Tag Archives: training

You’ve probs answered this before but how do I write training a character in a way that isn’t boring? If you have answered this, could you tell me the tag or a link? Thank you so much!

We do have a training tag, so there should be some useful ideas there.

The simplest way? Make the sequence educational. The point is to teach your characters something. This means you need to know something on the subject (and if you don’t, then it’s time to do some research). Then you impart that information to your audience. Teach them something they didn’t know.

This doesn’t change when it comes to martial arts or other kinds of combat training. The physical training will be coupled with an explanation for what to do and why. Depending on the instructor, the “why” could be occluded with mysticism, in an attempt to push the student (and reader) to think. But, it still needs to be there. I would strongly warn you against going for a pseudo-mystical explanation of “why,” unless you’re actually pretty well versed in the philosophy your character is working from.

Training sequences live and die on the lessons your characters teach. Strictly speaking, this can go both ways. There’s a cliche element to the teacher learning from the student, but it is something that happens.

Training sequences are also a very good time to slip in exposition dumps without getting caught. Your characters are training towards something that’s relevant in the story, this is exactly the time to talk about those elements of your setting. It still needs to be as concise as possible. You may be writing a fantasy epic with 300 pages of backstory dating back 100k years, but your audience only cares about that as long as an impatient kid being trained in the mystical ways of a lost monastic order will.

In short, teach your characters and your audience at the same time.


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What would be the 1st things a teacher would teach to students who aren’t new to martial arts but have studied either a completely different set of techniques/style or a set of techniques/style that share some similarities but is still different?

They would still teach them how to stand and they would still start at the very beginning.

Transitioning from style to another doesn’t automatically allow you to skip over the basics. In fact, the basics become that much more important. All martial training is a re-training of the body’s natural responses and muscle memory is very confusing. Doing one will not necessarily allow you to jumpstart into another. You’re actually much more likely to fall prey to the minutiae. Getting caught between a technique in one style and the technical details of another will lead to confusion during a fight. It’s a costly mistake, a deadly one. In some ways, it’s faster to train someone who has already been trained in another style because they grasp the concepts faster. However, it’s also slower because you also have to retrain or find a way to harmonize their body’s now natural responses with this new style. Even for two styles that are very similar, the differences can be vast and the last thing anyone wants is to see their student die because they decided to skip necessary steps.

The early stages of training are the most important.

I said it in the other post, each style has their own unique way of going about training and everything is slightly different. Those differences can create drastic flaws in the techniques that they’ll be trained in if they’re not corrected. You can never completely rewrite their foundation, but they still have to learn the new rules in the same way that any student would.

If you’re going to write a student of two different martial arts styles, then you’re going to be beholden to both of them. Thorough research will be needed on one and then the other in order to understand the transition and the conflicts between the two styles when it comes to training in more than one. This is also why it’s best to do one and then the other rather than two at the same time, two will lead to conflicting signals and constantly force them to unlearn what their body recently learned which sets back their progress. Unless the student works very hard to assert the second style as primary, the first one they’ve learned will always make up their “base”. This will be true even if they don’t use the skills at all as the stylistic tendencies inform their body’s movements. These qualities become more apparent within an individual style due to the proclivities of different teachers. It extends beyond just martial arts too and into other physical activities, a character raised in ballet will still subconsciously carry themselves like a ballerina even after they’ve switched over.

And, sometimes, even in the same style when switching to an additional discipline such as a weapon discipline will also return to basics. The student will spend the first day learning how to stand with a sword, hold a sword, and balance a sword in their hands long before they start learning the techniques.

The basics of training work like this:

Learn to stand.

Learn single techniques while standing without stances.

Learn stances.

Learn to move in single line in stances with no techniques.

Learn single techniques in conjunction with stances.

Practice moving forward while doing technique in stance until student becomes comfortable with single technique.

Put techniques together into combination of different moves. Have students practice in a single line.

Teach students “form” comprised of techniques, which includes transitions into multiple different angles and turns.

A basic beginner form from Taekwondo would be:

Stand in beginning stance/ready position facing instructor. Turn left into basic fighting stance, slide front kick into double punch. Hold. Breathe. Turn right into basic fighting stance, slide front kick into double punch. Step back to turn toward instructor into fighting stance, front kick, front kick, front kick into double punch. The whole of the form takes place on a T shape rather than a single line.

As training progresses, include more complexity i.e. different stances and kicks. Always return to beginning when adding additional training or new concepts.

There are plenty of aspects of martial training which can (and often are) short changed in order to speed students through the process, especially when they’re on a condensed schedule with a limited amount of time. The basics are not one of those things. A broken base leads to a broken trainee.

Basics are what save your life.


You guys often say that children’s games are a way to teach kids how to fight or think like a fighter before they’re fully capable of actually fighting. Do you have any examples of games and how they work? I’d guess manhunt/hide and seek would be one … Is the aim to generate competition, encourage strategic thinking, or what?

You put these together the same way you would when structuring any other kind of lesson. You have a skill set that you want a child to learn, but you need to give them a reason to want to learn it. This is why the idea of “my character is forced to learn X” is rather ridiculous, you can’t actually force someone to learn anything and even if you try to, you’ll turn out a substandard product. You need to get them interested and you do that by making it interesting.

The games are both a system of rewards and a teaching method. The games are there to hone the skills that you’ve taught them, while simultaneously being fun enough that the child will want to practice it on their own with their friends. For example, the kids who play catch all day during recess are going to be better at baseball than the ones who don’t. Replace the ball with a stick and suddenly you have the Vikings.

So, what does playing catch teach you?

Hand to eye coordination. Accuracy. It combines the different motions in your body such as arms and hips so that you can throw harder and faster. As you throw, you build up strength in your arms and exercise your body. The more you learn how your body behaves. You then are better able to take control of your body under those specific circumstances (which are the technique you’ve practiced, instead of a universal rule) and modify it to better serve you. Also, trust and teamwork.

