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:
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.
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.
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.
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…
- Attack the opponent.
- Conceal your weaknesses.
- Do not stop attacking the opponent.
- Ignore your mistakes.
- 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.