Tag Archives: writing training

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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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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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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would you say the sith academy from the star wars universe fits for an abusive training situation?

Yes.

However, I want to point out that when you’re talking about scenarios where the teachers are sadists that’s:

1) Not what makes their training good, but is rather the method that secures the students’ loyalty.

2) Useless if the students don’t receive an education.

The problem is that in order for the setup to succeed the students still need to be taught. Which… means you still do all the “boring” and “mundane” stuff. Contrary to popular fictional conception, cruelty doesn’t make you learn faster. More than that, in poor hands, cruelty will trap you in a shock and awe setup where you’re continually having to escalate your measures in order to keep the students on their toes and the audience engaged. This is what we’ll call “not good, Bob” when dealing with a training setup because the author inevitably focuses on playing up the instructor’s sadism and not on the students education. When this happens, we get nothing but a dysfunctional methodology that creates broken dolls who aren’t particularly good at fighting.

What cruelty will provide (when not overplayed) is motivation. Cruelty can be an excellent motivational tool, but only if you give your student the tools to succeed.

When writing “sadistic training” it is important to keep your eye on the prize and the goals of the trainer in mind. Unless we’re talking an elite force (like a Sith or the Imperial Guard) where you don’t actually need many of them and they aren’t your main force, then a meat grinder scenario is not a good one. You can still have a sadistic training scenario but there’ll be a lot less death. (One can be sadistic and successful without killing a single trainee or letting them die.) 

They want to create a student who is either an exceptional warrior or just a good one and a student who is loyal to them or their organization. They may be a creation of this system, and genuinely believe in it. You can have a trainer who engages in sadistic training methods because that’s how they were trained, not because they enjoy being sadists. These guys are even more dangerous than the other types, as none of the flaws usually found in sadistic teachers apply to True Believers. They’re not in it for the power trip, or because they like being a bully but because they believe in the system. If you’ve got a sadistic training methodology, disseminated and practiced by multiple individuals in an organization then you’ll be dealing with True Believers. If so, then may God have mercy on your poor characters’ souls.

A trainer who was raised on the system they’re teaching knows all the tricks a student can pull. They’ve seen it before and seen it from within the student’s barracks. So, good luck putting anything past them, especially in any modern or futuristic world where they’ve no problem hiding cameras everywhere.

The Sith Academies of the EU run the gamut between sophisticated mind fuckery and hatchet level meat grinders. When they’re meat grinders, all they do is pointlessly waste resources. And, yes, there’s been more than one Sith Academy and the concept probably predates whichever one you’re thinking of. Korriban, for example, originates in Tales of the Jedi. Anything that predates Lucas’ “Rule of Two” will have the suggestion of an academy, and the Rule of Two came into established canon with the prequels. (Whether anyone remembers Brakiss, Zekk, and the one from Young Jedi Knights is another question entirely.)

So, here’s some training don’ts:

1) When your trainer kills, have them kill with purpose.

The way a teacher kills one of their trainees may seem random to their students, but if this is a methodology then there is a firm reason behind the why and the who. Trust they’ve picked their target before they ever walked into the room. They may change their mind in a snap decision once they’re dealing with the students, but a plan is always at play. Remember, a successful sadistic instructor plans and executes training their students like any other operation.

2) The first brutal murder will never achieve the same affect on its subjects again, so use it wisely.

Shock and awe works… once. If you want shock to keep working, then you’ve got to change tactics and attack where the subject feels safe rather than trying the same technique over and over again.

The problem with most sadistic training setups is they’ll take the ideas, but keep attempting to use the same tactics in repetition. No. To keep your skin in this game, you better be switching up.

3) Sadistic training is the torture methodology, if you don’t understand how A leads to C then you won’t grasp its lasting effects or why it works.

I’m going to keep pointing out that sadistic training is a mind game and not a physical game. Competent torture is about controlling the subject’s state of mind and reconditioning them to give you what you want. This is why it’s a far more effective as a form of control than information gathering.

Sadistic training is the same way. The goal is not to kill off what matters to the subject. The goal is to get the subject to kill off what matters to them for you. Whether this is their parents, their old life, their pet Skippy, a girlfriend/boyfriend, a friendship they’ve formed during their training, it doesn’t matter. They’ll kill whatever symbolic part of themselves they were holding onto, the piece which makes them who they are. A trainer creates a pressure gate to lead the student where they want them to go, so the student and their peers will kill in themselves what the trainer can’t.

“The Corps is mother, the Corps is father,” as PsiCorps says on Babylon 5.

When dealing with someone competent, this is insidious. Remember, the trainer controls the student’s whole world, who they interact with, whether they’re allowed contact with the outside world, and what happens to them.