More importantly, you learn it all without having to think about it and you’ll practice without me having to make you.

The mistake is assuming the game or even the repetitious exercise is there just to teach one aspect. They act as a means for getting the student to put all their training together, on their own, while focusing on some other task. It’s about using the skills they’ve learned in the context of some real world exercise similar to what they’ll be doing later in life. This puts them in the habit of using their skills and using them creatively outside the limited range of what they were taught.

The games are there to get you excited and to build confidence. What you need to start doing is not thinking of “games” first. Take the exercise, make it a game. Anything can become one. Set up a system of rewards, the game itself can be reward, and hop to.

Start by picking a skill you want your characters to practice as adults. It could be hunting, it could be tracking, all as a means to train them to become an assassin.

How would you encourage someone to do it? How would you frame it so that it feels safe and okay? How do you make it fun? How do you ensure they’ll want to do it again?

Here’s one way. You pick one of the more skilled children from the pack, or the best in the class, tap them to be the “rabbit”. The other children are the “hounds”. The hounds must track and attempt to “kill” them. It will be the rabbit’s job to evade and outrun them. They will be given a head start and pointed toward a specific destination. Depending on their age, this could be a game which takes place over the course of several hours or days and obviously there are adults on hand to keep things civil.

If the rabbit can reach safety before the hounds can catch them then they will be rewarded, (the rabbit’s reward will always be the best as their task is the most difficult, thus ensuring that other kids will work harder to unseat the top of the class so they can next become the rabbit while simultaneously giving those slackers who loathe the best a free for all target worth chasing), if the hounds can catch the rabbit then they will be rewarded. As they get older, the rewards will be diminished from the full group of hounds to only those hounds who actually manage to catch the rabbit to continue to give those slackers more reason to compete.

Why a human and not an animal? You choose a human because you want them to get used to hunting humans, a child because they may one day have to kill other children, and one of their own for the exact same reason.

The games are all about instilling and incentivizing behavior. It doesn’t really matter what tools you use to incentive that behavior so long as you do. You want them to want it, so that they’ll do it, try hard and become good. These games will still work on adults too, they’re not just for children.

Children are much harder to work with, they ask more questions. They want to know more and they’ll challenge authority. It’s about figuring out how to keep them on task and focused without curbing those aspects they’ll need later. Obedience is all well and good, but in many cases you want to train someone who is resourceful, who is clever, who uses their intelligence, who does want to understand their surroundings, to understand why, and asks questions. These are aspects that they will need in the larger world. Satisfying those questions is more difficult on the trainer’s level, but a teacher’s role is to build and not break.

Teaching in general is incredibly difficult and training children is even harder. It’s also important to remember that you can do all of this without caring about the student. The historical precedent is that it’s worth it though. A person who begins training as a child will develop a technical level of skill and a hardwired nervous system that is unreachable by adults. It’s not that they’re unbeatable, it’s just that they’re better and always will be. Their brains will also process information differently. If the training is their whole life, then they’re even better than that. There’s a reason why Eagle Scouts start as PFCs (Private First Class) instead of general enlisted when they join the military.

Most of the field games you may have played as a kid like the capture the flag have an actual application. To use it in your story, though, you as the writer need to know what that application is so you can translate it into your character’s skills. The goal is to get in an obtain a resource and extract yourself with that resource intact. What does that mean in regards to your characters and their skill sets?

Orienteering. Scavenger hunts. Camping. Frisbee. Celestial navigation. Dodgeball. Jump rope. All this stuff teaches you things and has actual combat applications. The question is did you realize what you were learning in the process? In a slightly more messed up world, you might have been studying in order to eventually kill someone or many someones. Let that sink in.

What’s missing is that you were never taught how to apply those skills or the reflexes you developed in a combat environment. You use the games to teach the skills, then when they’re older you teach them to apply those skills in a proper environment.

Star Wars does an excellent job of operationalizing this concept and not in the way you think. “It’s not impossible. I used to bulls-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home and they’re not much bigger than two meters.” Take skills developed as child, blow up the Empire’s superweapon. In the first movie, Luke is a great example of a character who is applying the skills they’ve learned to new ways. Obi-wan using the remote to teach him how to use a lightsaber and the necessary concentration to “let go your conscious self and act on instinct” comes back in that same scene.

What your missing is that the stuff you perceive as normal behavior is actually not normal at all. It’s just the state or culture you were raised in. Change that, you change everything about yourself as a person. You want to raise a child to fight, then you raise them in a culture where killing is normal and accepted behavior. You orient everything around that. In most cases, the people who are doing this may not even know what they’re doing because they were raised the exact same way and it’s normal for them too. For them, it’s the way the world is and it’s how it should be.

Consider all the kids who go hunting with their parents, consider all the kids who were raised with guns, consider all the kids whose parents put them in martial arts, consider all the kids whose parents put them in Scouts, and that’s just the United States. There’s also nothing wrong with any of these children or them as people. It’s just that, like you, they were raised in a different environment and were exposed to different things and may have come to see the world differently.

How does the game of tag change when you have to fight the one you catch in order for your opponent to become “It”? For you, it may change a whole lot and it may even be horrifying. For a character who comes from a society where this is how the game works? That’s normal.

You incentivize behavior, you normalize the behavior, and you pass it on.


I’m the author the last anon mentioned. What you said about sparring makes a lot of sense; I’m working on changing stuff to fit. Here’s another question: The point of the scene is to set character A up as a hand-to-hand fighter who seriously challenges B, the MC. (This informs a later plot point.) How can you clearly show the advantage going back and forth in a close match without landing any blows, esp. for readers who equate damage done with skill in those kinds of scenes?

I’m already sensing a few issues with this. Though, the problem may simply be the way you’re thinking about it. So, I’ll go through them and start with my big glaring red flag which is the question at the bottom.

