The Real Problem: Traditional vs Scientific Training Methodologies in Martial Arts


Inherent Practicality: Not a Good Way to Evaluate Techniques

“Oh yeah, that’s a really practical move!”

We’ve all heard it, and we’ve all said it. But what does it mean to say, without qualification, without context — without respect to the person using or receiving a technique — that that technique is, in and of itself, practical?

  • Does it mean that a technique is easy?
  • Does it mean a technique is simple?
  • Does it mean a technique has a high percentage of success in a real fight?
  • Does it mean you can use it to a high level of skill without much practice?
  • Is it a combination of the above, and/or something else?

Why Do We Need to Discuss this First?

Reality Based Self-Defense (RBSD) and Combatives folks often speak about how practical certain moves are. They rarely talk about all the skills you need to make them happen, and they rarely talk about the context in which they will be used (and if so, only in a very limited way). They speak of these techniques as if they will be instantly usable to anyone who learns them, and by extension, instantly successful most of the time. In this respect, the RBSD/Combatives community is nearly identical to the traditional community.

This is relevant to our current discussion because of how this sort of thinking affects the way we approach training methods. In the mind of an RBSD instructor, the supposed inherent practicality of a technique pre-qualifies its usefulness to you as an individual. Moreover, this demographic of instructors often refer to techniques as already “proven,” without regard to the personal ability or experience of one who will be learning these techniques.

This sometimes leads instructors to speak about certain combat tactics as if most humans are already good at them before even practicing them. I think this implicitly allows you to downplay considerations surrounding the quality of practice — because, after all, the technique is already proven, right?

This line of thinking allows traditionalists and RBSD folks alike to dismiss aliveness, because aliveness challenges the “proven-ness” of a given technique by forcing you, the individual, to develop the same degree of skill with that technique as the one who presumably “proved” it. (An aside: without meticulous documentation, are we actually sure all these “proven” tactics are actually proven, in any sense of the word?)

We Cannot Think of Practicality in Isolation from the Performer (Fighter) and the Context (Fighting)

I’m going to suggest something that might be controversial. And that is that no technique is truly practical until you personally can execute it reliably against an unscripted, uncooperative opponent. To think otherwise is to think of techniques divorced from all the intermediate tactics that make it possible. This is also to think of techniques divorced from the personal abilities of the martial artist. And furthermore, it is to think of techniques divorced from the demands of the context (what is the opponent doing, what are the circumstantial demands and/or constraints?).

Instead of thinking in terms of inherent practicality, I think it would be better to think of practicality in terms of these three qualities:

  1. Fundamentality.
  2. High Percentage (over time in a population).
  3. Personal Aptitude (over time).

In other words, I suggest we only classify a given technique as “practical” if it meets a combination of quantitative (how many are able to use it, how often) and personal (“Am I adept at this technique?”) criteria.

To say it still another way: a technique must (1) be fundamental to learning and performing the system/sport itself, (2) used successfully to a high degree by a proportionally large segment of practitioners of that sport/system, and (3) able to be employed successfully in a high frequency by the individual himself/herself.

[I think it would be possible to predict criterion 3 based on criteria 1 and 2. Insofar as this tends to hold true in individuals who are of sound mind and relatively able bodies, you could also say that a technique is practical if it meets the first two criteria (however, it is also possible for criterion 3 to override those previous two). But this is a discussion for another time. I return to defining the real issues between traditional and functional training methodologies.]

The above criteria clearly necessitate a filter, a sort of test mechanism. It requires a proving ground that consistently produces reliable tactics in individuals. This reorients the discussion back upon training methodology, and suggests a clearer way to test and establish practicality.

The Real Issues: Reading, Interpersonal Distancing, and Pressure Management

The crux of what I am always trying to get at when I talk about aliveness has to do with these three groupings of skills, and what that entails about how we should practice:

  1. Reading
  2. Interpersonal Distancing 
  3. Pressure Management

Coaches have long argued over the merits of block vs random practice. Block practice is the mere execution of a technique in a highly controlled and often invariable atmosphere. Random practice, on the other hand, seeks to mimic the game itself by simulating a higher level of variability (change in factors such as distance). Consider this short but excellent video from TrainUgly:

This is essentially the functional vs traditional — or dead vs alive — training argument still raging in martial arts today. I will be arguing in the following subsections that aliveness, the martial arts’ equivalent to random practice, is the only training principle that allows you to truly improve your reading, interpersonal distancing, and pressure management skills. Furthermore, I assert that these three abilities are essential to performing in both sparring and real self-defense contexts.

So, what do these terms mean?


