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Martial Sport vs. Combat Training

On this page:
Know the problem | Train for reality | Mistakes in sport training | Multiple opponents | Dueling | Martial Arts America

Having used his knife fighting system several times to save my young and stupid ass in the streets of Los Angeles, one of the greatest honors I had was finally getting to meet, the now late, Colonel Rex Applegate of WWII fame. It was to me like meeting a long lost and venerable grandfather... a man to whom I literally owed my life.

Several years ago, the Colonel and I were drinking coffee at the NRA convention down in Phoenix AZ discussing the (then) current 'fad' of self- proclaimed knife fighting experts and the curriculum they were teaching.

"The problem is" he said leaning back in his chair "what these people are teaching is dueling. They think that they will both have knives already drawn and that they will stand there and duel."

That rotund, little old man knew of what he spoke. And, in those few words, he described a critical difference between martial sports training and training for survival.

What I am going to be addressing on this page are not the flaws of sports training, but rather the significant differences between training for 'sports fighting' and training to save your life. While I do respect both focuses, there are distinct and critical differences. Differences, that if you try to apply your sports based training in a combative situation, will result in you being hurt - possibly killed.

Do you know the actual problem or are you just guessing?
Putting it bluntly, if crime and violence were simple problems, they would have been solved a long time ago. They are myriad in their aspects and they are always changing and mutating.

Now with that in mind, how effective do you think training that only focuses on one aspect is? Or how about training that only superficially touches on complex issues that have confounded professionals, lawmakers, wise men and philosophers for thousands of years? How about agenda driven training that reinforces a person's point of view, but totally ignores other, critical factors involved in the "bigger picture?"

There are many, many factors involved with using your martial arts in a self-defense capacity. It is not just the physical aspect of fighting, but issues such as psychology, criminology, legal ramifications, situational awareness and ethics are all very much involved. And if you have not considered them and factored them into your training, these issues WILL rear up and bite you in the ass if you attempt to use your martial arts in a self-defense situation.

Unfortunately, in the modern world we tend to like/prefer/want fast and easy answers. These are simplistic answers that don't challenge us to think or they reinforce what we already believe. We want there to be an ultimate fighting art. We want there to be a simple answer to this problem. We want the answer to fall into our comfort zone, definitions and assumptions. And many people want there to be a person who can explain it to them that answers these other three desires.

In my time I:
      * Have seen neck breaks from behind taught as self-defense.
      * Have seen people told by the head of a school that telling someone
        three times that you "Don't want to fight" - while standing in a fighting
- legally establishes your innocence and indemnifies you from
         both criminal and civil charges.
      * have had WSD instructors tell me: A woman has the right to walk
         naked through a biker bar and not be molested.
      * Have seen kali instructors - in total disregard of the legal definition
         of self-defence and use of lethal force standards - insist that students
         do multiple knife strikes because "just one might not stop him."
      * Have even had people ask me what World Wrestling Federation move is
         the "best" for a streetfight.

While the last statement is obviously ludicrous, it is only a slightly less sophisticated version of "What martial art style is best for self-defense?" There is however, hope for those people. At least they are still asking. It is when that same kind of thinking makes a decision that you get comments like "One-hung-low is the ultimate fighting system."

All of these are trying to take immensely complex issues and condense them into factoids and sound bites.

I hate to tell you this, but if you aren't confused, you don't understand the problem. And the more you research, the wider your search pattern, the more you will see the truth of this statement. This is why the most accurate and honest answer you will get from someone who really knows what he is talking about is "it depends." There are no pat answers and a good teacher will always tell you that. He will also tell you the various factors that prevent a simplistic answer.

Unfortunately, many people would rather have the certainty of a wrong answer than the uncertainty of an accurate one.

