In every physical endeavor, there is what looks good in practice, what happens in real life, and the space between the two.


This is perhaps best exemplified in martial arts training. Martial artists practice movements like shadow boxing or grappling, drills on a dummy, and kata (choreographed sequences). These movements make martial arts look pretty. But then sparring happens, and things get ugly.


It's like going to McDonald’s and looking at the beautiful hamburger picture on the menu. The bun has a nice golden hue, perfectly spaced sesame seeds, and just the right amount of cheese melting lazily down the sides. But what happens when you actually order a burger? You receive a flattened puck hiding between two flat, smashed buns, with a sliver of soggy pickle barely hanging on to the burger patty, like Stallone clinging for dear life to the rock wall in Cliffhanger.


The gap between ideal and real can be pretty big.


Find balance between order and chaos.

Train your body to thrive in compromised situations.

Prepare for Imperfect Conditions

The chaotic conditions of sparring change things. You have to adapt your body’s shape, adjust tension in your body, and use different grips. Before you know it, the sesame seeds are falling off the bun. You have to be able to adapt physically and mentally to the changing conditions.

Natural movement skills present the same issue. Your crawls look beautiful under ideal conditions, like the soft surfaces of mats. But when you change the variables, issues arise quickly. The difference can also be seen in indoor rock climbing versus outdoor, trail running versus treadmill running, and pretty much every other discipline.


Don’t get me wrong: non-chaotic training serves an important purpose. But your kata should always serve your sparring practice. In other words, your training needs to prepare you for chaos and complexity.


A 3-Phase Preparation for Chaos

So how do you practice chaos? Very carefully. Here’s the three-part progressive model I use in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and it applies fantastically here.


1. Drilling

Practice the technique or set of movements until you have a base level of competency. There is little to no chaos here. Drilling is intended solely to build the toys you will play with.


In the video, you can see an example of me drilling a Brazilian jiu jitsu technique with no resistance against my friend. The goal is to get a sense of which sequence my body parts need to move in, and to work on timing and mechanics.

In movement training: You might try using a specific technique to climb a tree.



2. Positional and Situational Sparring

Start off slow and light, then apply some kind of chaotic condition. In jiu jitsu this usually means starting off in a specific position (say, on bottom of a side mount position with someone sitting on top of you). You then try to apply your techniques against increasing levels of resistance from your partner.


Here is a video showing elements of discussion, training, exploring, and feedback. It’s of my brother and I working through a new arm position while being pinned.


In movement training: This could be having a friend lightly throw things at you while you try to dodge them and practice your climbing technique. Troubleshoot and experiment with your partner to get valuable feedback on what worked well and what can be improved.



3. Progressive Rolling and Sparring

Once you’ve put a technique into a slightly chaotic context, gradually build up the difficulty. In jiu jitsu, this is what sparring and rolling are for.


This video shows me using the technique I showed you in section one in a more complex context (I am in the blue uniform). It’s a competition match from about four years ago. In the beginning of the video, you can see me attempt - unsuccessfully - to use the technique in a more demanding and complex situation.


In movement training: This might entail a specific situation that requires multiple skills, including your new technique, to be applied against increasing levels of complexity. For example, you might build an obstacle course in the woods and have a friend chase you across the terrain or throw things at you.



Find Order in Chaos

Your ultimate goal in training is to narrow the gap between the burger on the menu and the one you get in the drive-through window. The grace, power, and finesse you develop when performing solo techniques should also be available under chaotic conditions. Your sense of timing, sensitivity, control, and other micro-skills shouldn’t disappear under stress.


It takes time and progression to strike this balance safely. It’s easy to get carried away in the excitement of doing too much too soon, because it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play this way. Know when to back off, and choose responsible training partners who will push you past your limits without goading you into the hospital.


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Photo courtesy of Dan Halpin.