Reading is the ability to recognize certain movements in an opponent or in the environment. The better you are at reading, the earlier in a movement you are able to recognize it.  Reading is an integral part of the first half of what coaches often call the perception-action coupling. Reading is part of your perception, and what you perceive to be happening during an encounter will inform your action. An example of this in Taekwondo would be recognizing a coming round kick based on the shoulder and hip movements of your opponent. Consider the video below:

Interpersonal Distancing/Affordance

Affordance is closely related to the perception-action cycle. It is a complex interaction with the environments around us wherein we recognize opportunities to act. In the case of combat sports, one of your affordances has to do with the distance between you and your opponent — otherwise known as interpersonal distance. Interpersonal distancing refers to your ability to create or close space between yourself and your opponent. But not only that, to control and create opportunities to attack and defend. Martial artists are already familiar with this concept under the name of distance management. 

Pressure Management

As for pressure management, I’m actually referring to two interrelated things. First, one’s ability to instantaneously structure themselves in such a way that they are able to stop or move an opponent with a technique. Second, one’s psychological ability to maintain composure in response to outside pressure (i.e., the efforts of an opponent). The second is related to the first because psychology very often plays a part in one’s ability to commit to the proper structure to handle an opponent’s advances.

What the Research Says: Block vs Random Practice (Traditional vs Functional)

Refer to the TrainUgly video linked above. During one of the studies cited, students  learning through block practice actually far exceeded the random group in the first stage of learning (the acquisition phase; or, what I call level 1/isolated learning). But, when the researchers conducted a transfer test to see how strongly the learning stayed with the students, the block group nearly forgot everything they learned. But the random practice group showed significantly higher skill retention rates. And by extension, superior transfer to the actual game context.

Why is this? That’s an excellent question.

Block (traditional) practice is too focused on technique. Technique is vitally important, but perfecting technique in a vacuum gives you a false sense of mastery. You never practice the reading, distancing, and pressure management aspects they way you will need them in a fight. In reality, the actual use of your techniques will be in a shifting environment — not a controlled one — with an uncooperative opponent. Yet block practice does not offer that sort of practice.

Random (functional, alive) practice, on the other hand, embraces these variables by introducing them into practice soon after the isolated learning phase. It looks messy, which deceives coaches and instructors into thinking it is ineffective. But in reality, holistic learning is taking place. While it seems progress is slow, the transfer of learning is astronomically higher than the block method (which looks like it is working even though it isn’t). And, properly applied to martial arts training, you will actually be practicing reading, distancing, and pressure management in the way you will need to use them in a fight.

Humans tend to learn better when they discover things on their own. Guidance is important in this equation, too, but we often discover things by making mistakes first. Random style practice allows you plenty of try-fail cycles. Yet the way learning activities (or drills) are designed and presented allows the instructor to also guide learning.

Concluding Thoughts: Practicality Has to be Proven…by You

The way traditional and RBSD folks think about techniques tends to pre-qualify a given technique as “practical” even if the individual learner has no competence in using it. This can lend itself to neglect scientific training methods which allow the learner to perfect not just the technique, but all the skills that allow that technique to be successful. These skills are primarily readinginterpersonal distancing, and pressure management. These three skills cannot be learned through isolated technical exercises, also known as block practice. Rather, they require practice that mimics as closely as possible the dynamics of a real fight: namely, honest interaction with an unscripted, uncooperative opponent.

Therefore, practicality should not be thought of as purely an inherent quality. Instead, it should be thought of as the intersection of both quantitative and personal factors, wherein the individual learner must prove his ability to successfully execute techniques against resisting opponents. Only then can a technique be truly and fully practical, and further, said to be “proven” (in any sense).


The Jab is Not Just a Jab: Human Learning and the Problem with Teaching Techniques in Isolation

Boxers Know It…Do You?

If you learn a great jab, but just throw it without movement, or without ever interacting with a partner, it is nearly useless. You need movement in order to track with a moving, resisting opponent — and that resisting opponent gives you vital insight into recognizing when and when not to throw a jab.

Boxers will say, “Of course, you idiot. Why would you throw a jab and not step? And why wouldn’t you ever spar with a jab?”

And that’s exactly right. Anyone who trains boxing knows innately that a particular technique, such as a jab, entails more than just the proper jab movement. The bare punching mechanics. They know it (usually) entails a backward or forward movement; they also know that it entails knowing and recognizing when to throw such a movement, which can only be built through sparring or similar drills. Wrestlers think the same way, as do students of most functional, sparring-heavy martial arts systems.

The jab by itself, in isolation, is not effective. Yet when we think of a jab, we think not just of the bare mechanics, but of all that it entails — namely, movement and live application.

Why the Jab was a Mystery to Me

When I first learned the jab, I actually already knew the jab. I knew the movement, in isolation, but I didn’t know how to apply it. I knew, on a propositional level, that the jab was supposed to set up a straight right. I also knew, on a propositional level, it was supposed to help me gauge the distance for power punches and create openings.

