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Traditional martial arts versus modern combat sports

Why lacking a frame of reference can be a problem


Do you consider yourself a fighter? If so, how did you become one? Traditional martial arts and modern combat sports seem to have very different ideas of what constitutes fighting skill, and how to develop it. And while both perspectives have merit, traditional martial arts often draw the short straw in one crucial aspect: The lack of a reliable competition format often reveals a missing frame of reference for the purpose and progress of training.

In search of ways to bring the two perspectives together.



In the world of modern sports, it is commonplace for us to orient ourselves towards forms of competition. Track and fields, ball sports, even individual forms of athletics and acrobatics, like sports gymnastics, have representative competitions. Playing Tennis, for example, is of course possible and viable without a competitive idea – but it is much more common to play matches against one another, using the common rules of the game.

Traditional martial arts come from a time and a cultural context where the idea of competitive sports was not that common. Many practitioners are proud of this and scoff at more modern combat sports, claiming it is not realistic enough. Proponents of modern styles ridicule traditional styles for never “throwing down” in the ring. This discrepancy – that often makes communication difficult, let alone actually training together and exchanging ideas – has deep roots. Apart from the cultural context, it relates to the basic questions of which skills you are trying to develop, how to test them, and where and when to apply them.


The realism of sports fighting

One point of contention – maybe the biggest one – is the question of realism. Combat sports follow rules of competition. Traditional martial artists cite this as decreasing the realism of the physical confrontation. After all, in a real fight, there are no rules and limitations, right? Establishing rules, taking out certain techniques and tactics, giving a specific place and time – all these limitations supposedly make fighting unrealistic. At the very least, many traditionalists claim, the ruleset forbids them from using many of their techniques, which are deemed too dangerous for competition. This in turn makes the competition itself useless as a test of skill for traditional martial artists.


Sports fighters, on the other hand, are skeptical about the validity of traditional training methods, since many of them have not been tested in the ring. They claim that only through competition – or at least free sparring using specific rulesets – one can learn which techniques actually work, how effective they are, and in which areas a fighter needs improvement.


One might say that both point-of-views hold merit – but are they mutually exclusive? I either train techniques too dangerous for sparring and competing, or I limit my training to aspects that are relevant for my competition format. I claim that the two perspectives offer something worth thinking about, that both are a bit narrow-minded by themselves, and that they do not necessarily cancel out each other. If you think carefully about them, you might even find a certain common ground.


Rules do not always define realism

Let’s look at it from a purely factual standpoint. There clearly are techniques that are too dangerous for competition. Many techniques are explicitly forbidden in many different formats. Some competitions, like wrestling, are very narrow in terms of techniques and tactics. But even modern MMA formats have long lists of techniques, moves and maneuvers that will immediately get you disqualified. So yes, if you enter a competition, certain techniques will be out-of-bounds. If you spend a lot of time training these techniques, you will be at a disadvantage when competing in the respective format.


Now consider the many different situations outside of a competitive format in which martial arts training might come in handy. People often claim that there are no rules whatsoever, that anything can happen. That is only true to a certain degree, and it very much depends on the specific situation. A bouncer subduing an aggressive drunkard is still bound by law to use non-lethal force, unless threatened with deadly force himsel. A police officer in the line of duty has to be even more careful, since a claim of police brutality can quickly and his or her career. Even military personnel has rules of engagement that extend to hand-to-hand-combat. And civilian self-defense is – in most cases – not a Mad-Max-like fight to the death. Whatever techniques and tactics you use, they have to be proportionate to the force of the assailant. The crucial difference between all of these situations and a competitive format is that in a real-life scenario, you often don’t know which situation you encounter. You may have to fight off an obnoxious drunk or defend yourself against a knife-wielding maniac. You might get mugged or get into an argument with a group of hooligans. This uncertainty cannot be addressed within a competition format and plays a huge role in many self-defense classes.



What does this mean for our conflict between traditional martial and versus combat sports? We can infer one thing: The existence of rules in itself does not make a fight more or less realistic. The context of a physical confrontation dictates the rules, which in turn dictates the techniques and tactics that are allowed and available. That being said, there are techniques that are not allowed in competition formats that certainly have a place in self-defense scenarios. Some of these can be very simple – like a kick to the groin or using your boot to kick an opponent’s shin. Others can be more difficult to learn but are potentially powerful in application – like joint-locks.


Competition breeds champions

These techniques exist and they are useful. Joint-locks, for example, give people an option against taller, heavier opponents by targeting small joints. Dangerous techniques usually target weak spots, leveling the playing field as far as size, weight and strength are concerned. Techniques like that exist in traditional martial arts because people in the past have used them and deemed them relevant enough to train and teach them.


