It is a thing. The way it gets presented in YA? Not so much, no. It’s actually very difficult to do. There are two different scenarios with very different meanings that these authors might be pulling from:
1) Wuxia films, and in some Anime, where it’s a matter of principle. The protagonist doesn’t consider the fight to be worth their time or the combatants are so far beneath them that they cannot actually hurt them. Their understanding of martial arts allows them to be in a more enlightened state. You should not be beating up anyone who is weaker or less than you. (This is not a matter of reality, but more philosophical in bent. It’s also a very basic explanation of a very complicated cultural hierarchy and philosophy about violence and the appropriate use thereof.) In this case, they are choosing not to engage as a part of their ideology, because they have nothing to prove, and it is only after they’ve been put into real danger that they turn around and act.
It’s the sort of outlook that makes the more pragmatic martial artists crawl up inside their own skulls, but it exists in real world martial arts. It’s also vastly more complicated in terms of spirituality, cultural context, philosophy, and responsibility than a single paragraph can sum up. The same can be said for the use of the trope in cinema, and where it often fails in Western media.
There is a difference though between:
“This is not worth my time.”
“If we fight, I will most likely kill you. So, let’s save ourselves a headache and not fight.”
“I will recklessly risk my safety for some kind of small advantage that I didn’t need anyway.”
2) The sequence comes out of a lot of spy fiction, the trick there is that they’re usually pretending to be something that they’re not and they also allow themselves to actually be beaten.
I mean beaten into the gutter beaten. Beaten so hard you’re bleeding out on the sidewalk beaten. Beaten that it took your special skills to preserve yourself without them knowing while they were kicking your stomach in.
Beaten within an inch of your life, spitting out blood and maybe a few teeth. You’ll be spending the next three months dealing with fractured ribs, a broken collarbone, and you’re flat out lucky they didn’t rupture something vital.
Annihilated. Eviscerated. Done.
So done that you’re not even in their hemisphere anymore, you don’t even exist in the same galaxy. Because that’s the point, you don’t want them to think about you anymore. You’re not any more of a threat to them than the janitor they spit on while walking to work or the store owner they shake down every weekend.
You can go where you want, within reason.
When it’s part of establishing a cover, then it is a real-ish thing. It is also a very dangerous thing. It is a gamble. It is risk. You’re risking your life, you’re risking them noticing that something is up, your betting big on your ability to play your cards and throw the fight well enough that they don’t notice anything. You can’t just do it, you have to do it well. You have to try, but not too hard. You have to get your hits in, you’ve got to make them mad, you’ve got to press them to the point where they’re willing to kill you, so that when they finish beating you into the pavement they feel damn good about it.
You’ve got to make them work for it and let then let them establish their own sense of superiority, both without dying in the process and not giving away that you’re letting them win. This is like watching someone try to throw a chess match. If they just stop playing in the middle of the game, you know something is up. And in the end, when you’re life is in their hands, all you can do is hope that they don’t kill you or blow your cover and actually play it straight to save your life.
Throwing a fight in this way is a con. The YA novels that I think you’re talking about, they’re not doing that. In their case, it’s just a cheap way to establish drama/tension with a character who is already overpowered.
“I’m so good I don’t even have to try.”
9/10 when you see the scenario presented in this way, the author has usually bought into their own bullshit about their character or the character’s bullshit about themselves. They’re not facing real opposition, so they have to pretend they are for things to even approach being interesting. The author has already decided the victor, one character has already claimed victory, and there’s not much point to watching the fight play out on the page because we know who the winner is.
They’re being dragged along by the plot. The writer is trying to make it interesting. Their pet will never be ground into the dirt the way they probably deserve by someone better because there is no one who can stand against them. There is no tension.
“Gosh! They might be tough! Maybe I can lure them into a false sense of security.”
Combat training informs the way we move, it informs how we think, it’s there in everything we do. Someone who excels? You can see it. It’s in their attitude. It’s in the way they walk into a room. It’s there as they survey an area. When they’re looking at you, you can feel the confidence roll off them. Go look at someone like Ronda Rousey, watch videos with cops, or check out videos posted by soldiers in the Marine Corps. You’ll see it, even in the ones who aren’t that good. You can feel it. There’s something different about them, even if you can’t quite figure out what it is when they’re wandering about in plainclothes. You get a similar feeling off of athletes too. A sense of self-ownership, confidence, and it takes more than just ducking your head and playing the fool to throw someone off. Especially someone who knows what they’re looking for.
The better they are, the more it’s there. The ones good at hiding it are the ones who’ve trained themselves to be changeable, to hide. This is why I brought up spy fiction.
“What even is an advantage?”
A lot of YA novels shortchange their villains. They do more than handicap them, they bind them by their hands and feet, weight them, and toss them into a lake. They move when the plot says and sit when it doesn’t. They notice what the plot wants them to notice, and they let slide what’s the hero needs to pass. They rarely behave like people and when they have to be bad to prove how bad they are, it happens to someone else. This provides the protagonist with their time for self-angst and other personal issues that the plot would rather focus on.
No one is setting fire to trees or fouling the water supply with a few good corpses. No one is breaking arms. No one is getting shot by their teachers. No one is just getting shoved off a cliff and down a raging waterfall because, well, they failed.
Do you wonder if the villains of this story could beat these protagonists? Do you wonder if the hero can pull it off when you’re reading these scenarios? Or is it just “of course”. That’s the plot device.
It doesn’t take into account anyone’s thought process but the protagonist’s. It will work because they decided it would and no effort is made, really, on the part of the author because they don’t really know what failing looks like.
Except failing in fighting means you get hurt. It means you take hits. It means you die. They must overcome more pain, misery, and injury from wounds they could’ve avoided if they just took this shit seriously.
Why was this a good idea again?
3) The last one is that they might have taken a joke too seriously.
“What do you mean? I’m just luring him into a false sense of security.”
The witty comeback a protagonist makes to save their pride when the other guy actually has them on the ropes and they win by sheer luck or because someone else cheated. It’s very common in Han Solo types.
It… doesn’t really work when you play it straight. Then, someone is just being a dick and it starts to transcend into cruelty. Basically, when you play it straight then the villain can’t hurt the hero and the hero is just playing with their still living food. It’s a fucked up thing to do.