It’s like dealing with your parents, if your parents were perfectly willing to blow your brains out. With no outlets, no friends except the ones you’re allowed and can’t trust, no other authority figures to turn to, no internet, no connection to the outside world, and armed guards to catch you when you run.

4) There is always a carrot to go with the stick.

Abusive tactics aren’t successful if there’s no carrot. This is an enhancement of regular training, not the sole form of training. Abuse by itself doesn’t make someone a better martial combatant (or good at fighting at all).

The problem with a lot of “sadistic training setups” is the author goes overboard. They want to make it obvious that the teacher is bad, and give the story no room to breathe. Give the characters no time to sort themselves out. The teacher’s abuse is there to make a point and specific intervals, and it won’t happen on the regular. If it’s regular, you adapt to it. The uncertainty and the lack of comfort is what keeps it scary.

A trainer won’t just abuse, they’ll also offer a sympathetic ear, be encouraging, and act as a mentor to their students. When their students have earned their wisdom then they share. This gives students a feeling superiority over others, reminds them that they’re special, and they want to work harder for their teacher or toward their goal.

As a reward, their trainer may give their students the opportunity to watch the more advanced students or the warriors they admire in practice or sparring so they have a goal to work towards.

5) The goals are always clear, and can be accomplished. It’s the goalposts that shift.

The trainer is very good at telling their students what they want, on giving them a venue to develop skill before upending them again. Like I said, abusive training is an utterly pointless practice if the process of learning is skipped.

If you want to write an abusive setup then you need to learn how normal training is supposed to work first because the abuse is just another added layer. This is why there’s a tendency to assume this training is just “more hardcore”. 

6) Punishment is not the point, what punishment gets you is the point.

Reward them when they’re good, punish them when they’re bad. Write punishment with purpose. The trainer wants their student to think, consider, and come to an understanding. Punishment is supposed to make one side too uncomfortable so one starts looking at good behavior as acceptable. Unless there’s a reason to be ambiguous, the student must know why they’re being punished.

7) When you’re looking at a situation with plans to axe a few of your trainees, the troublemakers and the problem children will be first on the slate to die.

This is one of those favored misconceptions with some authors, where the belief that a student’s “special talents” and “status” override everything else. Here’s the honest truth: a trainer working under a sadistic methodology wants loyalty over skill. No amount of ‘natural talent’ or ‘skill’ will save these troublemakers because they’re challenging the trainer’s control over the rest of the class.

Now, there are ways to manipulate any problem child into good behavior without obvious punishment whether its by convincing them they’re special, flattering them, separating them out from the others, and making them feel important or like they’re “winning” the power struggle.

If they can’t be convinced to play along, though, then it’s ‘too bad, so sad’ and will be offed. At this point, it’s attrition. Better to risk losing one, even a promising one, than it is losing the whole group. A student with less potential but loyal is better than one with high potential but unwilling to cooperate. After all, natural skill is just potential. A metric for the greatness one might achieve. If the talented student isn’t going to put effort into honing that potential, then it’s just a waste. Better to have the student who works hard, strives for success, is clever, and wants to please their teacher.

Now, back to Star Wars.

On the whole, when looking at the Sith, you’re going to find a lot of the good, the bad, the mediocre, and everything in between. With the current EU, we’re usually dealing with the meat grinder. In this case, the meat grinder rears its head anytime there’s a lack of respect for the rarity of Force Sensitives. Even in a galaxy full of trillions, the pool of candidates who are Force Sensitive is extraordinarily small. The number with the ability to actually become Jedi or Sith is a tiny fraction of that pool. They’re so rare, in fact, that it’s easier for a Sith Lord to risk themselves targeting adult Jedi or Jedi trainees for conversion than it is to go through the trouble of finding new candidates.

Think about that.

It’s not a Sith Academy if they don’t raid the Jedi Temple for recruits at least once. Given the Sith’s training methods, there should always be fewer Sith than Jedi by order of attrition. The Jedi may send their students away if they don’t make the cut, but they don’t kill them during training. The Sith blow through their candidates faster, thus needing more raw bodies while churning out fewer Sith as a result.

A good Sith Academy is one where the students are terrorizing the local population of whatever planet they’re inhabiting rather than each other. Where their methods are harsh, but the vast majority of their students don’t die in training. If you want more Sith out there than Jedi, then their period of training is ultimately shorter and they’re released to terrorize the universe more quickly. If a Sith can be trained in, say, four years compared to a Jedi’s fourteen to twenty then there will obviously be more of them.

However, the Sith will ultimately need more recruits and bodies than the Jedi because the Sith die faster. Which creates a shortage when your talent pool is already limited.

