Balancing Reality and Fantasy in Martial Arts Practice

The UFC is the ultimate test of the value of any unarmed martial art. If your art doesn’t stand up in full-contact Mixed Martial Arts practice, it’s of no value.

If you train with weapons, then your art and training better stand up to full-contact tournaments, or it’s useless.

Or so goes one side of the argument. The other side argues that tournaments of any kind are artificial environments, and therefor a poor reflection of true combative reality. The first side tends to fetishize competition winners, the other side side fetishizes talking about violence and loves people who have to deal with violence in a professional aspect.

Down the middle of this line we have most martial arts schools. They try to keep to themselves for the most part. The have some students that compete, and they keep a weather eye out for the latest “It works in the streets” tidbit to measure against their approach.

But it’s all a bit of a fantasy.

Or at least a deeply overlooked opportunity.

Martial arts is all about violence. It’s about physically applying our will on another against their wishes. This is true all down the line, from one extreme of resistance to the other. Styles and schools rise out of specialization in technique or resistant environment. Martial artist tend fantasize about the end goal of their particular school.

And you know this. It doesn’t matter what art you study, you daydream about using it in an ideal situation. Everytime you learn a new technique, some part of your brain builds a little fantasy about how to use it “for real.” Even as a swordfighter, you think about that one time when you just happen to have a sharp sword at hand and a time travelling assassin jumps out at you and the duel is on.

Which is fun and all, but you can’t ignore that it’s somewhat pervasive in any martial arts environment. Which means there is a tendency for instructors to talk about “realistic” application. You know, that perfect takedown counter for when Rhonda Rousey comes in to throw you. Or that surefire “knee them in the nuts nine times” counter to a knife attack. Even when an instructor tries to counter this thinking, they make another fantasy about how the point of practice is to make you happy in life, and practice itself should be all the satisfaction you need. Insert your favourite trope here.

Martial arts is about violence. Otherwise, there are many, many other skills that reward diligent practice better. Watchmaking for example.

Because we specialize in violence, we are experts in body movements and solutions to violence problems. If we pull our heads out of fantasy land, we might find that we can actually find ways to use our skills for solving adult problems. Because violence is a real world problem, no fantasy needed.

But we do need to realistically look at violence to see the opportunity overlooked.

This is the 2017 Vancouver Police Department Commendation Ceremony report. If you look here you can even look through all the previous years reports as well. All the trigger warnings you can imagine apply here. Each report covers what police and civilians did to deserve awards and commendations throughout the year. There is a lot of heroism inside, but heroism at sometimes extreme cost and almost always in the most unpleasant environment and experiences. It’s almost always an environment of great tragedy.

It’s value to us is that it’s a record of violence where force was used by average people. There is no fantasy here. There are guns, knifes, and suicides. These are the real-life instances of martial arts. These are violence problems that you, as a martial artist, have the expert skill to solve.

Everyone agrees that running from a knife is that “best” solution. Valkyrie recently put up a series of fun meme’d photos from a recent Knife Disarm workshop, and the one that joked “Run the Fuck Away!” was shared almost entirely to the exclusion of all others.

So read through the reports and decide how things might have gone different had the person commended run away. And then think about one of your fellow students in the same situation. How much of your training would have been applicable for them? What is your training opportunity here?

All the real tough martial artists like to talk about how bad an idea it is to go to the ground, and by this they tend to mean that they don’t really want to work on grappling techniques. Read over the reports and think about how well prepared you are to pin a violent suspect to the ground while you wait for the police to show up. Or how do you stop a suicide from jumping off of a bridge or into traffic? What’s your training opportunity here?

Are you or your students prepared to deal with the emotions and physiological reactions of witnessing these situations, dealing with these situations, and living with themselves afterwards? Again, what’s the opportunity for you and your school here, as experts on violence?

While these are extremes of violence, and therefor also represent somewhat of a fantasy, these are local to my city and my students. And reading through previous years many patterns reveal themselves.

It’s also true that there are many people in any given city who have the job of dealing with this sort of violence every single day. Police, bouncers, paramedics, nurses, security guards, retail employees in bad parts of town and others. Police have tools and rehearsed techniques that they know work…locally. Your community may differ. As an expert in violence you have an opportunity to be useful to these people, if you put the work in.

If you drop the fantasy and try to discover what the reality is.

It’s been my experience that once you start to look at the reality of violence and put some serious thought into training for it, suddenly all the main approaches to martial arts have value. Tournaments help hone technique and mental focus. “Reality” based martial arts can be a great avenue towards new training methodologies or ideas. And there is always room for the middle road.

The only problem is that if you start from that narrow line, that limited spectrum, you are always going to seeing things through that limited lens of fantasy. You have to pull yourself out of that and look at real-world violence and real-world solutions to see the opportunities you have in your training to be a real martial artist.

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