Martial Arts Training and Real Fighting

A look at what we do in class and how it relates to being in an actual fight

Children fighting in a river

When I was in second grade, I took taekwondo lessons at the YMCA.

After a few lessons, my second-grade self was pretty sure he knew how to handle the bullies and school, and so I proudly told one of the big kids in my class that I knew karate (I didn't even know it wasn't karate at the time) and he'd better be careful around me. That kid then proceeded to knock me around like a beanbag.

"Guess they don't teach you much in karate," he said.

The thing was, even though it was only an elementary school playground, there was a big difference between what I thought my few weeks of martial arts training would allow me to do in a real fight and an actual, real fight.

I was fortunate to learn this truth as a little kid, but there are a lot of adults who have never had this assumption challenged by actual experience and still believe that their twice a month martial arts class consisting entirely of forms and drills is making them an amazing fighter.

My silat teacher wrote a blog about this, recently, and there are some hard truths there for all martial arts students to think about. There were some hard truths there for me. I want to talk about things like training, life obligations, etc. in a different article, but for this one, I want to focus on one of the issues my teacher raised: how much is your training preparing you for a real fight?

Nothing is Like Fighting Except Fighting

Despite having a few high-risk jobs and serving some time in the military, there have been very few times in my life when someone was genuinely trying to do me bodily harm in hand to hand combat. Most hand to hand "combat" experience I have comes from sparring, planned competition matches, and that sort of thing.

A lot of this has to do with life choices. I'm a Christian (and, to me, that means violence is the very last option), I'm getting older, and my ego has less control over me every year. I stay out of dangerous places and situations, and if someone came up to me at a bar and growled that I was in his seat, I would apologize and go sit somewhere else.

Why is this? Because fighting is inherently chaotic and dangerous, and the fights I've been in and the fights I've observed have taught me that, no matter how skilled you are, you are always running a risk when you get into a fight. This is because fights are full of variables.

  • How skilled/strong/fast is the other guy?
  • Is his friend about to show up?
  • Is the ground slippery?
  • Am I tipsy?
  • Am I afraid?
  • Does he have a knife in his pocket that he'll pull out if things get bad or if I shoot for a takedown?

Those are just a handful of things, and there is very little you do can do to confidently say, "Yes, in all of those situations, I am so good and skilled and and cool that I will come out relatively unharmed."

Because fighting is full of so much chaos and unknowns, the only way to know if you're good at handling those situations is to be in a lot of them. The only people we know are good fighters are people who fight all the time. The thing is, most of us who have a sense of self-preservation generally try to avoid these situations as much as possible, including (or especially) those of us who have developed character as we've walked the path of a martial art.

Drills and Forms Are Not Fighting

Let's say I teach you a knife disarm. I pair you up with another student, give her a training knife, and she takes a slow swipe at you, and you disarm the knife. You practice this... I don't know... twenty times and then switch. A hundred times. No, let's say you do this one thousand times.

Do you think you now have the skill to disarm someone trying to stab you?

What you have is ingrained into your brain and "muscle memory" a certain way of moving, but you're responding to a very controlled circumstance. You might arguably have the skill to disarm someone halfheartedly swiping at you with a training knife at a predetermined angle from a predetermined distance, but that doesn't look anything at all like fighting with someone who has a knife.

I sometimes joke with my students, "If anyone needs help defending themselves from someone who throws a single punch and stands there with their arm out, I've got a ton of DVDs to help train you for that scenario."

Drills and forms are useful in training. Indispensable, I personally think. They are great to take an untrained person and get them used to new ways of moving and thinking. They can build attributes like reflexes and strength. They can help you discover larger principles of movement and combat as well as new applications as you practice them and think about them.

But they are not fighting. They are very far from what actual fighting is like. You can't take your performance at them and assume you can fight.

Incidentally, if your martial arts training consists almost entirely of drills and forms, you should keep in mind what that means.

Sparring Is Not Fighting (but We're Getting There)

If you go online to learn about martial arts, you'll find very quickly that, "Do you spar?" is a kind of line in the sand for deciding if a martial arts school is worth your money, and there's a very good reason for that.

Sparring introduces a lot more variability and pressure to the situation. You will learn things about yourself and your skills that you will not learn performing the same drill with a compliant partner over and over.

I remember one sparring match where I was sparring this huge ogre of a dude, and I went to the ground to try to take his legs out from under him, and it was like I was trying to take down a tree. It didn't work, and he passed my guard and ended up on my chest where he proceeded to... uh... win, basically.

I learned something that day. I learned that I could not take down a guy that big the way I was trying to do it in sparring. In a drill, I could do it, but not a random, dirty, aggressive confrontation. That either meant the technique wasn't a good one, or it meant I personally was not good enough yet to make it work. Either way, it sure was nice to learn that in a sparring match and not when someone his size jumped me in a parking lot.

