The Myth of “Pressure Testing”

Much is made, largely on the parts of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) enthusiasts and other practitioners of “martial” sports, of the concept of “pressure testing.” The phrase is invoked ad nauseam by those who believe a technique, a system, or a methodology that has not been used with success (or that has not been used at all) in the Ultimate Fighting Championship simply cannot work in reality. If it does not appear among their videotaped libraries of No Holds Barred (NHB) tournaments, it is unworkable crap practiced by limp-wristed pansies and fantasy warriors, worthy only of skepticism and outright derision. Anyone expressing doubt regarding the MMA/NHB approach is dismissed, by members of the sportfighting camp, as someone who doesn’t wish to test what he does, who advocates techniques that are impractical or actually harmful to the practitioner. The sportfighters point to the squared, canvas-floored circle and say, “Well? How do you know it works?”

Practitioners of Reality Based Self-Defense — martialists and others who take seriously the need to train in-context and with realistic, asymmetrical goals — grow very weary of this argument, especially when it comes from those who assume (wrongly) the levels of contact used by RBSD practitioners in their training (which, unlike MMA training, also includes extensive weapons training and scenario drills, coupled with elements of survivalism (preparation before the fact, including the stockpiling of supplies and the carrying of personal weaponry) and “street” evasion tactics.

Exponents of RBSD are often lumped together with Traditional Martial Art (TMA) practitioners by the sportfighters, who prefer to dismiss all non-MMA stylists as no- and low-contact weaklings who don’t “pressure test” what they do. Many MMA stylists, particularly foreigners in nations with strict weapons control, mischaracterize realistic self-defense proponents as “weapons fetishists.” As the carrying of weapons is not an option to such foreign MMA practitioners, they prefer to believe weapons training is not just a waste of time and effort; they prefer to believe that it is, in fact, indicative of some sort of mental illness, lack of confidence, or some other personal inadequacy. In return, armed, prepared martialists shake their heads at this incredibly arrogant, incredibly naive notion, as too often it seems sportfighters cannot separate their beliefs about how tough they think they are from the stark realities of training only to avoid or survive a violent confrontation in order to go home to one’s family at the end of the day.

Coach Scott Sonnon summed up the argument eloquently when he gave his rendition of what combat systems and sport systems have to say about one another, describing an argument that, he asserts, undermines modern training.

Sport systems, say the combat systems adherents (according to Sonnon), are single, unarmed, and take place in a protected environment, whereas combat is plural, armed, and takes place in a hazardous environment. Sport systems adherents complain that often the techniques of combat systems are not proven in practical application, nor tested against resistance.

Both points of view are wrong, Scott says, because the two camps are both right. Combat systems offer reality to sports — and sports offer competition, trial against an uncooperative opponent, to combat systems. The two should be combined and integrated to yield effective training for fighters, Sonnon says. I agree wholeheartedly.

Such a resulting program, such a combination, is based on realistic resistance and realistic contact conducted in a realistic context. It is, in short, Reality Based Self-Defense, when trained diligently and honestly with drills and exercises of appropriate scope, unpredictability, and physical difficulty. It is not, however, the type of training held up by MMA practitioners as “the best” or as “pressure tested.”

The driving skills of a racecar driver are indeed “pressure tested” — in the environment of a race. Such a driver certainly has a fair amount of skill at what he is trained to do. He is comfortable driving at speeds far greater than those experienced by the average commuter. The racecar driver, however, prepares in advance for his race. His track is entirely predictable; his environment is predefined. He races in ways he would never drive in real life on roads full of other cars, governed by traffic laws, where accidents and mechanical problems are not immediately attended by teams of medical and automotive repair specialists whose job it is to monitor the driver’s status at every moment.

While the skills developed on the racetrack may translate to certain areas of the driver’s life when he commutes on city streets and interstate highways, many of them do not. It would be a very foolish racecar driver indeed who, after winning at Daytona, drove home using the same skill set in the same ways.

By the same token, the one-on-one prepared, voluntary duels of sporting competition, which take place on forgiving terrain, within a guaranteed set of rules (even in the most violent NHB competition, the opponents know that they face one and only one competitor who bears no weapons), do not truly prove anything about realistic self-defense. A technique or methodology “pressure tested” in MMA competition has not been “proven to work” any more than has an RBSD technique that is drilled over and over again against uncooperative training partners using padded assailant/adrenal stress methodologies or blunted aluminum or rubber knives. Both applications tell us something about the techniques and training methodologies used, of course, and they most certainly tell us what “works” and what does not in that context. What they do not tell us is how those things translate into realistic, pragmatic self-defense in unconstrained (unforgiving) physical environments where singular opponents are not guaranteed, where weapons are commonly present, and where the winner of the “fight” is the guy who goes home without having it at all.

An MMA practitioner applying real-world self-defense principles to his next match wouldn’t show up for the match at all — for in reality, we do not volunteer for conflicts that can be avoided through simple refusal. That same practitioner would not shoot for a mugger’s legs when he could draw a licensed, concealed pistol and shoot the mugger. He also would not see training hours spent shooting (on the mat) and grappling as superior to training hours spent practicing to draw and deploy a knife, or shooting firearms in high-pressure close-quarters exercises, or driving a flashlight or pocket stick repeatedly into a Body Opponent Bag as he contemplates a time when he might have to do the same to an aggressive street person.