But come sparring time, I couldn’t successfully use the jab on any one, even fresh beginners. I’d throw jabs and the guy wouldn’t be there. Or I’d throw a jab and the guy is already out of range. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why jabbing didn’t work the way the instructor said it would.

What in the world was going on? Why didn’t the jab work for me when it seemed to work for others? (Indeed, it was the most fundamental punch in boxing!)

It wasn’t until I added a step with my jab that I had a breakthrough. Suddenly, my sparring partners didn’t so easily move out of range. And as I was able to land jabs, I realized that I needed to throw more jabs.

I had been thinking of the jab in isolation. When I thought of a good jab, I thought of the movement of the arm, the shoulder, maybe a slight turn in the hip and knee. But I was not thinking of stepping — advancing or retreating — nor about how opponent-produced stimuli ought to affect my jab use.

The Problem with Traditional Views of Learning a Technique

A Disconnect Between the Way Functional and Traditional Martial Artists Think About Techiques

In Traditional Martial Arts, we endlessly and meticulously categorize, parse, and partition every movement or strategy into neat, academic silos. We nod at the thought that these categories have relationship to each other…but, we reason, one silo must be mastered before we can look inside the other. Connecting the silos is a long and somewhat mystical process. (You might never be able to bridge the gap between kicking in the air and kicking an uncooperative opponent!)

I find it as odd as it is telling that what boxers take for granted, traditional martial artists don’t even seem to understand (as a group, that is). A boxer knows a good jab entails more than the jab movement, but traditional martial artists are more likely to separate footwork and opponent reading skills from the punching skill proper. We start by perfecting the movement by itself. Then we might try to perfect footwork by itself. If we’re lucky, we’ll try to combine the two within a reasonable time span. But we rarely think of them as (at least, immediately) integral to each other.

To traditional martial artists, learning a technique only requires you to know it, by itself, regardless of any usage context. For the functional martial artist, learning a technique is not just the technique itself, but also the skills that make it possible to use it during a sparring match or a fight.

The Traditional View of Learning Techniques is Not True Learning

In education research, the word learning has a meaning that is more precise than we use it colloquially. Learning is not merely the consumption or memorization of information. Rather, learning is achieved when a person understands a concept — when a person is able to apply, to use, to do that concept.

Therefore, it is wrong to suggest that you have learned the jab when you only know the mere movement pattern of a jab. Instead, it would be correct to say you have learned the jab when you can apply it in an exchange with an unscripted, uncooperative opponent. In other words: you cannot think of a jab and its application to a live context in isolation from one another.

Clearly stated, the problem with a traditional notion of learning a technique is that it views a technique as isolated from all the variables that will make it successful in actual combat. While these variables are usually introduced later on, they are not (usually) considered integral to the learning of the technique.

Martial Arts is Not Dancing

In many forms of dancing, it can be said that if you can perform a movement by itself, without a partner, that you have still learned that move. While dancing does often include partners, it is by and large not an unscripted, uncooperative exercise.

You might draw similarities between poomsae (or kata) and dance. They can both be done solo or in a group, they’re both cooperative and scripted, and they both are done to some sort of rhythm or cadence. But poomsae is just a solo exercise in martial arts; it is neither the definition of martial arts nor its ideal mode of expression.

To insist that the isolated knowledge of a technique is true learning of it, is to move martial arts out of the opponent category and into the same category as dancing. Martial arts is not dancing. Rather, martial arts is an unscripted, uncooperative exchange of violence between two or more individuals. Ergo, martial arts is not poomsae — not in a definitional sense. Martial arts is fighting, and the ideal mode of expression of martial arts are sparring matches or fights.

To put this more simply:

There are two main view of what martial arts, at base, is:

(1) A round kick.


(2) A round kick to the appropriate target on an uncooperative opponent.

Definition #2 encompasses definition #1, but #1 cannot cover #2. How will you define martial arts? What is it fundamentally, all personal opinions removed? I submit to you that martial arts is ultimately definition #2. Moreover, I assert that martial arts cannot be thought of in isolation of a live opponent.

My (Developing) Philosophy of Training: Concluding Thoughts

What I’ve written here will be foundational to understanding my future articles. My thesis is this: traditional and functional martial artists think differently about what it means to learn techniques. Traditional martial artists look at a technique as an isolated part to be mastered apart from other skills, such as footwork or opponent-reading. Functional martial artists view a technique holistically: they cannot fully separate the movement proper from all the skills that make it successful in a live context.

My suggestion is that we cannot think of a technique in isolation from successful application in a live context. Therefore, I believe the functional martial artist’s view of learning a technique is the correct view. And further, I will posit that martial arts as a whole cannot be thought of without respect to a resisting opponent.