Sparring looks a lot more like fighting that drills and forms and, because of that, the skills and attributes you build in sparring move you a lot closer to knowing if you can do well in a real fight.

If you never spar in your martial arts training, you are very far away from actual fighting. How could you possibly know if you could handle yourself? That doesn't mean you should only take classes at places that spar. There are lots of reasons people take martial arts classes, and you shouldn't let anyone make you feel like a loser because you do it for fun or to get in shape or for cultural reasons or whatever. But it does mean that, if your goal in training is to be a competent fighter, you can't really get there only by doing things that don't look like an actual fight.

I have heard instructors tell their students that their art is too harmful or deadly to spar with, and without judging whether that claim is true or not (SPOILER ALERT: There's a 99% chance that it's not), the fact remains that, if you can't use it in sparring, how will you know you can do it in a fight?

At the same time, sparring is still a controlled simulation. Most sparring matches are not people randomly jumping in doing whatever they feel like using whatever objects happen to be at hand, which is what happens in parking lots and dark alleys.

Nobody looks at two individuals rolling around on mats wearing gis and says, "Yep, that's exactly what happened to Jake at Blue Moon last night."

Sparring is still a simulation where many of the variables of a fight are controlled. The closer your sparring looks like an actual fight you or your friends might get into, the more confidence you might have that you could do all right in those situations. And this is certainly light years better than static drills that look nothing like any fight anywhere.

But it still isn't fighting.

So Why Do We Have Class?

Good question. If nothing we do in class will let you know for sure that you'll do well in an actual fight, why have class at all?

Well, one part of the answer is that you don't have much alternative. The only other option is for you to put yourself in high risk situations all the time and fight your way out of them, and most people who are ethical or at least keen on self-preservation are not ok with that.

In the military, we trained for war. We had drills. We had obstacle courses. We had "forms" of a sort. We had war games. None of that was war, but the alternative was to, you know, have us fight in wars. It was not the military's practice to engage in wars for training purposes ("Hey, let's go invade Canada - you guys will probably hold your own.") and, in fact, the feeling was it was actually dangerous to send untrained people into actual confrontations without some level of training outside of actual armed conflict.

If you want to be in a position to do well in a fight, and you don't want to go out and have fights all the time, your only other choice is to train in simulated situations, and that's one thing our classes provide.

Another part of the answer is that the simulations in our classes get you closer to the real thing.

Yes, we do have static drills. Yes, we have "forms." These have their uses. Even the most "alive" martial arts class isn't just a constant free-form brawl for an hour.

But as a student gets the feel of the movement, we want to start throwing in those variables and pressures. We want our partners to try to stop us. We want them to throw the second punch if they miss with the first one. We want them to move around. We want them to actually hit us in the face if we just stand there (maybe not at full power at first - that'd be nice of them).

And we want to spar. That will look different for different students at different levels of competence, but we want to provide those simulations where you don't really know exactly what's going to happen, and you have to perform in those conditions.

True, those things are not fighting, but we want to get as close to those conditions as we can if self-defense is your goal.

A third part of the answer is that training builds the attributes you need to be successful in a fight, both physical and mental.

Endurance, strength, speed, grit, adaptability - these are all characteristics that are necessary to winning a fight. I'm sorry, but strength matters in a fight. Speed matters. Toughness matters. That doesn't mean the strongest or toughest person is always going to win, but an untrained fighter who goes to the gym for hours every day is generally going to outfight the guy who goes to karate class twice a week. Cultivating the right attributes is just as important if not moreso than learning good techniques.

A fourth part of the answer is that some things tend to work better than others in a fight.

Most martial arts that evolve over time do so because people have discovered that some things work pretty well and others not so much. Class is where we learn those things and practice those high-percentage movements.

One of the reasons I love kali and silat so much is that they are evolving arts, or are at least taught by people willing to evolve them. Granted, I have learned some things in my journey that I would not use in an actual fight and do not use in sparring, but for the most part, those arts are readily adaptable to changing combat realities.

Finally, there's a lot more to martial arts than just learning to defend yourself.

For some, martial arts improves them physically. You become stronger, more flexible, and more coordinated. As I get older, this part has become more important to me.

For others, the discipline of it improves their character. I even had a kung fu teacher once who grew up in a violent neighborhood and discovered that kung fu training changed him from being full of rage and violence to being a person of peace and calm. I didn't learn much there I would use in an actual fight, but personal transformation like that isn't a small deal.

Martial arts, as the name implies, also tend to have an artistic aspect to them. They have movements that are beautiful and fun and cool to do, even if you never fight with them in your life. Many people are drawn to silat because they see the flowing movements and they want to move like that. Many are drawn to kali because they saw someone doing some badass thing with sticks.

Whatever your reasons, a journey through the martial arts should be designed around your goals, and some martial arts and schools are better suited to meet some goals than others. If one of your main goals is the ability to hold your own in a fight, make sure you're looking for classes that get you close to actually fighting.