In life we often make simple things complex. Sometimes making things complex is a way of avoiding the truth to avoid our own cognitive dissonance. Martial arts training is no exception. In particular, consider the many terms used to describe a physical conflict between two or more people:

Martial Arts


Self Defense

Street Fighting

Survival Tactics



Threat Elimination

Combat Sports

Violence of Action


Depending on what martial art you study or which school you attend, you may encounter one or more of these terms to define the type of training you do. Unfortunately though, these multiple terms end up splitting semantic hairs. A fight is a fight is a fight. It doesn’t matter what you call it, a fight is a fight – two people (or possibly more) engaged in a physical confrontation with the intention of injuring, maiming, or killing the other. Regardless of the term you use, the experience is the same. And in fact, refusing to call it what it is (namely a fight), we run the risk of pretending the battle is something other than what it is; and it’s a risk that could prove to be fatal.

All physical confrontations have certain irrefutable and definable characteristics. Anyone who has been in a fight can attest to the experience of combat; one that is consistent and somewhat predictable independent of what you want to call it. A fight represents one half of the well known Fight or Flight response that is hardwired into the human nervous system. This response is a carryover from millions of years of evolution, a survival mechanism that activates automatically upon the perception of a threat to one’s physical (or emotional) safety. When we recognize a physical danger, our nervous system undergoes an operational shift from the rest and digest state of normal daily activity to one in which we gear up to run away from danger or engage and fight.

The fight or flight response has its own unique biology. Within a few heartbeats of the perception of the threat, stress chemicals are released, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration increases, and body temperature rises, triggering the body to perspire. Muscle tension increases, blood circulation is rerouted from the visceral organs to the arms and legs, platelets become stickier (to assist in blood clotting in the event of a major injury), and blood sugar and blood fat levels rise to provide additional fuel. On the mental/neurological level, the blood flow to the cerebral cortex is reduced, inhibiting clear thinking and high level executive mental function while simultaneously increasing the activity of the limbic system and the more primitive emotional part of the brain. Our perceptions are narrowed, overall awareness is compromised, and we get lost in the time dialation and cognitive overload of what is often called the “fog of war”.

These are physiological facts of our human biology. And no matter what you call the conflict that triggers this state, if you want to fight or defend yourself effectively, you had better learn how to deal with it.
As martial artists, we have two primary options for handling the fight or flight response. The first option is to transcend or go beyond our primitive fight or flight response. This involves the often long and arduous work of evolving our consciousness out of the more primitive fight/flight and reactive responses to the higher stages of restful awareness (meditation), intuition, creativity, vision, and unity. This transcendence is rarely a quick process and may be the byproduct of years of martial arts study and practice coupled with an equal amount of inner work. With this shift in consciousness comes the ability to bypass the more primitive responses and the resulting violence.

The second option is to deliberately prepare ourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally for a fight through the process of Stress Inoculation. Stress inoculation is a primary attribute of the prepared fighter; the ability cope with and override the detrimental effects of the fight or flight response. Attribute training is the key to making fighting techniques functional. To use a colloquialism, There are martial arts for show, and there are martial arts for go. The “Go” or effective and functional martial arts are those that rely heavily on the development of the attributes and skill sets that serve one fundamental intention – to win a fight. It doesn’t mean techniques aren’t practiced, it’s simply the recognition that the ability to use your deadly techniques functionally rests entirely upon building the attribute base that makes them work in real time, against a real opponent, who’s really trying to hurt you.

In addition to Stress Inoculation, a fighters attribute repertoire at minimum should include:




Body Mechanics

Line Familiarization

Functional Strength


Breath Management

Functional Movement

Killer Instinct (Emotional Content/Control)

Mental Toughness/Resilience/Heart

Situational Awareness

To therefore inoculate ourselves against the stress response, we must develop the attributes that counterbalance and mitigate the physiological effects activated by the fight.

For example, since the fight or flight response ramps up our respiration, we need to learn and practice breathing techniques to manage our breathing. Doing so will not only ensure that we don’t “gas out”, but will also help us keep our mental state calm and balanced. We need to develop functional cardiovascular fitness which will help us to endure the emotional and physical pressure of the fight. Pulling off a one punch knockout or a perfectly delivered combination would be ideal, but in the reality of a fight there’s a low percentage of success and if it doesn’t happen, you better be prepared to outlast your opponent. We need to train and spar with realistically resisting opponents so we can 1) become comfortable with actual hitting and getting hit and 2) develop familiarity with how our minds and emotions respond to the realities of combat. We need to push ourselves outside of the comfort zone of our style to experience the unpredictability of fighting against someone who doesn’t play our game.

Stress inoculation is one of several key attributes that must be developed if we hope to be effective fighters. And it can be developed – just ask any seasoned law enforcement officer, member of the armed forces, bodyguard, or bouncer. It just takes time, training, and experience.

But to come back to the main point here, it is a fight, no matter what you want to call it. Some might say, “I’m a martial artist, not a fighter”, or “I train for self defense, not for fighting.” That’s all well and good, but the reality is that no matter what you call it, in the real world outside of your dojo or school, it’s going to be a fight, and to win a fight, you have to train and think like a fighter. It doesn’t mean that we’re need to train at the level of a professional combat athlete, but if we’re to be truly prepared for a violent confrontation, we need recognize that in the absence of an abnormally high level of consciousness or stress inoculation, it will be a fight; and in a fight for your life the last thing you want to be is unprepared.