– Ian Sinclair

A person recently posted a very nice question under one of my youtube videos, called “Tai Chi vs MMA (Who is nicer?) “

The question was:

“How do you know these techniques will work if you don’t practice them in a live scenario? Why didn’t you spar this MMA guy instead?”

It was great to receive this question, especially because it was worded as a polite and sincere question. The internet is littered with rants by trolls who seem to go out of their way to find the most offensive ways to say, “I don’e believe that this would ever work in a real fight.”

Firstly, the commenter is quite correct in referring “techniques” as this video is primarily a demonstration of technique. (It is also partly a demonstration of method, which is how one makes a technique happen. That is a topic for another time.)

The partner here is cooperating with the demonstration, and doing so very politely. If he were non-cooperative, someone would get hurt. Perhaps it would be me. Perhaps it would be him. Probably it would be both of us. If he tried to hurt me during a friendly demonstration, it would constitute an assault, and there would be legal repercussions. Likewise, if I deliberately injured him during a demonstration, my career as a martial arts teacher would be over. Even if I hurt him in a “real fight,” I would be culpable, regardless of whether we both agreed to the fight before hand. Under Canadian law, as in many countries, no one can legally consent to being assaulted.

Techniques, by themselves, never win a fight. The success of a technique depends on many things, like conditioning, timing, structure, alignment, method, sticking, following, and all of the other things that go into adapting to constantly changing threats. What people think of as a technique is merely the visibly recognizable conclusion of properly applied method, as it manifests at the end of the fight. The technique is like the runner’s stride, or the runner’s stretch for the finish line. One does not become an olympic champion just by putting one foot in front of the other and throw one’s arms back at the end of the race.

Transferable skills

Consider techniques in other sports. For instance, in a track and field event like the 400 metre race, the main techniques might be thought of as “the start” (Pushing off the blocks), the pace (length, speed, angle of the foot, etc), and the finish (as the runners throw their heads or chests forward to meet the tape before their opponents). These techniques have similarities in all track and field events. But the techniques for one will need to be modified for another. The 400 m requires different techniques from the 100 m or the marathon. And while such techniques are found in the long jump, the high jump, and the hurdles, one would need to train specifically for each event in order to do well.

Some sports have transferable skills that apply better in some situations than in others. One could assume that a runner will be better at the long jump than a swimmer who does not run very well. Likewise, a boxer will have skills that will transfer to other martial arts. Someone who has never done any martial arts training, or dancing for that matter, will be at a disadvantage if competing against a boxer in a judo match.

Timing, awareness, reaction, speed, acuity, stillness…

  • In a fight, a skilled martial artist will respond in 0.2 seconds, to changes that most spectators cannot even see. Spectators at a martial sporting event see the result of the fight, but they cannot comprehend the complex mental, emotional and physical dynamics that happen in that split second before the technique becomes manifest.
  • A really good martial artist can change his or her mind, and hence the direction of a fight, in less than 0.1 seconds.
  • A properly trained body responds automatically in less than 0.05 seconds.
  • This is extraordinary, especially considering that the average person only responds consciously to changes every 1-7 seconds.
  • Often a person has made up their mind to do something long before they are aware of their own decision.

What is the really real reality?…I mean, really.

In fact, you never know if your martial art will work in combat unless it is tested in actual combat. No one in their right mind will ever voluntarily make a video of themselves in a real combat situation. To do so would mean that they intended for the fight to happen, and that would be unethical, illegal, and very incriminating.

Sparring is much more different from actual combat than most people realize. Sparring is a sporting way of training various aspects of combat, and while it can be very useful in developing and testing certain skills which are relevant to combat, sparring can be detrimental to fighting skill.

I am not merely referring to the fact that facing a 300 lb opponent in a ring under the supervision of a referee, is vastly different from facing a 100 pound unknown attacker on the street. Though the former scenario is quite preferable to the latter.

Many will argue that value of sparring by saying,

“But techniques are proven to work. Look at Muay Thai fighters, mma fighters or boxers, they all spar and they know their techniques work…. Sparring is the closest thing to actual combat because it’s live, uncoordinated and unscripted.”

Of course, I agree that their techniques work. They work because they have been trained to make them work, and because the technique and the style’s methodology have been tested over time, often over centuries or millennia. But they work best within the context of the sport. The skills are transferable, just as running is transferable to the long jump. But there are other relevant factors.

The multi-disciplinary approach.

While tai chi is my current focus, I have studied also many different martial arts from around the world, including weapons, striking, and grappling arts. I have also participated in many types of martial sport, and I have certainly done my share of sparring. I have also participated in what would nowadays be called mixed martial arts (MMA), and sanshou. Such training has served me well. But each type of sparring is set up for a particular context.

I am not a proponent of any particular style. I practice a style which is a product of years of study and practice. In many ways, it is the product of my own pathology. I share my style with my students. But I don’t expect them to ultimately mimic my style any more than I would want them to mimic my pathology. I show them what works for me, and then I try to help them find what works for them. If I think that one of my students might benefit from a type of sparring, I will offer it to them. But there are many exercises which are more practical for combat than sparring.     

