While few fields of human endeavour are free from urban legends, commonly held misconceptions, and plain old myths, martial arts are in a league of their own. People who are normally rational and reasonable will suddenly appear to completely lose control of their critical faculties the moment an old man with a thick accent starts talking about Kung Fu. Bitter experience has taught me that not many of these people will be willing to fairly and critically re-evaluate their dearly held beliefs. This is rather surprising, since most people don't consider martial arts to be a fundamental part of their identity, unlike their political views or religion.
In other words, even if you are a martial artist yourself -- especially if you are a martial artist yourself -- you will probably violently disagree with me on a number of points. That's fine. There's only one really important point I want to make:
Martial arts claims can, and should be, tested.
Okay, enough preamble. Onwards, then, to the myths.
Myth 1: Size and strength don't matter much.
I hear this all the time, almost exclusively from people who haven't tried full-contact sparring yet. The tiny little Chinese master kicking the ass of the huge, uncouth bandit. A very compelling image. Unfortunately, real life doesn't work that way. It is possible for a smaller, weaker person to beat a bigger, more muscular opponent, but it is very difficult, especially if there is a large size difference.
"Nonsense," you might say, "I can run circles around any big, musclebound Goliath. They'll never know what hit 'em."
Myth 2: Strength and speed are a trade-off. Big, strong people are slow.
I have several bodybuilder friends. Besides being stronger than anyone has a right to be, they are also obscenely fast. This makes sense, if you think about it: when you punch, your muscles (your triceps, to be precise) accelerate your fist forward. If you develop more powerful triceps, your punch will be both stronger and faster. This also applies to everything else: kicking, running, dodging, etc. The real trade-off is between strength and endurance; big muscles need a lot of oxygen to sustain them. The way to beat a steroid-enhanced mountain of muscle is to wear him down. Unfortunately, unless you're very strong, fit, and trained yourself, your chances of doing so before he crushes you are slim at best.
"Heck, I'll just kick 'em in the balls, then!"
Myth 3: Kicking someone in the balls is a very effective technique.
First of all, it's rather difficult to get a good shot at someone's crown jewels, unless you have the element of surprise. When fighting, most people tend to stand slightly sideways, making it almost impossible to get a clean shot in.
But yeah, it can certainly be done, with a bit of luck. So let's say you smacked those suckers good. What happens now? In my experience, one of three things.
If you're lucky, the poor dude will go pale, stagger, clutch his nuts, and stumble off to be sick somewhere. This can happen. If you kicked someone in the balls before and this is what happened, lucky you.
Another possibility is that he simply ignores your kick. I've experienced this several times, both as kicker and as kickee. You just don't feel the pain. His balls will hurt like a motherfucker after the fight, and possibly for days afterwards, but that's cold comfort if he kicks your ass.
Or he can get a massive adrenal dump and go berserk. This is what you don't want happening. If this happens and you haven't got your shit together, I mean really together, there's a strong possibility that he will hurt you. Badly. After the fight, he'll whimper, curl up into a ball, and puke his guts out. But, again, that's a bit too late to do you any good.
"The groin isn't the only vulnerable spot on the human body, you know..."
Myth 4: Pressure point attacks can be very effective.
By pressure point attacks, I'm not talking about a good, solid punch to the solar plexus. That certainly does work. I'm talking about touching "weak spots" or "exposed nerves", and expecting your opponent to just flop over and start crying like a little schoolgirl. The thing is, people have tried pressure point attacks on me before. They can hurt; the intensity of pain is about comparable to a stubbed toe. I suppose they could stop a very wimpy attacker or one who is uncertain of himself. But against a determined assailant? A waste of time.
"Nevermind all that. I have Chi powers!"
Myth 5: Chi (or Ki, or Qi) is a powerful internal energy that allows experienced martial artists to enhance their abilities beyond their natural limits.
The fact is that the existence of Chi has never been adequately demonstrated. Not only have all attempts to detect this mysterious energy failed, but no one has ever been able to demonstrate its effects in independent tests (yes, many have tried). Every single demonstration of Chi (things like Shaolin Monks breaking spears by leaning into them, or breaking blocks of stone on their heads) has been shown to be a simple parlour trick, nothing more.
