Home-Study Martial Arts: Boom or Bust?

One of the longer-running debates in the martial arts world is the question of whether learning a martial art by book, video on online is at all possible, and if so what are the limitations?

Scrolls that featured martial techniques were in use thousands of years ago; the development of books allowed martial knowledge to be stored far longer than delicate scrolls. The invention of film allowed movies to be made; videotapes made it easier to watch those movies in your home, and now with the advent of the Internet all it takes is a mouse-click to locate a “Master” willing to teach you the mysteries of the Orient for only $49.95 / month.

But can you really learn a martial art by these methods?

Scrolls, Movies and the ‘Net

I used to have an impressive library of martial-related books, numbering somewhere around 800 volumes. I used them as references, I used them to familiarize myself with unknown terms and as rough guides to learning the general style and techniques of different martial arts. Of course, this was all pre-’Net, so I didn’t have access to all of the material and custom-made, ready-to-learn courses that are available today.

But I never thought that I was learning those particular martial arts. I was learning about them, but I had no idea of whether or not my conception of the art derived from a book was the real thing. Only a flesh-and-blood experienced teacher could give me that. You might be thinking, “But those are books! Videos are FAR superior for learning!”. Let’s look at that for a moment …

Sure, videos are the in-thing right now. Every online MA course has its own slew of videos “teaching” you the style. But that doesn’t mean you’re actually learning anything – you’re just aping the movements. You’re an automaton, being programmed to spit back what you’ve digested from the screen. You have no inkling whether you’re doing it properly or not.

“But the teacher evaluates the video I send in!” I hear you saying (amazing how I can hear that over the ‘Net, isn’t it?). Well, yes and no … he might be sincerely trying to determine if your movements, recorded on that shaky, out-of-focus video you made with your cheap little phone, are correct.

Or he might just be in it for the money, in which case you could be dancing the Tarantella totally nude and you’d receive a passing grade.

How can you tell the difference? That’s just it – you can’t.

Online Learning Takes Off

It isn’t that online learning is useless – far from it. Even such big-name institutions such as MIT and Cambridge are now offering on-line courses that bring in thousands of students for every session. Unlike the earlier attempts at online learning in which a static page of dry verbiage was posted on an Angelfire or GeoCities website, these new courses feature real-time interaction between teacher and student, full A/V capabilities and instantaneous feed-back.

One thing that these courses can NOT offer, however, are the labs associated with many of the courses; for that you have to actually travel to the campus. You won’t find a Phys Ed practical online, nor will dance majors be jete-ing over their MacBook. Likewise, you might be able to pick up the theory and history of a martial art from a video, but physical movements? Complex physical movements? No way.

My specialty is Taijiquan, an internal Chinese art that looks deceptively simple but has layers upon layers of complexity built-in. Many times I’ve received emails from people who bought my Taiji book, asking if there was also a DVD available. Of course there wasn’t, and the reason for that is that, despite the extra money I could make selling such a DVD, I refuse to mislead students into thinking they can learn such an involved, complicated, hands-on (literally) art as Taiji from a DVD.

No way. It isn’t possible. At least, not until they come out with a Matrix-like learning system.


“But,” I hear again, “Master Onlyne sent me my Yellow Belt already! It MUST be a workable system!”

Yeah … and it must be true, because I read it on the ‘Net.

Again, let’s all say it together: a belt means nothing outside of a specific school, unless they are affiliated with a national / international federation of schools. Even then, outside of that federation it means nothing.

So your belt, as much as I’m sure you’re proud of it, and perhaps rightly so, isn’t worth any more than the wholesale price you could get it for at Century or Asian World of Martial Arts or any of the other wholesale houses. I’m sorry, but that’s the stone-cold truth.

The Take-Away

The moral of the story? At this point, online learning for martial arts can be a wonderful adjunct to your regular, real-world training; it can offer insights into your art that aren’t covered in class; you can learn a lot about the history and theories of your art with a skilled online teacher.

But you can NOT learn an entire martial art simply by watching videos and being “promoted” by your “teacher”.

Martial Arts

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