In The Old Republic, when a Sith player leads the Attack on Tython they’re given a lightside/darkside option at the end. The lightside option is to release the prisoners. The darkside option is to kill the prisoners. Here’s the problem: these prisoners are Jedi padawans.

When you have a limited talent pool, are at war, and are constantly losing your highly skilled warriors to the enemy, what do you do?

The answer is abide by the classic Sith tactic of stealing the apprentices for yourself. Killing them is a waste. Releasing them is stupid. Taking them to replace your losses is the smart choice. After all, the Jedi would do the same to you. (They do. They do it all the time. In Star Wars, the Sith and Jedi are playing ping pong with the individual members of both orders as the balls. There are numerous Sith rehabilitated into Jedi and Jedi who’ve become Sith. Light to Dark, Dark to Light, then back again.)

I bring this up because this is how you know when characters with this attitude are written in accordance to their setting. They can’t be written in generalities, the author needs to take into account the context and setting specifics which will be at play when it comes to making a decision.

When evil overrules necessity or common sense, you’ve got a problem. Well, you do if it’s not your intention for the character to be engaging in “stupid evil”. All approaches are legit, so long as you meant to do it and serves the story.

The question when either playing with or reading about a Sith Academy is, “do you understand the purpose and philosophy behind what’s happening?”

The lightside and the darkside are a clumsy attempt at Taoist philosophy. The Jedi and Sith are meant to present incompatible ways of life, and more than just an easily digestible code. There’s a lot of play in the “Survival of the Fittest” and “I’ve got Mine” mentalities, but a true Sith believes the struggle itself is what makes us strong.

Let’s look at the sequence between Luke and the Emperor in Return of the Jedi:

-The Emperor has Vader bring Luke aboard the Death Star, everything from that point on including the trap he lays for the Rebellion is part of getting under Luke’s skin.

-While Vader is in active conflict with Luke, he’s also the centerpiece of the power struggle between Luke and the Emperor.

-Both Vader and the Emperor are pressuring Luke in multiple ways to find what makes him angry. They show him how powerless he is by attacking the Rebels in front of him, forcing him to fight, threatening Leia, etc.

-They want him angry. Why? It’s because the Emperor’s goal is ultimately for Luke to destroy what he came to save whether that’s the Rebels or his father. The underlying belief is this crushing failure will expose the futility of Luke’s beliefs, lead him to abandon them, and join the darkside.

-This fight is also a test for Vader, though the Emperor is certain of his control over him.

-The Emperor wants a younger model and new apprentice to replace the old one, but if Luke can’t be swayed then he has no issue having Vader murder what he wanted i.e. his last link to his previous life.

-The Emperor fails because he underestimates Vader, rather than Luke. This happens when Vader’s desire to save his son trumps his loyalty to the Emperor, and leads him to make the ultimate sacrifice.

If you want to understand the difference between Jedi versus Sith, and the power of sadistic training then the final struggle of Return of the Jedi is important to understand. The Emperor had so much control over Vader that Vader valued his personal power over what used to be the most important aspect of his life: protecting his family.

For Vader, we see the struggle is real. When we see him in Empire Strikes Back, he has no problem hacking Luke’s hand off. We find out he’s known Luke is his son for some time, but the boy’s still just a pawn necessary to help him replace the Emperor. The offer Vader makes to Luke at the end of Empire is not one of love, but power. “Together, we’ll rule the galaxy as father and son.” It’s manipulative, designed to appeal to Luke’s desires for family, for his father, and disrupt Luke’s beliefs. Vader means to wrong foot him, make him desperate, and utilize these emotions to take power over Luke. When Luke falls, Vader doesn’t jump after him. Vader doesn’t consider Luke’s life important enough to jeopardize himself over.

The choice Vader makes at the end of Jedi is one of love. He’s hurt when he grabs the Emperor, having lost a hand. The Emperor is shooting electricity everywhere, and Vader’s systems are especially susceptible. Vader understands the sacrifice he’s making when he grabs the Emperor. This is his transition, in his final moments. This is what makes him a Jedi again.

As a haphazard circle, selfish love transformed Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader while sacrificial love brought him back. Selfish love led to fear of loss, fear of loss led him to the hating those who “stole” his loved ones, and then he needed to control everything in order to make sure he never lost or felt these emotions again. Control led him to needing more and more power, until power itself was all that mattered.

When you’re looking for abusive environments or training methods, take an honest look at the Vader from the Original Trilogy. In a simple sense, that’s what the results look like.

-Michi

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Going off the fighting with no pads+ live weapons+ sparring=death discussion, what would you suggest as an alternative? I’m working on a fantasy story where two of my characters are training in swordsmanship with the intention of becoming knights, but warfare is a lot different than using pads/dummies. What are ways I can have my characters realistically train for battle without mauling each other? Or should they just cross their fingers and hope they don’t die on the battlefield in real combat?

