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Pain in Martial Arts and Boxing

Keeping it real.

I have spent many years observing the martial arts and boxing worlds, and have frequently taken the time to chat to those who practice regularly and watched many fighter interviews. If one thing has become clear to me from understanding how martial artists and boxers train, and from training myself, it is that pain and pain management are vital to progression.

This might seem obvious, but I recently caught myself halfway through a conditioning exercise, which involved repeatedly hitting my radius with a wooden Escrima stick, thinking about the concept of self-harm. This exercise does help to build strength and pain tolerance, but it does cause a degree of discomfort and needs to be done carefully.

The term ‘self-harm,’ though, does have to be used carefully. A conditioning exercise is not the same thing as destructive self-harm, such as cutting, where the person engaging in this behavior should be treated with compassion, and seek the guidance of a trained counselor. However, from this exercise of conditioning my arm, I began to realize that self-inflicted pain is common, and is a profoundly complex phenomenon for all humans who introduce it into their daily routines.

Pain in martial arts and boxing, which can range from moderate to severe, is commonplace during training, and it seems obvious to me that pain is to fighters as flour is to bakers.

Pain is the currency that tells you that your technique, or the technique being done to you, is working. After all, one of the primary goals of this training is to dissuade an opponent from attacking you or to avoid the attack. This is true when the training is exercised in a sports setting, such as sparring and professional fighting, and in a self-defense context. I think this understanding has been lost by some martial arts schools, which tout self-defense as the primary reason for training but seem to be full of training routines with no application and no experience of pain.

I have encountered martial artists who don’t like to experience any pain and do what they can do to avoid it. This is mind-blowing because in reality, self-defense is itself an act of violence and involves pain, both physical and psychological. Any time you assert your will over the will of somebody else (in this case stopping them from attacking you), this is an act of violence. An experience with pain, inflicting and receiving, allows the person performing self-defense to exercise appropriate control and minimize any damage. With no experience of pain, exercising control is a crapshoot.

Pain is also a powerful motivator to work on your defense.

Simply put, if you’re getting hit then your defense is probably not optimal (however, in boxing, some boxers will take hits to give hits, such as the recent Andy Ruiz win over Anthony Joshua). I think it is the lack of the experience of pain that has helped to promote the success of boxing and MMA, because in those arenas you know if your skills are working because you’re not taking hits or damage. People have become tired of martial arts drills that are predictable when training and the lack of assurance that these skills will work on the street if attacked in an unpredictable environment.

This is why a good martial arts school will teach the application of techniques, instead of just the drills. However, this comes with the caveat that you are experienced enough to train application, as it is riskier and comes, potentially, with more pain. This means that by the time you are ready to learn the application, your pain tolerance should have increased, and the only way this can happen is from experiencing controlled amounts of pain.

I think, for whatever reason, a number of martial arts schools have lost sight of the application of their martial art. There are many videos on YouTube of apparently skilled martial artists having their asses handed to them because they have spent years working on drills and planned response scenarios, and have simply lost or not developed the ability to offer effective, real-time responses to an unpredictable opponent. In essence, they have simply become dancers—responding only to a familiar beat.

Unfortunately, the application isn’t the easiest thing to introduce into training. No school or gym is going to allow you to have absolute confirmation that your skills can kill or cripple an aggressor. Therefore, the application still comes with rules and control (control is the ability of a skilled martial artist or fighter to execute a technique without hurting their partner, but still getting enough out of the technique for it to be effective). The ability to understand the rules and use control can take years of practice, which is why lesser experienced martial artists tend to work only on drills without application. If a school does not have many experienced martial artists, application exercises might not even be present and could drop off the radar of the instructor (and their ability to teach application could also diminish).

Application is also difficult when a martial art uses many techniques that are theoretically designed to cause a lot of damage. Ungloved hands are so much more dangerous than gloved hands. The fingers, hand, wrist, and forearm are all extremely versatile and can cause a lot of damage to an aggressor, and are certainly not allowed in application exercises, such as sparring. While it is perhaps reassuring for a martial artist that their techniques are not allowed to be practiced in sparring, they still have no guarantee that they could pull them off if needed. Without application, there is no guarantee that they can even remain composed if they were attacked.

This is why all martial artists should spar, to become accustomed to the shortness of breath, sweat, and exercise that it takes to engage with an opponent. If you can move, land shots, and learn to read your opponent (for many minutes), then you can start to have some confidence that you can inflict the deadlier strikes if they were ever required (such as eye, ear, and throat shots).

It is for these reasons that you should never trust a martial arts school if you don’t experience controlled amounts of pain in training, as your skillset will remain theoretical at best, and delude you at worst.

© Jack Pemment, 2019.

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