APPENDIX: Learning Styles & Martial Arts

One of the good folks on Reddit brought some issues to my attention. Although I hinted at it in the article proper, I was conflating a technical definition of “learning” with the way the word “learning” is being used in the phrase “learning styles.” Learning styles don’t actually facilitate learning; at least, not directly. Learning styles should only be thought of as preferred modes of processing information. I decided to make this a separate post rather than make the already long learning styles post even longer. Below, I reproduce my interaction with this Redditor, including the quotations that I am interacting with.

Learning occurs in the cognitive domain: People learn by “doing”, and learning occurs by making connections between new and old information. The instructional approach should match what’s being taught.

Yes, I agree. Learning modalities were pretty de-emphasized in my coursework in comparison to the way laypeople speak of them. In some place, they were outright disregarded, which is why I noted towards the beginning of the article that motivation can override any preferences for how you take in information. And that your preferences change from environment to environment. Toward the end of the article, I wrote that no matter how you prefer to take in information, (1) you need elements of most of the modalities anyway, and (2) you HAVE to physically practice. Your “learning style” is actually just the way you prefer to take in information, and information only lets you have access to the learning process — it doesn’t cause it. Likewise, learning the visual and verbal details of a technique only lets you have access to preliminary information on how to perform a technique. The real learning is the physical practice, and, in my thinking, more properly in the context of application.

For the author’s example of math: All students learn math best by being given instructions, then practicing solving problems. His example of some students learning math through “songs” is just silly. The only application I can think of where songs, rhyming, or poems might help is memorizing formulas or theories, but memorizing something is not the same as application. (Ie. memorizing a formula isn’t the same as knowing how to use it.)

True, which is why I made this article long — I have no interest in exploring or adding on this concept because instructional design is so much more important. I think the learning styles idea takes liberty with the word “learning” by conflating “learning” with “consuming and memorizing information.” And it is my fault that I did not consider this equivocal use of the word learning. (In my defense, the article is very long and potentially just an exercise in information overload.)

I think even if learning styles have a tenuous relationship with actual learning, it is still true that we have preferences for how we consume or memorize information. But that is just memorizing facts, as you said. That is more in line with study skills than learning. Learning requires you to understand and apply those facts — totally agreed. Thank you for pointing this out. I will add an appendix to the article noting these points, and make clear some of the caveats I did not include in the article.

That said, my mathematics illustration was a bit sloppy. I was taking liberties with the word “learn,” but what I’m really talking about is the way you prefer to consume information for the purpose of learning. I prefer almost invariably to read instructions; but several classmates of mine prefer to be told. But like I noted later in the article, these modal preferences cannot be thought of in isolation from one another. For verbal math instructions, there still have to be written or drawn illustrations. And for martial arts, there always has to be visual, verbal, and kinesthetic (doing) element to accessing and learning a new technique.

nobody can learn a technique just by being told. They also can’t learn by just by watching. It’s a combination of auditory, visual, and physical. But the most important part is the physical practice.

Absolutely, dude. Recall that I said this outright in the article. I also noted that every learning style actually involved elements of other styles, and that they cannot be thought of as existing in isolation from each other.

When taught a new technique, I know in my head how to do it, but until I practice over and over to develop the “muscle memory”, I haven’t really learned it. And this holds true for all students.

I would say that just as you cannot consider memorizing facts to be learning without the ability to accurately apply and relate those facts, so also it is with learning a technique vs being able to apply it in a specific context (for me, everything is oriented toward sparring). This isn’t a perfect analogy, but I would liken your isolated ability to perform a movement pattern more to the memorization of facts, and your ability to apply that movement pattern appropriately (in this case, sparring) would be the actual learning.

In my thinking, to say “I have learned a side kick” without an ability to apply it is not technically learning. “Learned” here is just using the word in a colloquial way, as in, “I have memorized this information,” or “I am aware of this now.” Essentially, the equivocal way I was using it in the article. Again, in some respect, you have technically learned something (which is why my analogy is not perfect); but insofar as martial arts is not dance (we don’t just kick in isolation: there’s an opponent involved), I cannot think of learning a side kick and learning to apply that side kick in total isolation from each other. So it is difficult for me to say you have truly learned the side kick if you have not also gained some competence in applying it to sparring.

So, all that said, why did I write about learning styles? I think even though it cannot be said that learning styles directly facilitate actual, technical learning, it is important to know that people prefer to consume information in certain ways. It is NOT true they can’t consume information other ways; but knowing someone is more auditory than visual (in the context of motor learning, of course) can inform the way you use coaching cues and which cues that you use.

This article is also going to serve as the backdrop of a series of articles on adaptive or special needs learning. Learners without exceptionalities just need good instructional design; the modalities involved don’t have to be especially tailored for them to be able to learn so long as they want to learn. However, with students with exceptional conditions, they sometimes do not respond to information that comes through certain senses. Again, we’re not directly talking about learning, but if we remove the nomenclature “learning styles” and think of the concept purely as preferred modes of consuming information, it can be important for instructors to be aware of.