Competitive martial arts training: “What you get, what it costs,” by Robert


“The more dangerous kinds of sparring can be done for a while, until those particular lessons are learned, and then one can move on.”

We just received this well-thought out comment in response to an article we published a few months ago titled “Martial arts practice and the deceived mind,” by Stanley Pranin. It is a succinct description of the various categories of training for competition and their applicability in real street encounters.

Sparring is a form of training like any other form of training. Even the most brutal MMA matches are not fights. They are sparring.

As with any form of training, the questions are: What does it get you? What does it cost you?

Every kind of sparring, from light to no contact “tag” to MMA matches serves a purpose.

Tag type sparring (light to no contact)
What you get: You learn control. You learn to put your fist or foot or elbow where you want it to go.
What it costs: Very little.
The non-physical dangers: But the student has to be certain they understand this is far, far from any kind of actual fight. So don’t get cocky because you’re the school “tag” champion.

What you get: You improve your stamina and strength. You learn range, speed, combinations, positioning and…you learn to take a heavy hit (or several) without stopping.
What it costs: You can expect to always get bruised up, and occasionally there will be more serious injuries.
The non-physical dangers: For safety reasons there are lots of rules with kickboxing. These limitations on what you (and your opponent) can do make this EXERCISE a very unrealistic imitation of a fight. As before, don’t get cocky because you can do this well.

Grappling & ground fighting
What you get: Practical experience and a “feel” for grappling, joint locks, throws and so on, for people of different weights and sizes.
What it costs: Like with kickboxing, expect bruises and abrasions. And, unfortunately, the occasional injury.
The non-physical dangers: Some Jujitsu consider themselves to be the toughest guys around. That doesn’t count for much if you’re ground fighting your assailant, but his friend is kicking you. As will all sparring, it’s an exercise.

With any of these exercises (and many other variations), always remember what it gets you, what it costs you and remember the non-physical danger that you might start to think that’s how fighting works.

Whether any of these is worth the risk, that depends on each practitioner, and how prepared they want to be if they’re attacked, and what risks they’re willing to take for that level of preparation.

In many cases the more dangerous kinds of sparring can be done for a while, until those particular lessons are learned, and then one can move on.

Early on, one of the most valuable things that a beginner can learn in sparring is that you CAN continue even if you have the wind knocked out of you or a charlie-horse. That is a critical lesson to learn for self defense. If you don’t learn it, should someone unexpectedly hit you hard in real life, you’ll crumple. You won’t know if you are hurt badly or not. All you’ll know is that you’re hurt more than you’ve ever had to deal with before. And when your life depends on it is NOT when you want to learn to handle that.

Once you HAVE learned that (painful) lesson, there’s no need to continue getting the stuffing beaten out of yourself.

As for sparring competition, that’s another matter. It’s not a bad thing to spar for sport. No worse than playing football or rugby. But it’s not about preparing to defend yourself. It’s just a different animal.


  1. Patrick Augé says:

    The greatest benefit one gets from sparring and competition is forging the mind (seishin tanren) to face and overcome any difficulty and challenge that life puts on our path.

  2. Craig Cruse says:

    Great article, just wanted to add one thing. Those “non-physical dangers” can sadly become physical ones or even outright life and death in an altercation. An example of this is 15 years ago, I trained in Gracie Jiu jitsu for three years to compliment my Aikido training. During the entire time all we did was work the basic waza and roll (spar on the ground). Everyone in the class felt unbeatable if attacked on the street. After seeing Royce Gracie in action, they were sure no one could take them once on the ground.

    Then it happened- one of our teenage students was at a party and an altercation started. He had previously won a similar altercation at school when a kid started a fight. He easily took the boy down and submitted him. With his confidence up from the previous victory and the fact that he could beat most of the adults in our class in competition, he was ready again to defend himself if needed, he hadn’t started the altercation, he was trying to prevent it. When the other boy attacked he did just as he had been trained, took him to the ground and went for the submition- a collar choke.

    This time the outcome was different and almost deadly. As he sank in the choke, he didn’t notice the other boy reach behind his back and pull a knife. With both hands tied up in the collar applying the choke, he had no way to let go and defend himself. Fortunatly for our student, a third party happened to be standing close by and saw the knife and grabbed the other boy’s arm just as he began the stabbing motion. The boys were pulled apart and the fight was over.

    One of our top student’s came within inches of being run through with an edged weapon because in Gracie Jiu Jitsu, we had never trained for, much less been taught how to defend against or watch for such danger. We had been going to 4 or 5 seminars a year under Royce and we had never been taught weapons defence, just ground position, locks, chokes and the like.

    Now it is fifteen years later and that student is grown up, he and the other instructors from the original school just received their black belt from Royce Gracie (after 15 years of dedicated training). He now has his own school under Royce and is an excellent teacher of the Gracie system.

