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Martial Arts 2.0: How to Download a Black Belt

With the help of a short instructional video on the Internet, a few minutes is all it takes for anyone to learn how to crack an egg with one hand, perform a card trick — or crush the windpipe of a fully grown human being.

Martial arts classes are moving out of the dojo and onto the Internet, proliferating on how-to websites. A simple search of “self defense” turns up 171,000 YouTube videos, including the secrets of groin kicks, choke holds and eye gouges. Likewise, instructional sites such as Ehow.com and VideoJug have hundreds more.

But can you really learn martial arts from just watching a video?

(Photograph by Himanshu Ojha/CNS)

“Oh sure you can!” said John Graden, founder of the Martial Arts Teachers Association and protegé of former world Karate champion Joe Lewis. “You’re not gonna be that good … ”

Graden himself, however, has made some of the most popular videos on YouTube and sees them as a useful tool. In “How to Knock Someone Out in One Punch,” viewed more than 830,000 times since he uploaded it two years ago, he appears onscreen, standing tall in a blue Karate uniform, and punches his training partner across the chin (but only at half speed).
“This is only for illustration and education,” he warns his audience. “This is not what you’re going to go out and practice or turn this off right now.”

Some martial arts experts worry that there is a danger to relying solely on how-to videos when it comes to something as serious as self defense. Without a live teacher to correct your technique, you may not be learning much of anything.

“A live teacher will provide the necessary adjustments and corrections to make technique excellent and efficient in dangerous circumstances,” said Matthew Apsokardu, a 26-year-old karate instructor in Pottstown, Pa.

Learning a martial art takes time, lots of it, Apsokardu said via e-mail. Training between two and three days a week with an experienced and qualified master, one can typically expect to gain a black belt in three to five years.

“Video alone simply cannot provide the kind of personal guidance needed to become a good practitioner of any style,” he wrote.

In the old days, the way you learned martial arts was to put yourself on the line physically.

“You wanted to find out about something, you took the risk of going to school and getting your ass kicked to find out about it,” said David Herbert, 53, who runs the World Martial Arts Center in New York City.

Herbert has been practicing martial arts since he was 11 years old and growing up in Brooklyn, where his Green Beret father wanted his children to be able to defend themselves. Describing himself as an old school kind of guy, Herbert said that he was surprised at the amount of information available on the Internet compared to when he was coming up.

“We had nothing,” he said. “Everything was cloaked in secrecy, you know?”

Initially, he said he was thrilled at being able to see video footage online of rare and famous fighters — such as respected Aikido practitioner Hiroshi Ikeda of Japan — but he soon realized that the unfiltered content on the Internet carried pitfalls.

“There were some good people, there were some legit people, but the fact that anyone could put anything on there, a lot of it was crap, a lot of it was what I would call misinformation,” he said.

Now a 7th Dan black belt in Jiu-Jutsu and a 6th Dan black belt in Hapkido, Herbert has seen people claim they are experts at certain martial arts after having trained only from videos and seminars. As a result, he changed his hiring policies for instructors, insisting that they have at least 10 years of real sparring experience.

For Herbert, students who learn only from videos on the Internet are missing out on the flow and transitions between techniques.

“It’s like me giving you a manual that has all the parts of a car,” he said. “It has all the pieces, but it doesn’t show you how to put it together, and it doesn’t show you how to drive.”

However, some serious practitioners can benefit from supplementing live training with videos, in which they can view techniques from different angles and slow down action to see how it’s done.

Mitchell McCray, a  former New York City police officer who currently is training police and security personnel in Afghanistan, wrote in an e-mail that he uses videos as useful supplements and for reference. Combining physical instruction with video reinforcement can “help make a well-rounded practitioner,” McCray wrote.

But in an industry with little regulation, Apsokardu wrote that anyone could Photoshop a certificate and declare himself a master:  “The phrase ‘buyer beware’ is in full effect when it comes to martial arts and self-defense videos.”

February 12, 2011