Skill =/= Damage

This is a very common mistake by most people who have never had any sort of martial training. It’s also an attitude that is fairly common amongst “street” fighters aka the idiots who like to punch each other out in their backyards and call it training. It all sounds very impressive, until you’ve learned how easy it is to actually hurt someone else. Then, the prospect of causing injury to another person is a lot less impressive. Even with just a few basic lessons, it’s remarkably easy and metrics don’t make it any more impressive. And yes, you are the one equating damage with skill, not your readers.

Allow me to talk to you about skill for second.

Hurting your training partner in a training accident is actually a sign of insufficient skill. It means they lack control over both themselves and their technique. Skill is not in how much damage a character is able to dish out, it’s in their ability to choose how much damage they dish out. Skill is in control, both over your body and over yourself. There’s technical proficiency with the technique, and again technical proficiency is about how well you perform, how well you control the minute movements of your body, and not, really, in your ability to produce the expected result. The technique will produce the expected result and that’s why you practice it in a controlled environment with a trusted partner so you can feel its effects and know why it should be respected. (This includes Police officers practicing full moves on each other during training and that training is almost always single technique, so they know how it feels.

You don’t choke another person out in the sparring arena just to prove how tough you are. (Though if they fail to tap out and no one intervenes then that’s on everyone.) That’s the kind of macho bullshit nobody’s got time for.

It’s dangerous, it endangers both participants, and starts to kill the level of trust you need to work with someone during practice. Let alone sparring. When two people practice together, they are making an agreement to aid each other and to keep each other safe. You get into cases where this doesn’t happen, there are plenty of stories where bullies use practice matches as a means to inflict “accidental” damage on their target. Two Tamora Pierce stories involve this, Protector of the Small and The Song of the Lioness with characters who, for their own reasons, decide to use a practice match as a means to maim the protagonist.

Now, I grant you: from an entertainment standpoint it’s sensational as hell. You feel like you’re creating a great gasp moment with “oh my gosh, he cut his knuckles on her face!”

However, this is the sort of injury that either…

A) Happens by complete accident, such as that anecdotal story I sometimes tell where the instructors weren’t watching and two brown belts were allowed to spar each other in a manner above their level. Both connected and broke their legs. When this happens, it’s usually a sign of lack of skill and lack of attention on the part of the people in charge to watch them. And then, there’s…

B) They wanted to hurt them and they’re just going to use the above as an excuse.

This also means that they are willing to take the hit on looking bad because at least some of the onus for the injuries will be on them.

Control is the big differentiation between trained and untrained, it’s the ability to choose where, when, and how much. 9/10 it also means course correction, being able to read the situation when you’re in the heat of the moment and yank yourself back off the cliff. Sometimes, this includes modifying your attack, possibly even stopping it, after you’ve committed. There are techniques where after we misread a situation and commit to an action there’s nothing we can do. Either the realization comes too late, changing course would only ensure the other person got more hurt, or we don’t realize something is wrong until after. It happens to everyone.

Still, the mistake is in assuming it’s a sign of skill.

What makes these characters skilled is how close they are and how capable they are in comparison with the end purpose of their training. Which begs the question: what are they training and practicing to do? If the answer is “to fight people!” then you might want to rethink it. Every career in the combat arts comes with training specialized to help its students achieve success at their career. Stop and think about the career you want these characters to engage in. What will they be doing? What skills do they need to have? How does what you’ve set up for a career correspond with the expectations present in real-world professions? If you do get lost, confused, or unsure then looking at these will probably help and get you thinking along avenues you might not have previously considered.

All training has purpose and its goal is to inevitably make you better at what your intending to do. The biggest issue might simply be that you’re thinking about this sequence like it’s a fight. It’s not. It’s a training exercise, and the in universe point is to both to practice what you know and to learn.

I mean, I have the meta reason for why this sequence exists: it informs a plot point, it’s there to show the audience both fighters are skilled, and one is more skilled than the other. That’s all information there for you as the author, which is nice to have for the future, and is utterly useless in the now.

Forget about that.

What are they learning? What are they supposed to be doing? Why aren’t they doing that? Why are they doing this? How do they feel?

What’s missing here is motive. You have the plot in mind, and as a writer what’s happening in this scene is justifying character behavior in another down the line. However, you also need to make sure your characters have a reason for how they are behaving in this scene.

When it comes to sparring:

The reason why sparring works as a training exercise is the inclusion of limits and a different system to score how well they are doing. You just have to decide what those limits are, look at different martial arts to get a feel for what you want to run with. Most of the good Self-Help books at your local bookstore or library will have the rules, and if those are a bust then you can always look them up online.

Most average television and movie fight scenes like on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where there’s a lot of stop, pause, and banter runs a lot closer to what you can expect from a sparring session. The session is relaxed, the players have the necessary time to pause, joke, and talk shit to each other. You can get away with this a lot more readily in a sparring session because the characters in question aren’t fighting for their lives or focusing on staying alive. They also have time to breathe. There’s also a teacher standing nearby, watching, and participating. They both know that they are safe and that can lead to some looser behavior.

Sparring sessions are longer. They’ll run for several minutes as opposed to several seconds. The characters worry more about running out the clock and scoring their points than they do survival, even in the toughest environments. That’s also okay. Again, the point of a sparring session is to learn. Sparring provides us with the opportunity to experiment, to learn strategies, to figure out which techniques we’ve been learning are the ones which work best for us in a stress free environment. It’s also an excellent means of building confidence. A beat down, “real world” as it might be, just leads to frustration. Beating someone up (even when they’re at equal levels) is just beating them, it doesn’t teach them anything.

Again, the point isn’t to win. The point is to learn. You can learn just as much from losing as winning, sometimes more so.

Stop worrying about reader expectations.

