Tag Archives: writing training

Q&A: Recovering From Injuries Takes Time and Patience

phantomjedi1 said to howtofightwrite: Your blog is amazing – you’ve saved me from so many mistakes! If someone is trying to come back from injury, especially one that lays them up for an extended period, what are ways that their former level of skill would trip them up in a combat situation? And is there anything they can to more quickly adjust to their new mobility limitations, etc.? I have a character who used to fight well, but was injured and has trouble walking without pain. They’re trying to get some ability back. Thanks!

The major thing an injury takes from you is your conditioning, that’s your musculature, your endurance, your wind, your flexibility, etc. The toll is primarily physical, so this character (outside of their injured body part) cannot fight as well or for as long as they used to. They’re slower, their reach is shortened, and they find themselves breathing more heavily more often.

Now, they can get that back but it usually takes months of consistent effort as they slowly build themselves back into their previous levels of conditioning.

You have to think of conditioning, the working out part, like a mountain. A significant portion of any athlete’s day is spent working out. This isn’t just the exercise training in the techniques, it includes your conditioning. Your push ups, sit ups, pull ups, weight lifting, long distance running, wind sprints, etc. It requires a lot of effort to maintain your body at peak condition and any break (not just an injury) will cause you to start slipping down that mountain. An serious injury that requires you take months off to heal? Expect months of dedicated conditioning to get yourself back to peak performance, and that’s if the injury completely heals. You can’t just jump back in at the levels you were used to before your injury, you’ll actually hurt yourself all over again. You have to climb the mountain the same way you did the first time, bit by bit with a little more each day or each week.

This is what drives athletes crazy. Their minds say that they can go “this” hard, at the levels they were used to before their injury or they took time off, and they can’t. The trope will pop up in almost every sports movie where the main character suffers a major injury, and it’s accurate to life. Whether they’re martial combatants, Olympic athletes, or just a high school football player, they run the risk of hurting themselves all over again by pushing their body too fast and too hard to return to previous levels. Most of them will get impatient and try. Sometimes, they have good reasons, like the soldier who doesn’t want to leave his squad a man down. Sometimes, the reasons are selfish or based in fear, like missing a major competition.

Recovery is, in large part, psychological. The fastest way for a character to adjust to their limitations is to accept they have them. They need to figure out what their body can do, find their current limits, and start slowly pushing the envelope, rather than trying to get their body to behave exactly as it did before. The mind’s expectations are what’s actually lying to them. They have to retrain their brain to accept their new circumstances.

In the early parts of returning to training, the mind will constantly miscalculate because it’s relying on the body’s old reaction times. Every action will be slower. Their mind will move at a similar speed to what they had before, but their body won’t. The disconnect between the two is where most of the problems occur, and why coming back from an injury feels a lot like starting all over again. You know what you can do, but your body won’t cooperate to do it.

If your character is trying to come back from an injury and the injury hasn’t completely healed, like this leg injury, then they’re going to be forced to train around it. If they put too much pressure on the leg, if they push the injury too hard, the injury will get worse. They run the risk of the injury becoming permanent. They’re going to have to stay off it and when they’re on it, go slowly. They may not be able to train that leg more than fifteen minutes a day, and, depending on injury, are only able to stretch it out. Depending on the severity of the injury, they may only be able to put their full weight on the leg for a few seconds each day. Those few seconds can extend, they can become minutes, but that’s going to be the results of months of work. If they feel pain when they walk on it, that is their body saying no. Whatever pain they feel from just walking, strenuous activity will hurt a hell of a lot more.

Martial artists/martial combatants/athletes are trained to push past pain, but they also need to be able to tell the difference between the pain caused by the body’s resistance/laziness and serious injuries. Serious injury pain is the stop and no further pain.

The problem with leg injuries is that your entire axis revolves off the legs, if both legs don’t work then you can’t fight. You need both legs to be capable of bearing your body’s entire weight for at least a few fractions of a second multiple times throughout the fight. Both legs need to split that body weight. You can overcome that necessity and train one of the legs to carry more of the burden, but if the injury is permanent (like a knee injury) then they will always be limited in what they can do.

I’ve known a few individuals who’ve come back from major leg injuries where the doctors said they’d never be able to do martial arts again. The willpower, patience, and work they put into their recovery was monstrous. They really loved what they did. That love was their foundation, their foundation fueled their efforts and kept them from giving up. There are going to be times when the frustration sets in, when the climb feels impossible, where your body is not fixing itself fast enough to satisfy what you want, where you’ll want to throw in the towel, and the question you need to answer as a writer is, “what keeps your character coming back? What is the source of their motivation?”

To be at the top is not easy. Most people who don’t heavily engage in the world of sports, or martial arts, or martial combat, don’t really grasp how stiff the competition is. Or how hard it is to defend the seat once you’re there. Outside of true story sport’s narratives, many characters lack convincing motivation. “I don’t want to die” only gets you so far, and “I want to protect my friends” again only gets you so far. Those are the motivations of the mediocre, and, in most situations, mediocre is enough.

However, that’s not the motivation of the person who arrives first and leaves last. The person who always shows up, rain or shine. The person who sacrifices time with friends and family, the person who skips out on dates to train, the person who makes their training their life. The ones for whom their training is their life are the only ones who come back from extreme injuries because they find the motivation to go through the agony of starting over.

Recovery can take years, usually recovery from a major injury takes at least half a year and then, once you start training, there’s the three to four months (or more) of pushing yourself to return to the previous level.

For reference, when I was twelve, I broke my leg. I broke my leg in the fall and wasn’t able to get back into martial arts training until late spring, and even then, the order from the doctor was, “no jumping until June.” I went from no pressure allowed, to supported pressure with crutches, to walking, then running, and then finally jumping.

If you’re really interested in writing a character going through recovery after a major injury, I actually recommend watching the (admittedly sometimes cheesy) true story sports movies. They’ll cover everything, from the grieving period to the difficulties in recovery, to the points where it gets too hard and the character wants to stop, to when they finally get back into sync and come out stronger. Sometimes, they skate over some details but it is a realistic progression from one to the next in the cycle.

It’d be a good reference point for you.

Never forget mental fortitude when you’re writing a combat character. Willpower is their true strength, and it can be easy to forget when you’re distracted by physicality. The unwillingness to give up in the face of impossible odds. The faith they have in their own abilities to push through, even after that faith has been shaken.

It can be hard to get into that mindset, especially if you’ve never experienced a major injury (even if you’re not in sports) or been a martial artist/invested in physical training of any kind. You can do it though, but you’ll need to do a lot of research. In this case, sports movies where the character experiences a major injury and biographies/autobiographies written by sports professionals documenting their own recoveries are going to be key. You can then apply that structure to your writing, the crossover is really in the conditioning. If you really need it to be martial, there are a couple of war movies and boxing movies which cover similar material. This is well-documented, you just need to find the sources.

Once you have the framework and the arc, you can apply it to your story. The basic steps are fairly simple and can be molded into any narrative and setting.

-Michi

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Q&A: Writing Training

What kind of things do you need to emphasize in a training scene? One of my characters, a fairly prodigious fighter, is trying to teach a craftsman’s apprentice the basics of fighting, and I want to show the learning. Your post earlier talked about the buildup & payoff to a fight scene, but how does it work with scenes that happen fairly early and don’t carry the same kind of weight/stakes?

There should always weight and stakes to any fight scene, any scene in your novel from big to small. You should always be on the lookout to figure out how to build into your small scenes because that will lead you into a bigger whole.

Let me ask you a question: What will happen if the craftsman’s apprentice never learns to fight? What happens if he or she fails? How does this potential failure impact their future? How does the prospect impact them personally?

Learning to fight is difficult. No matter how good your teacher, the onus for success is on the student. The student who doesn’t want to be there won’t be for very long, and the student who does may give up rather than persevere. The building of endurance, the slow pace, the physical requirements, the necessity of patience, focus on simple techniques broken down and studied piece by piece. Going to bed tired and aching every day if the training lasts for prolonged periods of time. The student learns quickly that all the glory they imagined is replaced by hard work. Most of them give up.

If you haven’t contemplated the possibility of this apprentice failing, you should. You should contemplate how this character behaves when they start to struggle, when they get bored, when they feel like they want to quit.

If they fail, does it matter?

Those are your stakes.

As for what you should emphasize, the sports movie training montage and training sequences are some of the best templates to choose from. Alternately, the martial arts movie training sequence and training montage or the military bootcamp training sequence and training montage. Once you’ve watched enough of these, they become pretty easy to conform into writing.

