If It’s Not Uncooperative, It Doesn’t Count!

At the crux of it, if one is truly honest with oneself, learning martial techniques is great, but the application of those techniques in a performance environment is the culmination of skill. At the heart of any martial expression is the question, “Will this work?” As martial artists we have found practical ways to test this question, either through sparring, or competition. At times of course, and reluctantly, we are confronted by a situation on the street, where we are forced into seeing if what we believe we know will work (the ultimate test possibly?)

Taking what I just wrote into account, in the end, what you can ‘make work’ against a resisting, uncooperative opponent/s is really all that matters. On a martial level, its all that counts. This realisation over the years has refined the way I coach. While I still see a place for learning techniques, and drilling them in the early stages of training — I recognise to be truly effective one can only do so through training against a resisting, uncooperative opponent/s. The easiest and most repeatable, consistent way to accomplish this is through sparring.


Why Is Learning Techniques and Drills the Staple of Most Commercial Martial Art Schools?

Learning techniques and drilling take centre stage in most commercial martial art schools because on the one front it’s easier to teach it that way because the human brain seeks out patterns, and revels in a clear plan of action which is said to lead to success (the popularity of the 7-Steps genre’s of books and articles attest to this). At the heart of it, we are actually a lazy species, and we are programmed evolutionary to find the easiest way to accomplish a task. This of course would be a practical mindset to have in a hunter gatherer landscape, where resources may be scarce, and conservation of energy is important (expending more energy than you put back in = death). Yet this need to find a ‘quick fix’ can become a crutch in something like martial arts, where for the most part most people who train it, will likely never use it for what it was intended for: ‘fighting’ (the obvious folly of this approach will only be realised sadly when they have to use what they think they know in self-preservation).

As I noted earlier there is a place for drilling in the early stages of training. For example, I spend time with students drilling combinations on pads, not because those are the exact combinations that will work in a fight, but rather because it teaches a person’s body the possibilities of the available lines and angles that can be used to attack with. Explore them enough, and when you spar, and an opening appears, your body will allow you to move to intercept that opening. As I am often asked in seminars “what is the best combination?”, my answer to this is,”the one that lands.” In the end however, the best way to ‘train’ combinations is in actual sparring, prior to this, it really is all theoretical.

Secondly, teaching through techniques, scenarios and drills is commercially viable. As an example of this, a well known jiu-jitsu school has an hour long video on YouTube attempting to justify why they don’t let their students live roll for the first year of training. Lets just be honest, sparring, be that stand up or on the ground is often badly mismanaged in gyms (I know I have been a culprit of this in the past) and as such the turn-over of students is then high (not good of course if you make your living from teaching).

On the commercially viable point, if we are truly honest with ourselves, when it comes to all out fighting, there are things that work, and things that don’t. Realistically there is simply not enough of ‘things that work’ to keep the low attention span of people these days happy. Would you stay in my gym if I suggested that to be really good one has to work a set of core techniques every single training session? And it’s not about learning more, but learning less, and getting really good at those few things? Of course, as a gym owner myself, the onus is on me to find novel ways to keep this core training interesting, which honestly isn’t that hard to do. But it does take some creative thinking (it is hard to do of course when what you have been mandated to teach is scripted as in so many styles).

Thirdly, and likely a topic for another more controversial article, teaching through drills, techniques, and scenarios allows the instructor to never be shown up. You always look like the fountain of all knowing self preservation and martial knowledge if you never actually show through live training if you can actually do it yourself. Caveat to this point: you should always be wary of anyone who tells you what to do, especially material that is suggested will save your life, but that person telling you never actually performs what they teach, and can never demonstrate that it works against a resisting, uncooperative opponent. And NO, NO, NO, demonstrating something that looks practical against someone who doesn’t fight back isn’t the same as a resisting, uncooperative opponent who does. Sure, there are times to demonstrate something to an audience to get a point across, but you should then immediately show its application in a real, uncooperative environment.