You define what skill is and what skill means in terms of your story. With proper in story communication,

My friend and I have a disagreement. She’s written a hand-to-hand sparring scene where the mc screws up and gets punched just below her eye, right across her cheekbone. The author says the blow makes her bleed. I argue that if the other fighter doesn’t have rings or scary fingernails or anything to cut skin, her character would just have a really excellent bruise/maybe black eye. Thoughts?

The knuckles will do it. Because of the way the bones of the knuckles are so close to the surface it can cut the cheekbone. The cheekbone can also cut the knuckles, creating an open wound and causing them to bleed. This is one of the main reasons why you never want to punch out a zombie, if the disease is transferable by blood.

So, no it’s not impossible. She’ll get the cut in addition to a very nice shiner and it will hurt like hell. It’ll swell too, get very puffy, and impede her vision out of that eye for a good long while. It’s also the kind of bruise you keep for a few weeks. So, she’ll be feeling the sting (haha) of failure for a while.

The real question here is: why are they allowing blows to the head? Why are their superiors allowing them to spar without any hand protection? This is the kind of injury you get in an actual fight, not really in a sparring match.

When you spar, you take steps to prevent these sorts of injuries from happening. Contrary to popular fiction, sparring is about testing your abilities within a controlled environment and doesn’t actually involve any intention of hurting your partner. No one should be going home with serious bruises. If they are, then it’s a failure on the part of everyone involved. Sparring is a training exercise and training is meant to teach, not break.

This isn’t to say one doesn’t get bruises when you’re sparring. You do. However, the injuries are very minor. Muscle aches, maybe a few small bruises that’ll stick around for three weeks, but not bruised ribs, pulled ligaments, cut knuckles, or any injury that leaves you seriously impaired. An impaired student is unable to train, if they are unable to train then they fall behind and might end up blowing their physical conditioning on the period it takes for recovery. You also negate the chance of greater injury with strict rules that reduce the chance of lesser injury.

There are certain sparring tests which are what we might conveniently term “balls out” such as graduation exams within certain special forces branches of the military, but those are singular instance and, again, under extremely vigilant supervision.

Too often, this sort of scene happens in fiction without any consequences. The assumption is that with “hardcore training” there are obviously going to be injuries. This is just not true. The more dangerous the training, the more precautions are taken because, again, you still want them present and learning tomorrow. This isn’t just a case of one student being at fault, both are, because the intensity has been pushed to a point where this occurs. The teacher as well if present (and especially if not).

I mean, if they’re not wearing any hand protection then I’m going guess they also aren’t using mouth guards (or cups if one of them is male). In which case, the hit to the face also risked: chipping teeth, losing teeth, cutting the inside of the mouth, splitting the lip, and biting off a piece of your own tongue. Not to mention the prospect of a concussion. Remember, it’s all fun and games until you’ve got to explain to your teacher why your mouth is full of blood.

So, while yes, your friend is right, she’s also wrong. Training accidents do happen, so these are just some things to think about.


Does it matter at what age someone starts training martial arts? In my story there is a family who has been doing training all their lives, and then someone else who just started at her late teens. Does she has an opportunity to be as good as them?

Yes and no. It depends on what you mean by “as good as” and how you’ve decided to define success.

Here’s the thing:

The vast majority of adults working in the martial arts/self-defense/military/police/stunt coordinators/professional fighters in the United States began their training as adults, probably in their late teens to early twenties. (This is not true of other places in the world, but your story is probably set in the US.) Most college programs have some sort of gateway martial art. The vast majority of martial artists you’ll see featured in Black Belt Magazine and other subsequent publications are going to be individuals who began training in their teens and early twenties, sometimes in their late twenties, sometimes even later.

You don’t have to begin training as a child to be good at martial arts. Many of the people considered most skilled in the field began training at an older age. They found a lifestyle they wanted to devote their life to. After all, Basic Training in the Marines is only 13 weeks.

In the end, the person who works the hardest, who persists the longest, who stays devoted, and who is willing to make this their life’s passion is going to be the one who is the best at it.

Okay? Okay.

This is, in part, because there’s more to being good at martial arts than impressive flexibility and “perfect technique”. It’s also true of any kind of skill set you will ever learn.

If your character signs up, or however she comes to it, and realizes she loves doing this and is willing to work hard to improve (with the understanding it’s going to take time) then one day she will be at a similar level or better. However, if “as good” to you means “looks exactly like them” then the answer is probably no because there are a lot more factors involved than just time and dedication.

Some things to think about:

The advantage of training a child is that they are a child, their brains and bodies are still developing.

You have the opportunity to train the ways their bodies react as they are still growing as this video shows if they’re that good at eight and keep working at it, you can only imagine how incredible they’ll be at seventeen. Also this video because four year olds are cute. Actually, you don’t need to imagine: this is World Wushu Champion Jade Xu who began training at the age of six. This video has footage of her as a child to adult. She is obviously exceptional, and it should be said that not every child is this gifted with natural talent. This video of a Brazilian Jiujutsu class is much more typical for what you can expect from the average student. Compare with this video talking about the teen/adult classes. You’ll notice that in the beginning the adults are much stiffer and slower than the children, but you’ll also notice by watching the instructors and other students that many of them have developed that level of flexibility.

Say your teen starts training at 16 with a family that has been training their kids since the age of 6. If the teens in that family are of a comparable age with your teen, they’ve already been doing martial arts with their parents for 10 years and they started at an age when their brains were still developing, when their physiology was still developing. This means they had the opportunity early to develop their flexibility and their brains have greater control over their bodies when it comes to minute muscle control. They’ve been molded by their training in a way that she hasn’t, because they’ve been doing it longer and they started younger. On a simple basic level, she’ll be at a comparable level of skill with them by the time she’s 26, but assuming they haven’t quit then they’ll have another ten years on her by the time they’re 26.

Will she look as good or be as technically proficient in her physical performances?

Probably not.