This is why there are so many in the martial arts who can get away with giving simplistic and dangerous answers about complex subjects with impunity. They have no idea about the reality of the problem, but through sheer chutzpah, they get away with giving out dangerous and misleading information as though it were the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They have never dealt with the realities of these issues (or maybe have done so only once) and are filling the holes in their knowledge with speculation. And speculation is far inferior filler than research, study and hard work. Hard work having nothing to do with time spent in the dojo, but rather doing their homework.

The reason all of this is germane is that they aren't the ones who are going to suffer for this misinformation. You are.

It is up to you, the student, to go out and research issues relating to personal safety, crime and violence. Although at the moment this might seem like a daunting task, don't worry. It will actually help you ask better questions. Right now you probably don't know what questions to ask in order to see if you are getting accurate and effective information. Therefore it all sounds good. But the more you look into other fields related to this issue, the more you will be able to ask critically important questions. And moreover, the more you will be able to spot BS answers from people who don't really know the problem, but are just guessing.

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Train for what happens most and you will be able to handle most of what happens. The above statement is one of my training maxims. It came about because I noticed a serious disparity between what people were telling me they were concerned about and what they were being trained to do.

Much of this problem can be laid at the doorstep of the instructor. Many of whom, as I explained in the previous section, have no idea of the realities of the problem and are just speculating as to what they "think" would work - or worse, what they were told would work by their teacher. This is like a virgin claiming to be able to teach you everything about sex because he has watched lots of porno films. The only people who will be impressed are other virgins.

However, having said that, two of the most common mistakes of sports training for self-defense:
      1) they assume there will be rules
      2) they train to fight "trained" fighters

Both of these are significant blindspots which I will go into in a bit. However, what I can do now is give you tips about how to learn common attacks on the street. Watch reality TV shows like COPS, attend a Toughman competition in your town and, if you can stomach it, even watch the Jerry Springer show. You will be amazed to see how often untrained and unsophisticated attacks fall into basic and predictable categories. Those are what you need to train to handle.

And in the same breath, how amazingly effective these unsophisticated bullish attacks can be. Also you will begin to notice certain patterns other than the physical assault itself. Knowing these patterns is important because with time you will be able to immediately spot when an assault is about to be launched. Which is one of the most significant reasons that people are overwhelmed by physical assault, they simply didn't know it was coming. And were not prepared for it.

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Mistakes in Sport training
Perhaps mistakes is too strong of a word -especially since these moves DO succeed in the ring. However, whatever word would be appropriate must involve the concept that when it comes to the differences between sports fighting and combat training we are talking, not apples and oranges, but apples and wolverines. What follows are the major differences between the ring and a dark alley.

Rules | Trained fighter | Inferior opponent | One on One

The idea that there will be rules - People mistaken believe that all it would take to win a street fight is to just increase the intensity of what they know In this particular case, "mistakenly" isn't only the correct word, but it actually fall short of the magnitude of this error in thinking.

Yes there are "rules," but they have nothing to do with what your opponent will do in order to win. These rules are directly tied in with what you can legally do and expect it to be considered self-defense. But that has nothing to do with what targets you are allowed to hit, what moves are not practiced or what would get you disqualified from a match or what will be coming at you.

As I mention on the grappling page, even the most extreme "no-holds-barred" K1 or UFC match, there are, in fact, moves that are banned. Not only fighting stances, but entire sport systems are designed around certain targets being off-limits and moves not being allowed. After years of operating under these rules, they become ingrained in your consciousness. To the point of being blinders. The idea that you can do these moves no longer even occurs to you. These rules are over and above the cultural standards that you normally operate within.

Don't think your cultural/socio-economic standards don't affect how you will fight. These are even more ingrained blind spots. I regularly shock and disturb martial artists (especially grapplers) when I tell of a fight I was in against someone that had gone to the ground. My opponent was in a mounted position, sitting on my stomach and my dismount move failed miserably. He slid forward onto my chest and continued to pommel me.

I bit him in the crotch.

He did the most spectacular and fast dismount that I have ever seen. It also ended the fight.

