Fight Like You Train, Don’t Train Like You Fight

You will fight like you train, as the saying goes, and there is some truth in it. If you have never tried to apply your martial art against a fully resisting opponent, it is unlikely to work as well as you would hope. Therefore, a practical martial arts curriculum should include a variety of common attacks, drilled with realistic speed and power.

A reasonable conclusion, isn’t it? But a surprisingly popular school of thought goes much further, contending that:

You should always train as if fighting, as this is the only way to improve your fighting ability.

This is nonsense, and every martial artist should understand why.

The Four Stages of Competence

Students of martial arts, like students of any other skill, progress through different stages on the road to mastery. One method of describing these learning stages is the Conscious-Competence Model. Here is a description of the model as applied to martial arts:

Unconscious Incompetence
In the first stage of learning, the student knows little or nothing about combat, but thinks they know all about it. Their naïveté is reflected in statements such as:

  • I’ll use my “dirty fighting secrets” to take you by surprise.
  • I could beat you up if I was mad enough.
  • I already learned the most effective techniques by watching [insert pay-per-view special here].
  • I am a non-violent person, so I could just run away.

Conscious Incompetence
At this stage, the student recognizes, and acknowledges their lack of skill. They are willing to invest in loss, to sacrifice their ego and lose face, in order to understand their mistakes.

Conscious Competence
With a basic level of competence, the student can perform pre-selected techniques against a cooperative partner. They cannot yet improvise, or deviate from the training script; their ability to apply their martial art under stress is negligible.

Unconscious Competence
Entering the state of mushin, the seasoned martial artist can automatically respond to random and unpredictable attacks. Formal technique is forgotten, yet manifests itself effectively and without thought.

How do learning theories such as the Conscious-Competence Model apply to real fighting? They do not, and therein lies the problem. The requirements of learning are incompatible with those of fighting…

  1. Attack the opponent.
  2. Conceal your weaknesses.
  3. Do not stop attacking the opponent.
  4. Ignore your mistakes.
  5. Return to step 1, until survival is assured.

In the heat of combat, there is no time for analysis, and no virtue in honest self-assessment. In other words, fighting will not support conscious incompetence or conscious competence, and does not facilitate learning.

Full-speed and hard-contact sparring can be useful for testing what you have learned, but you should always follow them with more careful and deliberate practice. Otherwise, your martial skills are likely to remain shallow.


  1. Techniques and drills must be trained under stress in order to be useful in combat. But they must be done slowly in order to be learned, so a good approach is to increase the stress level as competence with the skill increases.

    The munen muso mind does not interfere with the workings of the body, but it can turn on the recorders for a short period and allow review after the fact. So can a video tape, or a training partner or coach.

  2. it is possible to fight and learn through fighting. That ability requires a mind that is not overwhlemed by the emotions which most people require in order to allow themselves to fight. You can fight angry and learn but you have to be angry all the time. The same for any emotion. The emotion changes and the memory becomes way more difficult to access. Meditation solves this problem but most people think meditation does not apply to fighting. People used to master a style in six to ten years of focused physical and mental training. Now they spend the same amount of time in the gym and only have basic striking and grappling with negligable weapon training and no mental training. What could be missing?

  3. Each approach to training does have assumptions with simulations being similar to what does exist. The goal of each different simulation is to question how to adjust to some trait or traits found in a confrontation. This development of specific traits must not be declared the same as items integrated into the context of a conflict, instead these are potentially usable traits.
    A simulation is only meant to be similar to some type of event or thing, with the resemblance being a form of deception. If the goal is survival determine what types of attack are likely then use that as the foundations for simulation creation.

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