Tag Archives: training advice

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.


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How would a teenager’s personality be affected if they were trained in fighting an survival techniques since childhood?

I’d like to give an answer to this question, but the problem is that it actually encompasses a wide range of backgrounds. All of which can create significantly different personality types. Here’s a short list:

The child of uber-environmentalists or hippies, spent their weekends camping, learning the wonders of nature, and their weeks practicing Tai Chi.

The child of extreme survivalists, who spent their childhood learning self-sufficiency in the wilderness and how to drill a skull with their hunting rifle at a hundred yards.

A Boy Scout (or Girl Scout depending on merit badges), especially one who grew up in Montana, Wyoming, or anywhere that has no sensitivity to guns. (There’s a reason why an Eagle Scout gets an automatic rank bump when they enlist in the US Military.)

The kid who got boxed up and sent off to a Military Academy or Boot Camp.

The upper-middle class kid whose parents shoved them into every single martial arts program and or camping/environmentalist program in order to get them out of the house and out from underfoot.

The same upper-middle class background as the above kid, except the child did it to escape their parents.

The kid who grew up on the streets of a major metropolitan city and had to scrounge for every meal until they learned boxing after landing in Juvie.

The kid who grew up on the streets in a major metropolitan city and had to scrounging for every meal until they were discovered and taken off the streets by a kindly boxing coach.

This is only a small number of the unlimited possibilities and even within the subset, the personalities created while not unique are many.

The important truth to remember when thinking about personalities for your character is that personalities are developed through individual experiences. Change a minute detail like the kid had an instructor who liked them to the kid had an instructor who ignored them and you change the experience thus changing the effect on the personality.

A specific kind of training can develop an outlook the individual adopts. An outlook is the way someone views and sees the world around them, but training is only part of the equation. Home life, friendships, school experiences, religious background, political background, these are all aspects of our experiences informing who we are and how we look at the world. They also inform what we choose to do with the skill sets we have.

It’s also important to remember that the training outlooks for each individual martial art is different. They take on the aspects of what they were or currently are meant for and the values of the culture they come from. Taekwondo, for example, pushes the importance of community to it’s trainees. Giving back is the watch word, we have a responsibility to take what we know, what we’ve learned from our training, and use it to benefit others (not in the superhero sense). This mostly takes the form of mentoring other students in the dojang, but it also encompasses community service and other projects outside the school. In fact, in order to progress up the belt ranks, each student must write an essay as part of their final exam detailing what their understanding of their training is.

However, a child who has always had difficulty making friends or comes from difficult family circumstances may adopt these tenants differently from a child who has loving parents and lots of friends outside the school.

Think about what kind of survival training and fighting training your teenager had. What were they being trained to do? Was it self-defense? Purely for recreation? Health and fitness? Hunting monsters? Post-apocalypse survival? Why were they learning this in the first place? What sort of community surrounded them while they were growing up? Was it an insular one? Did they have regular access to individuals outside their family group? How present were their parents? Is this a family thing or something they decided to pursue on their own?

Once you’ve outlined their background and figured out what kind of training you want them to have, you can then fill in the blanks by limiting your search to martial combat and skill sets which cover what you’re looking for. This limits your search so it becomes easier. Try not to have a concrete idea in mind, otherwise you’ll end up rejecting the real world information you dig up because it doesn’t exactly match the idea in your head. Once you’ve absorbed the knowledge, then you can route back and get the character you’re looking for (or maybe one you weren’t). You’ll have a better understanding of the experiences they might have been through and thus a firmer grasp of the sort of personality they could have. By filling in their background, the person starts to become realized.

When doing this with teenagers, you may have to do some jury-rigging if you want them to have a skill set that’s not normally available to a teen with their background such as military grade Systema or military grade Krav Maga. You’ll have to figure out how they got that training and create a firm understanding of why they were trained that way. You’ll also have to accept that this training will change them in ways that are noticeable to other characters around them. People, even kids, are very good at picking out dangerous individuals and avoiding them on a gut level, even if they don’t consciously know why they’re doing it. A kid with this kind of training may also have difficulty relating to others or even seeing other individuals as individuals. Their concept of right to life may be abstract at best and they’ll already know how to push themselves through significant mental hoops in order to justify killing someone.

However, this isn’t a normal background or normal setup for a character or even something normal/average/even bad parents would allow to happen to their child. You’ll have to set up their background to justify it and allow your other characters to act accordingly.


