Tune Your Training, Part 1: Specialization

A specialist martial artist, at their most focused, tunes their training toward a single discipline and a single context. This type of specialization is something that perhaps came first to us in the Western Martial Arts with duels. For these one-on-one conflicts individuals would train to fight within a fixed set of rules and conventions, sometimes imposed by the state (in the case of judicial dueling) or by societal norms (in the case of honour duels).

A single purpose

Today the main driver of specialization is competition. By specializing, a combatant can focus every hour of their training on a single end whether that be victory in a tournament, or survival in a duel. Many who engage in tournaments even specialize their techniques down to a core set of two to four and practice only on one dominant side. If you and your potential opponents have only 10 hours a week to spend on training, intensely training a limited set of actions means that you are able to get to a much higher level than an opponent who spreads out their work.
Here you might think of the Bruce Lee quote “I am not afraid of the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once. I am afraid of the man who has practice one kick 10,000 times.” The greater the diversity of actions, weapons, and contexts, the more that training value is divided up, and thus the lower overall level you might achieve. Here you might think of the figure of speech “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

A single reward

So in a context like a tournament or a duel where the conditions are fixed and the best techniques are known, being a specialist has a payoff. If you and your opponent have the same number of hours to train and your opponent generalizes while you specialize, provided you picked the right techniques, you’ll be ahead of them in the game.
But generalization also has its benefits. Read more about them next week.
Until then, I would love to hear how specialization has either helped or hurt your own training goals. Please take a moment to leave us a few words of your experience in the comments. I look forward to reading them. Thanks!

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  1. Since my training in HEMA is still at the novice level, I can’t really comment on this as it applies to swordplay; however, in my day job as a programmer, I’ve seen it all too often. I know people who just do iOS (iPhone) programming. Period. I also know people who do pretty much everything, but their knowledge on all the things they know is a lot more basic.
    But what’s nice is, it’s not an all-or-nothing choice. My favorite programming language (and the one I focus on the most, and the one I’ve come to know best) is C, but there’s no rule saying I can’t mess with some Python scripting (and I do web stuff at work, so I’ve come to know web stuff pretty well too). So I guess “jack of all trades, and working-towards-mastery-of-one-or-two”? 🙂
    Returning to HEMA, My real interest is in the sword and buckler. But both my swords are “hand and a half” which means they’re too heavy to train exclusively on that. I’m going through the sidesword fundamentals course, but still enjoy following the daily drill on longsword. Eventually I might dabble in some unarmed stuff, maybe even daggers or rapier, but my primary focus will probably be on the sidesword for a long time. So whether it’s function calls or fendente cuts, my approach to learning is a mix: usually about 60-80% specialized, but I like to branch out and at least have a working knowledge of other disciplines. It keeps things fresh and interesting, and (especially in martial arts) I find it a lot easier to keep going when the workout is fun.

    1. hi mikey32328. Great comments. I’m behind you 100% when it comes to starting out–focus on something you find the most inspiring, like sword and buckler. There will always be time to branch out as you go along. Great to hear from you, and your programming angle makes for a very interesting read. Thanks for contributing! GregR