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Training versus reality

Training in self-defense techniques and sparring (light or full contact) is nothing like being a real self-defense situation. Physical training certainly gives you a better chance of surviving than someone who has not trained; however, unless you also train to mentally and emotionally deal with the reality of a self-defense situation, then you may have a problem.  

Students who are adept at self-defense or sparring in training classes, especially the physically weaker students, tend to believe they will be just as effective when using the techniques in real self-defense situations. However, this is not reality. Training to use techniques against willing, yielding friends is much different than using them against angry, hyped attackers who want to beat your face to a pulp.

Ways training differs from reality


  • Training. Students are there to learn new techniques and to better perform old techniques. They train with friends and do not want to hurt them. Your partner cooperates with your movements since he or she wants you to cooperate with them when it is their turn to use the technique.  If a student accidentally hurts another student, he or she stops and offers help. If the pain of a technique becomes too much to bear, you may tap out.  If things get too rough, you can just walk away. If things get out of hand, the instructor is there to control the situation.
  • Reality. The opponent will not be your friend; he or she will try to hurt you, so all techniques will be full power and deadly. There will be no cooperation. The opponent will forcibly resist everything you try to use on them.  If you are hurt, the opponent will not stop; instead, he or she will intensify the attack, especially to the injured area. You will not be able to tap out and there will be no instructor or referee there to protect you. If the opponent is bigger, stronger, or a better fighter than you are, then you will probably lose, be injured, or die.


  • Training. You have lots of space to move around and perform techniques. You are in a well-known and controlled environment, so you always know how much room in which you can maneuver. You know about any objects or hazards that may be present such as uneven surfaces, ledges, steps, rocks, bottles and cans, poles, fences, etc. with which to contend while moving. Even if the opponent does not have a weapon, there will be numerous objects around that may be used as a weapon.
  • Reality. You will be in tight quarters or an unknown environment that will limit your options. For example, your spinning back fist to the temple may strike a signpost and shatter your hand. You will be unfamiliar with the terrain and objects on it that may cause you to lose your balance, trip, or fall, and when you fall these objects may injure or kill you. Close-range techniques will always be an option, but long-range techniques will be limited. Usually, the opponent will have a hold of you with at least one hand and will be using superior strength and body mass against you.


  • Training. Before sparring or rolling with an opponent, you will have time to warm up and prepare mentally and emotionally for the task at hand. You have time to “feel out” your opponent and his or her fighting style. You will usually have rounds or a time limit so you may pace yourself and preserve your energy until needed.
  • Reality. In reality, tempers may flare quickly, arguments may escalate quickly, or the attacker may attack unprovoked or from hiding. You probably will not even know your attacker and will not know how they will attack or their skills or whether they have a weapon.  There will be no time to prepare and you must put forth maximum energy immediately and for the duration of the confrontation.

Preparedness and Awareness

  • Training. You have intervening days and the ride to class to prepare yourself for class, and you know what to expect to happen in class. Your awareness is at a low level since you know everyone in the class and know what to expect to happen in class.
  • Reality. Your preparedness comes from your previous training. Since you have no time to prepare for a street confrontation, your preparedness comes from how you have learned to react to sudden attacks.  You must maintain a high level of awareness of people around you, the surroundings, and the general environment in which you find yourself. Your awareness will not be as great inside a nice restaurant as it would be in a dimly lit, secluded parking lot. 

Protective equipment

  • Training. Students usually are required to wear protective equipment to help prevent or lessen injuries. Sometimes it may only be gloves, a mouthpiece, and a cup, but usually, it is all this plus head, chest, elbow/forearm, knees/shin, and foot protectors. Since so much time is spent in training, students tend to rely on the equipment to protect them instead of using proper blocking or avoidance techniques. They also forget what it’s like to get hit when not wearing protection, so they tend to take hits if it allows them to get in their own hits. The first one with a powerful, solid strike to a vital area usually wind. Protective equipment promotes punching and kicking, which may cause you more harm than the opponent because you don’t use more effective techniques.
  • Reality. Strikes from the opponent can hurt, injure, incapacitate, or kill. Also, you may injure yourself with your strikes to the opponent since you do not have the protectors on your hands, feet, etc.