Well, for starters, they use training weapons. These are are weapons that are essentially what they’d be using and are blunted. The character gets the effect of training with the weapon and practicing their techniques against another opponent without risk of fatal injury.

This is a long standing practice in all martial disciplines and it is much safer than letting beginners murder each other. You never get to touch a real sword until you’ve reached the end of your training. They’re expensive, dangerous, and most knights aren’t going to have the money to replace all the weapons they’ve destroyed during training.

You start with wood, then move up to metal, then move up to the real blades.

You also don’t have your knights learning to joust each other with real lances either. It’ll be blunted lances like the ones used at tournament, and will use those at all times except on the battlefield. They’ll only be allowed to joust other students when their performance is satisfactory, and they will practice with a dummy first. They’ll keep practicing with that dummy for the remainder of their existence, because it’s safer than practicing with another knight and they can fine hone their skills. Then, they move up to a hanging ring.

They don’t just put you on a horse, thrust a lance in your hands and hope for the best.

They’ll spar with padded armor. When they reach a point in their training where the time has come for them to wear armor, they’ll be using older suits rather than new ones. If they spar with live weapons at all, at any point, the rules of the duel will be to first blood and will be watched very closely by their training instructors.

Training happens in stages.

You practice the pieces of the technique, broken down. You learn the stance, then you learn what you’re doing with your hands. How to hold the weapon. Then, you learn how to move the weapon. Then, you practice the technique all together incorporating your whole body. Then, you practice that singular technique with another human (drilling), then, you learn other techniques, then you learn to connect all those techniques together, then you learn the defenses against those techniques, then you practice them with your partner, and then… then you spar.

In between these stages, you condition. You drill. You condition more. Drill more. Learn more techniques. Sparring becomes a reward. As you go up in rank, the targets you are allowed to hit in sparring expand. The more difficult techniques you learn. You may then advance to other weapons, or you’ll be doing most of them at the same time.

Round and round we go.

Practice with the sword before you hold the shield. Practice with the shield before you hold the sword. Learn to wield the sword with one hand. Then with two. Then with a shield. Learn horseback riding. Learn the staff. Learn the bow. Learn the knife.

Then, once you have a base and you are lucky, you will spar against different weapon types.

If he is confident in your abilities and you have the time, he may hold a melee or allow you, his trainee, to participate in one. Or you may do so while squiring to a knight, depending on your master. What is a melee? It is a practice battle, like a real one without the death (usually).

Or, you may not get any of this. Be thrown into battle up front and be forced to learn as we go.

There’s a target point for what you want to have, and then there’s what you get. A medieval knight or squire or even a page may very well be forced into battle long before they’re “ready”. A page’s training also depends heavily on who is fostering him/her and if they care.

Knights were not given the same training. The concept of training, armed warfare, and mass conflict as we understand it today didn’t exist. They were dependent on which local lord took them under his wing, funded them, and how invested he (and his arms master) was in their training. If they got a sadist for a teacher then they got a sadist for a teacher.

The problem with the romantic “live weapon” idea most people have is that “live weapons” will better prepare you for real combat. They don’t, because nothing compares for real combat. These characters may also see combat long before they become a knight, as they’ll be squired out first and their experiences depend on what their knightly master will be doing.

Knights are a training investment of fourteen years. You don’t waste that lightly. It also costs way too much to outfit them with real shit that they will then misuse and break. Especially not when you can just give them the sturdier, more reliable shit that many others have used before them.

The same is true for the horses. They get the training ponies with the hard mouths before they ever approach a warhorse. They need to prove themselves worthy of the substantial investment which comes with equipping them.

Yes, even the sadistic masters do this. The only difference is the mind games they play while it happens.

And, yes, with the first battle it will always be “hope for the best”. Anything else, they’re kidding themselves. Training is about getting you as prepared as you can be for the real thing, but it is not the real thing and no amount of live blades in a practice arena will change that.

Which is why you don’t do it.

Besides that, there’s the injury risk. Students who don’t know what they’re doing have a greater chance of injuring themselves and others. Injuries are costly. Training relies on consistency. If you’re stuck in your room with a twisted ankle, a bruised collarbone, nevermind a serious injury like a broken bone, then your training will lapse. A student needs to stay active in order to remain viable. If they’re not then its a waste of money, equipment, and other resources like food.

You’ve got to feed them, billet them, and everything in between. If you want shock troopers that’s what the peasants are for. A knight is an investment. You push your investment. You do not break them. They then repay you with their service.

