I’ve been thinking and learning about martial arts for most of the past year. I’ve been practicing them a bit at a beginner level for just the last few months.
I don’t think you can really learn martial arts in a purely conceptual way. I do think you probably could really learn them in a minimally conceptual way, with lots of practice that slowly allows the concepts to arise naturally by a process of trial and error, though I think that would be a pretty frustrating way to do it.
But my guess is that front-loading the conceptual work in an approach that employs both sides is probably the most enjoyable and effective way to learn. That’s my sense. Take that for what it’s worth, coming as it does from someone who’s pretty inexperienced and inexpert in the matter. But that is what my experience seems to show so far.
The first conceptual step is to learn which kinds of martial art to focus on. There are a hundred different styles and lineages, each of which makes wondrous claims for itself and has a mountain of arguments and anecdotes for why its movements and training methods are the best there are. It’s exceedingly easy to be misled.
Having found a criterion for judging the different options and thus discovered which options to choose as a foundation, the next step is to begin learning about one or another of those martial arts. This is the time for learning the principles and goals of the martial art. (For me, this was a striking art, which seemed generally easier to grasp than the weirdness and complexity of a grappling art like wrestling or BJJ.)
Then it’s time to start learning about specific techniques, tactics, and strategies. This is a slow process, because so many things are interconnected that it will be necessary to go back and relearn what you’ve already studied multiple times as the relationships between the different parts become clearer. At some point, as the first art is coming to make some sense, it will be time to do the same thing with a second art (for me, this was a grappling art), going through the same slow process again.
Then, with these frameworks in place, for me it is much easier to go to practice and physically go through the motions of each movement that is taught. The different pieces aren’t isolated points with no meaning or connections (which is how martial arts felt to me as a youngster when I did them). Everything makes sense, and the internal logic of the movements are clear.
At that point, as the physical experience of the martial art becomes familiar, it is possible to go back and relearn the different levels of concepts one more time, with a new kind of understanding and insight. To me, this is a great way to learn martial arts. The physical learning is fun and fast this way, and the conceptual learning is comfortable and thorough. With a resource like YouTube available to us today, this seems like the clear way to go. So far it’s felt pretty good to me, at least.