I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
I first heard “training scars” a few years ago from my one of my coaches, who threw it out there casually as if it were a commonplace martial arts term. However, after a quarter century of Karate training, I had never heard it before then.
For those like myself who might not be familiar with the phrase, it simply means habits that emerge from training which do not translate well to “real life”—whichever outside context you apply your skills in, such as self-defence or competition. The reality is that we have different priorities and outcomes in day-to-day training than we do for either of those contexts, and so it makes sense that we develop habits which are conducive to success in our most common environment, but not necessarily when other variables change.
Here are some common examples of training scars that might develop as a result of your average class.
When I was growing up in the Dojo, “control” was one of the most frequent words used by my Sensei during the training process. I remember practicing exercises, either with a target such as a shield or a partner, where we tried to punch with as much power and speed as possible without making contact. In hindsight, this seems like a weird training methodology—creating the habit of not hitting things, instead of the reverse.
Of course, in sparring, we don’t want to injure our training partners, so pulling back is standard practice in any striking art—especially for those of us who are hobbyists with no interest in fighting full contact. The problem is that, when it comes time to turn it on and hit hard, a lot of people have trouble making the leap.
Point sparring (again, common in Karate, though luckily not in the Dojo where I started) also has a serious drawback in this aspect. Fighters get used to stopping after a single shot lands (and screaming to signal their success), which, as we know from full contact competitions, is certainly not a guarantee that the fight is over. In self-defence, stopping to admire your handywork rather than pressing the advantage you’ve gained could be disastrous.
Unfortunately, some form of this training scar is hard to avoid without risking injury. Even those who do fight full contact can’t practice that way on a daily basis. You can simulate the process by impacting focus mitts, heavy bags, or BOBs, or by taking the power out and doing some touch sparring with appropriate protective equipment, but there is no real substitute for hitting someone as hard as you can. You simply have to train with the correct intent and mindset behind your training, and hope that, when the time comes, the simulation has prepared you well enough.
This is one of the major advantages of grappling-based martial arts—you can come very close to the “real thing” in your training environment, whereas with striking, it is nearly impossible to do so without injuring or alienating your training partners.
The “tap out” is the grappling version of pulling a punch. There are anecdotes about the phenomenon where, in self-defence situations, one person has clearly bested the other, established a dominant position, and is about to put the attacker out with a choke. Then the attacker taps and the defender releases the pressure, which allows the attacker to escape and continue their assault.
As with the previous one, this training scar is hard to avoid. I certainly do not advocate for ignoring when your partner taps and taking the technique to its conclusion. Besides being potentially dangerous, this is certainly not a good way to make friends.
If nothing else, this speaks to the power of habit. Though I am leery of those who espouse “mental training,” as it can lead to potential BS, it is relevant in this case. In the context of the gym or Dojo, you should let go and soon as your partner submits, but it is important to remind yourself that for the context of self-defence, you can’t let up until you’re certain the person is no longer a threat to you.
Handing a Weapon Back:
Again, I’ve only heard anecdotal evidence regarding this, but these narratives seem to be frequent or powerful enough that some martial arts have modified their practices to avoid this training scar.
Many instructors who teach disarms encourage that, even in training, you should never hand the weapon back to your partner. The reason for this is that, apparently, some practitioners have successfully disarmed their assailants in real situations, then absent-mindedly given the weapon back to their assailants, simply because that is what they are used to doing in training.
I have no idea as to the validity of these stories, but there is certainly no harm in practicing removing yourself from the situation, or clearing the weapon away from the attacker, rather than casually handing it back. Sometimes throwing the weapon away and making your partner retrieve it might seem like a dick move when you’re standing within arm’s length, but it is the correct protocol for self-defence training.
Flow drills are fun, dynamic, intense, and an excellent methodology to create automatic reactions to stimuli (often called “muscle memory,” though that is technically inaccurate). In Koryu Uchinadi, flow drills are the primary method used to summarize and review various areas of technical expertise, such as strikes, joint locks, takedowns, chokes, etc.
So do I hate flow drills? No, of course not. However, I would be remiss if I wrote about training scars and didn’t point out their drawback—the notion of flow, by definition, means allowing your partner to defend your technique successfully. That is the only way that the “flow” can continue.
