Brains saves both

Sweat saves blood, blood saves lives, brains saves both.

171028 Debrief

Analysing actions to improve performance and inform future training.

This pithy analysis is attributed to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, but despite the clarity of his insight and his credentials as one of the greatest generals of the 20thcentury, this simple premise seems to be largely unknown or ignored amongst martial arts and self defence groups.

It’s not hard to find advocates for sweat-heavy training sessions. I’ve even had someone leave my classes in favour of boxercise because a sustained aerobic workout rather than appropriate skill development was why she had looked at taking the training in the first place. Tough physical training – sweat – should definitely form part of a training programme for those healthy enough to do it, though brains would suggest that there is more to good practice than sustained hard effort.

I’ve written on the subject of speed and effort in regular training in the past: on the pros and cons of different methods and how they can serve different mental and physical purposes (the old article can be found reproduced in my book Karate and Self Defence). While training should be hard you always face the conundrum that under stress you tend to execute poorer technique, and as you tire your techniques deteriorate, and if you consistently train sloppy moves then that is what you are training to do (you get good at what you practice). There is a reason why some martial disciplines separate the stamina work (skipping and running for example) from the skill training. The comfort zone must be stretched, the body must be pushed, but skill development occurs in a different zone. It takes brains to find the balance in training to get optimum physical and psychological results.

Blood saves lives is more descriptive of the harsh reality of conflict than of training. The shedding of blood though is an indicator of training intensity and combative intent, and while it is not desirable, it can provide a bell curve marker of training quality. If no or very little blood is ever shed in a discipline reflecting physical violence then that could be an indicator of a dissonance from the subject matter in the training and pedagogy. At the same time similar low amounts of blood letting can be reflective of high quality appropriate training with good safety procedures, considered compromises and good practitioners.  If you fall into the low/no blood category then you really need to look at what you are doing to make an honest call as to which camp your training belongs. Training reflective of the middle of such a bell curve, where blood letting is commonplace, might reflect the reality of physical violence or combat sports, but at the same time illustrates sloppy practice with regard to the short and long term health and safety of the participants as well as a lack of adequate skill development.

It all comes down to brains. Appropriate informed analysis of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and whether you are using the most effective methods or whether you need to change.

bunkai t shirt

Bunkai – analysis – not just of kata but of your entire methodology.

This does mean that it is important to research not only at what others ‘in your field’ are doing (and asking hard questions about their methods and results) but also at what others in apparently unrelated physical fields (for example athletics or rugby or American football) are doing. You cannot operate in a vacuum. What has worked in the past for others is no guarantor of success for you or your students, and tradition is not necessarily a byword for authenticity, safety, appropriateness, effectiveness or efficiency.


This spoof certificate is a tongue in cheek reminder in my dojo to continuously apply my critical faculties.

I’m not arguing in favour of throwing everything away. That’s not smart, especially if you’ve invested time in developing fundamentals that with a tweak of range or focus could become effective, or which with minor adjustments could be trained in a safer or more efficient fashion. You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not arguing in favour of picking up shiny new moves at seminars or in books and bolting them on to your repertoire, because unless it is designed to integrate with your main practice it isn’t going to function properly; anything learned at a seminar has to be analysed. I am as usual stressing the need for rigorous critical analysis of what you are doing: it doesn’t matter whether you are doing it for exercise, health, agility, mobility, self protection, combative sport participation, enjoyment, socialising, interest in the history of a foreign or native culture etc. – you should be thinking about it.  Critical analysis involves the research to understand your medium, the integrity to see the weaknesses as well as the strengths in what you do, the resolve to make changes if necessary if what you are doing is harmful or unfit for purpose, and the honesty to recognise the true core purpose of your current methods. As Archilochus wrote, “We do not rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.’”

Your training should make you smile, it may make you cry, and yes if you want to achieve a high standard there may be blood and there should be sweat, but brains… brains always saves both.





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