I totally threw out all standards of westernized male behavior and did something that he never expected me to do. I saw that option and I took it because I was operating without rules. No rules, really means no rules. Not even subconscious ones. And that is an utterly savage level, in fact, it takes it out of fighting and puts it into combat.

However, most people are unconsciously operating along these rules - even when they are fighting. Now as long as you are going up against someone with these same standards you should be reasonably safe. However, if you are facing someone with different standards or a pathological need to win, these standards don't apply.

In short, don't try to predict your opponent based on what you won't do.

In the same vein, what you do must be commensurate with the use of force continuum. Otherwise those issues I mentioned earlier will rear up to destroy your life.

Trained Fighter
This is perhaps the most insidious mistake that there is. Namely because it is a two edged sword. The two edges that will gut you are A) expecting your opponent to behave like the trained fighters you are accustomed to contesting with, or B) to think that he is an inferior opponent because he is not trained. Either can result in you having your nose driven through the back of your skull.

Two trained fighters are going to be cautious of each other. That is because they each know the damage that the other can inflict if they let their guards down. In the same breath, they know not to commit certain mistakes. And, especially if they are from the same style, they can pretty well rely on the other not to commit the same mistake (read, not attack a certain way). This tends to lead to a cautious and more strategic way of fighting. It also tends to draw the match out as the contestants assess each other, plan out their strategy and mentally prepare to move.

Bubba, however doesn't give a shit.

When he decides it is time to fight, he is going to try to climb your frame. And he doesn't care how he does it. When he comes charging at you he has no idea that he shouldn't be attacking this way. Nor is he particularly concerned that you were not ready. In fact, not letting you have time to mentally prepare is to his advantage.

You would be amazed at how often this crude, undisciplined and totally unexpected strategy overwhelms "trained" sports fighters, which brings us to the sword's other edge.

Training to fight an inferior opponent
The simple fact is, if the guy didn't have something up his sleeve that he thought he could use to kick your ass, he wouldn't be in your face in the first place. Now the really bad news, he might be right.

An attitude that I have noticed that is prevalent among younger, more inexperienced and/or recently promoted martial artists is the idea that their training gives them the tactical advantage over "untrained" people. And against the average civilian, this is true. Unfortunately, that isn't who you are going to be attacked by.

A good rule of thumb is: 90% of the problems are caused by 10% of the population.

And it is that 10% that you are most likely to find yourself facing in a potential physical conflict. People who use violence to get what they want tend to be experienced with its use and having it used on them. This is not an inferior opponent who is going to curl up and cry because you hit him a few times. If you have subconsciously trained yourself to throwing point generating sports hits it's not going to stop him. And by the time you shift mental gears he will be doing a fandango on your face.

People who use violence also tend to be in decent physical shape. People who habitually use violence are often incapable of holding down intellectually challenging jobs. This tends to put them into physically harsh and demanding jobs. In such jobs/lifestyles they often become accustomed to enduring discomfort and pain. The odds are against you having to fight an accountant, however, that construction worker you cut off in traffic is another story. I can tell you personally that I have been hit harder by bugs when doing 90 mph on my motorcycle than many of the punches I have taken in fights. Physical pain, may not be as effective as proponents of PPCT and pressure point techniques would like to think.

This is why I advocate training to fight "the average asshole."

After many years of bouncing, I began to realize that there is a middle ground within that troublesome 10%. Yes there is a slim chance that an accountant might go off on you. And there is an equally slim chance that you will meet up with an uber-badguy-martial-artist like you see in the movies. However, depending on your location a drunken construction worker is a more realistic standard to train for.

Such people make up the majority of violence that occurs and if you can handle this kind person, you will be able to handle most of what happens.

Multiple opponents
A major mistake that I see in modern martial sport training is that the systems are oriented on "fighting "one opponent at a time. This threat is significantly above "the average asshole" standard.