The basic template for traditional martial arts is:

  1. Student is excited to learn training.
  2. Training is not what they expected, training is repetitive singular motions which may not connect to what they thought they’d be learning (wax on, wax off, or hang up the jacket) and endurance exercises that wear them out. They go home every day tired and aching, don’t feel like they’re making progress.
  3. Student gets frustrated and complains to teacher. Teacher tells them to practice more.
  4. Student practices more, gets more frustrated. Threatens to quit. Because student is close to the hump, Teacher relents and shows them how the motions they’ve been practicing connect into a single technique. They realize they have been learning to fight.
  5. Student goes back to training, but more excitedly than they did before. Master gradually opens up to them.
  6. Several weeks/months later, student shows off their basic technical mastery. Leaves their master ready to face the world, the big tournament, or whatever it was they were training for.
  7. Encounters the real world, discovers that their training has prepared them well but will be much more difficult than previously expected.

This will be difficult for you is if the trainee is not the main character of this story, but a stop over point for the character who will be training them. Training another person to fight is a long and involved process if you want to do it well, and requires anywhere between months to years of commitment from both student and master.

If you don’t know anything about the technical details of fighting or the specific style your character practices, then you’ll find writing a training sequence to be extremely difficult. You can’t write what you don’t know. You’ve got to sit down and learn what you didn’t know before. Part of the reason I recommend watching a film over reading a novel is you’ll be able to see the physical intricacies of training which often get glossed over (outside some authors wanting to portray a romantic connection.) Training someone else to fight involves a lot of physical contact on the part of the instructor, this is usually in adjustments. They mimic what you show them, then you correct their positioning into the correct one so their body can feel the difference. They remember that sensation, and practice the motion until they can achieve that same feeling.

You’ve often got to move their feet into the proper position for their stances, remind them to bend their knees so they go lower, move their shoulders back or sideways so they’re on the proper angle, lift their elbows or shift the position of their arm while their hold position, tighten up their stomach/abdominal muscles, fix their breathing (breathe through your diaphragm and not your stomach. You want as little air in your stomach as possible.) Etc.

There’s no one size fits all training, you have to adjust your approach per student based on their strengths and weaknesses. You’ll rarely have the perfect student. They may have a strong grasp of their physicality, but a weak drive or poor endurance. Where some students grasp the basics faster than others, the slower ones with good endurance and drive can outpace the more talented students at higher levels because their grasp of the basics ended up stronger. Students who are rushed to the more advanced or difficult techniques (the way they usually want) are usually weaker than students forced to master the basics before given opportunity to advance. The reason for this is because the basic techniques form your foundation for both attack and defense, they’re also the most commonly used techniques.

The biggest component of training is endurance based. The assumption is that this is “strength” as in what you can lift, but it is not. Re-focus on long distance running and short sprints which build up lung capacity, climbing exercises which emphasize agility and dexterity, push ups, sit ups, and others which build your core muscles for better balance. You’ll see a focus on fine motor control, lengthening (endurance exercises) rather than tearing (weight lifting) the muscles. Unless you plan on having them wear armor or draw a bow, they’re going to develop the type of body similar to a long distance runner. They’ll train on a multitude of surfaces if their teacher has the option, indoors, in the flats of forest, in the mountains, on the beach, so they learn to adjust their body and their fighting style to effectively fight/conserve energy on different terrains.

If you’ve never tried to run on the beach, you’ll learn quickly you want to be running near the waves and were the sand is wet rather than on loose sand. The surface is harder and more stable where its wet, dry sand will sap your energy.

A good teacher will try to expose their student to most situations which can be done in relative safety. One of the advantages of training is the preparation and that preparation leads to quicker responses than from someone experiencing the situation for the first time. However, you cannot prepare your student for everything and some experiences can only be learned by experiencing them outside the safety of the training floor. As a writer, you’ll be making the executive decisions for your trainer about what is and isn’t too dangerous. This is where most of the suspension of disbelief breaks occur in these sequences because the trainer ends up requiring their student to do something far above and beyond what they could conceivably be asked in a real world scenario.

Two humans fight with real blades rather than training blades without any safety measures is one example. The scene may seem sexy, but contextually the decision is stupid.

Always treat your characters in your head like they’re real people. Your trainer is making decisions based on what is safe for your character to learn. Any serious injury the trainee suffers could lead to months of recovery time or them never fighting. You want to push them just hard enough that you take them beyond the limits they’ve set for themselves, but not past what they can actually accomplish.

Always ask yourself: what are they learning?

Training exercises generally have multiple lessons attached beyond the technique itself. Remember, training isn’t just training the character’s body but also their mind and their character. Their values are reshaped, their beliefs shift and mature, and they develop as a character. Training is character development. Consider who this character is at the beginning of their training and who they are by the end of it, if you don’t envision them changing you should ask yourself why.

Most writers are tempted to do what the student wants or sympathize with the student in their training sequences, this is either because the student is their main character and they empathize more with them or because they’re beginners themselves. Or, it could be both.

You’ll handicap your character and your narrative if you give them what they want, but most of your audience won’t notice. Only a very small contingent will respond with, “lol, no.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t try your best to do it right, I’m just saying don’t worry too much about blow back. You’ve got nothing to worry about. The vast majority of people can’t tell its not bacon.

Again, don’t trap yourself into thinking you need world altering stakes in order for your character’s story to matter. The stakes of any narrative are what you make them and they are driven by the participating characters’ desires, wants, dreams versus their situation and what they are asked to sacrifice or do in order to attain those desires. Leave yourself open to possibilities and uncertainty, contemplate failure even if you know long term the characters are going to succeed. Failure is not always malicious or malevolent, sometimes its unintentional. It can be easy as saying “I don’t want to do this anymore” and deciding a few days later that you really do, only to discover the opportunity has passed.

There is always an alternate world or worlds filled with the choices we did or didn’t make, and there are stories in all of those potential choices. Learning to make the most of those potential stories is part of what writing is all about.

-Michi

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Q&A: Odd One Out

I was wondering, can three people practice sword fighting at once with each other or would it be better done by adding in a fourth opponent and breaking them into pairs?

I’m assuming you mean three characters “sparring.” Any number of characters can drill simultaneously. That is to say, they go through the motions, they practice individual techniques. There’s no need for a partner, so three characters can do that without any difficulty.

If characters are engaging in mock duels, then rotating someone out is probably the wisest option. There’s not much value in practicing 1 v 2 unless they’re working on an exhibition routine of some sort. (This would include stunt actors, if you’re wondering.)

Having said that, having a third person to watch can help, as they’ll be able to see things that the two participants may miss, and being able to bounce dialog between three people will be less monotonous than trying to manage dialog with just a pair.

Ironically, my recommendation, if you did choose to add a fourth character would still be to only have one pair practicing while the others watched from the sidelines. How, exactly, they rotate out doesn’t matter. For variety’s sake, I’d recommend against it being two specific pairs switching out. You’ll get more value out of the dialog if the characters stay in flux.

Remember, fighting requires a lot of attention, so your sideline participants are at a significant conversation advantage, unless your fighters stop what they’re doing to talk. If that happens it might be a reasonable moment to swap combatants. This isn’t about winners or losers, it’s about practice.

I’ll also throw out our normal warning about sparring: this is about practicing techniques, and learning to assemble them into a viable fighting style, it’s not about two characters fighting in a socially acceptable way. That said, 18th and 19th century European academies were somewhat lax policing their student’s behavior with swords, and there is an entire history of European dueling long after the practice became illegal. So, if your characters are, “playing,” that’s a bad idea, but it was something that happened.

-Starke

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Q&A: A character can only teach what they know

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: How does one teach fighting? The teacher in question is a dirty street fighter who learned via being beaten up until she learned how to stop that, but assuming she doesn’t want to just pummel her student.

A teacher teaches the way they’ve been taught, especially new teachers who have no other examples to pull from. The problem, of course, is that beating someone up as a training method doesn’t actually teach anything other than how to survive being beaten up. (If the student even learns that, they may just learn how to get beaten up.) This is the sort of slug fest, even when you lose, that makes you feel powerful and strong when you come out the other side (Fight Club is an excellent example) but this is an illusion. You don’t actually learn technical skills from slugging it out with someone else.

The problem here is while I could talk about the methods one uses to teach fighting that won’t actually help you that much, because the methods are entirely dependent on the individual’s experiences and what they’re learning how to do. So, this street fighter can’t teach their student anything they haven’t learned how to do or teach from a method they wouldn’t have any reason to know especially if those methods are outside the realm of their own experience. This will be even harder if she’s never taught before and has no one to go to for advice. This gets even harder if you’re planning to tell a story where either teacher or student has to go outside their own sphere and are up against professional or seasoned combatants used to fighting higher caliber opponents than the ones you find in backroom brawls.

Have I mentioned street fighters are, by their nature, low tier?

They have the capacity to be dangerous, just like everyone else. They have the capacity to do harm, but in terms of technical skill they are at the bottom. No amount of “dirty fighting” changes that because “dirty fighting” is just breaking the expected/established rules of combat and everyone else already does that.