Flow drills have their benefit in practice, no doubt, but they can’t be the lone training methodology either. You also need to experience what it’s like to finish techniques without allowing any potential defense or continuation from your partner. In KU, we often call these exits—where you can leave the continuity of the flow drill and practice how to finish the fight once and for all.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, I started my martial arts career in “traditional Karate,” which is another misnomer—traditional Karate was developed in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, making it relatively modern when compared with its much older Okinawan predecessor (Toudi). The emphasis on Kihon and Kata, two of the three pillars of “3K” Karate, instill a number of good qualities (snap at the end of techniques, breathing, hip rotation, stability), but also several bad ones.
As illustrated in the above video, I was taught to keep my chin back and up, chest lifted, and my shoulders down and even with each other when doing basics and Kata. According to most Karate authorities, these are the correct technical components. In addition, there is also the habit of keeping the technique extended after the point of impact, even when working with partners. It is a typical and frustrating element of many traditional Karate Dojo, where the partner holds the technique out like a robot and allows their partner to follow up with a series of counters that, truthfully, would not work if the other person simply moved or responded at all.
Ironically, in writing this, I’m realizing that traditional Karate develops two opposite training scars: pulling punches early, and keeping them extended too long.
However, we do many of these things differently when it comes to the third pillar of 3K Karate—Kumite (sparring). The gap between the technical requirements of Kihon and Kata vs. Kumite, when many practitioners are told to do the complete opposite of what has been ingrained, is one of the biggest challenges that Karate faces in the 21st Century. Many noted instructors now are innovating and pushing the envelope to address specifically these issues.
The sad reality is that many of these “traditional” preferences seem to be based more on aesthetics than functionality. Ask any boxer: they’ll tell you to tuck the chin down and forward, lift the shoulder up to the protect the jaw when punching, and retract your strike as quickly as you throw it. However, my classical Karate gyaku-tsuki still sometimes shows up when I’m sparring, leaving my head unprotected. Funny enough, this is exactly how the controversial knockout happened in the gold medal Karate finals at the past Olympic games.
Despite attempts to move away from the arbitrary and often ineffective standards of traditional Karate’s Kihon and Kata, I still find that this particular training scar flares up every once in a while.
Nice Guys Finish Last:
I was recently corrected on two rather innocuous habits in my groundwork that I had never given much thought to, but my coach immediately caught as potential training scars.
The first is when setting up guard in order to practice. I had the habit of posting my hands on the mats when scootching my hips in close enough to let my partner close their guard, before proceeding to set up the correct grips for the technique. My coach immediately caught this as giving up an opportunity for a Kimura, even though we “hadn’t started” training yet.
The other, similarly, was my straightening my legs to let my partner get into mount, before posting my feet flat on the floor. Of course, you can’t bridge with your legs straight out, so even though my intention was just to be nice to my partner, this is a habit of doing something incorrect before doing it correctly. In other words, trying to make life easier for my partner was detrimental for myself in these cases.
Breaking these habits is still a work in progress, but I am at least aware of the fact that you can’t claim these things “don’t count” because you’re doing them in the set up of the technique rather than the training itself. Any and everything you do on the mat is training, even how you get into the position where you’re going to be working from.
The term “training scars” is a nice phrase for a concept that every martial artist should be familiar with. Of course, depending on the martial art or style we practice, we all develop habits that can be bad outside of that particular training environment. The main thing is to develop an awareness of these habits, to try to minimize the damage that they might cause if we ever need to apply what we learn. Cross-training is an excellent way to expose these areas because a new instructor or training partner might pick up on these habits and show you why, in a different context, it is an error.
The cool part of any kind of scar is it tells a narrative about how you became who and what you are now, and training scars are no exception. Though I would certainly be happier with fewer bad habits in my training, I am grateful for the scars that I’ve developed; they are mementos of a long, challenging, and still-evolving martial arts career, full of colourful characters and a large number of wonderful memories.
 Miller, Rory and Lawrence A. Kane. Scaling Force. YMAA Publication Centre, 2012. Pg. 244-245.