This doesn’t mean she can’t compete or even become nationally recognized in competitions. This doesn’t mean she can’t master the other aspects of martial training that have nothing to do with technical proficiency. Strategy, tactics, philosophy, and understanding the moral cost of violence all require a more mature perspective. Understanding the spiritual aspect of the art form in order to truly achieve mastery can take a lifetime. Plenty of people learn to fight as adults and are very good at it.

However, it’s impossible to deny that training children at a young age does give them an advantage and the training changes them in ways that it doesn’t for an adult. The method wouldn’t have global prevalence if it didn’t lend some advantage to the kids.

Is it an advantage 100% all the time? No. Does it help? It’s certainly not the end all be all and it definitely depends on the person in question. This isn’t D&D, you can’t munchkin your way to success.

There’s probably also something important to mention: a student is only as good as their teacher. An exceptional student needs an exceptional teacher, one who is capable of training them and pushing them to reach levels that they won’t on their own.

So, what about my story?

If the story doesn’t take place over the course of ten years, then no. She doesn’t have the opportunity to be as good as them within the length of the narrative. The opportunity is in the possibility of someday and that’s only if she works hard. It’s not today, or tomorrow, or next week, or even next month. You can’t catch up to someone who trained for ten years in six months, even if you work hard. They’ve been training longer, they’re going to be better and, if they don’t quit, they’re going to stay better for the rest of the story.

The real question you should be asking yourself is “does it matter?”.

The answer for me, specifically, knowing what I know about martial arts communities is no. Your character doesn’t need to be at a comparable level of skill to be accepted by her peers. If you’re worried that your character won’t be respected by the other members of this family unless they reach a similar level (in the way that most media seems to assume) then I’ll be straight and say don’t worry about it.

Non-martial artists tend to set really ridiculously high barriers for training in their stories. Partially, I think, because authors are drawn to drama and partially because the combat arts are so “mysterious”.

Still, skill isn’t what earns someone respect in a martial arts dojo. Humility, willingness to help others, and continuing to come back even when you don’t feel like it? Those are where respect is earned. Overcoming your hardships and not quitting when the going gets tough as it always does. The real battle for a martial artist is always with themselves.

I think, really, the key thing for your character to learn is this: “Don’t measure your success by the skill of someone else, be content with what you’ve learned to do and let yourself get there in your own time.”

This family’s kids are going to represent a source of frustration for your character. It will probably feel like they’re sooo much better and that can be intimidating, especially for a beginner. Plenty of beginner adults who share a class with the black belts (especially when those black belts are younger than them) feel this way and sometimes they try to push themselves too hard in order to catch up. They forget that the black belts that they’re training with once started in a similar position to them. The idea that these characters will “look down” on someone who is just starting out is ridiculous. We were all beginners at some point and we all remember what it was like. Pushing yourself too hard won’t get you there any faster, you’ve got to relax and focus on you. You’ll get there in your own time. Whether you’re five or fifty, learning is going to take time.

Patience, really, is the hardest skill for a beginner to learn.


How difficult would it be for someone to change in weaponry fighting? Like going from fighting with a small battle axe to something like a long sword? It seems difficult if at all possible for the person to go from one to the other.

If you mean “pick up a weapon they’ve never seen before, in combat, and start from zero?” Very difficult. Actually, “difficult” might not be the right word, they would be fighting at a serious disadvantage. Without knowing the weapon they’re using, they’d be more likely to make exploitable mistakes when facing someone who’s actually been trained in that weapon.

If you’re talking about training in a new weapon, it varies. Some weapons transition easily into others, axes and hammers, or staffs and polearms. Even so, once you have a base, learning new weapons isn’t particularly difficult.

That said, swords are fairly difficult weapons to learn, and transitioning from an axe to a sword, or sometimes even between different types of swords, is non-trivial. Your character could certainly learn the sword, all it would take is time, dedication, and a willingness to learn new combat techniques.

Now, some of this might not be relevant, because combatants are rarely trained in one weapon exclusively. A medieval mercenary might favor an axe, but, depending on the quality of their training, they’d probably have a functional understanding of pole arms, maces, morning stars, crossbows, and most weapons, including swords, that were commonly used in their region. This was also true of knights (and their various counterparts), who would learn to use whatever weapon came to hand.

Low grade shock troops and basic infantry might only know one or two weapons, but for everyone else, versatility was how they stayed alive on the battlefield.


My MC is learning Judo from her aunt and a knife/street fighting style from a friend. When she becomes proficient in both, would the styles mix at all? Would she be more likely to keep the separate, or mix them when appropriate or whatever is best for her stature/strength?

You’ve got a real problem here and it’s that traditional martial arts like Judo and the “street fighting” styles don’t mix at all. Martial arts each come with their own personal philosophies and ideologies, there’s an inherent outlook that changes how a student perceives the world around them as they train. This is why the advice is always to learn one martial art at a time, build a strong base and then expand your knowledge. If the student is presented with two conflicting world views, they will struggle and inevitably become subpar compared to their fellows. This is especially true of Judo, which is a Japanese martial form like Jiu-jutsu and Aikido, which draws its philosophy from Bushido. It’s a disciplined, even rigid, style of training and it requires an unquestioning obedience from its students in the beginning. We simply do, we do not question why. Understanding comes through the process of doing and the answers you seek will be discovered in time, be patient. Patience, acceptance of the natural order, unquestioning obedience to authority, and rigid discipline are going to be an important part of your MCs training in Judo. Traditional martial arts is big on learning the technique first and figuring out/discussing the application later. Thus, the process of learning is much slower though the student arguably turns out the better for it in the end. This doesn’t mean the experience is joyless or all serious, in the hands of a good instructor it’s actually a lot of fun, but it is a completely different and incompatible outlook from conventional street fighting.

