What Is “Training?”

One of the most abused terms in the martial arts field or, more appropriately, among those who play at being martial artists, is the topic of training.  There are those who believe that anything they do, no matter what it is, is some form of “training.”  Any time they are playing with a martial arts weapon (and doing things with those weapons that have no combative application, such as “flowering” a staff or wrist-spinning nunchaku) or are engaged in any activity that makes them feel as if they are doing something martial (such as playing with airsoft guns or dressing up like ninja) must be “training.”  They refer to any toy they play with as a “training tool.” The impression one gets is that they spend every waking minute believing that they are engaged in some long-term process intended to hone their presumed warriors’ edges to a razor point.

The reality is that training is a specific process toward particular goals.  It is not merely anything one does that feels, looks, or seems vaguely martial.  There is implied in training real learning but, more importantly, there must be some means of correcting what one does to prevent perpetuating one’s nearsighted mistakes.

Real, productive training, then, comprises three things:

Training must be the acquiring or refining of a skill.

This is perhaps self-evident, but first and foremost, a genuine training activity must involve attaining or improving some actual skill.  Running through the woods shooting a plastic airsoft gun, spinning a staff above your head, or swinging a wooden sword haphazardly about are not activities that inculcate in the practitioner some skill.  When you train, it must be toward the goal of being able to do something physical you were not previously capable of doing.  If the skill you are training is something you could already do, your goal must be to get better at it.

The skill acquired or refined must be pragmatically applicable.

One could argue that, using a couple of the examples I cited previously, learning to spin nunchaku around your wrist, learning to whirl a staff about your body, or teaching yourself to perform a parkour-style backflip off a public library railing are all the acquiring or refining of skills the practitioner did not previously have.  These activities are not training (in the context of the study of self-defense) because these “skills” are not pragmatically useful.  They have no application in self-defense and thus are useless in pursuit of that goal.

Some activities we might choose, incorrectly, to classify as training — flipping a balisong knife in elaborate patterns, for example — are instead dexterity drills.  A dexterity drill increases one’s comfort with some action (often the manipulation of a tool, but perhaps simply in moving one’s body) and is thus a component of skill acquisition or refinement.  It is not training in and of itself, however.

There must be some means of corrective feedback.

The most important component of training is feedback.  To acquire or improve a skill requires that you correct your mistakes, for few if any human beings develop new abilities (and it is impossible to improve an ability you’ve acquired) without identifying and correcting what they may be doing wrong. Those who play at the martial arts often gather in “study groups” or with “training partners” for this reason, but because the entire group is generally made of amateurs (or people whose relative skill level does not vary greatly), such “training” groups never transcend their lowest common denominators.

To truly, genuinely train requires either the input of a qualified instructor (and here we will classify as “qualified” someone who possesses considerably more knowledge than the student and who can be judged, by a reasonable and objective observer, to be able to “do” properly the skill trained) or some objective standard against which to train.

If your objective standard is, let’s say, to be able to bench press a specific amount you could not previously bench press, your goal is largely quantified — yet you still require the corrective feedback of a qualified external observer who can tell you if your form is correct.  In the absence of this feedback, you risk making, reproducing, and reinforcing mistakes that could, in the worst-case scenario, lead to unnecessary injury.

Train as You Fight as you Train

Training may be simple or it may be complex. It may, in some circumstances, be conducted independently (as long as one is mindful concerning objective standards), but it requires corrective feedback to be truly useful.  It most definitely is not anything one does that reminds one of self-defense, or that makes one feel good (truthfully or falsely) about one’s ability to engage in self-defense.  To train requires that one acknowledge these necessary components and proceed accordingly, without self-delusion and without allowing one’s wishes or one’s ego-issues to interfere in the process.

Understand this, and the way is clear before you to learn, to improve, and to repeat that process indefinitely.

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