How do I write a training? All my attempts to describe a training for teenagers are silly.

The best way to learn how to write training is to experience it for yourself or, at the very least, observe.The most honest way to do this is to select the martial art that you want your character training in and find a local school that is willing to let you sit in and watch their training sessions. It’s common practice in many schools to open up their classes to prospective students. Ask the instructors in charge specific questions about training (even if you think they’re stupid) and about training teenagers. I suggest this because while there are base similarities in how to prepare and teach both body and mind, each style (and each school) often have unique perspectives on what works best for them. The only way you can know what those are is either by asking or by experiencing it for yourself.

In most non-training story narratives, writers have a nasty habit of going too hard and being too brutal. Many seem to believe that all training works the same way as R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. R Lee Ermey was a staff sergeant in the Marines and his style of teaching was specific to both the Marines and the 70s. Unless you’re specifically writing a Vietnam War era drill sergeant, I suggest looking elsewhere.

Training is not a mystical mysterious experience, it is at it’s core all about a teacher and a student. It’s about learning much in the same way you do in a high school or college classroom except that it involves physical activity. The best way to write a training sequence is to discover what is being taught, what knowledge is being imparted to the students, and how the teacher is choosing to teach the student that information.

A good instructor will push a student past their self-conceived physical limits and out of their comfort zone without pushing them past their actual physical limits. Unlike in Divergence, no one will be left to flounder and guess at what they should be doing. Techniques will be shown to the students by the instructor and then the students will be asked to perform them under the instructors supervision. They will repeat the technique through a series of repetitions, often breaking it down into pieces and performing it on a count so that the student develops a full understanding of all the pieces of what they are doing. On each count they will be asked to hold position while the instructor and their assistants check the students’ body positions and make corrections. It will be slow and, for many students, it will be frustrating. Expectations will often be dashed when faced with the slow accumulation of knowledge, but that is also important because it teaches the student patience and respect for what they are learning. Humility, patience, perseverance, and generosity of spirit are all qualities that the student is being taught as they learn to fight. Learning when it is appropriate to fight is as important as learning how to fight. This is true of both Eastern and Western martial arts, where the student is taught to fight in defense of themselves, defense of their home, and defense of their homeland.

The difficulty with writing a training sequence is that the author has to be a teacher. It’s their job to communicate how something is done to the reader, not just to the characters. In order to write an effective training sequence, you yourself have to be an authority on the subject. This is part of why I feel the Karate Kid remake actually works better at this aspect than the original because Jackie Chan was teaching Jaden Smith during production and they developed an authentic rapport. This is also why Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small quartet and Trickster’s Choice/Trickster’s Queen novels are successful because they have done the research but ,more importantly, knew what the end product of the training would be.

We don’t train someone for training’s sake, we are training them to do something. Once you figure out what the end goal of the training is, then you can limit your search to the appropriate skill sets and venues that specialize in what you are trying to create. Once you know that, you then do extensive research on the subject until you understand everything you can about it. Then, you can write your scene.

So, ask yourself some simple questions:

What am I training my characters to do?

Does what I’ve chosen for them to learn match up with what I want them to do (for example, if you want your characters to be aggressive fighters then aikido is not the right choice)?

If yes, then awesome. If no, then does what they are being trained to do make sense for what their culture expects or requires of them? Do they feel it’s something they need to be learning?

What are the skill sets the real world professions require? (If you’re having trouble figuring out the above this might help to get you started.)

I hope this helped answer your question. I know it’s a little long winded and roundabout.


Would it be probable that a character who is somewhat minimally trained could beat someone with a bit more training than them if the more trained person is cocky and lets their guard down? The scene I’m writing isn’t a battle scene exactly, it’s kind of a training type deal, and both characters are a part of a small rebel army and are in a practice duel situation.

It is certainly possible, but for the sequence to work, it’s going to depend heavily on several factors.

1) What the style that they are learning is.

The meaning behind “Slightly better trained” or having spent slightly longer training can change drastically based on which the style the characters are learning.

Not all martial arts and combat forms are created equal, each one is designed for a specific purpose, and like any form of technological advancement, it changes as it evolves. The police and the military both use eight week training courses in hand to hand that are designed so that the soldiers and the cops can pick the techniques up very quickly. These styles have a hard limit, because the students don’t have a lot of time to adjust to them. They learn what they need to know and move on. Soldiers who come out of these training programs end up fairly equal, for the most part but the difference between two trainees who are separated by a week or even just a day of training is drastic.

Some styles that are worth looking into: M.A.P. and CQB (US Military), CQC (US Police), Krav Maga (Israeli Defense Force), Systema and Sambo (Russian Special Forces).

Compare these to a styles to a combat art like Shotokan Karate or Taekwondo, where it can take years (if ever) to achieve any kind of real combat proficiency. Depending on the style, the belt ranking system, the school, and the instructor, two students with a single belt rank of difference like a brown belt versus a blue belt or a yellow belt versus a green belt can be fairly even. However, these styles are designed to be picked up at a much slower pace than military forces can allot time for. Now, many martial arts practitioners do end up stronger combatants in the long run (if they’ve been learning how to fight in the real world), but it takes a substantial time investment that works better for an individual than in a system where high turnover is necessary.

In short: it could happen, but that scenario is more likely to occur in a martial arts dojo than between two soldiers of different levels of training. It’s also fairly likely to happen between two soldiers who’ve both completed their training course and one has spent slightly more time in the field. Now, it can happen over the course of training, but you’re ultimately going to get more mileage out of characters who’ve come up together at the same time with one simply having been singled out as the “best” in the class. This way, instead of having to surmount an accelerated training course, the characters have to get over their own mental obstacles. Which brings us to number 2.

2) The mind plays a key role in victory or defeat

It’s important to remember that people aren’t machines or like characters in a video game. You can’t simply slot X allotment of powers onto them and expect them to perform at maximum capacity all the time. A belt ranking system in a martial arts dojo isn’t so much a sign post for how good a character is, but what they’ve learned, overcome, and accomplished in the course of their training. Depending on the school, a brown belt can defeat a lazy black belt if that black belt doesn’t continually put the work in to keep their skills sharp. If someone hits the top and just rests on their laurels, they’ll get taken by an up and comer assuming that we as the audience (in a story context) have seen the character putting the extra work in to get to that point. The other half is that the brown belt is going to have to work very, very hard to defeat the lazy black belt, simply on the grounds that the black belt knows so much more than they do.

A character can be off their game for any number of reasons and, ironically, most of those reasons don’t boil down to overconfidence. It could be bad news from home, the wife serving them with divorce papers an hour before the fight, strain from surviving their first battle out in the field, or what they witness during a time of war. It could even be something as simple as what they are and aren’t allowed to get away with in a training context. What someone is willing to do on the training floor against one of their buddies can be different from what they’ll do to a complete stranger on the battlefield.

The character with less training winning the duel is ultimately going to rest on how the other character is feeling that day, and on one other crucial bit:

3) Can the character take advantage of someone else’s mental state?

You never want to write a gimme, especially with a fight sequence. The duel between these two characters could set the stage for the rest of the book and regardless of who comes out on top, it should feel that the character earned the victory or, if done well, they don’t but it’s not from something they did. A character can win a fight but leave the audience unsatisfied, if that’s intentional and leaves the POV character unsatisfied as well then great, but if it’s unintentional then it’s a problem.

You’re going to walk a very thin line here because a better character being cocky and letting their guard down is cliche. Now, I’m not saying don’t do it. Cliche works for a reason, but you have to remember that it is and work extra hard to make sure it doesn’t feel like every other version of this fight I could find by just picking up a book off my shelf.

Ultimately, Character B wins X because Character C is a cocky asshole has been played to death. The Character B also feels like they’ve won on a technicality and not through anything they did. If they do win on a technicality, then that doesn’t really tell the audience anything or give them a reason to invest in the character. However, if Character B is shown working very hard to defeat cock asshole Character C and Character C loses because they assumed X about Character B, when B moved forward off that point, then the victory will be satisfactory to the audience. A character who works hard to win, who works hard to be more than they are, and who earns their victories is always more appealing in the long run than a character who is “just that good”.

You’ve got to balance them both, but an outside reason for victory is never as good as an internal one.


How could a character train their flexibility/strengh if they didn’t regularly have access to a trainer/facilities, and if the resources they had access to were meant for people a good third shorter than them?

Yes, a character can train their flexibility and strength even if they don’t have regular access to facilities or a trainer. Important training like conditioning and flexibility can be done solo, and will be an important part of any serious, athletic character even when they do have access to a trainer and appropriate facilities.

Some thoughts:

Most high schools and colleges have a track, bleachers, and other amenities that are available to the public for use when school is not in session. I’m not talking about the weight lifting gym or anything like that (though if your character is a student, they may be able to take advantage of it by going through the appropriate channels). For liability reasons, the weight lifting gym in a high school, even a public one, will be closed to anyone who isn’t an athlete. But the track? The bleachers? The pullup bars? And other amenities? Those they can use.

If you have any experience doing conditioning training (building stamina, lung capacity, etc) then use that. If you don’t and I’m guessing this is true, we’ll go over some simple training exercises below and talk about the problems with pushing the boundaries of believability.

Now, when working with conditioning, it’s important to not over exaggerate. In many instances when I’ve been reading, I’ve found authors who didn’t have much experience with training pushing themselves either too high or too low. For example, in the scope of full out physical exertion five minutes is a long goddamn time. A usual workout for a character is going to only last between fifteen to thirty minutes, not an hour. They’re going to need to take breaks between one minute to five minutes and if they’re alone then they’ll have to moderate that for themselves. The length of the break will change based on the amount of exertion, say if they’ve been running bleachers, or a mile, or wind sprints, then take five once the repetitions are complete. If they’ve been doing pushups or situps, then a one minute break for some water is applicable.

They will probably feel the desire to cheat, if they do that’s okay just make sure it comes back to bite them later, working out is very hard. Characters who aren’t used to working out will slack off when there’s no one there to watch them. When someone is held accountable only to themselves then things tend to slip. It’s good to have a workout buddy, someone who will push the character forward past their self-perceived limits, but those are also hard to come by.

When doing conditioning, count it out not by time spent but in number of repetitions or reps. Doing pushups for a full minute (fifty/sixty pushups for sixty seconds) is not a beginner sport, serious athletes will do it, but it’s difficult. When working, keep it simple. 5 repetitions of 10 is good for someone who is very experienced whether that’s pushups, situps, leg lifts, or any of the vast number of other exercises out there. When you break the number out, it means they did 50 of each. You can stretch and do reps anywhere, on the bench at school, in front of the television, it doesn’t matter. The place doesn’t need to be special, what is important is that your character is doing them.

Here’s the average layout of the workout we used to do in our Saturday Morning Trainings, these trainings usually lasted between 6:00AM to 7:00AM:

5:30AM to 6:00AM: run a warm up lap before the instructor arrives and stretch.

6:00AM: run a mile (mile will last between 6-14 minutes depending on student and the student’s conditioning, the faster you run, the longer your break)

6:15AM: Practice forms or stances around the track.

6:20AM: Wind sprints/Run a “Korean” Mile (this is what we called it, but line everyone up in a line and send them jogging, last person in line sprints to the front, then over, and over, until the mile (usually for us just a lap or two around the track) is complete. The less teamwork, the harder it is for everyone. The team must slow down to keep pace with their slower members or the line gets really long.)

6:30AM: Practice kicks. (On the chain link fence, we spread out, and practiced our kicks as the instructor counted out the numbers of 1-5. 1: beginning position, 2: chamber, 3: kick, hold kick, 4: chamber, 5: drop the leg. Position changes when he speaks, so you could hold the leg there for a long time.)

6:45AM: Run bleachers. Students younger than twelve or thirteen run the stairs between the bleachers, teens and adults run the actual ones. Count out 5 repetitions, pair the children closer together so that they race.

6:50AM: wind down/cool off. Pushups, situps, and leg lifts. 2-5 repetitions of 10, depending. (2 for pushups and leg lifts, 5 for situps if time allows).

7:00AM: stretch. Everybody goes home.

As for stretching, you don’t need someone else there to help your character stretch. My advice: go to your local bookstore or library and buy or check out a book that’s dedicated to teaching someone how to work out on their own. It will cover all the major pitfalls and missteps a beginner will have, while also helping you add a sense of realism.

You also might want to think about starting to work out for yourself. The actions alone won’t be enough to convey the feelings or mental stress of working out. We can’t really fake remembering the feeling of a runner’s high, personal experience will make you a better writer in the long run.

And please, never ever use second hand training gear that doesn’t fit you. It won’t work and is more dangerous in the long run, it will also hamper your character’s ability to perform and is more likely to get them injured. Now, most workout/weightlifting machines can be adjusted to someone’s personal settings. So, it’s not the end of the world.

Figure out what your character is training to do, then develop a routine that will develop those aspects of their body’s muscular structure. All the training in the world won’t help if they’re developing their body to do the wrong things. All training and all workouts are not created equal.

I hope that helps.