Comparatively, training in “street fighting” generally revolves around beating the ever living crap out of each other until there’s only one left standing. The one left standing is a badass. “I’m so tough, I don’t need to train” is the usual refrain. The only time your conventional backyard brawler is going to go out looking for training (or think they need it) is after they’ve been beaten to a bloody pulp. This is where we get characters like Buffy, by the way, where training becomes a means of working out aggression or something they do when they feel they need it instead of a consistent form of self-improvement. A good example of street fighter training is, ironically, Fight Club. The novel actually does an exceptional job of illustrating the sort of mindset that creates. “Street fighting” knife combat training would be to shove a live knife in your MCs hand, kick them into the arena, and have them fight for their life. First lesson: don’t die. End lesson. If they survive: rinse, lather, repeat. No other lessons needed. It’s a high to be sure, but ultimately the actively aggressive mindset will get them into a lot of trouble.

Your MC’s focus is going to be on all the wrong things and they are going to end up seriously confused. Also, subpar and ineffective. A decent, though not entirely accurate, comparison would be Jedi versus Sith. They’re going to have to choose one or the other and they can’t do both at the same time. Finally, much like in Star Wars, the learning curve with the Jedi begins very slow but will rapidly outpace Sith training by the end. Street fighting is ultimately a “feel good” flat progression where Judo is consistent and continual improvement. Modern Judo is a sport form and it doesn’t translate well (straight up) into street combat, but it has been adapted into several different self-defense forms and has a focus in Police (U.S.) hand to hand. Martial arts communities often have close ties to both the Police and the Military, sharing students and knowledge between them. Your MC’s aunt is actually in a good position to hand her niece off to learn real world application and strategy for the techniques she already knows from a professional combatant in the community. (It’s probably a retired or active police officer.) She’d be better served (and safer) learning “knife fighting” from them.

There’s another way to do this and have it all work together without the general confusion. Let me start by talking about martial arts families.

You’ve got two choices with your MC’s aunt for how she started training your MC.

1) When your MC became a teenager, she fell in with a bad crowd. She never really had an interest in the martial arts or her aunt, who is either a distant figure or an inactive one in her life. She knows her in passing, but not much more than that. However, she’s become a problem and her parents want to see her straightened out (especially if she nearly died in an underground knife fighting tourney). They hand her off to this aunt for training, to get her the discipline she needs to figure out her life. In this set up, the aunt is best off as both a Judo master and a burned out cop. She can combine brutal real world practicality with strict discipline and becomes an important mentor figure to our troubled youth, one whose secondary plot is to overcome her own crisis of faith and come out of her shell. It’s a standard movie plot, troubled youth finds sense of purpose while their mentor becomes reinvigorated. From The Karate Kid to Finding Forrester, it’s an oldie but it works really well. Your character starts with street fighting and finds meaning, structure, and purpose in Judo.

2) The MC’s aunt has been an important part of their life for as long as they can remember. Like so many real world martial arts instructors, they served as an active babysitter and began training their niece in the martial arts before they could toddle. By the time she was three, your MC had learned the proper hold position on the gi and could “throw” her aunt across the room. (The aunt did most of the work, but the sentiment is real.) In fact, the MC has many family videos detailing herself as a small, giggling child performing techniques for a live audience. Always the favorite, she’s been held up as a gold standard for other students at her Judo school for most of her life. Martial arts and the martial arts community were part of her life from the beginning, she can’t remember a time before. (Search kids and martial arts, you’ll find plenty of videos documenting this behavior. I will attest to it, I’ve known too many professional martial artist uncles and aunts who do this. It’s free babysitting and daycare for the parents, so they don’t usually say no.) But, martial arts has always been something of a game and a hobby, so much a part of our young MCs life that she never thought to question it. That is, until in an attempt to test her limits, she ran across a street fighting crowd and got her ass handed to her. (A charismatic handsome boy or pretty girl, depending on your MCs sexual preferences should fit in here because this group represents a sexual awakening as well as a philosophical questioning. It’s part of growing up.)

Enter the Crisis of Faith, everything your MC thought was true about herself (her combat proficiency, her sense of superiority, her personal philosophy, etc) has been challenged and she must ask herself if her aunt was wrong this whole time. If her whole life and what she knows to be true about the world has been a lie. (It’s not, but this is the key question we all must ask ourselves as we transition from childhood to adulthood.) Wanting to test your own limits, to navigate the confusing politics and philosophy of application of force, to know if what you’ve learned as absolute truth has meaning and value, to ask “can I really defend myself in a real fight?” is a natural part of learning martial arts especially from a young age. The answer, with traditional martial arts, is actually no. Not because Judo doesn’t has application as a self-defense form but because that isn’t the focus of traditional Judo or even a part the training may cover. This is why she gets beaten, this is why she fails, not because the training itself is worthless but because that’s not what the training was training her to do (it does however lend her the keys to sort her way out of the mess). To get the answers she needs, she’ll have to seek answers somewhere else. This is where the street fighting comes in to present a seductive conflicting philosophy to the one she’s known all her life. “Maybe it doesn’t have to be this hard, maybe I don’t have to be so rigidly disciplined, this feels good. I feel powerful.”  (If you’re going to go this route I recommend reading both Fight Club and Divergent with an eye on the idea that beating someone else up feels really good, even getting beaten on and standing back up can feel good, but is it actually good? Is this an appropriate use of force? Divergent won’t ask that question, so you’ll have to ask it.)

Our heroine is drawn deeper and deeper into this dark mess, drawn away from her family and their stabilizing influence. Something bad happens, the fun and games go too far, she goes too far, and she’s left having to reconcile the two together. Maybe she goes back to her aunt, maybe her aunt hands her off to a burned out cop to sort her out and learn real world application. I don’t know, it could go a lot of different ways.