A single soldier in the United States Military costs the taxpayers around a million dollars. Their training is also among the cheapest things the military can buy. In terms of resources in the Middle Ages, the feeding, training, and equipping of a knight costs far more than that.

Think about it. And maybe do some more research.

Otherwise, you’ve got a trainer going, “I want to blow through fourteen years and nine million dollars to soothe my students’ egos!”

No.

“Anything Goes” is a Hollywood creation. You train all combatants on the assumption they’ll be killed, you want to give them the tools to survive but they’ll probably die. For this reason, you need every single one. You can’t waste them on each other. That’s a major reason why tournaments came to exist, so you could have the war and the skill without the death.

-Michi

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So I got a question about the sparing and padding post that you recently made. I like to read Assassin’s Creed fanfictions that shows Altair (the main character) in his early years, which often includes his training to be an assassin. In most of these fics they focus more on the sword and knife fighting but some does include the hand to hand fighting too (without protection). So realistically what kind of injuries would someone training without any kind of protection should expect?

Death.

I’m only sort of kidding, because I know the kinds of fanfics you’re talking about and like every writer trying to be edgy, they have them spar without protections and with live weapons. There’s a reason why we use practice weapons during training and in sparring matches, where rules are in play. 

Now, the Assassin’s Creed variant of the Hashashin live for that super edgy, very stupid state of supposed badass where one must constantly prove their worth so I totally believe they’d do it. I’d also believe this would lead to an incredibly high turnover with their recruits, which is not sustainable in the real world.

I’m going to point out here that the “Asassins” or Hashashin were real. That’s the etymology for the word. The suicide jumping is also real and, instead of landing on bales of hay, they jumped to their deaths. There are a couple of stories about that piece of the order. The real Assassins were religious fanatics. These stories are not so much a testament to the quality of their training so much as their fanaticism.

For what it’s worth, the Knights Templar were also real and a prominent militant order up until they were excommunicated by the Pope.

The history of both groups is actually far more interesting than the Assassin’s Creed franchise. This is a persistent problem with the games, they invariably include historical figures who are far, far, far more interesting, competent, and badass than we’re presented with. If you encounter a historical personage in an Assassin’s Creed game, remind yourself of this simple fact: the real one is about 200x more awesome. It’s this weird inverse where the reality consistently surpasses the fiction.
(Black Flag, I have my eye on you. Honestly, how do you mess up Stede Bonnet, The Gentleman Pirate? And that’s the least of your sins!)

The more serious answer is that unless you’re training with weapons or making an active effort to hit each other, in the real world we don’t train using pads on the regular. The pads are so you can essentially go full out against another person under controlled circumstances and then come back for training tomorrow. If your students are constantly getting injured that hampers their ability to train, then they fall behind and you turn out fewer fighters. Injuries on the training floor should not be a common occurrence.

Barring accidents and mishaps, if you’re simply practicing your techniques on your own or against a wooden dummy then all you should expect afterwards is standard muscle pain (maybe some bruising). The same should be true for practice with human opponents (which is not sparring) and sparring itself.

Anything else is a waste of time, energy, and resources.

Remember, injuries take time to heal and if you’re prepping someone to go out and murder that’s time you don’t have.

In the land of “edgy training”, try to remember that you want evil as opposed to incompetence.

The vast majority of training, like the kinds you listed, are edgy incompetence. They don’t serve a purpose other than sadism and your students don’t learn anything. Unfortunately, cruelty on its own doesn’t teach much (the Spartans were abusive jerks, but their methods worked). The beat up, abuse them, cruelty methodology simply doesn’t work unless you understand the kinds that work and, from a storytelling perspective, it also isn’t interesting.

The kind of “edgy training” you see in most stories is a round of Kinder’s First. People mimicking what Hollywood has taught them or what they’ve seen in fiction elsewhere. The assumption in this line of thinking is that the more brutal the training then the more dangerous the fighter. This isn’t true. More importantly, there are much better ways to sadistically mess with your students’ (and audience’s) heads.

1) Depending on your teaching style, you may murder a student on occasion to motivate the others. However, the control over who lives or dies remains with the instructor because the instructor is god. If a student gets a bright idea to kill another student without your approval, kill them.

2) Live weapons should never be used by students on each other except as a graduation gift. The graduation gift being only one of them will be accepted into the Order, so prove your worth. (In the real world, you’ll probably need them both but in fantasy land… why not?)

3) Use the threat of death to keep your students from getting comfortable, make good on this promise every so often. Bring in an established warrior to kill off your best student in demonstration to the others. (Why? It reminds them at no point are they safe.)

4) Encourage your students to break the rules, punish them severely if caught. (Playing favorites? Punish them more, push them harder.)