Why are they not included in sports fighting then? Including them would be possible. But if the risk of injury increases dramatically, who would want to compete? Would you enter a competition where your opponent is allowed to attack your eyes and ears, your throat, your groin? Where you can soccer kick a downed fighter’s head? Or break their wrists and fingers? Few people would willingly join a competition like this. And most of those people would not be highly qualified. Think about this: Why spend all your time training for a fight if un untrained brute can end your athletic career with a simple but dangerous technique?


Whenever you design a competition format, you have to weigh risk against realism. In a public competition you might also consider entertainment value – there have been a lot of discussions about this in MMA circles. But you also need to consider the degree to which you can actually test and prove the skills developed from your training. And this directly relates to the relative safety of competing. Technical and tactical limitation decreases the risk of injury, but increases the repeatability, which in turn makes the format a tool to develop and hone specific skills. When you create a working competition format, you are essentially establishing a frame of reference for a certain fighting style (or an aspect of it). All the while balancing out the risk of injury and the technical and tactical variety and realism. This is the main reason for the high level of skill in modern combat sports. Every practitioner of Muay Thai can compete in the traditional Thai boxing format, and they use the same format (although with lower intensity) for regular training.


What to do with dangerous techniques

Now you might say: That’s all good and fine, but I still have effective techniques that I can’t use in a competition format. And that is certainly true. Including them in a competition format would take away some of the most compelling reasons to compete. At the same time, you don’t want to ignore all the techniques and tactics handed down in your curriculum. But if you can’t test them competitively, how do you ever know whether they really work – for you? How do you achieve a similar level of skill and reliability with these techniques?


In short: You probably won’t. There will always be a disparity between techniques attacking anatomical weak spots and those that can be safely trained in a competitive environment. But that doesn’t have to mean that one is always better than the others, or that you should limit yourself to one of them. The same logic of a training environment safe enough for skill development applies to all forms of partner training: Technical drills, throwing practice or pushing hands. Competitive fighting is, in many ways, an extension of the common logic of training.


Training exercises can be cooperative (like drills and patterns), semi-cooperative (free-flowing exercises with limited scope) and non-cooperative (forms of free sparring). The same logic can be applied to your mindset: Training cooperatively means you use pre-defined levels of resistance, whereas non-cooperative training means you resist as much as possible (you are trying to win). Most people think of drills as being completely cooperative, while sparring is completely non-cooperative. But some of the most interesting training happens in the space in-between. Limited but free-flowing exercises with semi-cooperative resistance grant you the opportunity to finetune the application of skills you developed elsewhere. These kinds of formats also allow you to use certain techniques and tactics that would be too dangerous for a completely non-cooperative environment.


Everything has its time and place

Smart practitioners of modern combat sports know this as well and opt for light, technical sparring most of the time. Hard sparring can not only be dangerous but also quite taxing on a physical and mental level. Long-term injuries (continuous attacks to the head for example) can be just as bad as single, heavy accidents and should be avoided.


The real advantage of a fixed, competitive format is the frame of reference it offers. It takes away the complexity of trying to find new and better exercises, and it gives practitioners a chance to measure their skill – or lack thereof. Intensity levels and scope can easily be varied, with light, technical, semi-cooperative practice making up the bulk of it. But rather than imagining how good you are at certain aspects of your craft, a frame of reference gives you clear feedback regarding your practice regimen.


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My hope for traditional martial arts is that more and more practitioners can move beyond ideological concerns and embrace more sports-like, competitive environments as training tools and scenarios to develop certain skills and abilities. At the same time, I see no reason to throw away traditional techniques and exercises. Properly trained they can offer a lot of benefits that you might not get from a combat sports regimen. Learning from the older generations offers great short-cuts to a wealth of knowledge; testing yourself in some kind of ring is a great way to build confidence and skill; and experimenting with training formats makes the art your own.

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Ken Gullette
Ken Gullette
2021. júl. 08.

Very good article. I love to work with a cooperative partner as we practice or learn a technique or principle, and then we say, "Okay, don't cooperate" and we learn even more about what works and what doesn't. But it's still far different than fighting for real. I was in many fights growing up, and I think we envision an attack on the street by an MMA fighter, when in actuality, we probably would be up against a drunk or a person with anger management issues who isn't trained in martial arts. I was only in one full-contact match, and even though I won, I knew that continuing could lead to serious brain damage. There was a dull ache i…

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Daniel Barth
Daniel Barth
2021. júl. 09.
Válasz címzettje:

Thanks! I agree, full-contact competitions can be a severe health risk.


I think the more interesting aspect of a competition framework is that you can use it as the frame of reference mentioned in the article. For me, it's more about how you approach learning and training rather than "winning". A competition framework might help removing some of the arbitrariness that is plagueing Taijiquan. At the same time, I would never throw away the aspects of the art that do not fit into the competition framework. This is what happened to Judo, and while it brought the technical level to enourmous heights, many interesting aspects of the art were lost...

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