Tunnel vision

While in the Navy, I was once stationed at Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada where pilots practiced bombing. Sometimes pilots crashed and died on bombing runs for no obvious reason. The reason was usually target fixation; they were so concentrated on the target they lost awareness of their surroundings and flew into the target. This phenomenon is also called tunnel vision and it affects fighters when they focus on the opponent and lose awareness of their surroundings.
  • Training. Fighters keep stepping out of bounds, or not realizing they are close to a wall or other fighters and may even not hear referee commands. This may lead to injury, but usually only leads to a scolding from the instructor.
  • Reality. You are concentrating on the threat that’s in front of you and may not see other attackers, step into a hole or off a ledge, or not be aware of other hazards. You must use your peripheral vision to be aware of your surroundings constantly.


  • Training. All the spectators are friendly. You do not have to worry about them attacking you while you spar. You learn to ignore them and concentrate on your opponent.
  • Reality. The opponent will have friends to cheer him or her as long as the attacker is winning. However, if you start getting the advantage, they will assist your opponent and may even join in the attack, so you must constantly be aware of them.


  • Training. If a fight gets out of control or you get tired or injured, the referee or instructor is there to stop the action and assist you. You always know there is help available if you need it.
  • Reality. There will usually be no one around to help you; in fact, those who are around you will probably cheer when you are injured, or they may even help your opponent.


  • Training. You may be stronger than your opponent, but you know how to control it. The same is true for your opponent. When practicing self-defense techniques, you don’t strike with full force and your opponent does not offer any great resistance to your locks, bars, pressure point attacks, etc. When any real pressure is used, the opponent usually taps out.
  • Reality. When angry, mentally deranged, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol their pain response is dulled. When you expect them to react to pain, they act like it doesn’t exist. When overly stressed, muscles respond with signals of pain or fatigue. When you don’t feel the pain, you keep going. These people exhibit superhuman strength; even a child can be immensely powerful under these circumstances. Do not count on anything you do to have any effect on your attacker.


  • Training. When sparring, fighters tend to use jabs to “feel out” their opponent, judge the range, distract the opponent, keep the opponent at bay while they rest, and to set the opponent up for a more powerful attack.
  • Reality. There may not be enough range to use jabs and most time the opponent will be grabbing and holding on to you. The opponent attacks with a flurry of punches so there is no time to use weak jabs; every technique must be intended to stop the attacks.

High kicks

  • Training.  In training, you practice using high kicks. They are impressive for you to perform and for others to watch and they feed your ego; there may even be a requirement that all kicks be above the waist. Your training uniform makes it easy to perform high kicks. You learn to expect high kicks and seldom must contend with low kicks.
  • Reality. Your opponents will not be impressed with your high kicks, they are only impressed with pain; it does not hurt them, they do not worry about it. Your clothing, shoes, surroundings, space, and lack of a warm-up will affect your ability to use high kicks. High kicks expose you to deadly counter attacks that are not allowed in training. In reality, kicks are limited to the thighs, knees, shins, and top of the feet. Groin kicks are expected, and the target is difficult to hit, so they have limited use.


  • Training. All self-defense techniques work in class. For example, the instructor has you grab your opponent with your fingers around their throat from the front in a choking motion, and then they have the opponent do some technique to gain release from the choke. No matter what technique is used, it always works.
  • Reality. The aforementioned angry attacker grabs you around the throat and tries to pop your head like it was a pimple. You try the technique you used in class and find their arms are like steel pipes and their hands are like vises and the technique accomplishes nothing. It’s now over, you won’t get a second chance.
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