Again, you cannot teach what you don’t know and not all training is created equal. Instructing someone in the combat arts requires a certain level of technical skill, the ability to process and understand that skill, then contextualize it so someone else without the same experiences can understand and imitate. A street fighter can teach a lot of other skills, survival skills for the streets, but they don’t really have the luxury of putting together a robust training regimen to pass on their fighting skills. Mostly because they don’t have that many skills to begin with.

Stop an ask yourself an important question, what did this street fighting character learn from being pummeled? There’s the generic “until she learned to put a stop to it” but that’s generic and doesn’t tell you anything about her experience, about what she learned to do from being beaten. What did she specifically learn to do? How does she, specifically, fight?

Once you know what she can specifically do then you know what she can teach, and start the process of her figuring out how to teach it. If you’ve never thought seriously about the specifics of her fighting abilities then that’s the flaw you need to address. Her limitations are not a bad thing depending on what you need her for as a character and what she needs to teach her student for your narrative to work.

A drill sergeant can only teach you how to be a soldier.

A boxing instructor can only teach you how to box.

A taekwondo master can only teach you taekwondo.

And on and on it goes.

“Street fighters” generally learn to fight by brawling, usually through backroom and backyard brawls. If they don’t learn quickly, like about knives and other weapons, they die fast. This isn’t some cohesive fighting style that’s carefully cultivated and passed on from one fighter to another. When we talk about “street fighters”, we’re usually discussing gangs and similar groups who survive and thrive in the dark corners of society. The romanticized “dirty” component is usually them trying to get a leg up by using knives and other weapons in ambush combat where they finish the fight in the opening blows. Ambush combat is where you take your opponent by surprise and attack before they have time to retaliate, but for street fighters this is often a one trick pony. They often don’t have the stamina or the technical ability to keep going if the first attack fails. Outside underground boxing tournaments, they often operate in groups because numbers will make up for that lack of skill. They don’t usually have the ability to coordinate effectively in a group, but that also usually doesn’t matter because they’re preying on those of even ability or those less capable than themselves. Numbers are what give them an edge over law enforcement because high enough numbers trump skill.

All your street fighter knows how to do is survive ambush combat and execute ambush combat, which is what the beating or brawling process in the street fighter “training” is for

This probably isn’t the romanticized ideal of the “dirty street fighter” you imagine, the deadly fighter whose skills are honed by battles fought to ensure their survival on the streets. The one whose hard won knowledge beats out the soft warriors in their castles. Whose dirty tactics turn the tables to give them an edge while battling the honorable upper crust. The ones who dare to break the rules of warfare because they and they alone understand, “the only fair fight is the one you lose.”

The problem is that anyone who fights in a life or death situation understands that rule. Everyone fights dirty. Everyone takes every advantage they can to win because winning is surviving. Everyone wants to go home to their families at the end of the day. There is no pure combat, no clean combat, and no proper way of doing things. The ideal exists because the ideal is comforting, but warfare is not an honorable business.

I mean, there are soldiers making jokes on Instagram right now about hunting and how they want to say they hunt people but don’t want to sound like a psychopath.

Jokes on you though, because they do. They hunt people.

The romantic ideal of honorable combat which must be embraced for dirty fighting to work is actually bullshit. Honorable combat is a notion that exists both for society’s comfort and to set up rules for controlled combat scenarios like tournaments. You’ll still find people there who are standing by the letter of the rules but breaking with the spirit of them. Like those knights who would unscrew the knob off the sword hilt and bean the other knight with it at the start of the match before attacking. The reason behind the act was to distract their opponent so they could land the early points which would ensure their victory. Yes, nobles were often ransomed during the Middle Ages but plenty of regular soldiers were blinded, had their limbs removed, were imprisoned, or killed by the enemy after capture. The same often happened to those nobles who had no means or no wealthy patron to pay their way.

So, the question you should be asking yourself is how would your street fighter train someone to fight? What does she know how to do? What doesn’t she know how to do? What has she learned that her own master didn’t teach her? How would she choose to impart similar lessons to her student in ways that aren’t vastly outside her own experience or things she wouldn’t think of? Because most of the answers I could give you about how people learn to fight would involve her going to watch some other training master in some other part of the city to see how they train their students then try to imitate that, which ultimately defeats the purpose of what you’re after. She’d be teaching them to fight like someone else and not like herself.

The problem with fiction is that the best writing holds to the rules of the world it exists in. Which means that your character may be the best street fighter but she can only use her experiences to train her student to (hopefully) be the best street fighter. This doesn’t mean they’re the best fighter who can take on all comers, this just means they’re the (hopefully) best street fighter and will have to learn more from other teachers in order to progress through any other sphere. This is also a standard storytelling technique in most sports and martial arts movies, so learn to embrace it.

Remember, the world of the combat arts is vast and specificity is key. Your characters can’t act outside their knowledge without explanation, and a character who comes from a conventionally trained fighting background before going to the streets is very different from one for whom the streets are their only experience. You should review the fighting style you envision this character possessing and ensure it fits with the background you’ve set for them.

-Michi

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Q&A: Practice, Practice Practice

Would learning to use a sword for the first time cause muscle fatigue or blisters? At what age should fantasy characters typically start learning? How long does it take to become ‘skilled’? For some reason I’m having trouble figuring out how to write a realistic progression.

There’s a certain level where this question can’t be answered because “fantasy” covers a vast range, and even medieval fantasy could cover a variety of different weapons that are all under the “sword” header. Besides that, the amount of time it takes for someone to become proficient depends on their dedication and opportunities for training.

The basic issue with writing a training sequence in fiction is that you are instructing the audience as well as the character. You have to write the teacher and student both. If you can’t do that, then you can’t write the scene. Teaching requires you have the knowledge necessary to, well, teach. If you don’t know then you need to learn, and learning requires a lot of work.

If you’ve never learned how to fight, never spent a lot of time acquiring a similar skill set, or never done any martial arts of any kind then, yes, you’ll have difficulty figuring out a realistic training progression that your character went through.

So, let’s start with something simple. The easiest way to figure out “realistic” progression is to:

A) Do your research on historical figures.

C) Do your research on the art of sword fighting. There’s a lot of great references available out there. I suggest starting with Skallagrim and Matt Easton.

B) Correlate to your own experiences.

Have you ever done sports? Even sports you were forced to do as part of high school gym class? Have you ever run a mile? You couldn’t get enough air, your muscles were killing you (including some you never knew existed), you wanted to die, some asshole teacher kept yelling at  you to hurry up, and you hated it?

In broad strokes, learning to fight is a lot like that and the people you hated in gym class like the teacher’s pets who enjoyed physical exercise and were really good at it because they were also athletes… those are the ones who’d be the good fighters in your story.

If you’ve never engaged in any other serious exercise then internalize your high school gym experiences. Especially the embarrassing, sweaty, tired, bloated, painful, red-faced, gasping parts or, you know, failing to do any pull ups at all when asked. Think about how much you hated pushups. Now, think about this, your character is going to be doing lots, and lots, and lots of those!

If your character gets to hold a sword during their first lesson (doubtful, but possible), it won’t be a real one. They’ll get a practice sword, which will either be made of wood or blunted metal.

Then, they’ll spend the entirety of that lesson learning how to stand, and (maybe) how to hold their practice sword.

Eastern martial arts like the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese martial curriculums won’t let you touch a weapon during the first four years of training. Many Chinese martial arts have a very specific progression between weapons because the techniques you learn feed into each other. The staff is the foundational weapon, then the sword, then upwards until you reach the chain weapons like the meteor hammer, dart, and whip chain which are the most difficult to control.

Western martial arts aren’t quite as structured, but they’re still structured. I’m going to assume this character is not some peasant farmer called up as a levy, who has a spear thrust into their hands and thrown out into battle to die for their lord. If you’re thinking of your character as a trained martial combatant, trained by someone be it the castle arms master or someone else, then they’re going to have to learn the basics, and those start with…

FOOTWORK!

This is the rule of all martial arts: if your foundation sucks then you’re going to die. Or, at the very least, you will lose.

You don’t start swinging a sword around, you start with your feet and your legs. You’ve got to learn to perform two actions at once, by moving your arm in a way that’s different from your legs, and combine both into a single movement then link them all together into a multitude of movements. You need to build up muscles in your calves, hamstrings, and thighs. You’ve got to develop balance. Balance starts with learning how to set your feet. You’ve got to have your stances or a stiff wind will blow you over.

You can’t just take blows, you need to learn how to, and the final arbiter of staying upright is not your arms or your upper body but your feet. A shallow stance means you cannot maintain your balance, bad footwork will let your enemy know you’re coming, and you’ll never reach them. You can’t close the distance.

Footwork is one of the main tells between a professional/trained fighter and an untrained fighter. Body position is ingrained from the beginning to the point where you no longer need to think about it.

When martial artists talk about foundation, they’re talking not just talking about basic techniques, they’re literally talking about where you put your feet.