Some Real Talk:

Some of you may be going: did you just use street fighting as a drug metaphor? I did because that’s exactly what it is. “Street fighters” (the “safe” ones anyway) are getting high on adrenaline. It’s not a high the same way cocaine is, but it is addicting though the addiction is more psychological and emotional than physical. When we look at “conventional” street fighting (as opposed to the upper echelons of criminal street fighting) that’s essentially what it is. The training sequences in Divergent aren’t really Tris becoming a crazy badass, but they are actually a pretty good reference to what actual street fighter “training” looks like and even feels like. Stupid kids bouncing off the walls and playing with dangerous toys. It’s dangerous, stupid, wasteful, and they’re not actually learning anything. They’re just daredevils looking for their next adrenaline rush. Druggies getting high. Feeling good versus being good. Feeling powerful versus being powerful. And that’s the thing. Tris feels good, she feels powerful but as much as the novel would like me to believe she is, she’s really not (in hand to hand) because she never spent any time actually learning. Surprisingly, you don’t actually learn much from getting beat up or beating up other people.

This doesn’t mean street fighters aren’t dangerous, they are because of the confidence, the aggression, and the willingness to use what they know. This is especially true when a street fighter is paired with a gun or a knife because the necessary skill level to use the weapon effectively decreases and their ability to do mortal harm (even accidentally) significantly increases. If there’s one thing a street fighter knows how to do, it’s how to take the initiative, and if they can get in first and fast, the fight will go in their favor. This will put them ahead of most conventional martial artists, especially if those martial artists have never prepared themselves or gotten training for dealing with the street.

Conventional martial artists require a few changes in perspective before they can really start using what they know as a form of self-defense. However, if they survive to get that change in perspective then they have the potential to become much, much more dangerous than the average street fighter.

Of course, I’m working off the assumption that your street fighters are stupid teenagers. If they’re criminally savvy gang members, cartel, or other criminal elements (even retired) who can go toe to toe with cops then it’s a whole different ballgame. I advise against it (not just because the price for joining criminal organizations can be exceptionally high for women and they tend to skew pretty misogynist anyway) mostly because that sort of training isn’t free. If a criminal is teaching your character something, it’s because they’re making an investment and that investment is going to pay off… one way or another. However, what they’re teaching your character to do will align better with their own history of martial training. At this point, we’ve moved beyond conventional “street fighting” and into quasi-military type training.

Teenagers and Fight Clubs, on the other hand, will give what they know away for free (provided you can survive the initiation) and while walking away isn’t easy, it’s ultimately less messy. (Your friends and family are all dead kind of messy.)

The Chauvinism and Misogyny Tango:

The other side of the street fighting/martial arts dichotomy is this: the chauvinism and misogyny tango. Because of the way it draws on more, erm, primal urges, street fighting tends to have a clear break down in the perceptions between boys and girls. Boys fight boys and girls fight girls. All things are not equal and, like with some gangs, girls may end up being “property” or “trophies”. “Girls can kick butt too!” will end with other girls because the general cultural assumption that girls can’t take on boys will be in play. Even if your MC can take on the boys, she’ll still be relegated to her status as “girl”.

This is why I recommend looking at Fight Club because the misogyny you get out of the book is a pretty typical.

For a character who grew up in a situation where women fighting isn’t even a question and are obviously equal to men, this is going to come as a bit of a shock. If not as a hard, sharp slap across the face.

Knife Fighting and Judo aren’t about stature or strength, it’s all about control:

Trained knife combat is all about surgical precision, speed, and careful control. Untrained knife fighting is all about flailing wildly at your opponent and stabbing first. It’s a knife, your chances are usually good you’ll hit something vital, especially if you aim for the torso. I really recommend going through Michael Janich’s Martial Blade Concept videos on Youtube. Really. They’re snippets of his larger program but it’s all about basic knife fighting and practical advice about what you’re likely to encounter on the street. This is self-defense with a knife and it’s meant more for police than for the average untrained person, but his videos are a good resource. “Street fighting” knife combat isn’t going to look like this though. Knife fighting isn’t really fancy. Unless, I guess, your character uses a balisong.

Judo isn’t about physical strength and neither is jiu-jutsu nor aikido. If you try to base your throws around upper body strength alone, you will hurt yourself. Thousands of students make this mistake every year, the long line of strained backs and spinal injuries are all the evidence we really need. Judo is all about balance, mobility and stability, proper application of force, evasion, etc. It relies on body mechanics, an understanding of rotational forces, and destabilizing an opponent’s base. It’s not about size. Smaller individuals actually have an advantage in judo because they are closer to the ground and, regardless of size, women with their lower center of gravity (bequeathed by skeletal structure and fat distribution) are actually well-suited to this martial style. On the other hand, large opponents tend to be overly reliant on their size and strength.

Pick up Wally Jay’s Small-Circle Jujitsu as his work has had a lasting effect on the modern American self-defense.

If your character is interested in not killing people, they are more likely to keep the knife sheathed and transition to it if they have to. Most of the basic hand to hand techniques they know may require two hands anyway and if they get jumped they’re not going to have time to pull their knife anyway.

Have fun!


Is it possible to contracture yourself while training?

I’ll be honest, I had to google the term contracture, it’s not one I’ve run across before.

So, with that major disclaimer out of the way.. maybe? The causes I’m seeing for muscular contracture shouldn’t occur during training, but I can’t completely rule it out.

It looks like the most likely cause would be from scars, which you can get from training accidents, but that’s going to come with a serious wound, and a lot of recovery time.

Strokes and seizures are a risk with head injuries, but, I don’t know if that can lead to a contracture, or if it’s a more persistent thing.

Long term immobilization can result in it, but that can’t happen during training. You’re never going to be sitting in one place for the weeks or months necessary for contracture to set in.


Handling Trainees: Some Dos and Don’ts

There’s a lot of general bs about training that gets tossed around in media and books. Most advocate incredibly unsafe training procedures and advocate practices that overestimate what a trainee can handle to asking the physiologically impossible. These push the idea that training masters are sadists, that they don’t pay attention to their trainees needs, and that nine times out of ten they’ll ignore the signs of dangerous situations until someone gets hurt. It’s the Sith Lord approach to training: push ‘em ‘till they break and then use them for a spittoon.

