is experience a necessity?

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Author, Five Ten Footwear URL, Various No Copyright’s violated, provided with permission by Five Ten Todrick 21:32, 4 April 2007 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I was involved in a debate over whether a martial arts instructor with “combat experience” (had been in fights) was superior to an instructor who had not. The debate raged between camps that argued that martial arts had already been “combat tested” through the centuries so it was the arts techniques that mattered, not the fighting experience of the instructor. Others stood on the premise that it was “the dog in the fight” that mattered. They said that the instructors experience gave him more insight in how to transmit the arts fighting skills. I argued that “Real world fighting experience” was a necessity when developing or advancing a new fighting system; as the focus of any system of combat should be “combat effectiveness”. But I added that it wasn’t “necessary” that the person teaching that system had to have used the techniques himself to be a valid instructor.

I made an analogy of the relationship between “combat experience” and martial arts instruction to a sport I used to participate in…rock climbing.

Climbing is a very technical sport. There are specific physical techniques for climbing different features and various ways to use your hands and feet to adhere to the rock. Beyond using your body, there are ropes and knots. There’s hardware with specific uses and precise applications; carabineers, descenders, cams+chocks, harnesses, chalk, webbing and on and on. Many climbers (me) start by top roping (rope goes from ground to top and back to climber, so you don’t fall more than a few feet) or gym climbing. This is a safe environment where you can practice technique, train with gear and even compete. Many climbers never leave this level and that’s OK, it’s as close to a real cliff as you can get without a real cliff. The skills built here can be applied to the “real thing”. Most walls are 50′-100′.

“Real” rock climbing is called lead climbing. A length of rope connects two climbers. One climbs up placing anchors and clipping the rope through them as he goes. The length of fall depends on how far back your last anchor is and if it holds. Once the rope runs out the leader sets up an anchor system called a belay and the second climber climbs up, removing the anchors and the system repeats. I’ve climbed faces as high as 800′-900′ and those are on the small side of average.

The first time I “lead” a climb, it was an eye-opener…. I had the technical skills; I knew the ropework, the knots, and the gear placement techniques. I could climb gym routes 2-3 grades higher than the cliff I was on BUT…. I could die here, I was getting way up, I was getting scared, my physical technique was degrading, I was clinging and scrambling more than I was climbing, I was slapping in anchors as quick as I could (OK was good enough, #@$% perfect). I learned that some techniques I could pull off in the gym I couldn’t do (yet) on the face so I tossed them. Many times I “just did things” without thought, sometimes there were moments of “wow I actually planned to do that and I did”. I did it though and made it to the top.

Did the gym training help? Couldn’t have done without it. Did it apply on the cliff? Yep. Did “real” climbing improve my technique? That is a qualified “yes”, yes in the sense that it gave me a better grasp on what I had to work on back in the gym. It gave me a different perspective on what my training produced and my “real” (current) ability to apply what I learned. Was the “real” climbing “necessary”? Obviously no. I did my first climb successfully with what I had. If I lived near real cliffs and could climb on them regularly I probably could have improved my technique with constant practice on them, if I survived. Did “real” climbing give me more clout in teaching a new climber? Not really, there are many climbers WAY better than me in the gym and on the cliff , BUT…I think I could give a new climber a better grasp on what the “real” thing is like and what he should know, at a minimum, to reach the top than a gym only climber. I would advise him to get better training on technique than I could provide though.

Now an analogy can’t be perfect in all its facets. I chose to climb, it wasn’t something I was forced into or would rather have avoided like a fight. But this is as close to an explanation of “experience counts” as I can make right now.

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7 thoughts on “is experience a necessity?”

  1. Tom, it’s a good analogy. I’m a boulderer myself but the difference between a gym climb and filthy, greasy, spider-infested hold outside 15 feet over a jagged fall and a nice plastic, padded gym hold is a real eye-opener.

  2. Good comparison between the lab and the field. In the field the stakes are higher, therefore the stress is more intense, that just can’t be simulated in a training environment.