Have you ever stood with your knees bent at a forty-five degree angle, leaning forward onto the balls of your feet for one to two, much less five to ten minutes? If not, then yes, you will experience muscular fatigue.

Now, let’s get to…

CONDITIONING!

You gotta build that endurance.

The average fight will only last around thirty seconds, but you will be sprinting all out. You may be fighting multiple small battles in a large engagement, and when your body gives out then you die.

What most people mistake about swords is the idea that they’re heavy. They’re not. However, keeping two to four pounds in continuous motion for a couple minutes much less the length of a full fledged melee is exhausting. You want to run in a flat out sprint for thirty minutes? No. No, you don’t.

So, what does this mean? A large portion of your character’s early (and later) training will involve conditioning similar to what you experienced in gym class in the beginning, and grow ever more intense!

You will do your morning exercises and stretches to loosen up your muscles (because starting cold is asking for injury), then go on your jog, then you get to practice techniques, then go on another run, get a bout of conditioning, then run up a hill, and then finish up with end of day stretches before eating dinner and falling into bed.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

The point of conditioning is not to push you past what you’re capable of, but to push you past what you think you’re capable of. Building wind and muscle requires work, practicing your techniques when you’re tired helps you learn to push through exhaustion, and you need repetition to ingrain these techniques into your muscle memory to the point they become instinctive reactions. You get used to your muscles being tired so you can force them to work when you need them.

Conditioning is a training ladder, you find a variety of humps to get over, and after you manage past each then training gets easier for a short period, then more gets added and you start all over again.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

You will do those basics over and over and over and over and over and over again before you ever get to try them on another live human being, and when you finally get to they will be slowly structured by a one two three count breakdown where the entire attack is broken apart, then you get to do it at slow speed, then half-speed, then full-speed, and then one day in the far flung future you’ll get to spar. Not with a real sword, but with a blunted training sword and in padded gear so you don’t kill your partner.

Proficiency is Practice, Practice Takes Time

How fast does it take for someone to become proficient? At the very least, in a couple of months you could train someone to be infantry fodder. Consider this, a medieval knight began his education at the age of seven and was considered battlefield ready by the age of twenty-one. He probably saw combat before then as a squire when he became one at fourteen, but we’re looking at a training period of seven years for live combat training and seven years prior for general education. So, timetable necessary to produce a combat elite is fourteen years.

Now, the average knight knew how to do a lot more than swing a sword. He could handle a variety of weaponry, could fight on horseback, and presumably hold a leadership position over his lord’s infantry. A knight is a combat elite.

Your character who started training at eighteen will be overrun by the guy who started training at seven. They have a decade of training and battlefield experience on the other guy.

The men and women in their thirties are crazy good.

Masters have been doing this for thirty to forty years.

You should decide early on how good you want your character to be and plan their backstory accordingly. It’s fine if they’re not at the top, but it’s worth understanding that combat is baked into warrior cultures like the vikings or the germanic tribes. Their kids practiced spear throwing by throwing sticks back and forth as a game, then graduated as adults to catching javelins and throwing them back at Roman legionaries.

Development of Skill Requires Desire and Dedication

How quickly your character progresses will depend on their desire and their dedication. The person who wants to do this will progress faster than the person who doesn’t, who slacks off, and does the bare minimum. All the natural talent in the world won’t change that.

This is the problem a lot of fantasy novels and YA novels face with the protagonist versus their training rival. The training rival is often the guy working harder than the protagonist, especially when they don’t want to be there. A lot of the time, there’s no legitimate reason for the best in class training rival to even feel threatened by these protagonists. They’re no threat to them or their position in the class, and I use “threat” loosely.

I have a lot of experience with the kids in training classes who don’t want to be there. Trust me, as someone who once was one and who was their instructor, they don’t progress. Most of them quit at the earliest opportunity. The ones with a lot of natural talent who just put in the bare minimum because everything is easy end up middling to mediocre if not plain bad.

Physical training is pretty much 90% mental, which means you don’t become good just by showing up. You choose to commit. You chase excellence. You choose to push through the exhaustion and pain by sheer willpower. Most importantly, you don’t give up. You’re defined by tenacity, and your willingness to push past what you believe to be possible.

The guy or girl who is the best is the one who shows up to class earliest and leaves last. They eat, sleep, and dream their training.

Top level athletes are the ones who have sacrificed everything to their craft. The younger they are, then the more time they’ve devoted to that singular aspect of their life at the expense of everything else.

This is what they want.

So, decide early what your actual goal is for this character and their level of skill. Then, you need go learn about different kinds of swords, training, sports education, etc. Once you have those two things, it’ll be easier to figure out the rate your character progresses at.

-Michi

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Q&A: Conditioning is the Punishment

Sorry if you’ve already answered this, but does hitting/hurting your student as training help teach them anything?

I think we did a run on this really recently. Children in Combat, Child Soldiers, Writing Training, Writing Assassins, are usually good tags for the beat downs on abusive training methods.

The basic issue: people do get hit in training, fact of life.

The kind of scenarios people who’ve never done martial arts imagine happening? Those don’t. At least, not in a way you’d learn anything from.

Now, I won’t say the sorts of evil instructors to be found in all The Karate Kid movies don’t exist. The mentality gotten out of Cobra Kai dojo, for example, is real. ‘No pain no gain’ taken to extremities is also real. However, the difference between mentality and a uncontrolled beatdowns is vast. With characters that engage in violence the mentality they manifest and their approach in how they use their skills and who they use them on is the deciding factor in “good” versus “bad”.

When it comes to training, pain in martial arts functions a lot like sticking your hand on a hot burner. The point of “ouch” is to teach you not to do that anymore. This is contact training. Everything you do is going to hurt, or at least, it will at first. This is like the pain your receive when you walk into a wall. You get thrown by your partner and forget to slap the mat? That’ll hurt. 10/10 you’ll try to remember to slap when you land next time. (Which is better than landing on your head.)

However, your muscles hurting when you do a pushup versus your instructor kicking you across the room when you did something wrong are nowhere near equivalent. Number 2 is a lot of wasted effort for the teacher. They can get ahead by combining the stuff their students don’t like to do but need to and what they want to do in a carrot and stick system.  This is pretty much how punishment in a martial arts class works, how it works on a sports team, and how it works in the military. Using the fun stuff as a carrot and conditioning as a stick, you can trick most of your students into focusing on the boring repetitions in between the two. The boring repetitions are most of what you’ll be doing when training to fight. Practice makes perfect, perfect practice makes perfect, and, as Bruce Lee said, fear the man who has practiced the same kick a thousand times instead of the one who has practiced a thousand kicks.

The big reward everyone is eager to get into (and treats as most important) in martial training is sparring. Everyone knows sparring, everyone loves sparring in concept. Everyone is eager to put together what they’ve learned in the ring and hit the other guy.

This is why sparring is a reward. Sparring is mostly superfluous, it’s the biscuit in your meal. Learning techniques, repetition, and conditioning are the main course. Conditioning is like your vegetables. Most kids don’t want to eat their vegetables.

Now, you’re always going to have to eat some vegetables and you’ll always get your biscuit. In the beginning though, punishment in training is basically your teacher putting more vegetables on your plate with the promise of maybe getting another biscuit if you eat everything.

You know what 90% of punishment is going to be in a martial arts dojo when you mess up? Pushups. Situps. Burpees. Wind Sprints. Oh, and you don’t get to have any sparring.

Trust me, sending a teenager on a lap around the track is a great means of motivating them to pay attention. This is especially true when the assistant goes with them, nagging the whole way. And hey, bonus points if you make them responsible for each other.

“Guys, Lionel missed the turn again. Y’all know what that means. To the wall and back. First one in doesn’t have to drop and give me ten. Go.”

Cue groans.

That’ll hurt, but the punishment doubles as a means of adding in extra conditioning and gets the students to work harder in order to avoid it.

Punching the bag is going to hurt if you forgot to tighten your fists and lock your wrist, if you do what teacher says then it’s gonna hurt a lot less the next time you hit it. Pairing up and kicking each other in the stomach (lightly) is going to hurt, but the point is to train the student to expel air and tighten their abdominals on the moment of contact so they won’t get bowled over by a sucker punch.

You know that moment where a character tries to punch another in an Anime and end up slamming their fist into rock hard abs? And it does nothing? That’s not just the muscles, that’s the result of training to tighten your stomach against impact. Your muscles are your body’s version of armor. That’s what the exercise is training you to do.

You’re going to get hurt in sparring (not broken limbs and bloody noses hurt) because contact hurts. You’re going to get some bruises learning to block because contact hurts. Stretching hurts, but it’ll hurt a lot more if you try to force someone into full splits (with long term detriment) versus letting them develop into it incrementally. You push a little further each day, going a little past the point where you’re comfortable but not to the point of real pain.

