Postel’s Law of Sparring

My teachers have disagreed on many things, but in these two points they are all in accord:

  • If you want to excel in martial arts, you must touch hands (spar) with as many people as possible; preferably, hundreds or thousands.
  • For a great achievement, you must use the correct training methods in a disciplined fashion. Avoid deviant and inferior methods, and refuse to entertain the people who use them.

In theory, there is no contradiction between these two ideals. In practice, compromise is required. Nobody agrees on what the correct training methods are, and everyone measures their progress by a different standard—except for those who reject the concepts of “progress” and “standards” altogether.

Of all the frustrations that hinder interaction among martial artists from different schools, lineages and styles—money, reputation, physical safety—this is perhaps the most difficult to address: everybody else is practicing incorrectly!

Or at least it seems that way. The truth is a bit more complicated. Martial artists have different levels of insight and experience, varied strengths and weaknesses, and divergent goals. One person chooses to invest in loss; another cannot afford it.

The Robustness Principle

When touching hands with a stranger, how do you maximize the value of the interaction and avoid wasting your precious time? Instead of inventing ad hoc rules of engagement, I personally prefer to apply Jon Postel’s Robustness Principle:

Jon Postel, father of the Internet
Jon Postel, Ph.D.
Credit: Irene Fertik, USC News

[Interactions] will follow a general principle of robustness: be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others. (RFC 793)

To put it differently, I tolerate behavior in my practice partners that I would never engage in myself. Do you agree with this principle? If so, where do you draw the line? If not, how do you satisfy both of the two points above?


  1. I agree with the post – practice makes perfect and there is only one style of fighting for the human species – by using two hands, two feet and so on…

  2. I forgot to mention: I have about 11 years of experience with Taijiquan and 6 years in karate and kung fu. In the end I’ve settled to practise the Yang traditional forms of Taijiquan and Kyokushin Karate (where I hope to obtain soon my black belt).

  3. Dr. Postel’s advice is sound. Thanks for passing it on.

    As a conscious choice, when I began training at my school about a year ago, I decided that was “in for a dime, in for a dollar.” I would follow their training practices and do it their way. I’ve since dropped all other things I might have picked up from other martial arts along the way.

    The family style has been around for around 150 years. They are apparently doing something right. I could do worse.

  4. Gebeleizis and Rick,

    I’d had people show up claiming an interest in study, but who really only wanted to test me in particular. OK, I held a few aces up the sleeve, and let them leave secure in their own self-worth.

    I’ve had people ask to practice tui shou, and then change to slap-boxing upon a loss of balance. OK, I could still work on the subtleties that would pre-empt their slapping, without responding in kind.

    I’ve had sweating, panting partners insist that *I* was “using too much force”. OK, so I stopped yielding and let them even the score.

    These I find to be unfortunate but acceptable behaviors, acting in bad faith. What, if anything, would you consider an unacceptable transgression of standards and ethics?

  5. I like the principle, it’s held me in good stead. That being said, I’ve rarely, if ever, done any one-on-one training with strangers. I’ve done training with strangers in the context of a larger class, with rotation of partners. I have had no problems with this.

    Dealing with a stranger in a one-on-one situation is different. I think you have to assume it is a challenge until that’s proven otherwise.

    If I find someone more skilled than I, cool, I try stuff, try to figure out what they are doing. I’ll often ask them if I can go (harder, faster, whatever) , or I’ll slow down, yield more, etc. Often I’ll verbalize that.

    If someone isn’t as skilled as me, I will handicap myself in someway, such as letting them take the initiative, or letting them be successful when it would encourage good skill development. This is usually done non-verbally, especially if they don’t seem to be aware of the skill differential.

    I also try to distinguish between unskilled behavior and inappropriate behavior. With the slapping, I might say something like, “I’d like to stick to pushing hands if you don’t mind.” But if you feel like its something you can handle, by all means allow it to continue.

    If you start feeling the need for retaliation, that’s the time to call a break or a halt. Retaliation leads to escalation.

  6. Can’t say that I’ve had many chances to spar outside of club and gym members, although I don’t particularly know them outside the association. Does that qualify them as strangers?

    I suppose I take the same rules as I apply in conversing with strangers; there are certain socially-determined boundaries that are to be respected. As familiarity grows, the limits are eased. If the limit is crossed prematurely, defenses are mounted to protect myself. Once that point is reached, I’d say that, depending on how deeply the limits are breached, how vigorously I defend myself.

    I’m not sure if the analogy fits perfectly, but it’s the best I can come up with at the moment.

  7. I like what Postel is saying and agree with his analysis. My take on his statement is more philosophical in nature. Regarding sparring, I think history has taught us many things and one of them is that you are a result of your environment. Having been in the martial arts for many years and studied multiple styles, your environment or training perspective if you will, affords you varied understandings of morality and insight.

    The following commentary is used as a reference from my personal experiences and is not directed toward all martial artists, nor meant to degrade any one art. It is simply my point of view and written to provoke thought.

    Being robust in your training includes elements of strength, endurance and energy and would be a sufficient term for analyzing and understanding one’s self-ability and training method.

    Being conservative has its limitations, yet to know your own limitations is a way to enhance your skill level through continual testing and refining. Conservative would equate to traditional training and historic learning. Traditional training accounts for an understanding of the history of the art, which is a must for any martial artist that progresses in any system. What it has also provided is a biased understanding or belief that the art is supreme or absolute. Many martial artists believe their art is the best, when it is simply the best at what it does and for what it is.

    Being liberal is to have the freedom to act or follow a different path for learning outside of the conservative. Tolerant is the ability to recognize the ideas of others or other styles and the capability to withstand and/or endure that arts training method. The caution here is toward moral restraint. This is an opportunity.

    In short, what I think Postel was saying is that given the two means for physical interaction, a blend of the two provides outstanding results. To me, my experience has shown that sparring with the best of the best, regardless of style, has increased my understanding of my limitations and abilities.

  8. In studying Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I find that practicing in sparring against Marines at work to be exceedingly beneficial. You practice your techniques against people who may not offhand know what they are, are definately not cooperating (Marines are famous for this), and represent a range of styles and combat philosophies from high school wrestling to boxing. MCMAP instructors are also as varied as there are martial arts available for study; students exhibit qualities bestowed upon them by the quirks of a given instructor.

    Therefore, if I do the technique properly, and observe the expected result, then I can safely say I have achieved competency in that particular technique.

    Granted, most people don’t have this uniquely rich pool of intense fighters upon which to draw. I guess I’m just lucky.

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