What You Can Apply Against Resistance Is All That Matters

But as I noted in the beginning, if I am brutally honest with myself, in the end, the only thing that really matters is what you can apply, and make work against a resisting, uncooperative opponent/s. As such, the sooner you can get someone into sparring, as a way of both developing and testing their skills, the better.

There is a reason that boxing, MMA, wrestling etc have evolved the way they have, and why you see the techniques you do in those combat sports — they all evolved through pressure testing. Sure combat athletes in these various disciplines learn techniques, work them in drills, play within the boundaries, and leverage the rules of each sport — but ultimately they put them to test in live sparring. There is also no reason this cannot be done for any kind of specificity in martial arts (even those that don’t have a competitive outlet), from self-preservation training, right through to dealing with or using weapons (and of course there are many who do so).

But here is the thing… I came from the school of hard knocks. As such, for a long time, I emulated those I was coached by. During my years of boxing for instance, sparring was almost always all out, it was hard, unforgiving, and needless to say, the drop out rate was high. It took me a very long time, and many twists and turns to figure out that there are dozens of more fruitful ways to keep things real in martial arts training, without having to knock the guy out in front of you each time you step in the ring. Training live, training real, doesn’t have to equate to an all out war. In fact, I would suggest, that simply teaching a single technique, and then finding a creative way to put it into live sparring is far more fruitful than drilling that technique a 1000 times against a cooperative opponent. The later is easier, while the former may be super frustrating, but only the former will lead to real performance based martial skills.

With this in mind, I have applied what I call Challenge Play sparring methods. In all of these, the level of contact is always mediated by what the participants can handle without the degradation of the core of the techniques, strategies and tactics they are asked to apply. Secondly, while some of these approaches are fast, and giving back resistance is always there, it is never done with the intention of hurting each other. There is a ‘gentlemanly’ acknowledgement that exists among training partners that when a person is tagged by a shot, it is acknowledge that if it was for real it would likely hurt. This doesn’t mean never going hard, because there times for that, but it is really up to the skill level of each participant.


Playing The Game From The Start

Following are four coaching approaches I typically use to get my students into sparring as soon as possible. Of course as highlighted earlier, all done within the stress level each person can handle, always done with respect, zero ego, and a sense of play.

Learn A Technique, Apply Straight Away: This is one of my favourite ways to coach. Teach a new technique, and then immediately apply it in sparring. This can be done in numerous ways. You can isolate it, and allow only that technique, for example if I just taught the jab to beginners, I can then ask students to spar but only jab versus jab. For more ‘advanced’ students, I may suggest they spar as normal, but then purposively find the right opportunity to apply the new technique they just learned.

Isolating Parts of The Game: Here the goal is to take an aspect of the game and isolate it in sparring. For example, I may ask students only to play the distance game. This means, they can only play the relevant techniques they have learned for that range. This allows them the opportunity to explore that part of the game, but without being overwhelmed having to deal with an all out sparring experience that would encompass all ranges. I have noticed that if you just let people spar all out, they default to what they think works for them, and invariably don’t explore parts of the game they are not so well versed in. Not doing this becomes a handicap when faced with an opponent who is neutrizling your strategy with their game, and the only thing that would have saved you is that part of the game you don’t like. Isolation in a way then forces students to work systematically on parts of the game, especially the parts they are not found of.

Playing Games Against Each Other: This is both frustrating but also a lot of fun. For example, I may ask one side to work only the outside game, while the other side has to work the midline game. This is a great way to teach students both the various strengths of each game, but also how to defeat those games.

Performance Coaching Sparring: This is my absolute favourite way to coach. I choose one side, and coach them as they spar. In the next round, I switch up and coach the other person. The result, amazing games start to develop. Not to mention, it keeps my eye sharp, and really challenges me as a coach. It’s also fun to see the person I coach get the upper hand, only to begin to lose the next round when I switch sides (I know, I am sadist).


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  1. I agree that drilling has its place, and that it is not the “be-all and end-all” of martial arts. Sparring truly is the best way to test one’s skill and knowledge and is the theatre where growth continues and allows us to evolve as martial artists.

    Thanks for the good coaching ideas. Definitely going to try some of them this week.