The biggest problem, I think, is attempting to treat a martial training or schooling experience like you would a middle school/high school or gym class or even sports team where there is precious little oversight by the adults.

For trainees in a martial program, the instructors and older students will be an ever present part of the experience and there will be very little that happens within their domain that will escape their notice. If your characters are trying to fight each other or even just trying to do something that they’re not supposed to, these teenage and adult characters will be the obstacles they’ll have to get around.

Instructors are responsible for the safety and well-being of their students

Whether we’re discussing military boot camps, modern American martial arts schools, or even training systems during a period in history, you will find that martial Instructors are present and responsible. A martial arts instructor knows what tools they are giving their students and they expect them to use it responsibly. Unlike a public high school, a martial arts program is a business and the adults are liable for what happens on their premises. They also have no qualms about cutting troublesome students from their programs if they refuse to behave. They aren’t a charity. Instructors can and will send kids home if they find out that they’ve been fighting, even fighting off premises at their local school. Students fighting outside of a controlled environment will reflect badly on the school and reduces their ability to stay in business.

Instructors have no compulsions against engaging physically or inserting themselves bodily between two fighting students. The students themselves are under constant observation and there is very little that an instructor will miss. If they sense trouble brewing between two practice partners, they will step in. If someone falls down, they will step in. If a student makes a sound like they are in pain, they will stop the match and step in. Partners get switched up every five to ten minutes to keep frustrations low and the students are kept in a consistent state of constant motion to keep them both outside their comfort zone or settling on one particular student for their grudges.

There are plenty of times during training where an instructor will say “suck it up”, but this usually involves conditioning. A good one will consistently balance criticism with positive praise. “Suck it up” is placed in beside “You can do it!”. This sometimes will involve an assistant instructor getting down at eye level with the student and banging their fist on the mat to count out their push ups. A good martial arts instructor will never tell a kid to “suck it up” in the face of legitimate injury unless we’re dealing with the worst aspects of tournament culture and that brings us to:

Bullying and Hazing: Sanctioned and Unsanctioned

It is difficult for bullies to flourish within a martial arts school. This is because for the most part training in a combat art addresses the root causes that create bully behavior which is a lack of confidence and sense of inadequacy. Combined with the fact that very few schools will ever actively encourage their students fighting outside of the controlled environment or fighting each other without a teacher present, bullies have little room to flourish.

The only way hazing can happen is when it’s allowed to do so. The first Protector of the Small book and The Karate Kid remake are both excellent examples of how you can get bullies from a martial arts system and while they aren’t the only way, it’s the one that makes the most sense. The teachers are either active instigators as part of their teaching philosophy (Karate Kid) or they turn a blind eye to it (Protector of the Small) because “boys will be boys”.

If you want decent examples of the sorts of personalities you develop in a traditional martial arts program, here are some examples: Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Ronda Rousey, Gina Carrano, Jean Claude Van Damme, Duane “the Rock” Johnson, and others. The general quality is non-gender specific, martial training produces a very laidback personality. Ronda Rousey is good to look at if you want to create a more aggressive female combatant.

However, none of these really translate well into “bully”. I still recommend The Karate Kid remake for that, specifically because the instigator and cause of why the bullying begins is a realistic one. A lone kid in a foreign country being bullied by competitive martial artists from a well-known school is more likely to happen than students bullying each other within the school. It’s also worth noting that the students behave this way because the teacher supports and encourages it.

This won’t crop up out of the blue, it relies on either an established history (such as military hazing) where it’s become a common tactic or support from the teacher in question.

Match Ups: Boy/Boy and Girl/Girl

The great irony when outsiders look at a training floor and find students paired up with the same gender is they generally assume it’s because the girls can’t take the boys. The boy/boy and girl/girl match ups have more to do with student comfort zones and avoiding lawsuits than they do with what a student can or cannot handle. When given the option, students will seek out training partners they are most comfortable with and they commonly break down along gendered lines.  Boys and girls regularly train against each other as the instructor either pushes them outside their comfort zones or simply through the partner switch ups.

The only time this becomes a real issue is with training in techniques that involve sexually compromising positions like grappling where trainees are up close and personal. Standard positions involve lying on your back and wrapping your thighs around your partner’s midsection, this can be very distracting even among students who are not attracted to each other. When dealing with pre-teens, teenagers, and even adults it’s important to keep everyone as comfortable as possible. These techniques can be dangerous and every little distraction can lead to someone getting hurt. Eventually, girls and boys become comfortable performing techniques with either gender as training partners can be difficult to come by after a while. At higher levels, I was grappling and practicing techniques with girls younger than me and women twice my age. I’ve grappled with my brother and other boys of similar age, and as an assistant instructor I was always on hand to step in for odd numbers of students when they were paired off sometimes with girls and sometimes with boys.

For the LGBT question, it’s not usually an issue and the student will be treated with the same standards given to everyone else. If another student makes it an issue, the instructor will simply transfer the student to either a different training partner who doesn’t care or will call in an assistant instructor to practice with them. The act of calling in the assistant isn’t to single the student out, but instead shows the whole group that the older students don’t give a damn and neither should they. The assistant instructor also handles the rejected student, ensuring that they feel accepted, safe, secure, and valued by the school’s authority figures. The student’s training also benefits because training with the assistant instructor is like getting a private session for that short learning period, the student can then turn around and use their new knowledge to help their next training partner. This is a common practice in martial arts schools for any student who is nervous, straggling, or being rejected by the general group.

The goal of the training is to help all the students in the class feel like a unit, working together to benefit each other. If two kids aren’t getting along, then they will work to compensate. The older students will be adopted into this system, helping and corralling the younger students if the instructors are busy.

There is almost always someone ready to intervene and students are made aware early that any action that endangers other students or the school’s reputation will not be tolerated.