As simple as this is going to sound, if you training in some form of martial arts, and if what you are training/learning as a fighting approach doesn’t look similar to what you do when you are working against an uncooperative, resisting opponent — you may want to reconsider the validity of what you are spending your time in training.

While this may be a simple definition of functionality, it is often lost in the world of stylised martial art systems. At its heart all martial art systems claim that what they teach will inevitability be able to be deployed in interpersonal aggression. No one would train in any of these styles or systems if they didn’t believe (to some degree) that what they were learning could be applied in the ultimate arena of self preservation. Besides all the purported benefits of training in martial arts, at its heart is always the real evolutionary need to find the best way to keep on living. Yet, even with this noted, there is a very real disconnect between true functionality, and the ‘perception’ of what may be functional. What is often sold as self-preservation, life saving skills then, often only looks good on paper (or demonstrations).

The Disconnect Between Training and Performance

Point in case. The other day I watched what was supposedly live sparring of a specific style. This style has gained a lot of coverage in movies too and is noted as an effective self defence system. When these seasoned practitioners (not beginners) sparred it looked liked really bad boxing or really bad kickboxing. Virtually nothing resembled what you typically saw them do in training (or for that matter in the movies). Sadly this isn’t an isolated example, but far more common than one would expect. It is also not purely the domain of many stylised martial art systems either, but equally and often in the domain of proclaimed ‘reality’ based martial arts.

You would think this would be evident to the practitioner of said style or system. You would think that it would be self evident that when they go from ‘drilling,’ ‘learning’ etc, to a performance environment — that not much of what they now do, looks anything like what they trained — and as such something must be wrong. Sadly so many people obviously, including those who teach cannot see this disconnect because often ‘performance’ is absent. Instead proclaimed performance is neatly skirted, drenched in terminology from threat management, combatives etc. But all the self preservation sounding terms, cannot, and will never replace testing what is learned against uncooperative, resisting, live opponents.

The bottom line is this, cool sounding names mean little in the end, because ultimately the fight will tell you if anything you have to say on the subject really matters. Personally I would never trust anyone’s methodology unless they can take what they teach, and show me, and others, how they themselves can apply those skills against someone who truly fights them back. While I get there are restrictions to what really can be accomplished in real functional martial performance in a Dojo, it is truly one of the only real accessible, repeatable options available.

Further to this, it is not uncommon for reality based systems to invoke the old, tired, and misinformed argument that sport isn’t the same as street. What this argument is really saying isn’t what it pre-ports to be, but rather reads, “we don’t want to spar”. Sparring against a resisting, uncooperative opponent will quickly show that disconnect between what is taught, and what actually transfers to a live fight. There’s no way to hide this. Doing stuff in a pre-planned scenario, or in a demonstration where someone feeds the right and consistent energy, is all about hiding from the truth. While of course I conceded sparring against an uncooperative, resisting opponent/s in the Dojo isn’t fully real either, it does however offer an approximation of a fight out on the street. In the end it remains the only real viable way to repeatably test technique (and ones resolve) against an active, uncompromising opponent — short of going out on the street and doing the same. In other words, sparring isn’t the perfect solution, but its one of the better options available to use as a testing ground for martial skill.

It’s Not Just About Sparring, But What You Can Make Work

Now just because you spar, doesn’t mean it’s right either. Many people spar with what seems to be a blatant disregard for their safety. Often, inherent attributes of power, speed, strength etc, are used to both supersede technique, as well as safety. While there are of course naturally athletic people out there, who can circumvent good sound strategy, tactics and technique by imposing their natural attributes onto others and win, most people will never come close to this. This is really sad in a way, as often, we look at fighters especially in the competitive world of combat sports as role models for what we should be doing – often neglecting and avoiding the reality, that they may simply be athletically gifted, naturally tough, and that approach won’t fit most people.

So in this sense, outside of testing ones skill in live sparring environments, maybe, just maybe, the true functionality of what is being taught and displayed shouldn’t be measured by those few enigmas of Herculean standing. Rather, maybe it should be measured by those who have no natural physical gifts, or Marsian instincts. In other words, would what I teach my 15 year old, give him enough of a leg up to be able to survive a physical assault and live to tell the tale?

You see, while functionality in martial skill has no allegiance, it either works or it doesn’t, the key really for any true teacher of interpersonal survival skills, should be about availing a method that will allow the many to survive an interpersonal assault – not just the few that where hardwired to dispense violence in the first place. This is no easy task. I spend most of my days trying to figure this out. When I step on the mat, my goal is always to offer an approach, that even the least inclined among us to fight, could do so if need be. In other words, does what I teach them cross over to functionality? Will they be able to pull it off against a resisting, uncooperative opponent? If not, then the method has to change.

Of course the passage of time helps too. If you have a method that works, with enough training even those who never thought they could will. This should always be kept in mind too. But, if what you teach others, even after years of practice, then has no resemblance to what was taught when cross over to a live sparring event, there’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed.