people who prefer to maintain the status quo and who resist change at every turn; and although there is definitely some ‘survival value’ in that approach (sticking with the known/the tried and true), there is also little or no chance for growth and improvement. And how this applies to the martial arts all boils down to why you are practising.

Ultimately, it’s a very personal choice. You may simply love your early morning tai chi routine, and in that case, may not be looking for much change or evolution. Or you may be sparring or grappling in a ‘live’ environment, where you are constantly looking for a way to get an edge over your training partners. As always, there is no right or wrong; the place for creativity in our martial arts training is inevitably a matter of personal choice.

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