    In the end, I think the experience of others can’t be passed on, just the lessons. It all seems to boil down to fundamentals. It would be an interesting experiment to restructure a martial art system so that you stopped learning new forms/techniques at Green Belt and focused on slowly increasing the intensity/reality of the applications.

  3. Another consideration to bear in mind is that “fighting” is not the same as “self-defense.” And the type of experience may not accurately reflect the needs of the students involved. It could, in fact, lead to the teaching of techniques that are wholly incompatible with the situations for which the student is attempting to prepare.

    Now, if the student is looking to take part in competitions, then it would make sense that they look for an instructor/coach who has experience in competitive martial arts, boxing, MMA, etc. While the coach need not be a champion themselves, they should have coached champions in order be considered as having the right experiences necessary.

    But if the student is looking for self-defense instruction, what type of prior experience would be appropriate for the instructor? LEO? Military? Street fighting? None of these backgrounds accurately reflects the skill sets required of a young woman looking to avoid rape on college or an elderly man concerned for his welfare when out late at night.

    For the LEO and Military experiences, the advantages of a weapon and back-up lend themselves to different techniques from someone who will need to rely solely on their own skills. And a street fighter is used to “fights,” that is violent conforntations in which both participants know what they are getting themselves into. But a self-defense situation is an “ambush” and the victim is not going to have the benefit of using the same techniques that a street fighter would use.

    In that case, the LEO is probably the best experience-wise match, not because of technique or mind-set but for having studied the criminal mind. In which case, its not so much the experiences of being a LEO as the academic pursuit of that profession that makes them the right match.

    Personally, I think the key to finding the right instructor is looking for someone who actually understands the situation you are preparing yourself for. If you are telling them you want to train for self-defense and they start talking about fight strategies and spin kicks, you might want to look somewhere else. If you want to compete, a discussion about pre-fight indicators and situational awareness are probably clues that this individual is not right for you.

    In a previous post about the OODA Loop, you talk about John Boyd. He was an instructor at the USAF Weapons School (the Air Force equivalent of Top Gun). Yet he never shot down a single MiG in Korea. He has been a tremendous influence on the USMC maneuver doctrine but again, never served in a ground unit. Experience can help confirm or deny certain theories, but a being a good instructor isn’t necessarily hinged upon experience. Sometimes its just about being able to relate to your student’s needs and doing the research necessary to find out what will and will not likely work in the dynamic, chaotic situations they will find themselves in. After all, as Paul says, one person’s experiences can’t be passed on and unless your twins with the same background, another’s experience isn’t likely to match your unique situation anyway.

  4. Excellent post BK and I agree..the only thing I would discuss would be the difference between “tactical theory” like OODA and physical combat techniques. I understand your point, but would counter that Boyd..if he were teaching platoon/squad level tactics i.e. movement to contact, react to ambush, platoon assault etc. would have been way out of his element. His theories have impacted those techniques, but his lack of experience in them “where the rubber meets the road” is a different story.

    That being said. I agree, as long as the art has been “combat proven” so to speak, and the teacher has a solid teaching I dont think that an instructor can claim superiority solely based on his fighting past.

    How many fights? What type (sucker punches)? and many other questions would have to be answered. And then the question remains, if this guy is claiming all sorts of street fights…what sort of person am I dealing with here?

  5. The OODA loop is a bit off the track for this topic, IMO. A theoretical system of tracking/organizing the phases of a tactical engagement is different from “Self Defense/Fighting.”

    Observe, Orient, Decide, Act is an arbitrary construct – not a martial ‘system’ per se. A martial ‘system’ would provide the appropriate skills that would ‘fill in the blanks’ in some of the OODA loop spaces.

    I’ve used the OODA loop as a tool to create a training matrix for self defense (civilian) to make sure that my approach was comprehensive, but it is not meant to be a system.

  6. This experience was grounded in a belief that “experience” matters. If you had walked in with the belief that experience does not really matter, you would have had a different experience. 😉

    Confidence helps and anxiety hurts, without any regard for whether those feelings are rational and justified.

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