You’ll learn how to handle that pain naturally, just over the course of your training. Develop higher tolerance to pain as a result and learn to distinguish between real pain versus inconvenient pain.

However, forcing someone is the worst approach.

Forcing a kid, even a naturally flexible one, to do full splits will wreck them to the point they probably will never be able to do a full split. You’ll tear the muscles in their legs, and that damage is mostly permanent. A kid who can do full splits can, potentially, do really high kicks like a vertical sidekick. However, tear the muscles in their legs and you’ll limit how high they’ll ever be able to kick.

This is why you don’t abuse your students during training. There are means of motivation perfectly able to achieve better results than punching a kid in the face because they did something wrong. Why do that when you can develop their wind instead? Conditioning when your body is already tired is one way to break past the artificial limits your brain sets based on what you believe you can do. A new student will hate it, I guarantee you. They will not want to do it and the threat of wind sprints when they’re tire is enough to motivate them.

Punishment for technical screw ups in martial arts is always dual edged. The student may not see it, but there’s a secondary purpose to the training method. Conditioning is a great example.

Take the class’ least favorite thing and make that your stick. Imagine it like someone combining gym with all your classes, the worse you do in school then the more you get to run.

How motivated would you be to pass French if everyone who got a C or lower on the test had to go run up a really steep hill? Then, had to attend an extra study hour?

Welcome to martial arts and military training. Why would we physically abuse you when you’ll do it to yourself instead? Oh, and you’ll end up in better shape afterwards. Better shape means more stamina, more endurance, better wind, and the ability to fight longer. It’s a win, win. The more times you mess up, the more often you run up the hill.

If I can punish you and improve you at the same time, why wouldn’t I go with that method? It also always works, versus hitting a student which only works for a limited amount of time before you need to escalate. Also it lasts longer and will carry over into tomorrow, and they’ll still have to get right back to training without needing a week off.

Your muscles will still hurt tomorrow and you’ll still have to train. This comes with the added benefits of not only building your endurance but teaching you to dig deep for new reserves and work through exhaustion. You’re going to hate me, but you’ll be in much better shape by the end of the week and that ability to focus when completely spent may save your life.

-Michi

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Q&A: The Stress Limit

Low-priority question that I’m just asking out off curiosity: what is this psychological “break” that you keep mentioning?

It’s a psychotic break. Everyone has a mental limit to the stress their mind can handle before it becomes too much, and they have a psychological break. This isn’t the fictional “sexy” psychotic break where they turn into some kind of animal. This is just the mind temporarily losing contact with reality. It’s a period of high emotional stress where the mind reaches a limit to what they can handle. In a combat role, the individual can no longer handle what you’re asking them to do. They can still go on with their lives, go home, get treatment, and, possibly, recover. However, they can’t fulfill their combat role anymore. This isn’t the kind of injury you tough your way through, either. The damage is, for the most part, permanent.

From a martial perspective, the psychological break is when a combatant is stressed beyond the limits of what their mind can handle. Whether that is in training or on the battlefield itself. The kinds of abusive training scenarios that many writers envision serves only to hasten this break by layering so much trauma on the trainee so quickly that they’ve no time to adjust to the new stress levels. This is usually because the writer in question has limited experience with any sort of training, much less martial training.

The problem with having a character kill a friend or even just a training partner during training is it’s traumatic. This won’t actually make it easier to kill people you care about less in the long run, especially since killing people you don’t care about is, usually, less traumatic. Your trainee could kill their buddy and be fine, but they could also end up grieving, depressed, guilt stricken, and suffering from PTSD. They might be pushed to the point where they’re no longer suitable for high stress situations. You’re gambling a lot of effort on their mental stability, especially when there are plenty of other methods available to test whether their personality is compatible with the role they will be assigned. (Like the training itself.)

You see, killing someone at the end of your training is not a test so much as its an initiation ritual. If your character succeeds they will be welcomed into a new brotherhood, a graduating class among which all of whom share their experience and their sin. This post-trauma love bombing serves as a means of lowering their stress, and adjusting reality so what they did becomes normative. The kill feels like an accomplishment, paling in comparison to the goal they’ve spent their whole lives working towards. They’re not unique, and they’ve a whole collection of new brothers and sisters who can help them work through it. That’s ultimately what binds them to whatever group or organization they work for, and not the kill itself.

If your character is part of an organization like this, you can guarantee they’ve been mentally worked over and prepared for this point during the course of their training. Morals are fluid, ever shifting, and entirely adjustable. After all, the point of training is to teach your student how to handle more stress and avoid an overload.

Your mental limit isn’t a hard one. In fact, your mental and physical limits can be moved. They’re not static. This is one of the purposes of training, so you build yourself up over time by learning to handle more and more stress. The goal is to prepare the student for the crazy training they’ll see five years down the line by teaching them how to break through the mental barriers they’ve set for themselves on their physical limits.

The mental limit and the mental barriers are in two separate categories. The mental limit is the point their mind can’t go past and that’s much further out than the mental barriers. Mental Barriers can be broken because those are based in what the student believes they can do versus what they actually can. An example of this is that most students in high school, for all their moaning, can actually run a mile. Their bodies can handle that, but they don’t think their bodies can or they don’t want to. Unless they’re part of a sports team or run a mile regularly, most of them will end up walking the minute they’re outside their teacher’s sight.

The good trainers understand the difference between the mental limit and physical limit versus the “I can’t” mental barriers. Over time, you teach a student to push past the barriers they’ve internalized. Those are what they believe is possible for them to do, you move their mental limits and physical limits forward.  This allows you to push them to perform more challenging actions and pursue tougher training. The student learns to discern the difference between discomfort and actual pain, and then they are the ones who are figuring out when enough actually is enough. The elite fighters we talk about are the people who are constantly pushing those barriers forward on their own, they are finding their boundaries and working to break past them. That is the major difference between them and the more average trainees around them.

The crazy training most people imagine is a point we work towards, not where we begin. This isn’t these teachers “going soft” on their students, it’s acknowledging that everyone has limits and we’re going to work them toward that point rather than throw them at it.

If you asked a guy who just signed up to go through Special Forces training of seven days of constant work without  sleep, the vast majority are going to crack. They’re not mentally or physically prepared for it. They could be, though. If you gave them the time and training they needed to get themselves ready.

Like every other type of physical training, martial combat is a staircase. You are climbing toward specific goal points, these points allow you to take on more stress than you did before. This includes tougher training, more dangerous techniques, tougher conditioning, more reps added, more responsibility, and even teaching younger students as a means to improve your skills.

In this way, the stress your mind and body can bear is strengthened. You come out of it a stronger person.

This is especially important to understand when working with children. Children are still developing, their brains are making patterns, and this means they’ve a chance to go much further in what physical stress they can take when they reach adulthood. Properly conditioned with not just faster reflexes but reflexes honed specifically for martial combat. They’ll also be in peak physical condition.

However, the manner in which you could hurry an eighteen to twenty-one year old who signed up for the military through extensive and rigorous training and quickly escalating over a matter of weeks can’t be done with a child of nine. Their minds aren’t developed enough yet to handle that kind of stress, much less the murder party stress some writers imagine.

This is when emotional or psychological trauma comes in. When we reach a point where the mental limit breaks, the trauma endured puts them into a state where they can’t function, at least not in the way you want them to. Everyone has a mental limit for what they can endure and when you push them past it, especially with extreme situations, they break down.

Trauma is the main issue with most fictionally imagined abusive training scenarios. You can’t traumatize people into being better soldiers. Trauma specifically is putting intense pressure on that mental limit, this training is not attempting to forcibly push it forward but actually break it within a short span. The way abusers want to break their victims, so it’ll be easier to make them behave how they want. The problem with this mindset, especially when turning out combatants, is that you need your soldiers to be able to make decisions in the field. Extraordinary skill is all well and good, but that’s all it is. What makes a combatant truly great is their mind, their willpower, and understanding they can push themselves farther than they might ever be made to.

With children and violence, they don’t understand what they’re doing in the moment. The ability isn’t there to process what’s happening. Grief in children is different than with adults, and the true weight often hits as a delayed reaction at some point later in life. So, when you put adults through traumatic events the emotional and psychological bill for it will eventually come due.   With kids, they’re still developing as people. They don’t know what normal is.

You can ask kids to kill people. The problem is they will, eventually, realize what they’ve done and they’re not absolved within their own heads just because they didn’t know what they were doing at the time. That’s a bill coming due, and ultimately will affect the long term health of your fighting force. Worse, you have no idea when or how it will manifest. The goal is to get your trainees through their training without giving them a nervous breakdown.

This is actually even more important with warriors who need to operate anywhere on their own for prolonged periods of time, like special forces, spies, and assassins. They need to be stable enough to do their jobs and what their jobs ask of them, make decisions, plan operations, and act as their own agents where there’s no possibility for backup.

