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).

2 Replies to “The Real Problem: Traditional vs Scientific Training Methodologies in Martial Arts”

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