5) Limit their resources. Make them fight each other for their food. Survival isn’t a given. It’s earned.

6) In the early days, force them into physical exhaustion. Keep them up late. Wake them early. Limit their sleep to the minimum of hours they need to stay functional. Tired minds are easier to manipulate.

7)
Force them into direct conflict with each other.

There’s never a solid baseline they can achieve, and they’re always watching over their shoulder. Furthermore they never become loyal to each other. They are only loyal to you. Appeasing their teacher is their only means of survival.

8) Got a problem child who won’t play along? Don’t make an example of them. No, no, make them your new favorite. That’ll turn the others on them, and they’ll solve the problem for you.

9) Change the goalposts regularly, so they never know what to expect.

10) You’ve got someone who doesn’t want to participate? Say okay. When others move to join them, punish those students viciously instead. Do it in front of the class and for everyone to see. (This is called: creating heroes and wrecking them.)

11) Have your students inform on each other.

If this is starting to sound like abuse, well.. you’re right. It is. It also very successful in terms of achieving its goal. The goal is attacking the student’s perceptions, beliefs, and their understanding of the world while reshaping them into who you want them to be.

Real cruelty is clever and inventive. It is also patient. Like a good interrogator, this teacher will leave their students so they’re never sure of exactly what the teacher wants or how to please them. They give them hope, then snatch it away. Someone who excels at social manipulation will use this position of power to maneuver their students feelings and their expectations, indirectly point them at certain targets by stoking negative feeling such as jealousy, paranoia, anger, or fear. In the other hand, those rare moments of kindness offered will ensure gratitude. When a good teacher wants their uncooperative students to band together, they make themselves the target the students need to fight against. The abusive teacher does the opposite. They ensure they are the only boat in the storm and turn their charges on each other. They make sure their students never know what to expect. This includes going hot and cold. They change up to batter expectations, handle some problems themselves and let the students handle others.

An experienced teacher will have seen plenty of student characters, all the versions you can imagine. A good one will break the problem kids to bridle without them ever realizing it happened, and they exit the experience more hardcore than the ones who invested themselves honestly. The purpose of “brutal training” isn’t to churn out a better warrior. It’s to break the individual down so you can reshape their mind and ensure the weapon you’ve created is loyal to you. That level of conditioning is very difficult to break. You’ve re-oriented their entire training into status positions they’ve fought for and earned. This training becomes a foundation for their identity, and you’re not going to get it out of them.

So, before invoking the trope, choose wisely and understand the purpose for what it is. Actively abusive training is done with the express intent to recondition and brainwash. More than that, in competent hands, it’ll snap the “rebellious teenage hero” contingent like twigs.

As a member of a fanatical cult, Altair is a direct example of this sort of training writ large.

-Michi

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How would a instructor determine students in hand to hand combat ‘adequate enough’ to move on from the basics? Come to think of it… what would be the basics? Assuming your students have never been in a fight before, what would be the first thing you teach beginners to hand to hand combat?

Usually, there are tests. What those tests are depends on the martial art, and the teacher’s personal teaching style. The teacher has the student, or group of students perform the techniques they were taught then evaluates their performance to determine whether or not they pass or fail. If they pass, they move on to the next set of techniques and if they don’t then they continue to practice until they either eventually pass on the next go round or they give up. However, there may not be tests. The teacher may simply decide the student is adequate and move on, sometimes without ever telling them. The criteria becomes more complicated as they go up in rank.

It may be as simple as: can you do a front kick without falling over? (No, seriously, learning to balance all your weight on one leg is a challenge in and of itself before we get to moving it.) Can you survive me shoving you without falling over? Have you learned how to set your weight? Have you learned to slap the ground when you fall?

‘Basics’ mean the base of the martial arts style. What those basics are
and how they’re taught are dependent on the martial art in question.
There will be similarities, but you’ll do well by researching specific
schools rather than asking broad questions.

You’ll get more applicable answers that way.

As for the basics?

You start with the feet.

A good teacher will spend the first lesson on teaching you how to stand. You’re not going to do anything else. When you begin at the beginning, you retrain everything about the student’s physicality. You’re building their base, how they set their weight, their sense of balance, and how to breathe.

After all, if there are cracks in the foundation then the whole house will inevitably fall. It doesn’t matter how many flashy techniques you can perform if a stiff breeze will still blow you over, and your basics are your foundation. They are the difference between a skilled warrior and one that will inevitably die. Beginning at the beginning requires the “boring” stuff.

So, when you have a master in a martial arts action flick shoving their student around in ways that usually look rather abusive to an outside observer that’s what they’re doing. They’re testing their student’s base, which directly relates to their ability to adjust to and receive impact without losing their balance.