You can have a guy who just does what he’s told as a regular soldier. That’s a good grunt, he’s not going anywhere up the ranks but he’ll serve his purpose and may take on more responsibility if he manages to survive. His job isn’t to do any thinking, but to follow the orders he’s given. The issue is you need your warriors who work in isolation to be able to think. They have to plan, problem solve, and create their own initiative. They don’t sit around waiting for orders. Even when they’re given an assignment, told to go somewhere, and kill someone, they’ve got to do the ground work themselves. This means establishing their cover, do their scouting, build on the information they’ve been given, and perform all other work associated.

You actually have to train them to think. If you never contemplated the idea that your assassin or covert operative as a highly driven and intelligent individual, you probably should consider it. If they’re used to working solo they could break from whatever organization they’re in, provided they’re willing to accept the associated risks. They’d be looking over their shoulder for the rest of their life, but they have all the skills they need to create a false identity and just go teach at a primary school somewhere or work as an office bureaucrat. Lots of spies end up working for corporations as security services. Your hitman easily could land a cushy office job somewhere with a major company cleaning up small problems on their dole. If they want to lay low, they could land a job as a small time bounty hunter hunting down bail jumpers.

Always remember, whenever you’re writing training sequences, these characters have options. Also remember: their teachers know they’re imparting a useful skill set.

For certain personality types, assassination is going to be one of the most stressful kinds of work. Not just as combat work, but getting close to people, earning their trust, and ultimately breaking that trust wears on the mind over time. This is a stressful job with a lot of responsibility where you’re constantly simulating connections that you don’t feel. There’s no reason to jumpstart that stress during their training outside a set of limited and controlled circumstances. It won’t help them do their job. Worse, it could sabotage their development in the end.

When working with training for field operatives or real world combat, trainees are always prepared on the assumption they may die. This is already a fact of life for soldiers throughout history, and the idea they may watch their friends die is going to be a given. This is going to be a major source of trauma. Survival is just as much luck as it is skill. Abusive training methods won’t change that.

The mental limit is when the mind endures so much psychological trauma they have a nervous breakdown. You can’t psychologically scar someone past that damage. People don’t tough their way through it, they can work through it with the aid of therapy but not on the battlefield. On the logistical side, someone who has been mentally compromised to that degree is unlikely to be making sound decisions. That, or the trainee breaks for freedom at first opportunity. This is also a bad thing. They’re taking whatever knowledge your organization gifted them with into the wild.

Again, abusive training is ultimately a form of self-sabotage. This is why smart people don’t do it. The people who are good at combat are ultimately the people who want to be there. Loyal combatants are better combatants. If they’re part of an organization, assassins aren’t just making themselves money. They’re making their organization money.

Always ask: why is my character fighting? Why are they here? What are they getting out of this? Why are they doing this?

If they answer is “they were forced to”, you may want to think on it further. Human beings aren’t automatons who blindly do what they’re told, and anyone who’s been in business for awhile will know incentivized training is more effective than forced. Students work harder when they want to be there.

Why grab kids from nice suburban homes when you can grab runaways and orphans from the gutter instead? They’ve already got the mental outlook you want, no one will miss them, and they’ll be happy to have three square meals a day. Worst case you’ll have to dry out the drug addicts. This was actually the plot of the original La Femme Nikita and the film(s), by the way. The government pulled runaways and drug addicts off the street,  cleaned them up, and taught them to be assassins. No one was going to miss them, and if they died? Well, they link back to no one.

-Michi

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Nine Steps for Training Techniques

So, we get a lot of training questions on this blog and, personally, they’re almost always hard to answer. Not only is training a very involved process, it’s also fairly difficult to break down even when you’ve been on both sides of the teacher/student relationship before. There is no set way to do it, and every technique varies in complexity. However, let me lay down the steps of learning a new technique.

Step One: Explanation

After warm ups, your instructor calls you over and gathers you together. They tell you what you’re going to be learning and, often, why you’ll be learning it. The “why” trends towards programs that focus on practical application (military or self-defense) or a simple basic explanation of what the technique is. Explanation is often coupled with demonstration.

The point is to get the intent behind the concept down.

Step Two: Demonstration

After they’ve finished, they’ll usually call on the assistant instructor or (depending on safety) a favored student from the audience. This student is usually one of the ones who have excelled in their training. The teacher is comfortable with them experiencing the technique firsthand without seeing it, and trusts them to follow instructions without questioning or putting up a fight.

Teacher then proceeds to demonstrate the technique. First, they show it fast and at full speed for effect. The student will rarely be able to follow fully, because they don’t know what they’re looking at. Then, they break the demonstration down step by step and run through it slowly so the students can follow while explaining each step in technical detail.

Then the teacher will perform the move again, so the student will get a better understanding and better conceptual idea.

You will always see the teacher demonstrate first before practicing yourself, even for very basic techniques like stances or footwork. Step by step demonstration, or call on a student who knows the technique to demonstrate before the class while they explain.

All combinations will be broken down step by step first before they’re brought together. A student will not learn the cross-step axe kick or slide front kick for example until they’ve learned the cross-step and the axe kick separately, and never will they begin with a partner unless the situation calls for it. (Exemptions being: grappling, chokeholds, joint locks, and others that require hands on for practice.)

Step Three: Step-By-Step Practice

Unless the technique (like some grappling or throws) specifically requires practice with a partner, this practice will be done without a partner. The student will begin performing the technique in its broken down form, step by step as their teacher calls out the number or name associated with each part.

For example, when you’re first learning to kick it’s often broken down like this: (from the beginning fighting stance) chamber, kick, recoil, plant. Each step pauses and holds, this serves a double purpose of not only teaching the student how the kick works but also building strength in their legs and allows them to work on their balance. Some kicks like the sidekick require a full foot rotation of 180 degrees on the stability leg that is simultaneous to the kick itself in order to remain balanced and to turn over their hips. Slow reduces strain on the muscles and limits chance of injury.

While the student might prefer to rush, the step by step practice is where they gain the fullest understanding of the technique and where they will come back to when they want to tweak or correct mistakes they’ve been making at full speed. It does a better job of building up their strength and flexibility due to forced full second holds, ensuring they are less likely to injure themselves when moving on to the next stage.

Step-by-step comes before you get to hit anything or swing in the direction of your partner. Sometimes, step-by-step can be the entire half hour practice.

Step Four: Put It Together, Slowly

What was practiced in pieces is now put together, and still usually performed in lines and on a count. The student practices the technique, sussing out the new problems that come from acting in a single smooth motion. The beginning stages are practiced slowly, and how fast a student grasps the technique will define how quickly they get to move on to the next stage.

Again, slow reduces the risk of injury and allows the student to get in tune with their body, finding out where in the technique they’re having trouble putting thought into action. They may understand the concept, but whether they’re body can follow is another question entirely.

Step Five: Put It Together, Quickly

Now that the student has gained understanding and can move with relatively less chance of hurting themselves, they get to go at full speed. Whee! Practice over, and over, and over again.

Step Six: Practice With A Partner, No Touching

Then, the students pair off and practice their new techniques together. This helps the student get a better grasp of distance between themselves and an opponent. The other student gets practice watching the techniques, memorizes the pattern, and grows more comfortable with fast moving objects coming near their face.

Step Seven: Hit the Pads

Hitting pads can come before partner practice. (And there are many different kinds. Big shields, handhelds, etc.) The point of pads is to allow the student to go full out without risking injury to themselves or someone else, they get a sense for what physical resistance and impact feels like so they can suss out the other problems they have with their technique or inside their own minds.

This is also where practicing with wood or other dummies comes in. You want to get around to punching or blocking hard objects, you’ve got to learn how to punch first.

Step Eight: Spar

A free spar is different from only being allowed to spar with specific techniques. There are many different kinds of sparring, all with different rules. The point of sparring is not just to simulate a real fight, but also to get the student used to the feel of physical resistance in a less tightly controlled environment. The point of sparring is practice.

Step Nine: Conditioning

I’m kidding, this isn’t a step. This is built in at every step. We’re taking a break. Time to… RUN WIND SPRINTS. Pushups. Situps! Burpees! Perform front stances around the track. Go jog it out. Come back, now when you’re body’s nearing exhaustion, to practice all over again.

Trust me, it’s harder when you’re tired.

Rinse lather repeat for every single technique in the character’s arsenal, and rinse, lather, repeat for when they practice them together as combinations.

Some Myths and Misunderstandings:

“Best In Class”: this is what that status earns you, by the way. You get more responsibility and taking a turn at being the test dummy getting thrown around the room. This is who the most popular kids in the dojo are, what their popularity gives them, and why they’re looked up to. If you just paused and imagined a couple characters squabbling over who sensei’s going to throw this week, congrats. That’s it.

