Getting Out Of The Zero Performance Rabbit Hole

There is a tendency in the martial art world to over complicate what doesn’t need to be. The continued search for the Holly Grail of the master technique that will allow anyone to confront an aggressive opponent has lead many people so deep down the rabbit hole, that what they end up finding is just another tunnel. The truth is, any time you set up a demonstration where the objective is not for the opponent to fight back at all costs, one can, pretty much make anything ‘look like’ it will work. Added to this, which leads of the previous statement, if the attack one is dealing with, is delivered in such a way that you know how it will be delivered, then again, one is able to pull off pretty much anything one likes against it. This may be a sensible approach if used as a precursor teaching tool to ‘unpredictability,’ with the intention to later break out of it — but sadly for many that day never comes.

While this may be dreadfully obvious to some, it isn’t for the masses. One then needs to ask why is this so? I think the simple answer is, most people who consume martial art instruction, have likely never been in regular interpersonal violent encounters (the people teaching are counting on that too, it allows them to sell martial falsehood). Even if these consumers had been in one encounter a year, for 20 years it wouldn’t truly make that person realise the reality of the fight. Context as they say is always king, even if you had a ‘fight’ once a year, for 20 years, what do you define as a fight? Some drunk in a bar, who almost falls over his own feet trying to slap you in the face, may in some minds be classified as a fight, but if we brutally honest, it’s defence against a bumbling fool.

One would have thought by now that this ‘martial pseudo science’ would have disappeared especially with the rise in popularity of MMA. But it hasn’t. One only has to look towards my favorite resource for all things martial arts, YouTube. Ironically, even those who show their lethal moves should know better. I know some of them personally, who have engaged in real sparring, but then default back to the relative safety of the ‘mystical world’ of reality based self defence. I say relative safety for a reason, because when you suck at the performance game, and you are not willing to put the training and work in that is required, it is far easier to stuff your mouth with another jelly donut and convince people around you that you have the real skills through neatly packaged unfailing demonstrations.

I may seem overly harsh here in my critique, but nothing irks me more than self proclaimed self defence experts, who have no issue telling their ‘students’ what to do, but they themselves are to afraid to get on the mat and show that things they teach will work under a resisting, zero choreographed environment. The truth is, truth is scary. I am not immune to this by any means. Getting on the mat each week, and working against resisting opponents, some of them in amazing shape, and a whole lot younger than me, has shown me that performance is a roller coaster ride (it’s simply not a smooth ride). What it has also shown me is that less is more. The only place you learn to have less, and make it work is in the crucible of performance. On the mat, against an opponent, who is, within reason giving you a zero choreographed fight game (obviously we need to do it again the next day, so some things need to be off the table), is the only way to realise not only where your holes are in your game, but how 90% of the techniques you think you know or need, become irrelevant.

Contrary to popular mythology in the self defence world, what they claim as sport as I have described above, isn’t that far off from the street like they would like everyone to believe. Of course there are changes that need to be made, considerations such as multiple attackers, situational awareness, looking to disengage at the moment the opportunity presents itself, and of course the genie in bottle illegal blows (which let me tell you straight don’t instantly end fights like the experts ‘wish’ they would). In the end, when the shit kicks off, and fist start flying, you never see what you see on You Tube self defence lessons. What you see are two or more people going at each other, moving and looking like, dare I say it, wait for it…….Yup, bad boxers, kick-boxers, or MMA fighters.

The only reason I can fathom that these reality based self defence people are so adamant that this is not so, is because deep down they know one would be required to step on the mat and spar an uncooperative, 100% unchoreographed opponent — and that said bluntly, is a fucking scary proposition, for someone who spends all their time in pretend Navy Seal land. No one in that situation who has invested all their time telling people that all they need to know is how to eye gouge, or kick someone in the groin to win a fight wants to be shown up with the all mighty jab, cross.


There’s An Intelligent Way out of the Zero Performance Rabbit Hole

But there is another side to this too. Most places you go to spar are badly managed. They are often, sadly, not learning grounds, but are get beat up grounds. The result, most people in their right mind quit sparring the first time they have the experience. As a coach I want all my clients to have the experience of hitting a resisting target, but equally know what it feels like to get hit. More importantly I want to help them increase their performance in that arena, because if we talking self preservation, all my years on the door taught me, or should I say what saved my ass was the fact that I had spent so much time sparring. Yes, actually in the so called sport. The result, getting hit, didn’t phase me, I didn’t panic when I missed a shot or the target moved, and no one on the street could hit as hard as my sparring partners in the boxing gym.

It’s absolutely senseless just to throw someone into sparring without a progressive ladder, that optimises performance in incremental steps. Following are my top 5 tips to get into sparring the right way (and save oneself from the Zero Performance Rabbit Hole):

  1. Teach the outside or distance game first: It is far easier as a coach to control this range, ensuring students work on structure, distance management and defence. Its also a range where you can limit a persons offensive options, giving them time to build a solid foundation first.
  2. Defence as primary, not secondary: If you know about the Crazy Monkey System then you know we have a very unique way that we teach defence (read more about that here). Defence not only lowers the risk of unnecessary injury, it also helps a person build psychological confidence to move in against an aggressive opponent later on.
  3. Restrict the game tools: I always start off with foundational skills sets, like working sparring where both sides are limited to just the use of the jab and cross, along with keeping good structure and defence. As their confidence grows, I slowly add more and more tools in.
    Moving in on an opponent comes later: Get the outside game right, and students will have the confidence to move in. I am amazed by how so many instructors allow their students to jump around from the outside, to the mid and clinch range from day one. Not only is this the best way to ensure things get out of hand quickly, but you simply don’t allow a student to build a strong foundation.
  4. Progressive stress inoculation always: A person who has not been brought up fighting will naturally be afraid of contact. My goal as a coach is to slowly and progressively introduce my students to sparring intensity. It takes a keen sense of pace, and understanding of contact on my part, to ensure things don’t get out of hand. Ego is always an issue and it is my job to temper it among my students. My simply rule is this, if someone is making big mistakes in sparring, turning away from blows, closing their eyes, or there is a sense of panic the contact is simply way to hard. The way to deal with this is to dial it back until I feel they are getting it at least 70% right. Each week, the tempo can be dialed up slightly. The goal always is to ensure that a student keeps structural game integrity. Mistakes in a controlled environment can be forgiven, but out on the street the cost may be high. If a student can’t handle the pressure in the gym, then I doubt they will handle it out on the street.
  5. Discipline in the sparring space: In simple terms this really means that environment informs behaviour. My students take their cue from me. If I am respectful when I spar, and I don’t just beat the crap out of people because I can, then they don’t do it themselves. On the mat, we are their to help each other grow and build our games to the highest level possible. Intention, why we are there is paramount in keeping discipline in the sparring space.

Finally, in the spirit of this article, keep things simple, and make sure what you have can work under fire. You know you have achieved excellence in your martial performance game, not because you have more to add, but rather that you have nothing more to take away.


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  1. Awesome article Rodney – every word correlates with my own experiences over the years, both of the street and of the nonsense peddled by so-called self defence instructors.

    Thanks, keep up the great work.