After all, if a simple one handed shove to the chest sends a trainee sprawling then they’re doomed against any actual techniques. It doesn’t matter how well you take it in your arms if you can’t in your legs, if you can’t keep your balance. Balance begins with your core (your stomach, your abdomen, your diaphragm), then your feet, then the lower body, and then we get to the upper.

The secondary test that comes with learning the basics is a mental one. Martial combat is a discipline, it requires patience, persistence, determination, humility, and a willingness to learn. There’s no place on the floor for fragile egos. The training styles of most Eastern martial arts traditions like Karate, Taekwondo, and many of the Chinese martial arts are intentionally designed to be frustrating for beginners. It’s a personality test, meant to weed out those unsuitable to the training and those unworthy of the teacher’s time.

When you train in martial arts, you fall down a lot. You’re consistently meeting new skill thresholds, your understanding is often upended as you realize what you thought you knew isn’t what you needed to know. A trainee needs the determination to keep getting up, the confidence to continue and the willingness to listen. Your ego will get battered and bruised far worse at the upper end of training than it ever will in the beginning.

The test is a question of whether or not the trainee has the fortitude to continue. If they quit as most do, or if they keep coming back for more. If they can make the necessary adjustments, if they can listen, and if they get back up after they fall down then you’ve got someone who might just have a chance at surviving.

This isn’t the mentality of a military organization or military training because they have fewer options of who they can say no to, but martial arts masters choose their students.

The question of fortitude is there from the beginning because the troubles and frustrations you face in training are nothing compared to those these trainees will face in the real world and in live combat scenarios. Where their fortitude to continue through injury and their ability to adapt on the fly, to learn quickly as they are faced with the unknown are necessary survival skills.

When you’re writing any training sequence keep in mind that the instructor wants their students to live and trains them in the hopes they’ll develop the skills they need to have a better chance at it.

Never forget, this is fantasy.

You, the writer, needs to weld the notion your character could die into everything and, especially, into their training. The character may be too young, too naive, or too stupid to realize it but you must never forget that death is always on the table. They need to earn their survival. For all their teacher knows they may very well be looking at a walking corpse. Their student is a bright star full of potential, someone they may grow to care about and become invested in, and may just as easily be snuffed out not long after leaving their care.

This is more true for some teachers than others, but its worth keeping in mind. Everything your character learns is meant to help them for when they enter to sphere of live combat, and that starts at the beginning. If the beginning becomes screwed up, then everything else that follows will also fail.

You may also want to check out our #writing training, #training, #basics, and #martialarts tags on the site.

-Michi

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I have a character that’s taken martial arts from a very young age (six), and he and another tend to surpass their classmates by spending a lot of free time practicing and sparring with each other. Is it reasonable for them to get better with practice, or would they really need the teacher to be there to improve? The style of martial arts in particular is roughly useful for ‘real fighting’ but not doing serious damage, focusing on dodging/blocking and knocking the opponent down using an opening.

I should probably take a moment to point out that sparring isn’t play fighting or safe fighting, it’s a form of training. While you can spar without an instructor present, it isn’t actually overlooked until you get to the upper belt ranks and older teen/adult. While most sparring matches go fine, there are always a couple where someone (or everyone) screws up and the students get seriously injured. For example, my brother and a visiting black belt decided to put on the UFC fiberglass gloves (when they still made them) for our in-house tournament. Our instructors let them, and my brother got punched in the face. His eyesocket cracked, the muscles controlling the eye’s movement slipped down between the cracks. My mom was there and she rushed him to the hospital where he had to have surgery. If he hadn’t, he’d have lost the use of his eye.

That’s on the rarer side, but stuff like broken arms and legs happens. Are they all accidents? Yes. You can hurt someone else or injure them without any malicious intent meant. Training accidents happen to everyone, even to those who ostensibly know what they’re doing. Having your instructor or one of the black belts there when sparring means the greater chances that someone will be there if things do go wrong or be able to cut off tragedy at the pass before it has a chance to go over the edge.

Having someone even if it isn’t an instructor present when you spar is about safety. It is also about legality. While you do sign waivers when you join martial arts schools, the main point of a sparring activities is to ensure the proceedings are safe. The less padding, the greater the necessity for eyeballs. If you’re under black belt and a minor, then someone will probably be in the vicinity if these kids are sparring on premises even if there aren’t eyeballs directly on them at all times. And if they’re sparring when they shouldn’t? The first time they’ll get let off with a warning. If it becomes a repeat habit, they’ll get kicked out after they’re discovered.

There is a very distinct difference between “practicing your techniques with a partner” and “sparring”.