The usefulness of sparring, as it is practised by most people, is primarily for martial sports. Martial sports have the luxury of training to make techniques work in a sporting context very similar to the one in which they train.

  • Boxers practise boxing.
  • Grapplers practise grappling.
  • Fencers practise fencing.
  • Judoka practise judo.

Sparring is very good practice for learning to spar. But, while the skills learned in sparring can be very useful in a real fight, they can also get a person into trouble if they focus too much on technique at the expense of dynamic method and conditioning. Techniques can often be defeated outside the ring in ways that are never confronted in civilized sport.

Sparring is predictable.

One reason for the popularity of sparring is that many teachers and students think sparring is live, uncooperative, spontaneous, and unscripted. But I would argue that sparring is far more predictable than many people like to admit. It is very easy for sparring to become a trap that enables a habitual behaviour in what can be properly described as a comfort zone. Granted, it is not as comfortable as NOT sparring. But it is still not completely realistic, and the spontaneity is limited.

Being overly attached to technique can get a person in trouble in a real fight, especially against someone who has trained specifically for that scenario. I will not go into the types of tactics that people use in committing an assault, or in real combat, because I do not wish to promote such tactics publicly. There are too many setups that are practised in prisons, and implemented on the street, which are intended specifically to defeat a trained martial artist. The very formulaic nature of these tricks suggest that they should be easily defeated. But few martial artists train to be truly creative, and few train for such scenarios.

There is one thing to remember, and this is a big one. Sparring is a fair fight. It is a way of training for a sport which levels the playing field so that competitors are participating in a fair fight. Gaining a tactical advantage in sparring is not only difficult, it is actively discouraged.

For example:

  • a boxer is discouraged from wearing brass knuckles in their gloves,
  • a fencer is forbidden from sharpening his or her sword,
  • a judoka is required to wear a gi. (jackets that help the opponent get a grip on you.

Participants in martial sport also lack certain advantages that are available outside the ring. For instance, a boxer does not train to back down from the fight, or run away, or avoid showing up in the first place. They can sometimes throw in the towel, which may or may not be an option in a real fight.

Can sparring be made more creative and spontaneous?

The problem with sparring is it’s competitive nature. It reinforces the ego, and encourages people to repeat what works, without critical analysis. It does not encourage creative solutions.

If force and strength works for a strong student, he or she will continue to rely on force and strength, making it a default strategy when things become challenging. Then when someone with superior strength or skill comes along, that very strength will become a liability.

Very few students have the permission, the inclination, or the cooperative training partner required to examine a situation slowing and precisely enough to truly improve. This is where spending an hour per day in standing meditation, or refining a solo routine, or practising slow tuishou with a partner proves its usefulness. Of course, even those who do will seldom have the understanding necessary to transcend their own habits.     

“Most martial arts training is about losing.”

In real combat, if you find yourself in a fair fight, it means that your tactics have failed you. A martial artist will strive to always have as many advantages as possible. The fight should be already won or avoided before it happens. Techniques are what you resort to when have failed in this regard. This is why we say, “Most martial arts training is about losing.” In most schools, students spend most of their time learning what to do when they are already at a disadvantage, i.e. cornered, facing superior or equal numbers.

Learning to win means cultivating balance, position, power, awareness, compassion, timing, strategy, and peace of mind. If you master these attributes, you should never need to use any martial technique. Of course, mastery of anything can be elusive, so it is also good to learn about losing.

One very useful tactic in a real fight is to have more training than your opponent. So, sparring may give you an advantage over an untrained opponent. But I strongly advise creative scenario training. Too many students find themselves in a live scenario which they have never considered. In order to respond quickly to a threatening situation, you should have already decided how you would act, long before the situation arises.

Years ago, a couple of friends were fishing, in hip waders, in shallow water next to a fast flowing section of the Nahanni River. When one of them slipped and fell, the other jumped in, at great personal risk, and grabbed his friend. Their combined efforts was just enough to save them both from being drowned in the icy water. When others complimented him on his courage and quick thinking, my friend said, “That was not quick thinking. I made that decision years ago.” He already knew what risks he would take for this friend, and had contemplated a similar scenario.

Sparring does not transcend itself. It reinforces unconscious habits.

The techniques which we practise provide us with only one context for applying the art. The techniques are not the art.

If you practise a wide variety of techniques, you will broaden the context within which your art can be applied. But the goal is to transcend technique entirely.

The method of application, when mastered, can make an infinite number of techniques available to you, even those which you have never practised. But the method can also be transcended.

After you master the method of applying infinite technique, you will discover a quality that transcends method.

Sparring can be useful. But it can also be a trap. The same goes for any style, any pedagogy, or any method. The strengths and attributes that you cultivate in one context can become a detriment in another context.

Whatever your technique, method, style, pedagogy, personal attributes, or strategic weaknesses, you must ultimately learn to get past them. They are only vehicles. Don’t lock yourself in the car when you get to your destination. Don’t keep paddling once the boat has reached far shore.

It is not about what you do, so much as it about how you are.


Ian Sinclair is a martial arts instructor in Orillia, Ontario, Canada http://SinclairMartialArts.com