Keeping it Real

How much do we need to modify techniques for safety, without sacrificing realism?

Full contact with no no rules and no equipment? Kata only? Jyu kumite?  Ippon kumite? Where do we draw the line? What prepares us for real defense?

Without pressure there is not much result. With too much pressure people get sidetracked by injury.

Training and fighting are not the same thing.

There was a no-holds-barred, bare-fisted fighting sport in the 1800s called “rough and tumble.” In some places it was known as “gouging.” People placed bets. People settled disputes in blood. It was vicious.  It left the participants blind and maimed, sometimes dead. It was not “training” for anything. Track the careers of today’s “bare-knuckle” boxers, a modified version of rough and tumble, for insights.

Animals Train 

Animals spontaneously train to fight and hunt. They also vie for territory, for access to food, water, shelter, for mating opportunities, for dominance. To train they “play.”

Animals use total commitment in simulated conflict. They also retain safety boundaries.

Boys have a natural impulse to wrestle and duel with sticks. People use athletics, games, martial arts and professional training to get strong and sharp and stay ready. 

Martial artists, athletes, kids, and animals in the wild develop skill in physical techniques and body weapons, and we all learn tactics like stealth, intimidation, feints, challenges, and dominance – that we use in real conflict. 

Tactical skill is not just a part of team sports, martial arts, and military training. It is there in kids’ games too: tag and hide and seek are hunting games. Pack animals role-play – chasing one another as predator and prey.

Training or “play” is rule-based fury, not brutality.

When animals have a conflict, they usually settle it with a display or a match – like rams butting heads, or a dog submitting to a rival – not through a lethal confrontation. 

Killing, in the animal world, is mostly for food. That is hunting, not fighting.  

We Train

Martial artists have developed reality-based training methods to cultivate, speed, power and skill. Styles differ but all styles isolate dimensions of real conflict and train them under controlled conditions. 

And it has to be calibrated – no one with repeated serious injuries gets a long career. No one with injury is ready to respond well when challenged. 

Real Training

Movies tell stories where the hero does it all. One man stands alone on the field of battle, exhausted but alive, with the enemy routed and peace restored… That is exciting. It matches the way we feel sometimes, or what people fantasize about. In the movie business, insiders will praise a scene or a performance by saying the actors are really “keeping it real.” 

What “keeping it real” means, in movie jargon, is “deceiving people effectively.” Movies may be fun to watch, but they are not a good model for training, or for combative encounters. 

In any high-pressure, selective training environment, competitive or professional, the challenges will be difficult, they will require you to move far outside your comfort zone – but they are not made to kill you. They are made to keep you alive. 

They are not solitary undertakings. They benefit all the participants who are serious about training.

Martial artists learn to keep it real. By challenging ourselves and each other, pushing the limits of our mind, body, skill and commitment – and by keeping ourselves and our training partners in one piece – we get ready and stay ready. 

We can observe the training boundary between pressure and safety come to life in the school yard, in the dojo and in the natural world. It is useful. Keeping it real does not mean being brutal or taking it easy. We need to get it right. Our lives may depend on it.


Post and photo by Jeff Brooks

Canine play photo by Cassandra Nelson

Post Copyright © 2019 Jeffrey M. Brooks and Mountain Karate LLC

“The Good Fight” by Jeffrey Brooks on Amazon in paperback and Kindle edition

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