I’ve been on both sides; the one who looked up at the school’s shining stars, and eventually became a star others younger than myself looked up to. A person whose skill they envied and who they wanted to be like. Status in a martial arts school isn’t like high school. Popularity is based on respect, and that’s decided by time, effort, and investment. Usually because you’re the “last man standing” i.e. still here after everyone else quit.

Often times, the most popular members of the school will be those out of reach. These are the older students who work as assistants for the instructor on the floor, or are seen practicing while waiting for their class to start. What draws attention to them is their enviable skill, and how easy they make advanced techniques look. I suppose we’ve all dreamed about beating up the seniors as freshman, and eventually came to realize how silly that was. If you want a rival for your character, this is the wrong place to look. You want a contemporary who is good but still at the same level they are.

Talented? Let’s Work You Harder: It doesn’t matter how talented a character is, they still have to go through the same steps as everyone else. They might move through them a little faster and get more frustrated with the process when their instructor takes them back to basics, but it’s worth knowing that the more talent one has then the more responsibility they will given both for their own training and that of others. There will also be higher expectations. Status is earned on the floor through the acquisition of skill, dedication, and effort. The one who persists and keeps at it will come out on top in the end. Talent offers a leg up on the competition, but it doesn’t secure victory.

My Master is Sadist: It is not uncommon to feel this way, though it’s usually only true in the same way as your well-intentioned gym teacher or coach. Physical exercise sucks all around. It’s messy, it’s sweaty, and at some point (no matter how good you are), you’re always going to feel like your arms are giving out. Huffing and puffing up and down the hill, freaking out about missing a step when climbing bleachers, etc. There are masters who are sadists, but this is not what they look like. We don’t attain skill or endurance through osmosis. The truth is our biggest barriers are in our minds and we often don’t know ourselves or our capabilities as well as we think we do.

Understanding Violence Makes One More Violent: Not in those who gain a real understanding of it, when you’ve proven your ability to yourself then you don’t need to with others. Demystifying violence is on the same level as demystifying sex, once you understand how it works it’s a lot less magical. The idea of punching out the high school bully is a lot less appealing when you know the consequences (and the bully is a lot less terrifying), just like waking up to an electronic baby squalling at one in the morning reminds us that safe sex might just be the best way to go.

-Michi

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Q&A: Abuse Fueled Angst

If someone wants that angst factor, but also wants to be more accurate… what about a trainer who’s an abusive human being towards the character outside of training, but isn’t an abusive trainer?

The best way to go about getting the angst factor is with the trainee themselves post-training, where you have someone who genuinely did buy in and then came to a realization later. They hate what they were trained to do, more importantly they hate what they did, and they hate themselves for it. They’re still excellent at what they were trained to do as they trained hard for it, it’s in their bones, an inextricable part of who they are, but the idea of doing it again makes them sick.

This is the setup of an internal conflict that is realistic, but requires an admission of personal responsibility. The “I Once Believed But Now I Don’t” is the foundation of a few hundred, grizzled and experienced action protagonists.

The trick behind this set up though is to go all in, the Atoner needs to have something they’re atoning for. The “I was forced” bit just weakens the motivation and gives them an easy out where they can divest themselves of responsibility. Maybe they do come from a background where they were taken/stolen from their parents at a young age and maybe they did fight against what was done to them in the beginning, but at some point they did give in. At some point, they made the choice and committed. That’s where the Atoner’s drama is. It’s born from personal choice and regret over actions taken. It really was their fault, and now they’re either running away or making up for it.

Abuse in martial combat training isn’t on the floor, it’s in much more subtle and coercive elements used to convince someone to do something they don’t want to do. It’s certainly possible to be victimized by martial combat training, used and abused. That abuse is just unlikely to come in the form of a physical beating. The problem is that martial combat is also, simultaneously, empowering. Adrenaline makes you feel good, and the act of taking control over yourself makes you feel strong. Add control over another person into the mix, get a head rush.

A good example of an abusive martial arts setup are the Karate Kid movies with the evil martial arts master. The other important reference point from these movies is a somewhat universal truth: the student is a reflection of their teacher.

Debates about use of force aside, you will occasionally find abusive setups in the real world as bullies are, unfortunately, a phenomenon where fiction reflects life. Students who come from these setups are likely going to be either abusers themselves or more prone toward falling into that category.

Strength first. Weakness is to be punished. Finish your enemy.

“Do not stop when our enemy is down. No mercy in the studio. No mercy in competition. No mercy in life. Our enemy deserves pain.” 

– Master Li, The Karate Kid.

Sentiments which all feel right, except the contexts they’re applied in are universal. Notice too, it’s all “us versus them”. Master Li in The Karate Kid remake is a well respected martial artist with a huge school and is famous for his ability to produce winners. The issue is where his values lie, and how he pushes his students. His hardcore, aggressive training tactics are applied only to those students who merit his personal attention, who excel. We see the values he’s instilled in his students through Dre’s conflicts with them. They all look up to him. He’s their father figure.

You’re right in that the attitudes of the trainers are the place to look
for when looking for abuse rather than the training itself. You’re
looking for scenarios that are emotionally abusive rather than
physically abusive, and they run in a pattern similar to those used by
emotionally abusive parents.

If you want to use these dynamics in your stories, it’s important to recognize the affect these figures will have on your characters. The student/teacher dynamic is a tightly knit one. This person is akin to a second parent. They are part and parcel to the character’s values, who they are, and how they’ve been shaped. Combating abuse takes real work, and it’s not as simple as shuffling the blame onto someone else.

Most of the issues when the fictional “abusive training” tropes pop up involves the author’s desire to get angst and allowing the character avoid taking personal responsibility through their victimization. Their experiences aren’t character defining, but rather perfunctory and act as a means of giving them some angst. It’s also a key means of identifying that this character is special, unique, and different from all the other rubes. In true cognitive dissonance, the presentation of this character is aces with their backstory except all the traits they’re claiming should be the ones they’re rejecting.

Atoning is an exercise in service and humility. A true Atoner is someone who has been humbled. This is a character type directly at odds with wish fulfillment. After all, the western version of this trope is Catholic. However, Atorners come from all over the world. Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin is a classic example of the trope, where in his desire to help others perverted his training and became the era’s most famous warrior (and mass murderer). He becomes a wanderer traveling Japan with a katana whose blade is reversed and blunted so he’ll never kill again. (Ignore for a moment that most of Kenshin’s techniques would absolutely still kill people via blunt force trauma and go with it.)

There are a myriad of places to take someone who has turned the people who trained them, on the system, or on their past beliefs. The Punisher is an example of a character who has decided to strike out on their own, he’s not truly atoning but rather is vengeance driven.

The problem with angst is that the good kind can’t be cheated into existence. Quality fictional angst comes from a personal place, usually resulting from a sense of personal responsibility for a situation (whether or not its their fault). A character can still be a victim of a system while also regretting the actions they took. The trick is understanding that being a victim is not automatically absolving, especially not from a personal point of view. A person can be both victim and victimizer at the same time. A bully with abusive parents isn’t automatically absolved for the bullying they’ve done, even if we feel sympathy for their situation and understand them better.

If you want to write an abusive trainer, this is going to be someone who is first and foremost emotionally abusive. If there’s physical abuse (and there may be), it will come long after the victim’s emotions have been secured. The victim will model themselves after their teacher, much like they would a parent, and become a “mini-me” because that is the best way to avoid punishment. They will become good at shuffling blame onto someone else, or trying to escape it because punishment is painful. That pain is likely to come from an emotional source rather than a physical one.

It will be difficult for the student to recognize their trainer is abusive. Their teacher will be someone they want to please, and the training will reinforce what the trainer says justifying the victim’s treatment in their own minds. All the good emotions you feel from doing exercise and the power felt by taking control over your body/over your mind becomes a parcel used to justify the emotional abuse. The student links their good feelings to what their teacher does to them and pursues it harder.

The key aspect to understand about an abusive training environment is that it is not automatically different from a normal training environment on a basic level. Which is to say, it’s not any better or any tougher or makes one a better fighter. Those in the abusive environment will believe their abusive training is the foundation of their skill and they wouldn’t be the same in a different program, but that is not necessarily true. What makes the training abusive is the way their teacher treats them and the values that are instilled. An abusive environment is often dominating, top down, and everything reflects back to the teacher.

Abuse is about control.

You can have two different teachers who do exactly the same things, but is abusive and one is not. This is why it’s so hard to tell whether or not a situation is abusive, because it’s based in attitude and outlook not in teaching techniques. The difference between an abusive teacher and one who is not is the psychological damage they leave behind.

A character with an abusive instructor may become a great fighter, but they will also be emotionally crippled. Like a bully, they will feel the need to exert control over their environment, create their own little kingdoms, and lash out at those who threaten their authority.

A character who cannot embrace their teacher’s outlook will be shattered, chased by self-doubt, and end up too mentally insecure to succeed at warfare. Their confidence is crushed, and whatever they learn from their teacher they don’t have the fortitude to use.

