Half-Assed Effort is Better Than No Effort

Via Every Day, No Days Off I came across a video posted by the notorious James Yeager. In it he discusses the danger of lackluster training with a mixed martial arts (MMA) trainer:

I’m posting this video because it really strikes at one of my pet peeves in the martial arts community: people who assume their way is the only way and all other ways are dangerous. In the video the MMA instructor start off by talking about how having only minor training can be dangerous because a person who would have walked away if they lacked any training will now let their ego go to their head when presented with a potential physical altercation. He then rolled this into the common claim in the martial arts community that non-sparring arts are worthless for self-defense.

I study judo, which is a fully resistive sparring art, and a non-sparring sword art. In the past I’ve also studied karate at a school that did point sparring (a gray area that exists between the fully resistive sparring of judo, Brazilian jiu jitsu, muay thai, etc. and non-sparring arts). While I’m not an expert in fighting I feel as though I’ve learned enough about martial arts to comment on this topic.

Let me begin with fully resistive sparring arts. The two things I really like about fully resistive sparring arts is that you have empirical evidence of what works and you are constantly testing your skills against a resisting opponent. In judo, for example, I have a good idea of what throws I can execute effectively (almost none of them) and how good I am against an opponent (not very). Since I still suck at judo I know that my chances in an actual fight aren’t stellar. This means even with some training my ego is in check and I’m not likely to stand and fight instead of fleeing (not that I would be more willing to stand and fight even if I were skilled since you never know if an aggressor is more skilled or armed). If you only have some training in a fully resistive sparring art it’s damn near impossible for you not to know your skill level first hand.

Does that mean training in an art that doesn’t have fully resistive sparring is worthless? Not at all. Non-sparring arts still teach you techniques that can be useful in a fight. Take karate for example. With the exception of a few styles, such as kyokushin, karate is a non-sparring or point sparring art. Your skills are determined by instructor criticism instead of performance against a fully resistive opponent. Instructor criticism, assuming you have a knowledgeable instructor, will tell you if your technique is correct. During my time in karate I might now have tested my skills against a fully resisting opponent but I did learn how to properly throw punches and kicks. Those skills aren’t worthless in a fight. Being able to throw an effective punch or kick puts you ahead of a person who can’t. Since a majority of people in the United States aren’t trained in any fighting art even some training, such as effective technique, will increase your odds. Hell, simply learning how to break fall will increase your odds since you’ll be less likely to take severe damage if you get knock over.

Even skills that seem entirely unrelated to fighting can be of great help in self-defense. An art like tai chi, which is usually considered to be entirely ineffective for self-defense, can help you learn how to control your ego, which will probably do more to help you defend yourself than any fighting skill. The sword art I study relies a great deal on posture. This is, in part, because proper posture helps you maintain your balance and being able to maintain your balance will help keep you from getting put on the ground. In addition to proper posture I’ve also become more adapt at maintaining relaxed awareness (a component of zanshin) and we all know awareness is one of the, if not the, most critical skill for self-defense.

At the end of the video the MMA instructor says that the phrase “Some training is better than no training” should be amended to say “Some good training is better than no training.” That I agree with. As I noted above non-sparring or point sparring arts can still teach you proper techniques assuming you have a knowledgeable instructor. If you have an instructor who doesn’t know how to perform an effective punch or kick then they’re not going to be able to teach you how to do them. I think the most important thing that has to be kept in mind is that the art itself isn’t the biggest factor, the instruction in the art is. So long as you have a good instructor you can learn skills that can help you in self-defense even if those skills are as simple as maintaining calm in a potential fight.

Martial arts, like anything else, gives you what you’re willing to take from it. While I do agree that some arts are more effective for self-defense than others I don’t agree that non-sparring arts are dangerous. You can still take away skills that will make you more effective at defending yourself.

2 thoughts on “Half-Assed Effort is Better Than No Effort”

  1. I would actually have to disagree with a lot of this. Full disclosure, my experience is primarily in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (close to 10 years experience) with some Judo, some Kickboxing, and some (very) minor MMA training.

    Also, for a quality resource, I recommend this:


    In a nutshell, non-sparring or non-resistance martial arts fail to teach one important aspect and that is how to APPLY what you learned against a resisting opponent/attacker/aggressor/et al. To summarize:

    Movement – You will be moving, so will your opposition. If your training does not take that into account, how will you be able to apply it when the situation demands it.

    Timing – Not doing something fast as many people thing but knowing when to execute. A punch too soon or not soon enough may miss, a punch executed at the right time finds its mark (especially if your timing is such that you can hit them moving forward – see pretty much every Chuck Liddell knockout from the UFC for examples).

    Energy/Resistance – Basically, someone fighting back. They are actively defending against your attacks while actively attacking with their own. You are doing the same.

    Live sparring (and no, it doesn’t need to be full-on all-out 100% go-time sparring) provides you with those things and a healthy does of ego bruising that low/no contact sparring can truly provide. Realistic sparring becomes a great BS meter in determining if something works well/is high percentage in a stressful environment vs not. When you don’t have to practically apply it or never have before, you will be surprised at what you can come up with.

    I also disagree regarding the part concerning that you don’t need sparring as long as you have a knowledgeable instructor available to correct your mistakes. He/she may tell you that the movement of a particular technique looks good and like it should but what happens when put in a position where you struggle to make that movement work? If you’ve never struggled in that manner, you will never encounter the situations and ask the questions necessary to take advantage of your instructors knowledge, nor will your instructor be able to effectively impart that knowledge.

    Regarding the other martial arts that don’t use realistic sparring, well, that depends on the other health benefits. There is no sparring at the gym lifting weights (I hope not…) but you health and conditioning benefits, themselves, can help you out. Athleticism should never be discounted.

    It is true that a large majority of the population is not trained, but, that should NOT be an excuse to feel that low/non-resistance training is “good enough”. See the above regarding athleticism in that point as untrained athletes, as I’m sure you are aware from your Judo experience, are beasts!

    With that said, I do agree with your end-game. The art, itself, isn’t important, in so much as the instruction (as long as the sparring is realistic or “alive”) of the art is.

    1. As I said in the conclusion, I do agree that some arts are more effect at teaching self-defense than others. Judo, Brazilian jujitsu, muay thai, boxing, wrestling, and other fully resistive sparring arts are more effective for learning self-defense. That doesn’t make non-sparring or point sparring arts such as karate, taekwondo, aikido, and krav maga, dangerous or worthless. You will still have knowledge that a person who has received zero training will likely lack and that can put you a step ahead.

      I should also clarify that I didn’t say you don’t need sparring if you have a good instructor but that a good instructor will at least teach you correct technique. That’s not to say you will be equally effective in a fight as somebody who trains in a fully resistive sparring art but you will at least know the technical aspects of throwing a punch and that’s likely more than your aggressor will know. In a fight between somebody who studied, say, karate and somebody who has no actual knowledge of fighting I would put my money on the karateka. With that said, in a fight between a judoka and a karateka I’d put my money on the judoka.

      It’s similar to comparing a handgun to a 2×4 when it comes to self-defense. A 2×4 isn’t worthless but a handgun is far superior.

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