    What did they learn from his near fatal experience with a knife? Apparently nothing. Fifteen years later, they still don’t teach or work weapons disarms, they do what they have always done – ground position, joint locks, chokes and the like. Those are great as long as your opponent isn’t armed.

    • I had a similar situation in training. I went from standard Brazilian Jiujitsu type practice at our dojo, to a knife class with another teacher. In the knife class we did some sparring on the ground. You could be applying a nice BJJ type lock and as soon as you heard the knife come out of the guys pocket and click open, it was a whole new ball-game. Changed everything. And just like in Craig C’s story, many people actually carry 1 or more knives on their body.

      This is not to knock BJJ. Just to keep in mind that no martial sport equals combat, as Robert eloquently says in his article.

  3. Basic combat training is not equal to real combat. But one wouldn’t want to go to war without it. In a similar way, dojo training is not equal to a street attack, but I wouldn’t want to face an attacker with out it.

  4. Mochizuki Sensei made us go to the ground as a part of tantôdori.

    At first, everyone gets confused, cut and stabbed, even those who are skilled in newaza. (Humility training!) But eventually it becomes a specialized form of newaza once we become familiar with it. However, it requires an already solid foundation in newaza. More recently, we spent over a year doing it specifically. Then we applied the same principles with a gun, to take it away from somebody (kenjûdori), or to retain it (for law enforcement personnel).

    We also learn through this kind of training that there is no ultimate answer, what risks to take and not to take (our limits) and to expect the unexpected.

    It’s a great training for the mind ! This is my own opinion based on my experience. It’s not final.

    Patrick Augé

  5. I had a Judo Shodan at a school where we trained, and we all started to mix it up with him. Gracie BJJ was just becoming well known.

    How I brought those sessions into our regular Aikido training was getting away from tunnel vision on a particular technique – usually, I went to do Kotegaeshi, and if the Uke’s hand was in a completely inappropriate position for Kotegaeshi I started to wrestle for the one hand. With the Uke’s whole body against me, I started to learn to feel that one thing became easy as another thing got more difficult. I overcame issues from too much kata training. I lost my investment in doing a specific technique and started to feel for what I was actually being offered.

  6. Tom Collings says:

    In February, I passed my 25th year working ghetto streets and would like to make it to retirement alive in a few months. Winning does not matter to me, only survival – that is my personal definition of WARRIOR. Most styles of training have a valid focus and also have their inherent weaknesses – you need to be clear about personal needs, then chose which makes sense for you.

    It is true that close quarters combat often goes to the ground, but it is also true that in real world violence, the ground is the WORST place to be – easily cut and easy to get the sh*t kicked out of you by your adversary’s home boys.

    No disrespect to MMA, but my old sparring days reinforced tunnel vision, dulled my peripheral vision (my most essential survival tool) and battlefield awareness – AN UNBROKEN FOCUS ON MY REAR.

    What has served me well are O’Sensei’s training exercises like Tai No Henko and Kihon exercises requiring immediate turns to the rear or lateral movement out of the death zone (the front.) Multi-directional weapons training like Happo Giri and jo katas requiring continuous change of direction have also been useful.

    O’Sensei was opposed to his Budo becoming competitive NOT just for philosophical reasons – but for TACTICAL reasons. He was in real combat and sent soldiers he trained into combat – he knew that sparring of any kind takes the mind out of battlefield awareness (street) mode and places it in GAME mode – that is, focus on one person only – my competitor, and one direction only – THE FRONT.

    If you can afford to put total focus on the front – it is a game not combat. You come to rely on the referee to cover your back and protect you from the others if you go to the ground. I am not opposed to MMA just because it is brutal, ugly and devoid of any Budo ritual or shugyo which brings the mind to stillness and clarity. My opinion is admittedly biased – my grandfather was killed in combat from the side, and my partner was assaulted from the rear.

    I CANNOT AFFORD THE TUNNEL VISION WHICH CONFRONTATION AND ALL FORMS OF COMPETITION INSTILLS. I will leave those games to young athletes and the sport fighting fellows.

    Perhaps I will go for a trophy in miniature golf!

  7. From Pierre Aikido on Facebook:

    Hello, I have, in my relationships, a former professional boxer (boxing and Thai boxing) now retired. I spoke with him about the difference between combat sports and martial arts. Although he has no regrets about his career, he finally confessed to me that today, if he were to do it again, he would choose, rather, a martial art. Now aged 45, he suffers from herniated cervical level. He often has severe headaches that are difficult to calm, sight problems at times, and all because he took too many shots to his body all throughout his career. Because of all these health problems, he is no longer running, biking or even swimming, if only to keep in shape. I apologize for my bad English.

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