Now I'm sure when you read that previous statement, you thought to yourself "We train in my school to fight multiple opponents!" Let me point out that there is a big difference between "fighting multiple opponents" and "sequentially fighting many opponents." I very specifically said sports systems are oriented towards fighting one opponent at a time.

Next time you have a chance to observe such training watch to see if what develops is that two attackers - who might initially attack at once - as the match progresses, fall back and allow the defender to fight them one at a time. Sustained, congruent attacks are not common. Basically because the idea is to help build the confidence of the defender.

This can lead to a very dangerous mindset. And that is the belief that you can "Fight" multiple opponents

Now by fight I mean stand there and in the tradition of Bruce Lee, Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van Damme, successfully engage in combating AND defeating multiple opponents. (And do it without getting your hair or makeup mussed up).

The great Southern philosopher Bear J Street said "Fifteen demented midgets can kick your ass." More realistically you need to remember, you are no longer dealing with just one "average asshole", but two or three. The damage they can inflict on you also increases proportionately AND within the same time frame.

A far more realistic strategy is not to attempt to engage multiple opponents in a "fight" but to run like hell. The only fighting you need to engage in is to fight clear of them. Even if it is to just run to where you can pick up a weapon to equalize the odds. (Don't even get me started about sports martial arts and weapons...but if you must, check out the knife section of this site). This is a significantly different strategy and it also results in different tactics.

Standing there and trying to slug it out against multiple opponents is not a good long term survival strategy.

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All of these points bring us back to Col. Applegate and his observation about dueling. Sport oriented fighting is designed for a one-on-on contest. Furthermore it is definitely designed to teach you how to fight. That is to say, two participants willfully step into the ring to contest each other. It might behoove you to take a quick check over to the fighting vs. self-defence page for some important perspective on the subject.

These 'duels' involve two individuals standing there exchanging blows, contesting skills and strengths until one is declared the winner. Because of an emphasis on speed and strength, sports are a young person's game. While there may be exceptions, they are just that, exceptions (George Foreman being the grandfather of all exceptions)

The problem is however, that sports contests have weight and/or skill level divisions. These artificial divisions do not exist in the real world. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings guys, but women have lied to you...size matters. It really matters in a fight. A smaller, weaker person cannot hope to contest head-to-head with a larger, stronger opponent. The smaller person will be overwhelmed. Conversely, a larger stronger fighter is in for a rude and painful surprise when he encounters a smaller more cagey fighter whoest strength.

Unfortunately, most sports fighting systems relies on strength and physical fitness. So you are not likely to learn ways to effectively defeat a larger opponent in a martial sport system. And the longer you stand there and engage against a larger person the greater the chances that the person with superior size, weight and muscle will 'win.' Which outside the safety of a sports event (i.e. in a real fight) can, and will, get you hurt.

Martial sport and fighting require entirely different mindsets. And while you might believe that you are learning to defend yourself, in a commercial school the odds are you are being taught martial sport.

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Martial Arts Culture
There are two book that I highly recommend  about understanding what I call "martial arts culture"  One is Martial Arts America by Bob Orlando. I will warn you in advance, the book will probably piss off traditional martial artists even more than this page. Bob is extremely logical and methodical in his observations and critique of the current condition of the martial arts in the United States and the conditions arising from turning the martial arts from dangerous combat applications to a safe sport. Even if you don't agree with his assessment, you had better have your ducks in line because "Is not!" Uh Unh!" and "You are so wrong!" are not good arguments to the points he brings up. This book will make you think about how martial arts are taught in the United States -- and as I can tell you from traveling around the world -- also in a lot of other places. If you don't believe me why this is such a good book, you can see more review's at Bob's own site

The second book I highly recommend on "Martial Arts Culture" is Nathan Johnson's Barefoot Zen: The Shaolin Roots of Kung fu and Karate

Now over and above these, I strongly suggest you take a look at the Traditional Martial Arts vs. Reality Fighting page of this site

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Martial Arts America
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