How to Inject Realism into Traditional Martial Arts

As a long term traditional martial artist, as well as a fierce proponent of reality-based self-defence (RBSD), I am often asked how I can seemingly play for both teams.

Unfortunately, these days it seems that you are either one or the other. Some traditional martial artists scoff at the idea of running around in street clothes and role-playing in what they see as more of a bad acting class than a martial arts class. However, there are many open minded instructors that are curious about what RBSD may offer, but reluctant to abandon what they currently teach. The good news is you don’t have to. Read on to find six ways to incorporate some reality into your classes without pretending to be an Israeli commando.

1. Time to get “live”

The concept of “aliveness” has been popularised in recent years by Matt Thornton of Straight Blast Gym International. However, it is nothing new. Aliveness simply refers to practising techniques with energy, timing and motion. That means making your uke or training partner less cooperative. Have them fight back. Have them move. Make sure that the tori (attacker) has to use good footwork, timing and correct bio-mechanics to make the technique work.

Of course, some traditional styles already incorporate this as a standard part of their training. Kyokushin Karate, Judo, Tae Kwon Do, San Shou and others all use free sparring (alive training) to polish the sporting aspects of their art. This is great, but it should be applied to self defence sessions as well. Why do we acknowledge that you need to spar to fight a trained opponent, but static practise is fine to prepare for an untrained opponent?

Many instructors will make note that when you make training “live” you also increase the risk of injury. This is true. However, like anything, the intensity in live drills is scalable. As students manage to perform the technique against 20% resistance, it can be increased to 50%, 70% and so on until eventually students are performing self defence techniques against 100% resistance. The benefits for the student with this style of training are far superior to those achieved through static, “dead” training.

2. Practise defences against realistic attacks 

So now that you’ve got your students moving at a realistic pace against realistic resistance, its time we look at what sort of attacks they’re actually defending themselves against. You only need look at any martial arts magazine in the Technique Demonstration pages to see the kind of fantasy world many martial artists live in. No one walks up to you in a park and attacks with a spinning moon kick. And while they may attack with a straight right punch, it won’t be delivered from a perfect long stance with a loud kiai!

If you’ve ever been in a real fight (not a dojo fight, and not a sport fight) think back to what that was like and how chaotic the movements were. If you’ve never been in a fight, that’s okay too. While experience with real violence is a significant benefit when it comes to teaching, it can be replaced by mentoring from someone who can “filter” your ideas, rigorous study of real violence through excellent sources such as Real Violence for Knowledge on YouTube or, of course, listening to the Managing Violence Podcast.

Watch, listen, pay attention to the details, and mimic it in class.If you’re going to do punch defence, practise against a wild haymaker, or the common ‘grab and strike’ blitz attack. If you’re going to practise knife defence, then attack for real! Your students have the right to know what they’re actually preparing for. For a look at realistic knife training, watch this video with Deane Lawler.

3. Try training in regular clothes

It is amusing to me that one of the things that both camps (traditionalists and RBSD’ers) pick on each other about is choice of clothing. Both seem to think the other is playing dress up, and sometimes they’re spot on. After all, for many, martial arts are as much about image as they are about art or self defence.

While I do agree that dressing in camouflage and combat boots is silly if you’re not actually in the military, there is something to be said for occasionally wearing your civvies to training. This doesn’t mean you have to throw away your traditional gear. I now teach the vast majority of my classes in a gi. However, wearing a pair of leather shoes, jeans and a t-shirt can dramatically alter the effectiveness of certain techniques. It doesn’t have to be an every class thing, but once in a while training in different attire can be very beneficial for identifying holes in your real world self defence strategy.

4. Polish up the bad acting

For those who have spent decades dedicated to the three K’s of Kihon, Kata and Kumite, I’d like to introduce the fourth K: Krappy acting. Okay, I kid. Sort of.

Role-playing or scenario training is a vital component of what makes reality-based self-defence unique. Once you’ve practised techniques against alive resistance, ensured the attacks are realistic, and tested your defences in regular clothing, the last step is to give the situation context. Here is where your acting skills need to come out.

Importantly, violence is not just physical. Most violence has a verbal beginning, either with a challenge, a taunt or a set up question. Training your students how to respond to these tactics is just as vital as teaching them how to respond to the bottle hurtling towards their head. If you don’t know how they should respond, that’s fine, tell them that and get someone who does know to come in and teach a workshop. I am available for just this purpose.

While you may never win an Oscar for your performance, role playing common conflicts will greatly assist your students in contextualising the physical responses they have trained. It will also show them that most situations can be handled verbally, before the need for physical intervention. Furthermore, it’s fun, forces personal growth, and is a great ego killer for the class.

5. Be honest

The number one thing you can do to make your training more realistic for self defence is to simply be honest with yourself and your class. What if a technique that you’ve believed in for twenty years just doesn’t work when tested under pressure against a realistic attack? This can be confronting for many instructors, and is a major reason why many will never introduce these kinds of training methods. Be grateful that you found it doesn’t work in class and not when you were relying on it to save you on the street. Admit to your students that it may not be the best option and resolve to find something better.If you do happen to find elements from another style, or simply a new training methodology that works better than what you’re currently doing, have the integrity to share that with your students. Many of the greatest martial artists that I know achieved high dan grades in their first style before finding a hole in their training. Rather than close their eyes and put their fingers in their ears, they sought further training to plug the hole. For many, this has resulted in a life time of study. For their students, it has resulted in the best possible self-defence tuition.

6. Understand the Holistic Nature of Violence

One of the reasons I started the Managing Violence Podcast in the first place was that I was sick of self-defence discussions being dominated by circular conversations about techniques and physical responses when violence is so much more than that. Adding verbal components to scenarios is a great start, but it’s bigger than that as well.

Do you understand the local self-defence laws of your area?

Do you understand the legal, ethical, and psychological consequences of violence, even if you are in the right?

Do you understand human behaviour and how to identify a threat long before any kind of altercation has kicked off?

Do you understand risk mitigation in terms of people, places and events that increase your risk profile?

Do you understand criminal trends specific to your location?

There is so much more beyond “If he does this, I’ll respond with this.”

If you don’t have this knowledge, engage an actual expert to come in and run the occasional seminar to broaden the scope of what you’re teaching. It doesn’t have to be discussed every class, but you are doing your students a disservice if you don’t talk about it occasionally. Again, I’m happy to help in this regard if I can be of service.


Thanks to my varied background, I see tremendous value in both RBSD/Combatives training and traditional martial arts training. There is nothing wrong with training in a dogi, bowing, lining up before class, using foreign terminology for the sake of tradition or even practising traditional kata or forms. All of those things make up the unique spirit of your art. You do not need to sacrifice any of that to add some realism to your training and give your students the best bang for their self-defence buck. Who knows, it may save someone’s life. It may even be fun.