That’s the consequence of an abusive instructor.

You embrace them and become like them.

Or…

You reject them, and they break you.

This is not physical, they break their student emotionally through neglect, through failure, by critically hampering their ability to succeed, by undercutting them, or changing the goalposts on them.

This is where the fantasy of “the hardcore abusive training creating the best warrior ever who was never into it from the beginning” falls apart. A student is a reflection of their master.

A student in an abusive system survives and succeeds only by buying in. They can come to a different conclusion later and abandon it, but at some point they’ll be a True Believer. With the abuse serving as a means of motivation, a desire to please their teacher because of what that will earn them. Whether that’s glory, success, or just not being hit is all up to the teacher.

I hope that clears this concept up some.

-Michi

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Q&A: Training Elites

So how does one go about training elite, loyal fighters in a non-abusive environment?

By… not abusing them?

I know that the whole “training for martial combat is inherently abusive” is a popular concept, but it doesn’t work that way. Normal training is a slow process, and elites are the culmination of a process every single martial artist goes through. They are the ones who worked the hardest, who went the furthest, and continued long after everyone else stopped. An elite is the one who devotes their life to their art. From a martial combat perspective, you want the trainees who want to be training. You get your trainees to engage and commit to their training without forcing them because they already want to be there, and it not only works… it work better. I know. It’s an amazing concept, you get better results without abuse.

There are no elite warriors who were not once willing participants, wholeheartedly devoted and dedicated. Who ate, and breathed, and slept, and dreamed their training, who made it a foundational aspect of their whole life. A core aspect of their identity.

They became an elite because they wanted to be and because they worked hard for it. They passed all their tests, ground their way out through the muck and the dirt. Through the sweat, the tears, and the frustrations. Who celebrated their successes and mourned their failures.

Every training program will have a different metric for what makes someone capable of entering the ranks deemed elite. However, there are very specific general metrics for requirement which most follow. They will be people considered at or near the top by their instructors, who are experienced, and who have already completed the basic requirements. They will be martial artists who are in the highest belt rankings before this training or soldiers who made it through Basic with distinction and, perhaps, have field experience where they have shown a solid track record. They will be volunteers. They will be the ones previously identified as the best of the best by other trainers and commanding officers. They will either be chosen from the field or asked to apply. Offered, not ordered. Then, they will be “trained” as in they will undergo a stress test of their physical and mental limits that serves as their training.

When I say phrases like “considered near the top”, “shown exemplary skill”, and “served with distinction”, I don’t mean raw talent in someone untested. Raw talent is nothing but potential, and potential is worthless in someone who will not or is uninterested in making the most of it. These are the people who have already proven themselves, often above and beyond the call. They are chosen now because they have the potential and the drive to reach an echelon (often highly specialized) beyond that of the average trainee.

If you learn nothing else, learn this: any elite candidate is a classic overachiever.

One of the major purposes of normal training is to push a trainee beyond what they believe is physically and mentally possible for them to achieve. The extreme version of this is, well, it’s extreme. The point isn’t toughness, though. That’s far too simplistic and silly in concept. The point is to create a situation for the trainee to realize their true potential, that breaks all the boundaries of what they believed to possible. This is why high end of martial arts often feel like magic. Whether it’s staying awake, active, and functional for a full seven days, breaking nine bricks in a single strike, or bending a steel rod with nothing but their throat, you’re seeing someone who has a far better grasp of the true human limits than the average person.

Outside the real world, most authors are attracted to “abusive training” due to the angst factor. They often make the mistake of assuming that regular training is abuse (and taken to the wrong extremes, it can be), and mistake the purpose behind the extremes. They also think one can skip the boring, technical aspect and jump straight to those extremes. Again, mostly for the angst factor and to create a sub category of the trope Cursed with Awesome, which i like to call: Victimized Into Herohood.

In the real world, the theory behind abusive training isn’t that abuse makes you stronger (though many abusers and some abuse survivors have this outlook), it’s that the threat of death and desire to survive will make the subject work harder. That the desire to live is universal, and that it’s as good as the desire to learn. You’ll find this method used in cults, because its purpose is to ensure a specific kind of loyalty.

In the real world, that doesn’t get you past the bare minimum. So, all that abuse is just to get past the first mental hurdle for basic training. Do not mistake basic training for elite training. Never do this. You’ll find far more abuse (if it happens at all) happening at the beginning of training rather than at the end. You’ve got to learn to flap before you fly and expecting someone to achieve FTL by chucking them off a cliff is pretty damn silly. No one would expect a prospective student to be a black belt on day one.

The confusion, I think, most people have is with the intensity of the physical training. You will ask them to push beyond their physical limits, but that’s not abusive. They also consented to it first. Your working with someone who wants to be training, who has committed. You don’t put a gun to their head to say, “do this or die.” The point of pushing in this environment is not to break them, but rather to show them that they can do more than they realize.

Extreme training works best when the other person wants to be there. You will never be able apply more pressure or drive to someone via outside sources than they can apply to themselves.

Dragging some random schmuck off the street and beating the shit out of them misses the point. When we’re talking abusive training, it’s purpose isn’t to make you tougher, it’s purpose is to convince the trainee to commit. If they aren’t inclined toward it anyway, then they’re a bad candidate. The end point of the abusive outlook is to get your trainee to the point where they’re a willing candidate. That doesn’t produce elites though. Elites come from trainees who want to excel, not the ones who just want to live.

You cannot make an elite from a trainee who isn’t willing.

You can’t do it. 90% of an instructors job is to provide structure and opportunity for students to excel. That’s it. They teach, yes, but the student has to choose to learn. Being the best or competing for the opportunity to be the best, requires a step even beyond the choice or desire to learn. It takes real, honest to god commitment, devotion, sacrifice, not to mention time and energy. After all, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it think.

Like with anything else, an elite is born from the trainees who worked the hardest in basic training. The ones who pushed themselves, the ones who maybe struggled in the beginning but kept at it, the ones who were up late practicing their techniques after everyone else had gone to bed, and the ones who proved themselves in the field or to whatever criteria qualified them for this next step. You don’t get elites through abuse. You get elites through willing candidates, and then just train them the normal way. Elites aren’t training or talent, so much as they are personality. These are the people who want to be there, they’re willing to commit and do whatever they have to do to win. You put them in competition so they build each other up, then you cull. By culling, I mean removing the weak and sending them back to where they came from. Usually, these will be returning them to the positions they already occupied. You know, how it normally works?

The mistakes the inexperienced make when writing training is that they often believe:

1) That all martial combat training is what you get from training Special Forces.

2) That the Special Forces training is what makes them elite.

No, Special Forces training itself is the culling process. The point isn’t to instruct, so much as it is to test the limits of the trainee and how far they can (and are willing) to push themselves. These are people who have already proven they excel in regular combat environments, they exceed beyond the expected limits. They have been trained, they are now taking the next step.

Martial Training is a process involving multiple stages, it takes time, investment, and a great deal of energy. The creation of an elite or an elite unit doesn’t happen overnight, or over a few weeks, or even months. It starts with molding the raw materials through the basics. Then, if they prove themselves worth the time/show their mettle, they get to try passing the tests where you’re kept awake and active for a week straight.

The true point of extreme training is to push the student far beyond the point they believe to be their upper limits. Our minds instill false expectations and false limits based on our beliefs, our understanding, and our desire for self-preservation. The point is never to break and remold, but rather to introduce the trainee to their true capabilities.

However, the trainee needs to be willing to push themselves. They are the ones who do the heavy lifting, they are the ones who are taking control over themselves, and they are the ones who are breaking down those mental and physical limits within themselves in order to reach new heights. It cannot be done to them, they must do it themselves.

Everyone has the potential to be an elite warrior, they all receive the same training. The question is: will the individual choose to put in the effort and make the necessary sacrifices?

Understand these are active choices, made by people who want what’s being offered to them and are chasing it because this is what they want to be. This is not a choice made for them. They are not the victims of it. It is not a burden thrust upon them. They chose to take it up, then they turned around and pursued excellence with a vengeance so intense it makes the rest of us cry.

The highest echelons of any martial art or martial combat is almost entirely an internal battle. You are your own worst enemy, and you need to break past your own beliefs about yourself. It is a battle for self-actualization, fire forged in blood, sweat, tears, and competition. This is the aspect of high level training that is most often disregarded because it sounds hokey. It’s true though.

Elite training is there to teach us that the false limits we set for ourselves are our greatest barrier, and these beliefs keep us from reaching our true potential.

Regardless of anything else, the end goal of both abusive scenarios and non-abusive scenarios are the same. The only difference is their methods and the initial willingness of their participants. This is also why the holdouts are the ones who die in the abusive scenario. No amount of forcing will ever compete with the willing.

-Michi

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