Sport methodology is inherently unrealistic because it transforms the asymmetrical goal of pragmatic self-defense into the symmetrical goal of winning the match between two people. While the attributes developed during MMA competition — as well as the conditioning necessary to develop those attributes in the first place — certainly can be of use to the RBSD practitioner, one’s self-defense training time is better spent training properly in context. This means developing those same attributes through resisting combat drills with realistic levels of contact. Instead of sparring someone, instead of grappling with someone in NHB tournaments (both activities being fun and useful to perform for their own reasons), the RBSD practitioner is better off developing techniques by working with one or multiple opponents, drilling unpredictable attacks and unplanned responses to them, working with resistance and training weapons, performing those same exercises within mental scenarios intended to simulate street confrontations as realistically as possible.

The only thing sports methodologies do have going for them is, as Coach Sonnon stated, the element of resistance. This is good; learning to attempt to perform a technique (regardless of that technique) on someone who isn’t simply complying with you (someone who isn’t trained to let you do the technique) is a very positive contribution to your training curriculum. This is not the sole purview and exclusive domain of MMA/NHB training, however, no matter how much sportfighting advocates would like to believe it is. Traditional and non-traditional schools across the nation and around the world engage in drills and exercises that incorporate every bit as much resistance and noncompliance as does a sporting match between competitors. The difference is that RBSD schools (and even the better TMA kwoons and dojos) train this resistance in a context, in an environment, more closely evocative of true real-world self-defense conditions. Now, there are plenty of schools that don’t do this well. They range from BDU-clad would-be combat experts who are simply TMA veterans marketing “reality,” to strip-mall McDojos that train exclusively in no- and low-contact point sparring techniques and kata that have no true relevance to any aspect of self-defense. We must make the distinction between good schools and bad schools if we are to train anywhere.

You’ll know good training when you see it, for the most part. I once watched an RBSD Women’s Self-Defense course in which the “final exam” — after weeks spent in combat drills teaching the women to deliver techniques like stomps, knees, and palm heels at full power against targets and protected, simulated “assailants” — was a scenario drill. A volunteer instructor, wearing street clothes, verbally accosted and then attempted to physically assault the student. During one drill, the student reacted — clearly out of fear as the realism of the scenario was ratcheted to its highest possible point — and dropped the instructor with a full-contact palm heel to the face. There was a moment’s silence… and then everyone cheered, including the instructor on the floor who was clearly still recovering from the force of the blow. The student took the instructor completely by surprise (she surprised herself, too) and did precisely what was necessary in a realistic context with realistic resistance and force. THAT is “pressure testing” self-defense training, insofar as it is possible.

You see, the dirty little secret, the one no one seems to want to acknowledge, is that all self-defense training involves an element of theory. Unless and until you engage in real self-defense incidents, unless and until you must stop someone who is intent on injuring, raping, robbing, or killing you, unless and until you face, involuntarily, someone who wishes to prey on you, your training is and always will be a simulation of violence. Your self-defense training cannot and never will be “proof” of anything. If conducted realistically, in context, with resisting and uncooperative training partners, you can — applying logic, reason, and simple common sense to the data such training provides you — make reasonable conclusions about what will and will not work (or what is and is not likely to work) in actual self-defense. You will not, however, conclusively prove anything to yourself or to anyone else.

It is my sincere hope that you will spend your life training for self-defense never truly knowing how you would perform in an actual conflict. I would prefer you die of old age surrounded by adoring family and checking out with a blissful smile creasing your features. I would prefer that all self-defense training ultimately be a waste of time — because this would mean that you got through life never being assaulted, attacked, or otherwise accosted. This is not a realistic attitude in a dangerous world, but it is what I would hope for you and everyone else.

Realistically, it is my hope that you form conclusions about your training by conducting that training realistically. If you wish to augment your RBSD or TMA training with sport training, that’s fine. Please do not, however, substitute sportfighting for realistic training in context. Please do not buy into the myth of “pressure testing,” in which whatever works in sporting competitions is presumed to be the best proof of what can work in real life. Until sportfighting tournaments involve the random possibility of knives and firearms, with audience members jumping into the ring at random, and until that ring is made of asphalt and travels from town to town snaring unsuspecting competitors at random for fights not of their choosing, sportfighting will remain another methodology only — and an inferior methodology at that, given the vital context and goals it dismisses or alters in redefining martial training as consensual, controlled sportive dueling.

“Pressure testing” is a myth and a potentially dangerous one. It is potentially dangerous because it tempts sportfighters to develop false confidence in what they do as somehow “proven.” The reality is that such sportive methodologies are every bit as much simulated as RBSD and TMA methodologies. They can be more physically strenuous; they can involve more or harder contact; they can be more demanding in any of several ways.

They cannot, however, be better simulations for realistic self-defense training.

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