Practicing with a partner: you’re performing one technique or a combination of techniques in order to practice technique, precision, and learn distance with another human present to act as your dummy. This is not freestyle, it’s controlled. It goes back and forth. Practicing with a partner is very important for martial arts training because you’re figuring out new concepts you can’t get on your own such as the troublesome nature of finding pressure points, learning to adjust for another person’s weight, the actual length of your arms, etc. It is very controlled and it can be literally anything, from throwing roundhouse kicks back and forth to practicing your throws/grappling techniques. This is where most technical adjustments will happen.

Sparring: Sparring is a practice fight where you take everything you’ve learned and put it to the test against a live opponent in a mostly free-form format. The rules mostly change depending the martial art, on belt rank, or just for general safety (such as no blows to the head/no kicks to the head for minors). Sparring is not a substitute for a “real fight”, it’s just the closest you can get in a safe/controlled environment. People will take chances in sparring that they never would in real life simply because they know that it isn’t real or that they’re safe. If your characters aren’t practicing their techniques then no amount of sparring is going to help them improve. Doing a lot of sparring is like skipping ahead to F when you still need to work through A, B, C, D, and E. The boring stuff.

For example, most martial arts schools have one, yes only one, day of the week dedicated to sparring. It acts as a carrot to get kids interested in doing the boring stuff, much in the same way the prospect of dessert after the meal encourages children to eat their vegetables.

Just because your character is successful in sparring doesn’t mean they can do jack shit in a real fight. The closer their martial art hews in focus on street fighting/self-defense then the less freedom they’ll be allowed when sparring. You may be going “but it’s safe!”. It is never safe. Where two consenting adults can go at it legally, two minors will be in a host of trouble.

You need someone around who has some basic grasp of what they’re doing, free-form practicing rather than outright sparring is usually where innovation happens. If they don’t know enough to understand what it should look like, then the students will end up just baking their flaws into their techniques.

“I do not fear the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee

This quote is pretty simple, but it trips people up. Bruce Lee is talking about refinement of the basics, which are the foundation of all martial arts. By focusing on a single technique, you carefully practice until it is perfect. Looking for flaws, adjusting yourself, fixing your mistakes, and continuing to work on it until it is the best it possibly can be. Whereas, the one who grabs at everything or doesn’t focus on their basics has no foundation and far less dangerous. This also directly applies to sparring because most students (not just writers) approach the exercise with the eagerness of “getting to do a real fight”.

If you assume your technique is fine or practice the same movement over and over again without thinking about it (as one might in sparring when their mind is on other things), then you eventually bake those flaws into your muscle memory. Once they end up in your muscles by the series of repetitions, they become much harder to extract.

It’s not that too much practice is bad or even that practice without oversight is bad, but rather practice without any thought, self-awareness, or critical analysis is what will catch you. When you find that balance of what the technique should look/feel like, you then practice it over and over repetitively until you can do it on command.

This is where techniques like the 1 hit KO roundhouse come from. One of the other masters in our organization shared a story about meeting my Master Gary Nakahama at a tournament. He and his friends were up in the stands laughing at this guy on the floor who was just practicing his roundhouse before the match over and over and over again. The match begins, KWJN Gary threw his roundhouse, hit his opponent in the head, and down the other man went. They all stopped laughing after that.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that while these two may be very good at fighting each other, if they only practice against one person then they will only be good against that person. One of the advantages of a class is that you get a wider sample size to practice with. People come in all different shapes and sizes with flaws and foibles, their bodies are all slightly different. Part of practicing with multiple individuals is learning to adjust on the fly to those changes.

All this is me saying that there isn’t anything wrong with your set up (other than the “we do real fighting but we don’t hurt people” which is a contradiction and still dumb), just giving you contextual information to think about surrounding these characters.

The other thing I would caution you to think long and hard about is the contradiction I mentioned above and why you want it. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, there is no safety with violence. There’s only “as safe as we can make it”. Your martial art doesn’t make sense to me, except on the idea that it’s existing for narrative’s moral reasons. Your characters are going to have a difficult time sparring if they aren’t learning how to attack. At the very least step back and look at Aikido or some other martial arts that focus on a more non-violent approach.

Because it feels like you said, “roughly close to real violence except they don’t fight at all”. Most martial arts that hew toward “real life violence” don’t fuck around, they end it fast whether that’s a lightspeed throw that puts an opponent on their back or a headbutt to the face.

You might want to find some balance between your desire to have your characters be good at fighting but also whatever inner fear might linger that the reader won’t like them if they hurt people. Because right now it feels like they’ve been backed into a “martial art” that’s going to hamstring them.

That is just one person’s perspective, take what you will from it.

-Michi

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