This is not to say that Chi is useless. It can be a very useful tool in teaching the correct way to stand, punch, etc. Most people do not have a clear concept of how to move their body properly in martial arts, of where their centre of balance is, and of a whole host of different things which can be quickly and easily shown using the Chi model.
"Okay smartass, so how do all those Karate guys break wooden boards with their bare hands, then? That ain't no hoax. Those are real pine boards."
Myth 6: Breaking boards and blocks is evidence of a high degree of skill.
Anyone can be taught to break boards. Okay, anyone with healthy, adult bone structure. Breaking boards is just a fancy trick, like walking on coals. Give me an afternoon, and I can teach both you and your mother how to break boards. Seriously.
Breaking blocks is a bit more tricky, but still not particularly impressive.
What's interesting is that the people actually doing the board-breaking are often themselves not aware of how easy it is. This is probably because many schools surround the whole affair with an absurd amount of weird mysticism, Chi, whatever. In effect, they help people convince themselves that they're doing something really special. In truth, it's an acquired skill, but once you learn how to do it, it's no more mystical or impressive than riding a bike.
"Well, whatever. It's still really useful training though, isn't it?"
Myth 7: If you want to learn how to fight, you don't need to actually practice, you know, fighting.
Martial arts are just like everything else. You get better at what you practice. If you practice doing kata, you will get better at doing kata. If you practice breaking boards, you will get better at breaking boards. If you practice no-contact sparring, you will get better at no-contact sparring (in other words, you will not be able to strike effectively in a real fight).
If you want to learn how to fight, then practice fighting. Use as few rules as possible. Once you're fit and used to getting hit full-strength, full-contact sparring really isn't as dangerous as you'd think. I've been doing it for years now; I received several black eyes, innumerable bruises, and once I got my calf injured and was limping for a week or two. That's all.
"We can't spar full-contact, our techniques are too deadly."
Myth 8: Experienced martial artists can cripple or kill people with a single blow.
The human body is fairly well designed to absorb and deflect damage. Together with the fact that human natural weaponry is extremely weak, this means that you can't cripple, kill, or even stop a person with a single blow, unless you are incredibly strong and they are unfit and unprepared for your blow. Simply put, all that talk about severing the windpipe, shattering ribs and driving splinters of them into the lungs, breaking the neck, crushing the kneecap... it's pretty much all bunk. Some of these claims (especially the windpipe one) will get you laughed at by medical students, who have done autopsies and do actually know how strong and resilient certain body parts are.
Now I'm not saying killing someone with a single blow is absolutely impossible. Freak accidents happen. People sometimes trip, hit their head on a curb, and die on the spot. I'm just saying it's not something you can count on at all, and it's not something you have to worry about either.
Oh, and do not try kicking people in the knee. You stand almost no chance of hurting them, and an excellent chance of fucking up your own foot. I know this is difficult to believe. I know it's counterintuitive. I know it's probably the exact opposite of what your sensei told you. But I speak from experience. Just kick them in the shin or the thigh.
"Okay, so I'm a Third Degree Black Belt in Shotokan Karate. Does that mean I'm a master now?"
Myth 9: Belts mean something.
The requirements for reaching a given belt (say black belt, or first dan in Japanese martial arts) are wildly different in different arts, and even in different schools in a given art. There are schools that give you a black belt (complete with certificate) just for sending them $100 and a signed statement that you have studied their course videos diligently and now feel that you are a True MasterTM. In a different school, you might give it your all every day for 30 years and still not get that coveted belt, simply because you aren't talented enough.
These are two extreme cases, of course. Still, the point stands: a belt means nothing.
"Fine, I studied Shotokan Karate for 12 years then. Am I a badass street fighter now?"
Myth 10: If you want to be an effective fighter, knowing how to fight standing up is enough.
Normally, we don't stop to think about how precariously we humans are balanced on our two tiny feet. Our inner ear does its job well. Unfortunately, when you've got another human hanging on to you and doing his damnedest to pull you to the ground, odds are good that he's going to succeed, even if he's absolutely untrained.
Many schools of martial arts teach various defences against being taken to the ground. Almost all of these defences are useless. Paradoxically, if you want to stay up in a fight, you must learn a ground combat art. I suggest Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, wrestling, or Judo. Otherwise, you'll find yourself at a huge disadvantage when you are taken down. And you will be taken down.