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The One-Trick Pony

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#TrueTalkTuesdays 47

The idiom of the One-Trick Pony comes from the circus world, and was used to describe a pony that could only do one trick. This was used as a derogatory term (a poorly trained pony that had a very limited repertoire of tricks), and the term has since propagated into common use.

I have heard it used in the martial arts many times as well, when someone repeatedly relies on the same technique over and over again. However, in this context, I find that it is usually someone who is very effective and their opponents are frustrated because they can’t figure out how to stop it.

Most of the greatest athletes are one-trick ponies. Well, maybe not one-trick ponies, but they have maybe 2 or 3 tricks they lean on more than anything else. Marcelo Garcia is infamous for his arm drag and his x guard, Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu for his tornado guard, Dean Lister for his leg locks, and me for my Kimuras. 🙂

Being a one-trick pony is just another way of saying you are a specialist. Now the extreme of this is generally not good – literally knowing one thing and one thing only. You would have a hard time getting to that one technique without being able to connect with other techniques.

However, the opposite extreme is no good either and has it’s own idiom, a jack of all trades is a master of none. Without focusing on mastering a particular technique, you will be sub par all over and not have enough proficiency to catch someone with any technique.

Like many things, you want to be somewhere in the middle. In this case, I would learn towards the one-trick pony side, having 3 to 4 power techniques, and a general knowledge of other things. Since we are limited in the amount of time we have in this life, we do not have enough time to master every part of the game. It can take years, often decades to become a master in one technique. In a cruel twist of fate, we become wiser and more technical in age, but weaker and frailer physically – making our enhanced understanding not fruitful for us. Particularly in combat sports, which relies heavily on our body, our window is quite short.

So this limited time window usually gives people only enough time to master a few techniques at an exceptional level. It’s much like how the western educational system works. From kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school, you are given a generalized education that spreads out all the main subjects (Reading, writing, Math, Science, History, etc.) Once you enter college, you start to specialize in your field. Then when you go for a master’s degree, your specialize even further. And a Ph.D is a hyper specialization on a niche subject.

In the martial arts, we follow a similar approach. As a white belt you are in grade school. You need to learn the fundamentals – understanding the positional hierarchy, striking ranges, take downs, submissions, escapes, sweeps, and passes. At blue belt, you are in high school now – and have a little more focus on a particular area, but still working the overall game.

Once you are a purple belt and above, you are on the university specialist path. You will pick an area to focus on and master, working your way to a masters and ultimately a Ph.D. If you invest your time wisely, you will be able to do this several times on your journey in the martial arts.

Sometimes you might focus on something that might become a dead end and stop short of specializing further. Other times, you might find that your pursuit of mastery never ends. I have found myself on such a path with the Kimura. It’s been over 12 years now since I really took to the Kimura, and I’m still expanding the game. I do dabble in other things from time to time, but usually it’s stemming from my Kimura game that I side track into something related, before coming back to the Kimura.

So being a one or two trick pony is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are able to defeat everyone your spar with the same technique, then you are definitely on to something. 🙂


What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

Comment with your take on this.


By the way, we are just about a month away from my next retreat in Las Vegas from August 13-19th!

We still have a few spots available, and I made a video teaser of what you can expect below. Just click the button below to watch it:

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1 comment
Matt Wallace says July 30, 2019

Well written and extremely accurate account of the martial arts training process. As a 40-something, I can relate in different ways now than when I started!😂 As always, great content, Coach 🤜🏻🤛🏻

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