Why Beating Up Your Compliant Training Partner Doesn’t Make You A Badass

If you’ve been around the Internet at all, you’ve probably seen them: the “real”, “combat” videos of martial arts otherwise derided as ineffective. In them, an instructor, sometimes in camo pants (and sometimes merely with camo pants in his heart) shows you a REAL, NO-NONSENSE way to apply a technique from a compliant martial art. After the requisite intro with explosions, eagles, and machine guns, the instructor starts by stressing the need for proper offensive technique. So he hits his demonstration partner in the face. Hard. And again. And again. The partner, of course, is not moving or blocking or reacting in any way that an actual human being struck in the face might. Poor sap that he is, he’s standing there and taking it. The demonstrator then applies a lock or a throw, and follows his poor partner to the floor. He cranks a submission. The partner taps repeatedly, a pained look on his face. At long last, the demonstrator lets up and the partner jumps up to his feet, ready to be needlessly abused again.

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This is not normal.

Of course, this display of sado-masichism doesn’t make their art “real” or “combat” or anything else. An acquaintance of mine put it well: “Have you ever noticed that no one teaches “Real” Boxing, because there’s already a term for Real Boxing: it’s just called Boxing”. The way these techniques are executed reminds me of an old episode of the Simpsons:

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They’re doing things the Max Power way: wrong, but faster. The techniques they’re showing aren’t any better. They’re still performed incorrectly, but more athletically.

But our friends in camo are not the only ones guilty of this. I also see videos where, rather than trying to act tough, demonstrators act like ignoring a tap is a big joke. They hold a lock, showing how painful it is. The instructor smiles smugly, making his own face 1000% more punchable. The crowd of students laughs. The partner laughs, then gets up, grimacing and holding his wrist. In combat sports, there’s the guy who wants to “go light” or “flow roll”. This lasts until someone gets tired and/or someone’s ego gets hurt. Before you know it, “going light” has resulted in an injury.

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Courtesy of Immortal Choke

“But,” I hear you say, “These people have signed up for this! It’s part of their training!”

Allow me to protest, my friend.

There is pain in martial arts, yes: often, it’s that pain that helps us grow as individuals and learn to overcome adversity outside of class. But pain to the point of injury, or well out of bounds of the student’s ability to take it, is not educational. It is abusive.

I doubt anyone signs up for martial arts with the goal of getting injured. Injuries happen in the course of any physical training. They should be rare, and they should never be intentional. We trust our training partners with our bodies and our health, and violation of that trust is, if not criminal, often a sign of an abusive school. Instructors who beat, hurt, or injure juniors as “part of their training” are not badasses or “teaching toughness”. This isn’t goddamn Cobra Kai. These people abusive assholes, and I’ve encountered some personally. Here’s just one story:

I was 16 years old, and a brand new nikyu in Aikido. We had a black belt training with us who, according to the whispers, had been kicked out of other organizations for being a jerk. And he was, in fact, a jerk. Think about a B-Movie depiction of a sleazy, out of shape uncle or car salesman. That was this guy, down to the receding hairline, protruding gutline, and flop sweat. That said, for the most part he seemed to know and follow the rules of our dojo and my instructor was the kind of guy who believed in second chances. End of class comes. Everyone is shaking hands, etc. I go to shake his hand, and with no warning or provocation he grabs my arm and puts me into an over-the-shoulder shihonage. Fortunately, I am young and supple and have good breakfalls. I’m able to sutemi (sacrifice throw) out of it and come away unharmed.

But what if I hadn’t? He had no way of knowing if I could take that fall, especially without any warning. That abusive, violent idiot could have separated my shoulder and put me out of training for a year for absolutely no reason. I barely knew this person. We weren’t working on anything– class was over. He wanted to show me, and the other people in the dojo, how tough he was. Apparently his preferred Modus Operandi for that was to assault a minor.

He was asked to leave our dojo shortly thereafter.

Let’s pause to establish some rules here:

Martial Arts, like any other physical activity, should rely on consent, safe practice, and trust.

  1. A tap is a removal of consent: when someone taps, you stop what you’re doing.

    No. Exceptions.

  • “Surprising” someone with a dangerous technique, or doing a technique faster than your partner can handle (or that you can control) is a violation of safe practice. Depending on your jurisdiction, it is also assault and battery.
  • An Instructor that constantly hits, throws, or submits his students with excess force “to teach them a lesson” is betraying the trust that students must have for their instructors in order to learn. Let me say this again. He is not teaching tough love. He’s teaching acceptance of physical abuse.

In contrast: one year at camp my main aikido instructor was called up, by surprise, to test for godan. He chose his son (himself a second degree black belt) to be his demonstration partner. All day, throughout dan testing, I had watched people throw their partners as hard as they could, and, as they got tired, watched their control lapse. People got hurt. Some were inches away from serious injury. The people testing wanted everyone to see how far into the mat they could plaster their opponent. They thought that demonstrated power and mastery. My instructor took a different tack. He would receive the attack, move very quickly up to the point of throwing or locking, then release, allowing the uke to take an easy fall. He kept this up throughout: demonstrating control of his partner, but allowing a soft, safe fall because he understood that his demonstration was not a fight. More than anyone else that day, he demonstrated power and mastery by demonstrating overwhelming amounts of control.

So I’ve come to realize that a “master” of a martial art is not someone who can perform an injurious throw, lock, or strike. That can be done with a few years’ dedicated training. Mastery of a technique, and of a martial art, means you can control your opponent and move at your pace, not theirs. I’ve seen this time and again across several martial arts: boxers who pulled punches or slipped every shot in my combination, choosing simply to let me know that they could have laid me out but didn’t. Jiu Jitsu black belts who roll with me, a beginner, at 30% speed, relying on their superior technical knowledge to slowly get a position and apply a submission of their choice just before the round ends.

Mastery of an art means you move with such precision that you can apply your techniques to someone taking their first class or their 1000th, and everyone comes away safely. The most talented technicians I’ve ever met across any art are the ones who, despite their mastery of technique and talent as fighters, never hurt their training partners.

With regrets to the Sisterhood of the Camo Pants, it is that control of a resisting opponent, and care towards your compliant partner, that makes your art, and you as a martial artist, “Real”.

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