Pressure Testing in Sports and Martial Arts

There is an idea primarily in martial arts, that moves need to be “pressure tested” in sparring or competition in order to be effective. This is of course correct, it has been shown time and time again that an action needs to be used in its context in order for it to be effective. The purpose of this article is not to dispute that, rather the opposite; I don’t think it goes far enough. 

The issue I have with the idea of “pressure testing” techniques is that there is an implication that they exist outside of their given context. The way it sounds to me when I hear “pressure testing” is that you learn or invent a move in isolation, then you bring it to sparring or a tournament or a real fight to see if it actually works. The pressure testing in this case is a verification process, while the real learning happens elsewhere. Maybe when you try to pressure test the technique, it does not work as you expected, so you bring back ideas to tweak it or even drop it altogether, and work from there. Either way, it’s testing, it’s in the name, like when you test a piece of software, you have someone run it or try to use it, and they send a list of bugs back for the developers to fix. 

If you have read many of my other articles or have talked to me personally, you will know where I’m going with this one. The model described in the previous paragraph is inherently steeped in information processing thought. The implication is that techniques exist on their own in isolation, which is straight out of the IPA playbook. What we are doing when we “learn” and then “pressure test” our moves is coming up with an assumed isolated movement, then trying to refine it in order to get closer to an ideal. We are modifying what we consider to be our ideal movement based on the results of our pressure test. 

What we know as ecological approach enjoyers is that we can’t separate the action from its context. Our perception of the environment and how we act on it are always coupled, and if we uncouple them we are now doing a different activity. You can definitely come up with what you think is an ideal form of a move and practice it in isolation, but all you are doing is getting good at practicing that move in isolation, not actually using it. That’s where we get what L’esprit de l’Epee calls the “lesson world champion”, a person who is very good at taking lessons but not necessarily good at playing the game. 

Does this mean that sparring is the only way to learn a skill? No, it’s just that the environment in which we practice the skill needs to have similar affordances to the environment in which we intend to use it. The sparring itself is not the end goal, but part of the learning process. Until you can actually do the skill in the context in which it is intended, you have not yet learned that skill.

I have tons of other material on how to acquire skills in an ecological way rather than information processing, so I’m not going to delve too deeply into the details of that. The relevant thing here is that sparring, competition, and other non-cooperative activities are not a test of skills you acquire elsewhere, but rather it is a method for acquiring those skills. If you learn an action in isolation, all you are learning is just that – a movement in isolation. The isolation itself becomes your context, and it will not transfer to the game that you want to play no matter how much you refine the movement.