A large appeal for practicing mixed martial arts (MMA) and boxing is that you are tested in an immediate and hard way. You know that your skills aren’t working if your opponent is hitting or hurting you, and conversely they are working if you’re landing shots or initiating arm and joint locks and shutting your opponent down. In MMA and boxing, especially during sparring and competition, your opponent is actively trying to take you into submission, beat you on points, or trying to knock you out. If you can succeed in this environment, you know your skills work.
I think it is for this reason that many people have become disillusioned with traditional martial arts systems.
There are many martial arts schools that seem to have lost touch with application. It is not uncommon to practice drills over and over again to train reflexes and responses, but during the drills you have the unique advantage of knowing what technique(s) your opponent is going to do, and for the most part, they are going to allow you to practice your response. Now, these drills are crucial for allowing the practitioner to build up a repertoire of possible responses, but the next level is being able to use these skills when you don’t know what your opponent/partner is going to do, and responding when they aren’t going to simply allow you to do the technique.
I think, for whatever reason, a number of martial arts schools have lost sight of the application of their martial art. There are many videos on YouTube of apparently skilled martial artists having their asses handed to them because they have spent years working on drills and planned response scenarios, and have simply lost or not developed the ability to offer effective, real-time responses to an unpredictable opponent. In essence, they have simply become dancers – responding only to a familiar beat.
Unfortunately, application isn’t the easiest thing to introduce into training. No school or gym is going to allow you to have absolute confirmation that your skills can kill or cripple an aggressor. Therefore, application still comes with rules and control (control is the ability of a skilled martial artist or fighter to execute a technique without hurting their partner, but still getting enough out of the technique for it to be effective). The ability to understand the rules and use control can take years of practice, which is why lesser experienced martial artists tend to work only on drills without application. If a school does not have many experienced martial artists, application exercises might not even be present and could drop of the radar of the instructor.
Application is also difficult when a martial art uses many techniques that are theoretically designed to cause a lot of damage. Ungloved hands are so much more dangerous than gloved hands. The fingers, hand, wrist, and forearm are all extremely versatile and can cause a lot of damage to an aggressor, and are certainly not allowed in application exercises, such as sparring. While it is perhaps reassuring for a martial artist that their techniques are not allowed to be practiced in sparring, they still have no guarantee that they could pull them off if needed. Without application, there is no guarantee that you can even remain composed if you are attacked. This is why all martial artists should spar, to become accustomed to the shortness of breath, sweat, and exercise that it takes to engage with an opponent. If you can move, land shots, and learn to read your opponent (for many minutes), then you can start to have some confidence that you can inflict the deadlier strikes if they were ever required.
To sum up, we can see that training has to come with a certain level of reality, even though the reality has to be controlled and simulated (for the obvious safety reasons).
I have noticed that this is also important from a sex perspective. There are female-only martial arts and self defense classes, which I’m convinced can only be limited at best. In reality, most assaults on females are carried out by males, and so learning how to quickly neutralize and take down a male aggressor, will be more effective if practiced, in the safety of the school or gym, with male training partners. It is understandable that a woman who has experienced assault by a man might not want to be around other men, at least temporarily, or be in close proximity to men in a simulated training environment. However, a good school or gym will be respectful of all people there to train, and hopefully, confidence and self defense skills will both improve. Women can still become deadly training with only women, but familiarity, from a training perspective, of male body types and being in the presence of a man, ensures an aspect of realism is always there.
Thoughts about control
I mentioned control earlier, which a skilled martial artist or fighter should be able to exercise with an opponent, but I have found this to be an ongoing battle. I personally like to train quite hard; to hit hard and to be hit hard. I’m convinced that being hit hard is actually important for some crucial philosophical reasons. When you’re hit hard, there are many changes in the body, and it impacts your psychological and emotional state. If I can be hit hard, and still remain focused, I draw confidence from this. Also, if I am hit hard, I know that my defense isn’t working. I have also found that my pain tolerance has increased the harder and longer I have trained, which means my training partner can apply their technique with less fear of hurting me (we still have a ‘tap’ system if the pain becomes too much).
However, it is important to not hit less experienced martial artists hard, because they have not reached a level of training to be accustomed to it – but this is where it becomes difficult.
A martial artist should feel a level of pain and discomfort by having certain techniques applied to them. This becomes knowledge, and increases the respect for the technique and knowing what it can do. Any technique practiced on others, should have been felt by the person dishing it out to maximize empathy with one’s training partner. But this requires experiencing pain and discomfort. If a martial artist or fighter has never in their life experienced pain and discomfort through training, this is extremely suspicious, and they should never be trusted as a teacher.
I will also hit more experienced students harder, because I need an awareness of the power of my techniques. However, I will admit that control is difficult if you have been training rigorously, because your power will make incremental jumps, and a greater awareness is needed to keep it in check. But even considering this, I do expect my training partners to have developed a level of pain tolerance by a certain point, otherwise I don’t want to train with them as the exercise is limited.
Not all exercises require one to hit hard, but for other ones, my training can’t improve unless I hit and am hit, hard.
©Jack Pemment, 2019