I have very fond memories of my early martial arts training experiences. The majority of my development as a martial artist in my youth was spent doing Goju Ryu and Tae Kwon Do, both of which are heavy in the kicking and punching department. While I am grateful for the amount of hours spent on the mat working through one-step and three-step sparring drills to build muscle memory, it took many years to realize that the training I had been doing for such a long time was, in reality, going to get me seriously injured (or perhaps even killed) if I ever had to protect myself in real life.

Close, But No Cigar

In those early classes, techniques were taught wherein the attacker would throw a punch or kick and the defender would respond with a pre-determined set of moves. Taking the “pre-determined” aspect out of the equation for a moment, all of these techniques were fine in and of themselves; I have no doubt that they could potentially work. However, whenever the technique involved punching or kicking the attacker in response, my instructors would always have me stop several inches short of actually hitting my partner.

At the time I thought nothing of it; I was just trying to “learn the moves.” But as I look back now, I seriously question the integrity of the teaching. From an insurance/lawsuit perspective I get it, but from a self-defense perspective I have to wonder how many people actually tried to use one of these techniques in real life and ended up stopping six inches from their attacker’s face.

Can you see the problem?

When  you repeatedly train for a certain event in a certain manner, you will always fall back to your training. Two stories come to mind to illustrate my point:

  • Mike Tyson breaking his hand while punching another guy on the street. He wasn’t wearing his boxing gloves or protective hand wraps.
  • The police officer who was shot and killed by a criminal, because after shooting all of the ammunition in his gun he bent down to start policing his brass off the ground… before the criminal was apprehended!

In both of these cases, their many years of training had both physically and mentally adjusted them to respond to their situation in a single way. For Tyson, his distance was off and he did not have the benefit of wrist support, so when he punched the other person he did so as if he had the extra protection. (I suspect he curled his wrist more so than he should have, which caused the break.)

For the police officer, whenever on the range for practice, the range officer would always have him police (pick up) his brass after every round of practice. This was drilled into his head so much, he responded the same way he did on the range those several hundred previous times — by picking up the spent cases to keep the range clean.

Although these may be extreme examples, they do help to illustrate my point: if you train a certain way, you need to expect that  you will fall back on that training in a real situation. If you spent hundreds of hours punching your training partner but stopping six inches from his face every time, how can you reasonably expect to make up those extra inches during an attack?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to find out.

So, We Should Be Hitting Each Other?

In a word, yes, for a few reasons. First, as stated above you need to make sure that you’re going to actually hit someone when you need to. Distance is vitally important. Second, you need to know what it’s like to hit someone. As great as a boxer that Tyson was, I think we can all agree that broken wrists are not the best way to win a fight. Third, you also need to know what it’s like to be hit. If you are going to collapse into a whimpering ball of tears the first time someone smacks you upside the head, it’s probably better to (a) know you’re going to react that way in the dojo rather than in the alley, and (b) train yourself to not have that reaction.

Does that mean you should be pounding the crap out of each other? No, certainly not. The goal is not to hurt your training partner, the goal is to put just enough reality into your training so you’re not caught completely off-guard when it really matters.

What About Sparring?

Sparring is a small step in the right direction, but still inherently flawed. Going back to the Tyson story, sparring involves wearing protective gear, which artificially changes the fighting distance, allows participants to hit and kick in ways that would otherwise injure themselves if not wearing gear, and after 30 seconds typically devolves into a full-on wild punch/slap fight where the involved parties become more interested in just hitting anything they can rather than trying to end the confrontation.

(Let’s be clear, and always remember: the goal is to protect yourself and others, not to fight the other person.)

Yes, in sparring you do get to hit the other person. But when all of the parameters are artificially manufactured, are you really training? Or, perhaps, are you involved in a psuedo-aerobic slap fest with a time limit?

Train Like You Fight, Because You’ll Fight Like You Train

It’s really very simple. Remember, this is your life we’re talking about. It’s not a sport, it’s not a game, and there truly is no wiggle room for most artificial boundaries or protocols. If you train with the mindset that you are preparing to protect yourself, and you train in a manner that does not cause injury but provides realism (there is the tiny bit of wiggle room, in case you were wondering), both your mind and your body will be prepared should you ever have to use your training for real.